Monday, March 25, 2013

Facts and Learning

When I did my teacher training in the late '80s, advocating any sort of rote learning (or indeed any learning) was about as wise as openly declaring your love for Margaret Thatcher. When I asked how kids were supposed to learn their tables or spellings, everyone laughed at my old fashioned foolishness. This is the modern world, our lecturer told us. There are new and more exciting ways to teach nowadays (and one day there may even be telephones that do not have to be plugged in to the wall.)

This is still the situation today. Critical thinking, group projects and working things out for yourself are far more important than simply learning facts. Why would children need to waste their time and clutter up their brains learning things when we have Google, which can tell us anything we wish to know.

Now my problem with all this is that if you have no facts to compare an answer with, then you can never judge it's authenticity. For example, if I ask you what the Gross Domestic Product of the UK was back in 1970 and you tell me that it was £25, then I need some related knowledge before I can say whether this is likely to be correct or not. We have been brainwashed in teaching to regard everyone's views as equally important and we think that simply having an opinion somehow has some value in itself.

Now whilst I'm not saying that everything should simply be learnt off by heart, I don't agree that it is a waste of time. Rote learning teaches young children to concentrate. We are forever hearing that pupils have much shorter concentration spans than they once had and this is blamed on the increased pace of modern life. Why don't we try and improve their concentration rather than just accepting it? There's also a nice calming effect which we could really do with later on as well.

Repeated practice is also immensely effective and enables you to recall a skill or fact years later. I still say "amo, amas, amat..." whenever anybody asks me whether I did any Latin at school, whereas I just stare blankly with my mouth open if they enquire about anything I did in Geography. I also never had a clue how long division worked, but was perfectly capable of doing it. Debates and peer-centric review? No, just learn and practice and you'll be fine.

(By the way, this post is not meant to offer any support for the teaching of Latin in school, which is a complete and utter waste of time).


Anonymous said...

"(By the way, this post is not meant to offer any support for the teaching of Latin in school, which is a complete and utter waste of time)."
I agree.

Anonymous said...

I agree there's a place for learning by rote. I despair that my 15 year old kids can't do simple multiplication in their heads - e.g. 6x4. Instead they stand there going err..., 6, 12, 18, 24. They usually get the right answer, but it takes ages. My primary school taught us by rote and it's still stuck 35 years later.

10ticks said...

Completely agree with you Frank, if you look at the maths results globally the UK is falling behind because we teach with exploratory learning. This is great for the top 10% of students but the rest would find it much easier to learn long division through repetition and would be a lot more likely to remember it! This is why countries such as Singapore out perform the UK every year.

Don said...

Sorry, but I beg to differ with you and your first anonymous commentator over the teaching of Latin in schools. I'm not suggesting that it should be taught the way it was in Grammar Schools fifty years ago, nor that the majority of pupils need to learn it. But it's not a waste of time: it's a very solid foundation on which an interest and aptitude for languages and linguistics can be built and strengthened.

Anonymous said...

latinam sugit

Kimpatsu said...

However, you clearly didn't memorise how to use the apostrophe correctly, Frank.

J. Wibble said...

Rote learning does have a place, times tables is probably the best example. Some elements of music theory such as time and key signatures are also well suited to this, meaning they can be used and a more detailed understanding of the finer details gradually builds over time.

As for Latin, as an attempt to try and make it seem relevant someone told us that if you went to Italy and spoke Latin you would be understood about 70% of the time. I suggested we could spend the compulsory 2 years learning Italian instead and then we could be understood 100% of the time. It would have been less silly if my school didn't actually teach Italian as a 6th form option.

My own theory is that my school still taught Latin because the head of Latin was clearly unhinged and nobody was willing to sack her in case she burned the school down or something.

Kimpatsu said...

I actually liked Latin in school. In his book, Frank describes every school as having one strict disciplinarian and one brilliant teacher who could engage even the craziest kids. In my case, they were the Geography and Latin teachers respectively.

Sue Sims said...

Studying A-Level Latin gave me a great foundation for learning other languages. And J.Wibble: I was in Rome over half-term, knowing no Italian at all, and was able to translate about 80% of the public notices, and communicate with some shop-keepers* by using Latin vocabulary.

*The rest spoke English!