Sunday, September 23, 2012

Memory ... what is it good for these days?

"TELL me not, in mournful numbers, 
Life is but an empty dream!  
For the soul is dead that slumbers, 
And things are not what they seem."
            - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

So often, we as teachers are told NOT to have the kids memorize but to understand. I am a strong advocate of this new trend, students should not mearly utilize their short term memory to regurgitate information for a test. They should have a firm understanding of each concept and be able to apply it in various situations. Sadly however, this shift from memory to comprehension has taken away a valuable asset from our students - the actual skill and creative usefulness of memorization.  

In fact, I have many 5th graders who do not even have their own addresses or telephone numbers committed to memory. This is downright SCARY people!

I still recall many of things that I grew up having to memorize throughout my elementary years, MLK's I have a Dream speech, The Gettysburg Address, the succession of Kings, Presidents, Caesars, state capitals, states, the 7 continents, The lament of Flanders Field, various poems, shakespeare sonnets, The Preamble, famous quotes including Patrick Henry's announcement that "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country" and JFK "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" (a phrase many Americans need to take to heart today I believe!).  Not to mention the myriad of Bible Texts I have committed to memory through church school, family worship, and my own devotional time.

But I suppose I am the last of a dying generation. In my short/young lifetime I have seen the evolution of the personal computer, the creation of the internet, the cellphone, the smartphone, and Google - the kryponite of any need for memorization. "Google it" is this new generations motto. What is the need to learn, memorize, or sometimes even study the facts when the information you seek can be found right at your finger tips?
In this philosophy there lies a danger.  A missing piece. A critical skill.
David Shuler wrote a wonderful lament about the decline of memorization in America today. He says:
"There’s a difference between being able to find something and actually living with it, between being able to look up a picture of a Persian rug on the Internet and having one on your floor. Committing poetry or other texts to memory makes them part of the cadence and subtext of your thought and speech."

You see, we use the concepts stored in our brain to cultivate our own ideas, to critically look at the world around us, to create, to imagine, to reflect. It is our memory and the information that we have stored that gives us the prior knowledge needed to grow as learners.  If we do not add to this storage, we face the dilemma of mental emptiness. If one solely relies on something other then themselves to lay out information and create internal processes, then they have lost the ability to do this on their own. 

Professor Steve Dutch, from the University of Green-Bay 
states: 
 Memorization is not the antithesis of creativity; it is absolutely indispensable to creativity. Creative insights come at odd and unpredictable moments, not when you have all the references spread out on the table in front of you. You can’t possibly hope to have creative insights unless you have memorized all the relevant information. And you can’t hope to have really creative insights unless you have memorized a vast amount of information, because you have no way of knowing what might turn out to be useful.
For all of the above information along with fluency practice, I have the kids memorize a lot of different things throughout the year. Susan Wise Bauer shares in her Book The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had "Memorization turns on children's memory capability, teaches them to articulate English words, heightens their feel for the English language, improves their personal writing, internalize patterns and rhythms, stocks the brain with a larger, more diverse vocabulary, and each of these things help this become part of the child's "language store" that is available in their own 'mental fingertips' for their own speaking and writing."
Poetry Research Link
Abraham Lincoln one said, "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain" 







Let us as teachers not forget, let us always REMEMBER what our task is. Let us give our students the priceless gift of memory input so that they may use the information they have stored up to critically look at the world around them and make it a better place! 

{Side note}
This summer I watched the movie "The Edge" with some friends. This movie, through the character played by Anthony Hopkins, emphasizes the usefulness of memorization and the application of it as a life skill. 
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