Let me just say that everything I have memorized I like having in my head. I have some poems in my head. I have totally boring dialogue from my French textbook that I was so scared I’d have to read aloud that I said it out loud 5000 times. I know way too much about Renaissance England. And I know so much about children’s books that my family’s book store did not have to go to a computer—I had it all in my head.

But the truth is that memorizing did not make my life better. It mostly just made me nervous that I wasn’t memorizing what other people were memorizing. In high school, my friends were all in the gifted English program and I wasn’t. They read Tale of Two Cities and everyone knew the first two lines. I panicked that I didn’t know them. So I read the book.

I could have read just the first two lines.

The gorgeous photos in this post are from Elena Shumilova.  There are more here.

One of the reasons people love her photos is because they embody what we want childhood to be. And, of course, a charmed childhood is not a picture of kids memorizing.

Kids learn through playing, of course. If they play the same thing over and over again, they end up memorizing what’s important. The route to the climbing tree in the neighbor’s forest. The path to their safe house in Minecraft. The ingredients for chocolate chip cookies.

You never read that kids suffer from a severe deficit of memorizing—especially since everything they’d ever need to recall is searchable online. But you do read, all the time, that kids suffer from lack of playtime. Memorizing is one of the culprits.

As skeptical as I am, there are still memorizing extravaganzas that move me. Vanity Fair has a great article about two kids who spent seven summer vacations creating their own version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, frame by frame. They had memorized the whole thing, and then they made it their own. Which is, actually, the only useful thing to do with memorized information.

In general, I think memorizing is outdated. We used to value people who could store lots of information in their head because we didn’t have the Internet. That was when people with Asperger’s were celebrated for their penchant for memorizing.

But today people with Asperger’s are in special ed and the highest paid workers are not information storage bins but rather information synthesizers. So if you give kids an A for memorizing, it’s just more reinforcement of skills they don’t need, plus you take time that could be used on their creativity, which they need to use all the time to keep it sharp.


15 replies
  1. Kim
    Kim says:

    This is where the school system fails, miserably, again. Humans, will never, memorize information they find useless or irrelevant. They will only memorize things that pertain to their interests, needs, etc. It’s a natural defense mechanism. So when school attempts to create systems to teach an already natural instinct, it’s only because they are forcing them to memorize things that are completely irrelevant and useless to them.
    So called “educators” may have their ideas about what’s important to students but if a student doesn’t see it that way, they will never memorize the material.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Good point. Kids actually have proven successful at memorizing! That’s the only reason I could get A’s!! However, once the tests are over the information leaves like air leaving a deflating balloon; because there is no useful purpose to keep the information memorized. A lot of reformers and advocates out there actually agree with this, but their hands are tied to make changes. Because you would have to change the entire education system at that point, because if a stem student doesn’t care to learn Shakespeare in 10th grade and they actually had the choice not to take it… where does the English teacher go? It’s so dumb. We admit its ok to make kids suffer, and the reason? Because we all suffered through school and survived, therefore our children must endure the same!

  2. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Love the Aeon Magazine piece. It was written very well but I was disappointed that it didn’t offer any suggestions on how to change the system, almost like it’s too radical to say the system needs to be dismantled. It’s like Seth Godin’s manifesto, just telling us what we already know.

  3. Sheela Clary
    Sheela Clary says:

    yet another post relating directly to what’s on my mind at the moment……

    as others have pointed out, schools don’t even do memorization well; it’s short-term memory memorization. Enough cramming for the test of Friday and forgotten by Sunday.

    The poetry classes in college never moved me. The poems we read I recall as propaganda for someone else’s agenda; my militant teacher who saw an agent of oppression in every poet, or so it seemed to me. He ruined TS Eliot for me.

    I memorized Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Trouthe after college, in my sister’s apartment in London, when I was down and out and looking for help. It spoke to me, assured me that the way I wanted to live my life was valid. Now Trouthe is the only thing adorning the walls of my bedroom.

  4. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    It’s really hilarious that one of the ads on this page right now is from the School of Communication at American University, telling us they are accepting applications for Spring 2014 study.
    Just in case you have read exactly zero of Penelope’s posts, you might want to click that ad and check it out.

  5. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Do your sons not memorize their performance pieces? If they are in a Suzuki program, they do. Could it be that there is an underlying “grammar” of many disciplines that needs to be internalized before the information can be synthesized, interpreted, etc?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh, that’s an interesting question. Kids memorize Suzuki pieces like they memorize the attributes of each Pokemon — they spend so much time with the information that they can’t help but memorize it.

      I remember my sons toting around a dictionary-sized book that lists all the details of Pokemon. And then they stopped toting it around. Not because they didn’t care but because they memorized it.

      I think we all memorize stuff, but only as a result of spending so much time with the information. Like kids learn their native language, actually.


  6. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    Well, so far, my kid has yet to be forced to “memorize” anything in school…I know there may be multiplication tables, and I think that’s OK…but I don’t even know how much they focus on that anymore. I think some peoples’ ideas of what kids do in school is outdated.

  7. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    We used to memorize a new poem together every month in our homeschool. We dropped it because I learned that my kids enjoyed poetry more when we read more variety. We worked on memorizing math facts with our oldest, who is 10 and knows his multiplication tables forwards and backwards but hates math. I’m trying to decide if my youngest needs to memorize his. He loves math.

    Both boys play piano and neither is required to memorize pieces, but my oldest natural does after practicing all week.

    I agree that memorization seems to be less and less necessary…now I’m wondering if it’s necessary at all, in the case of math facts.

    • Cheryl
      Cheryl says:

      Yes. I think that math facts are a must. I know that your opinion on this post is not to drag kids through boring math books that make them hate it, but still, to they need to have number sense. It’s that ability to tally up in your head that your total at the checkout should be around $14, not $18. That just happened this week. Knowing your math facts really helps you in higher math, as well.

      And, it really is easy. The things that my kids memorize in homeschool are not tedious, doesn’t take a long period of time each day (15 min) covers a wide variety of information.

      It has been one of the ways that many conversations have taken place at our house. … We had memorized leaders of Germany during different time periods. Boring, right? Well, some time later, we ended up at a town that had a German-American museum. As the beautiful displays walked us through the history of the land we now call Germany, my elementary age kids were so excited to learn about these “acquaintances” they had already met. They knew nothing but their name before, now they know the “story”!

      I could share other things that we have memorized in our memory work (CC) that simply give my kids more confidence to dive into topics. They become familiar, new vocabulary. And, by the time my daughter had gone throug 4 years of the memory work, she was dying to know more about the topics that we had learned just a single statement about. She picks the ones she finds most intruiging and reads.

      That’s my take on memorizing.

  8. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    The times table. Kids should memorize the times table. Because otherwise math is more difficult and time-consuming than it has to be.

    My son hasn’t memorized the times table yet, despite working with it for years. When I set him to math, the first thing he does is ask for a blank one to fill in. Having the times table internalized makes division and algebra easier. And he loves algebra, so memorizing the times table is one of his goals.

    Right now he’s singing all the factors to each entry to the tune of Misty Mountains Cold. Poor oppressed child digging in the Mines of Boria.

    Poetry and drama. Kids should memorize poetry to declaim for the amusement of their parents and friends. Kids should memorize their lines when they are acting out scenes or plays. Kids should do theatre because it’s nice.

    Kids should memorize their phone numbers and addresses and the phone numbers of their parents.

    Kids should memorize the music they play. That’s rarely a problem.

    Kids would benefit from learning foreign languages, which involves a great deal of memorization.

    Kids should memorize frequently used information for play (for example, the Monster Manual for AD&D).

    Schools still function to an excessive degree on the memorize and test paradigm, where students swot a bucket of random facts (call it history, call it science, whatever the subject) and then spit it up again on a test. Although this system is useful for ranking students and producing measurement of outcomes, it is not effective for long-term knowledge acquisition.

    This does not mean, however, that the ability to memorize information quickly is useless, or that the ability to memorize things permanently is useless (note that these are not the same thing). Both are very useful in adult life. Saying memorization is useless is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    The lack of an ability to remember and/or memorize would hurt most people in their professional careers. Time is wasted looking things up that would be better committed to memory, and sometimes things are better understood and remembered without committing them to paper. If you are getting things done already while others are taking notes and googling answers, you’ll advance quicker. My ability to memorize things was important for my career advancement, and has enhanced my personal life as well. This will likely be the case for my children as well.

    I do not hesitate to encourage my children to work on memorizing things.

  9. Allison
    Allison says:

    I think memorization is extremely beneficial for kids. Like you said, if you repeat or read something long enough because you are interested, you WILL memorize it.

    I think the problem is not that schools teach memorization, it’s WHAT the kids are memorizing. Random, disjointed facts to regurgitate on a test? No way.

    Young kids, elementary age, take in facts like sponges. Whether it’s the Pokemon book or, in my kids’ case, all the captions in the LEGO book (my 4 yr old), if they hear or see it often enough, they will memorize it.

    I think at this age they SHOULD memorize things, useful things! The multiplication tables, sure, but also the parts of speech, the continents, important history dates, science facts like common measurements and conversions, elements, the planets, the Presidents, etc. Those become extremely useful once you begin writing or processing or doing experiments or even just cooking!

    I was a high school English teacher before kids came along and how often I wished my students even knew just the 8 parts of speech! Or the definition of an adverb. But by 9th grade, it was much more difficult for them to learn these things. If they had learned them in elementary school, my job would have been that much easier and we could have had more freedom to write creatively. You really do have to know the rules/basics in order to break them!

    I have my (young) kids memorize (right now, in a fun way, with songs and motions and movement) so that when they are middle school-age and up, and it comes time for them to really synthesize and make connections, they won’t HAVE to think about something, it’ll just be there, and they can get to the business of making it their own. I’m looking forward

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      All of the ‘Words are Categorical’ books by Brian Cleary are awesome for reading and teaching parts of speech. Our family loves them! Very quick reads and great pictures.

  10. A-M
    A-M says:

    It’s funny the things you memorise as a child. My dearly departed grandfather used to recite a poem called ‘The Lady of Shallott’ every day (much to my grandmother’s annoyance).

    Some subjects I think would be almost impossible to learn without memorising – things like foreign languages where you have lots of new vocab and verb endings. But it can’t be left at that. If you don’t simultaneously learn the skill of applying that memorised information, you’ll never learn to speak French.

    This is coming from someone with a degree in French and German. The number of people on my course in the 1st year who would ask for a ‘vocab list to learn in order to pass the exam’ was astonishing. Memorising alone is never enough to fully learn (and understand) anything.

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