Reading & Literacy

Is Rote Memorization Necessarily Bad?

By Catherine Gewertz — February 02, 2011 2 min read
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The idea of rote memorization is bound to tick some people off, which makes for nice discussion and debate. In all the very legitimate conversation about critical thinking, problem-solving, analysis, and deeper learning, anything that has the whiff of drills gets a huge “politically incorrect” stamp.

So consider, if you will, the thoughts that the Hechinger Institute has pulled together for you on this (not to mention the adorable video of a 3-year-old reciting a Billy Collins poem).

I will take issue with the interchangeable use of “rote memorization” and “learning by heart,” though. Consider the experience of, say, learning to play a Chopin étude. It certainly has things in common with reciting the multiplication tables: experiencing the rhythm of the patterns, working out the kinks through repetition, “getting it” through mental or physical muscle memory. But it’s hard to see how reciting multiplication tables creates deep understanding of the process of multiplication (though goodness knows it can help you remember the answers). Mastering the piano work, however, requires a deeper connection to the music, on mental, emotional, and physical (yes, muscle memory) levels. I’d call the Chopin experience—or maybe just the end result of the experience—"learning by heart,” but I wouldn’t say the same for multiplication tables.

That said, both types have their own unique value. I am glad I memorized my multiplication tables. I’m also glad I learned the musical rhythms of language by memorizing poems (“Christopher Robin had wheezles and sneezles, they bundled him into his bed. They gave him what goes for a cold in the nose, and some more for a cold in the head...”). I’m glad I let that Chopin seep into my brain, fingers, and heart.

Those kinds of things led me to open more doors to see what was behind them. One day in college I found myself reveling in the sound of ancient Greek poetry being read aloud to me, in the original language, by an enthusiastic classics-major roommate. Then came Shakespeare sonnets, passages from James Joyce, even paragraphs from physics books read aloud.

I know I’ve wandered from memorization and learning by heart into the power of sound. But when you listen to that 3-year-old recite Billy Collins, don’t you wonder how much that incantatory rhythm, the singing of words, can play a role in learning, at first by rote, and then deeper, by heart?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.