Is Rote Learning Really The Most Effective Way To Learn?
Rote learning – the process of fixing information to your memory through sheer repetition – often gets bad press. Some teachers and many parents recoil in horror at the idea of using rote learning as an efficient method of teaching. Seriously, teaching kids answers to tests, and prefabricated essay plans, that’s what we call education? Indeed, it is reasonable to question the long term value of such a method of education. It involves memorizing information without full understanding or knowing how the new information relates to your other stored knowledge.
Is rote learning really the most efficient way of teaching kids? Or does it simply confine our children to a rather narrow education? Does the ability to memorize reams of facts and figures really make us intelligent? The utilizing of rote learning throughout our years at school really does raise the question: do schools and exams just test your memory?
Having trundled through years of education, I feel compelled to agree. Ask the highest achieving students general knowledge questions, would they know the answers? I doubt it. A lot of people who achieve highly often do so through eating up textbooks and memorising paragraphs rather than being genuinely smart. Many of us students feel that exams test our memories, rather than our ability to understand or to be articulate. How could committing the contents of our textbooks to our short term memories possibly be of any assistance to us in the long run?
The reality is, if most of us were to re-sit our exams now, a mere month after revising for them, we would probably fail. Why? Because once we left the exam hall, the essay plans we learnt, the bullet points we rhymed off, appeared to no longer be of any apparent use to us and so we rejoiced, and forgot them thankfully. Doesn’t this reflect a failing in the education system?
Finishing my history exam, for instance I thought, “Well, that’s over. I will never in my life have to remember the short term causes of the 1905 Russian Revolution.” Could I tell you the short term causes of the 1905 Revolution less than a month on? I would seriously question my ability to do so in an informed way. Could I tell you a year from now, ten years from now? I definitely could not. This calls into question the concept of teaching children the answers for a test. The exam could go successfully, but what we learn is soon forgotten once we’ve done the test.
I remember the painful days of sitting through GCSE maths, and thinking “Why are we learning this? What am I ever going to need this for?” The answer given to us time and time again throughout school went something like, “It’s on the curriculum, so you have to learn it!” I was always despairing and beyond hopeless at maths and the same goes for the sciences, and the fact that we were learning things that I would never need to know once I left the classroom or the exam hall meant I lost absolutely all curiosity.
Memorising seemingly pointless facts was lost on me. However, there are two sides to this debate. I can see the blindingly obvious advantages of rote learning, having resorted to memorising chunks of information for exams, despite the sheer boredom it inflicts. For many students; the benefits of rote learning – the assurance of better grades, and the satisfaction of knowing something off by heart – outweigh any negative aspects. It’s hard, when you’re the one in the position of having to cram months of work into a significantly short space of time, to see a clear alternative to rote learning.
It would be amazing to have a photographic memory. Unfortunately, for the majority of us, that is not the hand life has dealt us, so isn’t rote learning the most effective alternative? In defence of rote learning, it is simply necessary in some areas. As children we all learnt the alphabet by rote learning, long before we knew why. The memorisation of letters is the first step, and one that provides a foundation for the deeper understanding that follows. If we didn’t utilise rote memorisation, would any of us know multiplication tables, state capitals, foreign languages or how to solve an equation?
Although rote learning simply is necessary at points throughout our years of education, at times, we neglect meaningful learning with excess emphasis being placed on the value of rote learning. We learn information, without truly understanding it or questioning it and that is definitely dangerous. As Plutarch stated “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”