Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How Rote Learning Got a Bad Name

I read somewhere the memoirs of a writer who went to Catholic schools as a kid. He reports that he was made to memorize a list of the popes, and it was only after he graduated that he discovered how difficult and contentious it is to write such a list. For several decades during the middle ages, there were actually two (or three!) simultaneous competing popes, which the ruler-wielding nuns had neglected to mention.

That's why Blackadder's Baldrick claims to have an all-purpose pardon "signed by both popes!"

When you reduce learning to memorizing factoids, you can't handle ambiguity or complexity.  There's no grappling with meaning or ideas. You wind up dumbing down content.

For a painful example, here's Farrah Shipley using Whole Brain Teaching to inflict "fractions" on a kindergarten class.

WARNING!  Side effects include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, despair, and suicidal ideation.  If uncontrollable ranting persists for more than four hours, see a doctor, psychiatrist, or bartender.

I have thrown myself on the grenade by listening to this "lesson" so you don't have to.  Here's what the hapless 5-year-olds are memorizing:

A fraction is when we cut something into equal pieces.  [Grammar, anyone?]

A fraction has two parts: a denominator [low silly voice] and a numerator [high silly voice].

The denominator tells us how many pieces in all.

The numerator tells us how many pieces are shaded.

Think how confused these kids will be when they actually need to understand fractions, and nothing's been shaded!  We can only hope they forget this whole nightmare over the summer.

At one point in the video, Mrs. Shipley actually grabs a little boy's wrists and forces him to do the gestures.

At another point, she asks the class, "wouldn't you like to know what the numerator does?" and a bunch of the kids yell back, "NO!"  Then she tells them to beg her.

For a rousing climax, she walks the kids through the "genius" segment, where they're encouraged to produce sentences that nobody would ever actually say, like "I eat watermelon, but first I cut it into fractions."

The way she reaches into her jacket pocket for a dry-erase marker reminds me of a dog trainer reaching into her pocket for little treats.


  1. PsychMom says

    I only lasted 2 minutes, FedUpMom. Then the phone rang...thank heavens.

  2. Saved by the bell! Check out the Blackadder video -- it's a lot more fun.

  3. Farrah Shipley is a nightmare. I've checked out her blog. She should be charged with Educational Malpractice.

  4. I think it's pretty funny to call such a brainless technique, " whole brain" .

    But I believe such methods are popular because they allow one teacher to contro large classes

    big classes are the future

    I didn't know where to post this

    Massive cuts to education in Pennsylvania budget

    .......K-12 education will see the deepest cuts, totaling nearly $900 million or 7 percent of the state funding. On average this amounts to $410 per student. ....

  5. Wow! I have to say. I teach kindergarten. 33 kids. Full day. No aide.

    Never have I ever stood in front of the kids and talked at them for 14 mins

    This was just an awful lesson of talking not sharing 1/2 or 1/4 of Graham crackers.

    On the other hand, when I substitute taught, I had seen much worse classroomsof students fighting. In kindergarten. This is not the top line of teaching by any means.