I recently shared to Facebook Tom Bennett’s excellent dismantling of a ridiculous video which did the rounds about a year ago. A teacher friend duly shared my post, which was critiqued by a friend of theirs (a complete stranger to me). One of the things they wrote was:
“I’ve also seen the other side of things, super disciplined classrooms, endless textbooks and worksheets, learning by rote, and they haven’t always worked and haven’t necessarily encouraged meaningful learning.”
There are a lot of assumptions here that I disagree with as well as a blatant mischaracterisation of the type of classroom that Tom would advocate (what is an endless textbook?). But I wanted to focus on one aspect – “learning by rote” – and dwell on two examples from my life of where this is relevant.
Generally by “rote learning” people mean when students learn something off by heart completely devoid of any meaning. There is no understanding, just a mechanistic repetition. A great example of this from my life would be when I taught young Jewish males to read their Bar Mitzvah portion. This involves committing a large amount of hebrew text and the way it is sung to memory. These boys generally do not understand the words they are saying at any level at all, and often only had the vaguest of ideas of what they were even seeking to achieve. This is learning by rote. If I were King of the Jews it’s not the way I would set things up but hey, you get paid to do a job.
A recent experience, as well as this piece by Anthony Radice, made me think about the other end of the spectrum. My wife and I recently spent almost a week in hospital giving birth to our first child, Sofia. We were generally dealt with by midwives and nurses, in whose care I felt supported, listened to and completely comfortable. On a number of occasions we had questions to ask about our care and, on a very fundamental level, what the hell was going on. Having your first child is incredibly daunting and the amount of information to absorb and the number of events occurring around you are bewildering.
A number of times when we asked questions it was clear that the midwives simply knew the answers off by heart. Whether this was through deliberate rehearsal or by having answered them so many times, the answers were scripted. This ranged from questions regarding biological processes to technical administrative concerns. How long from point x in labour to point y? Cue detailed, rehearsed, answer. What are the risks associated with this or that intervention? Cue detailed, rehearsed, answer. I could tell that even the student midwives were getting in on the action; I overheard a student talking to a neighbouring mother about the baby’s heart-rate. She came over to us next and gave us the exact same explanation, word for word.
I don’t think anyone would say that this is a bad thing. I don’t think anyone would say that these midwives were mindless automatons who clearly had no understanding of what they were saying. These set-piece speeches made me feel the exact opposite – that these are people who know what they are doing, that they were secure in their knowledge and comfortable in their practice.
At one point the anaesthetist had to explain to us the epidural process and associated risks. Again, a clear, word-for-word off by heart explanation covering all the points without notes or hesitation. Good luck if you want to be the person to tell a consultant anaesthetist that they don’t understand the words coming out their mouths.
I don’t know any teacher that would encourage their students to mindlessly repeat strings of words for their benefit in an exam. We all teach for understanding. But we also teach for memory, and the fluency and competence demonstrated by someone who has learnt something off by heart can only be a good thing.