The Sunday Times

November 18th, 2012

Repeat after me: our children will fail unless they learn by rote

In Greek mythology the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, daughter of heaven and earth and lover of Zeus, was the mother of the nine muses; in their turn, these daughters were the goddesses of literature, arts and science. In this world-view, in other words, memory is the mother of all thought: learning, achievement and understanding cannot exist without it.

The ancient Greeks, as so often, were right. Ask any musician, actor, chemist, mathematician, pharmacist or politician. Ask any heating engineer, dancer, Paralympian, draughtsman, gardener, nurse or cook. Memory is acquired (in important part) through learning by heart, or by repetition or rote learning.

Yet, in one of the strangest and silliest aberrations of progressive educational thought in the West, rote learning has become anathema.

It has become such a bad word that the normally courageous Michael Gove in his excellent speech on Wednesday about exams and how children best learn did not dare to use it, even though he was passionately advocating it. Such is the repressive power of the educational establishment and its mindset.

The self-styled progressives of the educational establishment believe that rote learning is mindless, mechanical parroting — the enemy of child-centred learning, of creativity, self-discovery, the development of critical analysis, the understanding of context and all the rest. Their passionate objections are given dramatic shape by Charles Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind from Hard Times, whose name is regularly invoked in horror by people who ought to think more carefully.

Readers may remember the ludicrous moment when Gradgrind, the headmaster, demands from a wretched pupil the definition of a horse. “Quadruped. Graminivorous,” the boy recites mindlessly. “Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

“Now girl number twenty,” says Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”

Dickens knows and we know — it is the whole point of the caricature — that this is not all there is to a horse. Of course not. But it is nonetheless useful basic knowledge. It is knowledge that has been memorised so deeply as to need no conscious retrieval, like musical scales and times tables, like the alphabet and scientific formulae. A biologist, a vet, a palaeontologist and any buyer of an ageing pony could not afford to be without it.

Such information is necessary but, of course, not sufficient. Facts are necessary to learning and to life but they not sufficient. It’s here that “progressives” seem to me to be making a crass logical error. “Old-fashioned” defenders of rote learning think it necessary, but — they fully admit — not sufficient for wider learning. But muddled “progressives” think that if rote learning is not sufficient, it cannot be necessary.

Rote learning must be reclaimed. In his speech last week Gove several times quoted one of his educational gurus, the American cognitive psychologist Professor Daniel Willingham, who specialises in learning and memory. Willingham says: “Research from cognitive science has shown that the sort of skills teachers want for students — such as the ability to analyse and think critically — require extensive factual knowledge.”

There can be no factual knowledge without deliberate memorising as well as other kinds of more passive memory. So memorising, according to Willingham and Gove, is a precondition of understanding. Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the memory, so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles, do we have a secure hold on knowledge. But in our culture, even in the best private schools, rote learning seems to be in the intellectual doghouse. Schools don’t promote it; exams don’t test it; children don’t do it.

Educationalists who are against rote learning should ask themselves why our schools have been slipping so quickly down international league tables. Employers complain that school leavers lack essential skills and most universities feel obliged to offer remedial teaching to ignorant students. These poor students are handicapped by a lack of essential internalised knowledge, rather like ambitious violinists who don’t know their scales by heart.

Almost half of all adults in Briton have the mathematical skills of an 11-year-old, according to the media mathematician Alex Bellos. It is wrong. And it’s one of the reasons why students from cultures that don’t despise rote learning are overtaking the disadvantaged children of the rich West.

Westerners always marvel at how good east Asians are at doing sums: they are at the top of the international numeracy rankings. In a fascinating BBC Radio 4 programme called The Land of the Rising Sums, Bellos recently set out to discover why.

Among many other fascinating cultural reasons — Japanese has a more rational, user-friendly way of counting than many western languages, and the Asian use of the abacus develops different parts of the brain, including those used for visualising — he discovered that all Japanese toddlers are taught to sing a kind of numbers nursery rhyme call kuku. It is, in fact, a song of times tables, and they sing it by rote in groups, long before they understand what it means.

This way, it seems Japanese children internalise their tables perfectly, permanently and happily, unlike British children. Bellos tested Japanese office workers in a bar; all were number perfect, and one explained it was the memory of the kuku music that made it impossible for her to forget the tables.

It is perfectly clear that neuroscientists still have a great deal of research to do into how learning works, and which parts of the brain can be stimulated in which ways. But it is also clear beyond a shadow of doubt that rote learning works and that children’s memories absorb and retain far more than those of adults.

To prevent children from memorising by heart — poems, scales, letters, grammar, equations, verbs, vocabulary, dance notation, prayers, historical dates, the periodic table and anything else of interest — is deliberately to close their minds and weaken their powers of thought. Let’s not forget Mnemosyne.