Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Defending Memorization, and More

In Defense of Memorization

If there’s one thing progressive educators don’t like it’s rote learning. As a result, we now have several generations of Americans who’ve never memorized much of anything. Even highly educated people in their thirties and forties are often unable to recite half a dozen lines of classic poetry or prose.

Another one from the files. As you can see from these opening lines, it makes a vehement case for the restoration of memorization to the curriculum. ...more specifically, the restoration of memorizing poems and literary passages. I can't remember exactly why I printed it out, but it raises an interesting question. Does memorization help with learning? Does it strengthen the intellect? Who are these progressives and why do we hate them so much ;-)? Joking a bit on the last, but the "progressives" versus ....what? good people, reactionaries, right-thinkers? type dichotomy often does come up as a rhetorical device in persuasive pieces of this sort.

It works well in defining the spectrum of issues, and in raising a kind of zealous energy that can be constructive. But it can do a disservice to the big picture if it's taken too literally. You end up doing that teeter-totter dialectic of history -- zip to one side of the tipping boat, then when it lurches over to that side because of all the weight, zip over to the other side, where the same thing happens. OK, that's a side tack, for now. I'm going to try to weed through the positions a bit but it won't be complete, because it opens a big subject. Here goes:

A few more articles that seem to show that memorization is a help in learning and in mental improvement:

I couldn't find as much literature online giving the "progressive" case for dropping memorization from the curriculum, if indeed that has taken place. This is probably because no progressives actually said, "Let's drop memorization from the curriculum." They probably said something more like "rote memorization isn't sufficient for solid learning." To that extent, they did us a favor, because that's a truth long known but temporarily ignored in the wake of Locke and those who followed him.

In this sense Bloom and his Taxonomy, who said that there were other facets of learning that were more important than simple rote memorization, would be a progressive -- or an older traditionalist, depending upon how you look at it. . Bloom's Taxonomy is a sort of pyramid where the higher stages seem implicitly to rest on the lower ones, but maybe some educators emphasized the higher stages and minimized the lower ones because they didn't seem as interesting.

Here are a few pages giving some history of progressivism:

  • An overview of Progressive Education.
  • An article by Alfie Kohn on progressivism -- "why it's hard to beat but also hard to find."
  • Here is an article on the legacy of progressivism. It makes an attempt at sympathetically defining the idea and discussing its success without turning a blind eye on some of its failures.
  • This man, called Francis Parker, was called by Dewey the Founder of Progressivism. He started a school, which is still in action today and still doing well according to this Time article.
  • This book, called The Feel-Good Curriculum, discusses the early history of progressivism, from a mostly negative perspective, but it is interesting in laying out several different types of progressive thinkers -- social, pedagogical, and administrative -- who came together in the field of education, with sometimes but not always overlapping goals.

Here's a math site that excoriates progressive language and goals. But it does take some actual quotes from the national mathematics standards; here are a few:

  • "Affective dimensions of learning play a significant role in, and must influence, curriculum and instruction." (K-4.O)
  • 'The curriculum must take seriously the goal of instilling in students a sense of confidence in their ability to think and communicate mathematically." (K-4.O)
  • "We do not assert that informational knowledge has no value, only that its value lies in the extent to which it is useful in the course of some purposeful activity." (Intro)
  • "mathematics should not be disconnected from students' daily lives." (5-8.4)
  • the curriculum "must emphasize the usefulness of mathematics, and must foster a positive disposition toward mathematics." (5.8.O)
OK, you get the picture. And you've no doubt, as I certainly have, seen teachery lesson plans that take these goals and run with them into a bog of subjectivism and "relevance" that reflect a low opinion of children more than anything else. Charlotte Mason saw the early days of that attitude and called it "twaddle" -- the type of teaching that is a reflection of the teacher's opinion of the child rather than of the child itself.

Still, obviously, affect -- emotion -- does play a role in how we learn. Frank Smith writes about this in The Book of Learning and Forgetting, and here is another link: Fundamental Concepts of Forgetting and Learning. Attachment theory proposes that learning requires a foundation of love and commitment and respectful interaction. That doesn't mean everything has to be centered around "feelings" but it certainly means that learning takes place more effectively in a humane, liberal environment.

In a similar way, learning sticks better when it is perceived by the learner as meaningful and purposeful. In this regard, check out these posts from Eide Neurolearning on neurological aspects of remembering:

Teaching for How we Remember

Studies show that we will remember best if:
1. We have a personal reaction (emotion, empathy) to the material.
2. It's something new (repetition inhibits novelty-associated memory).
3. It's funny.
4. We're make decisions about the information (i.e. not passively read or watch)
5. It evokes imagery.

The Benefits of ....Recitation (this one is actually in reference to Defense of Memorization post)

We happened to come across the In Defense of Memorization post below, and it brought up number of issues of self-talk and memorization that we thought was worth a post.

Many strong opinions can come under the topic of rote memorization, but our way of thinking is that some repetition and recitation are clearly good things, but how it's done makes all the difference.

... we would agree that numbing repetition when the information is useless, pointless, and unimportant to both teacher and student, is a waste of time. Recitation of great sayings or works, on the other hand, we see as a completely different matter.

Strategic Memory and Reasoning Training
Teens were taught techniques to block unimportant details and condense critical information into main ideas or concepts, rather than try to memorize and repeat facts verbatim.
To try to sum up a bit:

The original "progressives" were no doubt reacting to the excesses of the previous "drill and kill" regime, according to The Feel-Good Curriculum. Because children are reasonable beings, they don't learn most optimally by sheer rote work. To teach as if they do smacks of the behaviorial fallacies of the late 19th century. The progressives were actually being traditional-minded in thinking of education as a development of the whole person, not just a matter of pouring in information. However, some of them had mixed motives or simply misunderstood human nature and the unique nature of the child.

In turn, the modern "rote learning" enthusiasts are reacting to the excesses of the progressive ideology. Because, again, children are reasonable beings, they don't learn best from making learning constantly self-referential and entertaining and subjective. Learning is almost by definition is an interaction with something outside of oneself -- as Charlotte Mason says, it is deeply concerned with "relations". Children desire to gain competence and knowledge, not to be locked into a kinder-world which orbits around themselves.

Plus, memorization and recitation of beautiful poetry and prose is nothing like "rote work". It is quite essentially human. You can not memorize and recite a great passage without participating in something distinctly human that has been practiced since the early days of civilization.

As for the value of memorization, the bottom line according to the neurological research seems to show that memorizing does help learning and actually strengthen mental power. But memorization is usually not effective or long-lasting if it is not presented in a meaningful way, which is where emotion and significance and usefulness comes in.

Finally, in relation to the "progressive vs traditional" teeter-totter, I am thinking there is probably some equivocation on the term "child-centered". To present the positions simplistically: The progressives thought the schools ought to be centered around the child. The traditionalists, if that IS the word, thought the schools should be centered around the knowledge that was to be taught. The educators I admire -- Marva Collins, Gilbert Highet, John Bosco, Socrates ;-) -- did not see this difference as a dichotomy but as a complementary balance. They thought that the potential of the individual child would be fulfilled by learning and knowledge, but they didn't think the learning should be thrust upon every child in the same way or by mechanistic methods.

That's enough, and more than enough for now. I'm reading a book called The Elements of Teaching that discusses teaching as an art. Perhaps the excessive progressives AND traditionalists fall into thinking that teaching is a sort of system, something that can be reduced to simple terms, rather than a delicate balancing act that involves high human qualities on the part of both the learners and the teachers. Anyway, I had better stop there and go to teach my children ;-).

1 comment:

Laura A said...

I like your thoughts here on the two camps being something of a false dichotomy, a reaction to each other, and also your surmisal that each might be reducing something human into a simplistic system.