23 December 2013

On rote learning, down the line

I'm an inveterate fan of University Challenge, although I still can't adjust to the announcement "Asking the questions..." not being followed by "Bamber Gascoigne" (who last appeared in 1987, apparently).

I've just watched one of the Christmas editions, and as usual—to the annoyance of my wife (who was trying to watch something else in the next room)—I have been shouting the answers at the numbskulls on the TV... How can these people fail to solve a calculation of area I would expect a 9-year-old not to break sweat over?

These editions are "friendlies" between alumni, closer to my age of course that the current students in the main tournament, and therefore with the benefit of greater experience of both life and trivia (if there is a difference—discuss).

Of course, this is just quiz show, and the questions favour those with arcane knowledge, but...

Rote learning has a bad press. (I could reference that, but life's too short.)

"Who was the Prime Minister (of Great Britain) on Christmas Day in 1913?" Asquith, of course. How do I know that? I didn't guess, or if I did, that guess could only be from a restricted pool of possibilities. Chiang Kai-Shek, for example, was never a realistic candidate. Nor was it a deduction; it was only later that I thought of wondering when Lloyd George came on the scene...

I just knew that answer (but I hadn't a clue about the two or three other parts to the question. And as I write "two or three other parts" I realise there could have been only two other parts to it, because of the scoring scheme. I've been following the show since 1962, on and off, and had not realised that I knew that— although of course I did...

One of the competing team members was a Director—or something similar—of Mensa ("the British high IQ society"). He was quite good at some of the maths questions, but did not really shine overall. That's OK; if you don't happen to have the basic factual knowledge, you are stuck, regardless of "intelligence".

Learning an additional language, for example, entails a lot of hard-slog memorisation—however palatable a teaching scheme tries to make it. The Michel Thomas approach, for example, does a great job of disguising that aspect of the task, but it's still there. There were a few questions tonight which drew directly on that basic knowledge. There were many others for which it was a prerequisite.

The knowledge vs. skills debate in mainstream education (referred to in many "Items to Share" on this blog) too readily neglects the inestimable advantage conferred—in terms of time and effort—by "just knowing" (factual) stuff.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:05 pm

    rote learning is very good if you want to become a pub quiz champion, yet as a history graduate I would ask 'how or why Asquith became a prime minister'?
    This is something I find frustrating when talking to (usually the older generation) those people who advocate knowing history by dates. Many know Waterloo 1815, few could name the generals.
    I am glad however that my bank manager can use rote learned number skills so recognise the need for both. The rub is at what stage/age do you switch. Is the independent learner only for University or adult education?
    I do however recognise the frustration caused by watching Christmas specials of university challenge and have developed a new paradigm or theory. I call it ' reflection by proxy', in which I say 'he should have said that'.


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