A popular view among educators is that rote learning is bad, bad, bad. Point out how well Asians do in international tests compared to Americans, and defenders will likely counter that maybe so, but Asian education depends on that bad rote learning, but we Americans, no matter how poorly we compare, are superior because we emphasize concepts and creativity.
To be honest, as a math teacher, for a long time I believed that rote learning, while undeniably effective, was merely second rate. Kids must need lots of memorization of mathematical recipes and homework practice to pound poorly understood mathematical procedures into their brains. As a math teacher, I believed that if skilled math teachers developed a strong conceptual foundation within children, the logic and elegance inherent in math would minimize the need for tedious, time-consuming homework.
As a junior high and high school math teacher, my ideas about foundation building were only theoretical. It was easy to look at my students, the products of elementary school instruction and conclude that elementary math teachers were doing a terrible job of building foundations. After all, there is plenty of documentation for the inadequate math teaching skills of elementary teachers. I could be charitable. I did not blame elementary teachers too harshly, because they themselves did not acquire mathematical foundations when they were elementary students. They cannot teach what they do not know.
However, until I came to China to work with elementary students, I had never had a chance to test my hypothesis that all students really need is a great foundation. Actually, for most students my hypothesis worked. They could demonstrate a deep and thorough understanding of the concepts I taught. I often assigned homework of only five to ten problems, and after this little bit of practice, they could reliably get the right answers.
However, there were a few students for whom concepts were not enough. One day they would demonstrate terrific understanding. The next day we had to start almost from scratch. I tried everything, every approach I could think of, including a lot more practice. What worked when nothing else did was lots of practice---yes, tedious, time-consuming practice designed to activate rote memory.
I finally concluded that if a child can successfully utilize the concept to solve problems, that's great. However, if the only way they can master the procedure is to repeatedly execute it until they reliably get right answers (my standard was 80% or more), then so be it. Better that then sending them on their way with nothing.
Sadly, as comparative studies show, too many American children lack essential conceptual foundations because the documented lack of teaching skill means teachers fail to actually effectively teach the concepts. Students also fail to do adequate procedural practice because of the American educational aversion to “boring” homework. So I say let's teach concepts and teach them well, AND let the students practice until they can get the right answers. Some students may need more practice than others. So be it.
Interestingly, recent research on children's and teen brains explains why children have such great memories, and how practice, even in an environment of complete concept understanding, is necessary to build brain pathways.
the whole process of learning and memory is thought to be a process of building stronger connections between your brain cells. Your brain cells create new networks when you learn new tasks and new skills and new memories. And where brain cells connect are called synapses. And the synapse actually gets strengthened the more you use it. And especially if you use it in a patterned way, like with practice, it gets even stronger, such that after the practice, you don't need much effort to remember something.
When we dismiss rote learning, we forfeit a valuable tool for building neural pathways in the brain.
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