Letter: Futility of learning by rote

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Sir: The so-called progressive teaching methods arose from research into how children learn (report, 1 June). In particular, as regards mathematics, it was found that children who had been taught by formal methods had little understanding of the processes of mathematics. Many teachers felt inadequate to teach maths because they themselves had learned by rote, without understanding.

Those who were teaching before the war and in the Forties and Fifties, by formal class methods, were aware of the shortcomings of these methods and witnessed the excellent effect of "progressive" methods on standards of literacy and numeracy. The reasons for the present decline in standards are due to many causes, many of which lie outside the classroom. A return to "old fashioned" methods will not solve these problems, but is likely to increase them.

Those who have worked closely with children over many years are aware that they do not learn by such methods, other than parrot fashion. The pace of teaching leaves slower children bewildered - and they switch off; the brighter ones, for whom the pace must of necessity be too slow, also switch off. The method is ineffective and wasteful.

Our motives in planning the work of schools seem to be geared entirely to the economy of the market place, with little consideration for the importance of character training and the development of the whole person, values that used to be considered of prime importance.

It is believed that reading, writing and mathematics are simple skills, able to be acquired by all children, given the "right" teaching. These, in fact, are very difficult skills, whose complexity is generally underestimated. What the "right" teaching is has yet to be determined. We do know, from research and experience, what it is not.


Chideock, Dorset