Learning by Rote

There has been lots of talk in the news at the moment about primary curriculum changes, two mentioned recently include children as young as five should recite poetry and children also will be expected to know their 12 times table by the age of nine in order to “restore rigour”.

According to WikipediaBy definition, rote learning eschews comprehension, so by itself it is an ineffective tool in mastering any complex subject at an advanced level.

Also according to Wikipedia: [Rigourous instruction] is instruction that requires students to construct meaning for themselves, [..] and apply what they learn in more than one context and to unpredictable situations.


I’ve nothing against memorisation, but I think it needs to be done when the interest is there. It can be easier if you have number bonds and times tables in your head to call on when required but not knowing them or being unable to memorise them by a particular age has no bearing on future success. If a child has an innate need to memorise because of their interest, it will happen a lot more easily than being forced.

I also disagree with targets by a certain age, because all children are different. Average doesn’t mean that everyone should be at that point. Average means that half of children will be below that level and half will be above so by definition any targets based on averages will classify half of children as failures when they’re not… I know I’m simplifying the reality of levels and targets but I don’t believe they add anything to education so will complain about them at will!

On reciting poetry, I know I’m not from a ‘deprived’ area but most children I know could recite poetry before they could speak! Humming the rhythm of nursery rhymes, then picking up some of the words, then learning them all… My three year old can certainly ‘recite’ several poems: Twinkle Twinkle; Horsey Horsey; The Grand Old Duke of York… But only because she’s interested and has chosen to do so. Children being told to learn a specific poem that they don’t want to learn will only cause friction and tension and turn a child away from the love of learning that they’re born with.

Memorisation happens through use and re-use, through interest being grasped and held, through various methods depending on each child. The child who knows their times tables by age seven is no more advanced than the one who takes until age twelve, or the one who never memorises but has a grasp on the concepts so can quickly calculate when they need to…

Dear Government, please leave teachers to teach; parents to parent (and teach); children to learn (and teach each other!) Those who need help will ask if they’ve not been scared off by targets and labels of failure.

Please share your thoughts, I love to discuss and learn ideas that I’d not considered – because my love of learning is still alive despite my school years 😉

5 responses to “Learning by Rote

  1. That’s a really interesting post. As a teacher and a parent, I do get frustrates by targets and testing and I agree that it can set children up to fail by the nature of it. I also strongly agree that all children develop at different stages and some flourish better once they have left the constraints of the education system. However, I can also see that having data on children can be a good thing. It can help, particularly with older ones to ensure that they are achieving their potential, so it is balancing act. In teaching now, there is so much pressure with the guidelines constantly changing and it must make it very difficult to actually teach and Ivan see why so many want to leave. As for rote learning, in my experience it works for some, as you say it can depend on the interest but also if that works for that child. Some children dot work like that and that’s why teachers work tirelessly to teach in a variety of different ways in order to incorporate all of the different learning styles within each group of children.

    • I probably didn’t get across well, but absolutely what you say about teachers teaching in lots of different ways to incorporate learning styles. I just think that any target of “memorisation” or “reciting” by definition will need rote learning in order to be met, thus depriving teachers of the different methods that they know will work with different children. And as you say, this will work for some children but the others will be left to struggle because the teachers don’t have time because they have to meet a target…

      I’ve worked in data analysis all my working life so I’m all for data to analyse! I can trot out the “there is only a finite pot of money therefore we need to look at the data in order to know where to spend it best” line, and know that it is true. But also, people aren’t data and the ‘outliers’ will always be ignored in favour of the majority because data can’t tell you that individual child needed a different approach and is only ‘failing’ because teachers aren’t allowed to do their jobs.

      Er, basically, I agree with you! Ramble, ramble 🙂

  2. What a fascinating post (and following conversation)…
    I so agree about targets for particular ages: it all comes down to celebrating the individual, I suppose, and not allowing children to feel as if they have failed.
    You both know a lot more about it all than I do! I’m really interested in the way even very small children can absorb, memorise and recite poetry, songs and stories, because they love and respond to them, and love the person who is telling them too.
    (I do believe in just a LITTLE bit of being ‘made’ to do it when you’re older – I can recall the odd chunk of a poem studied at school, say, which is quite nice, even though I’m sure I didn’t want to learn it!)

    • I’m not sure how I feel about being ‘made’ to learn yet. Definitely not at primary level, which is what I was talking about but older than that, I’m not sure. I think the idea of a ‘contract’ drawn up between teacher and pupil where the pupil agrees to certain learning objectives but then has freedom on how to achieve them is my ideal. Reality of course depends on the child… But I see no reason *not* to memorise. I chose to learn Hamlet’s soliloquy as a teen because I loved it, sadly forgotten most now though but maybe I will relearn it one day just because 😉

  3. Ooh, this is a difficult area isn’t it? I think that children being made to do SATs at such a young age is a shame. Children should be using primary time to explore things and learn about the world and their place in it. However, I do think that looking at some of the more old-fashioned techniques might be useful. I work as an intervention teaching assistant and am horrified by the number of children I come across who reach 11 years of age and cannot spell, use capital letters correctly, know most of their times tables (we used to have to recite these at school and, in my opinion, memorising is the only way to learn them well). And not all of these children are the ones who are ‘failing’ either. It’s very worrying. I’m not saying it’s the teachers in any sense – I don’t know how they manage with everything they have to do nowadays. From what I have seen at my daughter’s school (where I am also a governor) there are a lot of behavioural issues that crop up in classrooms now that never used to before and this obviously impacts on the learning environment. That’s a whole other can of worms though! But I think what a lot of it boils down to is that children do need a lot of input at home and those who don’t get it will not achieve what they are able to unless they are exceptionally bright or talented or lucky. No number of targets can improve that.

Please add your thoughts below! Thank-you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s