A return to rote?

There has been much discussion of late, about the merits (or otherwise) of rote learning. Michael Gove has announced that this forms the basis of some of his new NC visions, but there are many detractors of it.

In response to Gove’s announcement, a collection of 100 academics wrote a combined letter to the Telegraph, condeming his stance. Graeme Paton (for the Telegraph) has written about this here. Unfortunately I can’t find a link to the actual letter – I’ll edit and add this in if I do.

Generally, rote learning is seen as archaic, a product of a Victorian education system that stifled the individual. This is why ‘modern’ educational theorists have tried to distance themselves from it as much as possible – and have ended up heading in completely the opposite direction. But there are certain things we HAVE to learn by rote, that is, we can only learn them by repetition and an exertion to commit them to memory, because we cannot learn them simply by experiencing them.

Consider small children at home. We tell them not to play with matches, not to put their hands in a hot oven, to stay clear of deep water, and so on. We have to tell them this, and repeat it until they understand and can recall the advice for themselves, otherwise we risk exposing them to harm and injury. Rote learning can be good for us. But the academics will not have it. Harry Mount has written a good response to this in the Telegraph. It’s worth reading, whether you believe that rote learning is wrong or not, see how others view it.

The two views are essentially at opposite ends of the pH scale, and it’s important to remember that a strong alkaline can be as dangerous as a strong acid.

Natuarally this has promted a discussion on the TES website (Harry Mount thinks rote learning of facts an essential prerequisite to critical analysis. Is he right?), to which I felt compelled to add a post…

Rote learning is an abomination.

The academics are right, it stifles creativity and turns children away from learning.

We should ban its use throughout the curriculum and instead focus on getting children to gain knowledge through their own learning journey.The quality of knowledge young people have will be greater and deeper, and will lead to a world full of more interesting possibilities. Sadly, at the moment there are deeply entrenched pockets of rote learning that it is imperative we dispense with in order to fully realise the points mentioned above.

The first section of rote learning we should do away with is the use of phonics instruction. Here, very small children are shown phonemes and instructed as to the sound they make. This is ridiculous, they should be given the freedom to interpret these symbols in their own time. In the meantime, let them be free to express themselves in the way which they feel is best.

Secondly, we should not teach writing by rote – again, children should be encouraged to hold a writing implement as they see fit, and to use that to make any marks they feel representative of what they are trying to communicate. Over time they will find out the ones that other people can use and interpret, and will adapt and refine their own accordingly.

Thirdly, we should not teach the Alphabet by repetition. Again, let children discover this for themselves. It is meaningless until they have ascribed sounds to letters through their own discovery, anyway.

Fourth, we should not teach ‘facts’ in maths. This is one subject where children will only truly learn if they are able to explore and interpret for themselves. We must not limit childrens freedm of expression by making them repeat counting to ten, or twenty, or number bonds to ten or twenty. Given time, and their own inclination they will, again, discover this for themselves. We must be careful, also not to make children repeatedly count items under instruction as this is again, another form of rote learning. It is better to leave them to come to their own conclusion as to what ‘3’ looks like – we must not instil in them that 3 = * * * as this may well put them off a career in accountancy later on. Better to let them come to their own conclusions.

By extension, we should not therefore teach children that 10mm = 1cm. They need to discover this for themselves. The conversion of pennies to pounds is something they can work out through trial and error  and the weekly shop with two sacks of 1p coins.

Finally, the demotivating qualities of rote learning should not be considered solely in the context of school based learning. In our wider life we are guilty of imposing rote learning on children – consider the Green Cross Code; the instruction not to put fingers into a live socket; the dangers of walking on thin ice on a river; the consequences of taking drugs; the need to be sober when driving…..

All of the above are better learned by experience rather than rote. After all, if it kills them, they’ll have learnt a valuable lesson….

(And my tongue?  Most firmly in my cheek….!)

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