Rote learning vs learning facts meaningfully

In my last post, I wrote about lessons in which pupils are not thinking about the aims of the lesson. I gave an example of a unit of work I taught when I first began teaching. Obviously this example is anecdotal and doesn’t prove that this is a wider problem. However, as I also said in the previous post, these were the types of lessons that I was encouraged to teach whilst training and they were the types of lessons that I saw lots of other teachers in lots of other schools teaching. Do I have any evidence for this? I don’t want to get into a situation where I am naming and criticising individual teachers and schools. The reason why I picked on one of my own lessons was to avoid this. My argument is that the reason why these types of bad lessons are prevalent is not because of the failings of individuals and individual schools. It’s because the system encourages us to teach like this. And I can provide very solid evidence for that statement.

Ofsted have quite significant powers not just over English schools but over English training providers. Ofsted observe hundreds, perhaps thousands of lessons a year. They then select what they think are the very best lessons they have seen to feature in their subject reports. These lessons give us a good insight not just into the types of lessons that are being taught in English school, but into the types of lessons that are being encouraged.

Of course, Ofsted have significant powers, but they are not omnipotent. It’s entirely possible that teachers ‘put on a show’ for them when they visit, and my experience suggests there is some truth to that. However, I still think it is a very significant piece of evidence to consider the types of lessons that the organisation responsible for teaching standards think are good ones.

In the most recent subject reports for English (there are two – 2011 and 2012), History and Geography, very many of the lessons they describe involve pupils not thinking about the aims of the lesson. (Many of the other lessons they describe are bad for other reasons.) Here is a Geography lesson that Ofsted praise (from Learning to make a world of difference, p.36).

Two pupils, in role, acted as newsreaders during an introductory simulation of a newscast. This used a PowerPoint backdrop and updated the rest of the class on the conflict. The teacher sat in the ‘hot seat’, acting as an expert to reflect on and clarify the issues. The pupils had a very good understanding of the differences between Hamas and Fatah and the tensions between Arabs and Israelis in the conflict. Having exemplified the role of an ‘expert witness’, three pupils who had prepared scripts sat in ‘hot seats’. Groups of pupils interviewed these experts – ‘Is this an Arab/Israeli child?’; ‘What are their concerns and worries?’ and so on. This enabled pupils to develop a fresh perspective on the conflict and use their speaking, listening and questioning skills. They were able to explain the conflict through the eyes of children living within it today. In the lesson described here, the pupils’ work was outstanding because the teacher had high expectations.

What will pupils be thinking about in this lesson? I would guess that they would spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to present the news, about being ‘in role’, about what a newsreader sounds like, about how to do the PowerPoint backdrop, about the best way to prepare their script, etc. That’s not to say that those things might not be important. But are they really the aim of a Geography lesson? If you asked those pupils in a week’s time what they remembered, would they have remembered anything to do with the Middle East?

The other thing to note about these types of lessons is that they very often have a huge opportunity cost. This isn’t apparent sometimes when you read quick summaries of them in these Ofsted reports. For example, here’s an activity Ofsted praise in English (from Moving English forward, p.33):

‘practical tasks such as making and using puppets as part of the Romeo and Juliet work.’

Making puppets? It’s a brief throwaway line, but it would probably take quite a few lessons to make the puppets. For most of that time, the pupils would be thinking about the mechanics of making puppets, not the plot, language or themes of Romeo and Juliet. Again, there is nothing wrong in and of itself with making puppets. But in an English lesson where the aim is to advance understanding of one of Shakespeare’s plays, then the activity is misplaced. The time spent making puppets is a huge opportunity cost – it’s time the pupils could have spent actually improving and deepening their understanding of Romeo and Juliet.

One irony to note is that these types of lessons are often presented as imaginative alternatives to dull rote-learning. In actual fact, I think that it is this kind of lesson plan and unit of work which does lead to dull rote-learning. In the Shakespeare puppet lesson, the pupils will have spent several lessons where they haven’t learnt any English knowledge or skills. The important knowledge and skills will be hurried and squeezed into just a few lessons, probably in quite a mechanistic way. If there is an assessment on this unit, then because there has not been enough time in the lessons to think about these facts in a meaningful way, the only solution for the pupil who wants to revise is to rote-learn them – that is, to learn the facts in a way that is stripped of meaning. If you waste class time on tangential and distracting activities, then pupils will end up rote-learning – and probably rote-mislearning – the important knowledge and skills that they should have been taught meaningfully.