Memorization is one way that your child learns. Her brain’s capacity to hold information is unlimited. She has about 100 billion neurons, each of which has thousands of dendrites. When her brain stores information, it develops new neural pathways and strengthens existing pathways.
Your baby takes in information, stores it, relates the information to existing ideas, and then retrieves it when she needs it. She may learn information in isolated pieces that are kept in different areas of her brain. For instance, she stores the information about the shape, color, smell, and taste of an apple in different parts of her brain.
When these areas of her brain are activated, they simultaneously bring together the experiences and thoughts that comprise her existing knowledge about an apple. Repeated firing of the neurons of the associated group increases the chances that they will fire together. When your baby experiences all the attributes of an apple many times, she develops an overall concept of an apple.
As she develops a concept of the apple, she attaches sense and meaning to the apple. That is, she comprehends and understands logically what the apple is, and she files that meaning away. Now she is likely to identify a photo of an apple in a book or to point out an apple in the grocery store. As she connects the apple to significant past experiences, she attaches additional meaning to the apple.
For instance, if you are on a picnic in the countryside and your child picks up an apple under a tree and tastes its sweetness, then later she relates an apple to this meaningful past experience. When she understands sense, she can answer the question “What?” When she understands meaning, she can answer the question “Why?” When information has both sense and meaning, the information becomes easier for your child to remember.
Through repetition and reprocessing, your child learns to assign sense and meaning to information. She needs time for this reprocessing in order to retain the information and, ultimately, to learn. When you provide feedback or acknowledge her process, you reinforce and strengthen her learning.
When your child is first learning something through memorization—for example, when using flash cards or singing a song—she may repeat information without being aware of its meaning. Rote memorization can be valuable for certain situations, such as learning the alphabet or counting to 10. However, when the information is filed away in her brain in this way, it must be retrieved through a sequence. Rote learning does not necessarily help her understand information or use it in different situations.
The next step—reviewing and making sense of the information by connecting it to previous knowledge and assigning value and meaning—helps your child understand and use the information in different situations. When she learns the meaning of the words of the lullaby that you sing at bedtime, and when you sing the lullaby every night, then she associates the meaning of the song with going to sleep. She may sing the same lullaby to her doll as she rocks the doll to sleep. In this way, she is acquiring knowledge, using it in various settings, and shifting from the reactive storing of information to deliberate memory.
Rote memorization requires a transfer of information from someone who knows to someone who does not know. It is an approach of instruction, training, and pedagogy that deemphasizes the active role of your child as learner; it emphasizes quantity of information over quality of knowledge.
Memorization is a reactive form of learning that uses lower mental functions. When your child attaches sense, meaning, and connections to previous knowledge, she starts using higher mental functions to process memorized information.