Rote Learning is Part of Learning
|Figure taken from http://www.skill-guru.com/sat/devil%E2%80%99s-advocate-rote-learning-in-sat-test-is-good/|
"The visitors and high officials, after being handsomely entertained, would then write in their _Travels_ or _Memoirs_: "The Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas of Manila, in charge of the enlightened Dominican Order, possesses a magnificent physical laboratory for the instruction of youth. Some two hundred and fifty students annually study this subject, but whether from apathy, indolence, the limited capacity of the Indian, or some other ethnological or incomprehensible reason, up to now there has not developed a Lavoisier, a Secchi, or a Tyndall, not even in miniature, in the Malay-Filipino race."
- Jose Rizal, El Filibusterismo, "The Class in Physics", Chapter XIII, English Translation - Gutenberg
This was a lesson from history. In "The Class in Physics", Jose Rizal made it clear that an assessment of education involves looking at the goals. There are two goals: knowledge construction and knowledge acquisition. There is content and there are skills.
In El Filibusterismo, Jose Rizal engages the reader into a discussion about mirrors. The way Padre Millon deals with the subject matter (minus the derogatory attitude towards the students) actually examines the topic in a critical manner. It definitely goes beyond mere knowledge acquisition as the mirror's definition is applied to other objects made of neither metal nor glass.
""The name of mirror is applied to all polished surfaces intended to produce by the reflection of light the images of the objects placed before said surfaces. From the substances that form these surfaces, they are divided into metallic mirrors and glass mirrors--"
"Stop, stop, stop!" interrupted the professor. "Heavens, what a rattle! We are at the point where the mirrors are divided into metallic and glass, eh? Now if I should present to you a block of wood, a piece of kamagon for instance, well polished and varnished, or a slab of black marble well burnished, or a square of jet, which would reflect the images of objects placed before them, how would you classify those mirrors?""
Skimming and absorbing only the sound bites may lead people to the conclusion that teaching students by simply handing out information and expecting them to retrieve or recall is bad education. Jose Rizal, after all, describes:
"This was the professor who that morning called the roll and directed many of the students to recite the lesson from memory, word for word. The phonographs got into operation, some well, some ill, some stammering, and received their grades. He who recited without an error earned a good mark and he who made more than three mistakes a bad mark."
Jose Rizal also uses the "phonograph" to describe the students highlighting the impression that they are nothing but sound-reproducing machines. However, the main point does not end here. Both at the beginning and near the end of this chapter, Jose Rizal painted how education was being used to further oppressed the people. Rote learning is not equivalent to bad education. To drop rote learning is a big mistake as it ignores that knowledge requires acquisition of content. Chess players need to learn how each piece moves, and how each piece takes out another piece. Biochemistry requires knowledge of the amino acids, and Organic Chemistry requires memorization of so many reactions. Even in a graduate course that I took on Inorganic Chemistry, we were advised to use index cards, on which we write the reactants on one side and the products on the other side, to help us remember reactions of elements across the periodic table.
Although "The Class in Physics" may be a good reading, I do hope that we are no longer facing the same problem of using education to oppress and degrade people. I think this was the main issue during that time. Our issue now is to address problems in basic education that hopefully have nothing to do with intentionally keeping people out of education. In this light, it is helpful to step back amidst current waves or fads. It would be useful to keep our eyes on a bigger picture since it is possible that we may in fact drop something very important by focusing too much. A country, of course, will not prosper if everyone is simply a phonograph. Likewise, a nation will not move forward if everyone can be critical but not knowing anything. Here are two articles (the second one is a page taken from an article in "Theory into Practice", that relates the story about three learners; Amy, Becky and Carla) that I think are worth our attention. No one argues against how important meaningful learning is, how important critical thinking is. But in such pursuit, we must not lose sight of the importance of how we first acquire and retain knowledge. Rote learning is part of learning. If we are not careful, we may end up memorizing sound bites regarding education and embrace something we do not fully understand.
When Rote Learning Makes Sense
As a youth, I remember feeling cheated out of rich content in my education when I listened to my mother in times of sorrow or tenderness, lovingly recite entire poems and passages from books she studied in high school.
We all know that practice makes perfect, but for some reason perfection is not one of the goals of learning in most schools. In today's classrooms, students practice plenty, but are not required to retain knowledge perfectly.
The M Word
Somewhere along the way, rote learning got a bad rap. Memorization (there, I said the M word) became anathema to learning. How this came to be, I am uncertain, but what I am certain is that this shift away from memorization has undermined the effectiveness of the teaching and learning process altering whole generations. Perhaps the misplaced angst against memorization has come from the notion that memorization is reserved for teachers as a teaching methodology.
The total emphasis on critical thinking has it all wrong: Before students can think critically, they need to have something to think about in their brains. It is true that knowledge without comprehension is of little use, but comprehension requires knowledge and it takes time and effort to acquire.
The Cognitive 411
- The brain is a learning tool. This might seem obvious, but the brain is not a passive sponge. It requires active effort to retain information in short-term memory and even more effort to get it into long-term memory.
- Learners need to know that the longer an idea can be kept in short-term memory, the more chance it can be pushed into long-term memory. This is where practice makes perfect makes sense.
- The body is another learning tool -- another often-ignored concept. The body is connected to the brain and if you engage the body, you are engaging the brain too.
- Learners feel an addictive sense of accomplishment when something has been memorized completely.
If it doesn't come, then they need to look at the answer and repeat it aloud, then go on. If done quickly, by the third or fourth iteration, most students can have 100 percent accuracy. The danger is when a student gets stuck on one card for too long, all of the other information in short term memory is lost, making the study ineffective.
One way to help students learn how to do this is to do the flash cards with them, modeling the speed and what happens if the student can't remember: let them look at the answer, but making sure that that student gets a chance to respond correctly again. If the students are in a line (or even better, several lines), the first student answers a card, and then goes back to the end of the line while the rest of the students in the line give their responses to the cards one by one.
Using Rhythm and Breath
There's countless ways to help students learn how to memorize quickly, efficiently, and enjoyably. You can use music, song, dance, rhythms, patterns, competitions, and games. Once they know how to learn, or memorize, then students can acquire knowledge about anything they want to learn, which is in direction opposition to what critics say about rote memorization.