M2M Day 271: Is memorization learning?

This post is part of Month to Master, a 12-month accelerated learning project. For July, my goal is to solve a Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle in one sitting without any aid.

One of the main features of my training this month was “memorizing” the 6,000 most common crossword clues and answers.

In a similar fashion, during my Rubik’s Cube month, I memorized a few dozen speed cubing algorithms, and during my foreign language month, I memorized a handful of Hebrew words. And, of course, during my memory month, I memorized three different mnemonic images for each of the 52 playing cards.

In the context of mastering all of these skills, memorization played an important and necessary role. But, I’m worried that this may overemphasize “memorization” as a key part of the self-education process.

In most cases, the ability to memorize information doesn’t distinguish one learner from another. Instead, learners are distinguished by their ability to know what they should and should not memorize.

In other words, the art of learning isn’t about the assimilation of information, but about identifying which information is even worth assimilating.

We traditionally think about memorization in the context of a 7th grade student memorizing a stack of flash cards in order to reproduce this information on a test. In this scenario, the student doesn’t need to determine what’s important and what’s not — the teacher does this on the student’s behalf — effectively depriving the student of the valuable part of the learning process.

In this way, we’ve been trained in school to overvalue memorization as the meat of education, blinded to the “curriculum-building” parts of the process.

So, while memorization may be the more visible, active, and tangible part of many of my learning challenges, it’s not the driving force behind my monthly learning successes.

Learning success is driven by the effective deconstruction and reconstruction of a skill. Memorization can be a tool used in this process, but it doesn’t define the effectiveness of the process.

This is important to remember, since rote memorization can feel quite productive and often simulate the feeling of effective learning. And yet, if we’re not conscious of what we’re choosing to memorize, we might not be learning as effectively as we hope.

Something to think about…

Read the next post. Read the previous post.

Max Deutsch is a product manager at Intuit, the creator of Somebody.io and Rightspeed, and the guinea pig for Month to Master.

If you want to follow along with Max’s year-long accelerated learning project, make sure to follow this Medium account.