Fifth grade needs both critical-thinking and memorization

By: Elsa Chu and Lydia Zhang

In the game show, “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader,” adult contestants go head-to-head with fifth graders to answer questions that they may have long forgotten, like “What is the lifespan of a trout?” The reason why the show is an entertaining success and why the adults generally do poorly is that the questions are based purely on facts that aren’t essential to adults’ everyday lives and jobs.

This begs the question: why do fifth graders need to spend a year learning facts that they will forget later anyway? Many would argue that these memorization-based questions are pointless, and that only problem-solving skills and logic-based learning are useful for real life applications. Still, despite the fact that high school students and adults tend to forget the things they learned in elementary school, as shown with The Oracle’s administered quiz, without the study habits that are made through the repetitive learning of facts, students could never develop the critical thinking skills essential to real life. Thus, an integration of both sets of skills are what leads to success for elementary school students in later years.
Due to the recently changed California standards for grade school curriculum, Barron Park Elementary School teacher Larry Wong had to alter his program for his fifth-grade students, giving more study time in the classroom and less time for hands-on, interactive activities that simulate real-world critical thinking such as a mock archaeological dig or an explorer’s quest around the school. While the loss of these activities take away from the “fun” of grade school, the increased time given to studying benefits the skill sets that students will use in the future.

The skills necessary to memorize and retain facts are essential in high school, college and many careers. In fields of study such as history, science and languages, memorizing certain key facts and concepts are needed to grasp the entirety of the subject.

The facts themselves, as Wong points out, are forgotten quickly if they are not constantly and directly applied to the learning material at hand. In this day and age, the state capitals can be looked up on the Internet at the touch of a button on a phone. Fifth graders do not usually read or watch the news, and therefore have no need for the facts they spend so much time memorizing.

Thus, it is not so much the information that fifth graders learn that is important, but the ability to absorb and retain information quickly and efficiently, a skill that is necessary for success in the future. Without the study habits that fifth graders are able to develop early on through memorization of these “pointless facts,” the students could never succeed in the modern educational system.

Because of new federal programs, the elementary school required subjects now place a larger emphasis on math and English. This change was instilled to prepare young students for big tests in middle school and high school, and disregards subjects such as music or art, which are associated with developing critical thinking abilities.

Yet, the very subjects they are choosing to cut back on can be key in helping the students do better overall. For example, music incorporates memorization in problem-solving, since learning the notes is necessary for students to decipher rhythm and melody. This integration is an example of the kinds of changes that are needed in the fifth-grade classroom. The idea of incorporating both skill sets into one activity can be directly  applied to more significant subjects. For example, in math, knowing basic multiplication tables is a fundamental step to solving more complex questions.
As with most issues involving education, people come to compromises in the hopes that it will offer the best foundation for the future generation. A mix and balance of problem-solving and memorization skills are what is needed for the success, and happiness, of fifth grade students.

This balance will allow students to develop both skills equally, but implementing both sets of abilities in one, hopefully fun activity, as music does, provides for even greater expansion of cognitive skills. “As teachers, we need to look ahead by continuing to teach students basic skills that will prepare them for the future, but also teach them critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and how to use available resources to find answers to problems,” Wong said.