‘rote learning’ is bloody important!

July 6, 2013

To make sense of this post, the previous post on the topic  should perhaps be read. It would at least, provide some semblance of a context and continuity.

Here are the frequently avoided answers to the (should be) frequently asked questions on rote…

What is ‘rote memorization?’

I would define it as the ability to recall in a snap, certain ideas (or ‘facts,’  if you will) with very little effort or thought (or ‘logical thinking,’ if you will) – to build on these basic facts and the ability to act upon them in applicable & relevant domains.

This would be in terms of arithmetic operations, instantaneous responses to emergent situations, recalling of applicable processes and logic, recalling of mapped entities etc etc.

I would exclude the (thoughtless and mindless) ingestion and regurgitation of data – without any prior understanding and logical processing (without ‘any rhyme or reason,’ if you will) from the arena of rote memorization. The examples of such mindlessness would include ingestion of disconnected facts for the purposes of quiz trivia; cutting and pasting of code (or text) without any preprocessing, pressing the ‘like’ button for every facebook entry, responding to every tweet that one comes across in the same way,  etc etc.

Is ‘rote learning’  against ‘logical thinking,’ creativity & spontaneity?

No. No. No.

I know that 20 x 21 is 420. Thanks to my rote memory, I also know that 21 x 21 is 441. I don’t need to actually process this information – that is, to quickly (and sneakily) multiply 21 by 21 to arrive at the answer. I know the process of multiplication of course, but find it convenient to ‘rote memorize’ so that I can quickly carry on with the higher order tasks. Of course I memorized this ‘21 table’ very many moons back. It has stayed with me, thank Goddess. So I rather rabidly feel think that ‘rote’ memorization is not against logical thinking. In fact, it is a product of logical thinking.

I think it is incorrect (and very childish) to see rote and creativity as two ends of a spectrum. Let us assume that we are talking about a painter, a good painter. So it is not about the types of MF Hussain, who I think are probably good with their skills but simply not good enough with real art. The painters need to know a lot about perspectives, colour combinations and many other ‘grammatical’ and semantical aspects of paintings. However, because these painters have practised (‘rote memorization’) so much with the grammar, they can recall instantly many aspects of their paintings and embark on great acts of creation, building upon their grammar and idioms. They would rather concentrate on some higher order tasks (such as aesthetic beauty, abstraction etc) than on mundane things such as – what colour combination will bring forth the desire hue or tint etc etc. Here again, ‘rote memorization’ is integral to creativity. Without rote, obviously each and every act of creativity will be a needlessly (and soullessly) big process, mostly mind-numbing.

Coming to spontaneity, let us understand that ‘spontaneity’  is not so very spontaneous as we would all like to hallucinate. It is based on the ability to quickly recall learned behaviours, with very little thought investment. The learned behaviours happen only because of constant application, repetition and practice. I would call this a rote process – but would never belittle it. So there is no possibility of spontaneity bereft of the basic building block of creativity.

Is there no ‘mugging’ aspect to a ‘creative’ endeavour?

Of course, of course. As elaborated in the previous answer, the rote memorization has to happen with respect to the understanding (for instant ‘unprocessed’ recall later) of the basic building blocks of a system (‘grammar,’ if you will) so that the creative juices can flow forth and multiply.

There is a mugging aspect that is integral to any given creative endeavour.

Is rote memorization important to learning?

Yes. A resounding YES. All of us need to know certain fundamental and basic things (that we can recall on demand) to survive, to learn and to do a good job of anything that we set out to do. Learning happens in layers and in established contexts.

Does the parameter of ‘rote memorization’ exist in splendid isolation and so can therefore be redundant and rendered next to useless?

No. In any learning continuum, it is part of a roughly three-pronged (and stepped) process that involves memory skills followed by analyses and synthesis skills. All three are important. Here, memory skills = rote memorization, what else! And, all the three harmoniously build on each other to make a given child ‘gifted’ – this is not to deny that any given child is gifted, as they all are really special in their own ways.

But unfortunately they remain gifted only till such time as their ‘gifted’ nature is noted by the parents. Many parents then take it upon themselves, to squish and squeeze the children, thus reducing them to mere automatons.

What is the place of ‘rote learning’ in ‘education?’

It is the basic building block of education. Not merely literacy. And of course literacy itself is but a bye-product of rote learning. I would even say that it is a basic building block of learnt behaviour and life, in general.

Can we do without any ‘mugging’ at all?

No. Sorry, if you are of the kewl_kat type (that meaninglessly hates rote), I regret to say that mugging is unavoidable. But, I also  think it is important.

Example: You had a walking route that you were given to taking, as a matter of routine, and one day you get mugged by a mugger enroute. You then start consciously avoiding the route even as you instinctively veer towards that route in the subsequent few occasions. Eventually, you learn to avoid the originally mugged route and take to some other route. And later, after many days of conscious mugging practice, you learn to avoid possible mugging by muggers. Much later, the alternate mugged route becomes a regular route, and you rather thoughtlessly take to that without batting an eyeball. (sorry, I thought I was able to take me out of Cricket, but I can’s seem to take the darn Cricket out of me!)

And, when you want to ‘officially’ take up the matter of the mugging incident, without much thought whatsoever, you consider calling the police – even this a bye-product of a learned / mugged behaviour.

Moral of the story: Even mugging can only be avoided by mugging. Mugging is God. At least that’s what my mugging has taught me. (hic)

Can someone (at all) do without mugging? I mean, is there some remotest role in this universe that would demand that mugging be avoided??

Yes. The ‘professional’ muggers should. If they mug too much, then they invite the wrath of the policemen and the irate citizenry.

To my knowledge, this is the only case of mugging that should be avoided.

What would life be, without rote memorization?

Rather sad. There wouldn’t be any kind of ‘development.’ You would not have any technology or any literature or any music worth speaking of. You can’t even speak – which probably is a good thing. You can NOT do anything that you normally take for granted.

Actually, you would not even be around. You would not have evolved. Without rote learning, evolution would not have progressed at all. (okay, okay. Now, let us assume that we have actually progressed, just for the sake of this argument)

Can we say with a straight face that we don’t benefit from this ‘mugging’ at all?

Yes. We can all lie without any remorse. We are pretty good at that. Besides for many of us, it is COOL to talk disparagingly of rote memorization, while having NOTHING to show for any darn creativity at all.

What are its limitations?

The limitations of rote are in our heads – assuming we have something called a functioning brain inside it. The advantages of rote are also in the same place.

But, but… I still think ‘learning by rote’ is bad. That’s not what I want my child to do!

You see, you have learned through rote memorization that rote memorization is bad. Many ‘learned’ folks and ‘perennial wisdom spouting’ guys have mouthed such an opinion, you have happened to come across some of them, they look respectable and they appear to be the  ‘thinking types’ and therefore you have felt no need to question them or their assumptions. This unquestioning learning and herd behaviour perhaps should be categorized as bad rote memorization.

And yeah, may be there is this dyadic possibility –  BAD rote memorization and GOOD  rote memorization. Thanks for pointing this out!

Do you have anything else to say about your favourite and current fad – rote memorization?

Yeah! How did you guess?

Now, many of us like order and basic predictability of things.

The so called squeaky cleanliness and orderliness of a given environment / space owes its formative ideas to the so called evil rote!

We learn to keep things back in their own place (after use), organize things (we don’t want to perennially keep searching for things) – all these things happen ONLY by rote memorization – however, we say that we mechanically or instinctively do such things.

Now let me rant a bit about the parents who say that rote is a veritable evil…

Well, it is actually slightly funny. The same parent who is against ‘rote memorization’ would send his children to piano and sundry music classes and other performing art tutorials! I would imagine that all these arts and activities do NOT have any grammar, do NOT have any basics that one has to be repeatedly trained on and are TOTALLY creative and spontaneous and are all the time done on the fly. (not my fly, luckily; um, sorry!)

So, imagine! A child without any prior training and even without having seen any musical instrument previously, goes on stage, sits down at a pianoforte and starts composing an incredible symphony on the fly without any darn involvement of rote memorization! What a cosmically lovely and Godly sight it would be!! (Of course,  I must have had too much of marijuana)

I am not blaming the children here, but am wondering how clueless some of these pontificating parents are! (but then, they make up the entire humour content that I am exposed to these days!)

So is ‘rote learning’ bad, unimportant and so has to be dispensed with, in toto?

You judge.

(needless to say, comments are welcome; am prepared to face the brickbats.)

PostScript: You may think that I plagiarize these rather erudite articles. But I promise that I rote them, yeah? Ha haa!


2 Responses to “‘rote learning’ is bloody important!”

  1. […] to think about Rituals as meaningless and/or useless rote. Also, as I had written earlier – rote learning is NOT harmful, but actually is a sine qua non for our dear […]

மேற்கண்ட பதிவு (அல்லது பின்னூட்டங்கள்) குறித்து (விருப்பமிருந்தால்) உரையாடலாமே...

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