If only we could remember

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Cross my heart and hope to die, there are absolutely no Freudian subtexts in the personal revelations about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Confession is good for the soul; so I have to admit that as a smallish child, about primary 4 stage, I absolutely loathed reciting for my grandmother the latest poem I had learnt in class. She herself was illiterate, but blessed with a phenomenal memory. Shortly before her death, she could repeat the words of songs and of verse memorised 80 years before.

She wasn't a one-off. Many old ladies of her generation had memories, and data in them, that would have done credit to any hard disk that IBM can produce. We are their descendants, but sometimes I am unsure whether their memorisation and rote learning skills are a dying or already dead art.

As a product of the Government's The Primary School in Scotland generation, my teachers did not duck out from facing the prospect of enforcing memorisation, but took it for granted. Verse should suit pupil interest (no doleful stuff). Make it short and varied and worth while, including, of course, some Scots material. The result was that children usually had a poem available for recitation, and thought nothing of the fact of life called "learning".

The Primary Memorandum sniffed a little at any kind of rote learning that was not suffused with complete understanding, while the 5-14 programme hardly seems to have heard of memorisation at all. Fashionable cant focuses at once on tables, the favourite "things ain't what they used to be" exemplar. Within my frame of reference, just about everything except a slow release implant has been tried out, but still knowledge and recall of tables remain sluggish. This is a matter of permanent concern to me. So it came as a pleasure and delight to discover recently that French inspectors of schools share my misgivings.

According to a recent report (TESS, July 26), they worry that organisation of the memory is being neglected. Interestingly, they associate this with authoritarian teaching methods and seem to suggest that failure to memorise may be a reaction. They point out, too, that teachers underestimate how quickly children forget earlier lessons. I think this is a crucial point. Are we doing enough to train memory, exercise it fully in young children and prepare them for the inevitables that have to be committed to it like irregular verbs and chemical formulas?

I think we used to, but have caved in before a Sysiphean task. Our children are coming to school with who knows how many hours of television watching under their belts, passive witnesses to many murders and probably a thousand more assaults. Bad enough, but they have also had channelled through them hour upon hour of cartoons, many of which make inanity seem a virtue.

There are certain consequences to this. Some children possess a verbal, preliterate cuteness that in abundance can sometimes be cloying. Others stare with an almost clinical curiosity when given a simple instruction to follow. Many, and this is the important issue, have the attention span of the small dot that used to end all television programmes.

This has consequences for memory and rote. Children watching television interact and come to terms with the world through electronic means. I think they learn early to select from the "in your face" information and images racing past them what they want to retain, and, more importantly, continue to do this throughout their school careers. They only memorise what suits them, and doing this may not expand their horizons much further than the living-room wallpaper. Often, encouraging the unwilling to learn by rote can be like offering a crucifix to a vampire, and sometimes gets similar results.

Memorisation and rote are not dead, they have just been diverted to personalised and individual purposes, and become very selective. How we start to cope with this is another matter.

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