The Case For Rote Learning — In Schools And Elsewhere

Rote learning, or learning by heart, got a bad name quite some decades ago. A Time Magazine article in 1986 showed Japanese schoolchildren in a classroom, with words and numbers in neat columns on the blackboard. The caption read, “...In Japan, rote learning is still emphasised...” The article implied that in the West, rote learning had gone out of fashion, having been replaced by critical thinking.

But whether in Japan or elsewhere, why has learning by rote been emphasised for centuries? What virtue can there be to “learning without thinking,” or “memorising without understanding”? The perception for many decades now has been that memorising is a mechanical activity — and therefore useless. 

UK Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, in his drive to introduce a system of tougher examinations, wants to “put rote learning at its core.” Gove quotes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham: “Memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding… Only when facts and concepts are committed … to the working memory, so that … no effort is required to work things out from first principles, do we really have a secure hold on knowledge.”

In other words, memory is the foundation upon which understanding can be built. Dissenters include Tina Isaacs, senior lecturer at the Institute of Education. She says, “You can never say that knowing your times-tables means you know maths.” To that, we might say that knowing the tables makes it a lot easier to learn mathematics. Advanced mathematics would be extremely difficult for someone who needed a calculator each time 4 and 9 had to be multiplied. 

Justin Snider says at The Huffington Post about the sensory overload we experience the first time we look at something: “You see so much more on a second, third and fourth viewing… You don't truly see anything the first time you watch it. The same, Snider says, applies to music.

To me, that seems to be how memorising works. We cannot really think about something if our minds have been exposed to it only once. Thought and memory are two different things — but memory (which is cemented, at some point, by repetition) indirectly aids thought.

The last word is this gem from Kumonvictoria.ca: “I do not think any of us would be interested in the services of a doctor who had not yet mastered the names of the parts of the body. A mechanic who hasn't learned the names of engine parts isn't going to get much business.”