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Critical Thinking vs. Rote Memorization

Is critical thinking in the classroom more important than rote memorization?

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, almost all information can be gleaned from the Internet, so long as you ask the right questions on Google. So is there any point in having students memorize facts? Instead, students could spend their time learning to ask the right questions, which requires critical thinking skills.


The American educational arena is certainly stressing the importance of teaching critical thinkingskills. Common Core standards emphasize the importance of critical thinking. Students must be able to read text, grapple with the meaning of the text, challenge and verify or refute its accuracy, and use the information in meaningful ways.

In discussions with teachers, I often hear that they are very concerned with their students’ abilities to make distinctions between fact and fiction when searching the Internet, which is essential to knowledge acquisition. We would not want students to think that Dallas is the capital of Texas just because someone decided to be funny on Wikipedia. The ability to distinguish between fact and fiction requires both critical reading and critical thinking skills.

In addition to developing the skills to use the Internet effectively, students must develop the skills to adapt. Today’s kindergarten students will graduate from college in 2029. We do not know the knowledge and skills that students will need to possess in order to succeed in this future world. Therefore, teachers cannot successfully impart 2029 knowledge and skills to students in today’s classrooms. Instead, the best that we can do is help students adapt to different kinds of environments. Adaptation requires critical thinking skills.

It’s clear that an argument can be made for the importance of teaching critical thinking skills in schools. However, what is the argument in favor of teaching knowledge and skills that do not require critical thinking?

Consider the numerous subjects that today’s adults learned in school that did not require critical thinking skills. For example, learning multiplication tables involves rote memorization. Learning geography may involve simple recall. Quick. What’s the capital of your state? Students can obviously learn to answer this question very simply. They might even spend hours memorizing the capitals of every state and country. This is engaging, but it represents low-level thinking. As another example, learning to spell does not require critical thinking in most situations.

When I was in graduate school, my friends nicknamed me E.D. Hirsch, Jr. You may recall Hirsch’s book series on what common knowledge students should possess at every grade level. Most of the members of my graduate school cohort emphasized the importance of critical thinking. I certainly did not disparage its importance. However, I think I would lack something as an individual if I did not know that Austin is the capital of Texas, as I wait in the Austin airport for a flight. I hope that there are no spelling mistakes in this post, though I know spell-check cannot always catch the difference between there and their.

Rote memorization can be essential to successful participation in social, business, and civic life. A well-known American broadcaster once said that if she were trying to get a job today she would try to learn as much about as many things as possible. The best job candidates know as much about as many topics as they can learn. The reason for this is simple: one never knows what topic an interviewer is going to want to discuss. People should be prepared with as much information about sports, history, music, dining, and everything else as possible. Schools can promote this kind of knowledge by exposing students to a wide array of different topics. Simple exposure, however, does not require critical thinking.

Within science, there are certain pieces of information that all students should know. Can you imagine how lost an individual would be if he/she did not know how to identify the different parts of the body? People who know sophisticated terms for various bodily functions will feel much better when speaking to polite audiences in certain situations. (This situation is particularly meaningful to me this week as I was in the emergency room last week passing a kidney stone.) These words must be learned and memorized. Nobody is going to Google synonyms in the middle of conversations just so that they do not have to use slang terms.

Of course, the challenge is in determining which facts and ideas people must know. E.D. Hirsch tried to do this for himself. I would argue that communities must come up with these lists for themselves. A single author cannot impose a body of knowledge on anybody else.

Unfortunately, the school year is only about 1,100 hours long. Consequently, students cannot spend an unlimited amount of time learning simple information and how to think and read critically. However, I do not believe that learning to think critically necessarily precludes the opportunity to learn simple information. The best curricula scaffold learning so that students have something meaningful to think about. Students can read facts, in engaging text, and then be challenged to think about them in critical ways. I think that the best curricula include both rote learning and critical thinking.

What do you think?

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By | 2017-06-27T21:14:48+00:00 July 2nd, 2013|Critical thinking|12 Comments

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