Posted by: awapter | August 30, 2010

Memorization and Learning

I awoke this morning from a dream where I was telling someone about a You Tube video I had seen (a video I have also told people about when I am awake!)

The video shows a 3-year old boy reciting a rather sophisticated (and IMHO, a very enjoyable) poem.  I have watched the video five or six times; I learned upon waking from the dream that I had also memorized a large portion of it without really trying.  Follow THIS LINK TO ENJOY THE VIDEO.

I found this pretty amazing and then I remembered a conversation I had a few months back where a colleague expressed to me that memorization was an under-utilized pedagogic method.  My initial reaction to this was “how odd, how so not-up-to-date”–and then I realized how I still retained things I memorized back in grade school.  And not just poetry and important dates in history.  To this day I remember the trick my 6th grade teacher used to help us remember the departments of the US cabinet—using the acronym SPIT AD CLAH.  (I can still tell you what these initials stand for, but it also dates me as some of these departments are obsolete).

Then I thought of the foreign language class I attended at Clark, which involved Michiyo Okuhara dynamically demonstrating the creative facilitation of memorization.  I remember leaving that class with a sense of awe at Michiyo’s commitment to provide multiple associative triggers to stimulate the students’ ability to retain the information. 

I also realized that during all the years that I taught theatre, it never occurred to me that the memorization process was a powerful learning tool.  Yes, of course there is the drudge work–learning does have an element of drudgery (alas, so does teaching!).  But to memorize effectively goes far beyond rote routine.  If you look at the little boy in the video, you can see how he visualizes, physicalizes and personalizes the language—to the extent that he understands it.  To be sure, successful memorization requires empathy, developing a personal creative association with the material—and because it ignites the brain in so many different ways, it has incredible staying power.



  1. I’ve forgotten most of my German, but I can still remember very well two Rilke poems I memorized almost twenty years ago. I think memorization is underappreciated in US teaching: in our desire to move away from traditional logical-positivist teaching methods towards social constructivism or expressivism or however it is that we are supposed to be teaching nowadays, we’ve abandoned some very valuable teaching techniques that used to be associated with “The Old Ways.” Memorization is one of these–it’s a way of creating a mental map of our material, and I suspect that there are many times that an hour spent memorizing is worth a thousand Power Point slides.

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