In praise of rote memorization and drilling, phonics and math facts

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Ace has a lengthy piece taking down "cargo cult" educational practices like "Whole Word" and "number bonds" and praising rote memorization: "Common Core Is Pretty Dumb."

So sure-- the accomplished 6-year-old readers are indeed mostly using whole word, at least for common words. Spoiler alert: That's because they already went through the Phonics phase at age 4 or 5.

The Cargo Cult mistake of these "Educators" is to think that Whole Word reading is a shortcut to teaching reading. No-- Whole Word reading is the endpoint of learning to read. First you read letter by letter, then syllable by syllable (as you have begun to compile, in your Reading Memory, a large list of common syllables). Then you start just reading Whole Word....

By denying kids their first step in reading -- teaching them to read letter-by-letter -- educators have not advanced Whole Word reading. They've retarded it. You can't do whole word until you're an ace at letter by letter.

They're making the same mistake here with this jackass method of teaching math. The method they're teaching is what I'd term a secondary insight. Yes, I know what they're trying to teach. I do this myself sometimes, to make life easier on myself.

Did someone have to teach me this? No, it's a simple enough insight once you are fluent with the basic memorized rules of math. Once "three plus four equals seven and three plus seven equals ten" is drilled into your head enough times, you naturally start thinking in terms (or can start thinking in such terms, if that's your preference) whereby you perform somewhat complex operations on simple math problems to make them easier for yourself....

Ace discovers the fundamental truth of educational bureaucracy:

No one gets an award for suggesting we try the old, established, well-proven methods of teaching. You only get awards and recognition for proposing new ones.

And he gets to the insight that if you want to teach kids "how to think" you start by teaching them the basics, which gives them the raw materials for advanced insights. He presents an example from his own life, deducing the existence of a French verb from an English noun derived from French. (He's working on learning the language.)

So I realized that "penchant" was probably a gerund form of a verb which must be "pencher." I think I've seen it before, but I never looked it up. Taking a guess at what the word must mean, I guessed pencher probably means "to incline," which would make the French (and English) definition of "penchant" "an inclining towards," or, in better English, "an inclination towards."

Then I looked it up. Pencher does in fact mean "to incline or rise," and finally, after a whole life of just vaguely knowing what the English word "penchant" means, I confirmed it does mean "inclining towards" (or "preferring" or "having a habit of" -- all derived from "inclining towards").

I was actually a little thrilled. I felt empowered.

But honestly-- how would you go about teaching that? Well, you can only tell students that -ant is our -ing. Once they've learned that (and had it drilled in their heads by reading French texts, in which -ant is very common), they can, at their own initiative, wonder things like "Gee, does 'penchant' imply a verb 'pencher'?"

But how do you make a lesson of this? At most, what you'd do is tuck this in the back of a chapter, in those "For Further Thought and Exploration" parts of the textbook, where you ask students to guess at the meaning of "pencher" based on their vague knowledge of the English "penchant."

But would you design a whole lesson around this mode of thought? Would you drill this sort of thing into kids' heads, like teachers are now doing with "number bonds"?

No. You give students the sandbox of basic information to play in, and hope they make sandcastles.

And that's how you learn to think. Not by a teacher telling you, "This is how you learn to think."

Dorothy L. Sayers was making similar insights in 1947 in her essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning," which has inspired and shaped the resurgence of the classical method of education in recent years. Ace's insights correspond to the importance of Grammar -- memorization of facts and rules -- as the foundation of all further learning:

My views about child psychology are, I admit, neither orthodox nor enlightened. Looking back upon myself (since I am the child I know best and the only child I can pretend to know from inside) I recognize three states of development. These, in a rough-and- ready fashion, I will call the Poll-Parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic--the latter coinciding, approximately, with the onset of puberty. The Poll-Parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished. At this age, one readily memorizes the shapes and appearances of things; one likes to recite the number-plates of cars; one rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things. The Pert age, which follows upon this (and, naturally, overlaps it to some extent), is characterized by contradicting, answering back, liking to "catch people out" (especially one's elders); and by the propounding of conundrums. Its nuisance-value is extremely high. It usually sets in about the Fourth Form. The Poetic age is popularly known as the "difficult" age. It is self-centered; it yearns to express itself; it rather specializes in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness; a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others. Now it seems to me that the layout of the Trivium adapts itself with a singular appropriateness to these three ages: Grammar to the Poll-Parrot, Dialectic to the Pert, and Rhetoric to the Poetic age.

From Susan Wise Bauer's description of classical education:

The first years of schooling are called the "grammar stage" -- not because you spend four years doing English, but because these are the years in which the building blocks for all other learning are laid, just as grammar is the foundation for language. In the elementary school years -- what we commonly think of as grades one through four -- the mind is ready to absorb information. Children at this age actually find memorization fun. So during this period, education involves not self-expression and self-discovery, but rather the learning of facts. Rules of phonics and spelling, rules of grammar, poems, the vocabulary of foreign languages, the stories of history and literature, descriptions of plants and animals and the human body, the facts of mathematics -- the list goes on. This information makes up the "grammar," or the basic building blocks, for the second stage of education.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on January 22, 2014 8:03 PM.

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