Learning by Rote – Uninspiring Education

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This is my response to Michael Gove, the UK’s Education Secretary, who is suggesting that tough exams and learning facts by rote in 2012 should be a central part of the school experience. I read an article on the subject in the Guardian recently which has angered me so much, that I feel compelled to blog about what I consider to be such a rediculous suggestion.

I must start by highlighting that I am not an education practitioner. Neither am I writing with a party political bias. I simply have so many issues with what the Education Secretary is suggesting, that I just had to put pen to paper, or more appropriately for a blogger, fingers to keyboard. Whether the current education system needs overhauling is another matter. What I am concerned with, and what has prompted me to write this blog post, is simply what the person who is currently responsible for directing the education of our future generations is suggesting here; it is 2012 and not 1912 after all.

I guess that the article made me angry because I know that my own learning style, and I suspect that of many children, is not conducive to this style of learning. I know this because of an unfortunate episode in my own education; one that if it had continued throughout the duration of my education, would have almost certainly had a negative impact on the person I am today. When I was eight years old I had the misfortune to be put into a class with an elderly teacher who had somehow managed to survive in post until the mid 80’s. She was a dinosaur. A relic of what was even then a bygone age. The memories I have of the time I spent in that grey, cold, dark classroom, decorated sparsely with black and white multiplication tables and flip up desks are few. I remember lining up after break times, hands up turned and held out for inspection. I remember that as “fidgets” my class mates and I spent hours on end sitting on our hands, in silence, reading to ourselves, unable to get up, leave our desks, and walk around. I remember sitting chanting the multiplication tables over and over, one by one, as the dinosaur in green tights stood underneath the poster pointing at each increment with a large wooden pointer. I remember the weekly tests, enforced under strict rule. I remember that I was ill on the day that the class went on the only field trip of the year to Manchester Airport. I remember that although I was desperate to get out of the class room, I was glad I missed the trip, because I remember the cardboard folder which contained the A4 sheets, each of which displayed a single line of text, hand written by the dinosaur. I remember sitting in the school assembly the week after the Manchester Airport field trip, looking at every other member of my class, lined up facing the audience, each holding one of the A4 sheets and reading their pre-written line of feedback one by one. I remember the A4 sheets going back in the file, and seeing them each year until I left the school as new classes of children took their turn recounting what someone else wanted them to tell the school about their trip. I remember seeing the presentation every year before I had the misfortune to enter the class. However, I don’t remember what the children were saying about Manchester Airport in sequential monotone and I don’t remember my multiplication tables. Ask me what 7×8 is, and the answer doesn’t spring to the forefront of my brain. The sum total of my academic learning during 1985/86 was zero. Absolutely nothing. My class mates and I, along with countless classes before us, and a handful or so that came after, left broken and undeveloped.

Fortunately the broken system which allowed such a terrible teacher, with such outdated methods to operate, was at least patched up enough to ensure that the best teacher in the school was next in line to pick up the pieces. So as a nine year old, during the 1986/87 school year, my class mates and I were academically and emotionally, put back together, like so many children who came before us, by the best teacher I ever had. During my year with him I remember plenty of things. I remember a colourful classroom, several self decorated topic books on birds, nature, and space. I remember field trips to a farm, a quarry, a coal mine, a pond, a wood, a local bird sanctuary, the national bird sanctuary at Slimbridge, several local historic sites like Ironbridge and the Shropshire Hills. I remember learning about the industrial revolution, I remember putting on safety glasses and using hammers to crack open rocks to look for fossils, I remember PE, I remember the coach picking us up and taking us swimming once a week, I remember baking bread in the morning, and spending all afternoon shaking a jam jar full of cream to make butter. I remember the pets, a hamster, a snake. I remember working outside on hot days. I remember learning. I remember laughing.

In short, whilst I recognise that the dinosaur was an extreme case of bad teaching, and most definitely a bully, I can say with all authority that learning facts by rote and measuring academic success by a competitive, one off, difficult exam for which pupils must prepare by memorising large amounts of facts and concepts, will not promote motivation, solidify knowledge or guarantee standards! The Education Secretary is quoted in the Guardian article as saying that “memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding” I don’t agree. But even if this is the case, why do memories have to be made by rote? What is wrong with learning through doing? It is infinitely more fun learning by practical application, prototyping and creating cognitive references to real world examples, than sat in rows attempting to chant facts into our brains. Rather than allowing children to display greater creativity, I believe that what the Education Secretary is proposing will do the opposite. Learning in this utterly uninspiring way, in which the subject mater can’t be touched, observed, tasted or smelled will stifle the creativity of generations of children.

I also find the arguments for external testing put forward by the Education Secretary deeply worrying.  In the article he argues that external tests are fairer, saying evidence shows some ethnic minority children can be under-marked by their own teachers. He went on to be quoted as saying that “with external testing there is no opportunity for such bias – the soft bigotry of low expectations – and tests show ethnic minority students performing better. So external tests are not only a way of leveling the playing field for children of all backgrounds they are a solvent of prejudice.” This is wrong on two levels. Firstly, if teachers are prejudice, change the teacher, not the system. This type of fix is exactly the same as the one adopted by my primary school. It doesn’t solve the problem it just patches a broken system. Secondly, if you don’t deal with the teacher showing prejudice, but simply hope that testing the children via external examination will make things OK, consider who will be imparting upon them the knowledge they put into the exam; none other than the prejudicial teacher. That will work. Right?

Mr Gove, I agree that happiness can come from earned success and that the feeling of satisfaction derived from knowing that I have succeeded through hard work can be good, but your methodology to achieve this is flawed. Deeply, deeply, flawed. Introducing learning by rote and measuring success based on a one off, one chance, one hit, exam will ruin the education of hundreds of thousands of children in the UK. There are better ways to learn. Come into the 21st century and you might find them!

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