“Memorizing multiplication facts is pointless. Students nowadays need to know problem solving.”
“Writing 5-paragraph essays is no longer necessary. They can learn how to organize their writing other ways.”
“And what is the point in memorizing a poem? They can just look it up on the internet.”
Whenever I hear comments like these, most of me agrees. Spending large chunks of instruction time on questions and facts that can easily be Googled does not improve student learning. Nor does writing 5-paragraph essays 5 times a year.
But there is also a part of me that believes that teachers cannot unilaterally abandon every googable question or fact. And I’m not even sure why. But I keep thinking back to the high school that both of my boys attended. No matter how many times I had been in there, I would always get a little lost. But I learned to navigate my way around the school by returning to the main entrance and re-orienting from there. That point of entry helped me to find my way around the school.
In much the same way, students knowing their multiplication facts is the entry point to better number sense. When my grade 9 students have to stop and think what the product of 8×6 is, I get a little uneasy. Will this come back to haunt them when they are trying to assess the safety factor of a load bearing beam? Will they be able to double the ingredients in a recipe without a calculator?
Experimenting with writing a 5-paragraph essay is as important as other forms of non-fiction and creative writing. The essay helps serve as an entry point for expository and persuasive writing. It can provide a framework and improve critical thinking skills when essays are reformulated into business letters, proposals, blog posts, position papers, or tweets.
And memorizing a poem. What possible value could that have? Good question. There is some research to suggest that memorizing is good for the brain function. But, I remember having to memorize two parts of the poem “The Lady of Shalot” by Lord Alfred Tennyson and doing a lot of complaining about it. But I also remember that as I said the lines over and over, I came to appreciate the beauty and lyricism of the words. It was my entry point to discovering the richness of language.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating for the return to rote memorization, nor am I advocating for the 5-paragraph essay 5 times a year. My concern is that education sometimes falls prey to polarization on some issues. It’s either “this OR that.” Either we do lots of memorization OR none at all. Either we over-emphasize 5-paragraph essays OR not at all. What I am advocating for is finding a balance between “this AND that.” Small, measured doses of memorizing AND lots of critical inquiry. Experimenting with 5-paragraph essays AND other forms of writing.
At my sons’ high school, one point of entry was enough for me to eventually learn the layout of the school. But, as educators, we need to be very mindful if we are limiting points of entry for our students. We risk not meeting the learning needs of many of our students, and we can’t afford that. Students need multiple points of entry. This AND that.