Memory and Memorization in Learning

Dear Reader,

I have read a couple of interesting things lately about the role of memory and memorization in education. The first is this blog post from Shannon Whiteside at Childlight USA. I have to admit I have had some confusion about the role of memory work in a Charlotte Mason education. But this post really helped me to understand it better. I had been seeing all memory work as one kind of thing, but now I think there are really two kinds. The sort Charlotte did not like was the rote memorization of dry facts, for example, names and dates from history. But she did encourage the memorization of whole pieces of living material like poems and Bible passages. And even these were not necessarily done in a  drill-like manner. If possible, she would just read a poem (for example) over and over for a period of time until the child was able to recite it back without deliberately setting out to memorize it. Now I am not sure this would work well for all children. I have one who definitely has attention and memory issues. But I have also noticed that my children tend to learn each other’s memory verses just because they hear their siblings recite them so many times to me. This even happened when my older son was memorizing a passage in Greek which none of his siblings know!

There is a reason for Charlotte’s stance against rote memorization. While a child may gain knowledge through such things, and it can seem quite impressive, this is not the kind of education she wanted for her students. There is no relationship formed through such learning and nothing that penetrates the soul.

The other place I have read about memory is in the book Ungifted by Scott Kaufman. I have reviewed this book already, but I wanted to touch here on one idea that Kaufman raises. Among the many things that he finds which affect achievement is the ability to quickly free up working memory. My understanding is that working memory is the body of things we hold in the front of our minds. When we have to hold a lot there, we can’t also do a lot of reasoning. I have found this experientially as the mom of a child with type 1 diabetes. Especially when my daughter was newly diagnosed, I would go to social gatherings like playdates but could never manage to participate much in the conversations because my mind was constantly full of carb counts, blood sugar numbers, and insulin doses. Nowadays I am able to manage better as the tasks involved have become more ingrained, but I still find that if we are away from home and I cannot write things down immediately, that I will remember her blood sugar numbers till we get home; then I write them down and promptly forget them. Perhaps you have had similar experiences in others arenas.

But to return to our topic, Kaufman says that if people can free up their working memory, they will be better able to deal with complex problems. And today there are many more ways to free up working memory:

“People reason much more competently when we relieve some of their working memory burden. We live in an age where we can easily unload much of the contents of our mind to an electronic device, leaving our working memory freer to manipulate symbols and solve personally relevant problems.” (p. 291)

It does seem that people as a whole are getting better at IQ tests. The way we think has changed; we have become less practical and more abstract. A lot of this, as I understand it, predates the prevalence of electronic devices that we have today, but I still wonder if we will see more changes in the way we think as we all get used to having our phones and computers remember things for us. Typically when I have seen such things discussed, there has been a negative implication. We lament that we can no longer memorize long passages such as Homer’s Iliad. And there is something sad about that, but Kaufman’s book makes me wonder if there is also an upside. We have lost the ability to memorize epic poems, but we have gained in our ability to reason precisely because we have so much more working memory available.

I am not completely sure what conclusions to draw from all this, particularly what implications it should have for our homeschool. Currently we do do some memory work, alternating poems and Bible passages, but I do not focus on memorzation of facts. How do you use memorizaton?


3 responses to this post.

  1. Let me first say that I love your posts and I always come away with more information, encouragement or ideas. Memory work has also been on my mind lately and you have some great content regarding the pros and cons. I do have a question, however, about how you implement the memory work with your “attention and memory issues” child as I have one of them too. Could you please expound on your experience with that child? I would greatly appreciate it, thank you.


    • I wish I had some deep insight or clever tricks to tell you. The truth is we just kind of muddle through. Basically, I try and exercise a lot of patience and let him go at his own pace. He did one memory passage (albeit a fairly long one, the 10 commandments) in the time his sister did 4 or so of them. Even then his tendency would be to get little things wrong even after much practice. I wavre on how seriously to take these mistakes. If there are different versions of the Bible anyway, does it matter if he substitutes a word or two here or there? I had always thought his auditory processing skills were the heart of his problem but he did seem to remember bits of his siblings’ memory work juyst from having heard them recite so many times. So I am thinking this year I will record myself reading his passage and have him listen to it rather than having him focus on the written text. I tried to use hand motions to go with his passage in the past, thinking that something physical might help him remember, but he was resistant to the idea. Perhaps it seems too babyish that way.


      • Thanks for replying. The auditory passage suggestion is not one I would of thought of. I have a teenage son that does all his work(including reading) while listening to music. He has actually been diagnosed with ADD(back before I started homeschooling) and seems to do better with the music on. Good idea, thanks.


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