Thursday, October 23, 2008

Posing a question: working memory/rote learning

I'd like to pose a question or point of discussion about rote learning.

Kids with working memory problems find rote learning onerous ... I noticed this with the times tables and sometimes with spelling.

I've noticed if rote learning takes place almost as an after thought, or in tandem with some other activity it is more tolerable and beneficial. So walking along the road spelling aloud is much less of a misery than sitting at the table.

Another idea I had for phonics (though I am personally not a big advocate of phonics because my child was a whole language reader, though he does not have reading struggles at all, so perhaps I'd revise this position if he did.)
I had this idea that schools should take a small hockey goal and rig it up so you can hang sound combinations from it and then have the kids kick a ball at the hanging card, clearly labelled, and as they kick they must shout out the sound they are kicking at. Give them 10 balls to kick.

The concept is a kind of sporting, interactive reading room in a gym setting. So they could move station to station. One station of a physical nature, such as kicking at a goal and then afterwards sitting down with a text where those sounds appear and seeing whether this physical interaction with the sound helps solidify recognizing it on the page.

It could even be done in a team format with baseball. That as the kids are playing they are also identifying recurrent words or sounds. It's fun, it's active.

I've also wondered if the same thing could be applied with music and spelling, for example working with a glockenspiel that was labelled with letters and singing out the letters that you're trying to form a word with. This could almost be a computer progam where if you made an error in spelling you could hear the tone of the note changes...

Another little trick I tried sometimes if a child was struggling to identify a recurrent sound when reading was to physicalize it by pushing a pretend buzzer on the table every time they noticed the sound come up on the page.

These are all experimental ideas.. but I digress... the question I'd like to pose is really on whether there is any benefit in pushing things like rote learning on kids with working memory struggles. Does it help build working memory or not? Or does it just put the child under unnecessary stress?

I did not push the times tables because my child would get frustrated with when he fluffed it up. Now though he's quite competent in most of them and we have not really done any hard graft on them. Abacus classes have solidified number concepts in a concrete way though, so perhaps I have Soroban to thank for much of this progress.

I also found Soroban to be a great working memory aide and would encourage education/neuroscientific researchers to conduct studies on how this could be employed in our classrooms, so all children can benefit from an ancient, but relevant and proven system. This could also be of great benefit to seniors.

If you have thoughts, or ideas or good links, please post them or drop an email to

Thanks for reading.

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