Why Does Memorization Reign Supreme in Traditional Learning?

Insights  09 May 2018
By Ulcca Joshi Hansen, Education Reimagined


Education Reimagined was invited by ATTN: and 180 Studio to participate in an education video series exploring the “Why” of traditional education. The series explores why we promote memorization over deeper learning, confine learning to four-walled classrooms, narrowly group children by age, and use grade levels as indicators of “moving up.” Complementing each video, Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen provides the research and history around the “why” of America’s education traditions and invites all of us to explore the possibility of something new.


Do you remember cramming for a test, memorizing lots of information that felt unrelated and disconnected from anything you cared about, and then forgetting everything you memorized a few weeks later?

For generations, this is how school has operated. But, given how the world has changed, how useful is this method now? Sure, kids need to know things. But, in a world where information is at our fingertips 24/7 and easily accessed by A.I. and quantum computing, human beings need a different comparative advantage.

There are hundreds of learning environments around the country reimagining what education can look like when you shift away from rote memorization towards deeper learning. At these learning environments, educators focus on ensuring that young people not only know basic principles and concepts but also can apply what they know and do in new situations.

There are three key reasons why these sorts of learning experiences work better for learners:

1. They reflect what we know about how people actually learn.

As we’ve all experienced, simply memorizing information doesn’t help us to apply what we’ve learned in creative and adaptable ways over time. To really learn something, we need to find meaning in it and link the new ideas that emerge with what we already know and our own experiences in the world.

Young people need to engage in real-world projects so they can learn things in context and in an interdisciplinary way. If everything they learn is applied within a real-world context, neuroscience tells us they will be better able to retrieve and apply what they know to new and unfamiliar situations. That is critical in a rapidly changing world where solving complex problems is at the heart of what young people will need to be able to do.

2. They allow learners to develop a higher level of skills and dispositions that are currently inaccessible within traditional schooling.

Imagine a student who aspires to climb Mount Denali—a peak that sits over 20,000 feet above sea level. If his training regimen (i.e. curriculum) only consists of memorizing trail maps, reading memoirs by mountaineers, and climbing the hill near his house, it’s clear he would not be developing the skills and stamina needed to successfully complete the journey.

If the maps failed him, how would he navigate the mountain? When will he learn how to do equipment safety checks and protect his skin from hypothermia? How will he learn to set up a tent in harsh weather conditions? How will he handle himself while battling overwhelming fatigue and a lack of oxygen?

The only way to develop these skills is to train deeply, intensively, and in real-world conditions. Not only will the climber develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions he needs for any climbing challenge, he will be able to apply those skills (e.g. problem solving, working through adversity, etc.) to all sorts of other situations.

Environments that focus on deeper learning believe the skills learners gain when diving deeply into a project are transferable and will serve them well in every future learning opportunity. The success rates of graduates from these learning environments, including their sense of confidence and preparedness for post-secondary study and life, bear out this belief.

3. They recognize and build on the reality that every person has unique interests, strengths, and areas of passion.

Traditional schools are designed to force everyone to cover the same topic at the same time in essentially the same way. But, environments focused on letting young people enter learning through topics and projects that hold interest and meaning for them allow learners to discover their passions well before college or career.

That sporty student who is passionate about mountaineering may never have enjoyed learning math and science in school. But, if he takes on a project designed around mountaineering, he’ll find himself learning about and applying engineering principles as he builds and fixes his gear; the impact weather patterns have on climbing strategy; and mathematics for calculating the difficulty of various climbing routes.

In the course of going deep in any area of interest, learners inevitably encounter a range of “subjects.” They can engage with subjects they might find challenging within a traditional classroom with a far greater sense of motivation and purpose. Research tells us that a sense of personal motivation is often the difference between success and failure.

Environments that adopt a deeper learning approach apply the notion of uniqueness and difference to how they assess learning as well. Our mountaineer has learned and applied math and engineering principles, geography, project planning skills, teamwork, and communication.

His learning environment allows him to demonstrate evidence of what he has learned in many different ways: a written piece, an oral presentation, or a public presentation like a “Mountain Climbing 101” seminar.

These alternative ways of assessing learning also let students reflect on how they learn; what worked and what didn’t; what they gained from mistakes and failures; and what they plan to do differently in the future. It is a much richer way to assess what students know and can do. It also allows individuals who may not do as well on traditional timed, written tests the flexibility to show what they know in ways that make sense for them.

By shifting from a focus on memorization to a focus on the deep and rich process of learning, a growing number of learning environments are supporting young people to develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions we know they will need to be successful adults in a rapidly changing world.

From Research to Application: What Deeper Learning Looked Like in My Life

On paper, I’ve ticked many boxes that might lead people to believe school was easy for me. The truth is that I am one of those learners who struggled in a traditional school context. It was frustrating to know that how I did on tests didn’t reflect what I believed I knew and understood.

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have experienced teachers who weren’t driven by narrow notions of what learning looked like. As early as third grade, I was allowed to dig deep on projects that matched my unique interests.

No matter the topic, I learned to conduct research in the library, interview people, synthesize large amounts of information, and capture it in reports and oral presentations. I was encouraged to develop my public speaking skills because it turned out I enjoyed it and did it well. None of this experience, although admired in the adult working world, ever translated to achievements on standardized or timed tests or traditional report cards.

When I entered college, I was an active and engaged individual on campus because I knew what it meant to turn an interest into a chance to get engaged; how to take on a project and see it through; and how to connect with adults who opened doors that might otherwise have remained shut. These were the things that led to the most impactful personal, academic, and professional opportunities I have ever had—not my test scores or GPA.

I thrived when I was allowed to engage in deeper learning processes. And, my interviews with both adults and young people over the last decade have convinced me every person can be successful and see themselves as “smart” if given similar learning opportunities.

If we truly want to individualize education we need to tap into these individual passions and interests. We need to allow learners to engage in deep and meaningful experiences that let them practice and develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions we know they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world. If this is where we want to go, then deeper learning is key.

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