Monday, 29 October 2012

Why I Hate Flashcards

Way back in the 1970's, I was a student in a grade 1-2-3 split class. It was not a small school, so I would guess that it was one of the many educational experiments going on during that time.

There are two things I remember well about my grade 1 teacher: how hard she spanked and her incessant use of flashcards. The words, "if you're so smart..." still set my teeth on edge. I didn't think I was smart at all. Before we could read actual stories, we each needed to recite the current list of flash-words correctly, even though they were completely out of context. Only then, when we were tired and bored out of our minds, would we have the "privilege" of reading aloud in front of the class a page from the classroom reader. That classroom reader, "Just For Fun", was decidedly NOT fun for me!

It may be that I have an unfounded bias against flashcards based on my experiences with that teacher.

But aside from those experiences, there is a lot to be said against "flashcard" style instruction. Rote and memorization techniques do not involve any higher cognitive functioning; there is no deep thought involved in memorizing a set of facts. There is no "grey area" to be explored or probed; there is no room for reflection or making connections with other areas. It is a sort of "desert learning" where only that particular piece of information is deemed relevant. For those familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy, you will recognize that flash cards represent remembering, which sits at the bottom of the list as the lowest of the lower-order skills.

Bloom's Taxonomy
Yes, there are some facts that simply beg for memorization, such as the alphabet, musical note names, capital cities, etc. For these purposes, flashcards may not be a bad choice. Likewise, some older students find writing facts out on index cards and reviewing them to be a useful study tool that combines kinesthetic (writing) and visual cues.

For math facts though, it is crucial that students work through the actual quantities to understand the patterns involved. These do not show up on flashcards; nor do "real life" applications of the concept. 9 x 9 can be solved in many different ways, and for students to gain numeracy they must be encouraged to explore those ways for themselves. Some ways they might do this can be found here. Only once they have gained the concept, the "understanding" and "applying" on the next levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, is memorization relevant. This doesn't mean that a student who learns the concept quickly should need to continue working with manipulatives ad nauseum, but that they should be able to demonstrate the concept behind the fact before moving on.

The same goes for reading. Using flashcards to memorize words deprives students of many of the other different ways to decode and comprehend words and phrases. There are many aspects used in reading including contextual clues, phonics, word shape, structural patterns, linguistic patterns, and many others as well. Not many of us have the mental capacity to memorize every word we will ever read; we clearly need to  use a variety of strategies in order to become fluent readers and gain higher level literacy skills. Isolating one skill and focusing on that alone (usually either flashcards or phonics) does not reflect the reality of how readers process print. It is true that it might be useful for students with specific needs to reduce the visual or auditory component for a very short time in order to allow them to focus on specifics, but the students who require this sort of breaking down tend to have special needs related to sensory issues; and their needs are quite different from the needs of the general student population.

Going back again to the musical note example, could we not improve the experience by making it richer with a wider variety of sensory input? Imagine a simple program that not only shows the note written on the staff, but also plays the tone. Now the student has an opportunity not only to learn the note visually, but also to gain an auditory sense of it at the same time. This is not a complicated thing to program, in fact, there are many websites, programs and apps that do this that have been around for years. If you want to avoid electronic technology, you can always do this with a piano or other instrument as well. Of course, you can also take this much further by reversing the process, and add composition, duets, etc. to the mix. None of this is new.

This is only one example. I challenge those of you who use flashcards to find a replacement or means of enriching the experience.