Is there a right way to learn?

28 February 2018

Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

Most of us went to school at a time when the only way to learn your times tables was to memorise and recall by heart. We call this type of learning – rote. Just recently NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes said he was strongly supportive of students in primary school learning basic maths skills by rote.

The return to rote learning is happening elsewhere. From March, a number of primary schools in England will start testing Year 4 students on their knowledge of the times tables. Like phonics screening in Year 1, the multiplication test is aimed at identifying students who need additional support. From 2020, the test will become mandatory.

The question that often follows from such comments and policy decisions is whether there is a right or wrong way to learn core concepts? The ‘skill-and-drill approach’ which was popular when I went to school in the 1960s and 1970s was not limited to maths but extended across most subject areas.

Back then, good learning was often attributed to having good memory skills. A good memory often meant you passed the test but it did not mean that you understood even the basic concepts. We know a lot more today about how people learn, what good learning looks like and how to structure learning more effectively for individual learners. There is a deep understanding that while memorisation is useful, the most important aspect is ensuring all students understand what they are learning and why they need to learn it. That’s called conceptual learning.

It’s a fact that traditional models of schooling have relied heavily on memorisation at the expense of freeing up students’ minds for the kind of deep, creative and high-level thinking that today’s world demands. I asked my colleagues whether they could still for example, recite the numerical value of Pi (3.14): some could, others had forgotten. Of those who could, all had difficulty explaining the concept.

And that’s the point: sometimes, memorising basic concepts like times tables or the periodic chart in chemistry or great poems represents half of the whole. It’s only when students can understand what they’ve learned and make meaningful connections that learning becomes whole.

Greg Whitby AM

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta

Greg Whitby is the Executive Director of Schools - Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta
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