A Brief History of Rote Learning

One quick Google search seemingly tells me all I need to know about rote learning: ‘a memorisation technique based on repetition. Alternatives to rote learning include meaningful learning, associative learning, and active learning.’

Webster, Thomas George, A Dame’s School

What I find curious is that ‘rote learning’ should be made to stand so aloof, like an exile in an educational hinterland, and placed in such an unfavourable juxtaposition with the more desirable phrase, ‘meaningful learning’. This is pure laziness. I agree that rote learning on its own is an unworthy pursuit. However, once we understand how difficult the retention of knowledge actually is – as though the gradient of the knowledge-base of Bloom’s Taxonomy were so steep as to be near-vertical – we realise that we need every winch and pulley available to us.

I suppose we have to explain what we really mean by rote learning . When I use the phrase, I mean using repetition to commit factual information to memory. However, I can use a number of methods for doing this – spelling tests, low-stakes quizzing, or by simply answering questions in class. That said, rote learning has to be qualified, for just as it does not make sense to keep this perfectly viable educational gadget out in the tool shed with the rusty trowels and angle-grinders that stutteringly give out in a puff of smoke, so we shouldn’t think that by using it alone we can offer pupils a well-rounded education.

According to cognitive psychologist Peter Brown, rote learning will work best when it takes advantage of the spacing effect.[1] We should not try to force our children to learn everything in one sitting, because massed practice is 10–30% less effective than spaced learning.[2] Furthermore, it also helps if the facts that we learn are linked together within a single mental model, preferably a story or narrative, since these are psychologically privileged.[3]

As Daniel Willingham puts it, ‘repetition alone won’t do it’, yet elsewhere he notes that while memories rarely fade, the cues that we use to retrieve memories do.[4] To my mind, this suggests that rote learning is about reinforcing mental cues, and serves as a complement to more meaningful methods of instruction.

Rote learning in Ancient Mesopotamia

The allure of the brute repetition of facts has been with us ever since the first hunter-gatherers settled, built tenements from muddy bricks, and commenced tilling the alluvial soils of the Middle and Near East.

Cuneiform, one of the earliest writing systems, was similarly a product of these fertile river valleys (the name ‘Mesopotamia’ transliterating as ‘the land between the rivers’). It is as old as Stonehenge, dating back to 3200 BC, and looks like a rag-bag assemblage of peculiar arrows and ridges, the name deriving from ‘cuneus’, meaning ‘wedge’ in Latin.

The 1,000 or so characters of cuneiform place a higher demand on long-term memory than the meagre 26 letters of our modern alphabet. Furthermore, the letters were impressed upon the wet clay of partially baked tablets with the nib of a reed stylus, forming what is called a ‘partial script’: some letters stood for whole words – the word ‘fish’ almost seems to flop out of history complete with fins and gills – while other words represent the syllables of uttered speech. To render the syllable ‘kur’, for instance, you’d have to draw something that looks like the modern symbol for radioactive waste.

How did the schoolchildren of Ancient Mesopotamia learn this script we ask: through the brute repetition of facts. Is the Babylonian method of instruction something we should try to emulate today? No, in many ways it was flawed and inhumane, despite its partial successes.

One of the oldest texts available to us, ‘Schooldays’, is a story impressed upon a clay tablet by one disgruntled pupil who talks about the prevalence of caning.[5] The boy was caned for talking, he was caned for his scruffy cuneiform, and he was caned for drinking too much beer. The phrase ‘he caned me’ is repetitiously strung throughout the poem.[6]

In order to learn, students would read, cover, and rewrite what they had just seen. Presumably the Ancient Mesopotamians didn’t have any kind of Bloom’s ziggurat to allow them to ascend to the higher levels of instruction.

That said, considering the staggering number of separate pieces of knowledge a Babylonian would have had to know, the instruction certainly served its purpose. Trainee scribes boasted of their abilities to create documents relating to every situation, from measurements of thousands of litres of barley, through to those of marriage and the transactions of slaves and real estate.[7] This is all the more impressive when you consider that the Babylonians had a sexagesimal number system. Just as they had 1,000 cuneiform characters compared to our 26 letters of the alphabet, so too did they have 60 separate numerals compared to the mere 10 numerals we have to remember today.

What did this mean? Well, you may pride yourself on knowing your times tables all the way up to twelve, but do you know your thirteenth? Maybe you do. What about your sixtieth times table – are those available in your memory? Unless you’re Rain Man, the answer is probably no. By contrast, the Babylonians routinely had to access and retrieve such facts from the hulking bodies of knowledge they had stored in memory.

What stands out as unsavoury to the modern commentator is not so much the rote method of instruction, which, although incomplete, served its purpose. It is rather the corruptibility of the teacher depicted in ‘Schooldays’. Not only does he punish his pupils as arbitrarily as a bloodthirsty despot, but he also accepts bribes from the boy’s parents, at once changing his tune after a sumptuous dinner at the family home. Immediately, the teacher transitions from cane-wielding tormentor to an absurdly convivial house-guest, telling the boy, ‘may the goddess of scribes be your guardian deity’.[8]

Thus, the perception of rote learning is being bundled in here with (a) the corporal punishment administered by the teacher and (b) the need for schools of that era to earn a profit, which made teachers corruptible. This takes me directly into the period when the rote learning was most in vogue: the Victorian era.

An orgy of facts and dates

You cannot talk about schooling in Victorian England without mentioning the literary colossus bestriding it: Charles Dickens. We have all heard of the teacher from Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind, and his notion that ‘facts alone are wanted in life’.[9] Discovery learners revile him. While some advocates of direct instruction will hesitatingly demur that just maybe he has a point.

As with Ancient Mesopotamia, however, I think the Dickensian depictions of rote learning are not so much the problem as the teachers and institutions themselves. The long nineteenth century (1789–1914) was a time when children had their fingers and arms lopped off in cotton mills, were crumpled like concertinas into sooty chimneys, and children as young as six were ‘literally worked to death in the mines’.[10] Whenever we consider the Dickensian depiction of rote instruction, we cannot ignore this context: children had a vastly reduced status compared to today, where we think it tantamount to Chinese water torture to unplug the Xbox for a quarter of an hour.

Did you know that the most prevalent cancer among children of the nineteenth century was chimney sweeps’ carcinoma, a tumour on the testicles resulting from exposure to the hydrocarbons in soot? Even if you were lucky enough to survive having your ribcage compressed as you were shunted into the narrow flue of the chimney, you were likely as not to die before the age of thirty. When we look back into history and attempt to deride a character such as Gradgrind, we often fail to take account of the myriad cruelties that were inflicted upon the children of this age.

One of Charles Dickens’s most famous depictions of rote instruction comes from Nicholas Nickleby, courtesy of the esteemed educationalist, Wackford Squeers. Squeers tells Nickleby, who has just been hired as a teacher, that ‘here we go upon the practical mode of teaching’, which he exemplifies as follows:

‘Third boy, what’s a horse?’

‘A beast, sir,’ replied the boy.

‘So it is,’ said Squeers. ‘Ain’t it, Nickleby?’

‘I believe there is no doubt of that, sir,’ answers Nicholas.

‘Of course, there isn’t,’ said Squeers. ‘A horse is a quadruped, and quadruped’s Latin for beast, as anybody that’s gone through the grammar knows.’[11]

This sort of patter is not technically rote learning at all, since Squeers has obviously never read ‘the grammar’ himself, and has no real subject knowledge to speak of. If anything, the character is more a satire of teachers not knowing which way is up, more of which is shown further on: ‘C-l-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scout. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement.’ Dickens is using the character of Wackford Squeers to exemplify bad instruction, since not only does he misspell ‘window’, but he defines it with another word of much greater obscurity: ‘casement’.

Funnily enough, since he doesn’t practise proper rote learning, the character does more to satirise what we today would think of as discovery-based methods. As Squeers says, once the children hear the spelling of the word, they then go out into the world and do it: ‘Go and look after my horse, and rub him down well, or I’ll rub you down.’

We thus see that the real problem here is not even the method of instruction itself, but rather the exploitative environment in which children of Victorian England are raised.

When Nickleby first enters Dotheboys Hall, he watches as the children are fed watered-down milk, along with stale bread and butter. They are described with ‘pale and haggard faces, lank and bony fingers, children with the countenances of old men’.[12] The pupils are routinely underfed in the name of a profit motive. This is child abuse, not rote learning.

We therefore see again that in Dickens’s world, just as in Ancient Mesopotamia, the perception of rote learning is being bundled with corporal punishment and the corruptibility of teachers: 4,000 years of educational history compressed into a fluttering blink of an eyelid before the cane.

The school that inspired 1984

Is it any coincidence that one of the greatest dystopian writers was subject to the rigours of arbitrary punishment at his own school? The stories George Orwell tells of St Cyprian’s beggar belief. One of the owners of the school, nicknamed ‘Sambo’ for his savagery, beats Orwell hard enough to break his own riding crop. Children are embarrassed by teachers in adult company, taunted as ‘bed-wetters’, and threatened with beatings from the sixth form.[13] Furthermore, as in Ancient Babylon, there is the favour shown to the boys from high-income families. Orwell doubts whether Sambo ‘ever caned any boy whose father’s income was much above £2000 a year’.[14]

Orwell explains that much of the teaching at St Cyprian’s was ‘to the test’, since everything depended on a single competitive examination, and they were ‘crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas’.[15] The subjects were never valued for their own sakes. In fact, everything other than Latin and Greek was neglected, even maths and the sciences. Meanwhile, history was nothing but a ‘series of unrelated, unintelligible but – in some way that was never explained to us – important facts’.[16]

If a pupil failed to recall a fact, Sambo would tap at his head with a silver pencil ‘heavy enough to raise a bump’, and, if required, take him away to beat the knowledge into his head more palpably.[17] One pupil named Hardcastle even laments the beating given to him after failing his examination, since if it had come before, he might have had the impetus to succeed.[18] Clearly, caning was seen not only as punishment, but as a salutary instrument in the service of rote instruction.

Orwell recounts a number of instances that wouldn’t look out of place in Nicholas Nickleby, from the ‘astonishing hardness’ of the beds, to the psychological abuse and physical privations levelled by the adults in charge of the school. Just as Wackford Squeers considered that the ‘business of his profession was to get as much from every boy as could possibly be screwed out of him’, [ET6] so did Sambo wish to secure prestige for St Cyprian’s by sending his pupils to Eton. Again, in schools as far apart as 3200 BC, the 19th century, and the early 20th century, we find the profit motive at work. Children were little more than commodities to be impressed into a mould, packaged, and sold as objects of prestige.

What are the conclusions?

The problem with rote learning in the past is that it was seen as all there was: the alpha-omega for learning your alphas and omegas. What we understand today is how much more nuanced the process of learning is.

Educators like Sambo, Gradgrind, and Squeers never spaced their instruction. The children they lectured could just as well have been lumps of raw material, merely to be chipped away at until ready for export, like the ores of iron or coal. Teacher talk is not a sin. But when it is a lecture rather than a conversation, it surely is. And what goes for dinner parties goes just as well for the craft of the classroom. If you talk too much without enquiring as to the other person, you’ll prove boorish and inept.

These caricature educationalists also failed to introduce any overarching mental model. As Orwell describes, the historical facts were unrelated to each other and they were never explained. Remember, rote learning is only supposed to prepare the cues for recall, not the information itself.

If I were to combine rote learning with a mental model, I might use flashcards to help pupils commit dates to memory, and then converse with them about the period, building a story discursively through this process.

Let’s take Nazi Germany, for instance. They’d need to know the dates 1933, 1935, 1939, 1942, and 1945. The story I would then build up as follows. ‘Why was somebody as angry as Hitler able to come to power?’ Pupils will tell me about the Treaty of Versailles (linking prior knowledge), and how Germany felt this was unfair, which then resulted in Hitler becoming the Chancellor (1933).

I would then turn to the topic of the Jews. ‘Why were the Jews seen as such a threat to ordinary Germans?’ Some pupils may have ideas about the fact that they ran businesses, and maybe they’ll refer to the hyperinflation of 1923: how Germans lost all of their savings and Jews were viewed as a profiteering anti-race. I might mention an interesting anecdote, such as the disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes awarded to Ashkenazi Jews, leading to the twisted campaign for ‘Aryan Science’ in the 1930s and the subsequent exile of Albert Einstein. This conversation will lay the groundwork for a discussion of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, where Jews were revoked of their citizenship and relegated to mere subjects of the Third Reich.

The point is that mere understanding of the story alone is not enough. If I tell the story without the dates, pupils will go away from the lesson, wake up the next morning, and only have a very fuzzy recollection. Facts are the coat-pegs from which we suspend the narrative. Without them, the mind is but an empty cloakroom.

If you imagine yourself sitting an exam, you’ll realise that you need quick and automatic recall of the facts, especially when we consider the nerves involved. Some pupils find examinations so stressful that they need to know a fact well enough to remember it on their deathbed – that’s the kind of retrieval strength we’re talking about. It is all too easy to underestimate the fog of war that descends upon a pupil in examinations as high-stakes GCSE or A level.

This also links in to being able to analyse information. If all I can remember about the topic of Nazi Germany is the fact that Einstein was exiled – well, that’s an interesting titbit (hence I remembered it), but it won’t apply to very many exam questions. Meanwhile, the less interesting fact (that Hitler became Chancellor in 1933) would be relevant to practically every exam question. This is just one example where basing revision on what learners are interested in will prevent them from analysing effectively.

Consider the opposite scenario: a pupil who has diligently memorised each date. They can ‘use’ the 1933 date to recall all other aspects of Hitler’s election as Chancellor, and they can use 1935 date to recall the entire schema of Jewish persecution. The essay they’ll write is almost prefabricated for them, in the sense that the dates will dictate the structure of the response.

Clearly, rote learning is useful, but the unsavoury juxtaposition with ‘meaningful learning’ is about as productive as saying that sugar is better than salt. We require both. Of course, you couldn’t survive on one or other of them alone, but that is not evidence of their toxicity, only of their insufficiency outside of a balanced nutritional profile. Sure, there are the horror stories – pre-diabetic American children and lawsuits against Ronald McDonald – but no one would suggest a blanket ban on either of these nutrients.

Linking this little essay in with the theme of the book, I don’t think many can relate to the sheer comfort of knowing your shit, and that’s what rote learning gave to me. I had just enough cultural capital to be able to pick out the Mona Lisa in a police line-up and to be able to laugh at a friend who thought ‘the Leaning Tower of Pizza’ had a Domino’s at the bottom. But that was it. The only way I stood a chance of escaping the gravitational pull of the Job Centre was to commit cold, hard facts to memory.

We need to forget about Dickens, rely on the psychological evidence, and try not to be swayed by subjective notions of what constitutes quality education.

[1] Peter Brown, Make It Stick (p. 48).

[2] Bradley Busch and Edward Watson, The Science of Learning (p. 4).

[3] Peter Brown, Make It Stick (p. 6) & Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? (p. 66).

[4] Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? (pp. 60–61) & To The Real, ‘Why is it that students always seem to understand, but then never remember?’

[5] https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/texts-tablets-and-teaching.

[6] Paul Kriwaczek, Babylon (p. 188).

[7] Paul Kriwaczek, Babylon (p. 187).

[8] Paul Kriwaczek, Babylon (p. 189).

[9] Daisy Christodoulou, Seven Myths About Education (p. 13).

[10] George Orwell, Essays (p. 148).

[11] Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby (p. 92).

[12] Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby (p. 89).

[13] George Orwell, Essays (p. 1292).

[14] George Orwell, Essays (p. 1297).

[15] George Orwell, Essays (p. 1297).

[16] George Orwell, Essays (p. 1298).

[17] George Orwell, Essays (p. 1299).

[18] George Orwell, Essays.

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