Rote learning is bad – and other myths about education

The education system needs to produce 21st century learners, but what if we are going about achieving that in entirely the wrong way?

One and one makes two: Rote learning used to be the only way children were taught

One and one makes two: Rote learning used to be the only way children were taught

Tue, May 13, 2014, 02:00

There are all sorts of statements in education that are taken as fact: rote learning is a bad thing; the 21st century changes everything when it comes to education; we should teach transferable skills; knowing facts is less important now because you can always look them up.

But what if those statements are wrong? What if, in our quest to produce critical thinkers and problem solvers, educators are going about things in completely the wrong way?

A new book, Seven Myths About Education, claims this is exactly what is happening in modern education. Written by teacher and educationalist Daisy Christodoulou, it explodes a lot of the received wisdom in current education theory using evidence from cognitive science about how people learn and how higher order skills develop. The book has created quite a stir in the UK and continues to provoke debate.

The seven myths in the title are: Facts prevent understanding; teacher-led instruction is passive; the 21st century fundamentally changes everything; you can always just look it up; we should teach transferable skills; projects and activities are the best way to learn, and teaching knowledge is indoctrination.

In her book, Christodoulou lays out the case for each one being part of current educational theory and practice, and then proceeds to demonstrate why she believes each to be a myth.

Although based on the UK system, Christodoulou’s arguments raise questions about much of what is going on in education reform in Ireland at the moment. The book, for an Irish reader, does not say that we are doing everything wrong. It does, however, raise profound questions about some of the received wisdom in current educational thought, and whether we should pause and reassess exactly how we should be going about educating our students.

Seven Myths is a symptom of the increasing polarisation between modern methods that emphasise understanding, conceptual knowledge and skills, whereby a teacher is expected to guide and facilitate learning, and the older style of imparting knowledge whereby students learn facts, cementing them into their long-term memories and the teacher is the instructor, the person who imparts knowledge.

Christodoulou argues that it is impossible for the newer methods to achieve their grand aim of producing 21st-century thinkers and learners without significant groundwork based on knowledge, the imparting of it, the learning of it, the building upon it.

In Ireland, we are moving away from the idea that teachers should be given a set programme of knowledge to impart to students. Curricula at all levels have become far less prescriptive in terms of what knowledge should be taught.

An interesting example is the eternal chestnut of the primary-school curriculum for the teaching of Irish in English-medium schools. Teachers are not provided with a teaching framework that builds up knowledge from scratch. Instead they are encouraged to use the language, in the classroom and as a natural part of the school day. There is an overarching idea that children will absorb the language by hearing it.

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