Who the main proponents against rote learning?
October 28, 2020 6:22 AM   Subscribe

Who are the main educationalists, authors (or people from any field) who are against rote learning?

By rote learning I mean the type of learning which is based on memorisation. The type of learning which is geared towards testing. The type of learning which fails learners when it comes to really understanding a subject matter and seeing "the bigger picture".

I'm looking for some authors, educationalists or people from any field who have put together cogent arguments on why real learning is about understanding and not memorising bite-sized chunks of information?
posted by jacobean to Education (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's a little old, but this was the theme of Charles Dickens's Hard Times.

'Superintendent Mr. Gradgrind opens the novel at his school in Coketown stating, "Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts."'
posted by johngoren at 6:30 AM on October 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Nearly all of progressive educational theory is propped against traditional pedagogy. Start with John Dewey, Rudolph Steiner, Paolo Freire, Maria Montessori, and Rabindranath Tagore, and work up to the present. A note on terminology: the progressive-sounding phrase "educational reform" often means the exact opposite of its denotation, and has been co-opted by business interests, publishers, politicians, and allies of privatization to describe a particular strain of traditional instruction coupled with 'new' tools and intensities.
posted by mr. remy at 6:49 AM on October 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Your question presumes a straw man: True, I don't know much about educational theory, but I'd be shocked to find anyone who said they cared only about how kids did on tests and didn't want them to really understand the subject matter. But there are people who argue that facts are necessary precursors to true understanding. See, for example, "How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:57 AM on October 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

I can't give you specific names, but what you are looking for are constructivists. Wikipedia has a page about it. This is probably your best starting point. That being said, this is a bit like the reading wars, phonics vs whole word. In the end, it's a bit of both. I'd say the same thing about this argument. I think there is a middle path between constructivism and rote learning that needs to be explored. Think about it in terms of math. Sure, students will probably understand math better if they appreciate the underlying concepts. But they are also going to have to learn basic math skills like addition and subtraction and times tables. While there are strategies to learn these, a bit of rote learning doesn't hurt as long as it doesn't veer into soul-crushing boredom! When you really think about it, learning most skills requires doing the same thing over and over again. Think playing a musical instrument or getting good at a sport. It's a combination of understanding the theory and practice.
posted by trigger at 7:05 AM on October 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

I think Bloom's taxonomy is still a common reference point for this, e.g. here, here, or here. At least the last link from Yale mentions others.
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:49 AM on October 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Your question is a little hard to answer in that there isn't a binary of people who are pro memorization and those opposed. There are a wide variety of perspectives on the purpose and form of education, as well differences in across the lifespan of a person. Education for a small child is necessarily different in form from education for adults.

The book Philosophy of Education by Nel Noddings has a nice overview of perspectives on the purposes and forms of education. You can use the Look Inside to see the table of contents for an overview of the different major areas, including some of the major thinkers in the area. John Dewey and the others mentioned by mr. remy are good places to start.
posted by past unusual at 9:04 AM on October 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Also, there are a few paradigms that come into play too. Postpostivism relies on the idea that there are universal truths of some kind, which we may only be able to describe or understand imperfectly at times but are worth learning. Constructivism, as mentioned by trigger, is the perspective that all knowledge is inherently constructed within a specific context. While a table may exist independent of observer (maybe? that gets into a realm of quantum theory), it isn't a table without the concept of a table. That then branches into how this idea is created and built socially by discourse over time (for more on that: The Social Construction of Reality by Berger and Luckmann).

Memorization may fit better with postpositivism, but it isn't out of the realm of possibility for someone who views knowledge as constructed as to see value in memorizing the knowledge within a specific context. On the student development side, Baxter-Magolda's Learning Partnership Model of self-authorship and Mezirow's Transformative Learning Theory are both focused on learners coming to recognize the way that knowledge is constructed. It's not really an argument against memorization, so much as a level of learning in which the learner peeks behind the curtain of what we mean by knowledge and where it comes from.
posted by past unusual at 9:20 AM on October 28, 2020

I agree that this is a straw man because there is no school of thought within education that aims to teach without understanding. Understood in good faith, it is clear that educationalists along any point of the progressive/traditional spectrum all want their students to learn, to become independent and critical learners, to transfer their knowledge onto other areas, to not only learn but know how to learn.

There is however often deep disagreement in how this may be achieved. I have seen proponents of inquiry models of learning claim that proponents of direct instruction want to create rote-learning robots, without any joy of learning, with no understanding, just the ability to recall memorised facts. That's not true, but the misunderstanding may arise from the importance of knowledge that the traditional school places. "Traditional" by the way, is a misnomer; proponents of direct instruction are trying to implement the research on the psychology of learning, often from the past few decades. There is now a strong body of evidence that inquiry-based teaching simply is not as effective at most stages of instruction. That is not to say there is no space for it, but that it is not the most effective way to introduce new topics and weave them within what a student already knows in order to encourage connections and understanding.

This is largely due to the fact that novice learners and expert learners approach the same topics in very different ways -- the more you know, the more connections you've made, the deeper your understanding. This allows you to cut through noise and see the deeper structure of concepts. But beginner learners need guidance to get there and a solid foundation of knowledge and facts -- this is what the research shows. This is particularly important for those kids, often from more deprived backgrounds, who are not exposed to as much reading, interactions, and knowledge at home. Their knowledge gap is bigger, and they often get left behind.

Some memorisation is advisable, e.g. times tables. This is so that when it's time for more complex facts, and a deepening of understanding of say, of fractions as division, students are not stuck trying to remember 5 x 6, unable to process more complex ideas. If they know all sorts of multiplication facts, how they're related with division, how they interact with addition and subtraction, how they interact with other facts, the list goes on... then it's much easier to understand why 2/5 of 30 is 12 (30÷ 5 x 2 = 12). Memorisation is just the beginning. Throughout, the aim is to interrogate the why, the how, the what else, the what if? This is also research-informed, and a vital part of creating understanding.

Having said that, I've also seen people on the traditional end assume that any and all inquiry models are always misplaced, fluffy, ineffective. That is also untrue. There is much more middle ground than it would originally appear. Just a small example, Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist who has done much to share the science of learning with educationalists (aka propose the "traditional" model), has sent his children to a Montessori school, where his wife teaches. He has spoken of the merits of a Montessori education, exactly because he believes it promotes the kind of deep understanding we want to instil. And indeed, Vygotsky's ideas (much loved by "progressives") are compatible with what the evidence currently points to, but of course there is much room for interpretation.

When I first trained as a teacher, I was much closer to the position suggested by your question. My position shifted in light of the evidence, but I'm still very passionately committed to creating the most capable, independent, happy, joyous learners I can.

With apologies for the length already, here's a reading list (all very much incompatible with rote learning):

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., Elliot Major, L. (2014) What makes great teaching? Sutton Trust. [Online]. Available at https://www.suttontrust.com/our-research/great-teaching/

Rosenshine, B., (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. American Educator, 36(1), p.12. Available at https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf

Willingham, D.T., (2009). Why don’t students like school? Because the mind is not designed for thinking. American Educator, 33(1), pp.4-13 Available at: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/WILLINGHAM%282%29.pdf 

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. and Clark, R.E., (2006). ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching.’ Educational psychologist, 41(2), pp.75-86.
Available at: https://www.math.ksu.edu/~bennett/onlinehw/qcenter/ksc.pdf

posted by mkdirusername at 12:57 PM on October 28, 2020 [8 favorites]

I just ran across an essay advocating for both memorization and constructivism -- from someone who was terrible at math well into adulthood, decided to learn it, and became a professor of engineering. She compares how she learned math and physics with how she learned Russian as a second language, and there's both. She refers to the two types of mastery as fluency and understanding.
posted by clew at 4:32 PM on October 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think it's easy to downplay the value of foundational knowledge if you have grown up in an environment where reading and research is encouraged. I grew up in a home where getting your first library card was a right of passage. Many kids just don't have that. As others have pointed out here, there needs to be a balance between inquiry based learning and knowledge acquisition.

I feel the big question though, is how do we motivate children to learn in a school environment? Learning about the world around you is a natural thing for a child to do. All children play. And yet when that school bell rings, many children run for their lives and breath a sigh of relief. I'm a school teacher and sometimes I feel that no matter how interesting I try and make my lessons, my students would ultimately rather choose to be somewhere else (although it must be said that recently post Covid19 lockdown, many of my students seemed very keen to return to school).

If this is true, and I think it certainly is during the final years of academic study when the pressures of final exams are looming, then what is the alternative? I think the answer might lie in finding ways for students to explore learning through being encouraged to find their own motivation. To find their own research threads to pull until the next is revealed.

During lockdown I took part in an online course offered by the Lifelong Kindergarten at MIT Media lab. Their Learning Creative Learning (LCL) course offers interaction with like minded educators interested in project based learning. This involves creating evocative learning environments where students can draw on a range of physical and knowledge resources to solve problems based on a challenge or theme which they can develop as a personal project.

Lifelong Kindergarten mostly promote this approach as a means to solve technological problems, such as learning to code using Scratch or solving engineering problems using Lego or similar (they have a professional partnership with Lego, a business arrangement that I don't feel entirely comfortable with in an educational environment). However as a Design teacher constantly looking for ways to engage my students with approaches that will resonate with my students, aspects of this approach certainly resonate with me. Also I love teaching myself how to do things (I did my 10 000 hours with a Lego like building system when I was a kid) and can easily imagine some kids loving this approach.

And then there are special needs environments. I teach Design to Deaf students. My students struggle with reading and writing - the 'traditional' modes of knowledge acquisition. This is due to a combination of sometimes economic poverty, growing up in households with very limited resources and having, as young adults, to navigate a difficult language environment - sign language is the official language of learning, but they are assessed on theory topics in English (a situation which will hopefully change).

For this reason I'm very interested in teaching approaches that recognise that intellectual understanding can be expressed (and even assessed) through producing projects of a physical nature. The learning of technique is part of this, the 'rote' learning part, but I feel this should provide a step towards an intellectual understanding of the world, how things work, and the impact they can make on our quality of life. And that this should be recognised as a valid higher level learning output, as apposed to only recognising writing as a valid form of intellectual assessment, as it so often is.
posted by BrStekker at 8:39 PM on October 28, 2020

Thanks you everybody. Those answers are a great.

I really appreciate people taking the time to post such comprehensive answers esp. mkdir and BrStekker. Really insightful and helpful.
posted by jacobean at 3:16 PM on November 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

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