Combining Memorization With Critical Thinking

If you search for information on the pros and cons of memorization in learning, you’ll easily find a trove of vehement arguments at either end of the spectrum. That’s not altogether too surprising, as you can find articles to support almost any opinion.

However, as with most things, there is a both/and. There is a grey area. The extremes are rarely the resting point of a good conclusion. Extremes help us challenge our own viewpoint or help us test the edges of a problem, but they are rarely the answer.

Let’s Look At What’s True

  1. It’s true that having knowledge is important to being able to draw conclusions, and to support those conclusions.
  2. Being able to Google facts is not a replacement for knowing things. 
    Ex. My son memorized early on that the big planet with the red spot is Jupiter. He memorized this fact before he fully understood what a planet was. His ability to pull out this fact when we are reading a book about planets gives us a foundation for him to build more knowledge on top of. “So you know how Jupiter is a planet?” “Yeah.” “There are other planets too.” “Oh, what’s a planet? Is the sun a planet?” Now this little fact he memorized is helping him build a larger map of understanding.
  3. We don’t know what we don’t know. It’s hard to Google a fact when you don’t know to look for it.
  4. Isolated facts are fairly useless when we can’t apply them, reason with them, or test them.
  5. A piece of knowledge is more likely to take hold in our minds if we apply it in some way. It is less likely to stick with us if all we do is cram it in by rote memorization.

See what we did there? We acknowledged that both sides have merit. Yes to information and facts! They are an important part of a full map of understanding. Also yes to comprehension! What good is it to know that 2x2=4 if you don’t know how that helps you figure out what 2x8 is?

A piece of knowledge is more likely to take hold in our minds if we apply it in some way. It is less likely to stick with us if all we do is cram it in by rote memorization.

Memorizing the Declaration of Independence isn’t all that useful if students don’t know what it is or what the words mean, but it’s a pretty great way for students to spend significant time with a significant document. When combined with deep discussion and study of what it all means, memorizing the text could lead to a pretty thorough internalization of the foundation of our country and become fluent with new words. Memorization combined with critical thinking leads to a pretty complete picture; both have merit and are most valuable when used together.