Gove: 'Tough exams and rote learning help inspire students'

Nov 14, 2012

Education Secretary likely to please back-to-basics traditionalists but alarm modernists

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TOUGH exams favouring students who can memorise page after page of facts should be a central part of the school experience, says Michael Gove, the Education Secretary.

Gove sings the praises of competitive, difficult exams and rote learning in a speech today explaining the ideological basis of his shake-up of GCSEs and A-Levels.

Titled 'In Praise of Tests', the address to the Independent Academies Association claims such traditional techniques guarantee educational standards. He even suggests they helped spur the US civil rights struggle.

"Exams matter because motivation matters," he says. "Humans are hard-wired to seek out challenges. And our self-belief grows as we clear challenges we once thought beyond us."

The satisfaction of passing tough exams, Gove argues, "spurs us on to further endeavours and deeper learning".

The speech is certain to please back-to-basics traditionalists, says The Guardian, but alarm those who fear a return to the staid, rigid teaching techniques of the 1940s and 1950s.

Gove's admiration for rote learning stems from his professed admiration for the work of Daniel Willingham, a US cognitive psychologist who argues pupils learn best using memory and routine.

"Memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding," says Gove. "Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the working memory, so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles, do we really have a secure hold on knowledge."

In a passage which could raise some eyebrows, Gove draws a parallel with the US civil rights movement of the 1960s. He says: "In America the use of scholastic aptitude tests opened up access to colleges which had in the past arbitrarily blocked minority students.

"The academic test was a tool of the civil rights struggle. Colleges which had used quotas to limit, say, the number of Jewish students or placed undue reliance on lineage and connections in allocating places, had to accept students on the basis of test scores and real ability."

The exam system isn't the only part of the education sector facing radical change. The Times has learned running costs are to be halved at the Department of Education. About 1,000 career civil servants, a quarter of the department's workforce, face losing their jobs within two years, the paper says.

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Rote learning made Michael Gove what he is today - a very stupid man.