Thursday, 16 September 2010

Dangerous Myths #1: “Rote learning stinks.”

This boy is participating in a workshop photography at my school. He knows how to upload a photograph on the internet, but does he know how to use this wonderful digital tool to communicate meaningful content?

It wasn’t that long ago that rote learning, and the regurgitative mimickery that is its most common form of expression, was the educational model under which students laboured during their primary and secondary years. They were expected to behave like inert intellectual vessels into which a series of teachers would dump ever-more complex packets of information and ideas, like computers receiving their regular software upgrades. But with the rise of the Google-powered universe and the ability to locate information about anything, any time and (almost) anywhere, the need to remember the dates of the Hundred Years War or the name of Canada’s fourth Prime Minister has become an academic skill nearly as quaint – and irrelevant – as using an abacus or perfecting one’s ability to write in script.
Such a text drives me crazy. It mocks traditional schooling by describing a caricature, and it reduces academic knowledge to mere storage of unrelated meaningless facts. I bought my first computer in 1986, how could I possibly have treated my students as computers in which to dump software before that moment? The use of the metaphor reveals that the writer lives in the here and now without any idea of even the recent past. He lacks rote learning of history. I can tell you, treating students as "inert vessels" was asking for trouble thirty years ago, as it is now.
I challenge everyone to point at any relevant human achievement that came without rote learning, repetitious training of memory and mind.

Nothing comes for free

Even learning the mother tongue comes with thousands and thousands hours of immersion in the language in a native environment and numberless try and error situations and this at a young age when the brain is highly susceptible. It takes the toddler two years to come up with a sentence. Becoming an expert in your native language, being able to express subtle emotions and complex thought takes up to ten years, just as in any other province of human achievement. Ten thousand hours of practice over a period of ten years that's the rule of thumb if you really want to be good at something.
Learning to speak seems to come naturally and with ease. It's hard work though, and we must admire those little kids that go out of their way to communicate with us, don't laugh at their stupid mistakes, they are learning!
When it comes to schooling: there is no way to escape the dilemma that school has to educate the students in subjects which to a large extent are meaningless to them. As teachers we have to put our pupils in the vanguard of the battle of our existence, they must master the knowledge base which has been created in our culture over a period of thousands of years. This can't be done without boring repetition. Creativity is based on broad and deep knowledge, stored in the long term memory.

21st Century Skills???

As for the 21st Century Skills: I haven't met Whizz Kids at my school during the last ten years. They did exist though, back in the eighties and nineties. Those students taught themselves to work with challenging computers, Commodore 64, Apple II or IBM desktops. Those machines didn't have an easy interface, one had to type in command lines. These kids, always boys, wrote computer software in Pascal or Basic, they saved the results on floppy discs, the hard disk didn't exist in the first years , nor the mouse, for that matter. They worked their tails off, doing their stint of ten thousand hours. They were knowledgeable, I learned a lot from them. The likes of those students of mine invented the hard disk, the mouse and the interactive interface, thereby facilitating the next generation.
I am sorry, but when it comes to handling computers, the Internet, and the digital camera, I am the most versed person in my classroom nowadays. Note that I am a crochety old man, 61 years old now. I used to teach first formers basic html in a couple of hours, but it can't be done any more. My younger students don't feel any need to learn how to customise a site on a basic level, such a skill isn't cool as they know they can publish on the internet without doing any effort. That's the crux: the 21st century doesn't require special skills. Anyone can do it.

An example: photography

I am so glad that all my students can make a picture easily with their mobiles and store the images on their hard disks or compile them at No need to go over the chemical processing of film rolls and paper. I don't even need to teach them how to compress a picture to an acceptable file size to send it over the internet, that's taken care of by all those wonderful environments in which you can upload your photograph.
One problem is left though. Teaching how to make good pictures is just as difficult now as it was in those old days, attractive pictures that convey artistic beauty, that have a documentary value. Actually that hasn't changed a bit, I didn't need to change my didactics at all. So far for old schooling.

Kafka's world

I can't help feeling wary about my students and myself. We are being disenfranchised by Google, Microsoft and Apple, firms that give us easy tools to express ourselves, seemingly for free, just to gauge our behaviour for merchandising. Actually no thinking is needed for using these tools. Big Brother is here and he is watching our every move. The brainy kids are being entertained now with stupid games.
We must teach our students to free themselves. If there is such a thing as a 21st century skill, we must teach them to build and use free software, devised and maintained by volunteers. Especially gaming could be used to transfer meaningful knowledge, as it is the quintessential rote learning. If not this century will head towards an ant heap in which individuality will have dissipated while building a Matrix which rules all behaviour for a common good no one has anticipated. I believe good old fashioned basic rote learning can prevent such a disaster.


Aus_Andrew said...

The "21st Century Skills" myth is the latest pablum being force-fed to front-line educators. The concept that computer access to raw data supplants the need to develop fluency with the core knowledge is a harmful fallacy that damages the academic development of students.
I would hesitate to speculate as to the motives of those who propound such obviously inimical to the best interests of the students, however I would highlight the fact that focussed instruction of the fundamental knowledge of a field is often considered "boring" by some educationalists.
The "21st Century Skills" (or so called "Digital Native" project in Australia) enable teachers to avoid teaching the "dull" aspects of their own methods and cater to student shallowness of interest in edutainment. This is not to say that all teachers and students using ICT are all misusing it as an excuse to avoid developing core skills, but that there is some level of that occuring.

A Phillie Teacher said...

Just another buzz word. Use it in an interview and you have a stronger chance of being hired.

Over the years I've found that initiatives come and go but teachers manage to get through anyway.

Linda said...

I'm of 2 minds about this. Certainly, many "factoids" are useless, and learning about them is a huge waste of time.

General principles, OTOH, are fundamental to learn; often, that first learning is rote - for example, Newton's Laws. APPLYING them is NOT rote, but does take a certain amount of repetition. Likewise, learning the processes of solving complex physics is something that takes a long time to master; in the process, learners absorb knowledge of some algorithms (which are a part of that core learning).