All of us want to think that we are biblical in our teaching methodology since we recognize that the Word of God is not only the foundation for the content that we teach, but also our example for technique. Almost every book on teaching emphasizes the dialogue approach, which Jesus frequently used, and urges the participation method, based on His example. Such an emphasis is correct, but sometimes we forget the great heritage which the Old Testament Jewish faith provides for Christian education. The focus on the family, the centricity of Scripture in all learning, and the later commitment to quality learning in the synagogue schools are all worthy of our study. The one teaching methodology which reigned supreme throughout all of those Old Testament centuries was catechism, or memorization.
In his History of Christian Education, C. B. Eavey tells us of the mnemonic drill which took place at home from the earliest years of the child’s life. “As soon as he was able to speak, his parents began to teach him words and sentences. The first memory tasks were mainly blessings, especially those that formed part of the daily prayers. The child rose from bed with one of these upon his lips and went to bed reciting words proclaiming belief in the one God. Much stress was placed upon memorization. As he grew older, he was required to memorize portions of the Scriptures. The mother had a large part in the training of the earliest years, but it was considered the duty of the father to assume responsibility for directing this more advanced phase of the child’s education” (Moody Press, Chicago, Ill.).
Memorization may be defined simply as the power, function, or act of reproducing and identifying what has been heard or experienced. It has been suggested that there are at least four steps in the memory process:
1. Impression—the original, conscious, meaningful experience itself
2. Retention—the process by which the experience is retained in the mind
3. Recall—the act of calling upon the mind for certain needed past experiences or ideas
4. Recognition—the recalled memory as an experience which the individual has had previously
Not all memorization is of the kind that we have come to call “rote.” Rote memory describes the exact reproduction of past experiences, such as the memorization of a verse of Scripture which a student has learned. It is perfectly legitimate, however, to use memorization of general content and context of information as an approach to teaching. For example, one might memorize the general theme of each chapter in the Book of Acts although none of his reproduced content is exactly in the words of the text itself.
Memorization can be enjoyable for students. Too often we think of it only as a regular discipline which requires concentration and drill. But there is intrinsic motivation and instant reinforcement in the child’s learning program when he realizes that he can accurately reproduce information which he has studied. Incidentally, one of the most popular types of adult classes in some Sunday Schools recently is the Bible memory class.
Although a valid end in itself, the memorization of Scripture and other valuable Christian truth is also an important means to other ends. For example, one’s teaching of others is greatly facilitated by the content he has memorized as a student. Personal witnessing will be enhanced by one’s ability to plug in important passages of Scripture to support and strengthen his case for the Gospel.
Some educators would argue that the very process of discipline in memorization is a valid and important technique. It is mind training of the highest order and will develop proficiency which is applicable in the entire development of one’s educational pattern.
God has promised us that there is an inherent spiritual value in memorization of Scripture. David once wrote, “Thy Word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee” (Ps. 119:11). Although later subconscious recall is certainly not the first aim of Scripture memorization, many young people and adults who were trained in the memorization of God’s truth while children, later came to a real awakening of spiritual values because of that vital information hidden in their hearts.
A constantly hovering cloud over memorization teaching is the possibility of substituting words for meaning. Sometimes children reciting memory verses seem too much like the trained seal who has been conditioned to bounce a rubber ball on his nose. They become performers whose striking ability is fascinating to the audience but has little inherent value or understanding to the performer.
Of course this does not have to be the case. Those of us who take a serious view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible will always be concerned that the experiences which a child has teach him the meaning of God’s truth, but that meaning is inherent in the words of God’s truth. However, the extraction of the meaning from the word is not always automatic. That is where the role of the teacher comes in.
Eleanor Morrison and Virgil Foster, in their book Creative Teaching in the Church (mentioned earlier), suggest that the child experiences God’s truth even before its words have much meaning for him. “The ground for teaching and learning is in present experiences. This is true of all ages, but especially so of preschool children. We do not, therefore, teach preschoolers many of the words of the Bible, which are beyond their comprehension. We attempt to provide experiences for which they know that love and forgiveness which are a part of God’s word to man. Since the deepest experiences of life are often beyond words, the challenge to the preschool teacher is to act out the Christian Gospel.”
I suspect that you and I might want to pay more attention to the text of Scripture than do the authors of this book. Nevertheless, what they suggest is essentially correct. The experiences which a child has (for that matter, the experiences of teens and adults as well) support or reject the essence of the word we are trying to teach. His confrontation with the words of Scripture is made meaningful by his confrontation with the Word as lived and shown to him by his parents and teachers.
Another problem with memorization teaching is that sometimes the process can become dull. I have already suggested that it does not have to be so, for memorization can be interesting, even exciting. But if we “sell” the technique as a hardship instead of a blessing, as a discipline instead of a delight, we build in negative attitudinal responses when we want precisely the reverse. Of course, the responses we get in any kind of teaching are determined largely by the way the presentation is made.
We have come a long way from the New England primer stuffed down the throats of reticent pupils by a stern schoolmaster with a stick. Or at least we should have come a long way from those days when learning was seen to be a necessary evil. Let us show our students—children, youth, or adults—that learning is the mother of many of the happy experiences of life, and that memorization is one of her happy children.
In order to make memorization a pleasant and productive skill, try to follow these guidelines when employing this teaching technique:
Remember that the memorization of general content can be as important and valuable a learning experience as rote memorization.
Master all the memorization which you require of your students.
Use helpful visual aids in teaching memory work. These will include pictures, flash cards, chalkboard, flannelgraph, and various kinds of projection.
Remember that review is the key to retention. Your students may memorize information and then forget it days or weeks later unless you subject them to frequent recall.
Always emphasize understandings and meanings. Do not let students of any age memorize just for the sake of performance, but make sure they understand the significance the learning has in their own lives.