Rote learning gets a bad press. The term is associated with good old-fashioned chalk-and-talk teaching methodologies… “Sit down and shut up! Open your books at page 359 and complete questions 1 to 59 before the bell…” But as any teacher knows, it remains the best way to learn a lot of what we need to make us good at maths.
Fortunately, times have changed, and technology has opened up new ways to teach by rote. Here are some of the techniques we employ in our tuition centre, and within our app, to liven things up:
- Introduce a time constraint on a question: “You have five seconds to answer each of these questions before you get it wrong…” (useful in forcing children to guess – not always a bad thing when it comes to learning facts by heart!)
- Introduce a time constraint on an exercise: “How many of these times-tables can you do in one minute?”
- Compete – against others, either in the classroom or across the globe on tutpup.com or similar
- Compete against last week’s score. Children almost always improve their score, and this spurs them on more.
- Instant feedback. Rote learning is deathly if nothing’s marked until the end of the lesson – and then it’s all wrong. IT allows children to see instantly if they are on the right track.
- Muscle memory: remember this can play an important part in learning some tasks by rote. For example, it is vital when completing sums by column addition to always show working (this is the purpose of the overlay on these questions in DoodleMaths). The brain remembers the sequence of muscle movements as much as the principle itself.
- Set the bar at the right height: in other words, ensure the balance of success/challenge is correct for the individual.
Here are some areas of Key Stage 2 maths that lend themselves well to such techniques:
- Doubles and halves
- Number bonds to 10, 20, 100 and number facts up to 10 and 20
- Times Tables (leading to associated division facts)
- Column addition, subtraction, multiplication and division
- Naming shapes and solids
- Units for measurement
- Adding and subtracting 9, 19, 99 etc.
- Compass points
- Decimal and fractional bonds to 1
- Calculating the fraction of a quantity
- Fraction/decimal equivalents
This is the tip of the iceberg. But what are we doing when we learn these things by rote? Simple: we are committing a mathematical fact to our long-term memory. Storing facts in our long-term memory frees up our working memory to perform more complex calculations. For example, 80 – (4 x 7) becomes a lot easier if you know 4 x 7 = 28 as a fact immediately.
I’m not saying all maths needs to be learned in a rote fashion. There are equally plenty of areas of maths where a deeper conceptual understanding is required. But most of the children that we meet find maths difficult because they are frustrated by their lack of knowledge, rather than their lack of understanding.