Rote learning: easy as ABC – but is it as useful?

Education Secretary Michael Gove reiterates his determination to introduce a culture of tougher exams – but his desire to put rote learning at its core is going down surprisingly well.

Mr Gove emphasised his reliance on “challenging”, external examinations in a speech to the IAA.

And he is convinced that “memorisation” is a key tool in his drive to raise education standards.

He said: “Exams pitched at a level which all can easily pass are worse than no exams at all.

“Unless there is stretch in the specification, and application is required to succeed, there will be no motivation, no satisfaction and no support for those who need it.”


‘No indication of understanding’

Citing in his speech a work by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, Mr Gove insisted: “Memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding.

“Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the working memory – so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles – do we really have a secure hold on knowledge.”

It is a technique that schools and successive education departments have moved away from in recent decades, arguing that memorising facts is no indication of understanding.

Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the working memory… do we really have a secure hold on knowledge. MICHAEL GOVE

Indeed, the head of National Numeracy, a charity dedicated to helping children and adults who struggle with maths, has written to Mr Gove, warning that rote learning would actually undermine attempts to raise standards and help pupils relate the subject to everyday life.

But Mr Gove insists it is a fundamental element of gathering the basic information on which children can then expand their knowledge.

And he disagrees with the argument that preparation for exams will mean dull memorisation, stress and excessive mental effort, leading to students forgetting everything after the tests.

What they learned by rote:
Dr David Holloway, University of Portsmouth: Alphabet and tables
Dr Tina Isaacs, senior lecturer, Institute of Education: Tables, poetry, US state capitals
Wendy Jones, trustee, National Numeracy: Latin verbs and poetry

“The precise opposite is the case.

“The best way to build memory, as Willingham explains, is by the investment of thought and effort – such as the thought and effort we require for exam preparation and testing.”

It is a philosophy that does not chime with everybody.

At the same gathering, shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg dismissed Mr Gove’s approach, arguing: “Rigour is about so much more than rote learning. Rigour is also about understanding how to use concepts and how to think for yourself.”

But even those with reservations about the perceived new emphasis find it hard to disagree with Mr Gove’s premise that “memorising scales, or times-tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity”.

I learned the capitals of all the American states. I still know them, but it doesn’t do me much good.DR TINA ISAACS

Dr David Holloway, from the University of Portsmouth‘s School of Education, sees a place for rote learning in multiplication tables but fears that Mr Gove would like to spread its use far more widely.

“I’m not sure I learned anything of use from poetry,” he told Channel 4 News.

“It is the kind of thing young children might enjoy at school… but they would quickly grow out of wanting to chant in rote.”

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‘More than just dates’

And Tina Isaacs, senior lecturer at the Institute of Education, emphasised the importance of using it as a means of understanding a subject. “You can never say that knowing your times-tables means you know maths,” she said.

In history, it is good to know basic facts and dates – primary classrooms are often decorated with pieces of paper reminding students of when important events occurred.

“But that is just the basics. In order to understand what happened in 1066, you need to know more than just dates and names.”

US-born Dr Isaacs added: “In geography I learned the capitals of all the American states. I still know them, but it doesn’t do me much good. At least with poetry it can inspire; it opens a gateway for further study.”

Even the charity that has expressed concerns about the use of rote learning in the government’s draft proposals to change the primary school curriculum, does not object totally to Mr Gove’s latest speech.

Wendy Jones, a trustee of National Numeracy, admitted: “Where [Mr Gove] goes on about memorisation being a precondition to understanding… I can understand what he is saying.

“You don’t want to have to go back to first principles every time you want to solve a problem.”

Readers tweeting Channel 4 News today seem largely in agreement about the value of tables, although there is widespread scepticism about the value of learning by rote beyond that.

Some spoke of memorising Latin prepositions or the colours of the rainbow, of the ability to quote Shakespeare without understanding its context or to recite opening verses of poems they never returned to.

But even the alphabet tends to be learnt by rote, suggesting that not for the first time, Mr Gove’s recipe for raising standards will divide opinion.