Sitting down to read the Sunday newspapers and looking forward to a respite from my everyday world of learning design, I find myself once again confronted with the use of rote learning as a pejorative term. The unjustified bad press for this type of learning appears to be emanating from Government circles and filtering down into a common misunderstanding of this important type of learning.

I am reminded of an excellent article [subscription required] recently written by Des MacHale, emeritus professor of mathematics at UCC in which he highlights the importance of this type of learning in everyday life.

While I agree with many of the points Professor MacHale makes, as an experienced instructional designer, I would go even further in defence of this type of learning.

Educators use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a framework for setting learning objectives and assessment questions. While Bloom’s Taxonomy is not a pedagogical instrument per se, it provides educators with a conceptual framework for learning and is used extensively by teachers, lecturers and eLearning designers.

Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain

Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain

The base of the pyramid is where the much maligned rote learning occurs. The Knowledge level is concerned with the most basic form of learning and lowest cognitive skill – the acquisition of factual knowledge. Assessment for this level typically requires students to recall facts and basic concepts in the form in which they were learned. The Holy Grail of education is to reach the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy where students are problem solving and applying critical thinking skills – both defined as key 21st century skills. However, without the rote learning that occurs at the first level, students do not have the fundamental knowledge that is required for understanding, application, analysis, synthesis or evaluation to occur. Bloom’s Taxonomy is designed to build on learning from basic remembering to more complex skills such as critical thinking and evaluation. The stronger the foundation of underpinning knowledge, the easier it is for educators to design learning experiences that move learners up the value chain of learning.

If, as the Minister for Education and Skills contends, the focus of the current Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate was on rote learning there would be no Part B or Part C questions as there currently are. Part B and Part C questions are designed to assess comprehension and application – the second and third level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Furthermore you would expect that many more students would get maximum points as success would simply be a matter of recalling facts and figures.

While it’s true that we should aspire to more than the first three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and put in place 21st century teaching and assessment strategies for the development and assessment of skills at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy such as problem solving and critical thinking, inappropriate and pejorative use of the term ‘rote learning’ demonstrates a lack of understanding and regard for its underpinning and valuable role in learning.

Now, back to the Sunday newspapers!

Lynda_BlogAbout the Author: Lynda Donovan is the Pedagogical Lead at the Learnovate Centre. Lynda ensures that the Centre’s technologies are deployed as part of innovative learning environments designed to enhance learning, address industry challenges and provide competitive advantage to the Centre’s industry partners.