One of my favorite blogs is by Katie Ashford, the director of inclusion at Michaela Community School in London (where another favorite blogger, Joe Kirby, is head of English). Ashford believes all children are capable of tackling rigorous content, and she mixes a strong research base with practical advice. In a recent post, she does the unthinkable: she defends rote memorization.

As much as I disliked memorizing in school, now I’m glad I put in the effort. Math facts, historical dates, poems, quotes—these things rattling around in my head actually make my day-to-day life easier and more interesting. But in talking about education, I rarely admit that I value memorization. I fear feeding those who wrongly assume that the Core Knowledge Sequence really is a list of facts to be memorized, rather than a scaffold for building a rich, engaging curriculum.

So I’m delighted to see Ashford making the case, and Michaela’s students proving the point:

Although I’ve always believed that a knowledge-rich curriculum could lead to great things, I had never seen it in action until I came to work at this school….

Not only do pupils genuinely enjoy knowing loads of stuff, … rote learning has proved to be incredibly useful when they come across new knowledge. They are able to make connections and inferences that someone who lacks such knowledge would simply not be able to make.

Here is one of my favourite examples of this:

I was reading through a biography of Percy Shelley with … one of my year 7 classes and my tutor group. Many of the pupils in this class have reading ages far below their chronological age. More than half the class have Special Educational Needs….

In the biography, we came across this piece of information:

Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement that the British Museum was to acquire a large fragment of a 13BC statue of Rameses II from Egypt.”

I explained that Rameses II was a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh.

Within seconds, a forest of hands shot up. Slightly baffled, I asked one of the pupils to tell me what was wrong.

“Miss, how could Rameses II be a Pharaoh in 13BC when Egyptian civilisation ended in 31BC? Miss, that doesn’t make sense.”

I was stumped and couldn’t answer for this. It later transpired that there had been a typo in the printed version of the biography. Instead of 13BC, the date should have said 1213BC. Because I lacked knowledge of the date of the end of Egyptian civilisation (which the pupils had learned in Mr Porter’s History lesson), I would never have been able to spot the mistake. In fact, I would have had a completely incorrect understanding of Rameses II and the statue, which was over a thousand years older than I had believed it was….

My pupils, by contrast, had been empowered by their knowledge. Consequently, they were in a far stronger position to critically analyse the text they had been given than I was.

Rote learning is perceived to be a dull, mindless activity that leads to little other than parrot-like recall, but this simply is not the case. On the contrary, mastering lists of important dates is essential for critical thinking to take place.


London British MuseumRamses II, in the British Museum, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

13 comments on “In Defense of Facts”

  1. 1
    Karyn D. on July 16, 2015

    As a high school English I have always been flummoxed by the notion that we teach critical thinking and not focus on basic information. How can one think critically about a topic if one doesn’t know it intimately? Your example is a perfect example of this idea. I have participated in many professional development sessions and college classes which seemed to suggest that learning is the same as critical thinking; that as instructors we should provide minimal information and then let the students teach themselves, let them determine what it is they do not know and endeavor to figure it out. This is not critical thinking, this is learning and lazy teaching.

    As educators we have an obligation to teach material thoroughly (for example: reading and analyzing the entire Shakespearean play versus just the important speeches which is the trend of many curriculums today) and then allow the students the opportunity to think about their learning: whether they think it is correct, complete, or coherent (for example: is Macbeth really a tragic hero?) because they shouldn’t just take our word for it. That is critical thinking.

  2. 2
    Ewaldoh on July 16, 2015

    I agree that “all children are capable of tackling rigorous content”; but will leave it to others to determine how much of Shakespeare needs to be memorized and which civilizations are to be placed in history. By others, I mean the specific classroom teachers involved. My constant argument is against the idea that there is a set of knowledge (specific events/ persons/ and works of art) that are on “the list”. Kids need to learn different things to later fit into a blended society. We’re already seeing the silliness of sending over half of our population to a university.

    My first four years were teaching all sections of junior high science in a small farm community. We were grouping by ability at that time to mostly assure “lots of content” for the high group and “mostly kinetics” for the low group. I was to assume that half of the kids were going to college and the others would stay on the farm.

    I had the usual bunch of animals in the room and that included a large tank with guppies. I don’t need to mention which class had to be called to their seats when I was ready to start a lesson. By the first of November, my “slow class” had taken an interest in the snails cleaning the glass. They noticed the there were groups that had different swirl patterns to their shells. The eggs were deposited on the glass which gave them access to watching development. They started to mark the new eggs and date them. They were making lists of snail development details as they became visible with a hand lens.

    By spring, they had determined the two gestation periods, could predict a hatch within a day and noted the relative number of offspring. With that, they told me that one of the snails would soon disappear … it did.

  3. 3
    Natalie Wexler on July 16, 2015

    I couldn’t agree more with this post. And, as a footnote: I recently embarked on a campaign to memorize a poem a week, as I had to do when I was in 4th grade (we took turns reciting them in front of the class every Friday). Some of those poems are still with me — or at least, some of their lines are. But here’s a coincidence: I just finished memorizing Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” the very poem Ashford was teaching her students (“Ozymandias” is another name for “Rameses II,” or so I found out when I Googled it just now).

    When I happened to mention this to a couple of friends recently, they both chimed in with the poem’s most famous line: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” So another benefit of memorization, or “rote learning,” is that it gives us a common pool of knowledge to draw on and creates an intellectual community. We just need to make that community larger.

  4. 4
    Mario (teacheagles) on July 16, 2015

    I want to agree with this post. I am a fairly new English teacher, but for 2 years I learned under an experienced teacher who firmly believed gained a deep knowledge was the very important. I watched as the other teachers often mocked her in the lounge as lazy and old fashioned. However, for two years I watched her student outperform their peers in the school mainly because her was obsessive about vocabulary. She said the knowledge of vocabulary is the most important thing middle schoolers need to know.
    MY PROBLEM Is…every time I hear about this subject in school meetings and training. I always here that the RESEARCH says knowledge is low-level thinking and is ruining our students. How can you argue with research? (Assuming it actually exist).

  5. 5
    Lisa Hansel on July 16, 2015

    Hi Mario,

    I am sorry that many of your colleagues have had only limited exposure to cognitive science. You face the challenge of educating them and your students. I recommend starting with a few of Daniel Willingham’s articles. These explain why knowledge is essential and have substantial reference lists, yet are easy to read:

    1) How Knowledge Helps:

    2) Critical Thinking:

    3) Why Don’t Students Like School?

  6. 6
    Mario (teacheagles) on July 16, 2015

    To clarify, I suppose my question is this…. What about the research district administrators and principals give that speaks against knowledge or rote learning?

  7. 7
    Lisa Hansel on July 16, 2015

    I believe the articles I suggested will explain why those who claim that knowledge is not important are incorrect. Your administrators may be seeking higher-order thinking, but that simply can’t be accomplished without knowledge. Knowledge and skills develop together.

  8. 8
    Mario (teacheagles) on July 16, 2015

    Thank you.

  9. 9
    Mario (teacheagles) on July 18, 2015

    Thank so much for the articles. I read them all and I was blown away. This type of research has never been shared in school, but trust when I return in two weeks I will be sharing every bit of it. I especially enjoyed the article entitled: Why don’t students like school? In the article, a statement was made that said, “People like to solve problems, but not to work on unsolvable problems.” It’s funny, but this quote is almost exactly the same words that my students use in school when I ask them about the lack of homework that is returned. Again, thanks for the Article and the Links.

  10. 10
    Lisa Hansel on July 18, 2015

    I am glad you found them useful. “Why Don’t Students Like School?” is an excerpt from a book by the same name. I think the entire book is terrific:

  11. 11
    Mario (teacheagles) on July 18, 2015

    I’ll try to check that out. Thanks Again

  12. 12
    Jenna Weber on July 22, 2015

    I am a first year teacher and throughout my education to become a teacher I have been juggling with the idea of ‘rote memorization.’ I have mostly heard it’s not good and then other times that it is okay. Your post was eye opening to me and I loved the example you used. I believe that memorization is very helpful although it is even more important to have an understanding behind what it is that you are memorizing. This makes it more meaningful and like you mentioned allows for deeper connections and inferences to be made. The example you provided is incredible. This truly shows the value of not just memorization but an absorption of knowledge from that memorization. I am curious… how did you handle that situation? When students pointed out the mistake did you look further into it right away?
    Thank you for your insights. It was a pleasure to read.

  13. 13
    codybecth on May 17, 2022

    Great Article! Thank you for sharing this is a very informative post, and looking forward to the latest one

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