Q: My child’s geography teacher still makes students memorize states and capitals. I thought memorization of facts went out with the Common Core. Why would they still be doing this? The aim of geography and other courses should be critical thinking and creating, like making resource maps based on comparison data.
It is true that Common Core emphasizes the kinds of skills you refer to. As to their value, all I can say is the number of times I’ve ever made a resource map based on comparison data is zero. I asked a bunch of normal people and they all agreed with me.
The number of times that I’ve found it helpful to know where a country, state, capital or major city is, however, is well nigh daily.
Memorizing facts used to be a keystone of education. The method, of course, can be abused. Nobody probably needs to memorize the U.S. vice presidents (though it might make Daniel D. Tompkins dance in his grave). But it would be weird to deny that there exists a fundamental pool of information that everyone should have in their head at the ready.
Such a pool surely must include where we are in relationship to each other, in terms of both time and place. That’s why learning geographical places is so useful, as is possessing a general timeline of historical events.
And we haven’t even touched on memorized math facts. Information like what six times seven is or how many ounces are in a pound is used by ordinary people every day, yet there are those who want it banished from the classroom. This is a grievous error.
As if being in possession of key facts isn’t reward enough, the very act of memorization profits us. A study published in BMC Neuroscience found that rote memorization benefitted the brain’s hippocampus, enabling learners to recall more overall information. This may be one reason why the National Institute on Health and Aging has found that active memorization skills improve mental function and can help delay cognitive decline by up to 14 years.
Eliminating memorization is hurting kids in other ways: a Weber State study showed that one possible cause for students struggling with math and reading comprehension is the underdevelopment of memory skills.
Education standards are often devised by a combination of college education professors and mid-level district bureaucrats, all of which I’ll put under the umbrella of “curriculum specialists.” They tend to demonstrate some peculiar traits.
One of them is a general hostility toward memorizing facts. This is bizarre because doing nearly anything involves some kind of fact memorization.
Just look, for example, at the basic information you must have memorized before you can determine if a house is affordable: 1) What a mortgage is. 2) How interest works. 3) How to add, subtract, multiply and divide. 4) Basic numerals. If you forget even one item, you can toss the whole exercise out of the window.
Can you study astronomy without memorizing what gravity is? What stars are? What matter is? Can you play an instrument without memorizing what a quarter note is? What the fingerings are? What an A flat looks like on a staff?
More to the point, can you make resource maps based on comparison data without memorizing what “maps” are, what keys are, what boundaries are or what the words “resource,” “comparison,” and “data” mean? All of that is old-fashioned memorization. Even the act of comparing data must involve memorizing some kind of algorithm on which to base the comparison. The alternative would be to have kids make up stuff as they go along (which might one day put them in line to become curriculum specialists).
Far from being a useless relic of a bygone educational system (which, interestingly, saw students perform better than they do today), memorization is the very fuel that runs the engine of the mind. Just as an artist can’t paint without paint, a critical thinker can’t think without facts.
It’s a sign of the times. Ask kids the approximate distance from coast to coast and they open an app. Ask them how many inches are in a foot and they blank. Ask them to name three War World II allies, three Constitutional amendments or three states that border Canada and their brains are fried.
This, of course, is greeted with a shrug by curriculum specialists who say, “Meh, they can just look that stuff up on our phones.”
But what kind of education is that? It’s not an education at all. It’s what Thoreau called being tools of our tools. The purpose of an education should be the opposite − to make people self-sufficient.
Instead, we push them to “create” and then ban the strongest building blocks, like memorization, study, and high standards. It’s like teaching kids to build igloos in the desert. Then we shake our heads when they can’t function in the real world.
Everyone complains that millennials are lazy, stupid and irresponsible, but nobody ever asks how they got that way.
Curriculum specialists, take a bow.