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Learning off by Heart May 5, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Primary Education, Secondary Education, Social Ecology.
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from Carol Birrell

One subject I teach through the School of Education at UWS is Learning and Creativity, a Social Ecology unit undertaken by many pre-service teachers (about 250 each semester). It introduces students to engaged learning through creative pedagogies and instills how to be a creative teacher in all aspects of the curriculum. I happened to be taking an absent, sick tutor’s class just a week or so before a major creative piece of work was due. A young man with shining eyes stayed behind to ask me whether or not he was on track with his assignment.

His plan, as he explained to me, was to demonstrate to the class the impact of an intense learning experience he had gone through just a year or so earlier. It was learning the Koran off by heart. He told me it took him 3 years to memorise all the words of this ancient text, which also demanded knowing the meaning of every word written. Scholars had come to Sydney to conduct this teaching and it was every day for three years that he studied so intently. He showed me the Koran itself, in its exquisite detailed calligraphy, and demonstrated the process of his learning right from the beginning. He had learnt a page a day, line by line, then progressing to paragraph by paragraph. Within a very short time, he was able to put together and repeat a grouping of 3 paragraphs and so on, up to a whole page, then several pages. Each day began a series of new pages, but first with a testing of the previous day’s learning.

I was astounded by this singular feat of learning off by heart, since I can hardly recall the names of my current students in class, let alone the poems and songs of my childhood!

It made me think about the ‘noble art’ of rote learning and its fall from favour as a teaching strategy. When I was in primary school, the times tables in Maths were an absolute fixture of everyday lessons and the whole class would chant it out together like a mantra being exhorted by a pulsing fervent crowd. Alas, no real fervour here in class, just the terror of being caught out in not knowing the answer to 6×8! I must say, it had some sort of appeal to me then, even in its hollow recitation. There was definitely a rhythm to the sing-songy learning which most of us seemed to enjoy once we had it mastered. Of course, there were some who never managed to master it, despite the threats…!

Then I think back to my crazy High School French teacher, who fired herself into every class with a barrage of language. We would sit mute as the French words flowed from her into a fertile field of unknowing. She loved us to repeat out loud, after her, all our vocab for the day. Yes, vocab for the day, at least 10 words that she would duly test us on the very next lesson. This may not seem so unusual, to call upon rote learning in the acquisition of a new language, but somehow I think it had more to do with learning off by heart as her particular ‘je ne sais crois’! Did we learn via this method? We surely did, but was it again, more through fear, or the power of rote?

Perhaps I imbued some of these now archaic techniques in my own pedagogical practices unknowingly. A particularly difficult 9F Geography class (no, ‘F’ was not the teacher’s surname but the lowest level of streamed classes), convinced of their ineptitude for anything scholarly, and backed up by most teaching staff, had me confounded when I tried to get them to study the geography of Japan. Of course, first up, you have to know the names of the islands of Japan. Impossible! No matter what I tried, no recall. Blank wall! I finally, in sheer desperation, resorted to something familiar. Get a chant and a rhythm going:

‘Hon-shu Shik-ok-ku Ky-u-shu Hok-kai-do! ‘
‘Hon-shu…
Shikoku…
Kyushu…
Hokkaido!’

And off we went stomping around the class, around and around with these words becoming familiars amidst much hilarity and stupidity. But they got it! And it stayed with them. Fixed in embodied learning that rarely disappears. Maybe hidden, but there to be plucked at some future time.

So I think it is time to take a long hard look at some of these Western educational outdated methods and reconsider if we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Is there no place for honing our memory through ongoing recitation? And what about poetry known and recited out loud? Children’s nursery rhymes that form a strong basis of literacy?

The lost art of learning off by heart… Now why was it called that? What has the heart to do with this process of memorizing?

The young man with shining eyes told me why he wanted to do this feat of memorising. The desire had been with him as a young kid, when first shown the Koran. He just knew he wanted to do it, for his love of God. As strong then as it was twenty or more years later when he finally achieved his dream. Now, he was learning through his heart. And with his heart.

I do know that in an embryo, when the organs are early developing, the heart and the ear lie close together, before the ear finally migrates to the top of the body, which becomes the head. So for some time, the intimacy between head and heart creates a template of relationship that may be remembered each time the word is spoken aloud to the heart.

The shining man cannot rest on his laurels once the deed has been accomplished, the total memorization of the Koran. He must one day a month go through that huge chunk of the Koran in total, to test his memory, to say it out loud, going over and over it for the rest of his life.

This, surely, is learning off by heart! Not all learning systems threw rote learning out, for good reason.

I am off to brush up on some poems, long ago learnt and forgotten. How hard can that be? And then after that, I’ll tackle the names of all my students…!!

 

Dr Carol Birrell is a Lecturer and social ecologist in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She has written several other contributions on this blog site.

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