NEW YORK — To some, it's a dreary task carried over from archaic 19th-century concepts about education. To others, it's a useful tool being overlooked by today's teachers.
Memorization is an issue that's acquiring some urgency as advocates and detractors of the practice battle for the hearts and minds of America's teachers.
Some more-conservative instructors insist that memorization of facts - especially in the teaching of math - is a lost art that needs to be restored. And many adults speak fondly of scraps of poetry, a rapid-fire recall of the multiplication tables, or other useful information long ago committed to memory in school.
"For generations, memorizing the addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division tables has been a rite of passage for elementary school students," writes former US Secretary of Education William Bennett in his new book, "The Educated Child" (Free Press).
"Today, however, you may encounter schools where such work is no longer emphasized." The book, co-written with John Cribb Jr. and Chester Finn Jr., concludes: "Neglecting this responsibility can be a big mistake."
But many progressive educators worry that heavy reliance on standardized tests in public schools is shifting attention from a focus on skill-based learning to a concern with fact-based learning.
"All of us can remember studying for a test, putting everything on the test, and then going away from it and forgetting everything," says Peggy McNamara, co-director of the reading and literacy program at New York's Bank Street College of Education. That's an experience, she points out, that has nothing to do with "deep learning."
Educator Alfie Kohn backs that viewpoint in his new book, "The Schools Our Children Deserve" (Houghton Mifflin). "Committing things to memory may train you to be a better memorizer, but there is absolutely no reason to think it provides any real cognitive benefits," he writes. "Stuffing facts into your head doesn't help you to think better; indeed, the time spent stuffing is time not spent analyzing or inventing or communicating, making distinctions or drawing connections."
Some educators say the debate over the value of memorization has been going on for almost 100 years. In the 19th century, rote memorization was accepted as a mainstay of education. That approach, however, was rejected by the 1920s.
"And four or five times since then, we've shifted back and forth," says Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "In the late 1950s and early 1960s, we moved away from it, and in the late 1980s we began to move back."
But Professor Hess says a number of the charter schools springing up today in urban areas tend to be returning to a particularly heavy reliance on memorization.
"In some schools, with some kids that may be a good thing," he adds. When students don't have a solid grounding in a certain amount of factual information, he says, it's hard to engage in other methods such as teaching through discussion.
"Memorization got a bad rap" for some years, says Ray Beck, project director of the Basic Skill Builders curriculum produced by Sopris West in Longmont, Colo. Basic Skill Builders is a series of one-minute skill sheets that help drill students in the basic facts of core academic areas. The program relies heavily on memorization.
Rather than inhibiting more creative learning, Mr. Beck argues, memorization frees students to do different kinds of work with more speed and enjoyment. "A student of creative writing shouldn't have to sit there and struggle over the spelling of the word 'beautiful' until he loses his train of thought," says Beck. Memorization, he insists, leads to greater "fluency" in academic tasks.
But some caution that a dramatic shift back toward memorization will not serve students well.
Sally Kilgore, president of the Modern Red Schoolhouse Institute based in Nashville, Tenn., participated in a study in the early 1980s that compared the achievements of students in parochial and public schools.
"Kids in [Roman] Catholic schools memorized a lot more, but also forgot more," she says. That's her concern about encouraging memorization without also focusing on understanding.
"Improving long-term memory is an important part of education reform," she says. "But short-term [memorization] can be nothing more than a form of mental gymnastics."
There's still room for debate, however, as to what exactly goes into long-term memory and what quickly disappears in the short term.
"Years later, children come back to see me and can still recite a poem they memorized in class," says Jeanne Bustard, who teaches three- and four-year-olds at the Friends Select School in Philadelphia.
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