There is plenty of talk in teaching regarding mastery and ensuring pupils develop their understanding of new concepts, but it is essential not to forget the role that rote learning plays in education.
Repetition allows pupils to rehearse knowledge, retrieve facts and practice their understanding. It enables the brain to develop automaticity, which is vital for many aspects of mastery, e.g. times tables.
What do pupils gain from rote learning?
The answer to this question really goes back to the phrase “practice makes perfect”.
A deep understanding of concepts that can be applied to various situations can only occur if the knowledge is secure and instantly able to be recalled.
We all understand that the more we practise, the better skilled we become. Think about learning to ride a bike, tying your laces or learning to drive.
It takes lots of repetition and practice to become competent at any skill. If you apply this to other types of learning, you can see that practice cements knowledge, facts and concepts into the brain.
Think about some knowledge you know as an adult that you can easily recall: your times’ tables, colours of the rainbow, directions on a compass or maybe the planets in the solar system.
You didn’t acquire these pieces of knowledge subliminally. You practised them over and over. You probably were taught methods to make it easier, such as songs or mnemonics. Who else uses Never Eat Shredded Wheat?
Whatever strategy was used, the way you learnt was repetition, repetition, repetition.
What happens if we don’t practise enough?
If you have any doubt about the importance of repetition, try and explain the Theory of Relativity.
Unless you are a physics teacher, or someone very interested in physics, you might struggle to explain the theory eloquently. That’s because you haven’t practised or rehearsed the facts for a very long time, or maybe you never learnt it in the first place.
How does repetition help the brain?
Your brain creates neural pathways when new learning is acquired. The pathways are strengthened every time they are used.
If you do not practise new knowledge, the pathways created in your brain will weaken. That means you will find it impossible to recall previously learned knowledge.
Children are making new neural pathways all the time. As a teacher, you must ensure the paths are constantly being reinforced through practice and recall.
How can you keep pupils engaged when rote learning?
We all know pupils must be engaged when learning, so naturally we need to make rote learning interesting.
You can change your style to keep pupils motivated and prevent boredom from affecting their concentration.
Songs, mnemonics, quizzes, competitions, games and teambuilding exercises are all ways to make repetition fun.
It is also vital that pupils are given the opportunity to apply the knowledge they have gained to reinforce their understanding of the concepts. This helps children to develop schemas they can use when required.