Learning by rote

Traditional methods of learning have been modernised, meddled, tampered, fiddled and generally interfered with by successive governments. And after all that, it turns out the old ways are the best after all.

learning-by-rote

When I was at school, before I wrote my age in double digits and before the blackboard was the chalkboard, 10 years before the invention of the pocket calculator and three decades before personal computers and the Internet, we learned everything by rote.

That meant sessions in the classroom repeating times tables until the numbers were firmly fixed in our brains. The same went for Latin – amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant, and so forth – until those words swirled around endlessly in out heads. And the torture didn’t stop there… the capitals of every country in the world and their location, the periodic table of elements – all were laboriously committed to memory.

It was not the most enjoyable or the most interesting way of committing knowledge to memory, but the interminable repetition may have helped me make better decisions later in life. This is because basic knowledge stored by the brain frees up space for more complex tasks – an important part of decision-making. The quicker people are able to process information, the quicker they will be able to arrive to the best decision.

I am a great believer in the efficacy of rote learning because I know it works. I speak from first hand experience. From Prep school to grammar school – the great social leveller – there was no discrimination, just an opportunity for naturally bright kids could move forward, without being held back by an extreme and perverse socialist ideology, one where all children are given the opportunity to surge ahead at the same rate as the slowest in the class. But the grammar school was also a place where the not so academically nimble were encouraged to ambition and self-improvement. The proof the system was better is confirmed by the actions left-wing comprehensive education diehards like Dianne Abbott and Shami Chakrabati – both have sent their children to private schools, as did the great Labour leader, humanitarian and philanthropist, Tony Blair.

Theresa May has promised to bring back the grammar schools and she has my support. You don’t have to come from a wealthy family to get a place in one – all you have to do is to be bright enough to pass the eleven-plus exam and it’s only right that children deserving of opportunity should be given it. Hard though this idea may be for some people to understand, it is absolutely unfair to hold back talent… unless of course you are aiming for mediocrity. Such a policy will ruin the country in the long term.

It should be noted that Chinese, Japanese and Asian children learn by rote, and the result is an academically high achieving population. Not for them airy-fairy ideas of happy contented children at play – academic success is an ideal embraced by teachers and pupils alike with an almost religious fervour. There’s a reason Asian children do so well! In India, 60 million people are currently in university education. [I have taught psychology and lectured in hypnotherapy at several Indian universities and Indian Institutes of Technology in Goa, New Delhi and Jodhpur. Most students are studying for Science and Engineering degrees and the vast majority are doing second degrees at the same time. They study from seven in the morning until after ten in the evening. Alcohol is banned on campuses and the idea of taking a day off is anathema.]

Learning by repetition is a tried and tested success story and has proved that our brains are capable of storing this amount of information. In addition, brief periods of direct instruction, something now deemed less important, has always been highly effective. This is why lessons were always limited to half an hour, or perhaps an hour in the case of double physics and double chemistry, when much of the time was spent carrying out practical experiments.

Dr Helen Abadzi is a specialist in cognitive psychology and neuroscience at the University of Texas at Arlington. She believes that people are “prisoners to their working memory.” It is the working memory that helps people arrive at the right decisions. However, most people’s working memory can only manage a few pieces of information at a time – and these only last for 12 seconds at most, yet these bits of information will determine the decisions made.

The more information already stored in people’s brains, the more efficiently they can process new information. Information and knowledge such as times tables learned by rote and committed to memory, reinforced by textbooks and homework, are now considered out-dated ideas. Instead of using working memory to calculate numbers each time, our brains are able to automatically access these figures from long-term memory. This in turn frees up the brain for the more the complex calculations needed for decision making.

According to Dr Abadzi, those who practiced the most forgot the least. She has been a critic of the sort of creative education proposed by such luminaries as Sir Ken Robinson. Dr Abadzi has stated that multi-tasking and new technology are both threats to effective education for children today. And I agree. If it ain’t broke, why try and fix it? Sometimes, the old ways really are the best!

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.