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Idea Seeds #17 – Education and the 7R’s

Updated on March 8, 2017
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R is For...

Quotation: “You know there is a problem with the education system when you realise that out of the 3R’s only one begins with an R.” (Dennis Miller)

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Sir William Curtis' 3R groups

How many people, I wonder, who write letters to the newspapers decrying the shorthand the 4 u 2 types’ use today realise that the 3R’s shorthand came from a speech made in 1795 by Sir William Curtis? In the speech he outlined the role of schools in preparing children to work in the manufacturing industry in England. His 3R groups were: Reading and writing; Reckoning and figuring; and wRoughting (Wrought Iron - Think Tower Bridge in London and Eifel Tower in Paris) and wrighting. (The latter referring to the tradesmen at that time: blacksmiths, wrought-iron workers, shipwrights, cartwrights, wheelrights etc.)

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The 7R's

The 3R’s have sadly been downgraded and today refer only to: Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. My father strongly believes that at least four more R’s should be added to these three: Rote Learning, Recall, Rhetoric and Relationships to make it the 7R’s. Why? As explained in a previous articles, if you want to become wise you need to acquire extensive factual and theoretical knowledge, make significant progress in completing the ‘big picture jigsaw puzzle’ of the world around you, be relied on to ‘make sound judgments’ and know why things need to be done and when and how to get them done.

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Making Sound Judgements

To ‘make sound judgements’ you must be able to ‘analyse’ both ‘convergent and divergent problems’ and then ‘synthesise’ a range of possible solutions from which the solution that fits a particular situation best, can be made. To do this successfully you need to have the basic ‘benchmarks’ to compare and measure from ‘committed to memory’ and ready for ‘recall’.

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Rote Learning Leads to Satisfaction

Rote-learning is frowned on by many in the educational world who prefer to promote ‘Critical Thinking’ as the alternative. Common sense tells me that there is a place for both and my heart sang when I recently read that the Education Secretary in the United Kingdom was planning a shakeup of their GCSE and A-level courses in this regard. He said that learning facts by rote must again be a central part of the school experience. He argues that "memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding. Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the working memory, so that they can be ‘recalled’ with no effort when required to work things out from ‘first principles’, do we really have a secure hold on ‘knowledge’.” Among other benefits, he says, will be increased pupil satisfaction: "We know that happiness comes from earned success. There is no feeling of satisfaction as deep, or sustained, as knowing we have succeeded through hard work at a task which is at the upper end, or just beyond, our normal or expected level of competence."

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Building Memory

He cites the work of Daniel Willingham, a US cognitive psychologist, whose scientific research shows that pupils ‘learn best through the use of memory and routine, arguments’. In his book, ‘Why don’t students like school’ he says: "Memorising scales, or times tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite, automatically gives us the mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity……The best way to build memory is by the investment of thought and effort – such as the thought and effort required when preparing for exams."

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Rhetoric and Relationships

The three wise men from ancient times, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle developed the debate on ‘Rhetoric’ and their views are still reflected in today’s thinking. Rhetoric loosely translates to: the process of developing arguments; determining how to organise and present the arguments for maximum effect; determining tone, pace and gestures that will make the delivery more persuasive; and the process of committing the arguments to memory and ready for delivery. To apply ‘rhetoric’ successfully you must understand the how’s, what’s and why’s that underpin good ‘relationships’. Things like ‘respect’ and ‘responsibilities’ underpin good relationships and learning about them should start at an early age.

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Help with Homework Hank

Returning to Education Secretary’s statement: “Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the working memory, so that they can be ‘recalled’ with no effort when required to work things out from ‘first principles’, do we really have a secure hold on ‘knowledge’.” My father was at school with Hank Altman, a very clever chap, who like my father, after Matric, registered to study Mechanical Engineering at UCT. He was the go-to-man in their residence when they needed help with any homework assignment. He was always happy to help and always did so from a ‘first principles’ perspective. In the four years they spent together no one in their residence had ever seen him studying at his desk with his books like the rest. His sport was long distance running and he won Springbok colours in our final year much to the joy of the guy who always came second to him in class. He thought that the time and effort Hank was going to have to put into training and travelling to Germany would impact negatively on his preparation for the final examinations and give him the opportunity to beat him. It was not to be; Hank returned and won the Gold Medal for best student. In fact on his return from Germany, to everyone’s amazement, he started building a one and a half metre wing-span model aeroplane on his desk. Some years later my father asked him how he had managed to do so well with no apparent effort.

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Working on the Run

He told him that he had actually worked very hard at his studies. He never missed lectures and took notes like everyone else. Then on his daily cross-country training runs he systematically went through what he had learnt that day in his mind and sorted out the basic principles and fitted the pieces into his proverbial ‘big picture jigsaw puzzle’ of the world around him. If on his run he found something he wasn’t sure of, he would check his notes and sort it out and be ready to receive the next instalment at the next lecture – unlike the rest of them who only looked at our lecture notes again when we were frantically cramming for exams. His approach is a perfect example of what the Minister of Education was advocating.

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Socrates and Critical Thinking

As I said before there is a place for both ‘rote-learning’ and ‘Critical Thinking’. The roots of ‘Critical Thinking’ can be traced back to ancient times and Socrates in particular. His teachings have been followed for centuries and are based upon three major key points. First; ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’. He believed it was extremely important for you to know who you are and what you are trying to become. Second; ‘the most important task in life is caring for the soul’. Socrates believed that ‘a person's soul was the real person’ and the basis of thoughts, feelings, values, and decisions. To keep your soul healthy and realize your potential as person, he says you have to be constantly striving to achieve wisdom and doing self-evaluations on a regular basis. If you don’t make an effort to regularly ‘critically analyse’ your own thinking, then much of it will remain biased, distorted, and partially formed. Excellence in thought must be systematically cultivated. Third; ‘if you are a good person then you cannot be harmed by other people. People can physically hurt you but if ‘your soul is good’ and intact, then outside forces cannot harm it.

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The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living

Dr. Linda Elder, an educational psychologist and President of the ‘Foundation for Critical Thinking’ says: “Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way. People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, and empathically. They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked. ….They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offer – concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess, and improve their thinking. They work diligently to develop the intellectual virtues of intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice and confidence in reason. They realize that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers, they can always improve their reasoning abilities and they will at times fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest. They strive to improve the world in whatever ways they can and contribute to a more rational, civilized society. …. They avoid thinking simplistically about complicated issues and strive to appropriately consider the rights and needs of relevant others. They recognize the complexities in developing as thinkers, and commit themselves to life-long practice toward self-improvement. They embody the Socratic principle: The unexamined life is not worth living, because they realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, and dangerous world.

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A Well Cultivated Critical Thinker

A well cultivated critical thinker: raises vital questions and problems and formulates them clearly and precisely; gathers and assesses relevant information and then uses abstract ideas to interpret it effectively and come to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards; thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.”

Visit the excellent ‘Foundation for Critical Thinking’ website at http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/766

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Quietly Introducing Critical Thinking

If you go back through my articles you will find that I have covertly been introducing aspects of ‘critical thinking’ along the way. It is the best way, I believe, to lead young people into the topic. ‘Systems Thinking’ is a good example of one of the tools I introduced in an earlier article that can be used to ‘analyze’, assess, and improve your thinking This of course means that all teachers should have a comprehensive understanding of ‘critical thinking’ and know when the time is right to present it overtly. This most certainly is not at the 3R’s stage that is often suggested.

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