In Praise of Rote Learning

For the past four decades I have been supporting the view that rote memorisation or rote learning is brain antagonistic. Active learning, creative teaching, inquiry and argumentation are themes which sound good and are ideal educational values. However, I also realise that rote learning has its important place and need to complement creative learning.

Developed in 1995 by teachers in Karnataka, the Nali Kali (Joyful Learning) strategy adopted creative learning practices to help retain children in school and bring in those not attending school. Many reports state that this UNICEF supported project has been a great success and a revolution in education.

This approach to Joyful Learning wants to steer education away from rote learning. As a visitor to a few schools that adopted this or similar method, I was impressed. But, mine was a rote observation – not a detailed inquiry. Our effort to adapt the method at Adarsha Vidya Samsthe, a village school, did not succeed for various reasons.  I Have heard similar stories from some other schools.

Today’s Deccan Herald carries a critical report on Nali Kali system from the All India Save Education Committee (AISEC):

  • “the project destroyed the learning abilities and comprehensive thinking in children”
  • “is no more the essential aspect of schooling, as no significant improvement has been noted in government schools”
  • “Bringing in the new method of learning through Nali Kali is a disaster. Implementing the programme in 49,000 government schools is a large scale destruction of learning abilities” –  Prof G. Venkatasubbaiah, former principal.
  • “Nali Kali gives more emphasis to singing and dancing rather than learning. The outcome of this programme should not be assessed by the teachers involved in its planning but by an independent committee of educationists.” The activity based learning  project dilutes the very concept of  reading, writing and arithmetic which are the essential blocks to pursue education. – Prof S R Rohidekar, retired joint director, Department of Public Instruction.
  • “the programme is a complete failure.”  -T M Kumar, former director, Department of Public Instruction. 

The program aimed at weaning the education system away from rote learning has not been successful. Was it a faulty model or faulty implementation? Or is it necessary to retain some rote learning in our system?

Opposed to active learning, rote learning focuses on learning by repetition and memorization. When we initially start learning,  we copy without understanding the meaning; we train ourselves to memorise many things which do not have logic. Why do the months of the year and days of a week have specific names? Why are they so ordered? A child just learning to speak cannot be burdened with the history of these names. But, the child needs to learn these names, which is good for her. When we learn multiplication tables, we memorise because it has to be done – we do not derive and test the validity of the rows in the table. Think of the difficulties in everyday life if we could not remember these simple tables. Such learning has reduced our cognitive load, and we reap the benefit throughout our life.

In higher classes, many a names in biology are in fact Latin if not Greek. We do not look at the dictionary to find the meaning of such words – but learn it by heart and relate with body parts blindly. Even after understanding the concept, we memorised verbatim the Ohms Law and Charles Law and scores of such laws in many subjects.  We memorised various formulae even after proving them. Different subjects have their standard acronyms (say, VIBGYOR) to make it easy to memorise information. Students and teachers regularly invent their own acronyms and codes to help remember information.

Many religions contain vast amount of scriptures, which are mostly learnt by rote throughout the world. Hinduism and Buddhism orally transmitted the scriptural knowledge. The student committed to memory what the teacher taught. But for that tradition we would have been deprived of the vast knowledge we now hold.

During schooldays, I memorised with pleasure many things that made no sense then. Learning  of Sanskrit language involved memorising cases of words (Shabda Manjari) and forms of verbs (Dhatu Rupa Manjari.) We also memorised the dictionary Amara Kosha. Higher studies of Sanskrit would involve learning grammar rules in the form of poems. Strangely, I can recall hundreds of Sanskrit stanzas fifty years after I crammed them. Through the years, their meanings have been unfolding and continue to do so.

“In youth we learn; in age we understand”  – Marie Von Ebner-Eschenbach

Passive learning or learning without understanding is not helpful unless we regurgitate and find meaning and derive knowledge as we grow and use the information.

Animals like cows, goats, sheep and deer are polygastric. They have multiple chambers in their stomachs. When they rest, they relax and chew their cud. They bring up chunks of swallowed food and chew it a second time, helping to digest the food. (image from Internet)

We do not have to chew our cud, but what we cram at some stage of learning can be brought up and examined and reasoned later for sound understanding.

There is a definite place for rote learning as a complement to active learning – not as a replacement.


About pgbhat

A retired Naval Officer and an educationist. Has experience with software industry. A guest faculty at different institutes and a corporate trainer with software development companies.
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