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Robert priceThe smartest man I’ve ever met had a mind like a high-definition camera. Everything he viewed played on his mind with crystal clarity.

He memorized the baseball statistics in the morning paper. A guilty pleasure, he said.

He also had a library of poetry memorized. When he lectured, he pulled references, allusions and lines from across the canon to illustrate his points.

It was easy for him. He was born with a brain that photographed everything.

Amazing but amazing in a different way than a drama student I once taught.

During a meeting to discuss a paper she wrote, she broke into a performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, reciting from memory and playing all the parts with different voices.

She made it look easy. I asked her how she managed to remember it all. Did she have a photographic memory?

Her reply: “I wrote it all down by hand again and again until I got it.”

Hard work, long hours. Amazing.

Memorization has a bad reputation for dozens of reasons. Students think it’s torture. Some educators say it steals the soul from education and turns students into automaton. Tech gurus who like to dabble in education and think technology will fix everything say: Why memorize anything when you search for everything on your smartphone? Use class time for something more productive. Teach creativity, they like to say.

Memorization is unpopular even though it’s foundational to success in so many disciplines. Music is richer with theory and memorization. Who wants to attend a recital where the pianist still needs to look at her hands as she plays? Great artists act without thinking. They can embody the music because they’ve memorized their instrument, the sheet music, the idea in the composition.

The same is true with theatre, dance and every other performing art. It’s true with language acquisition.

And it’s true with mathematics. Yet over the last several years in Ontario, educators have been divided over how to use precious classroom time. Should they spend time memorizing numbers and formulas, or teach math using inquiry-based and discovery methods?

One faction says memorization is old fashioned, outdated and redundant because of technology. The kids don’t like it anyways. The other side says memorization is the foundation to efficiency and understanding in higher-level maths. Just like the pianist must know her piano, the math student must know his numbers.

The logic that a student should memorize multiplication tables and formulas is sound. And doubtlessly the consistently poor performance of Ontario’s children on standardized tests tells us that discovery math isn’t working.

Students need to set the cornerstones of the discipline inside themselves if they’re to build any lasting understanding. Indeed, taken to an extreme, arguments against the discipline of memorization eventually become arguments against the discipline itself and against discipline as a principle.

A certain species of educator exists who wants to work on the souls of students at the exclusion of everything else. Rather than employing rote learning strategies, these educators like to stress creativity, self-exploration and expression.

These are not bad things. But the sequencing is out of order. Discipline comes first. Higher orders of creativity, expression, spirit and invention follow from, and out of, discipline. Students must develop mastery over technique before they can experiment, if the experiment is to have any shape or meaning.

Memorization is a familiar concept. We memorize prayers and popular songs with ease. We’re enriched by these words. So why not numbers? Why not poetry? Why not vocabulary, second languages?

When you know a thing by memory – when you know it from the inside – you know it better.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

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