Learning by rote

I believe I am about to say something heretical, so please do not be alarmed. But I have to confess that whenever someone speaks dismissively about learning by rote – as happens all the time – I feel uneasy. On the one hand, like pretty well everyone else I believe strongly that learning is something much more, and much more important, than just acquiring data and facts. New pedagogical methods offer much richer insights to students than would have been available in the past.

But on the other hand, data and facts also matter. For example, I am always truly amazed when, in some meeting or other, it becomes necessary to determine the answer to 7 x 8, and everyone reaches for their calculators. And how many people these days can recite literary or poetry quotes from memory? And recently I asked a small group who were in discussion with me what the dates were of the First World War – and nobody could answer correctly.

It seems to me that education is about understanding and appreciating, but also about learning. Learning is greatly facilitated by the development of memory, and having at one’s immediate disposal a good selection of key facts is a vital tool in the development of judgement and decision-making.

By the time I was 13 years old I could at will (and I still can) recite the main arithmetic tables, I could recite from memory some 150 or so poems, and I knew a large number of dates in history. And I can say that I still use a good deal of this knowledge in my daily life and work.

Maybe I’m just a traditionalist fuddy-duddy, but I strongly believe that we are failing to educate and train young people today if we are not giving them the opportunity to acquire these skills. Access to the internet and other sources of information is great, but it is not a substitute for knowledge that we hold ourselves and that we can use as needed.

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4 Comments on “Learning by rote”

  1. I agree with you, I feel that educators should not throw out learning by rote from their teacher toolbox. Like you, I learned my multiplication facts, poems, scriptures using rote memorization and to this day, I still know ALL of my mulitiplication facts and I can remember most of the poems if I can glance at it first.

    My pet peeve about education is when we learn a new way of teaching an objective, we like to throw out all of the previous methods as if they were never effective. There is nothing worse then being told that you have to teach a particular objective ONE WAY to all 30 students in your classroom. Each child is an individual and unique, so some of all best teachers use methods that tap into the various learning styles of each of their students. Learning my rote can fit into the auditory learner’s learning style.

    Therefore learning by rote has it’s place in the classroom if used in an effective manner and you have data to support it’s effectiveness.

  2. Jilly Says:

    I agree too, at least up to a point. Some of the knowledge I find most lacking in current groups of undergraduates is material I wouldn’t regard as having been consciously ‘learnt’ (by rote or otherwise). The example given in this post of the dates of WWI is exactly this kind of knowledge, which for lack of a better term I think of as ‘general knowledge’.

    Multiplication tables (which I certainly learnt by rote and still know) aren’t a feature of my academic discipline, but general historical, social and cultural knowledge is. I’m really worried when I realise that if I make a passing reference to the French Revolution or the American Civil War, most undergraduates don’t know which century I’m referring to, let alone specific dates. I don’t recall ever ‘learning’ this information myself: I just picked it up as a byproduct of things I read or heard. I do wonder why this isn’t happening anymore. There are of course many honorable exceptions among students – I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise – but the majority no longer seem to have the frame of reference which would once have been considered the norm among university-level students, no matter what specific subject they were studying.

  3. universitydiary Says:

    Jilly, I think the issues are connected. The problem emerged when doubt began to be cast on the value of ‘facts’ in learning. The education I went through was largely fact-oriented. History was dates, literature and poetry was words, mathematics was numbers. You dealt with these by learning them and then knowing them. But then suddenly, facts were irrelevant or even oppressive, and students were encouraged to understand forms of thinking and influences of culture and so forth.

    What seems to me to be a no-brainer is that both kinds of learning are needed. When I come across a student (as I did recently) who can give me detailed views on the cultural influences of Elizabethan England but who could not even hazard a guess at what century he was referring to (under pressure from me he plonked for the 18th) I know something had gone wrong.

    There have been some curriculum reforms of late, but they have gone nowhere near far enough to restoring the idea that knowledge needs to be acquired before it can be analysed.

  4. Piaras Kelly Says:

    My two cents. I spent two weeks teaching street kids in Calcutta over ten years ago. One day I had to work with one of the kids on her maths. I asked her questions like what’s 6 x 7 and she would sing her way though the times tables, but it was obvious that she had effectively learned a song and couldn’t work out 6 x 78 without working her way through 6 x 1, 6 x 2, 6 x 3, etc. Obviously education needs structure, but reading some of Edward De Bono’s books now late into my twenties I feel that I didn’t get as comprehensive an education as I should have. Learning by rote has its benefits, but like any system it needs to evolve.

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