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.