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Rote to Note – Influences on Thought


Learning with slate chalkboards included memorization and repetition. These are characteristic of residual oral traditions, as outlined by the statement “You know what you can recall.” (Ong, p. 33)  Teaching, as in oral traditions, was difficult to obtain, seen to be precious, and society highly regarded “those wise old men and women who specialize in conserving it”. (Ong, p. 41)  Ong indicated that knowledge had to be repeated, patterns established and formulas applied in order for wisdom to be achieved. (Orality and Literacy, 1982)  Teachers used dictation, repeated mathematical computation and practiced grammatical structures to repeatedly drill students, who in turn recorded their responses on the slate. Ong reflected that within oral cultures “sustained thought is tied to communication”. (Ong, p. 34) In the post-industrial classroom, the teacher communicated knowledge and orally imparted wisdom.

Rote learning, labeled as ‘representational learning’ is compared with ‘meaningful learning’, that identifies relationships between ideas in some way. (Novak, 1998) Research into brain function and learning showed that “information learned through rote is not ‘anchored’ in the mind thus learning needs to be repetitive and concepts ‘overlearned or they will not be remembered.” (Novak, 1998)  In this way, the technology used enhanced the thinking and learning required of the historical and socio-cultural time.


As schools integrated new writing technologies, the characteristics of thought shifted to those found in text-based cultures. “The invention of paper influenced cognition by making the rote memorization of oral texts less important” (Miller, 2002) With the ability to store information outside the mind (Ong, p. 41) and retain notes and lessons for further review, thinking and learning shifted from memorization and recall to analysis and reflection.  “Written words sharpen analysis” (Ong, p. 102)  By writing in notebooks, students created connections between concepts presented and those from previous lessons. Teachers began to analyze student work for evidence of learning not just recall.

“Note-taking may be considered as a privileged means of meaning appropriation and interiorisation.” (Castello and Manereo, pg. 267)  Within the student notebook, a shift occurred from memorization and reproduction to explanation and responding.  This reflected Ong’s statement that “writing has to be personally interiorized to affect thinking.” (p. 56) Thinking and learning moved into the critical analysis of concepts, ideas and patterns that incorporated personal reflections and connections.  “Taking notes enhances intertextuality (Wells, 1994), that is, the transition between different discursive genres (e.g., between daily life discourse and curricular-disciplinary discourse).” (Castello and Manereo, pg. 268)  Notebooks created a place for generating the “interaction of material properties and cultural choices and practices” (Bolter, p. 12) within the field of education and learning.

Changes from Rote to Note

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