Among the countless catchphrases that educators generally despise are “drill-’n-kill” and “rote memorization.” In keeping with their meanings, both sound terrifically unpleasant. To learn something “by rote,” according to the Random House dictionary, is to learn it “from memory, without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way.”
The fear is that we’re turning our children into automatons by force-feeding them useless bits of information — facts that can be found instantly on Wikipedia, like the dates of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) or the equation for calculating the area of a circle (πr2).
But is it possible that memorizing things is actually underrated in modern American society? Could one make a convincing case that it’s not just useful but vital for people of all ages to memorize things?
The answer to both of these questions, I believe, is yes. And a recent discussion on the BAM! Radio Network in which I participated focused on this very topic — the value of rote memorization. The conversation, hosted by Rae Pica, featured Daniel Willingham (a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia), Joan Almon (executive director of the Alliance for Childhood) and me.
Because “rote” learning and “memorization” have negative connotations for most people, it might be better to speak of learning things by heart. And, as Willingham points out in our discussion, learning things by heart is something children automatically do. That is, it comes naturally to them — whether it’s being able to recall all the words to a nursery rhyme or knowing the plot of a story (if not the story itself, word for word) before one is actually able to read. Willingham says that the key is engagement: “If you’re really engaged, memory comes pretty automatically.”
Learning things by heart can be useful for any number of reasons, some of which we discuss in the radio show. As an English teacher, I’ve often made my students memorize poetry — and just as often some have pushed back, accusing me of assigning meaningless “busy work.” I love that accusation because it provides me the perfect opportunity to explain why memorizing a poem is, in fact, a worthwhile activity.