Rote learning: A necessity but not for the classroom

At UNI we are still in the transition to Google Apps and the last major transition is from our old calendar platform to Google Calendar.  As I was reading the email I noticed that instead of having formalized training sessions on how to use Google Calendar, there was a link to where users can find training on all apps.  This left me wondering, why aren’t we doing this for all rote training needs we have?

As a technology specialist and educator, I understand that in order to reach innovative use of technology in a course, it is necessary to have some “how-to” knowledge about the technology being used.  Typically (going to generalize here) this is taught in large group sessions in a very rote way.  Click here, this feature does this, and so on.  We’ve all attended these trainings and many, including myself, have led a number of these sessions.  I’m wondering however, if we’ve reached a point where we no longer need to concern ourselves with teaching rote knowledge.  If we have very good tutorials on how to use X or what X is, do we really need to take up time “teaching” this when we are all together?  Wouldn’t we be just as or even more effective if we hand picked the videos we wanted our colleagues or students to watch so they can gain that rote knowledge that’s absolutely necessary for being successful?  Then, couldn’t we spend more time learning about how we can be effective with this technology in our courses?

I believe we have entered a point in society that you have to be a lifelong learner.  You simply cannot function without that essential characteristic.  At UNI, I’d say nearly all the people I work with would more than be capable of lifelong learning and I’d imagine many of you would agree you see the same in your colleagues.  However, as educators, have we truly embraced what it means to be a lifelong learner?  Do we take the initiative to learn new innovations as our organization adopts them?  I don’t think we have and I think we are wasting time organizing formalized training sessions on the latest innovation.  I know I’m guilty of this, we all are.  But I think we have a professional duty, as educators, to learn about new innovations as they become available in an asynchronous way.  I’m not saying you need to be an expert in every innovation, but I do think you need to be knowledgeable enough to either have a discussion about the innovation and/or be able to use the innovation in a basic sense without having to sit through an hour or even a full day workshop.

I’m going to shift gears slightly, but remain on the same topic.  I think we need to begin developing this literacy in our students as well.  How much time do we spend in education teaching students rote knowledge?  When was the Civil War?  What is the atomic weight of Boron?  What is the formula for calculating the surface area of a parallelogram?  We need to stop teaching our students how to do these things in our physical classrooms!  The answers to these questions can be found online and are very well articulated in a variety of mediums.  Why, I ask WHY do we still use low level rote instruction?  We’re good at doing it, but someone else is better and they’ve decided to share it with you for free (usually)!  Send your students to these resources online to learn this knowledge and then in class have them apply the concept they learned at home, the library, a friends house, etc.  It’s the application of the concept that get’s interesting and is where students have questions and is where our efforts as teachers should be.  Helping students apply knowledge in a meaningful context.

I’ll end by saying that rote learning, is necessary, but it shouldn’t be the only kind of learning that takes place.  I remember when I was in student teaching, my university supervisor asked me, “When are you going to develop the low level knowledge needed for your students to be able to answer the high level questions you’re asking them?”  This statement has remained with me ever since.  Before we can synthesize, create, or analyze, we need to first be able to understand the concept in its most basic form.  I think advocates for reform forget this, especially those who are critical of the flipped classroom.  I think flipping is exactly what we need to be doing, but it’s not the only thing.  It’s just one piece in the puzzle.


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