‘Rote learning, not play, is essential for a child’s education’ – seriously?


An interesting observation…

Helen Abadzi, an expert in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, who was an education specialist at the World Bank, said that pupils who “overlearn” and repeatedly practise tasks, such as mental arithmetic, free up their working memory for more “higher order” analytical thinking.

Yes, they do, good point. We should not forget that. Unfortunately, she goes way beyond her field of expertise and explicitly picks on Sir Ken Robinson in the process…

“Go out and play, well sure – but is that going to teach me mental math so I can go to a store and instantly make a decision about what is the best offer to buy?” she said.

I cannot be certain but, as far as I know, and although he has made the occasional wild assertion, Sir Ken has never for one moment suggested that overlearning should be avoided. In fact, that’s rather obvious from the examples he gives in what the article acknowledges is the most popular TED talk of all time. I’ve yet to meet a good ballerina that has not practiced until it hurt. When you get into the flow of something and truly play, rote learning is exactly what you do. I have practiced my guitar until my fingers bled. Indeed, for each of my many interests in life, I have very notably repeatedly practiced again, again, and again, doing it until I get it right (or at least right enough). I’m doing it right now. I am fairly certain that you have done the same. To suggest that play does not involve an incredible amount of gruelling repetition and rote learning (particularly valuable when done from different angles, in different contexts, and with different purposes, a point Abadzi fails to highlight but I am sure understands) is bizarre. Even my cats do it. It is even more bizarre to leap from suggesting that overlearning is necessary to a wildly wrong and completely unsubstantiated statement like:

People may not like methods like direct instruction – “repeat after me” – but they help students to remember over the long term. A class of children sitting and listening is viewed as a negative thing, yet lecturing is highly effective for brief periods.

Where the hell did that come from? A scientist should be ashamed of such unsupported and unsupportable tripe. It does not follow from the premises. We need to practice, so extrinsic motivation is needed to make students learn? And play is not essential? Seriously? Such idiocy needs to be stamped on, stamped out, and stamped out hard. This is a good case study in why neuroscience is inadequate as a means to explain learning, and is completely inadequate as a means to explain education.

In the interests of fairness, I should note that brief lectures (and, actually, even long lectures) can indeed lead to effective learning, albeit not necessarily of what is being lectured about and only when they are actually interesting. The problem is not lectures per se, but the fact that people are forced to attend them, and that they are expected to learn what the lecturer intends to teach.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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