In Defence of Rote Learning: Conversations

Last month, I was invited by a large corporate organization to look through their project related to interventions with schools. The scheduled meeting was a phone consultation, and I received an elegantly crafted ppt to guide our conversation. Of course, the presentation was exclusively about how great the group was, with very little indication about what they wanted from me. Anyway, the primary task was to improve existing schools, more specifically, low-fee private schools.

While preparing for the session, I also looked through their website, and came across several references to advantages of ABL or Activity Based Learning, which are valid. However, looking more carefully at the material, I found that ABL was pitched against Rote Learning, which was claimed to be a problem. I was uncomfortable with this simple opposition between these two approaches, and decided to look deeper into the issue to prepare myself for the conversation. The basic purpose of the project was to “throw our rote learning completely” from the classroom, to be replaced by Activity Based Learning! The accompanying video in the promotion material provided scenes depicting the purported use of ABL in classroom sessions with primary and pre-primary school children. Teachers are shown holding up flash cards and asking children to repeat after them, and in another scene, an individual child was shown sorting flash cards while others sat around him in a circle, quite inactive. These scenes were representing instances of ABL Their claims:

Indian Education: 95% children are in school

Most Low-Income Families send their children to Private, Fee-paying schools (86%)

Rote is the problem: Children are not learning due to rote approaches

ABL is the solution: Children learn best using ABL

The phone session was going to be interesting, I thought to myself. The profile of the corporate group is fancy, backed by several important groups and the usual (American) names, and it didn’t sound like they were in any doubt about what they were doing. Little footnotes were visible in strategic places as evidence of their knowledge of the science game and I really couldn’t understand what they wanted from me. Endorsement? Advice? Over the phone? Anyway, since there was no conflict of interest (I was not being paid by anyone), I felt responsible to speak on behalf of the children. After all, children are usually the least important feature in mega-projects intended for them, with some important exceptions, who the representative (surprisingly) had only vaguely heard about when we spoke. Furthermore, there were some important aspects of the scheme that were potentially meaningful. Many children from low income homes are attending private schools and raising the quality of classroom teaching is an important contribution, and ABL is an effective learning strategy, when it is presented appropriately. But that was not what was depicted in the videos. just adding (flashy) flash cards doesn’t make it ABL. And if children are not even learning by heart, what are we accomplishing? And, more importantly, why is it being assumed that rote learning is THE problem that has interfered with children’s learning among low-income families sending their children to private schools? Why does it have to be one and not the other? Surely the situation is far more complex than this. So I dug up my notes on KNOWN benefits of rote learning and prepared my arguments. I was keen to assert that rote learning can be of great value to children and adults, and we need to be watchful, and preserve this form of learning before it becomes extinct. Here is a list:

Benefits of Rote Learning
1. It is economical
2. …efficient in handling large bulks of information
3. Keeps the mind active as you get older
4. Assists with creative thinking
5. Makes recall faster, easier
6. Facilitates the interaction of rhythm with learning, enhancing both
7. Assists with brain plasticity
8. Akin the exercising the body, mental gymnastics
9. Frees space in the mind by packing information well
10. Is effective for large groups in small spaces, outdoors
11. Families ARE impressed when they hear children reciting things, it provides direct evidence of having learnt something. This is not insignificant.
12. (This is my hunch) It is an effective means with first generation learners whose family members may not have the skill to assist with learning
13. DOES not need to be replaced in order to promote Activity Based Learning.

Furthermore, it is a valuable cultural resource as well. As a civilisation, we have used rote memory for millennia, and let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater just because we’ve been told that ABL is better…..why can’t we use mixed methods? Just because we have access to (read expensive) learning equipment that people want us to spend precious money on, doesn’t mean we replace everything we own and know how to do well. These learning strategies are not mutually exclusive! 

The phone consultation was interesting, short. For the first 15 minutes, she spoke, and for the next 15, I did! When a post was created on Facebook to open up discussions, we received several comments, these are placed here for your reference. Here is a link to the original post:

We welcome your inputs to the conversation.


Suranya Aiyar: You are absolutely right. Please do an op ed on this. As a mom of two in primary school I have a lot of insight in this as I am sure do other moms. We should be included in the conversation.

Nandita ChaudharySuranya Aiyar, would love to hear from other parents as well……..and besides, I remember that my mother could rattle off tables for 1/4 while we all looked up at her, fascinated! We’ve lost so much along the way. Somehow the sounds of children reciting from a distance was always reassuring. 

Richu GargNandita Chaudhary mam.. Agree with you completely on this.. Particularly for tables in Math, dates in history, rules, laws, etc… A lot of information had to be rite learned at times with logic at times without it.. But that has enhanced our memorizing skills as well.. Many a times ask my 8 yr old to do the same

Parul Bansal I’m so glad that you wrote this post. I have been in numerous such discussions /arguments when I emphasize the need for rote learning along with understanding of matter. No one seemed to be agreeing with me…It has suddenly become very old fashioned and outdated to ask students to learn by rote… Thank you for the post

Nandita Chaudhary Thanks a lot Parul, it’s been on my mind for a long time.

Vini Gupta I agree!

Pina Marsico  Agree!

Anubha Rajesh Concur completely. It is unfortunate that in name of rote learning we completely loose out on opportunities that keep mind engaged and many more advantages you may have listed. 
As a child I was proud of the telephone numbers I would memorize….infact I would be a ready retener telephone directory. And today with the mobile in possession I have lost my memory completely to it 😒

Vini GuptaAnubha Rajesh true anubha! We can hardly remember any thing now1Delete or hide this

Nandita Chaudhary I too still remember my first phone numbers (primacy function) and other redundant details. But the way in which my mum could recall multiplication tables, birthdates and other information was another level. The pitch variation and rhythm associated wi…See More2Edit or delete thi

Renu Kishore Agree with you Nandita! People of our generation remember our tables and poems while today’s kids need to use their smart phones. The rationale behind criticizing rote learning has been that it is done without understanding, but it’s not always the case.

Nandita Chaudhary Exactly! Good point. It’s the assumption that it is “mindless”. What needs to be understood is that for certain kinds of information, it is the most effective way of learning! Thanks Renu.

Neera Agrawala Totally agree

Indu Budhwar I would say an amalgamation of both would be ideal. rote learning is good for unchanging values ,say maths tables.however activity based learning helps in thinking out of the box, and lateral thinking. a case in point I was teaching at a high profile private /boarding school in the mountains in India classes 8 and 9.I had just replaced the the English language teacher. As was her method, after a lesson she would go to the questionaire at the end of the lesson ,dictate an answer to the class and ask them to learn it verbatum for the test. when I took over, I asked the children to write their own answers. initially they all complained as it was much easier learning answers that had been provided to them however over a period of time they enjoyed putting in their ideas, their language and a perspective of their own about the story or article they had read.And each one could say why he or she came to that conclusion.

Nandita ChaudharyIndu Budhwar a combination, yes!

Nandita Chaudhary Of course Indu. We can push the rote memorizing too far. And that’s exactly what needs to be addressed. What I am not able to understand, in this campaign that I watched, is why it seen as “Throwing our rote learning to bring in ABL”. I find that absurd.Edit or delete this

Asha Singh Rote learning, coloring within boundaries… are much abused. Been object of ridicule in conferences when raising issues of “balance between structure and freedom” … so in agreement actually highlight children’s propensity to commit things to memory.

Monika Abels Coloring within boundaries is controversial? Really? My kids do it all the time… But I think they only learn song lyrics by heart, so far

Reena Nath I hold the same views on rote learning..we used to call it ‘learning by heart’. Not without reason.

Nandita Chaudhary Great point Reena. This sounds so much more favourable “by heart” 🙂

Manvika Sharma Can I add that it really adds to personal confidence 😀 ‘You should learn everything so that it should be on the tip of your tongue”
This was the persuasive statement my mom used with me and my sister while teaching us. So as a kid I knew what I learnt, This was the persuasive statement my mom used with me and my sister while teaching us. So as a kid I knew what I learnt, I learnt it by heart and I can recall and retell everything ..Oh the sheer brilliance of knowing tables, geographical information and many more on the tip of my tongue. Back then I used to feel brilliant 😄😇 Just few days back my father was worried about me forgetting everything from quick calculations to recalling phone numbers. I WAS brilliant is what he says now..😅

Monika Abels Assists in creative thinking? Does it? Where can I read up on that?Delete or hide this

Nandita Chaudhary The argument is that if you have more effectively packaged, larger amounts of information. This refers to a study with musicians from the Netherlands. I think I recall having read it in Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia. Let me try to look for it.Edit or delete this

Smita Shirole Mathur To add to the list: As I am growing older, I find that things that I was “made to” learn “by heart” inspire me, give me courage and joy. For example, in 5 th grade I never fully appreciated poems that I had to learn by heart. Today I am ever so grateful that I can recite Jhasi ki rani, pushp ki abhilasha, where the mind is without fear, all the kabirdas ke dohe, all the foundational Sanskrit Karta ne, karm ko…… Rote when done right and in moderation is so precious. However, we do over use it but the context of teaching in India and other places is not for the faint hearted. Sometimes the only tool is rote. It’s complicated

Nandita ChaudharySmita Shirole Mathur absolutely. It’s the selective and judicious use of memorisation that works.

David Carré Not directly related to the case of rote learning but I feel that this is so similar to what happens with ‘competence-based’ curricula in higher education.

Suddenly, all that thing of teaching theories and information to college students seems to be something of an old past that needs to be forgotten asap. Instead, you are now supposed to foster the development of ‘competences’…because that’s what they’re *really* going to use when they graduate.

In my (short) experience with psychology students, that ends up far from good: you now have graduates that know how to do a limited number of interventions/research, but have a horrible time trying to explain the rationale of those interventions.

In my view, it is really difficult to dissociate this sudden urge to change every single aspect of our education system without thinking in the role of all those ‘innovative’ (and, yes, lucrative) consultants that spread the gospel of these new methodologies. For a few couple of thousands, that is

Nandita ChaudharyDavid Carré of course it’s related David. This is exactly the sort of “replacement” that’s being argued against.

David Carré And just to make myself clear: in the case you mention there absolutely is a colonialist dimension that I’m not trying to cover with the business side of educational ‘innovation’.

Also, without trying to tout my own horn (but doing it anyway…) I think that modern Western psychology has serious issues dealing with the value of repetition. I developed that point a couple of years ago in a commentary on a wonderful chapter by Pablo Rojas, which addressed the role of reprisal in musical tuition.

Geeta Katarya With you in a big way

Indu Budhwar we learn ABCD ( the alphabet by rote) because we need to know the order of the alphabet and when we learn to use that order to find a word in a dictionary thats application. We can say the same for directions and days of the week which we teach the children by rote or through poems ,however if they can point the same on the map and use the knowledge in day to day affairs that extends to application . if they cant, then learning is incomplete. so both must be adopted in concurrence. This may be an over simpification but application based learning is important. The same may be said about flash cards. over a period of research it has been accepted that some chlidren are auditory learners and some are visual learners. So flash cards can cater to both as a re-enforcement.

Nandita Chaudhary Activity based learning, ABL is very important, there is no denying that. But, the urge to “replace” old and ineffective ways of learning” mentioned in the NGO video promotion is what I am seriously objecting too. This is exactly like the blogpost comment by Gabriel from Friday related to what is called Responsive Feeding in the UNICEF Vietnam campaign. Replace the way families are feeding their children without sufficient evidence or respect! We have to be very careful Indu Budhwar, because we have (to a large extent, learnt that the best way to progress is to run down your own ways of doing things. Variety is not just the spice, it is the very nature of life!

Pooja Bhargava I am completely in agreement with the post. I am actually trying to foster learning by heart and feel ABL needs to be supplemented with this challenging activity!

Neeti Oberooi In absolute consonance. ABL to be truly effective needs lots of space, time, creativity and understanding of learning structures to be implemented. By these standards I think hardly any qualify to develop or implement them. Would say a fancy packaging of the same content, similar to having a samosa or jalebi at a five star outlet

Nandita ChaudharyNeeti Oberooi I agree. Thus fake or superficial attempts at ABL in confined spaces are particularly wasteful.

Neeti Oberooi Also, traditional methods, economically package content to draw out on reason, understand and apply.
It’s silly starting from a scratch always, if your sights are set higher. 
ABL can be used to apply and test concepts and develop better understanding.

Jyoti Raina I agree in total with your post. A lot of learning does occur by rote memorisation. As a young child my father made me memorise not only several classic poems in both English & Hindi; but also passages from great works of William Shakespeare. These words and sentences have continued to evoke meaning for me in a dynamic process that continues as I get older. Also I do have necessarily posses the cognitive ability or time to memorise what all I did when I was younger.
The rote learning of childhood is turning into a meaning making process by and by. 
I want to express my affirmative resonance for this post

Nandita ChaudharyJyoti Raina thank you so much for your comment.

Shilpy Agarwal Totally agree

Shweta Dahiya Teachers training, mindset, teacher-pupil ratio, the right infrastructure and many other facets are crucial before we embark on ABL. ABL forms a crucial part as we get on to more complex levels in academics but we cannot do away with rote learning completely!

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