The Important Role of Rote Learning
The most accomplished musicians in the world practice their scales. Professional golfers hit millions of range balls. They repeat the same drills over and over, long after they should have mastered the skills.
Their goal is to reinforce automaticity - the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details. The musician seeks to play notes with perfect pitch. When doing so becomes automatic, his mind is free to focus on the more nuanced skills of interpretation. The golfer wants to develop a swing that his muscles remember – a swing that is repeatable. When striking the ball becomes automatic, he can better attend to variables such as alignment, potential hazards or approach angles.
Schools are often criticized for focusing too heavily on rote skills. Yet in the arts, or in sports, these skills are revered as “fundamentals.” For any complex skill (be it reading, solving a story problem, or hitting the green with an approach shot), the learner will perform better if the fundamental, low-level details are automatic. We build automaticity through repetition of the skill in isolation.
As long as we remember that the purpose of this repetition is to serve a higher goal, we should never apologize for requiring our students to practice their fundamentals.
Induction: the Art of Backing In
The goal of any educational environment must be to challenge learners to continuously gain “new power over difficulty.” The most important term here is challenge.
We challenge learners when we require them to answer a question, apply a strategy, or solve a problem that is a little more complex than what they are used to. The academic term for this is rigor– the extent to which instruction and content compel the learner to use higher level thinking skills such as application, synthesis or evaluation.
The traditional model in schools is for the teacher to teach a new concept or skill, and then to provide the students with an opportunity to practice with guidance. Finally, they are provided the chance to do the work independently.
Highly effective teachers will often use a different - more inductive approach. Students will be encouraged to struggle with a question or a problem – to ask questions or generate ideas. They might even develop solutions or explanations. Those solutions are then compared and contrasted. Finally, the different answers are decomposed in a manner that evaluates the quality of thinking. It is at this point that the new concept or skill can be introduced.
Working as facilitator rather than expert, the teacher challenges the learners in a manner that supports their autonomy, evokes their natural curiosity, and couches the new concept in a bed of relevance.
“New Power over Difficulty”
We use the term self-esteem to describe whether a person has a generally negative or positive self-regard. As a personality trait, positive self-esteem gives us the confidence to try new and different things and the resilience to overcome failure. It helps us endure criticism, both internal and external. In education, positive self-esteem gives the learner the strength to persist – to continue trying until success or mastery is realized.
As essential as it is to our growth and well-being, we must acknowledge that we cannot give someone self-esteem. There is evidence that we haven’t figured this out: when we give trophies or certificates to every student in a class, or every member of a team; when every student in a given course gets an A, or every ensemble at the contest gets a rating of first; when we use empty praise statements like “good job” to describe every outcome.
Jacques Barzun defines competence as “new power over difficulty.” He goes on to say that self-esteem is something that is earned constantly, as we learn to cope with tasks of increasing complexity. So one person cannot make another feel competent about a given task. Competence can only be earned.
Educators and parents have the task of creating an environment where all students can earn competence – an environment where every student gains “new power over difficulty.” It’s the realization of this new power -- not a certificate, a medal, a t-shirt or a grade – that will increase their sense of competence, and consequently, their positive self-perceptions.
Competence: There’s No Faking It
When I was in 3rd grade, our teacher would occasionally have us play a reading game. We would start the game in our desks, but the desks would be numbered from 1 to 24. We would all open our books, and the student in desk #1 would start reading aloud. If the student was able to read the first paragraph through without a mistake, then the teacher would move to the student in desk #2. When a student made a reading error, the teacher would point out the error, and the student would get up and move to desk #24. At the same time, all of the other students would move up one desk.
I don’t remember dreading the game, but I was a decent reader. I probably had to move back a few times, but most of the time I was able to make progress toward desk #1. Some of my friends almost never made it through a paragraph without making a mistake.
We never made fun of a classmate who had to move to the back, and our teacher was always nice about it. She would say something like, “That’s alright Doug. Good try,” or “Good effort, Theresa.”
Looking back now, it’s difficult to think of an instructional strategy with less educational merit than the reading game. It provided none of us with specific instruction or feedback to improve our reading. It did not require us to think about the meaning of what we were reading. Most importantly, you can’t fool a third grader. When you were walking back to desk #24, two things became rather obvious: 1) that last effort you made was not particularly “good,” and 2) your teacher announcing to the class that it was did not somehow make it so.
Autonomy and Education: Solving a Paradox
If we appreciate that a sense of autonomy is fundamental to our motivation toward a task, and that education in the United States is compulsory, we are confronted with a paradox. How do we support students' autonomy in an environment which is chosen for them?
Driver Education is one good example. In the process of learning to drive, a student first learns about the Rules of the Road, then works under the supervision of an instructor through a curriculum of increasing complexity. The student drives with the instructor, starting in town, then on the open road, the interstate, and finally, in the city. The student practices for at least 50 hours with his parent. If the student passes a driving test, he is licensed to operate a vehicle without adult supervision.
Through a method of “gradual release,” the adults work together to build the student’s sense of autonomy: the sense that he can make the choices and execute the tasks associated with driving, and that he can do so safely and effectively to get to his destination.
Autonomy is more than the freedom to choose. Have you ever had a teacher, or a boss, or colleague direct you to do something that you were not prepared to do? We cannot enjoy our autonomy toward a given task until we have developed the competence necessary to exploit it.
Autonomy – Our Common Need
We know that all human beings seek autonomy. This is particularly true as children mature into adolescents and young adults. While we generally think of it as our need to be in control, autonomy is a complex orientation composed of the dual senses of choice (the sense of being able to choose from different options for action) and causation (the sense that the choices we make can cause or influence an outcome).
To feel autonomous toward a task, a person must enjoy both senses. He must feel that he has some choice in execution of the task, how he will do it, using what resources. And, he must feel that the choices he makes will have a causal relationship to the outcome.
This is why autonomy is fundamental to motivation. When a student is held accountable for an outcome, whether it be a grade on a Biology test, a piano solo or a woods project, he will ultimately decide how hard to work at it. That decision will likely come down to his subconscious consideration of whether the task offers sufficient autonomy.
There is some evidence that schools are not autonomy-supportive environments. We should all work to evaluate and change this, if necessary. Very simply, when we are held accountable for outcomes over which we feel little or no control, it leads to feelings of futility. These feelings sap our energy and motivation toward a given task. On the other hand, when we are held accountable for outcomes over which we feel a high degree of autonomy, there is almost no limit to how hard we will work. It's true for us, and it's true for our children as well.