Why Memorize in the Age of Google?

Why, in the age of Google, would we want our children to commit facts to memory? Why can’t they just look them up when they need them?

The short answer is “the Matthew effect.”1 In education, this refers to the observation that students who come to their studies (specifically, reading) with more background knowledge are better able to acquire further knowledge through that reading. By giving our children some basic facts and mental categories for ordering knowledge, we provide the necessary cognitive scaffolding for later learning.

Having a core set of facts arranged in a mental structure facilitates learning across the curriculum. Students who knows their math facts by heart won’t have to waste their time—and working memory—on calculations when they reach algebra, allowing them to focus on the new concepts they’re learning. Having a mental timeline of history helps students place people and events in context and makes it easier to discern historical trends. Understanding the structure of a paragraph encourages students write with greater unity and clarity. Students who have memorized the Bill of Rights will recognize when those rights are being challenged.

Memory work provides a foundation for further learning in two ways. First, it brings together key facts in each major academic discipline in a manageable format. A busy DK book about dinosaurs or medieval knights is full of facts, but not all of those facts are equally important. A memory work program will help you sift through the mass of material in your curriculum and prioritize the essentials. Second, and perhaps more important, a well-structured approach to memory work highlights the core structures in each discipline, encouraging students to build mental models—in educational jargon, schemata—to order the information they’re learning. For example, the fundamental structure of writing (composition) is the sentence. Paragraphs are ordered collections of sentences about one topic, and essays are ordered collections of paragraphs about one topic. Without a clear understanding of sentence structure, the whole enterprise of composition crumbles.

Students need to master both salient facts and basic structures in order to build knowledge effectively. Memory work gives them both.

1For more information on this principle, see The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler, Why Knowledge Matters by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham.

Copyright 2021 by Andrew Campbell, PhD. All rights reserved.

Andrew Campbell is the author of The Latin-Centered Curriculum, Living Memory, and I Speak Latin. Dr. Campbell is a veteran homeschooler and has worked as a classroom teacher, private school administrator, and independent tutor.

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