Drill, baby, drill
The second reason in the WSJ article “Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results” is the one that surprises me the most. As an educator, I prize students’ thinking independently and creatively and bemoan when all students are able to do is memorize and spit out facts that they passively receive from me and from textbooks. My most rewarding experiences in the classroom are when students synthesize what they have learned from me with their own ideas, and then answer questions in novel and personal ways.
In response to a valid concern that we teach children to do more than just memorize, many educators, at all levels, have eschewed practices that require children to memorize and retain facts. But thinking creatively and independently requires factual content to think about, and students who lack a robust, comprehensive factual knowledge base struggle to attain to higher levels of thought and discourse. Thus, we should not spurn the hard work of memorizing facts. While rote memorization should not be our primary goal in education, it should be embraced as a necessary, indispensable means to developing “life-long learners.”
This is especially true at the elementary school level when children’s capacity for memorization is at its highest. Classical pedagogy has long recognized that the “grammar” stage of education should take advantage of children’s ability to assimilate into long-term memory enormous amounts of information. This comprehensive network of facts then becomes the soil in which the fruit of critical and creative thinking grows later in their education. Elementary schools err greatly when they emphasize the “higher-order” thinking skills of analysis and synthesis at the expense of rote learning on the basis that this is required in adulthood: developmentally children simply are not ready for this because of their embryonic capacity for formal, abstract thought.
There seems to be a renewed interest in rote learning at this level, driven by current research that demonstrates its value. The WSJ article cites research that shows clearly that the struggles U.S. students have with solving complex math problems, relative to their peers in rival countries like China, are attributable to their “lack of fluency in basic addition and subtraction,” which is a result of not being required to memorize. Similarly, I have seen first hand how high school age children are limited in their ability to do algebra because they cannot perform more basic mathematical operations in their heads, but instead rely on a calculator even for simple calculations.
We have been encouraged recently that our children have been required at school to use an online math program called Xtra Math to help them memorize simple addition and subtraction facts. It requires 100% mastery in a single setting to advance, and marks problems wrong if children take more than 3 seconds to answer. The whole point is memorization of facts to support learning more advance topics later. Such rote learning should be taking place in all subject areas: the order of U.S. Presidents in Social Studies, the elements of the periodic table in Science, spellings of irregular words in Language. If you find that your children’s school has made the mistake of deemphasizing memorization, raise concerns with the teacher and/or administrators. In addition to advocating for this at school, find ways to supplement at home, requiring that they memorize even more than what they have to at school. We occasionally have our children memorize large portions of Scripture, which we should do more of, and now that I am writing this I think we should have them memorize poetry and excerpts of historical documents like the Declaration of Independence.
Rote learning is tedious, requiring a lot of discipline and persistence. It can be “boring.” But it is easier for your children to do it now than later. And remember Reason 1: a little pain is good for you!