Why I Don’t Emphasize Rote Memorizing

I have had a few questions emailed me about what I am doing for preschool and kindergarten with my son. I’ll occasionally share what we are doing and how we approach learning in our home.

I’m not sharing this because I know how to do this, and know what the best way is. Not at all. In fact, I am mostly learning as I go. But I do know that I have found incredible inspiration and encouragement from observing what other people are doing so in that same way, I hope to inspire and encourage someone else.

But what you need to know is that this is what learning looks like in our home. Your home will be different. And, in fact, you may have completely different learning goals than we do. That’s okay, and thankfully we can all learn from each other.

In future posts I will share what we do, but I first want to address the concept of rote learning and why we don’t emphasize it in our home.

Many people are able to do rote learning in a natural and effective way. But I have also seen it done ineffectively. From an educational viewpoint, here are the reasons I don’t emphasize it in our learning.

It Could Give a False Perception of Intelligence

When I was growing up there was a particular homeschool method that had children memorizing the Greek alphabet at a very young age. I remember children spouting off the alphabet to the applause of adult onlookers. “Look how smart they are!”

It isn’t that these children weren’t smart, but they were not really any smarter than the next child. They had simply learned something by rote.

Children can learn anything if we repeat it enough. They can learn the names of presidents, lists of British monarchs, parts of speech, and on and on. These aren’t necessarily bad to learn and memorizing has its place, but I hesitate to emphasize that because I don’t think that it gives a true understanding of intelligence.

Read carefully Merriam-Webster’s definition of intelligence:

a (1) : the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations : reason; also : the skilled use of reason (2) : the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests)

Do you notice what is not there? Facts.

Obviously, intelligent people will know a fair number of facts, but that is not what makes them intelligent. It is their ability to learn, reason, and apply knowledge that makes them intelligent.

It Does Children a Disservice

Some children memorize easily by rote, some don’t. You probably know which of your kids are better or not so good at this. Because of the first reason of a misunderstanding of intelligence, too much emphasis on rote memory can be a great disservice to children.

They might think they are smarter than they really are because they know facts and lists of things. Yet despite their factual knowledge, they may not have good reasoning, critical thinking skills, or they might not be good at problem solving in various contexts.

On the other hand, they might think they are unintelligent because they struggle with memorizing facts. This is extremely dangerous. You may have a child that has convinced himself that they are not intelligent simply because they aren’t good at memorizing facts. This thinking can linger into adulthood and actually hold them back from trying things or from developing their intellect.

What children think about their own learning and abilities has a powerful long-term effect.

It is Possible to Exchange Long-term Goals for Short-term Achievements

This is something that we as parents must really be careful about. It is tempting to short-circuit our children’s long-term education for the satisfaction of something short-term.

We sometimes feel the need to “show something” for the learning that is taking place. But very often, the best learning is happening organically, inside them, intrinsically, and does not come off in a nice ship-shape list to recite to grandparents.

As difficult as it is we must keep the long view. A love of learning. A grasp of ideas, not facts. An ability to communicate those ideas. A creative problem-solver.

Children are Capable of Ideas

This is one where I must acknowledge my good friend, Charlotte Mason. I am convinced that children are capable of learning ideas not simply facts. Charlotte Mason bemoaned the fact that educators often viewed children as “empty vessels” that needed knowledge poured into them.

No, children are human beings, and as such they are capable of ideas. These are small and immature, but they are ideas none the less. The sooner we can have our children expressing themselves in words, paintings, music, and writing the better they will learn.

When a child can re-tell you a book he has been read, he is grasping far more than when he recites a memorized lists. It is putting himself in a world of ideas that are bigger than himself. That is learning. That is intelligence.

Memorizing has its place. But I fear that too much of it too young could short-circuit our children’s long-term education.

What do you think about rote memory either from your own experience or your children’s?

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Comments

  1. RaShell S says:

    It think we educate our children in similar ways. I am interested to hear your thoughts on what place memorization has in educating your children?

    Our family chooses to memorize Scripture. We also memorize Greek and Latin root words and basic memorize math facts. We see these as basic skills that give them the knowledge they need to continue deciphering and learning. In contrast, we experience history, science, literature, etc., not memorize it.

    I agree that memorization can easily breed a prideful spirit. This is one area I have to guard! I don’t want my children to “show off” what they know. I am working on keeping our memorized skills quiet and for personal use (except I think I just told you and your readers that we memorize!) :) I wish I would have guarded our “memorized facts” more carefully when my children were younger.

    Very good thoughts. Thank you for sharing. I sure do enjoy reading your blog and your analytic style. Very thought provoking! Thank you for avoiding the “fluff”. ;)

    • Johanna says:

      Yes, we memorize scripture too, though I don’t think of that in the academic field as we just do that as a family during our family Bible time. In this post, I was thinking more of the school of thought that emphasizes learning lists, etc.

      Latin is really helpful for vocabulary so I want my kids to understand and have a handle on that…how and when I’m not sure! My kids are still young so I have some time to figure it out. :)

      • RaShell S says:

        Our academic world and what we do as a family are so intertwined that I often lump it all together. I didn’t mean to imply that you think Scripture memory isn’t important.

        Too bad we can’t hear the “tone” of a post! I was actually agreeing with you! :)

        • Johanna says:

          Ha! I knew you were! And, yes, I think ours will end up being intertwined, though right now we are just dipping our feet into the “academic.”

  2. Rebecca says:

    Yeah, I agree with RaShell on the Scripture memory part. That’s one of the few “rote learning” things we do with our little ones. OK, and learning hymns… I still remember and am helped by passages of Scripture and texts to songs that my parents had us memorize as young children.

    Otherwise, I so see your point with the empty memorization of words. We really try while the children are learning these words words words to make sure that they are coming away with some basic understanding of what those words mean. Although, when they are babies quoting the armor of God passage, I do have a faint suspicion that they don’t have a clue as to the half of what they are saying. But even then I trust that the Lord will bring those words back to their minds and use those words in their lives when they are older – as He has for me.

    • Johanna says:

      Yes, we do scripture memory but that is as a family during Bible time!

      • Rebecca says:

        Yeah, my kids are at the age that we just do it in family Bible time too. But I remember my mom in homeschooling us had an actual “Bible” class as part of our academic “load”. I’m not that far along yet – plus our kids won’t be homeschooling when they reach school age. But I have often thought about that I would really like to have that as a “class” after they get home from school – because they obviously won’t be getting anything Bible in the schools here (Germany). And we don’t have AWANA or any church programs where the kids are doing much Scripture memory… Anyway. Getting off topic with your original post… The only helpful rote memory I could think of was Scripture/ Hymns. Poems was a good idea from another comment – hadn’t thought of that. OK, and the math tables helped me as a kid in math class, but that doesn’t apply to everyone – didn’t help all of my siblings… Maybe rote learning the music notes? Dunno. Seems like some of these things are more than rote though cause you have to know how to apply them too.

  3. Kelly S says:

    Great thoughts about memorizing.

    Some kids love to memorize because they like to take the information with them. If they love the way a poem sounds and can remember it on their own, they can think about it and enjoy it later (like a preschooler who memorizes his favorite picture book). I think that requiring children to memorize a few things just to see if they like it is wise. If it doesn’t work, it may not be appropriate for them. I think kids memorize what is useful and important to them on their own and often without realizing it (favorite things get used more often and become natural). It might be more meaningful for some children to realize that on their own than to be forced to memorize something just because it’s important to the teacher. If a child can see a need for memorizing and be persuaded to memorize something useful on purpose, that’s a win-win situation for both the parent/teacher and the child.

    I think memorizing is an excellent mental exercise when it’s used in the context of how a child learns, especially if it’s used to remediate a weakness or as an aid to shore up a weak area (like a backup plan if some other learning path doesn’t work as well for them). We have some memory quirks in our family. My older son literally memorizes Bible verses in minutes, and they are in his brain to stay. Math facts, not so much, and drilling actually corners him into using bad math strategies. Because he naturally conceptualizes his numbers, he calculates just fine without knowing his facts (but he’s slower). Now that we are into multiplication and division, we’ve found that he makes associations on his own, and they become more fluid with practice in the context of problem-solving. Drilling facts or doing timed tests disrupts this associative process for him, but once he’s got a handle on a good number of facts, we can do some gentle review to help with speed. This is our first year homeschooling, and I’ve learned that drilling math facts at school was very detrimental to his math development, and it didn’t accomplish what the teacher wanted it to. Did he get faster at writing facts down? Yes, but he quit using his excellent mental math strategies and resorted to using his fingers as a calculator (and if he was told not to, he literally visualized his fingers and did it in his head instead). All that drill failed to produce memorization, and it made it harder for him to conceptualize numbers (which is his natural way of understanding them). Encouraging him to use his own excellent mental math strategies is helping him memorize his facts, albeit slowly, and he is able to proceed to more difficult math while those facts are sinking in.

    • Johanna says:

      I think scripture and poems are great for memory work because they convey ideas. And kids will memorize facts about any subject they love, won’t they?!

      That is so fascinating about your son and math facts. I have actually wondered about the need to have quick math skills when a student understands.

      In fact, in writing this post I was thinking about kids who had memorized skip counting or math facts very young, but they still never “understood” math. All that memorizing hadn’t really helped them because they couldn’t conceptualize it. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

      • Kelly S says:

        Math fact memorization is very hotly debated. Add in gifted kids, different sorts of learners, etc., and it gets nuts. Some neurobiologists assert (based on brain research) that some types of learners develop crucial skills in a different order from what is typically taught in school, so things aren’t always cut and dry. History tells us that some of the most eminent people in history have had unusual learning profiles (Winston Churchill, Einstein, etc.) I like that your approach to learning involves sharing information so that we can all use it as we find it helpful vs. as a standard to follow. After all, some of us have to do more mining to find nuggets of wisdom that we can actually use. So, thanks for setting up a helpful discussion!

  4. Lou Ann says:

    Hi Johanna,

    I purposely didn’t read the above comments. It looks like you got people fired up!

    You know my kids, and you know me. I find that, in general, creative people use their brains differently. This means that rote memorization and normal testing are maybe not the best way to teach “gifted” kids. I had one visual learner and one audio learner who was also dyslexic. I found that the visual learner did fine with everything, including memorizing. Surprisingly, after the first few rough years, my other child also found memory pretty easy. I taught the two of them completely differently one from the other.

    I think math facts and Bible memory are two things that have to have some rote memorization. You have to know your multiplication tables and addition and subtraction. You have to memorize Bible verses somehow–and the best way is by repetition. BUT everything you said is also true! Learning lists just to impress is absurd. (Move over Baby Einstein; my kid spouts off Greek! Are they kidding???) I also think that, if the kid knows three Bible verses AND applies them to his life, he’s doing better than the kid who knows 100 verses and has no clue what they mean and doesn’t apply them to his life. The same, oddly enough, goes for math facts. It’s more important to use the facts than to know them–although you still have to know them!

    The Bible emphasizes wisdom. Wisdom is the use of knowledge. There’s the BEST way, and there’s what we all need to strive for–for ourselves AND our kids.

    • Johanna says:

      “Wisdom is the use of knowledge.”– love that! And yes, it’s so important adjusting to different learning styles. Thanks for your thoughts. Love hearing from veteran homeschoolers!

  5. Kelly says:

    I think the key is balance. I know that memorizing some facts would be useless without the knowledge behind those facts, but I also know that having a memorized list in the back of my mind as a kid gave a place to hook on that extra knowledge. The memorizing I learned gave me a framework to build around other forms of learning. For instance, memorizing the state capitals would be pointless without further study of geography, but having those facts memorized gives a point on the map that you recognize. Does that make sense? I agree though that memorizing just for the sake of memorizing isn’t showing real knowledge.

  6. Steph says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. Memorization comes very easily to me. As such, it was easy to find myself in school, AWANA, etc. in a place where I could spout off facts but didn’t have a deep knowledge of the math or Bible verse.

    While I do think some math facts are important to know and I certainly think it’s beneficial to commit Scripture to memory, I think it can happen more organically than we tend to do it. After the 15th time of looking up the quadratic equation to finish your math homework, you’ll commit it to memory because it helps you. It’s beneficial for you. No one has to force it on you.

    If a small child hears the monthly theme verse repeated and explained four Sundays in a row, followed by a related Bible story, that verse will likely be committed to memory. And the child will know what it means and how it applies in different situations.

    As a side note, we live in a world where facts are extremely accessible. You can hop on the internet and find information. But the internet can’t teach you to responsibly process and interact with that information.

    • Johanna says:

      Yes, I do think we can learn organically. My kids have learned a chapter of scripture really well as we just always include it in our evening worship. No pressure, but they learn it.
      And thanks for bringing up the point about the age of internet. I agree completely. A certain number of facts are still needed, but it is just reality that it is not nearly as important as in the past.

  7. Kristen says:

    This is something I’ve thought about a fair amount and continue to wrestle with, so I really appreciated your post. For me, it’s helpful to think of memorization as scaffolding. It is often a temporary necessity but is not the substance of learning. I think language/literacy is one key example of this. “Memorizing” the alphabet (at least the appearance of each letter and the sound it makes, not necessarily the name of the letter) is a crucial prerequisite to reading with fluency. (This is the case with phonetic reading, anyway, and I think learning to read apart from phonetics would require even more memorization of individual words.) Yet learning the alphabet is just the scaffolding for reading, and reading (widely) is the scaffolding for interacting with ideas in a meaningful way.

    Another area in which I’ve wrestled with this question is the memorization of catechisms. Part of me was really hesitant to use wrote memory to teach my children theology; I preferred to stick to Scripture memory and Deut. 6 style “teaching by the way.” I did want them to merely learn the catechism (fact) without really learning the concept. But we’ve found the catechisms to be useful scaffolding to expose them to the vocabulary and concepts, which eventually provides great opportunities for “teaching by the way” as they begin to reason and ask questions about the facts we’ve memorized. But that being said, we usually learn 5 or so then take a break for a while, allowing time for the vocab and ideas to take root.

    As another poster mentioned, I think balance is key (but I’m the type who feels that way about most things). :)

    • Johanna says:

      I totally understand the wrestle (I’m right there with you). As to the catechism, we have done some, but have approached it very (as a previous commenter put it) organically. Actually, we have not introduced a new one in over a year, but we still regularly (though not daily) review past ones. What I have found is they are now starting to really take root. For instance, my oldest (almost 5) has begun including the concepts of the them in his prayers or in conversation. I feel that had we piled more of them on, he would have “learned” more, but not as deeply. We just kind of “feel” it though and decide when to add. Like you, we have found that breaks are very important.

      I like your metaphor of scaffolding. Some memorizing does need to take place, but it can happen more naturally then we often realize. The alphabet, for instance, gets easily memorized as you look at letters and mention them in daily life. It is taken into memory without it being “forced.” I think most things can be approached that way (Including Scripture, but that is a whole other topic!)
      Great discussion!

  8. Elizabeth Kane says:

    THIS! “It is putting himself in a world of ideas that are bigger than himself. That is learning. That is intelligence.” I love it. It sends this “Go forth! Learn more! You’re an explorer and there’s *so* much to explore!” kind of message to your child. And I think it’s a great way to teach compassion and empathy for others without making it a lesson plan. By learning more about others, we learn how to help them.

    Imagine if everyone thought of learning this way…

    • Johanna says:

      “By learning more about others, we learn how to help them.”- yes! I think stories is one of the best ways to learn!

  9. Naomi says:

    Well, not having any children old enough to memorize . . . I do have some thoughts on it. I’m sure my ideas will morph as I learn more about my children, how they learn, what their strengths/weaknesses are, etc.

    I know everyone agrees with the Scripture memory, but here’s my personal experience with it.
    First off, the Lord has blessed me with a great memory (though sometimes its NOT such a blessing when I remember things I wish I could forget) so as a child I was able to put hundreds (literally) of verses to memory. Did I know what they all meant? NO! But I don’t think that’s a bad thing – AT ALL. To me, memorizing is simply adding tools to the tool box. Though I didn’t understand MOST of the verses I memorized, as I have grown in my relationship to the Lord the Holy Spirit has been able to pull out many of those tools and put them to use in my life. And when someone preaches on a verse that I’ve memorized their message has much more meaning/is likely to stay with me longer *because I already know the verse!* So now I remember what it means with little difficulty. Such a blessing.

    As to memorizing other things such as math, history, science facts– again, I think its tools in the tool box. Of course you don’t want memory to the *neglect of reasoning/thinking skills* but memorization can be an excellent tool to be used in reasoning and thinking.

    My last reason I’m (currently ;) ) *for* memorization is because of the discipline it teaches. *Especially* to those who have to work a little harder at it. Do I want to stick to teaching in only ways that “come naturally?” What about the discipline of hard work–even in the mental area. True, facts are so readily available on the internet these days. But I don’t necessarily see that as all asset. It seems to me that it is good to make the brain do something hard as *part* of mental exercise. What are we teaching if we just allow kids to “google it” if they don’t know something? True they learn to be learners, but is there something else we’re teaching them more that’s more subtle? I don’t know, I just wonder. Haven’t thought all the way through this, but David and I have talked about it a good bit after I read a book on mental efficiency which promoted memorizing as part of mental exercise.

    So much to think about here and I love reading everyone’s take on it. Wonder where I’ll stand when Caleb gets to school age. . .

    • Johanna says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Naomi!

      Discipline is certainly an important character trait that we have to teach our children. There are, however, many ways to teach it, so memorization would not be the only aspect of that.

      I think philosophies of teaching evolve and change as our own philosophies of life grow and change and as we parent each child. For instance, my older two are about as night and day different in personality so I know that I will have teach them differently.

  10. Rachel says:

    Personally, I have seen the dangers of emphasizing rote memorization in my oldest child. Although from a slightly different perspective (since she is under a special education category) and because of various reasons which are rather complex, I think my daughter is a great example of an ability to learn facts through rote memorization, yet inability to grasp ideas.

    From a young age she has had an incredible ability to memorize but when asked what was just read to her, or facts reviewed…she isn’t able to tell any details of the story or of lesson reviewed (maybe a few of the actual words listed in the story but not the story’s concept or lesson). This has been a HUGE struggle for us when testing her reading skills (she is a Braille reader); as she’s tracking there are times we can see that her fingers aren’t even touching the raised dots, indicating to us that she’s memorized the book! (it’s clear to us that it only takes her one to two times of hearing a book to memorize it). This has caused me to take a step back and assess what is the best learning method for her–what will help her learn to think and reason to have “A grasp of ideas, not facts.” This year we did opt to have her placed in a resource room with other special education students something we actually had to fight for since the public education system pushes for mainstreaming.

    We have found that her teacher–trained in special education– emphasizes more of a hands on learning process, allowing students more opportunities to experience what they’re learning. Overall, Cami does seem to be doing better, although we are still praying about a couple of other educational options for her future.

    Again, I do realize this is from a slightly different angle but I still think what you shared is applicable to any type of student (in special education or not) and I plan to use a similar approach with my other children as well.

    • Johanna says:

      Thanks so much for your feedback, Rachel. I think that there is so much for us all to learn from different people’s experiences so I appreciate your thoughts even though I don’t have a child with learning disabilities.
      I agree that hands on, exploration type learning is extremely effective. And if that is properly channeled can really lead a child into a love of learning that will be with them for life.

  11. Elizabeth Do says:

    We’re in our second year of Classical Conversations, which at this stage (my oldest is 5) consists largely of memorization by a variety of methods. I think you’re right to caution against allowing our kids and ourselves to become prideful over their parlor tricks (although it IS sometimes fun to have a parlor trick) or to mistake a cache of facts for knowledge or intelligence. But there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater; lessons in humility and perspective fit alongside any educational approach. The idea behind memorization at the youngest stages is to develop pegs on which to hang more information later. A student who’s heard a bit about the Council of Chalcedon or the Seven Years War since childhood is going to have a much greater interest later in delving into the ramifications thereof and a place in which to file away knowledge. Early rote memorization helps later learning stick. Of course, it’s discourse about the facts memorized that yields true learning. But how much easier to enter that dialectic phase with your facts already nailed down. (p.s. I found your blog when my mother sent me today’s post on Bible reading goals. It was a blessing!)

    • Johanna says:

      Thanks so much for your perspective, Elizabeth! I always appreciate and learn so much from seeing how other people homeschool. I really love the Classical approach (especially the cyclical approach to history) and plan to incorporate many things into our schooling. Rote memory seems to be the one area I can’t fully swallow–at this point! I have no doubt, though, that once we start more formal school (my oldest just turned 5) many of my ideas will change, adjust, and grow.
      I also have many friends in CC and know it is a great program. I’m glad you are loving it!
      Thanks so much for reading and sticking around. :)

  12. Rebecca says:

    I loved this post! So nice to find a kindred spirit among old acquaintances!

  13. Pj Nicolas says:

    I agree. LEARNING is UDERSTANDING.

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