Educationally Speaking Rote is Out – Thinking is In! Why? Have you looked around lately? Everywhere, kids are on their mobile devices and from there they can go find any fact in just a few seconds! Rote memorization has never been my style. Back in the day, Mr. Funnel, my 7th-grade social studies teacher, was a genius with dates and events in history – but I walked out of his class in June and never understood the “Big Picture” about any historical event. I was way too busy memorizing trivial information to regurgitate on his constant quizzes. Just recently, I asked my own group of sixth graders to define democracy and they were stumped. BTW, to learn something “by rote,” according to the Random House dictionary, is to learn it “from memory, without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way.”
The Common Core Standards have changed everything. With such limited time to teach, the debate about what to teach and how to teach is causing a shift. Project-based learning and student driven work are so desperately needed right now. If we hope to have kids ready for what awaits them, we need to turn the curriculum upside down and start teaching our kids how to be smart, how to think, problem solves, work creatively and collaboratively and put the concept of rote memorization to bed! Amen.
As a special education teacher, I can vouch for how utterly absurd memorization of trivial facts about mitosis or the Pinckney’s Treaty is for a special needs child. We use mnemonic devices, and any other trick in the book, to help our students’ pass tests that even I would fail if given before we began that particular unit of study. Seriously, if we are studying any civil war, we need to make sure kids understand that a civil a war is a war within the same nation state or republic. And while we are at it, let us make sure kids know the difference between capitalism and communism. The BIG picture is the point, let’s save trivia for Jeopardy.
Why is this still the custom or norm? Because it is much easier — faster, cheaper — to determine whether you know when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) than whether you can convincingly explain how and why the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for World War II. Yes, the curriculum has narrowed (even Arne Duncan admits it!), the “what-gets-tested-is-what-gets-taught” phenomenon is very much alive, and there’s a lack of critical-thinking skills among today’s young people. There also needs to be a gradual shift from academic subjects being rote learned and instead approached with an emphasis on analytical and critical thinking skills. No doubt this is a controversial issue, and yes some things like the multiplication tables need to be memorized. Annie Murphy Paul’s insightful blog post, What Rote Learning Is, And What It Isn’t, gives a better understanding of the semantics surrounding the word rote.
As with any new practice, controversy surrounds the Common Core State Standards. How do we determine what kids need to “know by heart” and what they don’t? Well, in my book, those hearts are all different. So, if you have a child passionate about the arts, they should have a different knowledge base than someone who is more right brained and mathematically inclined. The ultimate goal of the CCSS is to get every child college and career ready. Personally, I find this concept ludicrous, not everyone needs to go to college. Vocational training should be ramped up and getting just as much attention. Why can’t a vocation be a career? There needs to be a shift from academic subjects being rote learned. Instead, we need to approach learning with an emphasis on analytical and critical thinking skills in order for our students to be ready for life in the 21st century. This article, Habits of Mind: These Do Not Include Rote Memorization, Studying To The Test, or Worrying About Funding, by Margaret Chodos-Irvine is a testament that schools need to be focusing more on thinking and less or rote.
The New York Times author, Virginia Heffernan, offered up this suggestion in lieu of drill & kill, Here’s something I’ve found that makes drilling not boring: colorful, happy apps. Apps devoted to specific subjects always have the right answers in reserve. They unfailingly know stuff that might elude more fallible human drillers, like atomic weights, the order of cranial nerves and African geography. And they can make almost any exercise feel like a video game. Looking for happy apps? Visit our review pages, we have plenty to share on Teachers With Apps.