Last week I visited several schools in rural Thiruvallur. Recent rains had filled the landscape with greens of all shades. In this beautiful rural setting was this school that we are supporting. I went and sat in the 4th std class that our Asha teacher was teaching. It was Tamil period and she had finished a lesson on Mariyathai Raman and was discussing the questions at the end of the lesson. The first question was about why the farmer had rented the elephant. She asked the children this in colloquial Tamil and most of the children were able to give the answer in colloquial Tamil. She then proceeded to mark the answer for this in the textbook with some minor change in the way the sentence is ended etc. She did the same with all the questions. Here is the textbook if you are curious.
I stopped her at this point and wanted to interact with the children. I told them the following story in colloquial Tamil.
“Vijay!” Mom called out as she walked in through the front door. “Vijay,” she continued shouting, “I sure could use some help with these groceries”. There was still no reply. Mom walked into the kitchen to put the grocery bags down on the floor when she noticed broken glass from the window all over the living room floor and a cricket ball not far from there. “I’m going to kill you, Vijay!” Mom yelled to herself as she realized that Vijay’s chappals were gone.
I told them this story and asked them what did they think had happened. They were able to reason that Vijay had probably played cricket and broken the window. When I asked them if it could have been something else. They explained that it could have been the kid next door. Clearly their comprehension skills are fine. But then why does the textbook only ask questions for which answers are right there in the textbook. And the teachers give them the “perfect” answer and expect them to write just that. Then finally in the exam the same question from the textbook would be repeated and the children will be expected to repeat the same “perfect” answer.
This is Rote Learning!
The problem will be complicated several fold in English. In Tamil at least, when I speak in colloquial Tamil, there is no issue with comprehension. There will be some problem with reading the chaste Tamil in the textbook and in writing the answer. In English, comprehension is itself a major issue whether in spoken or written form and the English in the textbook is well beyond the ability of the kids and why just the kids, even most of the teachers.
What is Rote Learning?
Rote Learning is learning without understanding. Rote learning is probably the biggest blight plaguing Indian education system now. This is more deeply ingrained than many people think. I will show how it has penetrated our system through some anecdotes. Do not view these as isolated events. These anecdotes pretty much reflect how education is transacted in most of Tamilnadu.
What isn’t Rote Learning?
Rote learning is often described as memorising. Memorising in itself is essential to education and not something bad. If I tell that 9 multiplied by 8 is 72, I did not add 9 eight times to arrive at the answer. I have the tables memorised including 9 x 8 = 72. But I know the way in which the answer is arrived at. I have memorised something I understand to speed up common tasks. Similarly if you ask me the major nations that were part of the allied powers in World War II, I have memorised that these are US, UK and Soviet Union. But I also know several other details related to World War II which provides me a broader context to place this fact.
Several other things based on recent fads are categorised in common parlance as Rote Learning. With the rise of computers, a question often comes up. Why do we need to memorise facts in the days of Google and Wikipedia? What we need to do are the creative things that computers do not do. That is a misunderstanding and a misstatement of the creative process. Creative ideas do not come up in a vacuum. It comes from a fusion of several pieces of information that we carry in our brain. To perform creatively, we need to have a level of mastery over the activity in question that doesn’t come without lots of knowledge. Creativity in something like music or dance will depend on knowledge that we do not typically associate with memorising. But creativity in fields like science and technology will very much depend on thorough knowledge of that field as well as a good bit of knowledge of other fields.
So while creativity should be fostered by providing a good environment for experimentation and safe space for failures, this does not directly bear on the rote learning topic that we have taken up for discussion.
Other idea that is conflated with Rote learning is mass education. These days the fad that many are pushing is individualised and customised learning. You would have heard this joke about a school in the forest with an elephant, a deer, a monkey and something else as students. The test in the school asks the students to climb the tree as fast as they can. Children also come with different potentials and therefore need to be addressed individually. I believe this can be dealt with within the context of mass education. While the broad ideas in this are unexceptionable, there is no reason why mass education cannot also deal with serving the varied needs of individual children. Home schooling or learning with a PAL (Personalised Assistive Learning) system need not be the only solution.
A couple of years back, a friend of mine and I went to the Founder’s day function at a good private CBSE school, the types of which the rich educated elite in the city send their children to. The chief guest was talking about how the requirements of the education system has changed with the new knowledge economy. He asked all the children (just classes 11th and 12th if I remember right), if they wanted to do the same kind of work their parents and all others in the society did day in and day out for their whole life or want to do something unique and different that is suited to their individual abilities. Everyone put up their hand for the latter. I think the speaker and the children missed the irony in the response. In wanting to be a unique individual you are just conforming with the masses! Me and my friend were suppressing our subversive giggles in an otherwise serious audience! Being yourself, expressing yourself etc. have just become fads. True education will take us beyond these silly slogans.
Rote Learning in Schools
Rote learning starts right from a young age. When a kid is asked to do something without understanding it reduces education to memorising something to please the teacher. This starts right from the first standard. In Maths one of the important points for teachers to note is to lead from concrete to abstract. Even when you start teaching numbers, the teacher should realise the abstractness of say 4. There can be 4 boys, 4 bags, 4 pens or 4 pencils. There is no such thing as 4 itself. A number needs to be introduced with physical objects and then the children need to be gradually introduced to more abstractions. You can have pictures of 4 flowers or 3 trees. Then you can have tally marks to represent objects or count the objects with fingers. Finally you introduce the children to the number form (i.e. 4) and how to write the number name. But time and again you will see children writing a whole page full of 4 and cannot answer if I ask how many fingers I am holding up. Rote learning starts right there.
In English, the children need to memorise the alphabets. Phonetics associates the letter with its sound which provides a certain context for the letter. This is mostly not taught. Then the children are made to memorise the spelling of various words without syllabification or understanding how the sounds of the letters came together to form the word. I remember this little girl who was memorising the words in a card:
A-P-P-L-E apple A-N-T ant A-E-R-O-P-L-A-N-E ask A-S-K aeroplane ...
Poor girl – just a slight mix up. You also often see one child giving the spelling loudly and the other children repeating it:
s-u S-U n-d N-D a-y A-Y m-o M-O n-d N-D a-y A-Y
Syllabification will make remembering the spelling of these words much easier as all of these end with “day” which is spelled the same way. Children even tell their own names without syllabification VA-RS-AN-A or SR-IN-IV-AS-AN. Clearly their job would have been much easier had they been taught spelling with syllabification.
That brings up the point. Understanding helps us abstract out common ideas and thus we can memorise a lot more than we could have without understanding. They say the Chess Grandmasters remember thousands of games and board positions. They are able to do that because they have a certain way of understanding the positions in the board which us common men do not.
Teaching the method instead of the concept
As children move to 3rd to 5th standard the regular pattern for teaching Maths settles in. Children are taught the method to arrive at the answers for various problems and their understanding of the concept is forgotten.
I went to a 3rd std class in another school. The teacher was teaching how to identify odd and even numbers to 3rd std children for two and three digit numbers. Note basic odd and even numbers is already introduced to the children in 2nd std. There they are taught that when you remove pairs from a number, if there is finally one left, then it is an odd number and if there is nothing left it is an even number. But in 3rd standard when I asked the children what is an odd number, they all in chorus answered to me numbers that end in 1, 3, 5, 7 or 9 are odd numbers. The underlying concept of odd number is already forgotten!
Arithmetic is built on top of place value system for numbers. This is often a problem for most children. We had two questions in an assessment for 5th Std children.
Over 75% of the children could do the first sum but only 25% could answer the second. The main problem is place-value. This clearly ought to be accorded the highest priority. Instead mastery over the methodology for carrying in the case of addition and borrowing in the case of subtraction is what is emphasised.
Similarly I asked children in the 6th standard, what is 2743 ÷ 2743. The children in the class couldn’t answer. Then I told them: I go to a big school with 2743 children. I have a big sack full of 2743 chocolates. How many chocolates can I give each student? All the children could answer that I can give one chocolate to each student. Then had forgotten what division really means! I noticed the same thing when I asked a bright student in class 5, 47 ÷ 47 = ? . The student wrote the full tables for 47 and then did a long form division of 47 by 47 and arrived at the quotient of 1 and remainder of 0 in about 5 minutes. He had mastered the methodology but once again forgot the concept.
I notice that even among our own teachers. See the following two triangles.
Many of the teachers will be able to find the area of the first triangle but not the second! They know the formula is 1/2.b.h. They have constantly been shown triangles with base in the bottom and h dropping from the opposite vertex. They cannot compute the area if the triangle is oriented in any other way or other measures are given!
I have talked in another article about how the assessments in India are completely broken. Assessments and ultimately board exams serve as the beacon for the classroom teaching-learning process. At the local level questions for the exams are given to the children and they are coached on them before the exams. At the board level, the questions are mostly directly lifted from the textbook or question-bank. This doesnt emphasise anything other than recall and memorising. With these as beacons why would the teacher do anything else in a class than push rote learning.
Occasionally government gives a halfhearted attempt to reform these in small ways. But the public, drunk on this notion of education, rises up to protest these changes, or in their own way subvert these attempts. For example all the boards have practicals for science which need not be graded at a board level. Therefore local teachers from neighbouring school conduct these tests and also do a viva to see if the children can practically demonstrate the understanding of the science concepts. This has been completely subverted. Everyone expects full marks in practicals and schools have no choice but to give that. Similarly CCE has introduced internals to measure children not just on the exams but also on various other parameters. Again the people’s expectation was that the schools should award full marks on the internals and thus enable their students to compete against the rest of the world. Changes to rote learning has to happen at both ends — at the local level of a teacher teaching a class and at the level of board exams. And to set the expectations straight, these changes to rote learning will be gradual.
Bloom’s Taxonomy and Higher Order Thinking Skills
Another way to think about Rote Learning is using Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s taxonomy is often used in education/pedagogy related discussions. This structures learning in a pyramid. Recall or Knowledge is at the base of the pyramid. Then comes comprehension or understanding. Then comes the ability to apply what one has learnt to other contexts. Then one needs to be able to analyse an existing system or problem to figure out the concepts involved, the structure and relationships present etc. Evaluation involves the pros and cons of an approach and also evaluate the impact of an intervention. Finally these lead to synthesis and creation where one is able to apply all that one has learnt to create something that meets a real need.
Rote learning refers here to the base of the pyramid. When the teaching-learning process only teaches recall or knowledge, that is rote learning. Education systems in the countries with good education systems are already at an Understanding level. They are looking to move the children towards Higher Order Thinking Skills or HOTS. These are skills beyond the Understanding level in the Bloom’s pyramid. In the CBSE and Tamilnadu state board textbooks, these days you find HOTS questions. These are essentially challenging questions which go beyond the worked out examples. But then the children are asked to become familiar with these types of questions as well so that they can solve the same type of questions in the exams. This defeats the purpose of such questions. Higher Order Thinking Skills is not about asking tougher questions. It is about moving the children beyond just understanding to skills like application, analysis, evaluation and ultimately synthesis and creation.
In India we need to move the children first beyond just Knowledge or Recall level of learning or in other words eliminate Rote learning.
Why Should We Bother?
There is the argument that with the information revolution underway, it is essential for individuals to develop their higher order thinking skills in order to be able to play a meaningful role in the information economy and thus benefit from it. I agree with this as a strong reason for an individual to rise above rote learning. But I am not sure how the information economy is ever going to engage anything more than a small minority of the population in its creative endeavours. Rather than get into that debate, I believe there are more fundamental reasons for developing the higher thinking skills than this utilitarian one.
Humans are endowed with an innate curiosity to understand the World. At an evolutionary level this is what has enabled these weak apes to dominate the World. As an existential level this is what has made it possible for us to seek meaning of our existence and that of the universe – and to make sense of it all. This is fundamental to our life and our existence as human beings. Children should be aided in developing the inherent curiosity. That should not be killed in the classroom.
Society progresses through education of the correct kind. Scientific progress comes from understanding, reasoning, analysis etc. not by just memorising what others have done. Economic transformation of societies have been painstakingly brought about by improving all aspects of our lives.
Asha the organisation I volunteer with has the mission statement “To catalyse socio-economic change in India through education of underprivileged children”. A questioning mind is a prerequisite for social change. Only education can wake up a nation slumbering in it age-old superstitions. There is nothing wrong in traditions per-se. But these need to be questioned and best ideas should be preserved and bad ideas thrown out. A mass of population fed on rote learning will not be able to bring about meaningful social change. Even the social change brought about without education will take us from the frying pan into the fire.
For all these and more we need to bring better education to all.