Memory Work: A Personal Journey

For the last six years, I have encountered some of the same questions over and over again from families who are wondering about memory work. Why should I introduce difficult concepts to a young child? Why should I teach my children to memorize and recite things that they cannot understand? Isn't it a waste of time to memorize things that they will just forget?


My family started the Classical Conversations Foundations program in 2005 when my oldest child was six. He has now completed each of the three cycles of memory work twice and has just been awarded the honor of Memory Master for the fourth time. Reflecting on our journey, I realized some truths about memory work that I did not understand in the beginning.


The first truth is shockingly simple: the repetition of difficult concepts produces long-term results. In the early years, I questioned the wisdom of having my six-year-old repeat the associative law. It seemed unreasonable to ask him to chant: “a” plus opening parenthesis “b” plus “c” closing parenthesis equals opening parenthesis “a” plus “b” closing parenthesis plus “c.” It would have been easy to dismiss this particular item as something that he simply was not ready for. However, we persevered in chanting this math law every year for six years.


This year, he began Saxon Math 8/7. It was surprisingly simple for him to look at sample equations in the book and label them as illustrations of the associative law, identity law, or distributive law. He transitioned from the grammar stage of reciting these ideas to the dialectic stage of understanding the words and applying the concepts to numbers. We had a similar breakthrough in his science studies when he began reading about rocks and minerals. He ran into my bedroom with the text open, shouting, "Mom. I finally learned what it means.  You know . . . 'What are the three kinds of rock? Metamorphic. Igneous. Sedimentary.'" All of my children have had similar responses to artists, composers, and countries simply because they have heard the words before. I am thrilled that my two younger children will have the same lengthy, repeated exposure to these words and ideas.


Before I began homeschooling my own children, I tutored high school students in geometry. Every fall when midterm grades came out, I would be flooded with calls from anxious parents whose students just could not grasp this subject. I now firmly believe that these students were not served well by the modern model of education. They were being asked to do the impossible: to memorize formulas, apply them by filling in measurements, and then prove that the theorems were logically sound. In other words, they were asked to be at the grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric stages of geometry all at once.  My own children will have a very different experience. Every year, they have memorized the formulas for calculating the area of various geometric shapes. When they are in junior high, they will be able to calculate area quickly because the formulas are already in their memory banks. After a couple of years of this dialectic skill, I will introduce geometric proofs. Because of the firm foundation of the grammar stage, they will be ready for this higher order thinking.


The second truth is that we absolutely want our children to memorize things that they do not understand. If you doubt me, think about Scripture memory that you practice with them. I was only eight years old when I memorized Psalm 23 (which I completed to make my teacher proud and earn a beautiful bookmark for my Bible). I did not understand what it meant to "walk through the valley of the shadow of death." It was not until I was in my thirties that I began to understand these words as I prayed with friends who were grieving over the loss of children and parents. However, had I not memorized these words in childhood, I could not have drawn from their wisdom and comfort. We know that this method of memorizing and reciting prior to having a complete understanding of the words works with Scripture. We can trust that it will work for our children in a wide range of academic subjects.


Finally, we must consider the objection that our children are simply amassing a large amount of unrelated facts in their short-term memory. We all have our own stories of staying up all night to study for a test and then promptly forgetting everything we studied. My experience with my children's memory work has been the exact opposite. Because my son was exposed to the comprehensive timeline of history for six years, he hardly needed to review it this year.  The key to memory work success is to choose a select body of knowledge to recite, carefully considering the base of information that the student will need for studies at a later age. Then, there should be constant review until the child experiences automatic recall, the same kind of mental reflex which occurs when we say the Pledge of Allegiance, the times tables, or the Lord's Prayer.

Author: Jennifer Courtney





 Classical Conversations