Rote learning is essential for a child's education – play isn't, says expert

Neuroscientist criticises creativity guru Ken Robinson for his 'go out and play' message and says more emphasis should be placed on memorisation to lay the foundations for more complex tasks

Richard Vaughan

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Traditional approaches to education such as practising rote learning and building pupils' memories are essential to allow for more complex tasks, a leading expert in cognitive science has said.

Helen Abadzi, an expert in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, who was an education specialist at the World Bank, said that pupils who “overlearn” and repeatedly practise tasks, such as mental arithmetic, free up their working memory for more “higher order” analytical thinking.

Speaking at a Cambridge Assessment Network event on Monday, Dr Abadzi criticised more “progressive” approaches to learning from the likes of education adviser and author Sir Ken Robinson.

The academic from the University of Texas at Arlington argued that people are “basically prisoners of their working memory”. By repeating tasks, such as times tables, it becomes automatic and unconscious, freeing up space in the working memory for more complex calculations, she said.

“When people talk about practice and the low-level skills, people end up saying, ‘Your thinking is out of the Stone Age’,” Dr Abadzi said. “Unfortunately, our DNA is out of the Stone Age.”

'The traditional methods have worked for centuries'

There is a reason why some elements of traditional methods of teaching have stood the test of time, she added, as they help the brain to remember and make correct decisions.

“'Traditional' means we’ve been doing it for two, three, five centuries – it’s actually a good indication that it works because our memory system can do this stuff,” she said.

“People may not like methods like direct instruction – "repeat after me" – but they help students to remember over the long term. A class of children sitting and listening is viewed as a negative thing, yet lecturing is highly effective for brief periods.”

It is important for parents, teachers and pupils to understand the benefits of practising to lay down the foundations for more complex tasks, Dr Abadzi said.

“Those who practise the most forget the least over time,” she said. “So-called ‘overlearning’ protects from forgetting, because consolidation requires repetition – small bits learned at a time”. 

The academic highlighted Sir Ken Robinson, whose TED talk "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" is the most watched of all time, for advising young people to just “go out and play”.

“Go out and play, well sure – but is that going to teach me mental math so I can go to a store and instantly make a decision about what is the best offer to buy?” she said.

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Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

Find me on Twitter @RichardVaughan1

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