Saturday, 5 December 2015

Should we get students to learn by rote?

The question as to whether we should teach students to learn things by heart (by rote) continues to create debate in education.  What does the evidence show?

The importance of secure memories

We know for sure (from neuroscience, testing etc) that our brains have a very limited Working Memory capacity.  Although there is dispute about the number of items we can hold in our heads at the same time, the number 7 seems to be an average  while some students can hold 9 items.
Working memory is the space where we think about things, work things out, mull over holiday plans, do mental arithmetic etc.
If the sentence is too long, it does not all fit in working memory.

This diagram shows a 5-slot working memory (WM). The first thing to see is that complex instructions can overload working memory.  Those working with less-able students know they need to break long sentences into shorter ones. (Young children's books always have short sentences.)  So, how do we ever think about something more complex?

The answer is that long-term memories can be drawn into just one slot, thus freeing space for the rest of the thinking.

Here is a trivial example:  If you are asked to remember the left-hand list
Z

BBC ZBB
CIA CCI
PHD APH
UN DUN
EU EUZ
Z

 and you have these acronyms stored in long-term memory, you will be able to remember it much more easily than the right-hand list which has the same letters.

This is sometimes called 'chunking', but this simply means that the unit is stored so securely (and the meaning understood) that it can be drawn into one slot in WM.

In mathematics, this helps resolve the question as to whether we should teach students their 'times-tables'.  If, when faced with the problem 8 x7 (or verbally, 'eight sevens') the number 56 pops into your head without any thought, then more complex problems can be tackled than if WM slots are taken up with the process of working out that part of the problem.

There are, of course, potential problems with  rote learning.  If the student has no idea how to work out 8x7 (or other simple multiple) then the memory will be meaningless.  Also, if failure to remember compulsory times-tables leads the students to believe that they are 'no good at maths', then the effect can be negative.

Another problem with times-tables is that the students may need to chant the whole table until they arrive at the one they need. One solution is to teach number-bonds by rote rather than tables.   The table shows that there are only 30-40 which need to be recalled as there are repeats (8x7 is the same as 7x8) and some trivial ones (eg 10x8=80).

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
2
4








3
6
9







4
8
12
16






5
10
15
20
25





6
12
18
24
30
36




7
14
21
28
35
42
49



8
16
24
32
40
48
56
64

9
18
27
36
45
54
63
72
81

10










In language teaching we never debate whether we should teach the meaning of words by rote or not!  We simply show the child a cup and give them the word 'cup' and get them to repeat it until they are fluent.  We do not try to explain why it is called 'cup'.  Equally, when teaching French, we simply require the student to know that the French for 'fish' is 'poisson'.

The need for secure knowledge is better understood once we see the way memories are stored in the brain.  They are not like memories on a computer.  All the information about this page is stored in the file of this web-page.  However, in the brain, the memory of something is just a set of links to what is already known.

If we teach about the Pope to someone who knows nothing about it, we may link to their knowledge of king and church.  However, earlier in their life they would have learned about 'king' by linking it to perhaps father' and 'country'. However, once the students has learned about 'Pope', they do not have a separate memory of Pope (as your camera has a separate memory of the photos you have taken), it has a huge network of links.  When we later want to use 'Pope' in a more complex sentence like "The Pope left the Vatican and celebrated mass in the Cathedral.", we are relying on these networks for vatican, cathedral etc to be secure so we can understand the sentence in our Working Memory.


Summarising the evidence

  • Working memory is used for thinking and is limited
  • Secure memories are vital for thinking.
  • Understanding can only occur if the new knowledge is linked to existing knowledge.
  • Learning by rote things which are understood is valuable.
  • Learning simple facts by rote is not damaging. 

















1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience of school. I really loved the way you explained about education. It has good information and also it is very interesting to read. You have maintained a good quality in attractive manner. Keep sharing such wonderful and useful post. Refer essay writing service reviews to get reviews of various online writers.

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