Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Is Rote Always a Four-Letter Word?

So we're in a bit of a holding pattern right now, somewhere between here and there. One of the things I'm making my guys do before we head into country is to be able to identify all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and all of Kabul's 15 districts on an otherwise blank map with only the political boundaries drawn in.

It's one of those *homework assignments* that's sort of fallen out of fashion these days in the Education world (yes, that was a big 'E'), and, by extension, the rest of society. Somehow, someone got it in his or her head that "old-school" teaching methods involving memorization were bad, and then out went the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

What did we get as a result?

A more ignorant society, for one. Of course, education should force people to think critically and to develop higher-level thinking skills. It shouldn't be all about mindless recitation or memorization. But guess what? Those two things aren't mutually exclusive. Think about how much we laugh when Jay Leno does "Jaywalking" and shows how few people can identify Canada on a map, or name the Prime Minister of the UK. Yet at the same time, many in Education resist any teaching method that would require students to identify those things in a straightforward way. They say that Education should be all about deep thinking instead.

Here's a major problem with that: People are always thinking. They don't necessarily require a school, or even a teacher, to help them with this. Sometimes, "just knowing stuff" provides a pretty good foundation for that thinking. That's why I was pretty thrilled when I was home on pass and saw my 1st-grade cousins starting to be able to pick out some states, including Massachusetts, on a U.S. map. It may not be worthy of Rousseau and Descartes, but having a clue where they are in relation to everything else is a great first step.

When we stray too far from valuing knowledge, I think we're in trouble.


kad barma said...

Great points!

One additional reasonable question posed by our amazing explosion of knowledge and related knowledge tools, (e.g. calculators on every cell phone), is what rote memorization remains most valuable? It used to include multiplications tables and pi to the nth decimal, but it may now have shifted towards Hindu Kush geopolitical geography or something else.

I can Google things in an instant that previous generations would have had to labor to learn and remember because they had no other way to have that knowledge at their fingertips when they needed it. My time is now more productively spent learning a different set of things than my parents did, and my children have a different set of best facts yet again. It's extremely hard to know.

What is obvious is that it remains something, and not nothing, as too many of this coming generation seem to retain. They can't even make change. (Ever watch one hand back a ten because they hit one too many zeros on the McDonalds cash register?)

Murph said...

I've sometimes wondered what might happen in the distant future, when oil reserves dry or natural disaster severely cripples our ability to produce electricity at the current rate. Whether it's out of conservation, or a complete, utter lack of power, I can envision a scenario, however far-fetched, in which there is a return to a simpler mode of living. Maybe I've simply watched too many bad eighties movies--"Red Dawn" comes to mind--but in that kind of circumstance, it may be instructive to think about what kinds of people, with what kinds of "facts", skills, and reasoning, might be best positioned to survive, perhaps even thrive.

Maybe that's just the osmotic absorption of WWII-hunker-down values--holding on to facts and skills like so many stocked cans of food.

By the by, how's everything going?

C R Krieger said...

I agree, and know it is hard, at least for me it is. On the other hand, as Kad notes, knowing what to know is the hard part. Is it knowing the Critical Action Procedures or is it knowing the system behind those CAPs?

Or, is it knowing that deep down inside J-J Rousseau thought most people needed to be led around by their betters? (I am currently down on Rousseau--down in a negative way.)

Be safe.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...

Guys -- thx for adding those points...information is readily available, so Einstein's boast about not knowing how many feet were in a mile may be even more relevant in the Internet age. But the "rote" stuff that builds your situational awareness seems to me like a building block for higher-order thinking (and a necessary one -- how could we talk about China-Taiwan relations without generally knowing where they sat in relation to one another)?)

C R Krieger said...