I’ve liked David Hepworth’s writing for a long time. His blog is always an entertaining read, and whilst I don’t always agree with what he says, often as not I like how he says it. Today he threw out a post about the rote-learning argument. In a post titled ‘really useful things we learned without understanding’ he makes a list of, well, things he ‘learned’ by rote without understanding. You can see his list here.
Now I’d argue ‘remembered’ is more accurate than ‘learned’ in this context, but maybe I’m being pedantic. I’m also wondering to what extent the things he lists are genuinely useful? Doesn’t usefulness depend on context? And (leaving aside the alphapbet - which I’d argue no-one actually rote-learns without some understanding of why it’s important) isn’t it all largely subjective?
For example, why is knowing the words to ‘Jerusalem’ useful? So you can sing along at an English rugby match? Personally, having grown up in Scotland (and having zero interest in Rugby), I know none of the words to ‘Jerusalem’. Nor do I feel the need to. Its ‘usefulness’ in my own context is so negligible as to be non-existent. However on a related tangent, I was once able to recite ‘Scots’ Wha Hae’ from memory. I can’t say it was ever particularly useful apart from being my ‘turn’ at Halloween. And my life has never felt less rich for having replaced the imprint of those words with ones by Kevin Rowland or Vic Godard, both of whom have had immeasurably more influence on my life than Robert Burns.
What I do agree with Hepworth on is that education is a political football and that the arguments around it are “depressingly binary”. I’d argue however that the arguments only appear so binary because that’s the way the issues are reported. As a magazine/newspaper man he knows that binary stories sell. The reality is that if you were to talk to a lot of educational professionals they would acknowledge that the issues are seldom black and white, either/or but instead are more subtle and complex. But subtle and complex don’t make for great headlines. Nor does it help that the headline stories are often fueled by motives that are nothing to do with learning. Gove and cronies’ barely disguised idealistic assault on the public sector or self-promoting ‘edu-bloggers’ desperate to escape the classroom: take your pick.
Essentially what this boils down to for me is not so much the question of how you go about ‘learning’ or ‘remembering’ certain things, it’s about how those certain things (the canon of knowledge if you like) are decided on, and by whom. And I’d wager that the discussions (the arguments if you will) around that question would be a far more valuable learning experience than remembering the beginning of Macauley’s “Lays of Ancient Rome”.