When creativity and facts are a good match

9th May 2014 at 01:00
Rote learning is key to problem-solving, international study finds

An emphasis on rote learning and memorising facts is compatible with teaching problem-solving and "soft skills", a new international education study suggests.

Young people in South Korea have to learn hundreds of pages of facts to do well in exams that take place several times a year, the report says. But they are still among the very best in the world at problem-solving.

The Learning Curve, released yesterday, combines various comparative education studies and interviews with experts to find out which teaching methods result in the best outcomes.

For some, the idea that rote learning can lead to more advanced social and problem-solving skills will be counter-intuitive. And in England, debate has raged around a new national curriculum that places more emphasis on factual knowledge.

But Sir Michael Barber, chief education adviser for education company Pearson, which published the report, said the success of Asian systems, which expect children to memorise facts as well as learning "21st-century skills", showed there was a need for a more sophisticated approach in other countries.

"Learning some knowledge and memorising it is not a bad thing, it is a good thing," argued Sir Michael, who served as an adviser to Tony Blair when he was prime minister. "It is the basis on which you can do problem-solving. And the more knowledge you have, the more knowledge you are able to learn in the future, because it gives you a framework.

"Nobody should be remotely apologetic in the schools system about teaching some knowledge and ensuring that kids acquire it and can remember it."

Sir Michael said educators in the UK needed to avoid the common refrain of "we don't need knowledge any more - it is all about soft skills". "It is a combination," he added.

But some headteachers condemned the focus on memorising facts. Martyn Taylor, head of the Thomas Cowley High School in Lincolnshire, said rote learning was "the way backwards".

"My children can go on to their phones and they find out things instantly, they don't have to remember," he said. "What is important is that they know how to find things out, how to ask the right questions and interrogate material."

The study, which ranks countries on their educational performance, highlights the overall success of East Asian education systems, with South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong taking the top four places. But it also notes that these systems are "frequently criticised for relying on rote education". It cites evidence from an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report, which found that South Korean students have to "memorise 60 to 100 pages of facts in order to do well" in "twice-a-semester exams".

"This type of teaching is presumed to impede creativity and the ability of students to address unexpected problems, either alone or in groups," the Pearson report says.

But in results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) problem-solving test, published last month, South Korea came second. Singapore was first, with East Asian systems also making up the rest of the top seven.

Sir Michael stressed that the reality of such systems may not match the stereotype of the "Gradgrind-driven classroom". Quite a lot of Korean education was "very interactive", he said.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of UK teaching union the ATL, agreed with Sir Michael that there was a "false dichotomy" between knowledge and skills. "But there is a clear tension, with an overemphasis on rote learning that doesn't allow creative thinking, and we know that the South Korean government is very concerned about this," she added.

The Learning Curve combines the latest results from Pisa, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. It ranks the UK sixth out of 39.

Sir Michael said the UK's position had been boosted by its high university graduation rate, but added that there was a "significant gap" between the UK and Finland in fifth place.

The report was published as Pisa came under attack from 120 academics and teachers from 12 countries, including Britain, the US and Germany. In a letter they warn Andreas Schleicher, who runs the international comparison study, of "negative consequences" - for example, an escalation in testing and "short-term fixes" designed to move countries quickly up the rankings.

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