From Rote to Note
For most children today the start of a new school year means a new grade and new school supplies. Prominent among the latter is the ubiquitous three ring binder and the packages of lined paper. It’s difficult to imagine school without notebooks yet there are people even today who grew up and attended school before notebooks and even paper were in common use in the classroom. In these schools students used slates and chalk pencils for their work. This necessitated a very different type of educational training. This essay will look at the methods of education during these times and examine how education changed as paper became a more common commodity.
Before looking at the educational methods that the use of slate tablets necessitated it’s best to spend a moment to describe what the slate was and how it was used. The writing slate was about 8 x 10 inches and was, not surprisingly a piece of slate in a wooden frame. Students would use a chalk pencil to write something and would have to erase this before they could write something else. The gave rise to a number of expressions still in use today, e.g. ‘to start with a clean slate’. The reason for the use of the slate was primarily economic. Prior to the development of mass produced paper, or in times of economic hardships paper and ink were expensive. What must be emphasised is that students had only one slate each and all of their work was done on it. Because of this there was no note taking nor was there a way to review material or for a student to refresh his / her memory about something. If it was to be learned it had to be learned by memorizing it, a process generally referred to as ‘Rote’ learning.
Rote learning emphasised facts. In the earlier days when students were using slates the rote learning method was not concerned with students expressing their feelings or giving their opinions. Rote learning was about memorizing concrete information, “students did not preserve any of their work in the form of what is described today as class notes. Memorization, therefore, was emphasized and achieved through collective recitation led by the teacher. A keen memory characterized a good student.” (Evolving Classroom, 2001) Today rote learning is considered by many educators not to be learning at all but merely ‘parroting’. They consider that rote learning makes no allowance for understanding, “Rote learning is a learning technique which avoids understanding the inner complexities and inferences of the subject that is being learned and instead focuses on memorizing the material so that it can be recalled by the learner exactly the way it was read or heard. In other words, it is learning, just for the test.” (K12 Academics) Defenders of rote learning say that in some areas rote learning is the best or even the only way to learn something. They point to learning math skills or a second language where the constant repetition will eventually make the knowledge second nature, “The true purpose of rote memorization in education is to create automaticity, so that, for example when a child sees a letter or a group of letters he or she automatically says the sounds. The child does not have to think about it. The response is automatic.”. (Blumenfeld, 2000) Defenders will also argue that for some age groups or some subjects, understanding the ‘inner complexities’ is not important, what is important is to know the material.
Rote learning, and the use of a slate had a huge effect on the nature of teaching. No lessons could be given that required a student to write notes for later review. The teacher had to structure lessons in such a way that information was given out in small amounts and since students could not go back and review the teacher also had to be sure that students had ‘learned’, i.e. memorized, current material before moving on. This was usually done by using recitation. Students, as a group or individually would recite the lessons repeatedly. Often the teacher would clap a beat while the students were doing this so that the recitation of facts became more like a song. As paper became cheaper to manufacture and easily available education went through some significant changes, both in the way students learned and the way teachers taught. Paper meant that students could take notes and review material at a later time. The notebook became an external memory, “one of the major aims of note taking is to build up a stable external memory in a form that can be used at a later date. Confronted with a diverse range of information-transmission situations, note-takers are striving to avoid forgetting something.”. (Boch & Piolat, 2005) The most significant outcome of this was that memorization became less of a factor which in turn meant that rote learning could be replaced by new teaching methods. Memorization still played a role in so far as teachers still gave exams and quizzes to test a student’s knowledge of a subject, but now a student could review material in order to prepare for these tests.
For teachers, the ability of students to create a permanent record of new information for later review meant that they were no longer as restricted in the amount of information they gave students. This allowed them to broaden the scope of their teaching. Since teachers didn’t need to use class time to ensure that students were memorizing the lessons they had more time available to do other things. This extra time could be used for class discussions, debates, role playing and projects etc. In this way paper was one of the things that allowed the modern classroom to develop.
Even though the positive effects of note taking outweigh the negatives it is important to point out that note taking is not without its problems. One of these is that students do not necessarily have to pay attention to the material being delivered. They can make notes without thinking about what is being said and hope that later, during review the notes will make sense. Another key aspect of note taking is that it relies on the student reading and possibly rewriting the notes in order to understand the topic. This isn’t always done which leads the third potential problem of note taking, cramming, committing the material to memory just before a major exam. Unlike rote learning where the material becomes ingrained, information learned by cramming is rarely retained.
The use of notebooks has allowed education to develop into its current form and has been the main reason for the demise of rote learning. Yet while it may seem that rote learning as a teaching method, or even an idea has disappeared from modern education theory there are still many today that would argue in favour of this teaching method for some situations. While researching the topic two recent articles came to my attention that show the currency of this argument. One is from December 2008 titled, “Google Generation has no need for Rote Learning”, and the other from January 2009 titled, “The Importance of Rote Learning in the Google Era”. These articles show that far from being a resolved issue the argument and place of rote learning and memorization may be even more significant today than it has ever been.
I have some personal connections with this topic. My father attended school in a small town in Scotland and used a slate for much of his time there. After so many years his memory of that time was a little hazy but he was able to tell me some things about using a slate and recalled that they didn’t get pencils and paper until the last couple of years of his schooling. Part of my early schooling took place in the same town in the early 1960’s. At that place and at that time rote learning, using flash cards and repetition was the standard method of teaching. It was boring and frightening to be expected to commit so much to memory and I would never advocate a return to this type of teaching / learning, yet even now when doing math problems in my head I still remember and recite the times tables in the same sing-song method I learned then. Not much that I learned in my high school years in Canada has stayed with me so well.
Blumenfeld, S. (2000). The importance of Rote Learning. Retrieved October 2009, from Homeschool World: http://www.home-school.com/Articles/phs34-samblumenfeld.html
Boch, F., & Piolat, A. (2005). Note Taking and Learning: A Summary of Research. The WAC Journal , 101-113.
Evolving Classroom. (2001). Retrieved October 2009, from School: The story of American Public Education: http://www.pbs.org/kcet/publicschool/evolving_classroom/slate.html
Frean, A. (2008, December). Google generation has no need for rote learning. Retrieved October 2009, from TimesOnline: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article5270092.ece
K12 Academics. (n.d.). Retrieved October 2009, from Rote Learning: http://www.k12academics.com/educational-psychology/rote-learning
Thomas. (2009, January 02). The Importance of Rote Learning in the Google Era. Retrieved October 2009, from Open Education: http://www.openeducation.net/2009/01/02/the-importance-of-rote-learning-in-the-google-era/