Did Teachers Really Used To Make Kids Memorize Without Understanding?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/12/07/did-teachers-really-used-to-make-kids-memorize-without-understanding/

Common Core supporters have been asserting that before Common Core’s emphasis on skills, all our teachers did for 50 years was ask kids to memorize facts. So implies Alfie Kohn in The Schools Our Children Deserve, in arguing that students didn’t understand what they used to be taught in arithmetic: “Drill does not develop meanings. Repetition does not lead to understandings.” Kohn’s version of the past was echoed and carried to its seemingly logical conclusion in Constance Kamii’s well-known assertions about “The Harmful Effects of Teaching Algorithms to Young Children.”

Common Core supporters also charge that pre-Common Core standards amounted to little more than fact-memorization. We find a recent version of this charge in a quoted comment that appeared online about New Hampshire’s previous science standards:

The previous standards involving relativity…were about facts and memorization.  David Mattingly, an assistant professor of physics at the UNH [University of New Hampshire] was trying to make the case not against student understanding of relativity but for the focus of the NGSS on climate science …

Keep in mind that Professor Mattingly at the University of New Hampshire was advocating for Achieve Inc.’s new science standards, called Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which are aligned to Common Core’s mathematics standards. Students are deemed “college ready” if they pass a test presumably based on what Common Core calls an Algebra II course. (No one yet knows the cut-off scores on Common Core-aligned tests in grade 11 or what the test items are.)

If the charge about “previous standards” is correct, the unanswered question is:  Who taught our teachers and state departments of education staff to stress fact-memorization? Most teachers have been trained in education schools that follow regulations developed by the staff in state departments of education, most of whom have also been trained in our education schools. And teachers have very often been required to enroll in professional development workshops given by educators linked to our education schools or state departments of education.

One begins to suspect the pot is calling the kettle black. The best pre-Common Core standards in English language arts, mathematics, history, and science, as in California, Indiana in 2006, and Massachusetts, never expected students to spend their time memorizing facts. They expected students to focus on understanding disciplinary ideas important to the structure, development, and practice of the discipline. 

Even in beginning reading, long before students engaged in discipline-based learning, the best pre-Common Core standards stressed understanding of the alphabetic principle — how to use a limited number of written symbols for reading and writing — not memorization of hundreds of “sight words” as if English were written in ideographs.

The battle between “sight word” and “decoding” advocates goes back to the 19th century, and one of the strongest arguments made by the “decoders” was the support they later cited for their position from large, credible bodies of research. Indeed, research showed that an alphabetic approach (decoding) was more effective than relying on memorization of large numbers of sight words and guessing from context. (See, for example, Jeanne Chall’s The Great Debate (1967) or Marilyn Adams’s Beginning to Read (1994).) The battle reached fever-pitch in 1955, a time when curriculum reform was in its heyday, and the public and publishers were busy reading a best-selling book explaining “why Johnny can’t read.” Rudolph Flesch blasted education schools and primary grade teachers for stressing brute memorization of sight words as the preferred method for teaching beginning reading. 

Teaching kids how to read English is still dominated by educators who think English is like Chinese, whether the approach is called Whole Language, Balanced Literacy, or something else. As soon as one sees standards calling for long lists of sight words for kids to memorize in K, 1, and 2, you can predict the presence of many mistrained teachers in charge of primary-grade classes.

The same false charges of stressing memorization without understanding have long been made against pre-Common Core textbooks and classroom practices for elementary teachers of arithmetic. Barry Garelick blew up that false charge earlier this year by pointing out what had been in his old arithmetic book (Arithmetic We Need by William A. Brownell) from the 1950s, as well as in others:  “With respect to the math books of earlier eras, they started with teaching of the standard algorithm first. Alternatives to the standards using drawings or other techniques were given afterwards to provide further information on how and why the algorithm worked.” Garelick went on to point out:  “… most authors were the math reformers of their day …”  In his article, he noted that early primary-grade textbooks provided many counter-examples to the charge that mathematics education then consisted only of disconnected ideas, rote memorization, and no understanding.”

However, perhaps it did for some students. Henry Levin, an education researcher at several major universities since the 1980s, claimed there was a stress on repetition and drill in schools for low-achieving minority students as well as a slow pace for instruction.

Had their teachers been encouraged in their training programs and/or in their professional development workshops to stress brute memorization?  We don’t know. But Levin went on to establish “accelerated schools” in the late 1980s. A 2010 evaluation of these schools rendered an ambiguous judgment:   

While the findings on graduation and credit accumulation indicate that accelerated schools have benefited the academic outcomes of both earlier and more recent entrants into their programs … a strict interpretation of this evidence would conclude only that certain providers have more beneficial impacts on their particular sets of enrollees than other providers do on their particular sets of enrollees.

 So, did teachers of yore stress repetition and drill in beginning arithmetic and no understanding?   If they did, was the stress for all students, for just low achievers, or just for low-achieving minority students?  We don’t know. 

And if repetition and drill were stressed in the primary grades (regardless for whom), maybe it was a good thing. According to a Task Group report for the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s Final Report in 2008, repetition and drill to help young math students achieve “automaticity” with number facts are a good thing. Recommendation #11 in the Panel’s Final Report summed up much discussion and detail:

Computational proficiency with whole number operations is dependent on sufficient and appropriate practice to develop automatic recall of addition and related subtraction facts, and of multiplication and related division facts. It also requires fluency with the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. … [page xix] 

As the Task Group (consisting of David Geary, Wade Boykin, Susan Embretson, Valerie Reyna, Robert Siegler, and Daniel B. Berch) concluded:

… Debates regarding the relative importance of conceptual knowledge, procedural skills, and the commitment of arithmetical facts to long-term memory are misguided. The development of conceptual knowledge and procedural skills is intertwined, each supporting the other. Fast access to number combinations, prime numbers, and so forth supports problem solving because it frees working memory resources that can then be focused on other aspects of problem solving. (pages 4-30)

So, both automaticity and understanding need to be cultivated, and probably were in the past. Charges that teachers did one without the other seem to be baseless. It’s time for education debaters to make sure that both are being stressed in our elementary schools today — in reading and in arithmetic. There are negative consequences for avoiding memorization of number facts and fairly consistent sound-to symbol correspondences (e.g., “ph” is usually pronounced like an “f”). All children, whether or not low-income or minorities, need to memorize some things in the primary or elementary grades (including some dates in history), as well as understand why they should do so.


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.