Grooving the Brain
Sometimes I think that rote learning has gotten a bad rap. One of the most useful skills I have is the ability to type, which I’ve been able to do since 9th grade. Every single time I watch someone hunt and peck his way through a document I am grateful that I was forced to take typing to fill my schedule in high school (even if my guidance counselor told me to take it so I’d have “something to fall back on”).
I’m also grateful that someone insisted that I memorize my multiplication tables, a chore that many educators find, for some reason, too onerous a task to expect elementary children to tackle. How onerous is it to have to add together five 9’s for the rest of your life? I wonder.
Then there’s the poetry I had to memorize that stays with me today. Frost poems. Lines from Shakespeare. The Gettysburg Address. The beginning of the Declaration of Independence. “Invictus.”
Once on the golf course a man came up to us as we were waiting on the first tee and asked if he and his father could play with us for the first few holes. His dad had Alzheimer’s, he said, but he still loved the game. His father may not have remembered even his son’s name, but he remembered how to tee the ball, and his swing was grooved. He played with us for a couple of holes, focused but silent. “He was a great golfer,” his son said.
Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers postulates a “10,000 hour rule.” Talent, says Gladwell, is just the beginning of excellence. The difference between good and great is 10,000 hours of practice. The idea of endless practice to attain excellence is a concept currently out of favor in educational circles. The few who embrace the idea today are athletes and artists. It’s another one of those educational false dichotomies: either memorization OR making your own learning.
So yes, rote learning is repetitious, and yes, it’s mindless, and yes, it’s boring. But it’s the solid foundation upon which you can build your house however you want. Memorization of math facts or poetry or a famous speech or spelling words or punctuation rules is like having a little Kindle in your head.