The other day, I had a conversation with one of my brothers that migrated to the topic of our many odd experiences with the other homeschooled kids we knew growing up. (For a more detailed post about my homeschooling experience, click here.) Some of those kids were more sheltered than we were, and educated in the strangest ways. He mentioned a particular memory of my friend’s little brother. (Names have been changed to preserve privacy.) My brother said:
“Gloria’s brother was my age, so obviously he was supposed to hang out with me while you two were hanging out. He’d brought school work with him and asked me to quiz him. I said sure. He pulled out three or four sheets of paper just covered in the digits of pi. He got through like two pages before having any trouble.”
I hadn’t really thought about it before this conversation, but my brother’s experience definitely reflects many more that I’ve had. Many homeschooling families have a very intense focus on memorization, and some parents list the information their child has memorized as an example of how superior their child’s homeschool education must be to other forms of schooling.
I was always very proud of my memorization skills during my time as a homeschooler, perhaps because of the aforementioned notion that this meant I was better educated than some of my peers. I had memorized the names of all the books of the Bible. I could recite poems ranging in length from a stanza to several pages completely from memory. I knew all the US states and capitals, and historical dates with brief explanations of a corresponding event afterwards. (For example, I still remember 1620: Mayflower Lands Pilgrims in Plymouth Massachusetts). Sure, it’s not uncommon for kids in public school to memorize the states and capitals and the occasional date. But how useful is all this memorization if these lists of facts aren’t paired with other relevant information?
Heading into college, I found myself somewhat dissatisfied with my education in a lot of subjects. I began to see just how much I’d been missing. For instance, I still have huge gaps in my history education. Even with all the memorization, I was genuinely surprised by major events discussed in depth in my history-heavy humanities classes: events that had been briefly mentioned to me, but never really covered before in my homeschooling years. I also really don’t have a general sense of how the historical events flow into each other. I still see history as blocks of events and civilizations and cultures that exist completely separately in my mind, even though I realize they often existed at the same time, influencing each other. I may have a lot of the facts there, but they’re missing the connective tissue that’s vital to making sense of it all, and while I know not every teacher in every school presents these things well, I think the heavy focus on memorization in my homeschooling education contributed to this disjointed understanding of history. You can memorize all the facts you want, but for them to mean anything, they have to be part of a big picture.
Maybe the ability to recall huge amounts of information is good for some subjects though. Curious about the usefulness of some of this memorization, I asked an engineer I know what he thought about the pi memorization exercise that my friend’s brother was doing. He told me that pi is useful in his math at work, but that knowing a lot of digits of pi is not. He certainly doesn’t type several pages of digits into his calculations manually just to use pi. The gist of our conversation ended with the conclusion that when you start learning more than a few digits beyond 3.14, it’s basically a party trick. There’s nothing wrong with learning it for fun, but it doesn’t have enough educational value to devote key math study time to learning it, even if you end up going into a math-heavy field as he did.
Practicing memorization is very good for one thing though: it’s excellent preparation for test taking. I know I can attribute at least some of my academic success to the fact that I’m pretty quick at memorizing information. Homeschooling did give me that. I don’t want it to seem like I hate memorization. I just think if you’re going to assign it, it should have a purpose. There are plenty of useful things you can have your child memorize. Geography facts are great for when you’re learning to navigate, or booking a vacation. Teach the names of the great lakes. The 5 boroughs of New York City. Children can practice public speaking by memorizing poetry, or famous speeches–but frame it that way. Know that that is why you’re doing it. And please don’t make your child memorize pages and pages of pi digits for math class unless they really want to do it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about education and memorization, and when it’s useful. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful of others and think things through before posting.