Monthly Archives: June 2010

‘rote learning’ is important (part 2)

To make sense of this past, 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 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, thanks God. 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 practiced (‘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 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)

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 behviour 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.)

(( part of the infamous ‘FAQs on ‘education’ series))


arun karuppaswamy (of IISc) fires a salvo…

This is a very fine essay titled ‘the six myths about engineering that you should know‘  – a MUST read for all the desperate & demon possessed parents who want their children (most of whom, unfortunately & firmly are still tucked into the wombs of their mothers, reluctant to be born, very understandable too, given the helicopters) to become a dokutor or an ingineeer or (god forbid) an IT goofball; they want their wards to start preparing for IIT JEE (thru FightJEE, DieJEE, RamJEE, whatever) the moment the hapless children get delivered! These parents obviously know that a valuable 9 months’ time has been completely squandered by their children, while they were rotting in the womb, doing nothing but floating around and generously kicking their mothers! grrr

And, these children grow up and eventually become ingineeers (without the ability to differentiate between nuts (not their  parents, sorry) and bolts) or combuter pogromers – if they don’t all become very busy serial killers, not a slim chance though! Yes. The world is soon ending! Thank you.

And ah, here’s that fine article. May young Arun write more such stuff, demythologizing the sacred faiths.

The six myths about Engineering you should know
Arun Karuppaswamy

In spite of my rabid, anti ‘The Hindu’ sentiment, I must admit that the newspaper continues to surprise me with gems such as these!

May the good work of Arun (and that of ‘The Hindu’) continue…

martin gardner, rip & calculus made easy!

The Annotated Alice‘ of Lewis Carrol and Martin Gardner’ was (finally) returned a couple of weeks back by Rama and I was fondly leafing through it, before sentimentally returning it to the library shelves. It is currently rubbing shoulders with the books of the likes of  Isaac Asimov, JBS Haldane, Erwin Schrödinger, Enrico Fermi, Paul Dirac et al and should be feeling happy now; what a work of deep scholarship!

Rest in peace, Martin. You lived to a ripe old age of 96 and also did a great job of living, all the while!

Having thoroughly enjoyed (actually a lame word like ‘enjoyment’ does begin to describe the pure exhilaration one feels studying a Martin Gardner or a Douglas Hofstadter or a Richard Feynman) ‘The Annotated Alice’ among many other works of Martin, I am reminded of that 1910  gem ‘Calculus Made Easy‘ of Silvanus Thompson which was later updated and edited by Martin in 1998. ( I just realized that this classic, a real classic at that, has completed hundred years of its existence!)

Now, what is great about the book? One may feel, after all, the phantoms of differential and integral calculus  don’t trouble me anymore – so what’s the point? Besides, I got a good grade in Math 101 (also in Math 505) – I am in a cushy job with an MNC as an ‘engineer extraordinaire’ spending my time (and earning my megabucks) in daylong meetings, boring conference calls & excruciating powerpoint presentations –   and so, why the hell do I even need to go through that drivel again…

I would say that  you have to read this because as the book says (and delivers on the promise, faithfully):

Calculus Made Easy: Being a very-simplest introduction to those beautiful methods of reckoning which are generally called by the terrifying names of the Differential Calculus and Integral Calculus

I would say that the book is indeed beautiful – it restores your faith in the pursuit of knowledge. That Science and Math are not pointless. That they are creative. That they are actually fine arts. That they also happen to have real life applications – gazillions of them!

Now, I ‘studied’ in one of the well-known schools/colleges (which ought to know better, siddhir bhavati karmaja (chapter #4 of the bhagavat gita and all that), but I really wonder as to how this book was not used at all in our undergraduate years! Not even a passing mention of the book was made!! (But I should remember with gratitude that the physics department of my school indeed used the delightful Feynman Lectures on Physics – so it was not all gloom)

I really feel that Mathematics HAS to be approached via ecstatic books such as these.

I chanced upon the Thompson book on calculus when I was trying to desperately to understand & solve some practical problems of heat transfer in the wasted days of my entrepreneurship – and I was thoroughly bowled over by this incredible book. Really. There were also other books (by Piskunov et al) that I really began to appreciate subsequently – but all this was some 10 years after I graduated(!) from my alma mater.

Believe me, this book would make mighty sense to a reasonable 12 year old or even younger ones – if the mind is prepared. Hence, given half-a-chance, I would plan to sneak this in to the erdkinder’s minds. Wish me good luck.

Here’s a scanned picture of a page of the book!

This is the title page of the St Martin Press edition (1998)

The original Macmillan version of the book without Martin’s contribution is available in the public domain. While it is not the same as the later  St Martin’s version – it is STILL a great work.

Enjoy! Math is actually fun! Calculus definitely IS.

Children are like sponges. Their concept of beauty is still unspoilt. Their cognitive capabilities are still good, in spite of TV, pointlessly obscene birthday bashes and Helicopter parents. They normally & instinctively would gravitate towards (and absorb/internalize) fine things in life, given a set of meaningful choices. Faith? Hope?? Let us see…

arvind gupta: learners’ library on dvd

Of course, Arvind Gupta needs no introduction. However, if you must have one, then here is one version: Toying with science – Rasika Dhavse profiles Arvind Gupta, winner of the National Award for Science Popularisation.

Single handedly, he has done a million things for the propagation of science and quest for knowledge (in India) than many other erudite people, entire organizations and well funded random NGOs.

He has been compiling fantastic articles, films & books on very interesting ideas around history, science, teaching (and learning – is there any difference between these two at all?) etc etc and has delightfully put them together, giving the whole world on a platter dvd to the whole world – for a pittance (Rs. 100/- only).

Please buy the DVD.  I have read / studied / viewed most of the content via http over the past few years. The content is lovely. He must have spent months if not years on the compilation! What a religious scientific fervour! Well done, Arvind!

Many of the items are in ‘public domain’ – but, for some of the rest, they fall in the delectable gray area – Copyright? Copyleft?? All rights reserved? All rights wronged? All lefts righted? Or all rites actually reversed?? Sirs and madams, what else – I think the idea of Arvind is noble, all said and done!

Here’s a verbatim cut and paste of the promotional email from Nyla Coelho of TaleemNet (via Ramgopal Koneripalli) that I got: (and further down, details for payment)

“Dear all,

Arvind Gupta, as most know, has over the years single handedly and single mindedly put together resource and reference material for making learning fun and stress free. Most individuals with some concern or interest in education, atleast in India, have visited his website

Here is a treat for all from him packed into a single DVD titled Learning Library on DVD.

Written on it are:

1000 e-books on education, peace, environment, science, math and books for children

145 short films on toys from trash

Photo Plaza- 5500 photographs of 500 science models

Love of Live (Passions of a Japanese Teacher) a NHK Award Film

Do Flowers Fly (film based on Danger School)

Story of Stuff (9-million viewers)

Story of Bottled Water

A Few deeply inspiring TED talks on Education

Can anyone ask for more?

Modestly priced at Rs. 100/- including postage, it’s a treasure for free. [It is actually 100 +  25 for postage — ramjee]

Send your order along with postal address and payment to Arvind Gupta at IUCAA, Pune University, Ganeshkhind, Pune 411 007 Maharashtra.

Email: Phone: 020-25604602

(P.S.: kindly include bank collection charges if paying vide cheque)

Spread the news widely.

Nyla Coelho”

Details of payment mode below (pasted from Arvind’s mail):

“Yes, it would be much easier to transfer money through electornic Bank transfer.Rs 125/- per DVD (including 25/- for Speed Post)

Name of Account Holder: Vimala Pandhe
Name of Bank: Bank of Baroda
Branch: Senapati Bapat Road, Pune
Account No. 98060100000372
Nature of account: Savings Bank

Or else people can send me a cheque (at par) or D/D) payable to Arvind Gupta at Pune Address

Arvind Gupta
Pune University, Ganeshkhind, Pune 411007

Please encourage Arvind – buy the DVD. I am absolutely sure the cost of your acquisition (at Rs 100/- per disk image + Rs 25/- for postage) won’t  begin to compensate even a zillionth of the effort put in by Arvind.  Still, a token is well, a token. And, token gestures are important too.

Thanks in advance!