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Repeat After Me – Rote Learning And Parroting Facts Are Not The Same Thing

The usefulness of rote learning in acquiring knowledge expertise shouldn't be underestimated, says David Didau...

  • Repeat After Me – Rote Learning And Parroting Facts Are Not The Same Thing

These days it’s rare indeed for children to be taught much by rote – or, to use a less pejorative term, by heart.

Rote remains a much maligned and neglected method of instruction. Certain ways of thinking about education are so ingrained that they become understood increasingly literally and separately from the complexity of ideas that originally gave them meaning.

We don’t even consider whether rote learning might sometimes be an effective tool. We know, deep in our hearts, that it’s an unnatural instrument of evil, born in some bleak Gradgrindian hell-hole, perpetrated on children in order to crush their eager little spirits. Anything so unnatural, so unpleasant and laborious is clearly anathema to the aims of modern education.

Learning things by rote can certainly lead to some humorous mistakes. Consider the student who wrote in his science book ‘Three kinds of blood vessels are arteries, vanes, and caterpillars.

He’s clearly been made to parrot the facts but has confused the sounds. ‘Vanes’ just results in a spelling error, but ‘caterpillars’ shows he has no real understanding of the information he’s ‘learnt’. Obviously no one sees this as being desirable, which has in turn led to the unthinking, wholesale rejection of learning by heart.

Only natural

Learning things by heart is something we do automatically, especially as very young children. It comes naturally whether we’re recalling the words to nursery rhymes, or reeling off stories word for word before we can read. And when we’re interested in information, remembering becomes much easier.

It’s probably useful to draw a distinction between rote learning and ‘inflexible knowledge’. What we ultimately want is for students to have a flexible understanding that can be applied to a wide variety of new situations, but this is unlikely to happen by magic. Inflexibility, it turns out, is a necessary stepping-stone to expertise.

So what’s the difference? Think about Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. If you attempt to memorise it without ever encountering it before, then your understanding is likely to be pretty superficial. For instance, you may be able to pick the right answer to the following question:

Which of these descriptions best fits Hamlet’s state of mind?
a) He’s excited at the possibilities life offers
b) He’s considering suicide
c) He worried about what might happen after his death

However, this doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily feel confident about writing an in-depth essay analysing Hamlet’s state of mind. The ability to answer the question above is an example of inflexible knowledge.

Inflexibility isn’t bad, it’s just limited. While you can demonstrate some superficial understanding, you probably won’t be able to see the deep structure. Perceiving deep structure allows us to transcend specific examples and see the connections between different examples. In this case, you could compare Hamlet’s soliloquy with different examples from other Shakespeare plays, or see how this speech fits into Hamlet as a whole.

No rush

The obvious solution would seem to be encouraging students to think about content in deeper, more abstract terms, so that they will be better able to generalise what they learn to new contexts.

Regrettably, however, this doesn’t work. Since students have yet to pass through the thresholds that lead to expertise, any attempt to shortcut the process is only likely to lead to inflexibility. We can’t expect them to see deep structures until they’ve amassed sufficient expertise in the shallows. They need to learn the concrete before they can generalise to the abstract.

We all want our students to have a fluent understanding of the subjects we teach, but we have to be patient. If we want students to have an insight, simply explaining what the insight is ‘meant to be’ will prevent them from seeing it for themselves.

Instead, we can tell them as much about the surface features of problem as we can and wait for them join our dots. Feeling frustrated that children have memorised their times tables but are unable to do long division is daft. As they learn more facts, see more examples and get more practice, they will slowly but surely move towards an expert’s understanding of the subject.

Oh, and if you’re of the belief that ‘You can just Google it’ – be aware that knowing where to go to find whatever it is you need to know is thin gruel indeed, and not at all the same as actually knowing something. Information is inert, but knowledge requires a mind to bring it into life.

Rote for luck

Here are some other reasons to learn something by heart

• The challenge of memorising stuff, whether it’s a Shakespeare sonnet or the 7 times table, can be an enjoyable one
• We become better at retaining information through the practice of trying to retain it
• We notice details we would otherwise miss
• Multiple readings or viewings might help us better understand the material we’re learning
• Committing something to memory means we’ll always have it with us, without the need to look it up

David Didau is based at Swindon Academy as an in-house consultant. He blogs at www.learningspy.co.u and is the author of several books, including What If Everything you Know About Education Is Wrong?; you can follow him at @LearningSpy

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