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Sunday, May 01, 2011

U. S. Students Memorize Too Much?

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 has locked horns with Governor Christi over cost cutting of teacher benefits. Wall Street Journal assistant editor, James Freeman, has done us all a favor by exposing this clap-trap propaganda. Yet this movie is called "a must-see" by the New York Times, an endorsement source that may tell you all you need to know about the movie. 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.

But let us examine the premise. Are  students really 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 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

Few people, especially teachers,  blame the teachers. And few parents or teachers blame the kids. 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 includes 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 standard. 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 earlier 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. Teachers can 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 emorization. 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 and 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 professionals
  • 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 on learning how to learn: Better Grades, Less Effort, available at Smashwords or Amazon.


  1. Great article! I am married to an excellent public middle school teacher and consider myself a political liberal. However, I do not profess to know much about what's wrong or what can be done to improve education. I do believe, however, that memorization is very important. Some of my most satisfying memories of my public school education (about 40 years ago) were memorizing poems from Edgar Allen Poe, or memorizing the times tables or the chart of periodic elements or the parts of speech. Likewise, some of my more painful memories involved forgetting words or music, for example, during a recital. However, those painful memories were not that I regret that memorizing was a requirement, but rather than I didn't meet the mark. The real regret later was when teachers didn't require memorization (for example, piano lessons), since when I was done with the training I felt like I wasn't pushed as hard I should have been and ultimately didn't learn what I needed to.

  2. Many thanks.
    Nathan (a parent)

  3. Bill,
    Off topic but a must-read. Motivation and IQ scores (and predictions of future success in life).

  4. I hope you all read Dale's comments again. One thing he did not say, but is evident from his post, is the satisfying sense of competence he got from memorizing these things.

    Educators are addicted to the belief that their job is to build self-esteem in students, without realizing that becoming competent through the acquisition of knowledge is a sure-fire way to build genuine self-esteem.

  5. Bill, I sent a link to your post, above, out to family and friends. My mother, a retired teacher of over 30 years (in Canada) loved your article. A Russian friend of mine, named Shamil, replied with the following comments:
    "Knowledge must be free. So here we go - - a book written
    by Russian PhD in chemistry who applied to a teacher position in US back
    in early 2000 and end up teaching in one of the worse schools in Texas. He
    clearly shows why the education level is poor at the same time emphasizing
    that those who actually want to learn doing it much better that he did in
    their age. I could not stop reading when first time bumped into this. The
    book called "Classroom America" but the word classroom in Russian has two
    meanings - one is classroom, the other is on kid's slang means "cool".
    It’s really pity that the current education system in Russia is following
    exactly the same way as American’s did."
    Shamil recommends Google Translator when reading from the link above.

  6. Hi Bill,

    Great article! Memorization is very important for learning, and I agree that there is not enough importance placed on learning with memorization in school's these days. I write for the Brainscape blog, and one of my partners wrote a complimentary article on rote memorization and it's usefulness even OUTSIDE the classroom...which is what the classroom is really for, right? (

    Again, great post. I will have to take a look at this movie...


  7. I truly appreciate this post. I am currently navigating my way through the beginning stages of college (I'm 21 but I started later) I must say that the Philosophy courses really helped me break out of my shell due to the fact that the grading was strictly on a personal level (Meaning we didn't have to memorize Philosophers or anything). For the longest time I was sincerely afraid of school (And still am) because of how tough it is to sit there and spit back what another person said about a topic. It doesn't help that I also suffer with ADD but I honestly would like to consider myself a well-educated person, just don't ask me to name you the presidents haha.

    Of course Science and Math are going to be a bit more strict but what happens if a High School or College student notices some discrepancy with what a scientist has said? Isn't this how most of knowledge has evolved? And if they are scared to answer because they don't want to fail the class, isn't this just reinforcing them to not think freely?

    Personally, I believe that things are ever-changing. What worked yesterday might not work for today and what works today may not work tomorrow. I truly believe in the importance of free-thought and being able to think outside of the box without getting reprimanded for it.

    I work with adolescent children and I am trying my best to teach them the value of free-thought and not being afraid if they happen to get something wrong on a test. Call me an optimist but I think that if enough of us try and help the growing generations that we can truly change some things.

  8. Memorization is very important... I appreciate this post .. I agree that those who play blame games should be targeted to real one...
    Buy Essays

  9. Who ever is saying memorizing is important should shut up. Besides most of you guys saying that are probably 50 years old or something.

    I, a highschool student, dislike pointless memorization.

    In fact, Einstein failed almost all classes requiring rote memorization. He knew it was pointless. That was how he could develop as a thinker, not someone who relies on memorized information to draw inferences ect.

    In fact, he even has quotes saying that there is no point to memorizing something in a book.

    You are all retards if you think memorization of pointless details is going to make America smarter. Any nation can do that;In fact, every nation can do that with a couple of books. Thinking in a higher level though, is something that needs to be done.


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