Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Really useful things we learned without understanding

Education's a political football. The arguments around it are always depressingly binary. Today it's about promoting the value of rote learning. The counter-argument is that committing facts or words to memory without understanding; a) is without value; b) somehow gets in the way of so-called creative thinking.

I'm a sample of one but many of the most useful things I know I learned by rote, often without understanding. These include:

  • Multiplication tables
  • The alphabet
  • The words of William Blake's "Jerusalem" (and subsequently a million pop records)
  • Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting", TS Eliot's "Journey Of The Magi", the beginning of Macaulay's "Lays Of Ancient Rome" and half a dozen speeches from Shakespeare
  • The words of at least twenty hymns
  • The capital cities of the countries considered significant when I went to school
  • "I before e except after c when the sound is ee"
  • "Thirty days hath November etc"
  • "Willie willie harry stee etc"
Have I, er, forgotten anything?


  1. Richard of York gave battle in vain (colours of the rainbow).

    EGBDF and FACE (notes on the stave)

    The square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.

    Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

    The six wives of Henry VIII. (Let's see if I can still do them: Katherine-with-a-K of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Catherine-with-a-C Howard, Anne of Cleves-with-no-a-before-the-v, Jane Seymour and, er, the other one.)

  2. The Lord's Prayer

  3. Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub?

  4. Red sky at night?

  5. Don't the arguments only appear binary because that's how media reports them? Ask a lot of education professionals (the ones who actually teach and aren't pushing their 'edu-blog' as a means of escaping the classroom to start up a consultancy) and they will acknowledge that of course it's not that black and white.

    Some of your list is also quite subjective, no? (Of course it is. 'subjective' could be the definition of blogging). I grew up in Scotland so have no idea about the words to Jerusalem (it's an English thing....) And the million words to Pop songs I have memorized will probably be different to the ones you have. So should there be a canon of great Pop lyrics we should force kids to learn by rote? If so, who decides the canon? And how? And why them?

  6. Henry VIII - Divorced, beheaded, died; Divorced, beheaded, survived.

  7. Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus Amatis, Amant.

    The Shipping Forecast locations.

    Able was I ere I saw Elba.

  8. Poor soppy clots make artful zombies in their leisure hours, consequently making some perishers grumble.

  9. Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.
    It took me a while before I realised that Dave Dee was one person, not two.

  10. Anonymous12:05 pm

    Ate mater, quid docemur. Vita tua, quid monemur?

  11. I thought Dave Dee was two people too.

    I still remember where the points on the compass are by reciting Never Eat Shredded Wheat to myself.

    I learnt my Spanish verbs endings at school by reciting and writing them over and over over again. It wasn't exactly creative teaching but I still know what they are.

  12. Never Eat Cod, Eat Salmon Sandwiches And Remain Young.

    The most important thing I learned at school was to answer the question you've been asked, not the one you think they want the answer to.

  13. Rob Bagchi - you too?

  14. Anonymous1:53 pm

    Indeed, Graham. Turpe nescire.

  15. Anonymous4:54 pm

    The frequently fascinating maths exploration Alex's Adventures in Numberland tells how Japanese children learn their kuk (times tables) by rote, but that synonyms are used to help the words flow more musically - like a jolly rap, according to author Alex Bellos. Indeed, he says Japanese adults know 7x7=49 not by maths or calculation, but because the rhythm 'sounds' right.

    Not sure how this fits the conversation but I guess we're all music fans so I thought you mind find it interesting.

  16. Funny that, Gary. Although I'm not brilliant with numbers I never had trouble with my times table because certain calculations seemed to be, if not actually rhymes, than at least memorable in a musical way. So for me seven sixes and eight fours have always been as easy to remember as a Chuck Berry lyrics whereas other ones, like eight nines I had to stop and work out. That's a bit like music, isn't it?