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Tuesday 12 June 2012

Rote Learning And The Sad Reality

Education is one subject that sets the cheaper end of the Fourth Estate off readily on one of its why-oh-why riffs with next to no prompting. This may not be unconnected to many hacks and pundits having never been near a state school, though it doesn’t stop them from giving the clear impression that they know such schools are A Very Bad Thing, it was All Labour’s Fault, and they know Something Must Be Done.

Recite something? Just you stop me!

Into this fertile breeding ground for good old fashioned ideas has stumbled Education Secretary Michael “Oiky” Gove, who has been rapturously received by the assembled hacks because he’s going to reintroduce traditional teaching methods. As any fule kno, in the Good Old Days children all did far, far better (did they? Ah, but you’re not meant to ask) and so it’s back to rote learning.

What that? Well, this is mainly about being able to recite things – possibly poetry, maybe kings and queens, and definitely times tables – that have been learned by heart. Those under A Certain Age may not have experienced this, and my own view is that they are bloody lucky not to have done. Because being able to recite something does not mean you have the first idea what it’s about.

I can remember a primary school classroom – and in my case that means it was A Long Time Ago – where pupils recited their times tables together. Particular pride of place was given to going through the twelve times table – “Twelve twelves are a hundred and forty-four!” – because, well, these were much bigger numbers than the weedy little two times table. So there.

Don’t get me wrong here: it wasn’t me who had a problem understanding what it all meant. I’ve never had a problem with “doing my sums”, and that extends to Good Old Pounds Shillings And Pence (unlike Simon Heffer), and equally Good Old Weights And Measures (including gills, quarts, quarters, furlongs, chains, and the rest). My point is that not all the other pupils got it.

That would be why many of the children in that classroom failed their eleven plus (told you it was a long time ago) and spent the remainder of their school years at a Secondary Modern, instead of going to the town’s Grammar school. Reciting times tables does not teach an understanding, a facility, for number. And the idea of memorising lists of kings and queens is yet more pointless.

The first Elizabeth reigned from 1558 to 1603. Well done! But, so what? What was life in England like then? How did it get better or worse during the next Century? So pupils can recite poetry. What is the poem in question about? Were poets and writers representative of ordinary people at the time? How the hell does that fit pupils for the future? Does everyone now understand what I’m driving at here?

Gove may have honourable intentions. But this will not improve matters. At all.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely right Tim. I firmly believe a proposal to reintroduce the cane is just around the corner. Just watch.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit young for when rote learning was a mainstream thing, but your post evokes memories of a P4 classroom, an elderly, angry teacher, and seemingly endless recitation of the seven times table... and failure at the next two 5-14 exams... and, after a few years' study by other means, scoring first in year in maths.

The whole idea makes me want to hit a wall repeatedly. Weren't top grades rarer in the past because of grading to a curve (so that only a fixed proportion got A grades), more recently transitioning to assessment by objective criteria?

Anonymous said...

Agree wholeheartedly Tim. I was born in '51 and luckily was able to pass the 11 plus. On the way I remember being caned (in a primary school I attended in Northern Ireland for 6 months while dad was on a posting there) for getting some sums wrong. I dropped history as a subject in comprehensive school because reciting dates of royal reigns bored the shit out of me. I only regained an interest in history 20 years after leaving school.

The thing is, children have to be engaged. Boring all but the brightest kids isn't going to improve anything.