Memorization As A Tool To Support Cognitive Independence

Supporting Cognitive Independence With Memorization

contributed by Heather Tomlin

Updated February 2024

Paolo Freire coined the term ‘banking education‘ in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1983).

As I recall, this term refers to the type of education that those of lower socioeconomic status typically receive–teacher-centered content, lecture, and rote memorization.

What Is Cognitive Independence?

Cognitive independence refers to an individual’s ability to think, reason, and make decisions autonomously. This concept involves the development of critical thinking skills that allow a person to critically evaluate information, arguments, and evidence.

Cognitive independence encompasses the capacity to engage in reflective and independent thought processes, leading to self-directed learning and problem-solving. It is crucial for personal growth, academic success, and professional development, enabling individuals to navigate complex situations and challenges confidently and creatively.

Each time a teacher meets with students, the teacher deposits their minds (the bank). This pedagogical technique does not help students develop critical thinking skills, such as learning how to read texts deeply. Instead, it teaches students to accept information provided by authority figures without question and store it for later use. Students become ‘productive’ members of society by producing what those in power want and perpetuating the status quo.

Confidence And Critical Thinking

As a youth, I was educated in an urban environment. I come from a working-class family. I was educated in the public schools of a large metropolitan area. Until I reached high school, my educational experience was poor at best. I was saved from ‘banking education’ by the teachers in high school, asked to think for myself, and told that I would get nowhere in life without being able to do so.

It took many years after high school to feel confident in my critical thinking ability, but the process started back then. Looking to the teacher or other authority figures for answers was so ingrained in my psyche that it was a watershed moment for me when I realized I was a puppet for some people in my life. I remember the moment vividly. My college mentor turned to me in his office and asked, “When are you going to grow up and start thinking for yourself, Heather!” His face was red with the effort he put into imploring me to stop letting others control me. He was not upset with my performance in class; he was upset with recent decisions that showed I could not make decisions for myself.

See also Best Way To Learn Multiplication Tables

Situations like the one described above are why Freire railed against ‘banking education.’ In my opinion, he felt that those who practiced such pedagogical techniques exercised ultimate control over other human beings by controlling their thoughts. I could not agree more. My moment with my mentor hurt, sure, but it was also the moment that I allowed myself to put into practice those skills I had seen others practice. If I were to continue along the path of the ever-obedient, I would become an advocate of anything but ‘banking education’ practices.

I believe ‘banking education’ is a pedagogical style worth exploring–but as a set of tools, not a philosophy. Placed in the hands of highly qualified teachers, the tools can be used well to help students learn the skills and content they need to develop critical thinking skills. We cannot run from practices that have been in place for years simply because we found out that those using the tools had poor intentions (or were simply following orders).

Put another way, we cannot blame the tools.

Rote Memorization

There are some things that we should memorize, like our multiplication tables and the list of prepositions. A friend said it best when she said, “Now, I don’t have to think about those things at all and can get on with the task at hand.” She said this in front of a class, and the kids were unconvinced, but I was. I had been forced to memorize those things, too, and am grateful for it. If I had to use my fingers to figure out 9×7 all the time, I think I would go crazy, but that is how some students are taught their multiplication tables today – with charts and a nifty neato method for anything times nine. Why are we wasting their time? Just ask them to memorize the multiplication facts!

Ask them to memorize the prepositions, the Gettysburg Address, important dates in our history, a sonnet by Shakespeare, a Native American prayer, most frequently misused words, and the rules for how to use them properly, and a host of other important information every educated person should know. It is not for me to list all the important information here; I am not the authority. We cannot forego using rote memorization just because some teachers have misused the tool. We need to use the tool correctly to help students put things in their mental toolkit that they can easily retrieve.


I hate lectures. They are boring. To retain the information I learned in lectures in college, I often carried a recorder with me so I could listen to the lectures later and type the information word-for-word, stopping when I needed to process something I did not understand. It was ingrained in me to accept that I was to be a passive recipient of information and I often felt inadequate because I could not be that vessel into which a teacher dropped his or her wealth of knowledge. I was not a good parrot and realize now that my subconscious was screaming at me not to accept everything the teacher said as the absolute truth. I tried, though, and worked harder than most of my friends.

The lecture, as a tool, is not a technique that should be immediately discarded, however. Again, the problem is not with the tool, but how it is used. In K-12 classrooms, teachers use lectures correctly – to provide information students need to know before they can read a text, practice a concept, or experiment. In higher education, however, lectures are still used for large classes as the main information-gathering mode.

Using the ‘Banking Education’ Tools as Step One

If we use rote memorization and lectures as part of step one in any unit, then we use them correctly.

We are advocating against educational methods that are not democratic and for methods that allow students to flourish.

We are helping them collect the necessary tools and how to use them almost instinctively.

I leave you with a portion of one of my favorite poems and ask if you agree that Taylor Mali knows what it takes to truly educate another human being. I think he does.

Taylor Mali (2002) wrote in What Teachers Make:

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.


Freire, P. (1983). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: The Continuum International Publishing Group.

Mali. Taylor. “What Teachers Make.” What Learning Leaves. Newtown, CT: Hanover Press, 2002. Print. (ISBN: 1-­?887012-­?17-­?6)

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