The progression of learning
Some weeks ago I was attending a workshop on secondary education, in the course of which I expressed my concerns that the learning methods encouraged and used in order to prepare students for final school examinations (‘A’ Levels, Leaving Certificate, Highers) were wholly at odds with the higher education approach to scholarship: that schools were teaching students to behave in ways that were pedagogically suspect and would harm them when at university. One of my complaints was that students were encouraged to adopt rote learning methods.
In the course of the same workshop during an open discussion session it became necessary, for reasons I won’t bother you with here, to multiply 7 by 9. As various hands reached for calculators or calculator apps on mobile phones, I expressed astonishment that everyone could not just say immediately from memory that the answer was 63. ‘Ah’, said one bright spark, ‘but you just told us that rote learning was bad.’ Well, I replied, I never suggested that it was unnecessary for people to learn and memorise certain key facts; it is just that as education progresses you need to move from basic knowledge accumulation to analysis and intellectual creativity. But if you know nothing, you won’t be much good at analysing anything. Now what we appear to have far too often is that the basic building blocks of knowledge are not implanted in young minds, while later in the education cycle far more arguable propositions are presented as ‘facts’ to be memorised for subsequent regurgitation in exams. And that is the wrong way round.
Far too often now I come across people educated in the period, say, between 1975 and 2000 who know very little or even nothing of what I would regard as elementary aspects of history, geography, mathematics or science; or whose knowledge of language is amazingly insecure. Often these people leave higher education and enter employment, where their employers then blame universities (mostly unfairly) for failing to educate them satisfactorily.
All of this has become a matter of discussion and dispute in the wider educational debate. In England the Schools Minister has recently suggested that there should be some return to rote learning to ensure that students acquire and retain basic mathematical skills in particular. In other contexts I am not, as I have expressed here before, a fan of the English government’s education policy, but here the Minister may be right. He has been criticised by the National Union of Teachers, but he should stand firm. It is time to re-establish a much better understanding of pedagogy and learning.