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Is Memorization Bad for Learning?

Who or what should we blame for under-performing schools? Here is a new take.

Making kids memorize too much is the problem with U.S. schools, according to a new movie documentary, "Race to Nowhere." This movie, produced by a housewife and first-time film maker, is being embraced all across the country by teachers and parents. It is a hot item, especially in New Jersey, where the teacher's union is using the movie as a propaganda weapon against Republicans and Governor Christi. This movie is called "a must-see" by the New York Times. Schools, especially in New Jersey, are helping to arrange public showings. Parents, teachers, and educational policy makers are urged to join this propaganda campaign and shown how to do so on the movie's web site.

Wall Street Journal assistant editor, James Freeman, has done us all a favor by challenging the merits of this movie. You might think the opposing view of newspapers with opposite ideology is just a reflection of liberal vs. conservative politics. But it is crucial to examine the educational premise of the movie that students underperform because they are stressed out by too much memorization.

I am not a uninformed housewife. I have worked with middle-school teachers and their schools for 10 years in developing and deploying science curriculum. I think students are asked to memorize too little, not too much. The movie contends that students don't know much because they are overwhelmed with more material than their little brains can handle. B.S.! I know what state standards require. Trust me, students are not asked to learn too much.

I wrote a book recently, Blame Game, How to Win It (available at Amazon), that focuses on the damaging consequences of misplaced blame. I point out that people make excuses for problems in order to avoid confronting the pain of dealing with the real causes. The book is not oriented around schools, but it certainly could have been, because schools are prime examples of misplaced blame.

For example, the movie places blame on George Bush for the "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) law. Many, perhaps most, teachers share in this perverse belief that standards and accountability testing are the cause of poor schools. Nobody wants to remember that schools were just as bad during Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton eras when there was no NCLB. SAT scores, for example, were just as low then as they are now. The real problem with NCLB is "No Child Pushed Forward." The emphasis in schools I know about is on the lowest common denominator of getting the lowest performing students to meet standards. Students who really care about learning and those who have talent are being cheated by NCLB. We have to rely on the U. S. Army to inspire our kids to "be all they can be."

Progressives also falsely blame insufficient funding for education. The evidence is abundantly clear that there is no correlation between spending per pupil and academic achievement. Time magazine, not noted for conservatism, points out in an article last December that spending on public schools more than doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1970 and 2007. Moreover, up to 44% of school expenditures today are kept "off budget," so the real expenditures are grossly under reported. There is no corresponding improvement in student learning.

Few people, especially teachers, blame the teachers. And few parents or teachers blame the kids. In the documentary, kids are considered victims of an over-demanding education establishment. Nobody seems to admit that kids might be spoiled with indulgences of all sorts, which include having their poor performance blamed on anything but them. Anybody who thinks there are not large numbers of lazy, unmotivated kids who are uninterested in learning hasn't been in a classroom lately. Dedicated teachers knock themselves out trying to get such kids up to standards. I could almost cry when I see how much these teachers care and how frustrated they are by uncooperative kids and parents. The problem is not the standards or NCLB.

A lot of kids think they are smarter than they really are. They get this inflated view reinforced from doting parents and anybody over 50 gushing over how smart kids are to multi-task with all their electronic gizmos. I have explained before in other blog posts that experts have shown multi-tasking to be educationally destructive. Other studies show that kids over-estimate what they know for upcoming tests and undervalue added study.

Here's a paradox. Nobody blinks or complains when school athletic coaches get in the kids' faces to upbraid them when they are being lazy, unmotivated, and under-performing. But let a teacher do that and he/she would likely be fired on the spot. It is as if teachers are supposed to make excuses for their students. But coaches know that excuse-making won't cut it on the playing field. Why should classrooms be any different?

To return to the point of progressives that school is too hard, I have examined state science standards in great detail because I write middle-school science curriculum. The standards do not demand too much memorization. They don't demand enough, especially the kind of memorization where students have to know how to use knowledge in their thinking.

I think that the low-level of memorization required of students today is a main reason why so many students have under-developed thinking skills. Too many of them mouth platitudes and parrot what others have said. They can't think on their own because they don't know enough to generate original and rigorous thought. Yet, too many educators dismiss the importance of memorization, assuming falsely that kids can think with an empty head. Educators tried that a few years back with "new math," which failed miserably. Now, it appears the same ill-begotten beliefs are re-surfacing in the context of state standards and accountability testing.

Critical and creative thinking skills are best honed when students are expected to think for themselves, have opinions they can defend with facts and reason, and can persuade others to recognize flaws in their knowledge and thinking. But public schools have a politically correct culture where conformity is valued and individuality is suspect as anti-social. Conformity and tolerance of ignorance and irrationality are considered the virtues to seek, because all belief systems and views are typically considered equivalent (unless they are conservative). Unequal outcomes are just not fair. So standards have to be set low enough so everybody can master them. We therefore don't expect much and we don't get much.

Those who are bent on placing blame on public schools are often looking in the wrong places. Their blame game should target real causes, such as:

• misguided education professional
• dumbed-down curricula and lowered expectations of students
• teachers who make excuses
• students and parents who make excuses
• political correctness and the philosophy that unequal outcomes are unacceptably unfair
• devalued memorization.

Don't hold your breath waiting for any this getting corrected soon. In the meanwhile, urge the kids in your life to read my e-book for students on learning how to learn: Better Grades, Less Effort, available at Smashwords or Amazon.

More from William R. Klemm Ph.D.
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More from William R. Klemm Ph.D.
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