Don’t worry: this isn’t a post in which I rant about the good ol’ days, and how the whole world’s just about falling apart in this dilapidated modern age (although maybe I should write one, if I can pop off phrases like “dilapidated modern age”). No, this post is about education, and specifically memorization. I don’t know about you, but I hated rote memorization in school, and I still do. Give me papers to read on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle or ask me to be able to explain how a Hall Effect Thruster works and I’ll happily dive right in, but ask me to memorize the technical parameters of an aircraft that I’ll always be able to simply look up if I need them and there will ensue great wailing and gnashing of teeth. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but the point is that I am not, and never have been, fond of rote memorization.
In the past few weeks and months I have had time and impetus to think about education, and the role of memorization in learning. While I was still in a formal school curriculum, I was the first to wax philosophical against subjecting students to demands for memorization. “Test us on understanding,” I would say, “not on something that we’ll always be able to look up, or on things that in the mystical ‘real world’ we’d just use a computer to accomplish.” This line of reasoning has become much more accepted in official and academic circles in recent years, although its implementation is not always consistent, largely supported by the notion that there is no point to memorizing facts and figures that a quick query of your preferred search engine would supply. That logic makes sense to me, and I have in fact leveraged that very line of thought to argue against memorization.
Yet a combination of factors has led me to reconsider my position. First, and what has been percolating in the back of my head for the longest, is the oft-maligned Common Core elementary school math curriculum. I don’t believe that I’ve heard a single positive anecdote regarding anyone’s experience with either teaching or learning from the Common Core math curriculum, which has replaced memorization of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division tables with convoluted processes, odd proofs, and peculiar counting schemes. Since I hated those timed arithmetic tests that were just pure memorization when I was in school, I initially thought a different method might be better, but I have come to believe I was wrong in that assessment. Why that is will perhaps become clear when I explain the second factor that led to my reconsideration.
If you’ve been following the site for any length of time, you may have gleaned that I have a fascination with the concept of the polymath, or “Renaissance Man;” that is, someone who studies a wide array of very different fields and has deep knowledge in many divergent subjects. I was thinking about this concept and the power of interdisciplinary synthesis when I considered that that they are in large part dependent upon readily accessibly knowledge – that is, memorized information. What made (and arguably continues to make) those individuals who study and dabble in a wide array of different fields and disciplines so often brilliant and insightful is that they are able to draw connections between the disparate bits of information that they hold. They can look at something, and realize that it is similar to something they remember seeing in a completely different context, and then think how it might work if it was combined with another thing they remember from somewhere else entirely. That is something that access to the internet’s knowledge simply cannot replicate, because you can’t be aware of that information in the same way.
The internet is an amazing tool for answering questions, but only if you know the questions to ask; you have to have at least some idea of what you’re looking to learn about or understand in order to generate the search queries that will lead you to the most helpful and relevant information. This becomes painfully obvious to me every time I sit down to research a topic far afield from my usual intellectual tromping grounds, as I struggle to formulate a search query that will get at the crux of the question I am really trying to see answered. Just recently I was doing some deeper reading on the design of antennas and transceivers, and despite working significantly with these technologies for years I realized that I wasn’t sure what search terms would best get me to scholarly articles that would examine in detail the question of how antennas actually work. Simply plugging in “how do antennas work,” will not, in fact, readily answer the question of how antennas work, at least not at a level of useful detail.
Furthermore, there’s the simple matter of accessibility of information. Yes, the internet is far more convenient than having to dig through archives, rifle through reference texts, and consult encyclopedias, but nothing matches the convenience of having certain pieces of information available simply by searching the memory banks that we all carry around in our skulls, literally a “thought” away (now, maybe one day we’ll have some kind of neurological implants that allow us to access all of the information stored in the internet in the same instinctive and intuitive way that we currently access our own memories, but that’s a very long ways off, and would basically make this entire discussion irrelevant). Sometimes, it is simply easier, quicker, and far more convenient for me to know something off the top, bottom, or side of my head than it is for me to look it up yet again, especially when I’m working on a complex problem.
The result of all of these ruminations is that I have to reluctantly change my position on memorization. I may have hated those timed math memorization tests in elementary school, but to this day I am still able to remember all of my arithmetic tables up through thirteen, which allows me to do all kinds of math on paper or in my head without needing to consult a calculator or a theorem or a proof (in fact, I can use those tables now to double numbers up into the millions in my head, which is what I do when I need my mind to calm down – yes, I’m a little odd, but you knew that already). Yes, I can now rederive equations for the volume or area of various shapes (or derive custom formulae for custom shapes in custom coordinate systems, but that’s a different subject), but it’s far faster for me just to know certain formulae by rote, and far more convenient – I don’t want to always have to go and look up various orbital mechanics laws or formulae every time I sit down to do an analysis.
Now, I’m not saying that we should go back to full-on rote memorization where we have students recite long passages in Latin or Greek from memory. I am still a fervent supporter of the question “why?” and continue to advocate for people to ask that question far, far more than they currently do. The why phase, as far as I’m concerned, should be life-long. However, I now believe that there is a reason, an answer, to the question “why memorize.” Like any other tool, there are situations in which memorization may simply be the best suited for the job, and likewise situations in which another technique may be superior. The real challenge is discerning which is which.