Is rote learning essential for child's education?

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David from Canada, Aug 12, 2017, wrote:

Many educators say that children should avoid rote learning? This could also be understood as "SuperMemo isn't a tool for smart people". I think SuperMemo got a new ally! Dr Helen Abadzi is critical of Sir Ken Robinson's "progressive" approach to learning! She says that memories are essential in complex tasks:


Children should play a lot! Once they are mature enough, they can tackle memories that make problem solving easier. Early in development, play is essential for memories to become applicable. Early introduction of memorization in the area of math can lead to toxic memory. Robinson and Abadzi are both right (in part).


The term rote learning should be abolished as it conflates many contradictory concepts. It is largely pejorative. If rote learning is understood as "learning without understanding" then it is obviously bad. If it is understood as "learning that involves a repetition" then it is obviously good. If it is understood as "learning that involves frequent repetition" then it is bad again. In that sense, the headline is rather confusing or even provocative.

The term overlearning can also lead to harmful confusion. While continual practice may improve outcomes in procedural learning. Adding extra review to declarative memories may actually weaken the memory. This confusion reins even in scholarly papers in areas memory and learning.

Here are some true claims in the text:

  • "memorization lays foundations for complex tasks" is a different way of saying that a computer without memory will not be good at computation
  • "fluency frees working memory for complex calculations" is a different way of saying that a well-written computer program executes faster
  • repeated use of mental arithmetic is good. We all achieve high fluency in adding or multiplying numbers by frequent employment of calculations using different numbers in different contexts. This is the type of learning that Dr Abadzi has in mind.

Here are some claims that are not true:

  • false: overlearning of a fact allows of remembering the fact. Spacing effect is the lead cause of mishaps such as forgetting one's PIN number we have used hundreds of times before. Best probability of recall is achieved by optimizing the timing of review or using contextual redundancy (i.e. memorizing the same thing in multiple different ways)
  • false: "those who practice the most forget the least" should be framed as "those who practice optimally forget the least"
  • false: play isn't essential for math skill development

It is not clear why Ken Robinson is subject to criticism. Perhaps the problem comes from the use of the term "rote memory". Robinson might criticize mindless learning, while Abadzi might think of the need to review. The headline says "play isn't essential", but this is not what Dr Abadzi says. Perhaps the two experts would agree if they reconciled their terminological differences.

When a curriculum emphasizes critical thinking over rote learning, it usually means a good thing. In mathematics we want kids to effectively solve problems. This means an efficient use of abstract rules, and fluent memories. As such "memory" and "thinking" are both important. The intent of the shift is to de-emphasize memorization in cases where it stifles understanding and abstractness. We want the rules to be universal and we want them to be remembered.

A controversial part comes here: “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”. This may be seen as the approval of classroom teaching which is largely ineffective and not too helpful. However, the sentence is ambiguous enough to survive correct. "Repeat after me" can be helpful, esp. in absence of alternatives. Lecturing can be effective for brief periods too, and still remain largely ineffective.

The headline is definitely wrong. Anyone who claims play isn't essential for developing math skills does not fully understand the process in which semantic access to memories forms. Memorizing multiplication table can lead to toxic memories. Developing the same skillset via play or creative learning will almost certainly lead to well-formed fluent and lasting memories with lifelong applicability.

The message Dr Abadzi is trying to convey is correct. So is the mission of Ken Robinson. Kids should indeed go out and play, and once their brains get mature enough, they could toss in SuperMemo for healthy memorization. In all cases, child's actions should be voluntary.