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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Memorization and Understanding

How have you come to learn things in your life?  Recall the earliest example of learning at home, at school, etc. in your experience.  To memorize something simply means to "commit something to memory" and memory gives us the beautiful, and if you think about it - somewhat strange, capacity to not forget events, experiences, and bits of information.  What kinds of things enhance your ability to remember?  Your senses are a strong component of memory and, for many of us, visual cues burn information/experiences into our mind to the point that you can visualize it all over again many years later.

How great is your capacity to memorize?  Individuals have memorized the Quran, the Bible, the Hidden Words, among other sacred texts.  The capacity to memorize is amazing, especially among youth.  In the Baha'i writings, we are encouraged to memorize prayers and passages from the Sacred text for a multitude of reasons.  In 'A Compilation on Baha'i Education', it is mentioned that "The method of instruction which ye have established, beginning with proofs of the existence of God and the oneness of God, the mission of the Prophets and Messengers and Their teachings, and the wonders of the universe, is highly suitable.  Keep on with this.  It is certain that the confirmations of God will attend you.  It is also highly praiseworthy to memorize the Tablets, divine verses and sacred traditions.  Ye will surely exert every effort in teaching, and in furthering understanding (emphasis added)."  Not only is it suggested that whole sections of Sacred verse be memorized, in another section it states that "...there is no objection to children who are as yet unable to memorize a whole prayer learning certain sentences only."

Baha'u'allah revealed in a Tablet, "The sanctified souls should ponder and meditate in their hearts regarding the methods of teaching.  From the texts of the wondrous, heavenly Scriptures they should memorize phrases and passages bearing on various instances, so that in the course of their speech they may recite divine verses whenever the occasion demandeth it, inasmuch as these holy verses are the most potent elixir, the greatest and mightiest talisman.  So potent is their influence that the hearer will have no cause for vacillation.  I swear by My life!  This Revelation is endowed with such a power that it will act as the lodestone for all nations and kindreds of the earth."  It should be noted that Baha'u'llah is referring to teaching the Baha'i Faith and He is not explicitly making a statement on pedagogy or educational philosophy as it may apply to educational institutions.

However, memorizing the Baha'i writings for the purpose of transforming this world, through action that reflects those writings, provides "the greatest and mightiest talisman."  It is part of the process of attracting ("lodestone") "all nations and kindreds of the earth."  So, perhaps, memorization is important enough to be a part of the educational process in general and the choice of what to memorize is most important.

In relation to the classroom or any educational setting, memorization can be considered a tool to enhance, not replace, understanding.  How many of us have committed to memory something that has been less than meaningful?  How many of us have retained by memory something for an exam (which implies that at least someone else thinks it is meaningful) and then soon forgotten it?

In educational literature you may read the phrase 'rote memorization' or 'rote learning' and it can often be found juxtaposed with 'meaningful learning'.  By adding the word rote, it clarifies that the memorization process to be used is one without contemplation, without connection in one's mind.  Is this the type of memorization that is prescribed in the Baha'i writings?  

In schools, we utilize this strength, especially in primary level education, though we tend to overuse it in the secondary and post-secondary levels.  I recently was involved in a discussion that revealed to me that the other person believed that the act of memorizing anything is good for the development of "learning how to learn".  It reminded me of a long held belief that the mind is much like a muscle and can be improved by repetition.  To those of you who subscribe to using sudoku, crossword puzzles, and the like, I would agree that there is a measure of usefulness to those (other than amusement), but caution anyone who holds the "mind equals muscle" as a central teaching philosophy.

In fact, rote memorization is a common strategy for learning in many schools.  I submit to you this article - "The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching" by Martin Haberman.  The pedagogy of poverty is the general educational practice that has been reinforced in urban schools.  I believe that rote memorization is central to this pedagogy, since it fits with the teacher-centered (dominated) classroom that provides knowledge as opposed to providing opportunities to be empowered by learning.

To close, memorization is powerful and, when used wisely to build a meaningful framework, it can enhance understanding.  However, understanding comes with time, experience, and collaborative environments.  Think of all of your experiences in Baha'i Study Circles (Ruhi courses).  We memorize passages and then go beyond this and understand through collaboration in loving and supportive environments.  It is a joy to be a part of them.  Wouldn't we want our children to experience such joy when learning other things as well?


Layli S. said...

Dear Mark, As an educator (and Baha'i) who worries deeply about fostering understanding - and meaning-making - I reflexively crinkle my nose at the term "memorization." Thanks for reminding me of its important role in the mechanisms of understanding.

Phillipe Copeland said...

Hey Mark, you've been nominated for an "I love your blog" award