Not by Rote Alone

1 Apr

“Byhearting” something. Such a colonial ring to the term. I thought it was typical of India, but a dear South African friend in London laughed when she heard me say that once. Her teachers too used the term when asking her to ‘by heart’ or memorise some material.


Last week, my friend, Sukanti Ghosh wrote a post right here on their experience at a Parent Teacher Meeting. He used a phrase I use every exam season  – ‘to become a photocopier’.  My instructions for examinations are the pragmatic – “This is the season to become a photocopier, just do the best you can, and make sure there are no smudges!” We laugh, but the misery is real. To be asked to not think, to not create or solve, to not understand and to mindlessly reproduce is to reduce a human being to a lesser creature.


We suffered, if suffering is measured in marks. We suffered for daring to look beyond regurgitation. In trying to solve questions in examinations rather than replicate memorised solutions, speed suffered. It was a 100m sprint here, there was no room for anyone but the precise practiced athletes.


No room for developing other parts of the brain – memory is prime. As a commentator pithily said, ‘You have to ‘know’ some things’. Of course you do, but learning does not stop there – it starts there.. and it is a teacher’s task to facilitate the journey. Knowledge is but the path, not the journey.

There is of course a role for rote memorisation in school education, but it cannot be the foundation of all learning, nor should it dominate. Learning by rote was important in days before writing was invented – where smriti (memory) and shruti (spoken reproduction) were the main tools of communicating knowledge down the generations. Rote learning was also needed in times when printing was expensive, and books restricted by the powerful.

Memorisation also had a key role to play in the pre-internet era when accessing facts was a time consuming high effort process and a keen memory speeded up the task at hand. Making memory central to learning will make sense again towards the end of the world, when all our current support systems fail us. So it is an ability we must retain. Memory has a role in rapid access for other faculties too, such as deduction, analysis etc. There is some evidence to suggest that early investment in memory does improve the overall learning ability of children. Memory also plays a role in retaining mental agility in geriatrics. There is no denying that some memorisation must form the basis of learning.


Testing for memory, and only memory limits us to merely knowing things, not knowing what to do with them. Or with our faculties and capabilities. Teaching only to develop memory is probably the easiest thing to do, as is testing for rote learning. There are templates that need to be matched and objectivity is built in – a black and white world, where there are clear ‘right’ answers and ‘wrong’ answers. It is the the dumbing down of education to replication.


Every trained teacher knows that at the very least the learning they impart must include these four components – Knowledge, Skills, Attitudes and Behaviours (KSAB). Memory merely speaks to the first part. It is a tool that supports a part of Knowledge absorption and dissemination, not even contributing to building the body of knowledge. Such learning does not support the ability to create, build and sustain; it ignores the need to encourage a child’s curiosity and talent; and worse, rote learning restricts learning to past knowledge.


Rote Learning is about as useful as back seat driving by looking at the rear view mirror.


Then why do Indian schools, and now increasingly schools around the world, seek to encourage rote learning? Why are teachers feeling pressured to teach to the test? Why are test scores often improved by mere rote learning?


Simply because it is efficient. Not because it is education.


So, Dear Sukanti (and family), the likes of us have to find other avenues. There is no room for wings in this box. Not yet.




(To add more, published in ToI, April 1, 2013)


One Response to “Not by Rote Alone”

  1. behrfacts April 1, 2013 at 11:28 am #

    In England this has become a huge issue especially with regard to the proposed new History national curriculum, which some have likened to a ‘pop quiz’ through famous people and events between the ages of 7 and 11! The research basis comes from E.D. Hirsch and Daniel Willingham in the USA – why should their educational theory direct what goes on in the rest of the world? This raises huge issues about the role of global education and the need for local variation and nuance.

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