How We Learned to Stop Struggling with Memorization and Love YouTube

Monday last week, my 4th grader came home from school uncharacteristically cheerful. She could not wait to tell me that she was maybe the smartest kid in class that day because she knew an answer even the teacher had to look up to confirm. She is unaccustomed to being the one with the answers. “Even the always really smart kids didn’t know it,” she told us proudly. She went on to explain that they were writing down definitions for that week’s vocabulary list when they came to the word, velocity. She informed the class and teacher that velocity is speed in a particular direction. The actual physics definition is closer to, The time rate of change of position of a body in a specified direction. But hers was a perfect 4th grade interpretation, per her teacher, after he consulted the dictionary. How did she know this information, he wondered. She informed him that it was from a song. This song:

Like many of you, I grew up learning through music I heard on television: letter sounds and counting with Sesame Street monsters, spelling on The Electric Company, and the Preamble to the Constitution from Schoolhouse Rock. Thanks to YouTube, our children can listen to the same songs we heard between Saturday morning cartoons. But things have come a long way since then. For this generation, there are a plethora of educational songs that cover much more advanced subject matter with music that sounds more like a Bruno Mars or Katy Perry tune.

In my family, we have a favorite collection of catchy (and secretly educational) music: Here Comes Science, the 2010 CD from They Might be Giants. It is also the one that made my daughter the smart kid in class. This is our (including the college-aged kids’) favorite song from the album.

Followers of the largely underground Botany music scene will love this classic accordion waltz from their earlier and highly acclaimed, Here Come the ABCs.

While these songs are definitely catchy and informative, there are many more out there with the singular purpose of helping students remember specific information.

They Might be Giants, as well as a new YouTube-based duo, AsapSCIENCE, tackle Chemistry. Put these two videos together and you have a fairly decent introduction to the organization of the periodic table, properties of many of the elements, and the concept of electron shells.

The educational website WORDPIE has a series of videos whose aim is to teach Spanish more efficiently. Each of them contains 100 vocabulary words put to music with corresponding animated pictures. They have playlists for learning French, Japanese, and Chinese as well, although we found the Japanese and Chinese went too fast for us.

And of course grammar. There are innumerable videos about nouns, verbs, and the like, but Learning Upgrade definitely tackles a more advanced study of pronouns than Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla did on Schoolhouse Rock in the 1970s. My kids say the music in this relative pronouns song drives them crazy, but they remember what these more obscure parts of speech are and how to use them.

No other subject has more song choices to help with memorization than multiplication facts. My daughter finally got her’s down thanks to this song. She still hums it while playing school with her American Girl Dolls.

Even history, with all those names and dates to remember, has its share of helpful tunes. My son’s girlfriend admitted to listening to this song repeatedly the week before the AP US History Exam. She claims there was enough trivia about each president to spark her memory about some of their bigger, more important contributions. She did get a 5.

I don’t recommend throwing away all of your textbooks, nor do I suggest that endless music video viewing will give everyone a 5 on their AP exams. However, the next time your student is struggling to memorize a topic; your junior is cramming for the AP Chemistry Exam, or your third grader just can not remember her 8s multiplication tables, try taking a break from the struggle. Have them put down the flash cards for a little while, sit back, and listen to some music.

-By Sonja-