Posted tagged ‘learning by rote’

In memoriam

May 11, 2011

If you were to ask me whether I applaud the key learning methodology of many school examinations – learning by rote – I would argue strongly that it is counter-productive and dangerous and doesn’t prepare students for what will happen in higher education. On the other hand, if you ask me whether students should be encouraged to memorise some things, I would immediately say yes. Contradiction? Perhaps, but in the end it is about using the right methods for the appropriate processes.

The key pedagogical requirement for the transition from secondary school to university is understanding. At this stage of the educational journey students need to become familiar with critical analysis and judgement, and this is not something you achieve if you treat all knowledge as being about repeating facts and data that have been presented to you. In this frame of reference even opinion and analysis become data, and no intellectual insight is gained.

On the other hand, education needs to be founded on knowledge, and I have never doubted that this will involve some learning of basic facts. I am horrified, for example, when the task of multiplying 6 by 7 prompts people to take out a calculator; or when someone indicates they have no idea in which century the first world war was fought; or when nobody is able to recite even part of one poem. In fact, when I was recently talking to a group of young people they suggested that learning by rote was discouraged at the start of the educational experience, when in fact it could do a lot of good, but encouraged towards the end of their time at school when its use is much more questionable. So are we doing this the wrong way round?

It is interesting that the subject is now getting some wider attention. In this article on the BBC’s news website the writer suggests that learning by rote is making a comeback, and that it is recognised that in certain jobs and professions – for example, acting or being a London taxi driver – such skills are important. But it is equally important just for the purposes of navigating ourselves through life, where the ability to recall facts and figures is often extremely useful.

There is currently a view held by a number of influential people that many young people don’t have these skills. A year or two ago some senior business leaders in Ireland suggested that students coming out of the educational system were often seriously illiterate and innumerate, and it has recently been reported that similar views are held by British businesspeople. Even if this were wrong, the fact that this is a widely held perception is itself damaging and requires some corrective action.

All in all, this is another example of the need to look more carefully at how we plan the educational experience; and an example of how often we get it wrong.

Learning by rote

July 31, 2008

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.