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?

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.

It is a nice thought, but Christodoulou argues that according to a mounting body of evidence about how the brain works, this sort of approach is unlikely to work.

“There is something nice about the idea that we have this innate talent that just has to be drawn out and that that’s enough,” she says. “It’s the idea that learning is natural, that it comes easily and that if we leave children to it they will just develop it naturally. I’m saying that actually learning is not natural. In a lot of ways it is artificial.”

Seven Myths argues that knowledge underpins all education – 21st century or otherwise. Teaching and learning explicit, factual knowledge and then building systematically on that knowledge is how we equip students with the foundation for all the higher order skills we want them to have.

Myth: Facts prevent understanding

We have never heard the term, facts prevent understanding, put as baldly as that, but there is undeniably a perceived conflict between rote learning or memorisation, and understanding, as if one prevents the other. Christodoulou argues that memorising doesn’t prevent understanding, but rather is vital to it.

“Saying all these negative things about rote learning [versus understanding] is very unhelpful,” she says. “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. Having times tables, basic maths facts, phonics, spelling and grammatical structures really well established will allow you to speed up later on.”

According to Christodoulou, education needs to take advantage of what we know about memory and how it works. People have working memory and long-term memory. Working memory can manage between three and seven bits of information at any one time. Long-term memory is not limited like that and committing things to long-term memory can be immensely useful.

“You can effectively cheat the limitations of working memory by storing things very well in long-term memory,” says Christodoulou. “If you have to think through 7x3 every time you meet it, you’re taking up space in working memory. Why that is a problem is that as soon as you get a little bit further in mathematics you’re going to hit problems where 7x3 is part of a much bigger problem and that is going to slow down or even stop your ability to solve that bigger problem.

"It's the same with grammar. If you're having to stop all the time to think about the mechanics, you're taking up time and space where you could be thinking about the author's use of metaphor or whatever. For all of these complex higher-order skills you need to have as many automatic processes as possible so you can free up space in working memory. It's by spending time on learning this knowledge that you'll develop the conceptual understanding."

Myth: We should teach transferable skills

The idea of teaching skills is a seductive one. After-all, you teach a skill, and a student can use it in all manner of contexts. This is the key to 21st century-learning. But Christodoulou argues that you cannot teach skills in a vacuum. “Too often skills are spoken about in the absence of the domain knowledge,” she says. “It’s as though you can do a lesson on problem solving or thinking critically, as though you can teach that concept in the abstract. In actual fact, there is very little evidence that you can.”

The concept of transferable skills is big in educational theory right now, but again, Christodoulou says, the transfer of skills depends on one’s background knowledge.

“I like to think I’m good at reading,” she says. “I have an English degree, I spend a lot of time reading but depending on the subject I’m reading about, my reading skill is better or worse. If I’m reading a manual for a bit of electronic equipment, I don’t read as well or as fluently as if I’m reading a newspaper. That’s because of the role background knowledge plays in reading.

“That’s true in lots of other skills as well: background knowledge is important. The idea you can teach these things in the abstract is misleading.”

Myth: The 21st century changes everything

Christodoulou agrees that we need students to be equipped with skills for the world in which they live. The problem arises with the approach taken to achieve that.

“As much as 21st-century technology is groundbreaking and amazing and incredible, it’s often changing at the edges of disciplines,” she says. “It’s changing in the more advanced ways but the fundamentals remain the same. The irony is that it’s the things at the cutting edge that actually become obsolete. You can imagine a world in 50 years that doesn’t have iPads, but it’s difficult to imagine a world without the alphabet and the number system. If you want to prepare students for the 21st century you need to give them a mastery of the fundamentals. That will give them the flexibility to respond to anything.”

Seven Myths About Education by Daisy Christodoulou is published by Routledge and is available on Amazon