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In Praise of the “Cheat Sheet”: When Memorization Hinders Learning

The Information Age has made humans more managers of knowledge than vessels for it.

What’s the Latest Development?

The Information Age has made humans more managers of knowledge than vessels for it. As a result, our schools are debating whether students should still memorize facts and formulas so readily accessible on any smartphone, or if they should concentrate on the concepts that bind those facts and give them meaning. “Memorization has enjoyed a surge of defenders recently,” according to Ben Orlin, a high school teacher in Oakland, CA. “They argue that memorization exercises the brain and even fuels deep insights. They say our haste to purge old-school skills-driven teaching from our schools has stranded a generation of students upriver without a paddle.”

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What’s the Big Idea?

Orlin argues that while memorization served students well in the past, its primary purpose was to help students cope with the technological constraints of the day. “What separates memorization from learning is a sense of meaning. When you memorize a fact, it’s arbitrary, interchangeable–it makes no difference to you whether sine of π/2 is one, zero, or a million. But when you learn a fact, it’s bound to others by a web of logic. It could be no other way.” To encourage students to learn facts, teachers must alter tests to emphasize concepts, rather than continue to test students on their ability to memorize lessons. 

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Read it at the Atlantic


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