There’s been a lot of talk lately about how our immediate access to information is reducing our need to memorize. Writing a history paper and can’t remember what specific date you’re referencing? A two second Google search will give you what you need. And it’s not a bad thing either. Though there is something impressive about someone who can rattle off lists and stats, real creative thinking comes from analyzing that data. It’s been suggested that freeing our minds from the need to memorize is creating mental space to do more critical thinking and problem solving. It may lead to an evolutionary shift in the way our minds work.
How many times do your children find worksheets meaningful? For mine, the answer is pretty low. There’s nothing like a dose of rote memorization to take the life out of any otherwise interesting topic. In fact, it was spelling sheets that finally drove us out of the public schools and into home education.
Ian is a voracious reader, and this above anything else has trained him to be a good writer. Although some of his made-up pronunciations based on the written word have been hilarious (such as “alibi,” pronounced a-lee-bee) spelling has never been an issue. He has a brain that likes to memorize, and usually a one-time exposure is sufficient. Since he gets that exposure through his many books, teaching him spelling as a separate subject really isn’t necessary.
Unfortunately, his classroom teacher felt otherwise, and every week of his last year in public school, then 8-year-old Ian would bring home four pages of worksheets that tested and retested the same 20-spelling word list. This was brutal for him, who already knew the words, doesn’t often enjoy writing on paper, and absolutely abhors worksheets. These four sheets, which for most kids should have taken about about 30 minutes to complete, took Ian hours. And hours. Every day, he and I would sit at the table together all afternoon in repeated attempts to complete the pages. But it was no good. He just couldn’t make his brain stay engaged in an exercise so meaningless. We would both end up in frustrated tears, and after an hour and a half (every day!) he would have completed maybe one page.
I felt that his whole life was beginning to revolve around these spelling sheets, and I approached the teacher to request a simple pre-test at the beginning of each week. I suggested that if Ian missed any words on the pre-test, he could work on those words instead of the entire list. She thought about if for a day and declined, saying that if she made the exception for Ian, then she would have to offer that option to all her students. I personally didn’t see any problem with that, but she was clear that the worksheets were mandatory, even though Ian aced the spelling tests every week. That was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, and we put our plan to homeschool into action.
Because of this and similar experiences, I am committed as a teacher to allow my kids to skip things they already know. Why test a kid on 3×2 if what they really need to look at are the 7 tables? Why have them work on an entire spelling list when perhaps all they need to look at is one word out of the 20?
And how does this work day-to-day? Well, a lot of times, I just don’t require my kids to memorize (although they often do anyway, because they’re wired that way). For example, when studying history, I emphasize the story so far, not the dates and names of generals and kings (but they do love those Tudors!). I prioritize as well; in our physics unit, I made sure they knew Newton’s laws of motion, but others I only mentioned in passing, because I was more interested that they understood how those laws worked than who they were named after. My kids are still young and will cover these topics again in later years. There is plenty of time to add knowledge.
When we do need to memorize things, like times tables or Spanish terms, I, like many teachers, turn it into a game. Flash card Go Fish games, Spanish word labels that Eva can make, decorate, and hang up all over the house, a trading card game of chemical elements called Elementeo. Never lists. Not if I can help it. Songs are fun too; both kids memorized the entire periodic table when we studied chemistry last year because of Tom Lehrer, who wrote a funny song about them. I didn’t ask them to – they just thought it would be a fun party trick.
Here’s Eva performing the song. I’m going to try to film Ian doing it as well and then I’ll make a super-cool mash-up of them together. But that may take me a bit. And Eva does a pretty awesome job on her own.
As for the skipping of things we already know, this comes into play mainly in math. Eva uses Singapore workbooks as her paper text, and Ian uses Art of Problem Solving’s Algebra I text. In a lot of units, I’ll give them the end-of-chapter review first to see what they already know; then I can skip the things they’ve mastered. If it’s a topic they truly haven’t been exposed to yet, we tweak it as we go. For example, if we have a set of 6 problems that teach the same general idea, I may give them the hardest one first. If they solve it with no problem, there’s no reason to do the other 5. If they solve it with difficulty, then I’ll give them another from the set to reinforce what they’ve learned. And if they really can’t solve it all, then I’ll go back to the first problem of the set and let them work them all.
Both kids feel comfortable in letting me know when they feel they don’t need to do certain problems. Feeling thus empowered, they are generally more engaged in the process and have an increased sense of ownership in their education. Because that’s what it’s all about!
For more on this issue, check out this article in Time Ideas called “The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect.’”