Rhythm Has Your Two Hips Moving! Rhythm Has Your Two Hips Moving!
The line of nine year olds shimmied in and out of the classroom chairs, improvised a conga along the school corridor and down the stairs into the playground.
Rhythm Has Your Two Hips Moving!
Bringing up the rear, knocking two discarded drinks cans together, was the class teacher. It had started out as an ordinary music lesson, but after that particular Tuesday afternoon in February, no-one in his class was ever going to forget how to spell that troublesome word.
Children are haptic creatures – they learn through their bodies, and it is the rhythm of the repeated folk tale at bed-time, with its refrain and its cadence I’ll huff and I’ll puff that first patterns our waking and sleeping, and that enables us to filter and then absorb information from the world, in all its terrifying complexity. The repeated mnemonic is a powerful learning device. We use it to organise in our minds the colours of the rainbow, the months of the year and the fate of Henry VIII’s wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded survived). The recitation of these key pieces of information during the span of a single afternoon can hook the knowledge so securely that it lasts a lifetime.
Across the world, playgrounds echo to skipping rhymes and clapping songs that have been, literally, handed down through the generations. Inside the classroom, this natural capacity to learn through traditional recitation techniques, if harnessed imaginatively, can inform the way that essential chunks of knowledge, like multiplication tables, lodge in the memory.
Rote learning has fallen out of favour as a teaching strategy because it tended to involve, historically, dully acquiring basic knowledge without any cognitive understanding. Any information that is absorbed parrot fashion has limited value because it is isolated, devoid of any meaningful connection to other knowledge, and therefore impossible to transfer. It sits in the pocket of our memories and rattles around, like loose change from a foreign country. Rote learning has also been stigmatised by the punishment that was sometimes meted out when children failed to memorise the set task accurately. But there is a subtle, important, difference between learning parrot fashion and learning by heart.
I was introduced to the poetry of Wordsworth by an enthusiastic head-teacher in a tiny rural primary school. All the children in my class, who, due to small numbers on the roll, ranged in age from seven to eleven, were obliged to learn Daffodils one night for homework and then recite it, as a class, the following day. The language of the early nineteenth century was simultaneously familiar and strange. We recognised the rhythm, but not always the sense that was carried by the words. In spite of this, the poem mysteriously took root in me, its meaning gradually unfurling, over the years, like a flower.
But as students get older, in the developed world, they become citizens dominated by an amnesiac culture. Spell checkers auto-correct small errors as they write, so they are hardly aware of the changes made on their behalf. Once it was natural to recall how to spell a little used word by the haptic process of hand-writing it, so that the rhythm of our fingers across the page, and the particular tactile sensation of the pen crawling over the paper, magically revealed that word’s shape for us. Now, for many students, hand-writing is such an archaic process that it has to be practiced before heading in to an exam room, to ensure that it is reasonably legible and that the muscles in the wrist and fingers can cope with three hours of use.
Open-book examinations are becoming increasingly common. Logically, when information is so readily accessible, to anyone with access to the World Wide Web, it is far more important to access a student’s ability to ‘handle’ information efficiently, than to retain facts and figures in their minds. What becomes more important academically here is the ability to structure an argument out of the raw data held in the book, or on the screen. Perhaps a more interesting question is to ask here, what purpose do traditional memorization techniques have in the 21st century, and does the cognitive ability of students improve, in any way that is relevant to contemporary culture, if they practice these techniques?
The answer lies in the line of dancing nine year olds, repeating the mantra that would lodge the spelling of the word rhythm in their minds forever. The answer lies not in rote learning, but in learning by heart, by learning through the body and for the body. Children who are bi-lingual, or who learn how to play a musical instrument or who take to the stage and recite lines of Shakespeare from memory have neurons in their brains that light up like little Christmas trees. The brain is a kind of muscle, and its fitness and long-term ability to function efficiently is affected by how much we exercise it, and a good way to do this is to commit some of the overwhelming details of contemporary life to memory.
As soon as we move away from the screen, and have to interact with real people in real situations, the improvisational fluency with which we conduct a meaningful conversation, the knowledge that tells us when to listen, when to observe, when to speak and what to say, when to intervene and not intervene, is all knowledge that is rooted in our hearts and that is impossible to Google.