Educational technology has created a new environment of openness to reformulating pedagogies—a wider range of educational approaches are emerging, and we are increasingly able to validate results through assessment and data analysis.
Taking a look through time, when we consider instructional strategies in the context of current and historical trends, it can be enlightening to go back to the earliest teaching and learning practices.
Doing so, we find that our new instructional trends derive considerably from very old methods!
Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it… We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate ones, brave by doing brave ones.
This quote by Aristotle is echoed in today's active learning trends: project-based learning, hackathons, apprenticeships, and other forms of experiential learning.
Even before the invention of writing, we know that societies had well-developed systems for retaining information over time, and for imparting knowledge and culture to each successive generation.
These systems certainly relied heavily on developing the strength and utilization of memory. Of course, the role of memory in learning hardly diminished even after the advent of writing, In the technology and information age, however, schools seem to be placing less value on memorization and memory skills.
Memorization has been a core part of religious learning in particular, since humans began telling stories and developing oral traditions. Ancient cultures developed a range of methods to transmit knowledge: mnemonic techniques like the method of loci (memory palace), repetitive chanting, and codification of knowledge into symbolic representations, just to name a few.
The results achieved by the ancients can seem super-human. Whether we think of a classical Greek rhapsode memorizing the epic works of Homer, or Vedic scholars mastering tens of thousands of verses, the sheer volume of content that humans memorized seems beyond enormous.
Sudha Gopalakrishnan, former Director of the National Manuscripts Mission in Delhi, gives some insight into the processes used in memorizing the Vedas:
...the preservation of large portions of the Vedic corpus went on for centuries through a complex, highly codified method of transmission. Elaborate, highly sophisticated and foolproof mnemonic methods were used to instruct and memorize these compositions, which eliminated or decreased the danger of losing words, syllables or accent. The extraordinary effort of memorization emphasized correct pronunciation (akshara suddhi), correct duration of utterance (matra suddhi), and correct intonation of accents (svara suddhi).
Dr. Gopalakrishnan's question is well worth considering. However, we might acknowledge that, with the steady growth of information technology, memorization is becoming less valued. If we can readily get most information on our cell phones, why memorize anything at all?
The answer—development of memory skills provide students with valuable means to learn more quickly and more profoundly.
We might consider that, in today's classroom, when students are expected to memorize content, they are often not taught how (i.e., effective methods) to memorize. Meanwhile, we know from experience and data that active recall approaches to learning produce some of the best educational results.
Moreover, studies on competitive memory athletes has shown that people who regularly use the method of loci—a mnemonic technique that originated in ancient Greece and Rome--experience beneficial changes to the brain, a strengthening of the structures that store and recall memories.
Memorization offers a specific case where students benefit from a focus on "learning how to learn." Fortunately, there are a wealth of approaches that we can draw from.