Why rote learning is damaging

08-08-2021 11:10 AM

BY Ahmad Y. Majdoubeh

For some time now, many educators in our society have been criticising the dominance of rote learning in our educational system and calling for adopting teaching/learning methods that are more conducive to learners’ and societal needs.

To be sure, several changes have materialised in the past two decades as a result of such calls as well as the efforts of those involved with education.

Nevertheless, memorisation of information continues to be dominant in our educational system, and such dominance is unwise for many reasons.

The first has to do with the fact that relaying information to the student is no longer the main function of education, not even a main function, because information is available, and can be relayed in faster and more efficient ways via many means in the age of the Internet, unlike a few decades ago when the teacher and the book were the two main sources of information.

Another has to do with the fact that giving information to the students in the form of “packages” handed to them without any efforts on their part rules out the proactive role of the learners, turning them into passive recipients and depriving them of the skill of seeking and managing information.

Reliance on self for the purpose of learning, which is a crucial skill known as self-learning, is more important in today’s world than the simple act of receiving information without exerting effort, as manifested in the well-established principle: do not give me fish; teach me how to fish.

There are other negative implications of rote learning which we will be unable to explore fully here.

The most serious, even dangerous, implication of rote learning stems from the fact that it almost annuls thinking, with all its major and sub-skills.

Learners who rely on others, not on themselves, for receiving information do not think, and they suffer from intellectual dullness or laziness, and lose the ability to employ and develop their mental skills, including the higher mental skills which are crucial in the process of learning.

This results in what may be termed as cognitive loss.

When this happens, the curiosity and love of learning die, and the learner becomes much like a parrot: regurgitating a limited set of information with no meaningful employment or transfer into real-life situations.

Much of it will also be forgotten as time passes.

The most disturbing dimension to the matter, however, has to do with the fact that learners who are used to receiving information as “facts” and “givens”, facts and givens that cannot be questioned or doubted, will most likely be swallowing anything relayed to them, via any means, as reliable, factual, and even “holy”.

This is a problem that borders on disaster in a world, like today’s world, where what is conveyed as “information” or “facts” via all means of communication, especially social media, is composed of sheer assumptions, presumptions, sweeping generalisations, opinions, or even falsehoods.

Postmodernism has even taught us that much of what we cherish and view as “facts” are mere habits of thinking and constructs that we mistake for facts as we become used to them.

It is extremely harmful and extremely dangerous when leaners think that whatever is conveyed to them is factual, truthful, and even sacred. And this is one of the vices of rote learning, a chronic problem which we have to address head on before more damage is done.

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