Rote Learning – a teacher’s diary


This post is inspired by Raghuram’s comment to my last post.  But this is not directly related to the comment.  The comment set me thinking about the education system today in India.  This is quite a personal approach to the topic and may appear boastful in some places.  I take an anticipatory bail for the crime of failing to suppress my ego.

First of all, I agree totally with Raghuram’s view that students should be made to face the exams without knowing what the format of the question paper is. Knowing what kind of questions will come in the exam will tempt both the student and the teacher to study/teach accordingly.  Both learning and teaching then become mere exam-oriented processes. As a teacher I too commit that mistake sometimes.

But I can also claim confidently that my students would secure excellent grades in their exam even if the format of the question paper is not known to them. This is because I don’t encourage any kind of rote learning.  In fact, I constantly remind the students not to learn anything by heart.  I encourage even the weakest student to provide his own answer even if it may be wrong. 

It must be mentioned that I teach English.  My approach may not be the ideal for teaching subjects other than languages, though I will soon touch upon that issue too.

As an examiner of CBSE I have often noticed that there are many students who commit answers to memory and reproduce them in the exam even in a subject like English.  This is particularly true of students who study in non-English medium schools.  I occasionally get students in my school who passed class ten from a Hindi medium school.  Such students begin to speak English fairly fluently in a couple of months time.  How do I do it?  There’s no miracle, no magic, no mystery.  I just let them speak in the class as well as outside in English.  I ask them a lot of questions with increasing frequency and difficulty level until they develop the confidence that they can speak the language. They make a lot of mistakes initially which I overlook.  Grammar and spelling are not the essential ingredients of learning English, according to me.  They will look after themselves once the student gets the language into his bloodstream. 

Language belongs to the bloodstream.  That’s my theory which has no backing of any theoretical research unless we take Noam Chomsky’s argument that there is a Language Acquisition Device [LAD] inborn in every person which contains the essential structures of languages.  LAD, in Chomsky’s conceptualisation, is pre-programmed with the underlying rules of universal grammar and will, depending on the language to which a child is exposed, select the rules relevant for that language.  I often tell my students that language enters our bloodstream along with the mother’s milk and that’s why it is called mother-tongue. The mother-tongue is the first language to which the child is exposed.  If you want the child to learn more ‘tongues’, expose it to more languages.  And that’s just what I do: expose my students to English.

Now comes the question about the content.  How do you get the student to master the content in the textbooks?  Can we get them to learn that too by mere exposure to it?  Mere exposure is not enough.  One has to use certain strategies.  Rote learning is not one of those strategies for me. 

When I was a child I was taught the mathematical tables using rote learning.  When I got stuck in the recitation of the tables, I was caned by the teacher.  I committed the tables to memory out of fear of the cane.  But I forgot them once the recitation exercise was done with.  Rote learning makes use of the short term memory.

Years later, towards the end of my school education, I realised that there was an easy way to remember the tables.  For example, I could bring in the principle of addition to remember multiplication tables.  Instead of remembering that sixteen elevens are 176, I could easily calculate 160+16.  160 comes from ten sixteens, and then add one more 16.  I was using the technique of association.  Adding another 16 to 176 was easier than trying to remember twelve sixteens are how much.

Association is an excellent form of learning.  Even now, as a student of psychology, I make use of association for committing knowledge-for-exams to memory. For example, in order to learn the 3 kinds of eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating), I make a connection among the meanings and symptoms of each.  That connection is what I mean by association. I will remember even the Latin names of the disorders if I associate them with their root meanings.  ‘Bulimia,’ for instance, comes from the Greek words ‘bous’ (ox or cow) and ‘limos’ (hunger).  So ‘bulimia’ literally means bovine hunger.  It is easy to remember the symptoms of bulimia nervosa (excessive eating of high-calorie foods with little chewing – bulls and cows can masticate their food later, while people with the eating disorder will use laxatives or induce vomiting) once I make such associations. 

The technique is applicable to all subjects.  Learning of history would be much more interesting and meaningful if students are taught to make such associations.  For example, if a student has to learn the contributions of Akbar the Great without knowing why Akbar made those contributions, the student would be merely learning it by heart only to forget once the exam is over.  If the student knows the historical background as well as Akbar’s personal qualities which prompted him to make those contributions, the student will easily remember his lesson and understand as well as enjoy history better.  The student will, in fact, develop a historical sense, which is the real purpose of teaching history. 

And that’s just what I do in the English class.  I make connections.  Connections among the lesson, its history, the author, the present time and its problems…and invite each student to connect it with his life (though this last exercise often turns out to be futile). The lesson becomes embedded in the psyche of the student.  The learning is a personalised process.  Each student is encouraged to give his own answers, his own interpretation of poems and stories – but without contradicting the spirit of the lesson.

That’s why my students wouldn’t be afraid of the pattern of the question paper.

Now, (having boasted much) my question is why such an approach is not possible in other subjects.

I started my teaching career with mathematics.  Soon after graduating in math, I took up a teaching job in a convent school in Shillong where my students were tribal girls most of whom dreaded mathematics.  Soon I got quite many of them to excel in mathematics. I applied the same strategies I mentioned above.  For example, I didn’t encourage them to memorise the formula sin squared A plus cos squared A equals one.  Instead I told them to put the different standard values of A (0, 30, 45, 60 and 90) in the formula and try out what they would get.  They would invariably get 1 as the answer.  In the process, the formula would be embedded in their memory for ever (well, almost). 

A simple exercise: try to commit to your memory the following words – house, ship, blood, potato and needle.  See how much time you take to memorise them.  Now memorise these words: house, door, window, table, cutlery.  It will be much easier, because there already is an association among these words.  Now bring some association among the words in the first list: I left my house, reached the ship where I donated my blood, and bought some potato and a needle on the way back.  Now try to recall the words in the list.  Easy?

Much learning can be quite easy…

… and fun too, if we use more techniques than just association.  Use creativity, for example. 

And then exams will be just fun.


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14 Responses to Rote Learning – a teacher’s diary

  1. System mentioned earlier sounds good, there should not be any kind of disclosure on pattern.
    Our current system is like, copying the exact words in answer sheet is what a topper will do, but when another copies from another student, he will be barred from that exam…

    • matheikal says:

      Deepak, it isn’t at all difficult to change the system. In fact, what I’m suggesting (or can suggest further) will be far easier than the CCE system they have now implemented.

  2. You are so much into literature. I just don’t buy that you were once a maths teacher … I just can’t visualize you solving integrals and differentials.

    • matheikal says:

      Sid, I taught maths for 8 years to high school students. I learnt the art of teaching in that school. I learnt in that school far more than what they taught me at the BEd college about teaching… But I must confess that my first love is literature. I have almost forgotten all the math I learnt in college. Even my presend craze (psychology) has not succeeded in taking a bit from my love for lit.

  3. benny says:

    An all round teacher like you is hard to find these days.Like the ancient Greek scholars you shine as a teacher. Methods of learning is unique to individuals. Only a broad spectrum come into play while teacher and students are engaged. Perhaps it is better to ponder how much of the stuff that you deliver reaches each student. And also how much less of that stuff some students require. The futuristic question is whether teachers are really needed to impart learning.To me it is a sure fact that the the tribe of teachers will disappear as early as 2030.

    • matheikal says:

      Benny, thanks for the compliment. But this was the one thing I dreaded as I was writing the blog: the possible compliments which will divert the attention…

      Any teacher can achieve what I’m suggesting. The teacher should have a love for the subject and the job – that’s all.

      Little remains of the teaching when the student leaves the school. Whatever little remains when he/she forgets all that he learnt is what is his/her real education. I’m sure quite many of my students will remember quite a few things from my class!

      I tend to agree with you that genuine teachers are likely to disappear by 2030 or so.

  4. bhavanas11 says:

    Nice to hear from a teacher who truly cares that his students learn!!!
    I taught at the university for many years–they are slightly different bunch and teaching has to be slightly different–but engaging the student, allowing for deep reflections, making the connections, providing activities to internalize theories–help a lot. I don’t mind boasting but students enjoyed their classes with me so much that even now they meet with me to ask for advice.

    • matheikal says:

      Bhavana, glad to have another teacher here. Unless a teacher cares for his/her students, would it be teaching? I love my job and I think it’s as simple as that. All the rest follows from that.

  5. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    Excellent Matheikal and I am glad that there was some contribution to this post from me! (That was my complementary [not complimentary] boasting!)

    I do have one problem: mugging up multiplication tables is not all bad. In the initial stages of getting to be a numerate, it gives children a little bit ofconfidence when they know they can do 5 x 6 = ? in a jiffy using what they had memorized. This confidence leads to the search for the meaning behind that ‘x’ (it is for the parent and teacher to assert that there is some pattern behind this) and that comes out as serial “+”. (because 4 x 6 = 24 and 30 = 4 x 6 + 6, the child thinks for itself, if left alone)

    The Buddhist parable (sort of) is this: You need a boat to cross a river, but you need loads of stupidity to drag it along in your journey beyond the banks!

    Leave rote learning once you have whetted your appetite. But, rote learning is an addiction. I taught, ever so briefly and deliberately in a haphazard way, that (n+1) ** 2 – n**2 = 2n+1, giving a graphical explanation (not algebraic expansion). I can tell you the student was amazed, but when it came to solving the problem, it was back to memorizing. One has to keep at non-rote learning, not lose confidence.


    • matheikal says:

      Indeed, Raghuram, I must thank you for making me think like this. Once I was asked to speak at a workshop about my teaching techniques. I declined saying I had no specific techniques; the techniques are very much context-bound and hence varied. But you made me think and realise that I could actually formulate a few techniques!

      Of course, some rote learning is essential, I agree. But you’ve understood what I meant in the post. And thanks for that Buddhist wisdom. Very succinct and equally relevant.

  6. I always tried finding an excuse not to attend other classes but i always tried my best not to miss the clas of Matheikak sir during my days with him.The class i enjoyed most was yours and i will miss those classes forever

  7. d.Nambiar says:

    I think you don’t need to apologise for the boasting. That was much needed. This could inspire all the teachers who come this way. I’d like to share this with those friends of mine who turned into teachers.
    It’s so nice to know that you are passionate about the learning that comes out of your teaching. This is not just a job for you. We really need more teachers like this.
    When you were talking about ‘making connections’ I was reminded of my Geography teacher who did the same. It’s been 15 years since I left school and I just can’t seem to forget what she told when we were doing Mesopotamian civilization. She told us that meso meant ‘middle/ between’ and so it shouldn’t be difficult to remember that this piece of land is the one that’s between the Tigris and Euphrates. Wait, that was not all, she further told us how to remember the meaning of meso — she said just remember what comes in between your nose and your mouth – the MEESAI (she was Tamilian) 😀

    • matheikal says:

      DN, Just a few hours back I received a phone call from a friend expressing views similar to yours. He added that a teacher’s profession is the nobelst… If I am able to inspire anyone I’m gratified. Thanks a lot.

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