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If Memorization Is Not Learning, What Is?

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Education Should Be About Learning How to Learn – Not Knowledge

If your child is attending a mainstream school in the United States, you have probably realized that there is a heavy emphasis on memorization of facts, knowledge.  The whole system is built around what’s measurable, and that is multiple choice tests of knowledge.  Testing critical thinking or reasoning or heaven forbid, curiosity and creativity is so much more challenging to test, and so it’s not tested.

And if it’s not tested, it’s less likely to be taught.

Instead student learn to repeat facts, methods and theories until they become fully memorized, in fact, is at the heart of US schooling – teaching and tests.

Skill Learned – Professional Student

Memorization is a skill needed by students only.  The world is not about one choice out of four, and since the advent of the Internet, knowledge is at your fingertips. “Rote memory” is less and less valuable. There’s a working capital aspect, a bunch of need to know basics.  And that’s it.

Perhaps even more insidious is that children with learning difficulties tend to develop good memory skills and so are able to fake their way through countless multiple choice tests before being found out. A system that teachers knowledge, not learning, does not serve these children well.

Is Your Child Learning?

Rote learning is a minefield.  Knowledge without understanding soon fades. It’s recognizing context and creating connections that helps knowledge stick.  Rote learning of isolated facts serves no long-term purpose once the test is over.  Similarly, rote learning of math methods without understanding the logic is useless. As soon as you forget the method, there is numeracy to fall back on.

This kind of learning does not effectively prepare a child for higher education – or for a career.

And so how do you know if your child is building real connections, deep understanding or if s/he is getting through the tests with good memorization skills and mastery of multiple choice tests?

Ask yourself, is your child?

  • Connecting information to their past experiences, thus creating a context?
  • Critically engaging with the information that they are presented with?
  • Understanding topics and subjects on a deeper, more meaningful level?
  • Relating new information to knowledge that they had already acquired?
  • Talking about what they learn in their everyday life, not just in a school setting?

If your child is not making these connections, then really, even if the grades are good, you might want to dig deeper.  Is there a learning difficulty that is making these connections and deeper understanding challenging?

If Your Child is Rote Learning Only …

Many children are sailing through our schools with rote learning. It’s easy.  Children need to be professional students and test takers first, learners second.  Just because your child has good grades, that does not mean s/he is learning how to learn. Memorization is not learning.

Many children with learning difficulties are perfectly fine with rote learning.  They tend to struggle with metacognition and reading comprehension, they are too busy listening or reading to be able to think deeply about the content. So having to pick one out of four answers works better for them.

But this is not what you want for your child, even ifi it does lead to good grades.  Dig a little deeper with your child every now and again. Find out if they have thought about the material they are memorizing for the next test. Is there knowledge any deeper than the level required to get through the test.

If your child is a healthy learner, you will find that your child does have understanding beyond the test.  If that is not the case, that’s a warning sign.  It’s at the very least a signal to watch your child more closely for progress as a learner.

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