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.

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6 Comments on “The progression of learning”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    “Horses for Courses”. Learning a language (and other things) is about rote acquisition of a core vocabulary then an appreciation of the grammar and finally (creatively) insight into what a different culture’s perspective brings to the party; not necessarily in that order. In this modern system where 50% go to university there is bound to be an appreciation that students will arrive with different learning approaches, the job of schools, now many jobs require degrees, is to get as many candidates as possible to the next stage. And be fair, Mr P, clearly until last week or so when a nod and a wink moved the goal posts at the important C grade border line the English system was doing year on year a better and better job – so much so that it had become a national disgrace the annual media student bashing where hardworking students had the shine taken off their hard work by professional grumblers. (A bit like that Mr Oscar P was ungracious at coming second at the Olympics today).

    The character of old age, and the role of the Daily Mail, is to aggressively shout, parent at a football match style, “left hand down a tiny bit more”; and at a race course this would be appropriate because no jockey or indeed anyone is really listening. However, the internet makes it easy to be heard and there should be more appreciation of hard work as demonstrated and lauded over this summer in East London and all points Olympic.

  2. Vince Says:

    I don’t get how people can argue against. To me it’s so basic. So basic in fact that one would wonder if there isn’t a nasty little agenda behind it.
    I grew up hearing about breeding as a background hum. This was used to explain why so and so was where they were in the social stratigraphy. But the reality had nothing to do with genes, breeding or what have you. And all to do with a good diet. This resistance to clear data has all the flavour of that type of attitude.

  3. James Fryar Says:

    I don’t think anyone can really disagree with anything you’ve written. Rote learning is important – there’s no experiment students in secondary school can do that’ll prove the earth is the third planet from the sun and is 4.6 billion years old. So rote learning is important in laying foundations of understanding.

    What I have long considered to be the only option is to abolish State examinations altogether. As the old saying goes, you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it all the time. I think our secondary schools should adopt a system similar to our universities – teachers should be responsible for the curriculum they teach, the assessment methods they use and the pedagogical approaches they employ. We should expect (and pay) teachers to undergo additional training, to learn new pedagogical approaches, disseminate what has and has not worked, to continually evaluate the literature and adapt and modify what they do. When they set exams, I see no reason why these cannot go to external reviewers; for example, a group of 10 schools in Dublin that swap exam papers and make recommendations. In other words, we let teachers decide what to teach with input from other teachers, the universities, and interested parties.

    This only seems a problem if you use State examinations to determine who gets into college. I see no reason why universities cannot adopt their own ‘entry’ process much like the SATs in the US. So, students do courses set by their schools and teachers, and if they want to go to college, do a standardised test and include the results they got from their school. This is, in effect, the system in operation in Scandanavian countries and it seems to work well there.

    The only reason we persist with ‘State exams’ is to provide a metric for government, and that metric is clearly broken.

  4. litljortindan Says:

    I think basic algebra has been a problem in the past but hopefully less so more recently. At least it is recognised as being important in this curriculum for excellence document (p189):
    http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/images/all_experiences_outcomes_tcm4-539562.pdf
    If someone couldn’t tell me what 7×9 is from memory I’d ask them instead what 7(10-1) is.

  5. Colum McCaffery Says:

    I am approaching a position that primary school’s purpose is to make it possible for a child to become a citizen. Yes, a citizen! It’s as basic as that. It simply is not possible to participate in any meaningful sense without literacy, numeracy and some general knowledge. Certainly without these there is no point in starting secondary education – and don’t get me started on university students who are borderline illiterate, cannot cope with material which involves maths and science, and have insufficient general knowledge to make the best of higher education.

  6. Rona Chisholm Says:

    Curriculum for Excellence V rote learning – we will see (in Scotland that is)


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