Memorisation is important in education and learning


In a recent speech, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, several times quoted one of his educational gurus, the American cognitive psychologist Professor Daniel Willingham, who specialises in learning and memory.

Willingham says: “Research from cognitive science has shown that the sort of skills teachers want for students — such as the ability to analyse and think critically — require extensive factual knowledge.” Memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding.” Gove claimed. The Guardian suggested that Gove, in his speech, was  championing by  rote learning (slightly unfair, see note)

In short, there can be no factual knowledge without deliberate memorising as well as other kinds of more passive memory. So memorising, according to Willingham and Gove, is a precondition of understanding. In fact Willingham, as he said on his blog, would have preferred Gove in his speech to have substituted “knowledge,” to “memorisation” ‘ because the latter makes it sound as though one must sit down and wilfully commit information to memory. This is a poor way to learn new information–it’s much more desirable that the to-be-learned material is embedded in some interesting activity, so that the student will be likely to remember it as a matter of course.’

Memorisation,  of course, does  not necessarily mean learning by ‘rote’. Rote learning is just one way in which we are able to commit things to memory. Information can be memorised in many different ways and using specific techniques  ie mnemonics, visualisation and so on .The argument goes that  the  more you repeat the thing you want to learn, the stronger the connection between neurons and the brain become. Marc Smith, a teacher and chartered psychologist, in the Guardian last  week, wrote ‘The human brain is pretty good at learning. Each time it learns something new (anything from the capital of France to riding a bike) a connection is formed between neurons in the brain, the more the thing to be learned is repeated, the stronger the connections become.’

He continued ‘Memorising facts can build the foundations for higher thinking and problem solving. Constant recitation of times tables might not help children understand mathematical concepts but it may allow them to draw on what they have memorised in order succeed in more complex mental arithmetic. Memorisation, therefore, produces a more efficient memory, taking it beyond its limitations of capacity and duration’

He stressed, though, that  what he was  not saying was that all learning should be based on memorisation .Any good teacher understands that a variety of teaching methods will get the best from our students and that specific students might require specialist interventions. Nevertheless, he says crucially ‘ there exists a considerable body of evidence to suggest that a memory rife with facts learns better than one without.’

Some of the most successful education systems in the world use memorisation (or  indeed,  by rote learning,)from Foundation level onwards.   So dont knock it .

Note 1

Professor Willingham points out that Gove in his speech emphasized that exam preparation should not mean a dull drilling of facts, (ie rote learning) but rather should happen through “entertaining narratives in history, striking practical work in science and unveiling hidden patterns in maths.”  Willingham writes ‘I think the word “memorisation” may be what led the Guardian to use a headline suggesting Gove was advocating rote learning.’

Note 2

Minette Marrin, in the Sunday Times, last week, drew attention to the work of Alex Bellos. He discovered that all Japanese toddlers are taught to sing a kind of numbers nursery rhyme call kuku. It is, in fact, a song of times tables, and they sing it by rote in groups, long before they understand what it means. This way, it seems Japanese children internalise their tables perfectly, permanently and happily, unlike British children. Bellos tested Japanese office workers in a bar; all were number perfect, and one explained it was the memory of the kuku music that made it impossible for her to forget the tables.


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