I think that the thing many people focused on when the Ministry of Education announced the back to basics approach to a new Mathematics Curriculum was the concept of memorization of multiplication tables. Personally, I don’t have a real issue about that; it’s a little drop in the big bucket. I learned that way and I’ll bet that you did too. Remember the big grid written on a sheet of Bristol board and hung on the wall? During tests or quizzes, it was either covered or taken down to force us to learn it.

Our table went up to 12 x 12. 13 x 13 and above was out of bounds!

I remember at the time being in the group that asked “When will we ever need to know this?” As it turns out, all the time especially since I went on to get a degree in Mathematics. Little did I realize at the time that the table was actually an abstract concept of a two-dimensional indexed array. You would get your answer by using the techniques of row / column lookup.

When I think back, memorization was a part of everything. True, it was a different type of teaching that was happening but you actually had to memorize words to a song or the syntax to a programming statement or how many inches were in a foot (yeah, I go way back) …

But, there was one thing about memorization that I never understood. Most of the memorization that we did eventually did make sense. The one I never really got was an activity in English class.

Every Friday morning, we had a memorization activity. There were two lengthy poems and we had to choose one. I can’t remember the other one but I chose “The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I’d actually forgotten about this activity except it came up in a discussion recently with Stephen Hurley.

The poem seemed to go on forever. There were four parts to it. So, it was a month of Fridays activity for us. We had to memorize one part of the poem and then come to class to write it down on a sheet of paper. It was important to memorize the words but it was also important to memorize the punctuation. Marks were deducted from a possible 10 marks for each mistake.

As I started to think about this, I tried to remember the poem.

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,

and that’s all I’ve got!

The first verse is actually

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
       To many-tower’d Camelot;
The yellow-leaved waterlily
The green-sheathed daffodilly
Tremble in the water chilly
       Round about Shalott.

and it goes on from there. The complete poem is accessible here.

So, we did what any normal Grade 7 or 8 student would do and ask “Why do we have to do this?” The answer? “For marks”.

I suppose it should help us with writing but I’ve honestly never used “wold”, “thro'”, or “daffodilly” in a sentence ever. It was something that we did back then for marks and quickly forgot. It wasn’t the long-lasting or enduring wisdom that we talk about today as being so important.

Like many, I’ll be watching to see what the new curriculum brings to the classroom. Hopefully, it will be done wisely. It may well be that we encourage the study of “The Lady of Shalott” but hopefully for the joy and beauty of poetry and not a memorization activity without legs.

5 thoughts on “Memorization

  1. Good morning Doug!

    One of the challenges with the “back to basics“ rallying cry and the return to the memorization of number facts is that although doing something the “old way“ may be easily visualized by certain members of the electorate (so it makes for an easy sell), it runs contrary to improving understanding and can leave kids without the necessary strategies to generalize or extend their learning.

    As you know, algorithms for multiplication and division are abstracted short cuts that speed up a mathematical task so that your brain doesn’t have to grapple with the actual understanding whenever you need to figure something out. Algorithms essentially turn your brain into a little handheld calculator that cranks out the answer, provided you don’t tap the wrong button by mistake and avoid the checking step needed to make sure you’ve done it right.

    I’m sure you recall countless lessons throughout middle school, high school, and university where a formula would be developed from first principles so that you could see where it came from, and then in practice you would use the formula because it was quicker than figuring things out from scratch every single time. And yet, I think you would agree that having internalized the process of developing a formula from first principles then empowers you to respond to similar but as yet unencountered challenges moving forward. If all you have to work with are the formulas that you’ve memorized, and you have no capacity to generalize or extend to other cases, you’re stuck. Imagine you’ve only learned the times table up to 12×12 and you’ve done so without internalizing a variety of strategies (skip counting, doubles, near doubles, related facts) — someone asks you for a number fact he’s not memorized, and suddenly your cooked.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. Having your number facts at the tip of your fingers significantly speeds up more complex computation. But having the accompanying number sense that allows you to understand what’s actually represented by the multiplication table goes along way turn Improving your facility with working with numbers.

    Now, as for memorizing poetry and passages of text, I would suggest that that is a holdover from the olden days when students didn’t have their own copies of texts and it was important for them to be able to access a poem or selection for a play even through they didn’t have access to the book. Sure, if you were doing a dramatic reading, or were performing some Shakespeare, then having the developed skill of being able to learn a block of text and subsequently share it .

    Memorization has its place. But memorization for memorizations sake is problematic.


  2. Doug, as soon as you wrote down those multiplication grids, I started thinking of the answers. I guess the memorization stuck. 🙂 Math can’t be all about memorization, but it does lead to ease, especially when solving more complicated problems. Maybe what we have to remember is that this is part of the document, not the whole document. As for the English memorization, I see less value. Wonder if others have different thoughts.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. You just jogged my memory back to high school — An English teacher expected us to memorize the poem, Desiderata. I wonder if there was another life “lesson” or message in doing so, since it was Gr. 12…

    I have always had the concern that individual differences in abilities and strategies needed to memorize don’t get enough consideration (even for the younger age groups).

    How many ounces in a pound? 😀


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