The ‘R word’ that’s taboo in learning

If you’re a teacher, instructor, educator, trainer, or instructional designer of any sort, you’ve probably heard “remembering” or rote-learning talked about as something that died out with bustles and crinolines and corsets. “Teach them how to think, not what to think,” say all the best educators.

By extension, many teachers assume that anything requiring memorization is…low-value.

Instead of obsessing over learning facts, let’s teach children how to think,” says Jim Al-Khalili in The Guardian (or, more accurately, the subeditor who wrote that headline), and few could disagree with him. Teaching children how to think is a good thing, right? I can’t disagree with any single sentence in the article. It’s all reasonable.

“Why spend so much of the school science curriculum loading up children’s brains with facts about the world that they can just look up anyway?” he asks.

I do have a response to this:

Just because they can, doesn’t mean they will.

And just because the information is “out there” doesn’t mean that they will know that it exists or know how to access it.

For anyone like Mr al-Khalili who thinks that schools today give too much importance to facts, consider the following:

Asking Harvard Kids Simple Questions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bf_2FUdRFsY

Americans can’t answer these EASY questions!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKqkC81Y5d0

We expect some people to remember some kinds of things.

If you went to the doctor with a weird pain in your arm, and the doctor said, “Hang on a minute. Let me just Google this quickly…pain…in…upper…arm. Got it!”

That sounds far-fetched, but if learners have never been expected to memorize anything early in their education, there’s at least a chance that they’ll find it harder later.

Why not do both?

Teachers seem to think that you can teach facts that require memorization OR teach thinking, but, for some strange reason, not both.

Why instead of facts? Why not teach them facts and how to think about them? (To be fair, that is just what Mr Al-Khalili does suggest, but that message is somewhat buried in all the anti-facts rhetoric.)

The mental picture of rote-learning without any understanding is so strong that we forget that memorization and understanding are possible at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive.

Think about a base of facts and information as furniture in the room of a learner’s brain. If the learner has a structure of facts and information about how the world works (the countries of the world, history, some understanding of maths and numbers, facts about science, the elements, basic chemistry), their mind is like a well-furnished room with tables and shelves and hooks. When new information comes in, it can be placed on the appropriate shelf, in relation to prior information the learner has. It’s not isolated. It’s one in an interconnected web of facts that help the learner make sense of the world as a whole. The base of facts helps a learner make connections between their existing knowledge and the new information.

A furnished room with shelves, tables, and sofas
Photo by Charlotte May from Pexels

If a learner lacks this base of facts, however, their brain is like an empty room. Any new fact is a discrete piece of information that has no relationship to anything else in the web of knowledge. The learner doesn’t know where it fits. New pieces of information float around at random, each an isolated factoid bobbing around by itself. It’s harder to form a connected picture of the world if you don’t already have other information to connect it to.

Plastic balls in different colours float in a swimming pool

In conclusion, don’t dismiss all memorization as bad.

Everything is good in moderation, rote-learning too.

Extra: Here’s my mental picture of the ‘learner-driven approach’ to education.

I don’t know how to drive and I don’t know where to go.
I don’t know how to drive and I don’t know where to go.

Again, it’s good in moderation, but it’s not always a good idea.

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