Friday, October 19, 2007

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.

12 comments:

Laura Vanderkam said...

By the way, I will be away from my computer and won't be posting for the next week or so. Thanks for stopping by Gifted Exchange!

Anonymous said...

Sad really... often, the parents of these kids spend tons of time getting them to memorize random stuff so that they can show them off. What they really need to spend time doing in fostering their sense of curiosity and creativity.

Anonymous said...

Is that really true? As a kid, I loved to memorize stuff. I was wild for it! It was something *I* wanted to spend my time doing. I memorized all kinds of stuff--50 digits of pi, states and capitals, presidents, etc. Certainly, I did get praise from adults for doing this, but they were not suggesting that I memorize anything. I also had one of those Simon games and would play it all the time in single player mode. It could only go up to a sequence of 99, but I was fascinated by it.

Anonymous said...

I’m not sure if anonymous #1 really KNOWS what she/he is talking about. My highly gifted son memorized the presidents in order of service when he was five. I had nothing to do with it. It was something he learned at pre-school. I believe he was the only one in his class who actually learned the list, and he has never forgotten it. He also remembers songs, poems, and commercials verbatim just from casual exposure. Laura is correct in that it is only a cool parlor trick. But, it usually accompanies the type of giftedness that people don’t want to acknowledge. Umm, they are smarter than the rest of us.

Bharathy said...

In my opinion memory is something you can easily display and may or may not be a result of rote learning.My older one, although blessed with an incredible memory does not learn anything by rote.He was able to read by 2 and absorb facts.My younger one,soon to turn 4 is able to recite poems by Wordworth and Frost simply on hearing them a couple of times without making an effort to memorize them.Although I am impressed by the recall, I am more fascinated by his understanding of the poem rather than by the recitation. I do not believe in wasting time and energy in pushing these kids to display their memory.I would rather that they expend their energy doing something creative or in satisfying their curiousity.Memory when coupled with intelligence and reasoning abilities is a powerful combination and does indeed separate the wheat from the chaff.

Cranberry said...

Memorization is essential for many professional occupations, and many academic disciplines. Doctors, lawyers, researchers, historians, etc. need to have a large body of knowledge at their mental fingertips.

Simply because one can use memorization for parlor tricks does not mean that one can do without it.

Anonymous said...

Separates the wheat from the chaff? Seriously? Your using this analogy to describe the differences between childrens' abilities. Please think about what you are saying and implying.

k-man said...

Memorizing broadly random, trivial, or useless things is similar to being able to replicate what someone else does: it is more often than not the mark of an idiot savant. It usually does not demonstrate giftedness.

Think of the obviously retarded banjo player in the movie Deliverance who could play a tune exactly as a lead player did ("Dueling Banjos"). That guy is an example of an idiot savant. Memorization is often akin to this.

Anonymous said...

I've had the same reaction to the talk show kids and it bothers me when people see memory as the best proof of intelligence in kids. That said, one of the earlier signs of our child's profound giftedness was his memory. It wasn't just that he could memorize information but it was that without intending to he did.

beartoes said...

That was amazing about tiger and shooting a 48 on nine holes by age 2. Personally, I don't believe that is really possible. Not at 2. I play the game and just can't believe it. Now is he a great golfer or should I say the greatest golfer. I give him all the credit that he deserves. He is truly amazing. Watching little kids and how to memorize things better and the way they go about it is fascinating.

Anonymous said...

It appears that he shot the 48 at age 3 (see IMDb http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0971329/bio )

Still amazing!

Evan Adams said...

I would remind the people saying that memorisation has nothing to do with intelligence of the following things: 1. You have to actually care about something to be able to memorise it for any length of time. That level of caring about information is a sign of intelligence. 2. The more information you have in your head, the more readily you can cross-apply things from different contexts. Wanting to be able to do that is a sign of intelligence. 3. Being able to memorise information, especially without much effort, usually relies on being able to attach that information to other things. Being able to make those connections is a sign of intelligence.