Is There a Place for Rote Learning in Schools Today1

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Is there a place for rote learning in schools today? Should there be?There are many perceived ways to learn, though some methods may seem more antiquated to educationalists when set alongside their contemporary counterparts. One of these perceived antiquated methods, to the modern teacher, is rote learning. Rote learning is described by the New Oxford Dictionary of English (2001) as, mechanical or habitual repetition of something to be learned. Whilst on placement at a rural primary school in Lincolnshire, one classroom teacher when asked, do you use rote learning within your repertoire of teaching methods, replied, no, rote learning no longer has a place in a formal school learning environment. This view contradicts a form of learning that has been used widely in the past to reinforce knowledge of a subject. Even as far back as the first century A.D. Quintilian was both deriding and championing the use of rote learning in children depending on the context it was used. Quintilian argues that learning letters solely by rote in one order hinders a childs understanding of their meaning and form when placed in a different context (Quintilian (2006:1.1.25). He also champions the use of rote learning, when learning syllables, giving instruction that they must be repeated until they are impressed in memory (Quintilian 2006:1.1.31). This view that rote learning is acceptable when used in certain circumstances, fails to corroborate the view that the teacher made in the rural primary school that rote learning has no place in a formal school setting. Mayer showed via three scenarios in his work, Rote versus meaningful learning (2002), his view regarding the value of learning by rote. He described how if a child skims a text without concentrating on it, that when asked to recall that information they are unable to. Likewise if a child reads the same text but reads more carefully concentrating on remembering the key facts that child will be able to recall the information but if then asked to put that information into practice would fail to be able to. However if a child whilst reading the same text studied it with a view to understanding the concept of what they were reading, when asked to recall the information they would be able to much as the second child. This child however when asked to complete an experiment using the knowledge would be able to having transferred the knowledge to a new situation (Myers, R.E. 2002:2). From this Mayer states that, two of the most important aspects of learning are retention of knowledge and the subsequent transfer of that knowledge (2002:1). Mayer argues, that although a student may read an article, memorising the key facts within it and can then at a later


occasion remember these facts, unless that student can then transfer that knowledge into problem solving it is not meaningful learning (2002:2). Smith M.K. speaks of research done by Slj in 1978 where people were asked, what their preserved views were in regards to learning (Slj, R. 1979 in Smith, M.K. 1999). The findings were separated into five categories the first three all relating to the retention of facts to be recalled on a later occasion. (Smith M.K. 1999) This retention and recall explanation of learning is an example of rote learning as perceived by the people in this study and common to the conceptual understanding of learning. Paul Ramsden is described by Smith as commenting that the first three are as if learning is done to us in the sense that we go out and shop for knowledge. (Ramsden, P. 1992 in Smith, M.K 1999). The final two categories take the concept of meaning in learning further and describe learning as doing something to assist in understanding the world (Ramsden, P 1992 in Smith, M.K 1999). This concept of learning mirrors Myers viewpoint that learning needs to be retention of information coupled with transfer of information to enable a more rounded and effective learning (Myers, R.E. 2002:1). So rote learning in schools must be tempered to include not only retention of information but also transfer of that information into readily available knowledge and facts. Without this further enrichment of the knowledge gained, the child will only have snippets of information available for use in quizzes but of no structural use in their working lives.

New Oxford Dictionary of English. (2001) 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Quintilian. (2006). Institutes of Oratory. Edited by Lee Honeycutt. Translated by John Selby Watson 1856. [online] Available from: [Accessed 20th October 2009].


Mayer, R.E. (2002) Rote versus meaningful learning 1 Theory Into Practice. Reference publications [online] Available from: [Accessed 20th October 2009].

Smith, M.K. (1999) Learning Theory. The encyclopaedia of informal education. [online] Available from: [Accessed 20th October 2009].