Schools need to go back to basics
Seamus Heaney doesn't agree with Michael Gove very often. But they're both right about learning by rote, says Michael Wolsey
I was taught French by a fearsome woman we called The Buzzer. Pourquoi? Je ne sais pas. But I remember the basic French she instilled in me and her method of teaching irregular verbs.
She lined us up against the wall, like doomed prisoners awaiting the firing squad, and made us rhyme them off by rote. 'Je suis, tu es' and so on.
I can't recall the exact consequence of missing a turn. This woman had us in such a state of fear that it rarely happened.
I found her lessons particularly traumatic, because I had returned to Northern Ireland after a couple of years at a very modern school near London, where the French teacher had a policy of never speaking a word of English in class.
This hapless man would prance around the room, trying to imitate a duck or a dog, or whatever word he wanted to convey, while his class shouted wrong answers and fell about laughing.
Sometimes, he would attempt to draw the object on the board. That might have brought results – except that his drawing was worse than his miming and we were usually confronted by something that looked like the work of Salvador Dali.
"Un chat!'' we'd shout at a sketch of some strange creature with round body, short legs and whiskers longer than its tail. "Non! Non! Non!'' yelled our teacher, as he hopped around the room, imitating a rabbit.
In the long-run, I'm not sure which method is better for teaching French. But, in the sort-term, The Buzzer won hands down, because she gave us the tools without which it is impossible to do the job.
That's why I agree with Michael Gove, when he urges a return to the values of learning by rote and disagree with the gaggle of eminent academics who recently wrote to newspapers complaining that the Education Secretary was trying to saddle children with "endless lists of spellings, facts and rules''.
They might as well complain that apprentice carpenters are being lumbered with the knowledge of how to use a saw, or that would-be electricians are wasting their time learning the difference between the live and neutral terminals on a plug.
Spellings, facts and rules are the blocks from which education is built. Without them there can be no learning.
The academics were of the view that a "mountain of data will not develop children's ability to think". Maybe they are right.
But without the relevant data, how can there be any meaningful thought?
You can't develop a new theory of political science unless you know your prime ministers and presidents, your philosophers and demagogues, your cabbages from your kings.
You can't think up a new mathematics theorem if you've never learnt your nine-times tables, or write great poetry if you've never heard the metre of a poem that rhymes and scans.
I'm sure Seamus Heaney doesn't see eye-to-eye with Mr Gove very often, but the poet and the politician are at one on this.
Students should learn poems by rote, Heaney told the Oxford Literary Festival. They needed to do so at an early age, because it was difficult for the ear to pick up and appreciate works later in life, he said.
"I believe in people learning poetry by heart, definitely,'' said Heaney. And, of course, he is right. Right for those who want to enjoy poetry. And right for those who may one day produce it. Without the tools you can't hope to do the job.
I found myself recently in the company of some secondary school teachers. They all agreed that far too many children are reaching them without those basic tools – the multiplication tables, the rhymed spellings, the rule about i before e.
This is not a pedantic issue, or a matter of academic interest. These are life-skills and life goes less smoothly without them.
Around this time last year, my wife asked me to pick up some small Easter eggs to amuse the grandchildren with an Easter egg hunt.
They came in bags which were priced at 80p each and I bought six of them.
The shop assistant had a till, not a scanner, and she started to ring up each bag separately. "It's £4.80,'' I said. She regarded me sceptically and continued to ring up the items.
She seemed impressed to find they really did come to £4.80. "That was clever,'' she said, like I had just performed a conjuring trick.
An older assistant heard the exchange and smiled. "I add them up in my head,'' she told me. "The others call me Einstein.''
At primary school, we learned times tables by rote – six times five is 30, six times six is 36 – for an hour, or more, each day until we knew them as well as our names and addresses.
We rhymed off the alphabet in the same way and also the spellings of some simple words. It was boring, but it worked.
It didn't make us Einsteins, any more than The Buzzer's irregular verb patrol turned us into fluent French speakers.
But it put us on the ladder and gave us the chance to start climbing.