26 November 2010

One of the big arguments that comes up on the net is over the usefulness or otherwise of rote learning.  It is near universal that people who support "rote learning" don't actually know what rote learning is.  To them, "by rote" is synonymous with "by repetition".  If this were so, we would not have invented the word rote, and there would be no argument, as everyone knows that there is no learning without repetition.

What rote learning is is repetition without meaning.  Rote learning is when we memorise a list of dates, or the order of kings of France without any background.  Learning these meaningfully means looking for linkages and cause and effect.

The example I recently used elsewhere was the presidents of the USA, a subject that I don't really know much about.

Here's four of them:
Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford

How did I remember these?

First of all, part of it is mnemonic.  If you look at the syllables, you have !.. !. !. ! (where ! is a stressed syllable and . is an unstressed one).  To me, there's a rhythm in there that's reminiscent of playground chants.  Are mnemonics rote?  To a point, maybe, but mnemonics aim to give artificial meaning to inherently meaningless data, so not strictly rote.  Besides, this is not the main way I learned the order, it's just an additional support.

First up, I looked at the order on the internet.  I looked for links.
The first thing I recalled was that I had seen TV archive footage of Nixon and Kennedy running against each other in the presidential elections.  Kennedy was shot, while Nixon resigned, but that doesn't tell me who was first.  The meaningful information that tells me Kennedy was first is the archive footage mentioned previously, but more specifically the accompanying analysis: it is said that it was TV that won the election for JFK, because he looked so much nicer.  Hearing that said over the top of pictures of Kennedy smiling and waving with Nixon hunched up and looking concerned sticks -- it really means something.

So Kennedy was before Nixon.  How do the other two fit in?

Well, that relies on knowing a little bit about the American terms of office.  If a president dies or steps down, he is replaced by his vice-president.  Nixon and Kennedy ran against each other, so there must have been another president between them, as Kennedy died.  And when Nixon resigned, his VP took over.

The names Johnson and Ford don't really mean much to me, and here's where the mnemonic chant helps, but if we look a little further we can make things more meaningful.

Johnson, as it turns out, was re-elected for a second term.  He won the largest majority of a US president in history.  Why?  Many commentators say it was a sympathy vote for JFK, as it wasn't really that long after the assassination.

Ford, on the other hand, was never re-elected.  Which isn't a surprise given that he took over from someone who resigned in disgrace.  To make matters worse, the economy was on a downturn at the time.

Filling in a picture of the most prominent features of these two gives me context -- meaning -- and looking at their photographs makes them people rather than facts.

I fully expect to be able to recall this right up until I start to go senile, because it now really does mean something to me.

1 comment:

Fasulye said...

My English-Dutch dictionary translates "rote learning" as "uit het hoofd leren, stampwerk" which makes it clear to me that this is meaningless repetition. I do find repetition an important element in every learning process. For me it's better to find some logic in words in combination or facts I have to learn and then use repetition, whereas mere repetition I find not effective enough. Fasulye