In Defense of Memorization


It is not fashionable these days – nor has it been for some twenty-five years – to advocate for memorization in teaching.

You hear people saying of their favorite teachers, “He wasn’t just about rote memorization” or “She didn’t just make us memorize facts” or “They wanted us to actually appreciate X” — as if memorization somehow necessarily precludes appreciation.

Even in ACE, which inevitably adopts some of the latest teaching theories (often for good but sometimes not), I remember getting the impression that having my students internalize “enduring understandings” was far more important than having them internalize “facts.”

The National Education Association’s article last year has a title that sums up the popular view quite well: “Deeper Learning: Moving Students Beyond Memorization.”

Reread that title again, and think about the either-or logical fallacy it is using.

An excerpt:

The focus on memorization, fueled by standardized testing, has obstructed learning, according to Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, who argues that students have been losing or squandering most of the information they acquire in school.

But if that information is applied or actually used to solve problems, students will leave school with a much richer education. Enter “deeper learning” – the process of fusing content knowledge with real-world situations. Students “transfer” knowledge rather than just memorize it. The benefits of deeper learning, says Darling-Hammond, can’t be overstated. (Luke Towler)

It’s interesting that Towler says memorization is “fueled by standardized testing.” At least in terms of the ACT or SAT, memorization will not get you very far at all. These are skills-based tests that care very little whether or not you know what synecdoche is or what year the first Constitutional Congress met or even if you can articulate the definition of an independent clause.

It is true that the SAT and ACT are the kinds of tests one must learn how to attack — students who spend lots of money on tutoring institutions which study how theses tests work usually do far better than those who go in blind. But this sort of thing has very little to do with memorization.

Note the definition of “deeper learning” in Towler’s article: “the process of fusing content knowledge with real-world situations” (emphasis added). I can’t tell you how many times, as a teacher, I have been told to make content more relevant for my kids by making it “real-world” applicable.

The implication, of course, is that memorization of facts, no matter how true or important those facts are, will not prepare you for the “real world.” By which term, I suspect, these people mean the “world” of business and money and career. This, for them, is the “real world.”

My first couple of years of teaching, I remember myself saying to students who were anxiously peppering me before their tests, “Don’t worry, you do not have to have all of the names of the characters in The Scarlet Letter memorized — what is far more important to me is that you can discuss their internal motivations, etc.”

They would always sigh with relief. “Internal motivations” can be faked. Names and dates cannot.

I, too, often assumed a dichotomy between memorization and deeper understanding. As if memorization is easy and understanding is hard, or as if memorization is shallow and understanding sophisticated.

And yet when I went to the University of Dallas, I was required during my junior year summative project on poetry to — you guessed it — memorize a poem.

Of course, you had to do more than that.

After having dedicated your entire intellectual – (and, I would argue, emotional) – life to a great poet for a semester, you had to choose an “exemplary” poem and memorize it. This poem of your choosing had to be one that “exemplified” the key characteristics of your poet. After memorizing it, you had to prepare an explication of the poem that you presented two a panel of three professors, who afterwards would bombard you with any questions about your poet’s body of work that they wished.

In his well-written Atlantic article, “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning”, Ben Orlin argues “Raw rehearsal is the worst way to learn something. It eats up time and requires no real thinking.”

Well, yes. It does eat up time. I spent many hours practicing “An Event” by Richard Wilbur with my college friends that I could have spent instead thinking deeply about how meter affects meaning or how Frost and Stevens had influenced Wilbur’s style.

To make matters worse, most junior poet veterans advised us to memorize more than one poem. So I also memorized “The Beautiful Changes,” “A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” “October Maples: Portland” and a few Emily Dickinson poems for good measure.

Yet I found, at least with poetry, that “raw rehearsal” requires a good deal of “real thinking.” In fact, you cannot really know a poem well unless you memorize it – unless you make it a part of you – unless you allow its sound, its structure, its diction to become so ingrained in your subconscious mind that when you see the wind jostling the leaves on the oak tree, you think to yourself,

I crave Him grace of Summer Boughs,

If such an Outcast be –

Who never heard that fleshless Chant –

Rise – solemn – on the Tree […]

(Emily Dickinson, “321”)

Or, when you see autumn in its New England glory, you say to yourself:

The leaves, though little time they have to live,
Were never so unfallen as today,
And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve
The very light from which time fell away.

(Richard Wilbur, “October Maples: Portland”)

As I said in my previous post, having poems committed to memory in your emotional arsenal equips you very well for the complexities of life. Even if I cannot fully articulate my experience of losing my students year after year, Elizabeth Bishop can.

And if you don’t like poetry very much, you probably do like songs. And we learn songs by heart for much the same reason. Music can express for us what otherwise cannot be expressed. Even my high school students understand that.

I would agree with the post-modern educational elite that memorization, by itself, is not a very high level of thinking. But I would also insist that it is a prerequisite for deeper thinking in many fields, especially literature. And I suspect the same is true for math, science and social studies as well.

If Calvin (see above cartoon) knows the pilgrims landed at Plymouth rock in 1620, and knows a few more meaningless dates besides, he has the groundwork for constructing a timeline for American history in his head.

For Catholics, Christians, and Jews, memorization is a key part of the spiritual life. Jesus evidently had many of the Psalms engraved upon his heart, such that even in his last agony on the Cross, he found expression for his suffering in the words of Psalm 22.

Mary, too, composed her Magnificat with the songs of Miriam in Ex 15:21, Hannah in 1 Sam 2:1-10, Deborah in Judges 5 clearly in mind (see Biblegateway).

Their “rote memorization” of biblical texts, probably in childhood, clearly paved the way for a deeper understanding of God’s mysterious working in their later lives.

Memorized texts, poems and facts cannot, by themselves, make an educated mind. But they can lay the groundwork. They can give the human heart things to hold onto when faced with true mystery.

7 Quick Takes Friday (1/17/14)



Thanks to my friend Peter for alerting me to the fact that my students, too,  believe literally everything I say. Because I am not teaching them how to think, I am teaching them what to think. They are expected to regurgitate whatever New Critical theory I have about the texts we study. They do not earn their grades, of course–I give them out depending on how I feel and whether or not I like the particular student in question. However, I do aspire to the control Professor Mabrey has managed to achieve over the minds of her minions–er–students:

“I could, honest to God, ask them to tear their copies of the novel in half because that’s what Kerouac ‘intended the reader to do,’ and they would do it.” (The Onion)

Haw, Haw. As Flannery Would say.


One of my favorite Channels on Youtube is JustinGuitar Songs. Justin is a guitarist from Australia who posts really helpful videos to help people master the guitar. I mostly watch his videos to learn how to play specific songs or riffs that I can’t figure out by ear, but his website,, has wonderful links for beginners, intermediate players and advanced players on everything from how to choose a guitar to music theory.

I’ve been playing guitar since I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and play almost every day, but I peaked awhile ago and have never really improved my technical skills since. I’ve been pretty content being able to follow along by ear and write my own songs, but I have done little to challenge myself or learn new musical styles. One of my goals for this year is to push myself and become a better guitar player.


Speaking of better guitar players–


I play Tommy Emmanuel’s music all the time during Writing Fridays, when my students are working on in-class essays. A lot of them really love it.


“Does that mean you’ll play guitar for us again?”

I had just informed my sophomores about my exciting plan to transform my classroom into a coffee shop.

“We’ll see. This is a poetry coffee house event. You guys are starring in it.”

“But music is a type of poetry, Ms. Shea.”


Next week, my students will be bringing in poems they have chosen to memorize (though these poems must meet certain criteria) and the week after that they will be performing them in front of the class. We’ve worked a lot on tracking tone and mood, and they will be using their interpretations of the poem to give a successful, compelling delivery.


To make this daunting prospect more attractive, I am having my students transform my classroom into a coffee shop for this event. We will be arranging the desks in little circles, like the tables you see at Starbucks, and volunteers will bring in Christmas lights and other decorations to set the mood. Most thrilling of all (and they are really pretty psyched about this), they can bring in coffee and donuts. Last year in Louisiana, I had a couple of kids bring in coffee-makers so they could brew themselves fresh coffee!

I guess perhaps I am sort of distracting them from the real issue–memorizing a poem and trying to deliver it in front of your peers–but this tactic really works.

Some of them have already been showing me poems they like and want to learn.


It’s been popular in education over the last thirty years to jettison knowledge of “mere” facts and “rote memorization.” Memorizing things, in particular, has been condemned as uncreative, limiting, and requiring only lower levels of Bloom’s learning verbs.

But I’ve discovered that memorization is one of the best things you can force your students to do.

Especially when it comes to poetry.

At UD, during our legendary Junior Poet semester, all English majors are required to not only become intimately familiar with the entire corpus of a chosen poet–we are also required to choose an “exemplary poem” of said poet to memorize and deliver as part of our oral examination. Delivering this poem to a panel of professors and explicating it, and then being ready to answer any sort of question they ask you about your poet’s life and work, was extremely terrifying–but was also one of the best learning experiences of my life.

Essential to my experience was memorizing “An Event” by Richard Wilbur (and several other of his poems as well). It was amazing how much easier it is to understand a poem when you have memorized it–when you have allowed it to sink in and become a part of you.

Brad Leithauser, in a New York Times article on the subject, describes this phenomenon beautifully:

So why undergo the laborious process of memorizing a poem these days, when—tap, tap, tap—you have it at your fingertips? Has this become another outmoded practice?

[…] The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.” (Leithauser, “Why Should We Memorize”)

But best of all is when, unbidden, those cherished words come to you in a moment of need or joy or loneliness. I remember walking to class one day in October of my senior year, and seeing that the trees were absolutely radiant with color. And Wilbur’s words, which came to me then, helped me to really understand and articulate the beauty I was beholding–something I could not have done without those words:

The leaves, though little time they have to live,

Were never so unfallen as today,

And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve

The very light from which time fell away.

A showered fire we thought forever lost

Redeems the air. Where friends in passing meet,

They parley in the tongues of Pentecost.

Gold ranks of temples flank the dazzled street. (Wilbur, “October Maples, Portland”)

If my kids are able to choose poems that they really love, I hope they may have a similar experience.


Over at First Things, Peter Lawler continues the discussion on the worth of the humanities, which I have addressed before in my post series “In Defense of English Majors,” Parts I, II and III.

Lawler adds some interesting fightin’ words to the debate:

The problem is the proliferation of all those techno-lite majors, such as marketing, beverage management, environmental studies, public relations, sports broadcasting, museum science, graphic arts,  and so forth.  They are allegedly VOCATIONAL majors.  But they are actually majors in limiting one’s options in life–or narrowing one’s horizon. (Lawler, “Are the Humanities a Shoddy and Overpriced Product?“)

Do you think “marketing,” “environmental studies,” “public relations” et. al. are majors that “limit” your options in life and “narrow [your] horizon”?

In a way, I think the answer is yes. As poor as liberal arts majors are stereotyped to be, those who “specialize” have different struggles. What if you major in “sports broadcasting” and aren’t hired by ESPN or even some more modest network? Or worse–what if you realize you hate sports broadcasting? Whatever skills you acquired while pursuing that major are less likely to serve you in other areas. The common argument for the liberal arts majors–English, philosophy, math, history, theology, etc.–is that they have a much wider applicability to various areas of life, professions and vocations.


Maybe it’s just by chance–or maybe it’s because I went to UD–but this story about a new Benedictine Brewery has been showing up a lot lately on my newsfeed. Jennifer over at ConversionDiary is actually related to one of these monks.

According to one label, “every bottle [is] brewed to the glory of God.”

Cheers to that!

Meeting and Matching Moments of Hope

Adopted from a paper I wrote last summer for my Adolescent Development Class

Another view of the theory I’m about to describe…

Summary of Theory:

Donald Winnicott says that the role of the educator is “a going to meet and match the moment of hope” (class notes, 2012). That phrase comes to my mind so frequently now when I teach. There are many such moments, but they are easy to miss. Or, even when I see them, it is difficult to know how to “meet and match” them.

Winnicot’s words are a beautiful way to describe the huge challenge of exploring how the human brain develops in order to find the best ways to facilitate student learning.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980). I like his expression.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget presented a genetic epistemology that sought to describe this human “moment” as really a series of moments—an ongoing creation of organized structures of knowledge into which new information is integrated over time (Wadsworth,1989). For Piaget, intelligence is an activity rather than a capacity (class notes, 2012). Think about that for a moment — your intelligence, which popular culture so often envisions in terms of IQ, a static number or given ability — is actually something fluid and changeable. This idea has transformed the way I think about my students. Intelligence is an activity they engage in, not some sort of limitation to their activities.

The implications of Piaget’s theory thereby inform more recent constructivist and cognitive-mediational theories of learning.  These approaches stress the role of learners as active problem-solvers (Anderson, 1989a; Lemov 2010), decision-making builders of their own knowledge (Chi 2009; Albert & Steinberg 2011) and adaptors to their environment (Sternberg 1998).

Thus, educators are called to be “great observers” of their students like Piaget was of his children (class notes 2012)—observers who seek to understand the ways in which students assimilate, accommodate, and construct their own knowledge schemata (Wadsworth 1989, Lapsley lecture 2012). Piaget has helped me to see that how you teach is really only important insofar as it tries to respond to the more important question of how students learn.  This is how you “meet and match” every “moment of hope” (Winnicott 1956).

Analysis of My Own Teaching:

Sternberg (1998) explains how in education there is “often a large gap between theory and practice,” and so learning theories need to be presented in simpler, more accessible formats. That is definitely true. Maybe even my explication above confused you.

So here is one such accessible format, a book that helped me put these ideas into practice this past year:

Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov

Doug Lemov’s response is all about practice–never mind our theories and ideologies, what actually works in the classroom? Yet I think his methods are a great example of teaching practices that directly respond to how students learn. He provides teachers with forty-nine specific and carefully described techniques to use, and has given me concrete ways to recognize and respond to moments of hope with my students.

One such frequent moment is when a student gives an answer to a question in front of the whole class. My inclination (and behavior this past year) was to always find a way to praise that student and find something good about his or her answer, even if it was not exactly quite right. There is a lot of good in this. When I taught martial arts as a high schooler, my boss and instructor always taught us to “praise, correct, then praise.” This is the way I was taught to teach, and it is the way I have always taught. I would make the correction, but gently.

Exteriorly, it may have looked like I was encouraging my students’ thinking, but in retrospect I see that I was missing  “the potential underlying cognitive processes” (Chi, 2009, p. 85) that were going on. Lemov’s second and third techniques in his book, “Right is Right” and “Stretch It,” challenged my approach:

[Teachers] will affirm the student’s answer and repeat it, adding some detail of their own to make it more fully correct […] [not realizing that they are ] crowd[ing] out the student’s own thinking, doing cognitive work that students should do themselves. (pp. 35-36)

According to constructivist theory, students learn by constructing their own knowledge—or, in Piagetian terms, assimilating information into schemata and accommodating schemata to receive new information (Wadsworth 1989 and Anderson 1989a). However, when I prioritize affirming students answers over holding them to a high standard of thinking and challenging them to improve their responses, I am inadvertently impeding their own construction of knowledge (Anderson 1989b).

This is really fascinating: in order to promote the development of thought, instruction needs to cause “students to feel some disequilibrium or dissatisfaction with their current ideas” (Anderson 1989a, p. 90).


My easy affirmations of student answers prevent them from feeling this “disequilibrium.” My kids will not be able to identify their mistakes in analysis if I fail to identify them as well.

Therefore, even though I pride myself upon being a very encouraging leader of group discussions, I am going to change my focus on giving much more specific praise and holding my students accountable for complete and thoughtful answers. I will refrain from using phrases like “Right! Exactly!” that might stop their thinking—and instead I will push them with affirming but demanding responses like “that’s a great start, but please provide us evidence for your answer” or “how can we build upon that insight?” These interactions with my students are brief but they are indeed “moments of hope”—occasions in which doors to learning can be closed with easy praise or opened with affirming challenges.

As Lemov insists, “great teachers praise students for their effort but never confuse effort with mastery” (p. 37).

Not only do I want to approach my time with my students as moments of hope—I want them to see that they themselves are able to “meet and match” these moments too.



Albert, D. & Steinberg, L. (2011). Judgment and decision-making in adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21, (pp. 211-224).

Anderson, L. M. (1989a). Learners and learning. In M. C. Reynolds (Ed.), Knowledge base for the beginning teacher (pp. 85-99). Oxford: Pergamon Press

Anderson, L. M. (1989b). Classroom instruction. In M. C. Reynolds (Ed.) Knowledge base for the beginning teacher (pp. 101-115). Oxford: Pergamon Press

Brandenberger, Jay. (2012) Class Notes for EDU60455: Development and Moral Education in Adolescence.

Chi, M. T. H. (2009). Active-Constructive-Interactive: A Conceptual framework for differentiating learning activities. Topics in Cognitive Science, 73-105.

Lapsley, D. K. (2012) Lecture Notes for EDU60455: Development and Moral Education in Adolescence.

Lemov, D. (2010), Teach Like a Champion: Chapters 1-4 (pp. 1-144). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sternberg, R. J. Raising the achievement of all students: Teaching for successful intelligence. Educational Psychology Review, 14, (pp. 383-393)

Wadsworth, B. J. (1989) Chapters 1 and 2 from Piaget’s theory of cognitive and affective development, 4th Ed. (pp. 9-32). New York: Longman