What Do We Need to Remember?

I am taking a class at the gym called “Boot Camp.” We gather each morning at 6am to let Emily wear us down and build us back up.

Lately, one of the participants has been bringing his son, who looks to be about 10 or 11. This morning, though, he didn’t show up with his dad.

“Where is Chuck?” someone asked.

“Oh he has his test on the state capitals today. He’s only up to 28, so he’s studying,” dad said.

Grrrrr. I could feel my stomach start to turn.

“Why do we do that to kids?” I asked. How many of you remember all the state capitals. And why do we need to know them?”

My husband, always the one to push me, said: “It’s good for us!”

Yeah. So here this poor kid is waking up early to memorize state capitals for a test he is taking today. In his book, Confusing Harder with Better, Alfie Kohn says:

And, this isn’t new. Here’s a discussion about how “memorization in schools is fading,” from a New York Times article in 1982.

”Memorization is a luxury that isn’t used anymore,” he said. ”We have fundamental goals to accomplish with our youngsters today. We have to practice in dealing with ideas so that they can conceptualize and draw conclusions.”

I don’t get it. I suppose there is some value in memorizing short poems and some math concepts, but state capitals? Why? Does anyone have a valid reason for using time in this way?


image credit: By cityyear

5 thoughts on “What Do We Need to Remember?

  1. Whoa! Is memorization getting a bum rap with educators? Why? Studies have shown that the leading professionals in every industry have better memories than their contemporaries. Memory is a key component to success. I agree that state capitals may not be as important as other data to spend time on, but the exercise of memorization should be extremely important in school. I just wish we spent time on how to memorize. If this kid new “how” to commit the capitals to memory it would only take him 20 minutes and not hours. There is a centuries old technique called the Memory Palace invented by a contemporary of Socrates named Simonides of Ceos. The technique was practice for centuries and allowed Rabbi’s to commit the Talmud to memory and whole books by Renaissance scholars. It lost practice once the printing press was invented and is rarely heard of in today’s Evernote world. I’d recommend “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer to explain all this in better detail. He was actually on NPR this week which is why this is all fresh in my “memory.” Go to wamu.org to listen to his interview.

  2. Ah, yes. I’ve read some of the history, and I realize we CAN train our brain to memorize more efficiently. But SHOULD we? I read three articles (ok, not his book, and I haven’t listened to NPR yet) about Foer’s year-long experiment, and most focus on the tricks and gimmicks–but so far, no one saying we should all devote large chunks of education to learning how to memorize:)
    Sure, working our brains is a good idea. And, as I said, there are some facts we should be able to pull out without needing to look them up. Depending upon our fields of study, those facts may vary from person to person. My argument–and I hold to it–is that we have traditionally valued memorization over deeper learning that requires connections and assumptions. How important is it to know the capitals of the states? Maybe Virginia for us–and surrounding states. But all? Thanks for weighing in, Mac. I’m off to look for more research!

  3. The only thing sadder about this boy missing the benefits of physical fitness, is the fact that the rest of the class didn’t speak up in the boys favor of it’s importance.

    The benefits of physical fitness on increasing brain health and function, that he would have received at boot camp, is highly debated as better then a 30 min cram session on something he’ll never use again. He is only exercising his short term memory as well in this case, and not challenging those long term memory skills Scortas would most likely prefer if he was in this day an age of brain study. LTM is linked with the skill set of processing, storage, and retrieval of information in a more effect way. In this case, the student would be gaining those memorizing skills you are talking about. So where he “may” pass his test in gaining short term memory knowledge, he is actually missing out on something stronger. The physical benefits of exercise. A study in 2005, the California dept of edu released compared the relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement. The study showed the students in 5th,7th, and 9th grades with higher level of fitness also scored highest on standardized reading and math test. Where students in these grades who were least physically fit had the lowest academic test scores. A study published in Brain Research, found physical activity boosts memory in young women aged 18-25 by 30%, and improved frontal lobe function. On top of this, it was found that getting your body moving protects both Short term and long term memory structures, esp in the temporal lobes (hippocampus) from high stress conditions. Stress causes the adrenal glands to produce excessive amounts of cortisol, found to kill cells in the hippocampus and impair memory. So if the father knew this, maybe be say to his son, the health of your brain needs a good run and workout not found in that book right now.

    Not convinced? Well exercise also encourages the growth of new cells. A research study, using lab rats, found that exercise generated new brain cell in the temporal lobes (involved in memory) and prefrontal cortex (involved in planning and judgement). These new cells survived for four weeks, then died off unless they are stimulated with exercise. Exercise also increases L-tryptophan to precursor neurotransmitter serotonin, which balance moods. Eases symptoms of ADD. As well as sparks better behavior in adolescents. As U of CA found in a study of 146 healthy adolescents determined that physical exercise in their lives reduce the teens impulsive behavior, they felt happier, an were more likely to do good things with their lives than their less-fit peers.

    On top of the fact that he is now anxious about passing and panicked with rushing. (Of which yoga, used by Rabbis in the technique of mediation, has been proven to strength the basal ganglia function, which controls anxiety, panic attacks, and constant worry). He was also most likely more pre-occupied in his thoughts of missing boot camp, so his attention isn’t even on studying to begin with.

    However, what could have been done, is have the young man still come and par-take in something he emotional enjoys. With his father for a much need parent bonding experience, while getting the benefit of physical exercise. He can still study the capitals by taping on the back of each member of boot camp a flashcard of 2-3 states, and having the young student run after the boot camp member to match the capital to the state on their back. Fun, memorable, excising benefits, and engaging learning..

    In the mean time, lets congrats this young man for wanting to engage in task that will build his brain. Rather then him wanting to play combat video games, texting “LOL” message, Facebooking or Twitters about his most recent meal or his favorite sound/smell/color.. ect.

  4. Most people don’t understand memory techniques because they rarely, if ever use them. The problem with using mnemonics is the creative time and even if you have a memory palace or a Loci previsualized that won’t help you remember the state capitols. Shuffled decks of cards, yes, lists of visual items, yes, main points to a speech, yes, the quadratic equation or all the muscles of the human body, nope.
    However, there is a way to use mnemonics in school and that is to do it the way it’s been done over the centuries. A teacher created the mnemonic device and then shared it with their students. Two famous examples are: In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue and i before e except after c etc. I have no proof but I’m certain a second or third grader didn’t come up with those two little mnemonic devices. Although, as far as mnemonics go these are not that good, try and improve them and you’ll discover that what I said about the creative time being prohibitive to be true. However, if teachers did take the time to create mnemonics for their students instead of letting them rely on rote memorization alone I think we would see a considerable increase in long-term memory challenges in a lot less time.
    While I will not argue the value of memorizing the state capitols (Other than the importance of being familiar with them and creating a memory vestige that can be easily reinforced in the future, should the need arise.)let me use a state capitol mnemonic I created that I believe would be very memorable. According to Google the most “googled” state capital is Raleigh, North Carolina so a lot of people forget it.

    Warning: This is a violent mnemonic. You’re watching Sir Walter Raleigh ascend the stairs and place his head over the block as the executioner prepares to put the ax blade through his NeCk. (NC for North Carolina) Fifty mnemonic devices like these and the state capitols would be memorized in a couple of hours and we could throw in some history too. Some mnemonics would never be forgotten because even though they require some visual repetition they will stay in long-term memory much longer and be more easily retrieved than verbal repetition. Not to mention a lot more interesting and entertaining.

Comments are closed.