Through the Foundation Phase (Grades R to 3) and the early stages of the Intermediate Phase (Grades 4 and 5), many learners are able to learn most, if not all, of the required content using rote learning techniques. Rote learning applies the benefit of repetition (parrot-fashion learning), and works extremely well when learning concepts such as bonds, tables and a list of spelling words.

This is one of the first techniques children encounter in the early Foundation Phase of schooling, and it works well! The challenges begin to emerge when the workload and complexity of concepts begin to exceed the capacity that can be achieved through rote learning.

The reality of this scenario is experienced at different stages by different children, but commonly around Grade 6 or 7. Some children are able to seamlessly move on to employing active learning techniques, which enable them to cope with greater complexity and increased information load. However, many children rely on rote learning only, and ultimately do not develop successful study techniques that are crucial for Grade 6. It can be unsettling, and derails the confidence of any young learner about to enter the Senior Phase. Study skills and examination preparation techniques need to be actively learned and, like any new skill, practice is required. The process needs to be intentional, and learners should be taught new skills from a young age so they do not become dependent on rote learning. Learners need to move progressively towards meaningful learning techniques.

Rote Learning

  • Copying and underlining
  • Rehearsal strategies
  • Reciting (memory recall)

Meaningful Learning

  • Organisation strategies
  • Identifying main ideas and concepts
  • Critical thinking
  • Material interrogation
  • Research
  • Outlining and summarising
  • Mapping
  • Elaboration strategies
  • Application thinking

Rote learning has its place; however, learners need additional strategies and techniques. It is important that a learner is able to identify when rote learning is appropriate, but not be reliant on it.

Meaningful learning employs several different learning skills, and the learner needs to be self-motivated, organised and mindful of time management. Reading and comprehension skills are at the foundation of building meaningful learning strategies.

There are several strategies that should be employed when reading, the starting point being to understand the purpose of the reading exercise – Am I reading for pleasure, to research a topic, to learn new information, to find specific detail or to gain a broad overview of the topic? Once the starting objective is established, learners can use different strategies to achieve their objectives.

Comprehension, understanding and creating a knowledge bank is the objective of meaningful learning. Learners must look beyond the looming test or exam and practise ‘consuming’ information in ways that maximise understanding, value and retention. Once a learner can relate information to his or her world and can see the value in the material and critical thinking then meaningful learning can begin, and rote learning becomes redundant.

Prioritising AND Summarising Information

Once the material has been read with good comprehension and insight, the next step is to identify the main ideas and core concepts so that information can be prioritised and summarised in a smart way. All too often, learners dive into the task of summarising by underlining what they think is important before they have really mastered understanding of the material. The results are poor summaries that are really still a simple engagement of copying techniques. The practical requirement is that learners need to be able to identify a core concept and build an explanation around it that demonstrates understanding – that is a meaningful summary.

Once the first stage of successfully prioritising and summarising information is achieved, learners can then use different applications to assist with memory and recall of information. They are no longer working to recite information using rote learning and, as a result, grow in confidence using techniques such as clustering of ideas and concepts, mind maps, associative learning and learning with movement.

What about learning styles? 

We should not confuse meaningful learning skills with learning styles. It is true that individuals have different learning styles, and we reference styles such as visual (spatial), auditory or kinaesthetic learners to name a few.

However, learning techniques and skills are strategies to approach learning, which can then be applied in a way that is aligned with a comfortable learning style.