Memorization and Intelligence
ABC News had an interesting story on pint-sized prodigies the other day called Are You Smarter than a Toddler? (or alternatively, "How Young is Too Young to Start Studying?" -- it has two different titles which suggest very different things...)
Children who can memorize long lists of quotes, capitals, digits of pi, etc., are staples of the talk show and late night show circuit. They are often called "prodigies," and certainly they are "highly talented children," as my dictionary defines the word. But crack memorization skills and intelligence are different things. Intelligence is "ability to learn and understand or deal with new or trying situations." It's a difference which is occasionally disconcerting. I remember watching one little girl on Oprah who had memorized a large number of quotations. She had memorized all of them in the form of quote, and then the name of the person who said it. She stuck to this format even in situations where it made no sense. Oprah said she heard the girl had memorized one of her quotes on something, and the little girl recited it back, and then said "Oprah Winfrey" as if the woman had not just asked her the question. This is the same skill that helps people win spelling bees.
ABC News interviewed Carol Dweck, the Stanford University psychology professor who studies child development, for some perspective on the phenomenon. "Children come wired to make these associations to learn," Dweck said. These kids' skills are impressive and unusual, but "it's not what you would call a prodigy. A prodigy is someone who has a deep precocious understanding of something — of numbers, words, music. They think in new ways, invent things." Or as ABC News puts it, "A true prodigy is someone like Picasso or Mozart who was composing by age 5, or Tiger Woods who shot a 48 on a nine-hole course by the age of 2."
It's all semantics, but there is a reason I'm always a little worried when I see these kids on television shows. Memorization is not a particularly useful skill, long-term, and if people think that's what gifted children are able to do differently, then it doesn't make a great case for giving gifted children the interventions they need. Most of the kids trotted out on TV shows probably are highly gifted, but their prodigious memorization is not necessarily the best evidence of that. It's simply the most obvious "cool" trick anyone can understand.