Hardly anyone has a good word to say for rote learning – except me. I regard it not only as an elementary basis for developing knowledge but also as a potential resource for advanced levels of reading and writing.
Learning things by rote is commonly associated with metaphors of imposing quasi-military discipline (like ‘drilling’) or inculcating subhuman responses (like ‘parroting’ or ‘repeating mechanically’). Countless people will tell you that rote learning is inimical to conceptual understanding and critical thinking. Some critics of NAPLAN tests in our schools, for instance, fulminate at the thought that rote learning could have any positive role in the acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Perhaps there are still a few classrooms where grim teachers oppress hapless students with dreary rituals of robotic recitation, though it’s unlikely you could find many disciplinarians nowadays as harsh as those Dickensian ogres Thomas Gradgrind and Wackford Squeers. At any rate it seems there’s a widespread worry that repetitive memorisation will make monkeys out of children, and that teachers who resort to spoonfeeding – supposedly akin to instruction by rote – must be simian throwbacks. I’m reminded of the following pair of illustrations (reproduced here on the ‘fair use’ principle) in an antique Australian anthology for kids, Coles Funny Picture Book:
But setting those caricatures aside, we should ask whether it’s always harmful to memorise information systematically and rehearse it routinely until its retrieval becomes automatic.
Surely not! On the contrary, rote learning is a necessary first step in several areas of learning. It’s the simplest and most effective way for most youngsters to become confidently familiar with the alphabet, phonics, multiplication tables… And indeed repetitive utterances – rhymes, songs, chanted mnemonics – are a time-tested foundation of first-language learning in general.
What makes rote learning seem objectionable to many people, I suppose, is the sad spectre of mere repetition without an ounce of understanding. It’s often said there’s no value in reciting anything until you’ve grasped the concept behind it. Perhaps that’s sometimes true, but does it necessarily apply to getting an infant class to learn a poem in chorus even when it contains phrases that are utterly strange to them? I don’t think so. If sing-song repetition allows young children to carry in their heads a fantastic rhyming story about The Owl and the Pussycat, it’s unimportant that they couldn’t explain what a ‘runcible spoon’ or a ‘bong tree’ looks like. I’ve heard primary school kids chant Blake’s poem ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright’ without fretting about its ‘fearful symmetry’: the concept may reveal itself to them eventually, and in the meantime the words are like a dormant magic charm.
Rote memorisation establishes mental habits that equip us to go far beyond the foundational practices of early learning. Remembering a patterned sequence of words by reciting them in a group can be like a rudimentary form of choral singing. And with maturity there may come an internalised individual practice of memorisation, as we recognise the value in becoming so familiar with certain passages of verse or prose that we know them by heart. Knowing by heart is a mode of cognition that should be cherished, not disparaged – especially in relation to the reading of literature.
If we memorise passages and keep running them through the mind, we are re-reading them, and in the process we’re allowing ourselves to pay more attention to their texture and structure. ‘A good reader,’ wrote Vladimir Nabokov in his Lectures on Literature, ‘an active and creative reader, is a re-reader.’
In an article for English in Australia some years back, I wrote about an example from my own reading experience in secondary school: while studying The Tempest, I’d committed to memory a long passage from that play – a speech in Act 5 where Prospero evokes his power over nature only to renounce it. We weren’t required to learn these lines but I liked the sound of them enough to do so of my own accord. It’s the passage that begins:
Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves / And ye that on the sands with printless foot / Do chase the ebbing Neptune…
Many years later those words rose up from some murky cerebral recess as I was reading The Prelude, Wordsworth’s huge autobiographical poem (I think of it as his monsterpiece), and came across these lines:
Ye powers of earth, ye genii of the springs, / And ye that have your voices in the clouds, / And ye that are familiars of the lakes / And standing pools…
It dawned on me that what the little verbal echoes hint at is a fundamental relationship between the two texts. Wordsworth conducts parts of his account of ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ (that’s The Prelude‘s subtitle) in the form of an oblique conversation with the Shakespearean play, just as other parts of the poem rework imagery from Milton’s Paradise Lost. His allusions to Prospero’s world – which I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t memorised that passage long before – have much more than a decorative function in The Prelude. They serve as a metaphorical framework that allows Wordsworth to draw out some latent implications of The Tempest, and restate them in relation to his own cultural situation. I’ve written in detail about this intertextual linkage in a chapter of my book Narrative Exchanges, so I won’t go on about it any further here. But for me that moment of recognition when I saw Shakespeare’s lines hovering behind Wordsworth’s was a satisfying reminder of the potential value of learning by heart – underpinned by early rote habits.
Recently I’ve come across a couple of essays by readers who share my view that rote learning can be beneficial. One is an article by Justin Snider in The Huffington Post; the other is a blog post by Erica Meltzer. If you’re not convinced by what I’ve said on this topic, perhaps you’ll find their observations more cogent.
Anyway, I’d be interested to know whether any of you who read my blog attach as much value as I do to learning things by heart.