If you ask romantic progressive educators to tell you what they think about rote learning, you will probably hear a long list of the dangers of having students recite “mere facts” about which they have little or no understanding. With such a description, one conjures up images of teachers standing in front of students having them recite, from memory and often in unison, canned responses to predetermined questions.
Perhaps most readers are nodding their heads in agreement. Given the choice between meaningful and engaging lessons and mindlessly memorizing facts, virtually everyone would choose meaningful understanding as the proper educational goal.
The main problem with this depiction of rote learning and practice is that it is only half true and does not reflect the real world of learning. To suggest that rote learning automatically precludes deeper understanding is false. Further, critics of rote learning often fail to ask whether the absence of certain kinds of rote learning and well-developed practice exercises makes it impossible to gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
To illustrate the importance of these educational strategies, let us examine the way that musicians learn to play their instruments. In order to play a musical instrument, students must spend considerable time learning how to hold and play it properly. This is a matter of knowing the proper techniques and practicing them until they become habitual so students can produce a controlled musical sound. There is also the need to identify and use some basic symbols and notations competently.
Students who want to play the flute, for example, will spend hours learning how to hold the instrument, how to blow correctly, and how to move their fingers to obtain the correct notes. Potential flute players must perfect a considerable number of skills and they must know a number of important things about music before they are able to play complex musical pieces. Most expert players have taken thousands of hours to develop and hone their understanding of music and their performance skills.
Obviously, in order to read music, students need to identify the notes that are associated with the various lines on the score, and they need to distinguish between sharps and flats. In addition, they need to know about treble and bass clefs, about whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes, rests, and many other things. In short, potential musicians need to know, by memory, the meanings of many symbols that appear on sheets of music.
They also need to have practiced the skills needed to turn these symbols into pleasing music. Undoubtedly, it takes many hours of memorization and practice to produce the music competently as a composer intended. To play a musical instrument competently requires that students spend many hours practicing and perfecting their skills. Much of this practice, of course, is highly repetitive; some would even say that these practice exercises and rehearsals are boringly repetitive.
Now imagine a music teacher with romantic progressive ideas who argues that all the musical knowledge and skills previously mentioned are inappropriate because they rely on rote learning and boring practice. As a result, this teacher argues that these techniques fail to help students play “real music” because their creativity and originality is inhibited. For this teacher, music students do not need to practice scales or continually repeat songs until they play them correctly.
These students do not need to practice holding their instruments correctly because it is too tedious and too boring, and more importantly, it diminishes their creativity. Furthermore, memorizing all the symbols on the sheet music is not needed because it prevents students from developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of music. Instead, this music teacher would simply urge students to play complex musical scores without burdening them with any rote learning and boring practice sessions.
If you know anything about the rigorous training and sustained practice that professional musicians engage in, your common sense has already recognized that we are being deliberately ridiculous. But, we are simply testing the application of the simple-minded critique of rote learning and practice argued by romantic progressives. Most people probably know that in order to become competent amateur musicians, students need to practice many, many hours, and they must be able to apply their knowledge to produce a musical result.
In fact, very few people become experts at anything without spending a considerable amount of time learning and practicing, first the basics, and then more advanced skills. As this example illustrates, rote learning and serious practice are not the enemy of deeper understanding and creative expression; rather, rote learning and practice typically provide the foundation for deeper understanding and more creative expression.
Excerpted from What’s Wrong with Our Schools: and How We Can Fix Them by Michael Zwaagstra, Rodney Clifton, and John Long. Zwaagstra and Clifton are research fellows with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and are, respectively, a high school social studies teacher and a University of Manitoba education professor.