Is memorisation important?


The other day I saw this on Humans of New York:

“What’s the most frustrating part about being teacher?”

“I think it’s getting increasingly difficult to convince my students that what I’m teaching is relevant to their lives. They see a world where the path to success is much more muddled, and social skills are beginning to seem more important than academics. It’s hard to instill the importance of memorization when information is so freely and instantly available.”

I’ve been thinking about that last sentence for a few days not. Is memorisation important? Really?

Harry recently mentioned that he’s really good at remembering things he’s interested in – he can talk for hours about the strengths and weaknesses of various Pokémon, for example – but not so much with things he’s not. I actually only noticed that myself about ten years ago. At the time, I was working in accountancy and there were certain aspects of my job that I just couldn’t seem to retain even when I worked with them every single day. And yet I can easily quote from many, many episodes of Friends

I asked my husband – who has a fantastic memory – and he said memorisation is useful for when, say, you don’t have immediate access to the internet. But the things I, er, remember having to memorise weren’t the kind of things you’d need in an emergency, were they? I don’t think I’ve ever been in a life or death ‘who was on the throne between 1820 and 1830′ situation.’ (It was George IV. I just looked it up.) Husband said it’s more important to know how to access the information you need and I agree with that. But I also wonder if there’s something vital about memorisation that I’m missing…



12 responses to “Is memorisation important?

  1. I see memorisation as just another skill among a plethora of skills we may or may not need in our individual lives. Being able to access information is a far more important skill, and being able to transfer your skills to real life. But our minds can become so cluttered with useless bits of information I’m not sure it’s valuable to memorise a lot! As Einstein is reputed to have said ‘imagination is more important than knowledge’. I tend to agree! We can look up information – the development of our imagination is down to us and we need imagination in so many aspects of life. For example, we’re certainly having to be imaginative with budgets at the present time! 🙂

  2. I think memorisation is useful in some contexts. For instance, as a student midwife I have to memorise a great number of medical terms, the symptoms and treatments for a variety of disorders, the policies and guidelines of my Trust, etc etc – and because I have never really needed to do much memorising before, I am finding it quite hard. But it should not be the main thing.

    • Thanks, May. Yes, that makes sense. For me, it seems like one of those skills that’s useful for specific rather than general things, if that makes sense. You need to memorise for the job you want to do rather than memorisation being an important skill in and of itself, maybe?

      • Well, if I had been required to memorise more as a child, I might be better at it now! The problem is that until I was twenty, I had no intention of going into a scientific field. I just never studied science, and never had to remember things that I couldn’t just figure out or reason through.

  3. I don’t know if it works like that though – at least it doesn’t for me. I had to memorise stuff at school – and I can still recite bits of poems and mathematical formulas – but it doesn’t seem to have helped me remember the stuff I needed to know (but didn’t care about) at work.

  4. Interesting question… I can see that it is very useful to memorise information if it has a particular use, but like you say in your post, Keris, I can’t see there being a use for memorising Kings and Queens unless you’re a historian, or you’re entering a pub quiz. Having said that, I’m in awe of people with amazing memories, like Stephen Fry.

  5. Maybe it’s not so much “is memorisation important” as “is memorising what your being taught important”. The skill itself is a useful one in all sorts of contexts, so it doesn’t hurt to practice it – even if it works better for some things than others (in a way, maybe this is a good thing, and prompts you to learn strategies to retain stuff you NEED to retain but don’t necessarily WANT to; or perhaps it helps with brain development in a way that’s not immediately obvious, as so many things seem to!). Since Harry has discovered that certain things are more easily memorable than others, he can now apply that thinking to anything he’d like to remember but can’t – by employing creative ways of linking those facts to things he likes.

  6. Ha! I just politely ignored that… 🙂 Although I was thinking about how memorising isn’t the same as learning. I memorised a mathematical formula via a song Clive and Scott sang in Neighbours, but I don’t know what it is or what it’s for :/

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