Last night, I attended evensong at Skeffington church in Leicestershire, where they still adhere to the 1662 Prayer Book. I was ten minutes late and couldn’t find any prayer or hymn books, so I sidled into a back pew in order not to distract anyone. I soon realised that I knew every word of the service off by heart, mainly because of eight years at boarding school, repeating the same words every Sunday in chapel. As the words flowed through my brain, I was freed up to really think about their meaning, to enjoy the language and lyricism, to relish how the words of the Psalms lend themselves to the natural meter of singing voices.
Learning by rote is a system of learning by repetition in order to recall information quickly. Detractors of this system argue that simply learning facts ‘off pat’ doesn’t give the student any deeper understanding of the subject in hand. This is certainly true of topics where the content is subjective or requires a philosophical interpretation; there would be no merit in learning to recite the words ‘Jane Eyre’ without giving a second thought to the language, the plot or the meaning of the book.
However, there are many other areas where learning by rote is absolutely essential and, once the information is firmly embedded in the memory, one is then free to build upon this information and study in more detail. Children need to acquire basic knowledge so they may continue to develop skills like critical thinking and creativity. A child could not learn to read without learning, off by heart, the 26 abstract symbols which make up the alphabet and the English language itself has many word formations which can only be learned by rote as they break the rules of spelling.
Arithmetic facts enable you to ascertain immediately if a problems is likely to be right. A calculator is only as good as the information that has been tapped in and mistakes can be identified if you have an idea of what the answer should be.
Last year, I discovered that my, then, 12 year old son didn’t know his multiplication tables. Since I had never been asked to practice them at home with him, I had assumed that they were being taught at school. It was only when he monumentally failed the maths element of an examination that I realised that he didn’t know them. He was finding every aspect of maths incomprehensible because he didn’t have the firm foundation of immediate recall of simple tables. We all now recite tables every morning on the journey into school.
The same is true of poetry; although it was a pain in the arse to have to learn poetry off by heart at school, I now wish that I had learned more of it, as well as quotes from plays and books. There is something wonderful about hearing someone recite a poem out loud from memory, something spontaneous and personal, that brings the words to life and can illustrate a point so succinctly.
And don’t forget that we learn by rote subconsciously. How many songs do we know simply because we’ve heard them so many times that we know the words without realising that we’ve learned them? The learning of information can often be reinforced by the introduction of music or rhythm. I remember trying to drum the chemical elements into my head by setting them to a simple tune and it worked.
Learning by rote has been out of fashion for some time, but by skipping this critical step, young people are denied the joy of owning facts. The problem is not the facts, nor the time it takes to master the facts. The problem is in making the retention of the facts the ultimate aim, rather than a springboard for deep conversation, critical thinking and creativity.