Michael Gove thinks memorisation is crucial to education, but why?

Whatever else he may be, Michael Gove is an intriguing man. He’s probably the most interesting person on the Conservative frontbench, and not just because he’s rapidly emerging as a prominent “anyone but Boris” contender to be the next party leader. He seems in many ways to be a refugee from an earlier era of politics, not in the self-conscious, ‘young fogey’ manner of someone like Rory Stewart, but in his approach. There’s no question he’s on the hard right of the Conservative party on many issues – an archetypal dry, in the old Thatcherite lexicon – but his personal style seems more old-fashioned than that: courteous, erudite, apparently reasonable, ostentatiously self-effacing.

Gove is not a soundbite king, and he doesn’t tend to hector, or imply intentional bad faith on the part of his opponents. He chides them for the (as he sees it) wrong-headedness of their policies, but rarely questions their sincerity, or resorts to the contemptuous sneer that is the characteristic gesture of much of the Conservative party. Before David Cameron put a stop to the extracurricular activities of his then opposition frontbench, I always enjoyed Gove’s contributions to the arts discussion programme Newsnight Review (and occasionally agreed, even if I did arrive at my distaste for smug liberal elitism from a rather different angle). I might almost go so far as to say I can imagine having a non-political discussion with him without instantly wanting to stab myself in the ears with a rusty fork, which makes him almost unique amongst professional politicians. None of this changes the fact that I routinely disagree with him, of course.

The latest demonstration of this can be found in a speech Mr Gove gave on Wednesday to the Independent Academies Association. It’s a typically Goveian speech, I think – accomplished, mildly amusing and persuasive, so long as you allow yourself to be soothed by the emollient words and don’t pay too much attention to the ideas underlying them. Compared to the mangled syntax and incoherent punctuation of a David Cameron speech, it’s a positive pleasure to read; apparently Robert Gordon’s College teaches the basics of English more successfully than Eton College, although I will note in passing that the teachers at my bog-standard comprehensive would have been dismayed by Mr Gove’s over-reliance on the hyphen as all-purpose punctuation mark.

The speech displays Gove’s erudition to great effect (how many politicians would pepper a set-piece statement of policy with references to the jurisprudential theories of a little-remembered 19th-Century academic?), as well as his emollience: the hymn to the transformative power of education for education’s sake is guaranteed to gladden the hearts of teachers everywhere. Gove’s mastery of the politician’s knack for paying effusive lip-service to something even as your actions furiously undermine it is also well in evidence. Read this speech and you might come away with the idea that he’s a beloved champion of practical arts education (training in the physical skills of musicianship and artistry) when in fact he’s facing a storm of protest for pursuing policies that all-but guarantee the eradication of these classes from the curricula pursued by the majority of pupils in England.

The speech is not without its longueurs, to be sure. Gove’s attempt to joke that fascism and Marxism are ‘ideas so foolish only an intellectual could have believed in them’ falls a little flat: Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco and Adolf Hitler on the one hand and Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot on the other can be justifiably accused of many terrible things, but intellectualism is not amongst them – pretty much the opposite, in fact. Then, too, Gove’s spirited defence of those who choose to study ‘French lesbian poetry’ is a little undermined by his insistence it should only be studied in terms of its formal qualities and not in terms of ‘faddish’ sexual politics – in effect, that one can study poems written by French lesbians, but only if one pretends they’re identical to poems by straight Frenchmen, which would seem to rule out the kind of comparative analysis that was presumably the motive for studying them in the first place.

The thing I really want to write about, though, is Mr Gove’s insistence on the importance of memorisation in education, and by extension the demand that exams must require successful candidates to learn large amounts of information by heart:

As Daniel Willingham demonstrates brilliantly in his book [Why Don't Students Like School?], memorisation is a necessary pre-condition of understanding – only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the memory – so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles – do we really have a secure hold on knowledge. Memorising scales, or times tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity.

[…]

Because tests require students to show they have absorbed and retained knowledge – and can deploy it effectively – they require teachers to develop the techniques which hold students’ attention and fix concepts in their minds.

The major problem I have with this section of Mr Gove’s speech is the way in which he elides the distinction between knowledge and understanding.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. A person might understand that miles and kilometres are different ways of measuring distance without knowing that the specific formula for converting between them is distance in miles × 1.609344 = distance in kilometres (or distance in kilometres ÷ 1.609344 = distance in miles). That would be a gap in a person’s knowledge that is easily solved by looking up the formula, but if their understanding of the basic concept of units of measure is so flawed that they don’t realise that it’s necessary to convert between them then they have a problem that is much less readily solved. It’s silly to suggest, as Gove does, that a person who is unable to recall the formula for converting miles to kilometres is incapable of understanding the nature of the relationship between the two.

The truth is that, as with quite a lot of his pet policies, Mr Gove is harking back to the past – or, if not to the past exactly, then to a present that is rapidly becoming the past. We’re moving into a world in which most people walk around with the means of accessing the sum total of human knowledge in their pocket (even if they do mainly use it for playing Angry Birds…). In this world, the high premium Gove places on memorisation will become more and more anachronistic; being able to recall large amounts of information may still be an impressive, even an admirable, skill, but it will no longer be a necessary one.

In a world where every piece of data we couldn’t hold in our brains meant a trip to the library, the ability to recall data seemed a necessary part of intelligence. But in the world of smartphones it’s finally becoming clear that we can ‘out-source’ our memories to the all-pervasive network while retaining the understanding and creativity which are the true hallmarks of intelligence. More, it’s becoming apparent that externalising our memories in this way is actually an improvement: how much better that a doctor encountering a rare condition for the first time in 20 years should look it up on GP Notebook rather than relying on their fading memories of out-of-date information to formulate a treatment plan.

In this emerging context, insisting on an exam structure that prioritises the ability to memorise and recall large amounts of information is misguided. It’s certainly the case that requiring ever greater feats of memorisation will make it harder for a student to do well, but that doesn’t mean the qualifications they take will have become more rigorous as a result. Making people dictate their answers while hopping on one leg and balancing a football on their head would also reduce pass rates, but it wouldn’t mean that standards had been improved in a significant way. The reduction in the number of candidates getting an A wouldn’t mean that securing the grade required greater understanding than it had previously, it would simply reflect that it had been made harder for candidates to demonstrate the level of understanding they already possessed.

As with balancing, so with memorisation. Forcing candidates to memorise vast swathes of data will certainly reduce the number of candidates getting an A, but only by excluding candidates with poor memories, not by requiring better understanding of the subject from those who do well. It seems that ‘driving up standards’ is Mr Gove’s eternal mantra, but he misunderstands the means by which this is achieved. Educational standards are driven up by requiring ever greater levels of understanding from students, not by making it harder for them to demonstrate the level of understanding they already possess. A falling pass rate does not necessarily indicate rising standards.

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2 Responses to Michael Gove thinks memorisation is crucial to education, but why?

  1. I disagree with his basic premise that making an exam difficult to pass will enhance its prestige and imbue all students with competitive drive to study hard and pass, thereby making all students well-educated whether they pass or not. If all students have become well-educated, why only pass a small fraction of them? I know that as a student I would have been offended by the notion that I should organize my life around someone else’s test in order to be more prestigious if I passed. Yuck. Not a motivator for me at all.

    I do, however, agree with him that a certain amount of memorization is good. I don’t have to know the exact conversion formula, but I should be able to look at a road sign and know that 100 km to where I’m going is less than 100 miles. If I know that 100 km is just about 60 miles, even better. I should know that it’s much more than 100 km from Montreal to London, and much less from my house to the corner grocery store. Having to look things up at every turn gets in the way, and often one will just skip over thinking about the details if they need to be looked up.

    In addition, memorization is something that less intellectual students can do. Including rote learning among the range of things expected from students is increasing the possibility that someone will succeed at something. It’s a bit of a leveller. Less prestigious perhaps than being able to derive the quadratic formula from scratch, but worthy.

  2. blackberryjuniper says:

    I used to be brilliant at exams. I could memorise vast tracts of almost anything. I passed lots. This idea about memorisation LASTING though, I find to be rubbish. I could recall these facts exactly as long as I needed them. About 2 days later, most of it would be gone. It only ever went to my short-term memory. *Tiny* nuggets would remain – that’s all.

    *Repetition* is what gets things to stick and hopefully be eventually properly understood – especially if you come at the same thing from several different angles. Memorisation is a bit of a fallacy, for myself anyway.

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