Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Rote learning and critical thinking 

Joanne Jacobs notes a Latino-majority high school in LA that has had declining membership in its Junior ROTC program, leading some teachers to question its place in the program.
Teacher Gillian Russom said (color guard drill) training instills the wrong values: following orders, dressing the same and relying on rote memorization rather than critical thinking. �That�s necessary for a successful military, but does it create the kind of citizens we want?�
I think in fact it does, and not just because 40% of JROTC graduates go on to the military (though that seems a good thing.) I teach economics, which is a difficult subject for new college students because it isn't really amenable to rote memorization. (Not that most liberals like economics.) But there are things where memorization helps so much. For example, learning one's lines in a play or musical requires the ability to memorize large chunks of text or verse or music or dance steps. True, there's creativity involved in the acting and singing or playing of the notes, but anyone who's ever done any of these activities knows you have to have the material down; there's a date when you're off-script.

I notice at my daughter's (Lutheran) school that students get "memory work" that usually involves Bible passages. Someone who memorizes the Bible doesn't necessarily have the ability to think critically about religion -- Littlest's understanding is still very much a law-bound, gospel-deficient view -- but there's certainly something to be said for knowing the Apostle's Creed by heart (which we turned into a game long ago by forcing ourselves to look at each other and recite it; first one to flinch or look at the bulletin loses.) Memorizing Bible verses has value for much more than just learning one's faith. It's the creation of a culture in which creative thinking can thrive.

None of this is to belittle critical thinking. But the ability to create a certain sound or act or atmosphere by doing the same thing in the same way does have value; being in a new place or a place where you lack awareness of something valuable gives way to a memory of that which you had forgotten, and all of a sudden things around you take on new meaning and greater value. People who denigrate memorization are condemning those who learn critical thinking to do so without some key material needed to have a flash of insight. Memorization and creative thinking are complements, not substitutes.