Teaching Problem Solving Skill

Teaching Problem Solving Skills: Rote Learning vs Critical Thinking

In the realm of education, teaching techniques have come a long way. From memory-based education like rote learning, to more engaged forms of critical thinking, each style impacts students differently, and contributes to their overall educational experience. In modern classrooms it’s not unusual to find a blend of these various learning skills, but how does this affect the future of our students?

What Is Rote Learning and Rote Memory?

Rote Learning, also known as “rote memory,” is a widely-used learning technique that centers around the practice of memorization through repetition. You’re probably most familiar with this learning style from your math, language, and music classes — to name a few. Used in schools across the globe from the U.S., to Japan, to Brazil, learning by rote memorization has a rather firm place within education.

What makes rote learning distinct is the strong focus on memorization rather than critical thinking to solve a problem. The idea or goal behind rote learning is that with enough repetition, the material becomes easy to recall, allowing students to succeed on standardized tests and then ideally put the knowledge to use throughout the rest of their lives.

How Is Rote Learning and Memorization Taught in Classrooms?

The reason behind rote learning’s popularity is due to its easily accessible methods, specifically in K-12. For example, teaching 1st graders how to do basic addition doesn’t require critical thinking; nor does teaching 5th graders the names of U.S. capitals. These are both lessons built on memory. With memorization, both teachers and students are able to achieve important educational goals in a timely, efficient manner.

Language learning is a prime example of rote memory in action. For many western students, learning a language, such as Mandarin or Japanese, presents a unique challenge due to the differing nature of using characters rather than an alphabet. Rote learning can be beneficial to learning a language like Mandarin because memorization and repetition is one of the simplest ways to get students to remember the pronunciation and meaning of characters. Much as young children learn sight words (a, an, the) in English, creating a strong foundation with the memory-based technique can make the process easier to digest and build upon.

The Limits of Rote Learning and Instruction

Although rote learning has historically been prioritized, today, more and more schools are favoring different learning styles where memorization isn’t the only path toward success. But why?

While rote learning does tend to be effective in certain circumstances (as mentioned above), the ability to memorize and recall information is not necessarily the best indicator of intelligence or learning capabilities. Expectations are changing for students, and it’s becoming more popular to provide them with the tools to dissect and understand a problem, rather than memorizing the answer.

Furthermore, rote learning tends to limit students’ creativity and active learning abilities. Today, critical thinkers are what employers and universities look for in new applicants and rote learning doesn’t always foster these kind of skills, which can impact a student’s future success.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking, as defined by The Foundation of Critical Thinking is the “mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.”

Critical thinking is an important problem-solving skill that allows students to approach never before seen problems or questions and still find a way to the answer(s). This is where critical thinking significantly differs from rote learning. Whereas rote learning tends to provide the answers to students with the intent to memorize and recall the information, critical thinking invites students to explore alternatives they can discover themselves.

Take a poem in an English course for example: there is a distinct learning difference between memorizing the poem for recitation versus deconstructing the poem’s meaning, themes, subtexts, etc. These types of critical thinking skills become even more important for students in university environments and in the modern workforce, where recall may not always suffice for solving problems.

How Are Critical Thinking Skills Taught in Classrooms?

Within the classroom, critical thinkings skills can be taught in a variety of ways. The beauty of critical thinking is its general flexibility. It can be teacher or peer-led, which allows students to be self-directed as well as follow the guidance from a mentor when needed.

It also encourages both teacher and student to ask questions that warrant answers beyond simply “yes” or “no.” This helps with problem-solving, not only within the classroom, but in students’ future as university students and eventually their careers. When students get practice dealing with unfamiliar problems or questions they’ve never faced before, they build a resilience and confidence that enables them to better contend with change and uncertainty in the future.

How Do Modern Students Learn and Practice Problem Solving Skills?

Modern students have a much different experience in the classroom than their grandparents or even their parents did. Top schools are now working towards the goal of a well-balanced curriculum that remains useful and relevant in the face of constant global, technological, and pedagogical change. With the demand and need for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) graduates, K-12 schools all around the globe are beginning to prioritize instruction and encourage students to pursue these fields.

With STEAM, it’s important to find an intersection between both rote learning and engaged, active learning. This means that teaching styles have evolved to better equip students in anticipation of tests, projects, speeches, etc. all with balance in mind. However, a challenge both students and teachers face is standardized testing. Many argue that standardized testing isn’t always an accurate assessment of students’ critical thinking skills, but rather their ability to memorize.

Teachers turn to hands-on learning, and as a result, students are often presented with the option to problem solve with the best method for them. Learning tends to be subjective, with individuals learning (and succeeding) in different ways. That’s why rote learning, despite some limitations, can still be useful in today’s classroom, especially when complimented with critical thinking.

Skills Valued Most by Universities

What do higher learning institutions expect from students today?

Today, most universities are eager to find future students who have original, critical-thinking abilities and are well-versed in creative problem solving. However, standardized testing remains central to K-12 school instruction and university entrance screening. Because these exams tend to focus on knowledge recall and memory, those important critical and problem-solving skills often must be measured in other, indirect ways. Extra-curricular activities, personal essays, and in some cases, interviews, are all means by which universities provide prospective students with opportunities to showcase critical thinking ability and creative problem-solving skills.

Universities thrive on diverse minds, different perspectives, and well-rounded students. By allowing more active learning techniques into the classroom, and in turn creating tests that provide a better assessment of students’ overall skills, universities can find the right candidates.

Skills Valued Most in Modern Workplaces

The ultimate goal for most students is to one day start a career they enjoy, understand, and flourish in. Just as universities seek to open their doors to a wide range of intelligent, capable workers, most modern employers have recognized the financial and long-term benefits of hiring a wide range of minds, personalities, and skills.

The current workforce and its employers have routinely expressed a need for workers capable of critical thinking and creative problem solving. The rapid, dynamic changes driving the modern global economy requires professionals who are mentally nimble and flexible enough to grow and evolve in turn. This means employability depends on critical thinking skills more than ever before, across industries and countries.

This is another area where standardized testing and exclusively rote learning can hurt students. Teachers and students have been forced into a testing dilemma where the assessment is on what the student does NOT know rather than their unique and valuable learning process. This process is what modern workplaces seek, and in order to fill the demand of critical and creative thinkers, curriculum throughout K-12 and even college should foster students’ problem solving skills rather than how to take a test.

It’s imperative that we prioritize student’s abilities as learners — however they learn. While rote learning has been historically emphasized within schools and testing, and it still does hold some value today, in order to give students the right tools for success, it’s important to create and encourage well-rounded critical thinkers. By innovating education we can cultivate a brighter future with passionate, creative learners.