Rote Learning Is Ace

Julius Caesar

He had to do plenty of rote learning as a lad. And yet his mind was not destroyed . . .

Rote learning is one of the most derided practices in education. It stands accused of deadening minds, of filling children’s heads with isolated, useless pieces of information, of destroying the joy of learning . . .

What is this evil, fascist practice which poisons the minds of youth? Well, it just means learning by repetition. You say something over and over again until it sticks.

And it does work, especially when done with a group of other people in regular, spaced out practice sessions. Chanting the alphabet, the times tables, or a poem together with a class will certainly make them stick in the mind after a certain amount of time.

So why should this practice of learning by repetition be seen as evil? As joyless? Rote learning is blamed for so many evils because it is seen as intrinsically connected to teaching which shuns understanding in favour of mere factual recall.

Now, have you ever met a teacher who shuns understanding? I haven’t. This mythical teacher is one of those nasty bogeymen invented by progressive ideologues to attack simple, effective methods that ordinary laymen can understand and apply.

When my year seven classes learned the ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech last term, they mostly learned it by repetition. We began almost every lesson by chanting it together, and it stuck. Some of them learned it more quickly than others, but by the end of the term, they could all recite it.

We didn’t only repeat the words. We discussed them. I explained them. But most importantly, we brought them to life by our vigorous recitation. Some pupils even began to invent a series of actions to go along with them (you can imagine how they acted out ‘I thrice presented him a kingly crown’, for example). They really enjoyed themselves.

Nevertheless, however much discussion, explanation, or imaginative engagement there had been, they wouldn’t have learned the speech properly without plenty of good old fashioned rote learning.

Hurray for rote learning, I say.

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11 thoughts on “Rote Learning Is Ace

  1. I’ve always thought that you could get the real thinking and understanding once you’ve practised and learnt something. When I did karate, everyone from the newbie to the black belt, practised the same things over and over again. Then we used them in matches against each other all together mind you.
    I would definitely agree with you on this!

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  2. “When my year seven classes learned the ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech last term, they mostly learned it by repetition. We began almost every lesson by chanting it together, and it stuck. Some of them learned it more quickly than others, but by the end of the term, they could all recite it.

    We didn’t only repeat the words. We discussed them. I explained them. But most importantly, we brought them to life by our vigorous recitation. Some pupils even began to invent a series of actions to go along with them (you can imagine how they acted out ‘I thrice presented him a kingly crown’, for example). They really enjoyed themselves.”

    This seems to me to be an excellent way to remembering and understanding the speech. If I were going to teach it I would probably adopt a similar approach.

    You are however being a bit of a tinker here again. Most people I have seen objecting to rote learning, do so on the basis that the thing can be remembered for regurgitation from memory in a test with no understanding. You clearly did not do this here and few if any would argue with your approach, although it maybe could have been a little more authentic.

    You have again developed a straw man of the individual who doesn’t want to teach any understanding. You seem to suggest that teachers somewhere think that any rote learning whatsoever is wrong. Repetition is a tried and trusted method of achieving recall of information, and I know of no teacher who does not use rote learning in the right place at the right time.

    Elaboration and organisation are also useful. You seem also to have used these to allow students to gain understanding. I know of no teacher who would criticise you for that.

    I can’t imagine anyone will disgree with you but I will watch the comments. You make a good case for varying learning approaches in my view.

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    • I wonder what you mean by ‘authentic’?

      I’ve never seen rote learning used by other teachers except at Michaela and at my current school. I never experienced its being used when I was at school.

      It is used so rarely and with so little thoroughness because it has been demonised.

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  3. Your point that some people wish to attack, “…..simple, effective methods that ordinary laymen can understand and apply,” is one I completely agree with. As a primary school teacher I am tired of people who wish to overcomplicate what we actually do. Reading is firstly about learning a code and applying it and maths is firstly about earning basic number facts and applying them.
    When I worked in the private sector we were told to KISS everything and results will follow. This is something I do with my teaching and I find it works. Oh yeah, KISS stands for KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID! !!

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  4. Brian, in Australian schools (at least the ones my kids go to) there is definitely an anti-rote, anti repetition bias. Even Hattie says that teachers are taught that rote is bad. If you view the conversation board, “Essential Kids Forum”, you will see teachers passionately arguing against any rote. This gives us some insight into how Australian teachers think. For some inexplicable reason they view memorisation as a “low-level skill” when in fact it is vital to learning just about everything. We accept that practice is necessary in so many areas of life yet we do not accept it in relation to academic work. In my view the attack on rote (memorisation) is another attack on knowledge.

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    • Tempe we have the same attack against rote learning here in Canada. I have heard from countless parents who have grown increasingly frustrated by hearing School Administrators proclaim, “Drills Kill”. Rote learning is definitely a dirty phrase. And here’s the lovely math pamphlet our provincial math association dreamed up this year. This pamphlet was created to be distributed to 40,000 teachers in our province, as well as for over 550,000 parents. Note how it follows Jo Boaler as a demigod, and proclaims that memorization harms children http://www.bcamt.ca/facts/. Hard to figure out the truth when swamped by rhetoric and mistruths by those in charge of educating our children.

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  5. Hi Tara – that brochure is ridiculous. I can’t understand why Bolar has any influence except that she feeds into the whole, “learning should be fun and rote is torture”mentality, which progressives seem to lap up. On the one hand they acknowledge you need fluency and then on the other they almost contradict themselves by stating over and over how “higher order thinking is the most important thing.” Once again they neglect to mention, or at least emphasise the fact that there wont be any higher order thinking with kids who have no knowledge/facts/procedures’ etc practiced and committed to memory. Without a commitment to building a schema you have an empty shell, one that can only offer subjective opinion.

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  6. Pingback: Understanding or Memorising? | The Traditional Teacher

  7. Obviously rote learning has it purpose in education. If one wants to recite ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech that probably the only way to go. I mean you could not learn the speech by ‘understand’ right?
    What I find shocking on the other hand is the fact that people with 9y+ of math education are unable to use anything they learnt for real life problems. This tells me that rote learning probably has it place, but is most definitely pretty useless in math & science related classes.
    Finally, to give an example of something pretty useful where rote learning is only used very sporadically consider programming. Maybe you ‘rote learn’ some theory about the structure of a program. But most of the time you try to use the available commands to create a structure which is able to solve your problem. Maybe 10% rote learning, the rest is understanding / thinking about the problem. And even If you were unable to remember the most basic commands (and their exact syntax) you could always google them within seconds.

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    • Memorisation is an essential foundation, but application of memorised material is obviously necessary. Saying that someone who memorised knowledge cannot apply it is not a logical argument against memorising.

      Also bear mind that those who have already mastered knowledge always underestimate how much repeated effort it takes for a beginner to do so.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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