The Common Core, the most significant change to American public education in a generation, was hailed by the Obama administration as a way of lifting achievement at low-performing schools. After decades of rote learning, children would become nimble thinkers equipped for the modern age, capable of unraveling improper fractions and drawing connections between Lincoln and Pericles.There it is again: the problem we don't have (decades of rote learning), being solved by the problem we do have (decades of thinking without knowing). Same old, same old, except they've upped the ante. Nimble thinkers, for pete's sake. At age 9.
Common Core, in 9-Year-Old Eyes By JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ | JUNE 14, 2014
For a while now, I've been planning to re-read Dan Willingham's "Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise."
Haven't done so yet, but I did pull out his definition of rote learning:
In his book Anguished English, Richard Lederer reports that one student provided this definition of "equator": "A managerie lion running around the Earth through Africa." How has the student so grossly misunderstood the definition? And how fragmented and disjointed must the remainder of the student's knowledge of planetary science be if he or she doesn't notice that this "fact" doesn't seem to fit into the other material learned?Re-reading this passage today, I feel less clarity than I did the first time around 10 years ago.
All teachers occasionally see this sort of answer, and they are probably fairly confident that they know what has happened. The definition of "equator" has been memorized as rote knowledge. An informal definition of rote knowledge might be "memorizing form in the absence of meaning." This student didn't even memorize words: The student took the memorization down to the level of sounds and so "imaginary line" became "managerie lion."
If rote learning is "memorizing form in the absence of meaning," then it's not clear to me that the words "menagerie lion" lack meaning, even as a definition of "equator."
"Menagerie lion" is the wrong meaning, of course, but it's a meaning, and if you didn't understand the words "imaginary line" when you heard your teacher speak them, but you did understand the words "running around the Earth through Africa," then "menagerie lion" is not a bad guess for the sound string ih-maj-in-air-ee-line.
Slightly off-topic, Jimmy (for passers-by, Jimmy is my oldest son & has autism) has always been echolalic. You would think that echolalia would be the hr-example of rote learning, but if you listen to him, you'll hear that the particularly phrases he's echoing are often directly related to what's going on. (Can't think of a good example at the moment - sorry.)
Now I'm wondering about the word "parroting" -- do we know for a fact that parrots have memorized form without meaning? Having once spent a day with a parrot who probably spoken English (including conjugated verbs), I don't think we do.
Memorizing piIt strikes me that memorizing digits of pi is a good example of rote memorization, although the issue with pi isn't precisely that you're focusing on form in the absence of meaning. You can understand pi, or at least know what pi is, and still have to rote-memorize the digits. (Or do math people see this differently?)
Anyway, the point is: memorizing digits of pi is hard. Not easy. It's much easier to memorize material that has meaning.
Which raises the question: how much rote memorization -- memorization of form in the complete absence of meaning -- do students actually do?
How much rote memorization did students do in the past, when memorization was seen as a good thing (or at least an essential thing)?
And how much do students absolutely have to do?
I don't know how to answer that question. New vocabulary words in every subject have to be learned by rote because the link between form and meaning is arbitrary. Second language vocabulary has to be learned by rote.
Math, it seems to me, may actually require less rote memorization than any other subject. (Or is that wrong once you get past the elementary grades?)
So...how much does it all add up to?