Flashcard Fever

Rarely do I read something in the Times with which I so heartily agree as this brilliant defense of rote learning:
“In educational circles, sometimes the phrase ‘drill and kill’ is used, meaning that by drilling the student, you will kill his or her motivation to learn,” explains Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia professor of psychology who has written extensively on learning and memory. “Drilling often conjures up images of late-19th-century schoolhouses, with students singsonging state capitals in unison without much comprehension of what they have ‘learned.’ ”

Oh, those schoolhouses — with the hickory sticks and the dunce caps. “Harrisburg! Salt Lake City! Montpelier! Tralalalala!” That does sound kind of fun — I mean, authoritarian.

I am eternally grateful for everything I ever had to memorize, from Lightly Row to the Gettysburg Address, French adjectives and the books of the Bible.  I took to memorizing poetry for fun in high school: Yeats, Shakespeare, Frost, cummings.  Though I have forgotten some of these things, many of them are still with me.  And I am shocked, just shocked, at how much resistance I see from otherwise-intelligent people when the subject of rote memorization comes up.  At a grad school course a few years back, the students complained nonstop about having to memorize nineteen coordinating conjunctions, even when they clearly didn't know them and, as aspiring English teachers, needed to. (Did I mention this was grad school?)  Parents tell me nonchalantly that their kids will learn their multiplication tables when they need them; there's no point in "just memorizing them," they say.  And recently I overheard some friends saying they didn't see why their children had to memorize Scripture in Sunday School: "They hear that stuff in church already!"

Our memories are one of the most beautiful things about us.  We use them to reminisce, to organize, to create.  And all of these help us learn.  Why should we hesitate to exercise them in this most basic way?

Dr. Suzuki liked to say, "Ability  equals knowledge times ten thousand repetitions."  His student Michiko Yurko created a system of cooperative games, based on memorization, that are my students' favorite part of piano lessons.  Children love hearing favorite books over and over, teenagers quote movies, and adults get a thrill from their favorite songs, long since learned by heart.  "Drill and kill?"  Give me a break.