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Memorization: Why It Is Important and How It Is Mentally Liberating

Memorization gets a bad name these days in educational circles (especially those related to the government schools.)  Certainly, rote memorization may not make sense if we think that the information will not be used later on, but what is the brain for? To think! In order to think, one must memorize, review, and build on that information to create a foundation of knowledge in the long-term memory!

An athlete practices drills and physical movements over and over and a musician rehearses a musical phrase repeatedly so that fine motor skills become gross motor skills and the actions become easy and natural, part of muscle memory. One also needs to exercise one’s brain with new skills and information, and the way this is done is through repetition and remembrance. Skills and facts should be over-practiced so they become part of long-term memory, and thus, so to speak, until one can do the skill or recall the information in one’s sleep. This is knowledge!

Memorization in History

As post-modern people, we want to move past the ways of olden times. Today, people have access to large quantities of data, but we forget most of what we look up on the internet, since it is only kept in working memory (or short-term memory) for about 30 seconds if it is not reviewed and stored in long-term memory. We have information at our fingertips, but we essentially know nothing.

In ancient times, people of all ages memorized abundant amounts of information, and so they were able to build on that knowledge to gain understanding and apply the wisdom. Education in classical antiquity and for over 2500 years started with memorization. The artist, scientist, philosopher, and statesman alike began learning by memorizing, for recollection gave them mastery of their language and culture. Poetry was a foundation of Greek education – such as learning Homer’s works by heart.

importance of memorization, thinker statue made of Lego

While memorization declined somewhat with the advent of the printing press and mass distribution of published works, yet, in early American history, students committed to memory arithmetic facts, poetry, history, and more, and literacy was much greater than today. Does it make sense to throw out memorization, which has been a foundation of educational technique for thousands of years, to replace it with looking everything up and experiential and group work?

Memorization in Every Day Life

Think about it. Can we function in the real world without memorization? Whether we like it or not, we need to and actually do memorize a few things. With the advent of smart phones, most people probably don’t commit their friends’ phone numbers to memory anymore, but we all need to know our own phone number, address, social security number and simple things like that. We have memorized basic signs in order to drive, such as that a red octagon means stop and a yellow triangle is a warning of some kind. Perhaps we think we can look anything up – yes, that’s pretty cool – but it is simply not practical. We must memorize.

More than that though, every subject or discipline has basic vocabulary which we need to know before we can understand or master that subject or discipline.  Would we really want to go to a heart surgeon who has to look up the parts of the heart and work from diagrams on his cell phone while he is doing surgery? No, we want to know he is confident in his knowledge and has memorized the parts of the heart and other important medical knowledge, passed his medical exams and then put that learned information to practice by performing heart surgery on multiple patients before us. Expertise in any discipline necessitates that one has a foundation of memorized facts stored in the long-term memory where there is no need to look it up, for it is always with you.

Memorization aids in creating brain pathways for long term memory storage.

Memorization in Learning

Memorization is the foundation of learning. Our brains naturally want to gather, store, sort, manipulate, and retrieve information. If that information has not been memorized, though, there is nothing to store, sort, manipulate or retrieve, for the working memory is limited, only able to process about seven pieces of information at a time. In order to amass this information in the long-term memory, one must repeat and repeat and repeat. But, of course! This is how children learn.

When my children were little, they would ask for us to read the same book over and over again. Children begin learning language and culture through nursery rhymes and stories, which they reprise continually. (We used to call our oldest child Peat, our second Repeat and our third Repeat It Again.) Repeating things is not boring to children; memorization is not boring to children. Whether gifted or mentally delayed, children of all ages learn by memorization.

In the grammar stage of learning (the classical model of education), one acquires knowledge and skills through memorization.  Humans need to put something into their brains so they can begin to create neural pathways in the long-term memory and create an automaticity in connecting one piece of information with another. There is no substitution for memorizing math facts, for one does not always have a calculator, and having to look up basic facts is such a waste of time. Can one really progress in reading without memorizing basic phonemes – letter combinations to help us sound out new words? Having these basics of math or reading memorized, one has a mental agility and can build upon this knowledge. Further interest in a subject and curiosity blossom.

sheet of math facts to aid in memorization, memorization tools

In the process of memorizing, one comes across words, sounds and rhythms which awaken the mind and shape the character. Children come to love learning, for they have things to think about and want to learn more. Through memorization, it is possible to build an organized system of knowledge in our brains or long-term memory. Far from just being rote or boring, their minds are free to learn more, to make connections between what is already in their memories and new ideas that are presented. Memorizing is how fundamental information is permanently deposited in the long-term memory, and children especially find it enjoyable and relatively easy. For as the brain is being exercised, memorization gives one a purpose, a sense of accomplishment, reward and satisfaction. The more one memorizes, the more one can memorize, and the more one knows, the more one can know.

In today’s schools, children are asked to critically think and participate in group discussions in the grammar years without a foundation of knowledge. What are they “thinking” about or “discussing” without having memorized anything? Thinking and understanding do not occur if one doesn’t remember anything. As William Klemm, Ph.D. a memory specialist and professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University declares, “What good is learning if you can’t remember it?” Educational psychologists Clark, Kirschner, and Sweller concur, “If nothing has been added to long-term memory, nothing has been learned.”

Thus, information that is kept fresh in long-term memory is the foundation for training the brain to think well and in a logical manner, for the ability to think depends on what is in the long-term memory, and having a store of information in one’s brain is preparation for higher-order thinking skills. Memorization and accumulation in the long-term memory of relevant information leads to the ability to compare ideas, solve problems, critically think, ask questions, find insights, and inspire creativity (the dialectic stage of classical education.) One is able to expand cognitive abilities so new understanding is developed. An educated person will continue to take in quality content to strengthen and challenge the brain a little more each day to keep the neurons firing and neural pathways clear and to build up the long-term memory. Ultimately, one will take memorized information and apply it in one’s life or in a field of study (the rhetoric stage of classical education.)

Stack of books to represent storing memorized facts in long term memory, memorization tools

Memorization is Mentally Liberating

To summarize, memorization serves as an essential exercise in our lives, for in repeating information to store in long-term memory, it is how children and all people learn, and it is the foundation of further learning and thinking. Memorization is crucial in learning new concepts, for if one cannot remember a concept, one has not really learned it. Knowing some information – or having a base of knowledge in long-term memory – frees up brain power in the working memory to continue learning new material and thus facilitates further education. Memorization challenges the brain and trains the brain to remember, all the while improving neural plasticity. One’s focus and ability to pay attention increase. By having a foundation of information to draw from, one’s creativity can flow. Also, when one knows the lines of a poem or song or play or Scripture verse or catechism question well, one is able to understand and enjoy it more. The more one rehearses information, the greater one’s working memory can be and the more likely that one will store the material in long-term memory, and this bodes well for warding off cognitive decline.  Rather than being merely rote, memorization provides mental liberation. Along with William Klemm, Ph.D. “I advocate adding another ‘R’ to the ‘three Rs’: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic, and Remembering.”

Man studying pictures on wall because Memorization is important.

Bibliography and Other Great Resources to Read:

Beran, M. K. (2004, Summer). In Defense of Memorization. City Journal. Retrieved from https://www.city-journal.org/html/defense-memorization-12803.html

Blumenfeld, S. (2000). The Importance of Rote Learning. Practical Homeschooling, 34. Retrieved July 16, 2017, from http://www.home-school.com/Articles/the-importance-of-rote-learning.php

Bortins, L. A. (2010). The core: teaching your child the foundations of classical education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Clark, R. E., Kirschner, P. A., & Sweller, J. (2012, Spring). Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction. American Educator, 36(1). Retrieved from https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Clark.pdf

Klemm, W., Ph.D. (2013, May 25). Memorization is Not a Dirty Word [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201305/memorization-is-not-dirty-word-2

Klemm, W., Ph.D. (2007). What Good Is Learning If You Don’t Remember It? The Journal of Effective Teaching,7(1), 61-73. Retrieved July 16, 2017, from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1055665.pdf

Sweller, J., Clark, R. E., & Kirschner, P. A. (2010-2011, Winter). Mathematical Ability Relies on Knowledge, Too. American Educator, 34(4). Retrieved from http://dspace.ou.nl/bitstream/1820/3146/1/Mathematical%20Ability%20Relies%20on%20Knowledge,%20Too.pdf

Writers, S. (n.d.). In Praise of Memorization [Web log post]. Retrieved July 16, 2017, from http://www.bestcollegesonline.com/blog/in-praise-of-memorization-10-proven-brain-benefits/

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