That Is What Makes Learning Joyful

Spelling tests loom disproportionately large in my memories of elementary school. That's probably because it was the first, and for many years only, thing for which I had to "study." That is to say, our teachers would hand us a list of spelling words at the beginning of each week expecting us to be ready for the test at the end of the week. This memorizing was to be done on our own time, otherwise known as homework.

My technique was to ask mom to read the words to me. I would make my best stab at the correct spelling, compare the results to the word list, then do it again and again until I was nailing it. I honestly don't know how other kids studied for these tests, although I imagine that many of them didn't have access to an adult willing to help them. These kinds of spelling tests are classic examples of rote memorization, one of the bedrock principles of modern education.

This process is one of storing discrete facts into short or mid-term memory, destined to be eventually forgotten unless the drills are regularly repeated over a long period of time. When it came to the multiplication tables, for instance, we were regularly tested from grades 3-6. The "game" of it was to shout out your answers without hesitation. Any pause, any delay, was seen as evidence that you still hadn't "learned" it. Of course, in real life, hesitations and pauses are usually seen as as evidence of actual thinking. Today, if you ask me to solve 9X6, I have to take a second to think. I still get the right answer, but I do it by remembering that 9X3 is 27, then doubling it. 

Indeed, one of the lessons this kind of rote learning teaches is to not think, but rather to simply react. The other lesson it teaches is that math and spelling are boring. They are also incredibly inefficient ways to force facts into long-term memory, which is, I assume the ultimate goal. (Although most of us learned that the real goal was passing the next test so short and mid-term memory was just fine.)

If you give two group of people a spelling list of long, unfamiliar words and ask one group to memorize the spelling while asking the other to simply look up the definition in the dictionary, the second group always out-performs the first. That's because, instead of merely memorizing, the second group is actually creating meaning. When we break the world into discrete and separate parts, when we remove them from their context, like we do with spelling tests, we strip them of meaning and it is very, very hard for humans to learn meaningless crap.

On the other hand, narrative or storytelling provides the most direct access to long-term memory. When we can connect information to metaphors, places, people, and cause-and-effect, we are more likely to be able to recall it when it's needed, in context. 

For instance, I never mistake the word "principle" for "principal" because a teacher once told me, "The principal is your pal." I'll never forget that 8X7=56 because my sixth grade math teacher told me that if a kid knew that one, she didn't need to test them on the rest. And, of course, in the meantime, the world has developed calculators and spell check to help me with the rest.

Rote memorization can be an effective way to pass the next test, but without narrative and context, it will be very difficult, inefficient, and tedious to move it into long-term memory. An education separated from life itself is no education at all. The creation of meaning is what human learning really is all about. That's what makes learning joyful.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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