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The Merits of Learning By Rote

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

Toby, one of our top English tutors, discusses the advantages of rote learning.

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"NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else."

These are the opening words, of Dickens’ 1854 novel, Hard Times. The speaker, Thomas Gradgrind, is a self-described "man of realities," a man "of facts and calculations," and the father of five children, five unfortunate little Gradgrinds. All tutors have encountered parents who want their sons and daughters to be taught a certain way, but few of us have met anyone quite so uncompromising as Dickens’ bullish creation, with his ‘square wall of a forehead’ and his sharp, commanding voice. If you haven’t read the novel, it won’t come as much surprise that in time Gradgrind’s philosophy proves dangerously limited as he comes to learn there is more to life than that which can be plotted in a bar chart or bashed into a calculator.

Gradgrind’s insistence on fact-learning, of course, flies in the face of Plutarch’s much wiser and more poetic stance, "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." The contrast is made explicit when Dickens describes the schoolchildren gathered in the book’s opening scene as an “inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.” It is obvious from the get-go that Dickens is with Plutarch and not with Gradgrind, and that he believes true education is much broader than his anti-hero allows.

I know all this, and yet I can’t help but have a certain sympathy for Gradgrind. The reason being, I love facts, and I always admire people who know lots of them. Think of those fast-fingered wizzes on University Challenge, interrupting Paxman to finish his sentence before the rest of us have even figured out what he’s asking. The lightning-quick recall of obscure information is delightful to observe, as it demonstrates human discipline and capability, the sheer volume of somebody else’s mind. I’m especially partial to that brand of facts particular to the study of English Literature: quotations. See how often I’ve quoted so far in this very post!

In an age when we all carry advanced computers around in our pockets, and so much data (in every sense) is available at the press of a button, my admiration for memory is beginning to seem a little quaint. Why learn a poem by heart when you can simply google it? The answer is in those words by heart, the heart being the metaphorical if not the biological seat of memory. Yes, to memorise something is an act of love, and must be done not simply with intellect but also with passion. Why is it such a faux-pas when someone forgets your name? Because it is an indication that they do not care enough to remember. It’s the same thing with students. They will never learn anything that doesn’t engage their interest. Take a kid who is mad keen on football. The chances are he or she can name at least three members of every team in the premiership, and for the teams at the top of the table they’ll likely know the whole first eleven and several of the squad players besides. This soon amounts to well over a hundred names, or well over two hundred if counting first names and surnames separately. Ask the same student if they think they would be able to remember the names of all the characters in just three different Shakespeare plays and they’ll likely say they haven’t a hope.

The trouble is that the act of learning things by rote, whether it’s French vocabulary, times tables, or the names of capital cities, isn’t much fun. But remembering things is. Everyone enjoys knowing the answer to a quiz or finding an easy question in an exam; it seems that factual recall gives us real pleasure in of itself. So how do you encourage reluctant students, digital natives, to develop their memories? Well, the first thing is to get them genuinely interested in the subject at hand. Easier said than done, of course. I had a Science teacher once who began every lesson with a twenty-minute dictation. At the end of all that time listening to and writing out dull sentence, I remembered precisely nothing of what I’d faithfully taken down. Let us learn from his mistake.

Memory aids can be a great help. Any information connected to visual images or sounds will be better retained. Acrostics and mnemonics are terrific. Many years have passed since my schooldays, and like many people I’ve forgotten almost everything I learned, all that Gradgrindian information that helped me through my GCSEs and A Levels. I am pleased to find, however, there are little scraps, here and there, that refuse to follow the same path to oblivions. Thanks to OIL RIG, I can tell you, like any good chemist, that when something is Oxidised it Loses an electron, and when it is Reduced it Gains one (counterintuitively enough). Similarly, that magnificent old French Dame, Mrs Vandertramp, reminds me now and then which verbs take être as an auxiliary verb in the past tense. Ever since I realised the formula for the area of a circle πD (pronounced pie-dee) is a perfect rhyme for Heidi, the name of a beloved and round-faced bulldog I once knew, I’ve never been in danger of forgetting it. And there is a certain rhythm that helps me recall amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. Which, fittingly enough, is the present tense conjugation for the Latin verb “to love”.

Blog Post Crafted by Toby

Toby is one of our top English and Maths tutors, as well as our Chief Assessor, and he also works on our Admin Team. His proudest moment was when he tied Christopher Lee’s (AKA Saruman’s) bow-tie!

Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for. As a member of our Admin Team, Toby advises applicants on the application process and books them in for interviews. He liaises with clients about their tuition enquiries and discusses potential jobs with tutors.



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