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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rote Does A Lot of People A Lot of Good

Recently I read a forum comment somewhere to the effect that “rote does not do anyone much good.” Ironically, this comment was part of a comment whose main idea was that educators should question buzzwords and dubious tenets of pop-education. In spite of the current popularity of this sentiment, rote actually does a lot of people a lot of good. I agree that sometimes educators have abused rote. I remember a fourth grade science book from around thirty years ago that included a whole unit on state birds and flowers as if such information had even the remotest relevance to science. Naturally, since most schools consider the textbook to be THE curriculum, many teachers felt compelled to “teach” children the state birds and flowers. Inquiry or constructed learning will not work for this kind of arbitrary knowledge. Rote is really the only way. State birds and flowers should never have been part of the science book in the first place.

Today we have Common Core. Just as in the past, of course publishers are scrambling to roll out new textbooks that reflect Common Core. Thus yet again, the textbook will become the default curriculum. Yet, even within Common Core and even within a commitment to teaching concepts over rote, there are still a number of topics for which rote is still the best method. The order of the alphabet, sight words, broad overviews of history, and arithmetic facts are just a few. People forget the intense amount of repetition and memorization involved learning a first language, let alone subsequent languages. Churchgoers know memorizing the books of the Bible greatly aids in finding the preacher's text. If you want to pass your first driver's license test, it would behoove you to memorize the rules of the road. Rote memorization of poems provides an avenue of future pleasure. If you live in a character-based literary system such as Chinese, you will need to memorize several thousand characters to simply be a literate person.

Another related canard holds that the purpose of education is not knowledge itself, but the ability to find knowledge. However, students who lack a substantial reserve of memorized knowledge have a great of difficulty even figuring out what search terms to use. Personally, as much as I hated memorization when I was young, I have come to appreciate the easy access to information, internet or no internet.

Finally, there is an important reason to refuse an ideological stance against rote learning. Sometimes it is all a student has left. Math is a subject area well-suited to discovery methods. All mathematical procedures are based on the real and predictable behavior of numbers. Very little math knowledge is actually arbitrary. The best math teachers who consistently use the best discovery methods to help students acquire mathematical concepts still sometimes encounter students who simply cannot get it. If they cannot acquire the concept, and we also also deny them rote learning, we leave them with nothing. Although rote should never be the first resort in a non-arbitrary domain such as mathematics, rote still remains the best last resort to ensure that all students acquire the basic skills they need for their adult lives. As educators, we need be at the forefront of confronting ideological statements wherever found