The End of the Rote

In a short piece from the education section of the London Times, Don Tapscott tosses out the provocative idea that there is “no useful place in school for old-fashioned rote learning”.

A far better approach would be to teach children to think creatively so that they could learn to interpret and apply the knowledge available online. “Teachers are no longer the fountain of knowledge; the internet is,” Tapscott said. “Kids should learn about history to understand the world and why things are the way they are. But they don’t need to know all the dates. It is enough that they know about the Battle of Hastings, without having to memorise that it was in 1066. They can look that up and position it in history with a click on Google,” he said.

Tapscott denies that his approach is anti-learning. He argues that the ability to learn new things is more important than ever “in a world where you have to process new information at lightning speed”. He said: “Children are going to have to reinvent their knowledge base multiple times. So for them memorising facts and figures is a waste of time.”

While some will object to his rewriting of the traditional model of education, Tapscott is exactly right.

The whole concept of someone being well-educated based on how many facts they can recall no longer applies (if it every really did).

When I tweeted the headline and link to this article, @audhilly took exception to the idea: “disagreeing with you big time… rote = practice = craftsmanship. I’ll agree with you when musicians stop making music”.

Audhilly is also right but we’re working with two different issues here.

There are, and always will be, some skills like music which require rote practice in order to achieve some level of mastery.

But understanding English history (and many other academic subjects) is not one of them.

BTW, I like that phrase “reinvent their knowledge base”. Another I’ll have to steal borrow. :-)

3 Comments The End of the Rote

  1. teacherninja

    I completely agree, yet am sometimes dismayed that he often lumps all pre-internet teachers into this generic authoritarian “old fashioned” stand-in-front-of-the-class and lecture model. Many of my teachers in the 70s and 80s did a lot of hands-on inquiry-based learning which he seems to be advocating. I love technology as much as the next guy, but it’s not like differentiation of instruction suddenly came online with the web.

    But kudos to busting the “rote learning” stuff. The knowledge=facts thing is what sucks the life out of high school science when getting kids excited about science and really learning to apply scientific method should be the goal.

  2. John Hendron

    Great find, Tim.

    It got me thinking into a deep thought here… let’s say that through an earlier portion of our 20th century rote learning is what was required to “appear” intelligent. “Ok, this gal knows about this and that… she’s gotta be smart… let’s hire her.” And now Tapscott is saying we don’t need to prepare to appear smart anymore, we have the Google.

    Has society advanced enough to demand a change in the way we prepare ourselves? I think so. We have tools now that replace the benefits of rote learning. But we can only step away so far because of the work those before us did to learn this way.

    I also like Teacherninja’s point – musician’s (or an athlete’s practice). Rote teaching hopefully isn’t dead. But, I think for some, because of new tools and societal changes, we don’t necessarily need so much rote learning in areas like music or dance.

    Take “Dancing for the Stars” on TV. My mom is hooked. They take non-pro dancers, those who haven’t practiced for hours and hours over their early lifehood, and they’re making a boatload of money.

    Take electronic music and mashups. The Beatles got “re-done” in a studio on a computer for their latest album. Re-mix culture opens new doors. It’s a shift.

    I’m wondering though if a wholesale shift from rote learning to development of creative skills is wise for everyone. Might the global economy accommodate both types of workers, those who excel at rote skills, and those who excel in creative problem solving? And if we become specialized, the question is, what camp do you want to belong to?

    Our American education system when I was a part of public schools (as a student) seemed to value them both, at about 40% creative, 60% rote learning. What’s sad, I think, is that we’ve seemingly moved to a more disparate ratio in the past ten years. If you can’t do both well, then it’s time to divide.

  3. Bea Cantor

    Over the Thanksgiving break, I said to my mother, half jokingly, that it is no longer acceptable for me to say, “I don’t know.” My response, when I don’t know the answer, should be, “Let me find out.” Then I turn to the web and search.

    I wholeheartedly agree that making kids memorize facts is not good. But I also agree with @audhilly that practice makes perfect. the practice in this case should refer to the search, authentication, and understanding of information. Students should be well-versed in generating search terms, validating the authenticity of the content found, and confirming that their findings answer their original question.

    Of course, when someone pulls the plug and we are web-less, we’ll have to improvise.

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