The Leaving Cert and ‘rote learning’

Mon, Aug 18, 2014, 01:30

Sir, – In line with what is now an annual event the “Girls beat boys to the honour in all but nine of the 59 Leaving Cert papers” article (August 15th) will probably evoke the usual explanatory speculation.

Top executives and professors tend to complain that the Leaving Cert favours those who rote-memorise and rote-learn. Though boys could do both at least as easily as girls, generally they have been less adept than girls in ignoring those complaints. I say, “generally”, because obviously the boys who get top marks – and go on later to complain about precisely what got them to their top work positions – also rote-memorise and rote-learn brilliantly.

The complainers don’t realise that successful memorisation at all life stages must use rote memorisation, and that all successful learning must use rote learning. So great is the general ignorance in that respect, that a longer letter would be needed to explain if the explanation were not to be misunderstood.

In any case it would add up to this message for students (and their parents/guardians) at all levels: treat your work as opportunities to become brilliant rote-memorisers and rote-learners; your tragedy is that too few of your teachers are equipped to impart the simple related drills which could help you to be brilliant users of these skills. Yours, etc,


Sandford Road,


Dublin 6

Sir, – I wasn’t surprised to see the usual criticism of the Leaving Cert as being too dependent on rote learning. This criticism is usually trotted out without any substantiation. Having taught for 20 years I don’t know any student who learns things without understanding them and then applying this knowledge in a variety of ways. It acts as a platform for expansion. As Daisy Christodoulou puts it her book Seven Myths about Education: “Saying all these negative things about rote learning [versus understanding] is very unhelpful. The two things are not in opposition. It’s not that we should spend time on conceptual understanding instead of spending it on learning times tables. It’s by spending time on times tables that you’ll develop the conceptual understanding.”

Christodoulou goes onto critique other favorites of our of our academic elite – projects and “active learning”. This she does with a mixture of common sense and extensive research which contradicts much of what the elite proposes. I would recommend that your readers to pick up a copy of her book before we throw out a relatively well-performing system and replace it with the latest fad. We need more minority voices – the consensus is often wrong – quite wrong. Yours, etc,


Giltspur Wood,

Killarney Road,


Co Wicklow