Articles I Never Should Have Started Reading, Dept.

Once in a while I visit Edutopia’s website to find out what the current educationist trends are. If you’re looking for bad ideas, Edutopia will never let you down. To wit and for example, this article: Brain-Based Strategies to Reduce Test Stress in which “A neurologist shares ideas for beating stress before and during test time.”

The article has no shortage of platitudes and trendy edu-thoughts, including this gem of a paragraph. It starts off well enough:

“When the goal of learning is only test preparation, students will not be prepared to apply their learning to novel questions or problems.”

Yes, very true. But is anyone saying that the goal of learning is “only” test preparation? The author continues, undaunted with what is REALLY needed:

“But engaging students in authentic performance tasks and project-based learning helps deepen their understanding on both the factual and conceptual levels. In addition, when students experience their learning as personally meaningful, their intrinsic motivation strengthens long-term, durable memory networks. These are far more accessible for test retrieval (and longer term access) than rote memory.”

In other words only if students engage in “authentic” activities and PBL, will learning really take hold. Otherwise nothing is “personally meaningful” and is therefore relegated to the catch-all category reformers love to use: “Rote memory”.

Apparently, the author has written books on education. Well at least the article didn’t mention “maker spaces”.


5 thoughts on “Articles I Never Should Have Started Reading, Dept.

  1. These are far more accessible for test retrieval (and longer term access) than rote memory.”

    Personal experience is that stuff really committed to rote memory — as in actually repeated by rote time after time — stays a lifetime. I have a poor memory in general but stuff I learnt by rote 40 years ago is still there, long after stuff I learned via some school project or other has long since faded.

    I think some of these people don’t actually know what real rote memory is. I suspect they think it is being told things a couple of times by a teacher, which indeed fades quickly.

    Actually sitting down and burning something in dozens and dozens of times is quite different, and extremely effective. We might argue about how useful it is, but to deny that it works to remember things is stupid.


  2. “These are far more accessible for test retrieval (and longer term access) than rote memory”

    Remembering is always a good thing. The question is how does remembering work? You need practice and linkage to other knowledge and skills. Rote learning is a specialized case where one is required to memorize a lot of facts without connection to anything else, like memorizing the list of presidents. Nobody does that anymore, if ever. In math, “they” claim that traditional teaching and proper textbooks do that for skills. That’s just not true. One might claim rote for memorizing the times table, but students continue to use that knowledge on a daily basis and begin to tie those “mere facts” to all sorts of other understandings and number sense. Rote only fails if there are no other connections made. That never happens. On can cherry pick concepts and understandings that are not made by typical students, but we never see any sort of PBL or discovery techniques that do a better job on combining understanding and mastery of skills. They just want to change the learning process from bottom-up to top-down. They want to change what happens in class.

    My son had thematic learning in the earliest grades. In first grade, he had a thematic unit on the Arctic that talked about animals and had a story about a little Inuit boy. This was built on no framework of the solar system, globe, continents, poles, and the earth’s tilt or why it was cold there. There was nothing to attach that narrow thematic learning to. That was a just a different form of rote learning. What you need to build is an overall framework that provides attachment points for other information. In math, that can be done with understandings and/or with mastered skills. Unfortunately, the modern idea is to assume that the skills will follow automatically from the understandings. that doesn’t happen because the skills provide many understandings “they” dismiss.

    My son and I defined something called “the hiatus effect.” He must have seen that word many times in his reading, but when I finally explained exactly what that word meant, he began to see the word everywhere. My son loved geography and memorized all of the countries in the world in first grade. Actually, he only ever memorized a few things like Poe’s “The Raven.” For most things, he just remembered/absorbed them. Some of his teachers really didn’t understand or like that. Afterwards, every time he heard something on the news about one of the countries, he had something to attach it to. I saw exactly how that worked. Some of the countries might end up lost from his memory, but not if he had other things to attach them to, like neighboring countries. He didn’t just memorize a list of words.

    So which is better – rote first or thematic PBL discovery first? Rote doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever existed, but thematic and PBL first exists with no concern about the importance of “mere facts” and “rote skills.” That completely changes in high school, so what’s different about K-6? Why are we stuck on silly arguments about rote learning? Why do we let educational pedagogues define the talking points? Why are they able to avoid showing any proof? Has K-6 math education been so systemically bad for so many years that nobody can calibrate common sense? Good has become “elite” and average is stupid. They lower expectations, but claim that they do a better job with understanding for all levels of students. Dream on.


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