I was talking to my Mum and she mentioned how she was very impressed with our (Marica and my) graduation back in May. I was intrigued – granted Mum hasn’t been to any of my previous graduations due to the conspicuous lack of previous graduations, however I was interested to hear her thoughts. Mum’s 89, by the way.
She said she was how struck by the way we learned and managed our study. “Everything’s on computer – which is really good, because you only have to put it down once and then you’ve got it. In our day all we had to write on was a slate and then we had to rub it off because there was no more room. We had to remember everything, because there was no way we could store it.”
I’d never thought about it before, but I realised how much would’ve been remembered by rote learning, chanted times tables, sung alphabets – I heard on the radio (while driving up to see Mum) a comment about how the Wellington branch of the Royal Society was running a competition for a snappy new way (a mnemonic) of remembering the planets, seeing as Pluto had been downgraded. Kim Hill also read someone’s elaborate mnemonic story which contained the various time periods in the development of Earth. I can only remember the ‘Silurian Epoch’ and that because I was a Rick Wakeman fan as a teen. Alarmingly, that dates me even more than saying how old my mother is.
I’d never thought about rote learning as being a technique for replacing a big hard drive. It occured to me that another string to the rote learning bow is in story telling. There’s been discussion here in NZ about the teaching of religion in primary schools, and without wanting to kick off any scabs there, much of our cultural metaphor is based on the bible stories, like it or lump it. The Noah and the Flood, Samson and Delilah, the prodigal son, Jonah and the whale – the list of stories goes on – whether you choose to include the spiritual content or not. It would be impossible to include a review of western culture without including some reference to work inspired by the stories contained in the bible. It’s also impossible to interpret the works without the vocabulary. I thought of it as general knowledge. Marica calls it (more accurately, in my opinion) global literacy. Every culture has a global literacy – I suspect this is why even after living in a different culture for a very long time, it’s possible to to be tripped on a small stub – a story meme, theme, or subtle nuance you couldn’t access unless you’d learned it at your mother’s or father’s knee.
Jerry Mander writes (amongst other things) about the impact of electronic media on residents of the snow bound northern Canada regions, and how the loss of the traditional stories (and more importantly the story telling in itself) also meant the loss of the transmission of the survival techniques – the lesson contained in the stories that got told over and over. I think this is one of the essential weaknesses of digital storytelling, even though it’s a lot of fun to make, it’s still a filtered method of storytelling – it’s push technology as well.
I like portable tools I can use immediately, when batteries are not only not included, they’re not needed. Rote learning suddenly seemed like an exciting and new approach when the storage facilities are limited. Singing. Chanting. Mnemonics. Rhymes. Storytelling. Who knew? Good on you, Mum, I’m still learning from you.