Traditional memorization and recitation in class are additional tools in the teacher’s “kit.” They help students develop strong cognitive abilities in the same way that physical exercise tones and builds body muscle. Memorization is the “calisthenics” of the mind, and recitation is the display of the increased cognitive strength gained through the “workout” of memorization.
Memorization is the way in which some things cannot be otherwise easily learned. In math, our students must memorize their multiplication tables; in biology, the formula for photosynthesis; in history, important dates, etc. This is the way we imprint facts and figures into the memory and achieve the result of knowing something. It is also a sort of “shortcut,” in which the student focuses on a set of facts, believes they are true and learns them as a sort of set.
What follows memorization is a ruminative process where the student’s mind begins developing a lexicon of related information to use as building blocks for future learning. When the student learns, for example that four times four equals sixteen, it is a short step to learning that sixteen divided by 4 equals four and that division is a backwards rendition of multiplication. It was learned all the more quickly through memorization.
Recitation is the way the teacher ensures memorization took place. The process is usually accompanied by anxiety as the student searches the “cognitive memory bank” to retrieve and recite. That anxiety is internalized within the student and can be converted to the self-confidence that accompanies the relief of a good public performance.
No better example of the need for memorization exists that learning how to spell. It is good to learn spelling rules (i before e, change the y to i, etc.) but in the chaos of English vocabulary, learning to spell is a matter of memorization. As the student builds both vocabulary and spelling prowess, the cognitive abilities associated with the ideas of word origin (etymology) patterns of exception, etc. follow. As the student learns more, shortcuts and patterns emerge that make the student “smarter.”
Some students develop their own shortcuts through association of mnemonics (a systematic way of memorization). For example, ask the student to name the five Great Lakes in North America, and you might get “…uh, Lake MIchigan? Lake Superior?…” However teach the student to associate the this basic geography lesson with the word “HOMES,” using its letters as the first letter of each Great Lake (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior), and you have imprinted a lifelong geography lesson. Teach students clever sentences (or acrostics) like “My Dear Aunt Sally” (Multiply and Divide before you Add and Subtract), and you have helped the student solve the “order of operations” conundrum in Algebra.
So traditional memorization and recitation techniques in class are necessary building blocks of learning in any subject. The teacher’s job is to help the student “connect the dots.” As students develop good study habits (through concentration, memorization and rumination), what results is a mind made fertile through planting the seeds of cognition.