In Praise Of Rote Learning

Rote learning gets a bad rap. We associate it with 19th-century one-room school houses, conformity and a lack of critical thinking.

Today’s educational approach is more enlightened, we tell ourselves, as we now teach people “how to think” rather than just “cramming them with facts.”

The attack on rote learning, however, reveals a misunderstanding about what “thinking” actually is and how we actually learn.

Bloom’s Taxonomy, which defines six different levels of thinking, maintains that the highest order occurs at the evaluating and creating levels. At this cognitive tier you need to have knowledge, facts, data, or information in your brain to combine into something new, or with which to judge relative importance or value. Effective knowledge acquisition comes first.

Put another way, in order to think you have to have something to think about. And you need a depth of familiarity with that material in order for higher-level cognitive processes to occur.

Rote Learning Teaches Us How To Think

Let me provide an example from my own musical education. Since I was a kid, I’ve been studying jazz improvisation. I continue to practice every day, and also perform and record regularly. You can check me out here.

A great deal of my study has involved the rote learning of musical patterns and solos of the great jazz improvisers. In jazz we call it “ingraining.”

The object here is not to literally employ these musical structures in our improvisations. Rather, after years of practice, one is able to combine them in new, personal and unexpected ways, almost effortlessly.

It is the memorization of the patterns that has enabled me to “think” musically, at great speed and clarity.

The same occurs with game of chess, something we tend to associate with pure thought. Chess masters spend a lot of their time memorizing the great games of the past. It is this rote learning that teaches them how to “think” in chess.

Yet another example is language. One can’t speak or write fluently or think in a language if one has never acquired the words or the grammar or the syntax. And those things we’ve learned by rote.

Our Thinking About Thinking Is Sadly Inverted

As mentioned above, the dismissal of rote learning illustrates a misapprehension of what thinking is and how it occurs.

This is due, in part, to the current fashion using computer processes as a metaphor for human cognition.

“Thinking” we associate with the CPU; knowledge with what is accessible in RAM (having been accessed from our hard drives or the web.) Our model is one in which the CPU acts upon the knowledge available in the computer’s memory. Our main educational objective, therefore, is to strengthen that central processing unit.

What is not understood, however, is that in human cognition what is memorized, i.e, available in RAM, actually teaches the CPU how to think.

In short, we have it all backwards. Or more likely, we misunderstand how computers actually work.

Take machine learning and the field of artificial intelligence. The basic concept here is that as data is accumulated, it modifies the algorithms that are doing the “thinking” upon that data.

To continue with our imperfect metaphor, in this case the RAM acts upon the CPU. The computer, in effect, learns how to think by acquiring more and more information. Through a brute process it accumulates data and creates from it.

Rote learning, in fact, might be the most progressive kind of learning there is.

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