This post will look at the symbiotic relationship between memorization and critical thinking. Both forms of thinking need each other as they serve different purposes in learning. Memorization is a passive skill while critical thinking is an active skill
Memorizing is the process of retaining information. In other words, a person is not only experiencing something but actively trying to remember it for future recall. This can be something as simple as a phone number or as complicated as the plot to a movie. Our minds do not retain everything that stimulates us but rather what we choose to notice.
To keep things as simple as possible we have working memory and long-term memory. Working memory is where new information comes into the mind. After something has been in the working memory long enough, emphasized, or rehearsed enough, it will become a part of long term memory.
Working memory is also used to complete tasks. For example, you are using working memory to read this post. You know how to read as this is in your long-term memory but working memory is used to do the actual reading. However, because reading is something so familiar for most of us it does not take up as much concentration as it used to. This allows us to focus on other things such as comprehension or reading faster.
Within education, memorizing is a part of the learning process. It is a passive skill in that you do not produce anything new when memorizing but just repeat what was seen, said/written. Students have to memorize steps, dates, numbers, directions, etc. This memorization is used to complete assignments, pass quizzes, prepare for a test, etc. In other words, memorizing is an important and crucial aspect of the learning process. As such, students go to elaborate lengths to try to retain information such as staying up late rote memorizing, using various memorization techniques, and or working with friends to retain knowledge. There are even times when students resort to cheating to achieve their goals.
Critical thinking is the process of judging/manipulating information in various ways. For example, information can be compared and contrasted, synthesize, analyzed, evaluated, etc. All the verbs mentions involve either judging the information or in some way creating new knowledge such as by comparison. Critical thinking is an active skill in that something new is created through this thought process.
One of the primary goals of critical thinking is to be able to develop a position and support that position with evidence. For example, if someone loves to travel, critical thinking would involve providing evidence for why they love to travel. This is harder for students then it seems as they often supply emotional arguments rather than rational ones.
Therefore, it could be said that critical thinking is an extension of memorizing. You cannot think critically unless you have something to think about. Also, you will have nothing in your head unless it has been memorized in one way or another. However, critical thinking is not about the discussion of petty facts like dates. Rather, critical thinking often involves looking at the big picture and trying to explain major events. It’s the forest rather than the trees often.
An example of this would be a discussion on WWII. You can ask students to try to explain what do they think was motivating Hitler to start WWII. A question such as this assumes knowledge of Hitler, Germany, WWII and more. However, such a question as this is not asking you to ponder the day the war started or ended or the hair color of Hitler. In other words, there are things that a student needs to know to think critically about their response but it needs to be substantial information.
Now we may be moving in a circle. If critical thinking involves using substantial information that is memorized who determines what is substantial? Unfortunately, critical thinking determines what is important and not important. This means that we need to be critical about what we memorize and critical about how we use what we have memorized. The only way to learn how to do this is with practice. By exposing yourself to the information you learn how to retain what is important and what is not. Sometimes you remember what the book is about while other times you remember the name of the book so you can find it later. It all depends on the context.
Memorizing and critical thinking are a team when it comes to learning. Learning often begins with memorizing something. However, what we memorize can depend on what we think is important and this involves critical thinking at least hopefully. Critical thinking is the process of using what we already know to evaluate it or create a different perspective on something.