Saturday, March 1, 2008

Rote Memorization

I've been battling with my conscience over the use of rote memorization.

This method was the core of Bantu education in South Africa. Here's how a Bantu education class would go:

Teacher lectures for 15 minutes. Sometimes the teacher will repeat a statement multiple times, and the students are expected to state the last word of the statement.
Teacher: "There are three types of what?
Students: "ABUSE"
Teacher: "Correct, there is physical -"
Students: "ABUSE"
Teacher: "sexual -"
Students: "ABUSE"
Teacher: "and emotional -"
Students: "ABUSE"
For the second half of the class, notes are written on the blackboard and the student copies them word for word into their notebooks. Tests consisted mostly of fill in the blank questions. The first level of Bloom's taxonomy was good enough. But those who held the power were intentionally trying not to educate students.

Rote memorization goes against everything I've learned and everything I've practiced. I've always considered it one of the deadly sins of education.

But last week, my South African counterpart and I decided that our seventh graders need to know their multiplication tables before we go into long division. Some of these students can't count by 2s, much less multiply. So, although it's killing our progression with the curriculum, we're hitting them with everything we can.

We started with Mad Math Minute, but we're giving them 10 questions to complete in the 60 seconds instead of 30 to save on paper and because three or four students out of 49 get through the 10. We're having them make flash cards and study them in class and at home. I'm doing a series of lessons using the number dots.

And we're counting aloud in class by 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, through to the 12s. On the 2s, 5s, and 10s, to a hundred, on the others to X times 12.

The idea made me cringe.

But it was the way I learned them. Full class repetition, every time we lined up for gym, lunch, and recess.

So maybe rote memorization has its place in very rare circumstances, when building a foundation of facts so that you can learn more complex facts - like in math and maybe sometimes in science.

Then Christian throws this wrench into my works:
Every one of my 10th graders -- 4 sections worth (the entire 10th grade for our school, actually) -- were given the following non-negotiable challenge the first week of this 3rd quarter:

Each of you has been assigned the challenge to memorize Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias," a 14-line poem centered on the historical fragments of one leader's "cold command" that lies "half sunk" in sand long after his proclamation of greatness was supposed to inspire "[d]espair" in those standing before him.

You are to write out the full poem -- word for word, punctuation mark for punctuation mark -- without making a single mistake of any type. Not even a single comma out of place or a missing moment of capitalization. Perfection, in other words.

There are 2 possible grades: "zero" or "A+". Nothing in between. Until you ace it, you'll have a "big fat zero" in the gradebook for an assignment that is the equivalent of a major essay.

Granted, you can re-take the challenge over and over again (outside of class) anytime this quarter until you ace it...but don't be tempted to wait too long to get it done. Trust me. You do not want to be trying to 're-memorize' it weeks from now after forgetting about the assignment as the rest of the syllabus takes over.

That being said, this will be a real test for many of you. And it'll be a great warm-up as we prime our brains/imaginations for doing similar work -- on paper and in front of an 'audience' -- once Shakespeare comes knocking on the classroom door later this semester.

[All italics are the author's.]

I'm sure his students could pull it off, but for me the question was why. What are they going to learn from memorizing Shelley? But my mind was a little more open to the idea since I had been doing it in math class, and I asked Christian for his rationale.

Ben: Know that I'm definitely NO expert on the real implications of 'memorization' projects (and frankly rarely give 'traditional' exams that require such study styles) I can only offer an anecdotal response. Here goes:

Skills (beyond the obvious 'I did it'):

* An ability to 'enter' the poem in a way that would have been otherwise impossible if they had only 'read' it or 'analyzed' it. I am convinced that most of my students now 'own' the poem on 'their' terms. I was just the audience for this moment.

* An ability to look for 'patterns' or 'techniques' to aide their own thinking and memorization style. Once the kids began to break down the poem into component parts and saw how 'visual' it was, the anxiety fell away for most.

* EVERY one of them can now 'empathize' more personally with ANYONE who acts, presents, etc. And they can see themselves doing it in ways that many would not have thought possible before.

* When we discuss the 'oral' tradition of literature's roots, they know 'get it' on a much deeper level. The traveling bard did NOT read from paper. They had the entire story, poem, etc memorized...including some really 'epic' pieces.

As to what they 'learned'?

* "Know thyself (as a problem solver)" is what comes to mind here for me. Instead of generically thinking they could or could not do this, every one of them had to solve the puzzle in their own way...and everyone has figured it out.

* And there are obviously the many 'intellectual' elements that allow this poem (and the entire Romantic poetry movement) to come to life and raise off the printed page for them.

I hope this helps or makes sense.

Thanks for the response.

Fair enough, though I question a few of his reasons - the purpose of "analyzing" a poem is to enter it and own it and I think approaching that through the multiple intelligences is more reliable way for students to own the poem (I tried to link to this method I've used, but it turns out I've never blogged about it - later this week). And if I was going to use recitation to teach the oral tradition, I've have them present verse orally, and it would be Homer or Beowulf, something that was part of the oral tradition (unless I'm wrong and Shelley was on some level).

The rest of the reasons are cross-curricular study skills, and but I could see the worth in helping students learn these skills towards the beginning of the year. And as Christian writes in the full post, some students walked away actually liking a poem they had dreaded. So maybe there is something to be said for it.

I'm not going to ask my students to memorize poems anytime soon, but these experiences do keep me mindful of the toolbox I have available, even though some of the tools aren't popular according to where the pendulum was when I graduated. (Dan planted the seed for that thought a while ago here.)

Update: Added link to new post about using Multiple Intelligences theory with poetry analysis.


  1. Do not fear rote memorization for certain things. It frees up kids' minds for THINKING.

    They shouldn't think about 6x7; they should just KNOW it.

    We have been too indoctrinated against rote memorization. If it was good enough for Homer, it's good enough for me. Give yourself and your students a break.

  2. Ms. Cornelius -

    I agree they need to KNOW the math facts. I'm cool with the flash cards and the Mad Math Minute. What I don't like is the aloud recitation in union in class.

    Maybe I've seen "Dead Poets' Society" one too many times, or maybe I am too indoctrinated against memorization. But Homer had rhyme and rhythm to help him remember and maybe the touch math, the 6x6 and 6x8 rhymes, and the trick with the 9's will help my students.

    I think we basically agree. Kids should KNOW their multiplication tables by 3rd grade, if not earlier.

    Thanks for the comment.