Every year, on Children’s Day, we talk about how special our children are – how innocent, how curious, how creative, how full of possibilities. Then, during the rest of the year, our school system works relentlessly towards destroying the same curiosity, creativity and immense potential. This happens due to our system’s emphasis on memory-driven learning – called ‘rote-learning.’
You may think that memorizing was something that was done in the past era. In our generation, we eliminated it. We have repeatedly said that learning must be joyful. Our educationists have routinely theorised that children must think for themselves.
Why is it then our education system is still not teaching our children to think? Why do we rank at the bottom of international tests like PISA or TIMMS? Why do most of our young population remain unemployable?
It is because rote-learning is a widely condemned, but poorly understood evil. We may pay lip service about eliminating it, but it is still very much present in every classroom, textbook and exam paper. Read | On lake, inside container, here are 5 unusual schools in India
Rote-learning goes deeper than what most people understand. It is not just about memorizing dates of battles and formulas of science. Whenever we switch off our brains and perform an activity without thinking, it is rote-learning. When we recite facts but do not question them, it is rote-learning. When we can only solve specific problems that we encountered before, but cannot draw a general lesson from them, it is rote-learning as well.
Right at the KG level, if you teach your child to copy numbers neatly in good handwriting – it is rote-learning. We see a lot of children of age 4-5 who can spell ‘forty nine,’ but cannot tell if 61 is bigger than 49. In most schools, numbers are not taught as quantity – but as pictures or words.
At the primary level, the same problem continues. Multiplication tables are memorized as rhymes. Memorising three fours is 12 is same as memorising Ba Ba Black Sheep. In English too, students can read the stories that came in their textbooks, but cannot read unseen passages of similar difficulty level.
If your child knows the names of the capitals of countries, but do not know why countries need capitals, then it is rote-learning. If your child can read ‘Elephant’ because that word came in her alphabet book, but cannot read a simpler phonetic word like ‘Just,’ that too is a sign of rote-learning.
When you are celebrating the winner of a quiz show, you are in effect celebrating rote-learning and glorifying the tradition of memorising trivia. When a parent asks his four-year-old to recite a poem to impress the relatives who came for a visit, we are subtly furthering the rote-learning culture. Read | All you need to know about Bal Diwas, Jawaharlal Nehru
Rote-learning goes beyond memorizing facts and figures. We see a lot of parents obsess over their children’s handwriting. Handwriting is a repetition-driven activity that does not require thinking – so that is rote learning as well. More importantly, in future we may not have much use of that skill, so why obsess over it?
Just as rote-learning has many facets, it has many types of ill-effects. Killing the joy of learning is the most obvious one. But more importantly, unthinking, memory-driven learning rusts our brain – and the society pays the cost.
When we grow up and become part of society, we unthinkingly believe in prejudices. When we join the workforce, we do not think and innovate. When we become parents, we subject our children to the same unthinking quest for marks and degrees – because we never learnt to question established practices.
We get easily brainwashed by media, advertising and government propaganda – because we have been told in our childhood that printed words are sacred, not to be questioned, but to be committed to memory. As a result, we live in an era of fake news and WhatsApp forwards. We cannot become meaningful participants in a democracy, because we have learnt to follow, not to question.
Often our young are unable to join the workforce, because their formative years have been wasted in unthinking memorisation and not in gaining useful skills. Poverty and large-scale unemployment are often causes of social unrest and petty crimes.
To counter those, we must promote thinking and skill building in our curriculum. The first skill we must prioritise, at our homes and in schools, is reading. As teachers and parents, we must encourage our children to read widely.
Instead of reading a 50-page textbook many times over the year, let them read 50 different story-books throughout the year. We have all learnt to read by reading newspapers, magazines, novels – why not replicate that process in schools and at home?
In math and science, we must stop pushing laws and formulas down the throat of children. We should rather teach them to think. Why not get them to solve Japanese puzzles like Shikaku and
Nonogram which can stimulate their brain? The focus should be on solving new problems every day, rather than practicing routine problems for exams.
Whatever be the subject, we must teach our students to question, rather than memorise facts. Instead of talking about dates of battles, we can explain why battles happen between countries. Instead of asking them to memorise the name of Russian currency, why not tell them how currencies evolved, from gold coins to bitcoin?
As adults, we learn a lot from good literature and great movies. We learn from other people. We learn by travelling to distant places. Why not replicate some of those processes? Instead of using boring textbooks, why not use movies as a learning tool?
Textbooks are the enemy of true learning. While teaching Indian history, why not show our students ‘Bharat Ek Khoj,’ the celebrated series made by Shyam Benegal? While teaching about Russian Revolution, why not use George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’?
If schools refuse to be creative, parents should take the lead. Instead of taking your child to another private tuition, talk to her about today’s news, watch a movie with her, or read a book together.
This Children’s Day, let’s pledge to be more aware of this evil. Let’s work towards eliminating it. If schools are not doing their job, we as parents must do it ourselves. We owe it to our society. We owe it to our children.
The author is the founder of The Levelfield School