What every teacher needs to know about… rote learning

As per, here’s this month’s Teach Secondary column for you delight and edification.

These days it is 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 is 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, unpleasant and laborious is clearly anathema to the aims of modern education.

One common mistake is to see rote learning as a brute force attempt to inscribe knowledge through repetition. Obviously, you can take this approach and it can work, but you certainly don’t have to. Memorisation can better be achieved through distributed practice and low-stakes testing as well as the ancient memory technique known as the method of the loci.

Learning by rote can certainly lead to some humorous mistakes. Consider the student who wrote in his science book, “There are three kinds of blood vessels are arteries, vanes, and caterpillars.” Clearly he’s been made to parrot the facts, but has confused the sounds. In the case of ‘vanes’ this 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 desirable – which has led to the unthinking, wholesale rejection of memorisation.

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 o 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?

  1. He’s excited at the possibilities life offers.
  2. He’s considering suicide.
  3. He’s worried about what might happen after his death.

However, this doesn’t mean you will necessarily feel confident about writing an essay analysing Hamlet’s state of mind in depth. 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 this soliloquy with other examples from Shakespeare’s plays, or see how this speech fits into the play as a whole).

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, this doesn’t work. Because 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.

So, although we all want our students to have a fluent understanding of the subjects we teach, we have to be patient. If we want students to have an insight, simply explaining what the insight is ‘meant to be’ prevents 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.

And just in case you still believe ‘you can just Google it’, 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.

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 challenge.
  • 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.

13 Responses to What every teacher needs to know about… rote learning

  1. Alex says:

    If you take the 7 times table as an example, assuming that it best they know it off by heart, what is the best method in your opinion that they go about doing that?

    would it be to practice lots of questions e.g. 7 x 2 = , 7 x 5 = , 7 x 1 = and so on..
    or would it be more of a chant style
    e.g. 7,14,21,28, etc….
    or is there a better way than either?

  2. Howard Scott says:

    I think ‘we notice details we would otherwise miss’ seems a bit of an assumption. Trying to apply this to English, my subject. Does memorising the words of a poem mean we notice the details (the technique, say, in its prose). Very doubtful, IMHO.

    I’m also curios why memorising “might help us better understand the material we’re learning”. It might, yes. It might not.
    Again, applied to a poem, an understanding of a poem would probably be enriched by an understanding of the context of writing, of historical significance, of the author’s biography, their beliefs, their habitus…the poem itself, then, is just an aspect of a larger illustration. For what purpose should I emphasise my students learn it line by line? I’d rather visit the scene of a poem to teach it’s significance to a student. I can’t recite dozens of poems, and I’m convinced it’s pleasurable to do so, but I know the lives of poets and those contexts in depth.

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks Howard. You’re right of course that learning a poem by heart is not sufficient to understand its wider significance, but just knowing the context and not being able to draw to mind the poem is equally impoverishing. I’m not at all suggesting that learning by heart should replace other kinds of learning, just that It’s curious that we’ve privileged one kind of knowledge over another.

      • Howard Scott says:

        Thanks for replying. It’s interesting that you should say ‘draw the poem to mind’. For me, I have a better engagement with words and ideas within them if I treat them visually (bear with me, I’m not going to drone on about Learning Styles).
        What I mean is, I can interrogate the words and see their panoramic construct in relation to one another far better than recalling the order internally. I will have a more sustained reflection of them if they are a visible, concrete artifact than an abstract. If drawing from my mind, I think I’d still have to write them down to give them the status of “a poem” before interacting with them, i.e. by essay or exam.
        When we memorise, we will tend to narrow things down rather than open them up I’m sure of it. Kids will tend to memorise the basics for assessment.So, yes, it is curious that we privilege one knowledge over another and the new syllabus focus seems very much set on returning to the form and the thing in this way, rather than the bricolage of contexts. This is a pity, to me.

    • Victor says:

      “I’m also curios why memorising “might help us better understand the material we’re learning”.”

      From what I remember from D.T.Willingham’s book, memorising reduces cognitive load and allows for more room in working memory to think about other things, like meaning.

    • Queen's English says:

      I find, personally, that memorising poetry gives me a much more intimate understanding of it. I’ve often thought that I’ve understood a poem – and then memorised it – and found that in the process of memorisation, my understanding and appreciation of it deepens.

      I’m an English teacher, though.

  3. Adam says:

    Jives nicely with SOLO taxonomy which I don’t use with my students but use to figure out how to guide them through content. Also has interesting crossover with John Searle’s chinese room thought experiment and classification of semantic and syntactic knowledge. It’s an experiment I’ve never seen applied to education directly but can teach us much.

  4. Rachel Gallagher says:

    I’ve just returned from visiting a primary school (up to 15 year olds) in slum districts in Kenya. Their only means of education is chalk and talk/rote learning. Facts to be learned are written with chalk on a cracked blackboard and the children recite together three times what has been written by the teacher. Then the same is copied into cheap exercise books with a stubby bit of pencil.
    As the children move up though the school, it is apparent that they have developed amazing skills of memory, concentration and focus, which is sadly lacking in our U.K. schools. There are no illustrations and there is no application of this learning. But the children pass exams by reiterating facts and information learned. The hope is that, as success brings access to the wider world, the opportunity to apply this learning will present itself.
    In my opinion, we need more of what they do and they need more of what we do. What is the use of being able to apply knowledge if that knowledge has not been retained and what is the use of knowledge if it cannot be applied?

  5. howardat58 says:

    In the USA skip counting appears to be in fashion. They learn to skip count: 3, 6, 9, 12, ..
    Learning the “times” table for 3 is out of fashion. I don’t get it !

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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