It’s a little baffling to me that most schools today do not endorse the practice of memory work. The main reasons I’ve been given in researching this is that it simply is not necessary anymore with the advent of the internet – anyone with a computer or smart phone can Google anything, anywhere. They don’t NEED to know what 12 times 12 is or on which continent Turkey is. Educationists began believing about 60 years ago that rote memorization was hampering students’ creativity and enjoyment in the learning environment. Well, no one ever said that drill exercises were FUN, but I have come to see that they are very NECESSARY. I still would say that the ability to regurgitate a list of facts is an inadequate tool to define the success of a student (at least in today’s educational climate) if it is the only assessment tool being used. However, memorizing my multiplication tables has proven to have been extremely valuable to me over the years. Critics of memorization say that it does not teach children how to think; it only teaches them to state back information. This can be true, and of course this is largely why multiple choice tests and the like have not really succeeded in getting children to understand what they are learning – they are only regurgitating information. Part of what makes this unsuccessful is memorizing for the test, taking the test, then promptly forgetting everything because there is no reference to put all that information together and not enough review.
I would like to propose that our homeschool classroom can have both. You can teach your children to memorize all the countries of the world, and you can also teach them the delicate balance in which these countries exist as sovereign governments. The two methods do not have to be mutually exclusive. Being able to know important dates, names, locations, and events is a significant part of understanding history and culture; just as important as the reality that living books will give a deeper understanding of them. We need not have only rote memorization or only scintillating stories. We can have a well-defined timeline of the world filled in with the many beautifully-written stories of the men and women who have walked before us. Many, many high school students today struggle with basic geography, whereas my great-great grandparents (who only went to school until eighth grade) had to know (memorize!) the most important rivers on every continent, as well as every country and its capital. Why shouldn’t children today know the major players and battles in the Civil War? Instead of having to constantly rely on spellchecker, why not memorize the spelling rules of the English language? Why not have a basic, memorized panorama of the countries occupied by the Third Reich in World War II? This may seem to contradict my love of the reading of real books, snuggled up on the couch with my little ones. However, I am coming to see that we do not have to forgo the basic outline built by memorization but can instead use it as a foundation upon which our love of literature can be built. I am seeing more proportionality between the two styles of education than I previously thought possible, and it’s exciting!
Americans are unbelievably astute when it comes to memorizing pop culture. We all know who the latest reality TV show stars are, but a random poll taken during this most recent election showed an appallingly low number of citizens who could accurately state the three branches of the U.S. government. I would infinitely prefer my girls to read about and care about people who have changed and are changing the world. I could not be more proud if they can tell Harriet Tubman’s story but have not a clue about which Kardashian sister is getting married this week and how expensive the wedding will be. There is no end to the worthlessness we can stuff into our minds these days!
Of all that Well Trained Mind has to offer, one of my favorite aspects is probably their encouragement to memorize things. This year, we have been memorizing a lot of poetry and Scripture verses. To date, the girls know ten or twelve decent-length poems and about 25 scripture verses, including whole Psalms. During the grammar stage of learning, children’s minds are like little sponges that are motivated and excited about memorizing all kinds of information. The thing is, they will memorize at this age; it’s just a matter of what that information will be. McDonald’s advertisements or a Robert Frost poem? Snoop Dogg lyrics or Psalms of praise to our King? Obviously, it takes a lot more work to actively memorize anything. I so desire to be intentional about this part of our learning. We are absolutely bombarded with pop culture and easily remembered little ditties everywhere we go. However, I have been so blessed to see the girls pick up some of this information we’ve memorized and run with it. It fills them with a sense of accomplishment when they can stand up in front of grandparents and recite a whole repertoire of poetry and Scripture. Neurologically, memorization is a great way to expand linguistic connections in the brain. Hearing and then internalizing sophisticated language patterns will go a long way in filling their little brains with instinctively-understood “correct” words and patterns from which they can then write and express their own ideas. It also creates mental discipline that expands to all areas of education. I am also thrilled about the mathematical foundation we are building for the future. The girls have already memorized their addition and subtraction facts, next year they will memorize their multiplication facts, and then it is only a few short steps to the pièce de résistance of higher mathematical problem-solving in algebra and calculus. We have decided not to use calculators in any of our elementary math because it removes all motivation to pursue the excellence of memorization. Math drills certainly are not our most favorite part of the day, but I know that some day the ability to do mental math is going to get them further in life. Even if that’s only to the end of a balanced budget.