Turning the tables on rote learning

Disclaimer: This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of all Teachers' Christian Fellowship members.

Turning the tables on rote Learning

3×4=12, 3×5=15, 3×6=18 etc

I remember the days of learning my tables and now in the twilight of my life I appreciate the memorisation and repetition that gave me an increased ability to do mental arithmetic. But not all memorisation is good. I recall two incildents in India, in one a teacher wanted to show me how her Kindergarden students had mastered numbers one to five. She held up one pencil and the students said one, she held up two pencils and the students said two etc. I asked if I could have a turn and held up two pencils and the students all said one. There was not much mathematics learning going on. On a second occasion a 1st Grade class was asked to show me how they had learnt the alphabet. They recited the alphabet perfectly, but when I pointed to the letter ā€œnā€ on an alphabet chart they had no idea which one it was. Reciting the alphabet had little to do with learning to read.

In recent years, rote learning (memorising) has rightly come into disrepute as constructivist theories and meaningful learning models have challenged the long established place of memorisation. Both curriculum writers and high stakes examiners like in the HSC have been accused of favouring rote learning so that students with the best memories always bubble to the top.

Rote learning as a memorisation technique based on repetition is from the idea that one will be able to quickly recall the important knowledge the more one repeats it. Rote learning is one of the best learning styles in an examination oriented educational system. But it doesn't allow for a deeper understanding, does not facilitate the connection between new and previous knowledge and can result in misunderstanding concepts.

However, students who learn to focus and develop their working memory through memorisation tasks can free their mind to become more creative. As one educator said it means you have a great memory and that makes it easier to be smart. But intelligence is more than memory.

In the rush to adopt constructivist theories and meaningful learning models the place of memorisation can be overlooked. Students can benefit from learning their mathematics tables but knowing the sequence of the rivers of NSW would seem of little value with the availability of resources to answer such questions. Yet, an undrestanding of place can be very important for students to understand the political/geophysical structure of their world and help them understand world events.

Teaching for understanding has never been more important, but all educators need to understand how memorisation of some knowledge can facilitate that learning.

From all reports our best students go into an international setting where their Australian education and learning skills are valued despite the recently published results from international testing. Perhaps some countries, higher on this international scale, rely more on rote learing and in the end their students are not really ahead. Knowing how to use rote learning within broader teaching models can be an asset to students learning.

John Gore