Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 October, 2008, 12:00am

This week: Rote learning in education

I had dinner with a secondary English teacher yesterday and had an enlightening talk about the education system in the city.

I asked about what problems she found with the system. She highlighted the amount of rote learning involved in most disciplines, the narrow focus, the unnecessary annual renewal of school book editions, the amount of homework students have and the elongation of school hours for primary students. I was sure there were other complaints but these were the more prominent points.

To say a veterinarian's job is varied would be an understatement - we are truly jacks of all trades. The obvious part of my job is the diagnosis and treatment of various animal ailments, a process that involves many disciplines such as biochemistry, pharmacology, physiology, pathology, medicine, surgery, genetics, parasitology, microbiology.

And that's just the science. We need to be proficient educators and communicators. There was a lot of memorisation or rote learning to pass the various examinations to become a veterinarian, which I think was a necessary evil. I suspect it to be useful in many other professions. It is important for me to have an encyclopedic amount of facts in my head as reference, but I see it as complementary to problem-solving, analytical and creative thinking skills.

I am using my vocation as an example as I think schooling can be understood as the preparation of a child for the real world. There is a lean towards group projects and open-ended assignments at schools and I think that is a great start, but I agree with my friend that there should be more emphasis on analytical and creative thinking, and less rote learning.

I can see the difficulty as assessment is based mostly on examinations and that is where rote learning excels and gives better grades. We need to reduce the amount of assessment based on exams and increase projects. I think it is unnecessary to emphasise examinations, or eliminate them altogether at an early age such as primary and early secondary school, when it is best to emphasise co-operation, creativity and analytical thinking. I understand that there must be an objective assessment for entry to university to make the system as fair as possible. So, in the end, we still need exams to rank children, but there is no need to rank them so early. Children should have the right to keep their grades and rankings a secret. As an adult, I don't go around asking my peers how much they earn or what grades they got as it is a private matter that has no consequence for me. Knowing that another child's grade is better than mine is a double-edged sword - sure if I was near the top of the bunch it might spur me to do better, but the majority that are mediocre will be ashamed and may even retreat from studying.

I also agree with my friend that at graduation from secondary school all should have a firm grounding in multiple disciplines: science and humanities. In Australia, many universities have a small humanities requirement, even for their science courses. The complaint in the city is that students in science stream studies have little useful knowledge in areas of history, arts or literature and those in the art stream have little knowledge of the sciences.

I find the best employees are those with varied backgrounds. I would rather have an employee with average grades with lots of extra-disciplinary skills and work experiences than an employee with great grades but no other disciplinary exposure. Even in a science-dominated discipline such as veterinary science, it is important to draw on skills learned in humanities and experiences that promote better communication skills.

A voluminous amount of homework doesn't mean a better system. It is certainly a good method of increasing the rate of learning, especially in tune with rote learning, but up to a certain point it will become counterproductive, especially when students don't have time for extra-curricular activities.

Parents should involve themselves in their child's homework. They should also point out to the teaching establishment any useless or nonsensical homework.

Even in Australia there is a change in almost every school book every year that forces parents to buy new editions. Comparing slightly older editions with the newer edition reveals only very minor changes.

It is necessary to update school books but for both the environment and struggling parents' hip pockets there really isn't any need for a whole new book. The whole school textbook system reeks of unnecessary waste and profiteering. It would be a political coup if someone could save lower income earners' money and save on trees to introduce a more restricted textbook system, with a recycling and annual addendum function.