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Remember good old rote learning?

pedagogy | Published in TESpro on 16 November, 2012 | By: Michael Shaw

This page is frequently an impassioned grump against those who seem set on reducing lessons to old-fashioned rote learning. But what if getting pupils to commit lots of information to memory wasn’t such a bad thing?

Yes, we should be worried about some of the current moves to turn the clock back on assessment. The planned longer exams for teenagers look as if they will reward only those who are best at memorising and regurgitating information.

However, the education secretary’s plans to encourage primary pupils to recite poetry by heart have met with little resistance from schools. Most do it already, and those who don’t normally think it’s, well … a nice thing to do, perhaps nostalgically muttering half-remembered lines of verse.

Similarly, primary teachers have yet to take to the streets in protest at the recommendation that children learn their times tables up to 12x12 rather than the minimum of 10x10 set by the national curriculum. Again, most primary schools do it already and can see the benefit (even just because our system of time and months is still based around the number 12).

Some information still needs to be committed to memory. Access to the internet may be making us less reliant on our memories, but just as there is still a place for core knowledge in the age of Wikipedia, we have to help the next generation resist the temptation to outsource their memories to Google.

The best way to improve pupils’ ability to retain information may not be rote teaching, or even flashcards and mnemonics, although they still have a place. Making better use of the brain’s proclivity for imagery can also yield results, as deputy headteacher Jonathan Hancock, a two-time Guinness World Record holder and former World Memory Champion, discovered (pages 4- 7).

So memorisation should be one of the skills our schools help to promote. It just should not be the only skill.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro

michael.shaw@tes.co.uk @mrmichaelshaw.


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