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While the common-sense approach to early childhood education was standard practice for centuries, it has been abandoned in recent years. Shunning rote learning, we have instead told young children to draw on their own (limited) experience or feelings when completing school assignments…

We all want the best for our kids. Because of this desire, it’s quite discouraging to see when efforts to boost progress in reading, math, and other subjects flatline in schools across the country, as the chart below shows.

On the other hand, this perpetual stagnation causes us to sit up and notice when a school manages to boost its achievement in dramatic fashion.

Such is the case with Feversham Primary Academy in Great Britain. According to The Guardian, Feversham was a failure a few years ago. Achievement was low and seemed unlikely to improve given that many students hail from disadvantaged backgrounds or are English Language Learners.

But as The Guardian explains, the school began using the “Kodály approach, which involves teaching children to learn, subconsciously at first, through playing musical games.” By teaching these musical games and encouraging memorization of classic works such as Shakespeare, the school has experienced the following change:

Seven years ago Feversham was in special measures and making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Today it is rated ‘good’ by Ofsted and is in the top 10% nationally for pupil progress in reading, writing and maths, according to the most recent data. In 2011, the school was 3.2 percentage points behind the national average in English. This year 74% of its pupils achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, against a national average of 53%. It is 7.1 points above the average for reading and 3.4 above for writing. In maths, the school was 2.4 points behind the national average in 2011 and is now 6.5 above it. Its results for disadvantaged pupils are well above average.

Such increases are quite impressive and appear to mirror the forty percent achievement gains another British school experienced after incorporating Shakespeare into lesson plans.

So why is it that these simple techniques appear to produce such stellar results?

The answer to that question may be found in what music and memorization appear to do the brain. Research suggests that exposing children to music fosters brain development and boosts their “vocabulary and reading ability.” Likewise, memorization “exercises” a child’s brain, training children to pay attention while also laying a foundation upon which they can build future facts and insights.

These components are core elements of classical education. In the grade school years—also known as the grammar stage—classical education capitalizes on the love children have for rote learning, using songs and rhymes to instill historical dates, scientific facts, and famous literature in their brains. When they move beyond these years, they find they have a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips from which they can draw, make connections, and spin off new thoughts.

The funny thing is, while this common-sense approach to early childhood education was standard practice for centuries, it has been abandoned in recent years. Shunning rote learning, we have instead told young children to draw on their own (limited) experience or feelings when completing school assignments.

Classical education methods of music and rote learning have been experiencing a revival in many home and private schools in recent years and have enjoyed a good deal of success. The dramatic turnaround in the Feversham school suggests the success of these methods is not limited to those of a “privileged” status.

Is it time we ask ourselves if modern schools have been too hasty in tossing out the rote learning methods of music and memorization?

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Intellectual Takout (October 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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4 replies to this post
  1. “Creative activity is one of the most productive in childhood. In childhood we all have painted, molded, sang, danced. These actions are vital, people always create, only with age, the need for this in most people fades. It should be noted that up to a certain age, virtually all the activities of the child can be called creative.
    In everyday`s life, the main development of creative abilities occurs through the game. In the game, children show their inclinations most of all, according to their favorite games one can judge which sphere of activity is most interesting for the child. In a sense, the game is the soil, a nutritious solution for the manifestation of children’s creativity. In spontaneous children’s games, not conditioned by clear rules, the children’s imagination is most fully manifested. Games of children are inherently the beginnings of the arts and various types of human activity. The beginnings of the theater, competitions, armies, courts – through the game the child learns the world and manifests his creative abilities. So it is no wonder that music significantly influence on students ability to learn.”

  2. Dear Ms. Holmquist: Thank you for your article. I have heard of excellent intellectual leaps by young children memorizing Shakespeare soliloquies for their parents. As a parent and educator, can you recommend a series of soliloquies and possibly short scenes (or just a text that outlines the same) that have been demonstrated ideal for children who are in Kindergarted through 6th grades? Any leads you can provide would be very helpful.
    Thank you.

  3. As a homeschooling mother of two young boys, we have discovered a delightful classical Christian education program that allows us to interact with other families also pursuing the same for their children. We learn in the three stages of the Trivium. I have found Dorothy Sayers “The Lost Tools of Learning” to be an invaluable resource in advocating a return to classical education by all types of educators. Memorization strengthens the mind in early childhood (Grammar stage) so that it can later question and draw conclusions about information (Dialectic and Rhetoric stages). It is also notable that you really aren’t educated if you can’t recite facts and perform tasks about what you have learned. Telling children that they can just look up answers when they need to do so is not educating them nor does it help them learn to think. Reasoning comes after facts are learned. I believe that no amount of money will improve the educational system because it is poor teaching methods and theories that guide education. We need to return to time tested educational methods like classical education and we could cut education costs and have much greater success.

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