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  • June 2007
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Rote Teaching is a Waste of Time

I recently had a discussion with another educator – someone who did not know me or my views on education. The conversation reinforced an idea that has been slowly growing over the past few years. Nobody (Really: nobody) seems to think that the rote learning methods that are currently in vogue in elementary schools are any good.

Sure, everyone agrees that there are facts that just have to get learned – especially in Math (like multiplication tables), but everyone that I have spoken with over the past few years has insisted that it is more important for the students to learn the concepts behind the material. Once they know the concepts, simply using them will teach the kids the stuff that is currently trying to be taught by rote. How many of today’s adults were force-fed multiplication tables? Probably most of us. How many of us were force fed “math facts” – addition and subtraction tables? Probably none of us. But I’d bet pretty good change that most adults can add without having to actually “figure out” the problem – we have internalized the concepts, and then the “facts” part gets embedded in our brains by simply using the skills. If we don’t use the skills, the “facts” fade, but hey, thats OK because we still have the basic skill, and can solve a problem if we have a sudden need.

So, lets take a look at how our school kids are taught. If you are in elementary school, you spend a lot of your time filling out math worksheets – with the stress being on your ability to quickly spit out the correct answer. It is very unusual to have something presented in a way that requires the student to actually solve a problem or apply the underlying principle. As long as they can fill out the worksheet quickly and accurately, they are doing great. Unfortunately, this same methodology is often used on older kids as well. I don’t know how many chemistry classes force kids to memorize large portions of the periodic chart. The kids end up learning a bunch of trivia. It has as much usefulness as memorizing the final scores of every baseball game ever played by the local little league. Most Biology classes take the same approach, as do most middle and high school math, science, history and social studies classes.

What would happen if the time spent memorizing the trivia was used to teach the student to do something that required them to use the periodic table (or a classification system, or derive a logarithm, or geometric proof? The kids would learn a skill, and after they had to look up the valence of Oxygen for the 750th time, they’d know it (it happens to be 2). The difference is that they wouldn’t have wasted a ton of time memorizing stuff on the periodic table that they will never use – like the valence of the synthetic elements. And of course, if they run into a situation where they need to find the valence of some element, they’ll know how to do it.

I chose to use valence as an example, because I used to teach an Introductory Biology class at University. As part of the class, the students had to learn to ballance some basic chemistry equations, be able to predict structures of certain important compounds, and be generally aware of basic chemistry. Many of my students were incensed because my exams never gave points for knowing the trivia. Students earned points by being able to actually apply what I had taught to solve problems that they had never seen before. It turned out that many of the supposedly “best” students were nothing more than young Vomit-O-trons. They could regurgitate anything I had ever said in class, but they were completely incapable of applying the information to solve a problem. These students were livid when they found out that I would provide periodic tables and other similar resources at the exam. After all, it wasn’t “fair” to them because the other students hadn’t memorized all that trivia (I actually had students tell me this). When I explained to the class that I was not interested in the volume of random facts that they had accumulated, but was much more interested in how they used those facts, there was always an outcry. One of my favorite (and highly predictable) after-exam discussions usually boiled down to the student stating “But you didn’t cover that in class”. The reply usually was an explanation of how it had been covered in class, but that the examples used in class were not the material on the test. Sure, we discussed how to predict the molecular structure of a sugar in class, and drew a bunch of them on the blackboard. But on the test the students were asked to predict the molecular structure of a small protein.

 These were the students with top SAT scores, High school GPA’s in the high 3 to 4.0 range, and they were nothing more than biological tape recorders. Unfortunately, many of them suffered huge emotional stress because they were suddenly being expected to do something that they had never learned to do, and they were failing miserably at it. Did their schools do them any favors by ensuring that they had learned all the trivia they would need to ace their SATs? Sure, they got into their first-choice University, but about half of them couldn’t handle having to learn to actualy think, and dropped out.

Another population of my University students came from a local non-traditional school. These kids (for the most part) knew how to think – their school was a more-or-less self directed program of study, so when they decided to auger into something, they really did. Of course, many of them lacked the discipline to truly auger in to something they weren’t particularly interested in, but hey, every program has its weaknesses.

So, what is a teacher (or parent) to do? First of all, throw out that pile of worksheet masters. All they really do is give you an easy way to get the kids sitting around doing busy work. Same thing for all of those feel-good art-project-thinly-disguised-as-learning type projects. Accept the fact that if you are going to truly teach your student will ask question – many of which you will not be able to answer. This is a good thing. Yes, it means you have to do the extra work to go find the answer – or better yet: teach the kid how to go find the answer, and let him/her teach you something. Parents, you’re pretty much in the same boat. You can’t really expect the schools to change the way they work just because you want your kid to get a good education. Public schools (and many private schools) teach to the slowest, least prepared kid in the class. They simply are not equipped to do anything else. So, accept the fact that your school is really simply a daycare facility, and that you will have to be the primary educator in your kids life. Yep, we’re all tired at the end of the day, and vegging in front of the tube is easy. Suck it up. Kill the TV, cancel one of your kid’s after school activities, and spend some time every week teaching your kid. Find something that is interesting to him/her, and encourage them to explore it. If it’s something you don’t know about (good chance),  go to the library. If you love near a college or University, call the faculty in the appropriate department. Make sure that Junior is involved in all of these activities, because what you are doing is showing (Read: teaching) your child that even if you don’t know something, you can find it out.

It is impossible to know everything, so we have to teach our students (and children) how to figure things out for themselves. If we are doing anything else, we are not teaching, we’re simply filling time and brains with trivia.


One Response

  1. totally agree

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