Jonny Berliner - science through song


Opinions and reflections on the dissemination of science from a science troubadour, educator and sci ed researcher.

Rote Learning Ain't All Bad

A big motivation for the revision songs that I have been writing is the new content heavy GCSE curriculum. There is a lot to remember and for the physics students they now have to remember 20 odd equations. In a meeting with the Institute of Physics a couple of years ago I outlined the benefits of using songs to remember facts such as equations. Their reaction was that they could not support the rote learning of the physics equations. This is sound educational thinking. The equations of physics provide a beautifully simple and consistent description of the universe and when you understand the physics and understand how equations are derived, the ability to remember and use them is far superior to when they have been learned parrot fashion. Since that meeting I have decided to go ahead and write a song that encourages the rote learning of these equations. I have tried to include as much explanation about the derivation of the equations but there are a lot and it would simply be too much for one song, but I decided to write it anyway for two reasons that I will briefly pick apart. The first reason comes from my experience as an educator, namely that rote learning, in a few situations, can actually be useful. The second comes from my conviction that getting GCSE students to learn physics equations is unnecessary and provides students with added stress and if a song can help then why not have one?

So when is rote learning useful? Not often! Lists of related facts do not convey true understanding. It's the connections between the facts, the societal implications of the facts, and the limitations of the fact's truth that lead to real understanding. None of these can be realised from a list. However all of these things can be derived from a list of related facts with the right teaching and in that context having the list of facts memorised can be useful. Times tables are an example that illustrates this well. I have often met students who are struggling with maths in their teens simply because they never rote learned their tables. When learning to use new mathematical techniques they are spending more time on working out simple multiplications rather than concentrating on the new techniques. The extra burden on their cognitive load slows their learning and given how often they must use times tables, working them out from scratch each time is a phenomenal waste of time and energy when compared to the time and energy that they would have needed to rote learn them at the start. There is a further advantage to carrying around those times tables in your head. By doing so you are able to find the connections and patterns in the numbers on your own, outside of lessons. In other words it can facilitate and catalyse the true understanding of the concepts.

This is the same for a number of other lists and the physics equations are no exception. What at first may seem like a list of unrelated facts is actually a concise schema for understanding the whole subject. Students may not see the underlying connections of the equations right away but as their cognitive skills improve they will be able to form more and more sophisticated connections. In fact a lot can be learned about physics from just the equations and if students had rote learned them from early on they may be able to assimilate new physics concepts more readily since the equations can provide context for how abstract physics concepts relate. A less obvious example may be remembering lists of kings and queens from which you can get a broad understanding of the sweep of history as kings and queens are so linked to the events of their time. 

There is however, an important difference between learning times table and physics equations. A deep understanding of the laws of physics is not actually as useful in everyday life as something like times tables. Most GCSE students will not even take physics on to A level let alone use it in later life and once they have finished their GCSEs the equations will be forgotten quickly so why are we expecting them memorise something that can easily be googled should they ever need it? Memorising the list provides an excellent foundation to build on in A level but I believe it is unfair to expect GCSE students to do this and nobody has given me a good reason to think we should. In fact I now come across students that are failing physics tests simply because they cannot remember abstract strings of letters and mathematical symbols and it makes physics feel like an impossibly hard subject. I cannot imagine that it will help to combat the STEM shortage.

It would be great to be able to teach students to understand the derivation of the equations and spend time with them to help them understand the connections but there are a number of problems with this approach. Firstly, it is time consuming and with so much content to get through, very few teachers will actually take the time to do this. Secondly, the mathematical dexterity needed to be able to find the connections between the equations is probably beyond the ability of most GCSE students. It is quite a tricky thing to be able to relate an equation to the real world, let alone derive real world connections from two or three related equations. We are expecting too much of students if we think that they going to understand the beautiful interconnectedness of nature from the equations by the age of 16 and yet they still have to learn them.

Songs have often been used for rote memory learning. The alphabet song is something that almost all people know and remember. Most of us do not use it into adulthood but for a significant amount of my childhood I probably recited it quietly when thinking about where to find a word in a dictionary. I wanted to do something similar for physics equations. At the very least, it may make the lives of stressed students a bit easier as they prepare for the first GCSE exams where remembering equations is necessary. For those students who carry on with physics to A level, I hope it provides the physics equivalent of the alphabet song. As they use the equations more and more, and understand how they relate to world they will rely on the song less and less. I also hope that knowing the equations off by heart speeds up their learning of physics and relieves their cognitive load when assimilating new ideas in much the same way times tables do. And if none of that is possible then I hope they at least get down to some funky grooves.