Rote Learning is not bad, overdose is
No beats, no bush. Let us start with the question -
What is rote learning ?
Rote learning is a learning system that rewards precision and quantity of retention. It incentivizes information gathering over thinking and creativity. It is a learning system that punishes people for being maverick, for being innovative. A learning system that produces machines, not thinkers.
Sounds exciting right ?
That’s the candyfloss you would find in the editorials, magazines, startup visions, clickbait videos and TED talks.
Many educational ventures in the past two decades have applied the same marketing strategy. To describe the niche for their services — schools, bootcamps or online products, they need words that can give hope for a better future. In this process, words like “creativity”, “innovation” and “understanding” are exploited beyond measure.
People who are sincerely trying to improve education have an impulsive reaction towards the current situation. That’s why they take rote for an enemy, when it is actually not.
Rote learning is not the enemy and I will tell you why. Let us ask ourselves a simple question —
Why should we avoid rote learning, when it actually worked for us?
Something that is rarely recognized by modern educators is that they themselves are products of rote learning. It is tough to deny that their inflated intellectual capacities, whatever they know is founded deeply in there ability to retain information.
So, the first step to redemption is to understand that rote learning has parts in it — that really work. It is not all darkness and doom. We are the living examples of that.
Ok, so what are the “parts” that work in a rote system?
Rote learning has in its core — something that is critical to the learning process that happens inside the brain — Focus on retention. Rote learning awards retention more than any other alternative system that one can conceive.
It is great if I can find the expansion of (a+b)² by multiplying (a+b) and (a+b). But after a period of time, it would be better if I can retain the fact that (a+b)² is a² + b² + 2ab.
Retention is not an imaginary reward, retention makes learning processes efficient. Without retention, our learning processes would be excruciatingly long and stagnated.
If I do not remember that — (a+b)² is a² + b² + 2ab and 2sinxcosx = sin2x
and sin²x + cos²x = 1.
It would be impossible for me to directly write — (sinx + cosx )² = 1 + sin2x. If I can’t save time on puny calculations, how would I really manage time for creativity and innovation.
Rote works because retention works. If there is no rote, there is no innovation.
Ok, so you are saying everything is fine ?
No. Rote might work. But it is just one part of the learning process. A wheel is essential for a car, but a wheel is not a car.
We all know that we need an education system that rewards creativity, innovation and problem solving. But we are all stuck in a vicious loop of rote.
Rote gives immediate results. It is better to remember formulas than to understand their derivation if we are faced with an exam 2 days later. Formulas are efficient. We keep on preparing for exams to exams, and the cycle of learning and forgetting goes on and on.
Through multiple revolutions around this loop whatever that sticks in our head, becomes the total learning outcome for an individual.
Ok, lot of fancy words there, but how can it be tackled ?
An education system that causes rote as well as rewards it, is clearly on rote overdose.
There are specific areas where we can immediately make amendments. Here is a broad list -
1) Rote reinforcing Instruction
(a +b)² needs to be retained as a² + b² + 2ab . But it need not be named as “identities”.
Question 1 : Expand (x +4)²
Question 2 : Use “identities” to expand (x +4)².
Question 1 is fine but Question 2 is ridiculous.
Question 2 is something that you would find in NCERT, IB or IGCSE textbooks. The most researched and best textbooks of the world have questions that exhibit irrelevant labeling.
2) Examination structure
If the structure is explicitly rewarding students only on the basis of information gathering, then it is bound to create lesson plans that maximize retention only. Creativity etc. are not evaluated so they are not part of the overall plans.
The spacing of examinations is such that the kids do not get enough time to play with the information they have retained. The examinations are too many and they go too fast.
3 hours to judge writing skills ?. Why not 6 hours ?.
3 hours to solve 20 questions ? Why not 5 questions in 5 hours ?
In this crazily paced environment we end up undermining the talent that might not be doing well with memorizing but are exhibiting wonders at solving problems or thinking critically. The kind that goes slow but does it right is getting punished.
What can parents or teachers do to break the loop ?
Parents in a rote environment are happy if their child has memorized capitals of some remote country or some amazonian animal’s name. They are seldom happy when their kid has figured out how to dismantle and re-organize a watch.
Parents find curiosity silly and weird. Because parents have forgotten curiosity. Movies, sitcoms, news channels and office gossip has dumbed them down. And dumb cannot conceive the genius.
Genius in children is rarely celebrated.
How does a child learn to pick a bat, or throw a ball ?
It is very tough to explain intellectually, but in action it is far more simple.
Education is, in fact, that simple.
The reason why your child hates algebra is because no one never tells him that algebra could help him do magic tricks. However, it is not just about giving your kid the reasons to like algebra.
You don’t teach cricket by telling your kids about Virat Kohli , you teach cricket by playing with them.
Is it that difficult ?
Ask your kid — choose a number between 1 to 9.
Add 2 to it — Multiply it by 4 — Subtract 2 — Divide by 2 — Add 1 — Divide by 2 — Subtract 2.
Tell me what’s the number ? Your number, right ? Play for a week. Explain after few days. Your kid would be experiencing algebra like magic and would solve it like Sherlock Holmes. Be a part of your kids fantasies.
The rote loop is such that the parents respond only to examination scores. When the examination structure is itself so messed up, it is important that parents see beyond the report cards.
Go and learn with your child, you would only get better.
Teachers too, can try to understand that children need time to grow. Their pace of growth doesn’t necessarily correlate with their quality of growth. Problems of teachers are systemic, so they will take time for society to solve them. But we hope to solve them soon.
Go slow, cheer up and break the rote loop.