Rote Learning Improves Memory

Do you ever come across a piece of research that seems both common sense and yet counter to your teaching practices? That's what this article "Rote Learning Improves Memory in Seniors" did for me:

A new study offers older adults a simple way to combat memory loss: memorization. Researchers found that seniors who engaged in an intensive period of rote learning followed by an equally long rest period exhibited improved memory and verbal recall. The study was presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

"Use it or lose it"

This study affirms the adage "Use it or lose it" and the notion that you learn what you do: Memorizing improves memory. However, education practice shuns rote learning. Of course, younger students are not yet facing memory loss. And the rapid proliferation of information has led to learning how to search, find, and evaluate the information available, certainly skills needed more today than yesterday, and likely even more so in the future.

At the same time, I've read on more than one occasion that people in careers that use their mind more have less incidence of Alzheimer's. Using one's mind "creatively" isn't the same as rote learning. Still, I wonder. That is, with respect to another disease, osteoporosis, it appears that prevention in one's youth is crucial, as stated by a NIH news release:

"Osteoporosis is a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences," said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), sponsor of the Milk Matters calcium education campaign. "Preventing this and other bone diseases begins in childhood. With low calcium intake levels during these important bone growth periods, today's children and teens are certain to face a serious public health problem in the future."

Clearly, the stage for health--physical and mental--is set in our youth. This is true for the development of great chess players, mathematicians, and musicians (see The Expert Mind by Philip Ross). It would seem to be true of education in general. Just consider Matthew effects in reading (see ESL/EFL Learners Like Slow Readers). So, although I wouldn't want to return to a pedagogy focused on rote learning and repetitive drills, such as ALM, we should consider what sort of role rote learning might play in learning.