'Yes to facts, no to mindless rote learning'

15th May 2014 at 11:01

Gordon Stobart, emeritus professor of education at the Institute of Education, University of London and author, writes:

If last week's TES is to be believed, learning lots of facts may leave us better off creatively and help us to do better on Pisa, since that's what happens in top performing Asian countries, according to the article ‘When creativity and facts are a good match’. This claim, distilled from Pearson's Leading Edge analysis, needs some further scrutiny.

I'm not weighing in as a member of the “we don't need facts anymore, we've got iPhones” club, but rather as someone interested in expert learning and creativity. What we learn from the study of expertise is that content does matter – and this includes facts.

But it's not just any old facts – only those that contribute to mental frameworks, which allow learners to make more sense of what they are trying to master. Michael Eraut has defined learning as “a significant change in capability or understanding ...which excludes the acquisition of further information when it does not contribute to such changes”.

So the rote learning of facts, which make no difference to our thinking, is of no value in itself beyond pub quizzes and the like. Contrast this with the very active, valued and meaningful rote learning of the hundreds of characters of the Chinese alphabet that is essential to the mental framework of literacy. Rote learning, therefore, has to involve understanding.

John Dewey saw this over 80 years ago:

“...intellectual learning includes the amassing and retention of information. But information is an undigested burden unless it is understood. It is knowledge only as material is comprehended.”

But do facts help problem solving? It depends on the kind of facts and the kind of problem. All sorts of tasks can claim to be problem-solving ones, ranging from “9 x 7” to “what's the next big development in technology?” I take the core of problem solving to be dealing with unfamiliar material and/or questions. We then have to apply what we do know in order to make sense of the unknown. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget defined intelligence as “knowing what to do when you don't know what to do”.

So, understood facts may well be critical to problem-solving while parrot learned facts won't be, as they won't be recognised as useful in a novel situation. I can learn all sorts of facts about the solar system but unless I make sense of them and organise them into a mental framework I may well be stumped by questions about eclipses or why it's summer in Australia when it's winter here.

The Programme of International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests claim to be assessing “everyday problem solving”, rather than curriculum-related knowledge. What do you make of the role of rote-learned facts in this science question?

Some cities have trolley buses: they are powered by an electric engine. The voltage needed for such an electric engine is provided by overhead lines (like electric trains). The electricity is supplied by a power station using fossil fuels.

Supporters for the use of trolley buses in a city say that these buses don't contribute to environmental pollution.

Are these supporters right? Explain your answer.

So, does rote learning inhibit creativity? Pearson’s Learning Edge report rather blurs the edges here, slipping from problem-solving Pisa-style to creativity. There is an overlap, but creativity often goes further than problem solving by coming up with novel solutions or forms of presentation.

The big question here is whether the rote learning of facts discourages these forms of creativity. Beyond the artificiality of Pisa problem solving, I fear that the answer is yes. This is not to subscribe to the myth that creativity comes out of the blue and knowledge will interfere with this. Those who have revolutionised our thinking in science, art, music or technology have all been immersed in, and have mastered, the knowledge of their field, resulting in them being able to creatively reformulate the questions that needed to be asked.

What is lacking from cultures with strong conformist approaches to learning, including rote learning and examination preparation, is a culture of risk taking. In his book World Class Learners – Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, the Chinese-American scholar Yong Zhao demonstrates the negative relationship between Pisa scores and perceived entrepreneurial capability. So Singapore, Korea and Taiwan are high on Pisa, low on creativity, while the US has mediocre Pisa scores, but dominates in terms of patents and inventiveness. Zhao's inelegant metaphor is that of a sausage machine – in high-performing Pisa countries, the machine is so well made that it produces high-quality sausages and nothing else. America, on the other hand, has a badly made machine from which lots fall out along the way. So it produces mediocre sausages, but it accidently produces bacon too.

My own work on creative expertise offers some support – in the UK, a lot of students fell out of academic education and were shunted into art colleges on the way to developing music careers; John Lennon, David Bowie, Ray Davies and Keith Richards, to name but a few. Some very creative outcomes from a poorly-integrated system.

So, “yes” to understood facts, “no” to mindless rote learning. Or, as educational author Susan Brookhart puts it, “thinking is much more fun than memorising”.



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