Learning by rote…my thoughts

There are not many things that Michael Gove and myself agree on (please don’t get me started on academies) but the traditional way of learning by rote is one of them. Clearly it seems to be quite a controversial subject for some reason but I don’t think that it should be completely dismissed.

How can anyone disagree with Michael Gove’s plans that children should be taught standard English with more weight being given to spelling, punctuation and grammar as well ensuring children know their times tables up to 12 by the age of 9. Sometimes I find the standard of spelling and grammar in this country quite shocking – somewhere something has gone horribly wrong and it’s about time we tried to make things better.  

The school my children attend learn by rote (amongst other methods) and the standards are high.  Michael Gove is being kind – in some of the top performing countries in the world like Korea, children are expected to know all their timetables by age 7.  Basic maths is key. There is too much emphasis at a young age on weights, space, measure etc when what I believe they need to be learning is number bonds, halving, doubling and timetables – I believe if you’ve got those nailed and under your belt, you’ve built a strong foundation for more advanced maths. I’m glad that in our school weekly spellings are sent home – the children repeat them three times followed by a (parental) test.  Repetition works, the more you do something the more it becomes second nature.  It’s basic brain training and helps the build memory. 

Under the new plans, five and six year olds will be expected to count to 100, recognise basic fractions and memorise simple sums. When the children are in Year Two they will be expected to know their two, five and 10 times tables, add and subtract two-digit numbers in their heads and start using graphs. None of this comes as a surprise to me as my Year 1 and Year 2 children have already covered this and I thought that this was already the curriculum. Clearly it’s not the case for all schools or else these plans wouldn’t have to be brought in, but I can hand on heart say I do not think my children are being pushed too hard, or learning too much too young. They are complete sponges at this age and also haven’t yet discovered what a drag school is so they are keen to learn.  By the first half-term of Year 2 my daughter could add and subtract three-digit numbers in her head using the number line method, something I probably couldn’t do until I was in secondary school!   I also note that in under Michael Gove’s new plans, children will have to learn a language for the first time from age seven. Interestingly, our school already does this with weekly French lessons from the start of Year 2. 

I’m not saying that learning by rote is the best way for all subjects, certainly nobody needs to be able to recite Shakespeare or all theAmerican states off by heart but I do not believe that the changes to the national curriculum will severely damage education standards as suggested by some education academics. Both learning and understanding have a place in education. If you only know why we do something, you will not get a quick or accurate result. If you know how we do something you have a quick way of working things out and can apply this to more advanced problem solving. After all, where is the merit in always having to work out 8 x 6 when you could have the answer committed to memory and therefore be able to tackle maths problems in a quicker and more efficient way.  There’s an argument that rote learning does not aid understanding and that may be true in some cases but skills like reading, writing, learning an instrument – they all have their own “language” and vocabulary which needs to be learned before you can move on and engage at a more advanced level. I think rote learning certainly has a place within spellings and basic mathematics.  The use of rote should be limited as this article mentions, once you’ve acquired the basics of a subject, it’s the application on the knowledge you have acquired which is important.

I’d love to open the debate more and hear your thoughts on rote learning and whether it is currently used in the schools your children attend. Do you think it is a good idea or a bad one?

PS I read an article once that said that technology was responsible for the demise in rote learning in the West and that the internet has become a surrogate for our own memory. How many times do you memorise phone numbers now? I bet not very often, if ever! I used to have so many addresses, telephone numbers and birthdays stored in my head. 

Image Credit: By Labpluto123 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

5 Comments on “Learning by rote…my thoughts”

  1. I’m pretty sure that it has to be the way we learn things. It takes 7 (+or-2) times for us to form a habit, it takes us around 12 times introducing a new taste for us to “accept” it and “like” it. Why shouldn’t we repeat things until they stick?!

    We do have rote learning and a mix of other methods, and it works. Sure some children might find it harder but then it’s up to them, their parents and the teacher to find a method that helps them imho.

  2. I certainly agree that rote learning has a place in things like spelling and basic maths facts – it’s how I learnt the basics and I’m glad I did. But there needs to be a move at higher levels towards understanding the why. My understanding, which is admittedly limited, of the way our brains work is that there’s really no point attempting to teach these abstract concepts to children until they’re about 10 anyway, because they haven’t got the ability to grasp them. That also means that teaching maths with tangible objects is useful. If they can see that there are four sets of eight coins and count them to reach 32, and then rearrange them to eight sets of four and get the same total, then 8×4=4×8=32 will be easier to remember.

  3. While I have no problem with rote learning, where appropriate, I think the idea that children of 5 and 6 should be forced into this type of formal learning is counter-productive (I definitely don’t aspire that by the time my son is 7 he will know any times tables, unless he wants to). I would be much happier with an education system more in line with a top-performing country like Finland, instead of Korea. I think it is really important to look at the result of the whole child (and wider society) not just individual academic results. Much as performance in education may be important later in life I think we’re failing our children by not letting them be children. So for young children I don’t think rote learning is the way forward. I think play which facilitates learning is a much better idea. We need children to learn how to learn and how to be creative so they can innovate and teach themselves (and us) new things, we don’t need 5 or 6 year old parrots.

  4. My Year 1 child now hs a reward chart in order to encourage her handwriting and reading skills and these can only improve with practise eg by repitition or rote, and as I remember learning my times tables by rote and can still recall them, so am happy for her to learn this way, however learning by doing or play certainly still has a strong place in primary level education as their attention span is much shorter at that age

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