Drill and Kill.
That’s what rote memorization is often called in educational circles today. The general thinking is that mindlessly learning facts quashes kids’ natural curiosity and teaches them that finding the right answer is more important than understanding why it’s correct. All over the country, there’s a huge backlash against “teaching to the test”—expecting kids to learn the “right” answer without understanding why—and an effort in schools to make learning fun and meaningful instead.
My own kids’ school is no exception. I recently attended an open math lesson in my 2nd grader’s math class where students were encouraged to work out the area of a shape by handling blocks, building structures, and other tactile methods. By the end of the hour, I could see that my son had an intuitive understanding of what area meant, and he appreciated his teacher’s creative approach.
But I send my kids to an Orthodox Jewish school, and a part of the curriculum—in addition to this creative, child-led exploration—is something that’s fallen out of fashion in most of the country: rote memorization. In a couple of years, that same son—like his older siblings—will be expected to memorize chunks of Jewish texts.
“Why?” I asked my 5th grader recently. He’d come home and proudly recited a portion of the Mishnah, the 2nd century compilation of Oral Law that makes up part of the Talmud. After he was done with his several-minutes-long speech in ancient Hebrew, he grinned. I didn’t want to spoil the moment, but I was curious why his teacher told him to memorize—rather than just learn and understand—the text.
“It’s so when we’re bored, we can ‘learn’ it,” my wide-eyed 10-year-old explained, using the term “learn” in an Orthodox Jewish context, rather than its modern meaning. In traditional Judaism, studying Torah is never finished: We’re always “learning.” In this way of thinking, going over a text in our mind is a way of learning: strengthening our understanding, and perhaps—as we spend a slow moment reviewing a piece of Talmud we’ve memorized—making a connection and realizing something new.
“This way I can review it whenever I want!” my son enthused.
Put that way—as a means to access something interesting in our brains when we’re bored or have a minute to kill—made me think of my old English teacher from freshman year in high school. He was an old-fashioned teacher even then. While my other high school teachers were fun and dynamic, he insisted each of us memorize a chunk of Shakespeare. It didn’t matter what the section was, so long as we committed the required lines to memory.
I chose the first three or four pages of “Romeo and Juliet.” Even at the time, I realized it was ridiculous: I was going for quantity, not quality, and my memorization ended abruptly at the end of one of the early speeches, once I’d reached the requisite number of words. But, through the years, I’ve gone over those lines a surprising number of times. When I’m on hold, or waiting in traffic, sometimes I find myself saying Shakespeare’s beautiful text to myself: a small nugget of beauty lodged in my mind that I can access any time.
My older kids have ploughed through even greater amounts of memorization. Their school holds a special class to prepare students to take the Chidon HaTanach—the International Bible Quiz that’s held each year in Jerusalem on Israeli Independence Day. Students preparing for the nationals are expected to “learn” 150 pereks—chapters of the Torah—which is about 8% of the entire five Books of Moses, Prophets, and Writings that make up the Old Testament.
“Learning” in this context means memorization—or something close to it. “What did Moses say to the judges he appointed?” I’ll hear my kids quiz each other. “What city did the Plishtim take the Mishkan to?” “Who were the descendants of Enoch?” “Mommy, you should sign up for the Adult Bible Contest!” my kids tell me, and I shake my head: There is no way I could ever commit this volume of text to memory, I tell them.
Unspoken is the question: Would I even want to? And will this sort of drilling kill my children’s’ will to learn?
So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The Bible Contest class is popular; students have to take an exam to get in, and the kids in it wear their hard work as a badge of pride. “Chidon is life,” my son and his friend used to joke with each other, reveling in their efforts to memorized hundreds of lines of text.
In fact, memorizing so much changed the way my son thought of himself: smarter and more serious—and a better student overall. “After memorizing so much Torah,” he confided in me once, “science is much easier, too. It’s a cinch to remember a page of formulas after memorizing so much already!”
It seems that memorizing begets more memorizing. After passing the nationals, my oldest son qualified for the international Chidon contest in Israel this year. Instead of learning 8% of the Old Testament, he’s now expected to know 400 Perekim, or about half. As he drills himself each night and covers his entire 900-page Torah in colorful highlights and notes, I can’t help but feel he’s pushed his boundaries and expanded the amount of material that he’s capable of knowing.
Instead of “drill and kill,” his efforts seem to be a case of “drill” and “spark”—boosting his interest not only in the subject he’s memorizing, but in school—and his self-esteem overall.
Recently, my 2nd grader tried to get in on the action, too, announcing he was going to memorize a poem just like his older siblings. It might not chime with modern educational theories, but I didn’t care.
“Great!” I said. “I’ll quiz you!”
And I drilled him, just like his brothers and sister. I never thought I’d encourage a 7-year-old to practice rote memorization, but I now believe it teaches skills that other forms of learning cannot. I’ve seen it stretch memory, give kids a feeling of satisfaction, and help them access knowledge they’d never have were it not for memorizing large chunks of text.
“Drill and kill”? In my mind, it does no such thing. Drilling—and rote memorization—is one of the most valuable accomplishments my kids have enjoyed.