“Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge, you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” – Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlett
Memorization has long been a bastion of modern education. Memorize letters. Memorize sounds. Memorize poems to recite in front of crowds.
Memorization vs. Understanding
Since the beginning of public education in the United States, memorization (and recitation of facts) has played a major role in classrooms and assessments at all levels.
At some point, the human brain reaches capacity and can memorize no more. It becomes necessary, as Sherlock Holmes says, to forget something you knew before. So, students become trained to memorize what they need for a test, then let those facts go once the test is complete.
A student can graduate high school with a 4.0 GPA and yet have very little understanding (or memory) of the subjects at which they supposedly excelled.
Beyond the public-school classroom, university, and higher education settings grade on a different scale – understanding and analysis. A liberal arts education at the university and graduate-level approach learning from a Socratic point of view. Ask questions, ponder answers, debate, dissect, discuss. Multiple choice quizzes are a thing of the past. Instead, open-book tests, collaborative projects or presentations, and papers based on extensive analytical research become the norm.
Because of these two different approaches to learning – Memorization vs. Understanding – many students struggle with the transition from high school to college. Switching from a lifetime of rote memorization to understanding concepts at a deep level is no easy feat. Many students who rely heavily on memorization in high school arrive at college without the critical thinking skills needed to succeed.
No More Memorization!?
Yet, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss memorization as too antiquated a tactic for our modern sensibilities. There is still a place for it within a student’s academic career. “Memorization’s defenders are right: It is a mistake to downplay factual knowledge as if students could learn to reason critically without information to reason. Memorization’s opponents are right, too: Memorized knowledge is not half as useful as knowledge that is understood”
What about “Real Life”?
The truth of so-called “real life” suggests nearly everything you will encounter is like an open-book test. Google is literally at our fingertips for any fact we wish to double-check. Students do not need to become memorization machines to succeed in life. We have actual machines to do that. Instead, students gain significant benefits from understanding concepts deeply and finding ways to creatively apply their learning across curricula and subjects. This is something a machine cannot replicate.