Shaking Hands with a Learning Bogeyman

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scary creature

Not as scary as he seems . . .

If you’ve been exposed to the fashionable education set, you’re likely aware of its widespread aversion to “rote learning.” You may have heard, for instance, the inhumane, even fatal implications of such practices as “regurgitation” and “drill and kill.” I know I’ve heard these terms over and over, dark clouds seemingly floating out of the K-12 system and into the minds of students who come to fear the memorization bogeyman. I’ve observed the bogeyman continues to haunt at least some college students, who recoil in suspicion when they’re expected to commit something to memory, and may argue that requiring “regurgitation” (as they see it) is bad teaching.

And I say no . . . not necessarily. In my own case, I mostly taught college writing and literature survey courses, and memorization wasn’t a large part of our curriculum. I did, however, try an experiment in which I offered an opportunity to memorize a poem and recite it in front of the class. A few students took me up on the offer, and the assignment seemed a small personal triumph for them. I also had students comment to me that they were required to memorize some Shakespeare in high school, and rather than recount the incident with disgust (as you might expect from those who’d “regurgitated”), these students seemed proud of their accomplishment and grateful to be challenged that way.

Of course, such assignments as memorizing and reciting verse were commonplace in elementary school years ago. Why is this kind of teaching out of fashion? I think, for one thing, the word “regurgitation” suggests that acquiring knowledge isn’t always pleasant. I hear repeatedly that “learning should be fun,” especially for children; but it’s not always fun. That’s okay (is it realistic or humane, in any case, to raise children’s expectations to a vision of unending, lifelong fun?). In fifth or sixth grade, I may not have enjoyed memorizing and reciting all the US presidents, but looking back, I am glad to have done it; of course that knowledge has come in handy. Likewise states and capitals – countries and capitals – all the prepositions – the multiplication tables – again, surely this “drilled” knowledge doesn’t “kill” students or their souls; it doesn’t suck the love of learning from them and doom them to a stifling life of un-fun, robotic un-creativity.

That’s another reason folks aren’t in favor of rote learning: it’s said that students’ creativity, comprehension, and reasoning skills suffer under “drill and kill” techniques. I don’t agree. I believe creative thought, deep understanding, and reasoning spring from a mind grounded in knowledge; and certain basic facts are tools serving as foundational, gateway knowledge on the path to higher comprehension. We also must admit (mustn’t we?) that some facts, serving that foundational purpose, all educated people should know. And how could one master these mental tools if not for learning by rote? (One could argue, very persuasively, that our enabling students’ ignorance of such basic facts is one real “killer” in American education.)

Obviously, deep, well-rounded learning and critical thinking cannot stop at memorization, and I wouldn’t advocate for Gradgrinds in the classroom. But memorization absolutely can be and often should be an important step on the way to deep learning, and memorization can be a useful, edifying, and even beautiful activity in its own right.

Image via mrg. bz /jeltovski

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English Pronunciation & My Schoolhouse Time Machine

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Forestdale Schoolhouse, RI

Linger a moment in schoolhouses past

A couple of enjoyable weblinks on English pronunciation crossed my path this week. The first is an intriguing poem, “The Ultimate English Language Test,” posted at Edudemic.com, and the second a pronunciation dictionary, howjsay.com, featured as refdesk.com’s “Site of the Day.”

These got me to thinking: how much do native speakers of English learn about pronunciation at any level of schooling? I know it must be covered to some degree, but I admit I am skeptical of how well it’s working. In part because, I believe, of the jettisoning of phonics in elementary education, I taught some community college students for whom I was embarrassed when they tried to read aloud a few lines of Shakespeare. It is no exaggeration to say they couldn’t sound out the words and thus could not read them. This is, of course, a tragedy in itself, and I felt sorry for the students. While these were not the best students in the class (and that may have been due to their early reading instruction or lack thereof), I don’t think it’s radical to argue that any high school graduate should be able to read.

And thus I ponder literacy and K-12, and at times like these I consult my little time machine, my 1889 fourth-grade reader (Indiana School Book Company), for a blast to the curricular past.

That small book puts a great deal of emphasis on pronunciation and the spoken word. Phonetic symbols are used, and scattered through the reader at regular intervals are drill exercises in pronunciation. Kids had to recite words “in concert”; they also were introduced to poetry such as that from Longfellow and Wordsworth, and sometimes were instructed to memorize and recite verse.

Aaaaargh!, today’s education establishment would cry. Drills! Memorization! What could be worse? But this reader demonstrates that an emphasis on teaching pronunciation and recitation goes hand in hand with expecting a fairly sophisticated level of reading comprehension and vocal performance.

For instance, the book gives “Hints to Pupils” about “Vocal Training.” It advises

Think about the meaning of every sentence you read. Try to enter into the spirit of what you read, and read it so as to convey that spirit to those who hear you.” 

and

Try to form the habit of occasionally lifting your eyes from the book to look at the class or the teacher. In order to do this, as you draw near the end of a sentence or a paragraph, run your eye ahead of your voice, take in the words, and then repeat them while looking directly at those to whom you are reading.”

This encouragement to consider meaning, and inviting the child to consider audience, seem to be excellent ways to build confident, articulate young readers (and speakers). And I have to think young people of that era would be able to handle the Bard.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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