Deeper Understanding Must Follow Rote Learning

2011Symposium_1_2Last week, one of my third grade classes did not enter my classroom according to my expectations. Some ran in, they were generally noisy, and even though they have assigned seats, they were rushing to sit elsewhere. This doesn’t happen every time they come in, so I don’t why it happened that day, but it did. I try very hard not to even give the impression that something like this doesn’t matter, or that it is alright, so I passed out lined paper and told them to take five minutes to write down how they are supposed to enter my room. There are twenty-three children in that class, and only one of them correctly described the procedure correctly. Is it possible that these children were mindlessly following each other into the room and sitting in their seats without consciously considering what they were doing? The teachers have a line order for bringing them to music, so the seating chart for my room follows their line order; first row in first, followed by the second and then third rows. On this day, when many decided not to stay in line, there apparently was nothing left in their understanding of the procedure to guide them, once part of the routine was broken.

Are there other things our students do that we think they understand, but that they are really just king out of habit without any real understanding of what they are doing? The great advantage of routines can also be their greatest disadvantage: they become so automatic that it is easy to forget why we’re doing them, or even how we are doing them. There is a possibility that anything we teach by rote can become a routine that is mindlessly duplicated week after week. That is why rote learning should never be the ultimate goal, but a means to end of deeper understanding. There is much value in teaching something by rote, but that value is only realized if the thing so taught, once learned, is studied and becomes the object of deeper thinking and understanding. One cannot (or should not) analyze a song one has not first learned, but once learned by rote, analysis, interpretation and evaluation are necessary areas of learning as part of the process of preparing to perform or respond to the song.

After finding only one student able to write down how each child was to enter my room, I led the class through the Practice makes permanentprocedure, not by having them practice doing it, but by making them orally describe the procedure in a step by step fashion. Stay in line. First student sits in the first chair, first row. Students follow in line, filling the rest of the first row. The next child in line goes to the first chair in the second row, and those following fill in the second row, then the next child goes to the first chair in the third row and the rest of the children follow, filling in the third row. Steps to follow expressed in words and representing an action that students will need to perform. The next time that class came in, they had no trouble with the procedure. They have learned the rote lesson. But let’s not stop there, satisfied that they did it right. We can go deeper.

Why do they come in that way? It is efficient. It keeps students together who get along, and keeps students separated who do not. That helps get the class going quickly, and avoids unnecessary interruptions. That is important for children. Learn how to properly focus attention, and stay focused. Learn how to avoid situations that will pull you off task, or lead you into situations you should avoid. Know your purpose in every context you find yourself in and stick to it. That is the deeper learning one can come away with from a procedure for entering a classroom. Once learned, being guided by the reason and purpose will make forgetting the procedure less likely. It is the same with songs or anything else.

There are hundreds of songs children listen to, but probably only two that have mixed meter, and both of those they learned in my class–Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, movement 4, and Orff” Carmina Burana, “Tanz.” Those two songs have a unique meaning. My students have moved to them, done body percussion to them, listened to them, sung the themes from them. Their knowledge of these songs is much more than mere rote familiarity. Their singing of themes is not merely intellectual recall of pitches and durations, it is the sound that is melded to the movement and emotion that the music brings about; it is deeper understanding. There’s nothing wrong with just singing a song you like, but if that’s as far as you go, that song won’t reach your core, your inner self. The ones that really mean something and last are the ones we experience deeply, with more than a passing acquaintance.

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