Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The False Dichotomy Between Memorization and Conceptual Understanding

By Rick Hess — November 01, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Last week I talked about the nature of short-term, or working memory and how it helps it build expertise. This week, I want to talk a bit more about how that short-term memory builds long-term memory, and what that means for the age-old debate between proponents of “rote memorization” and those of “conceptual understanding.” If you’re interested in all of this, I’d refer you to Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age by the brilliant Bror Saxberg (and the far less brilliant Rick Hess).

Long-term memory is where we store the things that we’ve mastered. It’s really long-term memory that defines “who we are"—given that it determines our immediate, instinctive reactions, and our ability to handle complex tasks. Long-term memory is not conscious; we typically don’t even realize what we’ve stored there. Capabilities stored in long-term memory just seem “easy” and “natural.”

Long-term memory gives us instant, fluid, genuine responses to events occurring around us. As Bror so distinctively captures it:

A kindergarten student was watching the news on television with his grandfather when the initial bombing raids on Iraq were announced in 2003. As soon as a map showing the targets in Iraq came on the screen, the little boy turned to his grandfather, and said, "Is that where they're bombing? Are they taking care of the old things?" His grandfather, bemused, asked him what old things he was talking about. "That's the Fertile Crescent—we've been studying it. It's where civilization started—there are many old things there. Grandpa, are they taking care of the old things?"

Repeated exposure to the maps and history of the Fertile Crescent wired the child’s long-term memory to recognize those features and feed them to his working memory, even in an unexpected situation. That’s the point—what’s stored in long-term memory affects how one views the world. By the way, this is the intuition underlying Don Hirsch’s work on “cultural literacy.” The more a student has committed major historical and literary touchstones to long-term memory, the easier it is to make sense of new information and process new connections. Conversely, students who haven’t mastered this knowledge will have a tougher time as they struggle with the limitations of working memory.

Things already stashed in long-term memory seem “simple,” or “obvious,” because our minds can access them without conscious effort. When such mastery is lacking, however, working memory has to work overtime, making everything slower, more frustrating, and error-prone; like running a computer with too many applications open.

Consider how this plays out in a typical classroom. The range of skills that different students have mastered in long-term memory varies widely: at any given point, some students are still learning what nouns are while others are onto the work of crafting paragraphs. If a teacher is teaching how to write a topic sentence for a paragraph, some students will find this a simple question of mastering one new chunk of information while others will be swamped by a confusing mess of words.

As students tackle more complicated tasks and concepts, those who haven’t absorbed key building blocks into long-term memory will find it hard to keep up. Thus, a core challenge for instruction is building long-term memory so as to make it both accessible and useful for working memory. We do this by having students work on tasks and make decisions that require working memory, optimally using repeated feedback and practice to convert that learning into long-term memory.

Understanding the relationship between working and long-term memory helps illustrate the false dichotomy between “conceptual understanding” and “rote memorization.” Learners have to develop certain fast, fluent capabilities if they are to prepare for the next tier of learning—and, in many instances, “rote learning” is an essential tool for building fluency. Students need enough repeated practice and feedback to build long-term memory in order to successfully work towards deeper, more conceptual mastery. Compare the fluency of a teenager typing on a smartphone, steeped in repeated practice, with her less practiced parents, who use such a device in a much more occasional, stumbling manner—as they struggle to “think through their fingers” in this tiny medium.

Ironically—and especially plaguing to advocates of deeper learning and conceptual understanding—experts tend to forget just how much they’ve absorbed into long-term memory and thus take most of their foundational mastery for granted. Research shows, for instance, that when experts train novices, they tend to leave out a large amount of important information—70 percent or more of what’s required to complete a task! Experts have lost track of vast amounts of building block knowledge, because it long ago moved to long-term memory. They haven’t had to think much about these things for years, making it easy to overlook important chunks of their own expertise.

Experts wind up struggling with counterintuitive limitations when it comes to teaching or designing instruction. This is why superstar ballplayers, for whom fluid mastery came more naturally, frequently are less effective as coaches or instructors than are less-gifted former teammates who had to master their craft much more deliberately and haltingly. Those who have had to struggle to achieve mastery are more conscious of what they do, what mistakes learners make, and what kinds of demonstration and practice may help.

When it comes to schooling, most teachers have been successful learners themselves, but, over time, many of the study skills, habits, and academic foundations became invisible to them. One of the values of mentors, tutors, or similar resources is that they can help students focus on skills or knowledge that teachers might take for granted.

That’s plenty for today. I’ll wrap this all up in the next couple posts by talking a bit about what this means for the role of education technology and what it says about the limits of expertise.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP