A right way to teach or learn?

Manju Gupta

Which is better, rote learning or activity-based learning?

Educationists are constantly trying to come up with effective ways to make children learn and use knowledge. Many who believe in the rote learning method argue that what was good for us and our parents is good for our children. Another school of thought strongly believes in activity-based learning and wants a definite shift in paradigm as far as the learning process is concerned. So teachers and parents are often confused and wonder how to make children learn for life.

In order to come up with the best solution one needs to delve into the merits and demerits of rote learning and activity-based learning. The advantages of both systems need to be adopted and the disadvantages eschewed.

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Rote learning aids one kind of cognitive development. It’s about getting the facts right. To some extent, it is important because facts and figures which are memorised help one support or defend an argument and debate on issues. If you don’t know the country, the person or the date on which something took place, how can you defend your argument? In language learning too, rote learning is the only way to learn the vocabulary of a foreign language or the conjugation of irregular verbs as there is no inner structure and their inner complexity is too subtle to be learnt explicitly in a short time. Learning poems by rote is also important as quoting suitable lines in an essay, speech or debate enhances the quality of the piece. Of course, one needs to understand the lines but memorisation does play an important role here.

When Bill Gates was asked about the supposed American education advantage – an education that stresses creativity, not rote learning – he was utterly dismissive. According to him those who think that the rote learning systems of India, China and Japan can’t turn out innovators who can compete with Americans are mistaken. Said Gates, …Who has the most creative video games in the world? Japan! I never met these ‘rote people’ … Some of my best software developers are Easterners! You need to understand things in order to invent beyond them.”

Despite these advantages which cannot be ignored, I do not subscribe to the idea that rote learning is the best method of learning today. The fact is that activity-based learning, critical thinking and creativity are more important in today’s educational scenario, which help children understand concepts rather than just store information. The advantages are many as these skills help the child analyse, synthesise and think out-of-the-box. George Bernard Shaw said, “What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.” Activity-based learning does exactly this.

Our “Tell’em-and-test’em” way of teaching or “jug-mug” theory leaves most students increasingly confused, aware that their academic success rests on shaky foundations, and convinced that school is mainly a place where you follow meaningless procedures to get meaningless answers to meaningless questions. This is where HOTS or higher order thinking skills developed through activity-based learning makes education more meaningful.

The advantages of activity-based learning are:

  • Children learn at their own pace.
  • Group learning, mutual learning and self learning are promoted.
  • A teacher’s time is judiciously distributed among children.
  • Children’s participation in every step is ensured in the process of learning.
  • Evaluation is inbuilt in the system; it is done without the child knowing it.
  • Classroom transaction is based on child’s needs and interests.
  • Sense of achievement boosts child’s confidence and morale.
  • Attractive cards and activity create interest among children.
  • There is more scope for the child’s development in creative and communicative skills.
  • The distance between the teacher and the child is largely reduced and the teacher acts as a facilitator rather than a teacher.
  • Children learn concepts which help build a strong foundation.

Rote learning and activity-based learning are complementary, not substitutes. So if teachers need to make a child learn they need to judiciously blend the two techniques and use them to advantage. Memorised information needs to act as a spring board for analytical thinking and understanding of concepts and children need to learn for life and not merely an exam.

The author is principal, Pallavi Model School, Hyderabad.

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