FOR more than two thousand years, advice on the best way to educate children was more a matter for philosophers and theologians than teachers or scientists.1 It was only in the late nineteenth century that scientific study of the processes involved in learning began, and in succeeding decades that a new breed of educational theorist began to apply to the classroom what was being discovered in the laboratory about the memory and the development of intelligence. One result of this by the mid-twentieth century was an almost universal condemnation of rote memorization and parrot-like recitation as an archaic remnant of a discredited tradition. Children, it was argued, learnt more through 'discovery learning', in which the material to be learnt must be solved or discovered, than by 'reception learning', in which the material is presented in its final form and which in a purely verbal form implies quite a high level of ability to handle abstract concepts. Even religious education was affected: Bible-based teaching was discounted in favour of 'problem-oriented' and 'child-centred' approaches.
In the second half of the twentieth century, however, a reaction set in, with some educational psychologists arguing that rote learning can be meaningful if it incorporates material into students' cognitive structure in a way that relates it to what they already know, as was the case in some early modern catechizing where the catechist took the trouble to explain as well as instill information, or to relate what was said in one part of a catechism to what was said in another. Six- or seven-year olds (we now know) may find it easier to understand abstract concepts through concrete examples, but in the absence of such exemplars much can be achieved through a careful choice of words.3 Studies of the operation of the memory have also shown that a better way____________________
D. P. Ausubel, J. P. Novak, and H. Hanesian, Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View2 ( New York, 1978), 117-20; E. B. Turner, "Intellectual Ability and the Comprehension of Religious Language", Irish Journal of Psychology, 4 ( 1980), 182; I am most grateful to Dr Irene Turner of the Department of Psychology of the Queen's University of Belfast for her valuable advice and help in introducing me to some of the works cited in this and subsequent footnotes.