‘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))

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  • sipayi  On June 23, 2010 at 8:49 am

    Answers from my “step by step guide to shun rote learning”:

    To start with, your definition is valid, but not sound. Rote memorization is *not* the ‘ability to recall’, but _the attempt to achieve such result by repeated memorization of facts_. This is entirely different from learning something: _to mentally map the new facts onto the known facts_.

    Arithmetic operations are the last resort rote-memorization proponents use.
    1. With enough reworks and usages, some theories almost become axiomatic. I was lucky (or probably very unlucky in academics, as unroted learning can only ‘take you so far’) to have never mugged up anything.
    2. You mentioned the right thing in the line: ‘disconnected facts.’ That is the key. Whether any real learning has been because of ‘perceiving’ something (10 x 10 = 100) in whichever form (rule-based: multiplying by 10 adds a zero to the other number, or intuition: 10 rows of 10 objects make 100, 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 do not *know* that 20 x 21 is 420. In fact, I have to calculate the answer it every time I come across that problem. I understand, this is why I never made it to any top-rated universities.

    Trust me, I can go on forever, and really want to provide a point-by-point reply to your post. Will save that for later. In the meantime, let me point you to a few stories:
    1. I remember this: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1729_%28number%29) famous story about Ramanujan.
    2. David Gilmour, though lot of people contest that his style of blues is not terribly inventive, is still a great guitarist. He finished his first music class when he was 55+ with his 9 year old son.
    3. The Wright brothers never finished high school. Wilbur Wright was the first one to notice that flying is possible without power (engines,) and he deduced it partly by observing birds in flight! And also invented the three-axis control required to fly (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_dynamics), which is taught in ivy league colleges with fancy partial differential equations (are these equations now being rote-memorized?).

    These three examples show three very powerful aspects of acquiring knowledge: (a) intuition, (b) ‘learning-by-ear'(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_music_by_ear), (c) observation.
    [Kelavam ballavarinda kalthu, Kelavam malvavarinda kandu, mathe, Halavam thaane swathaha maadi thili enda Sarvagna]

    Your theory suggests that each one of these stories can be attributed to rote-learning!
    * Ramanujan had ‘mugged up’ every possible cubes, squares, roots, etc., etc,.
    * Gilmour ‘mugged up’ every note of every musician
    * Wilbur Wright ‘mugged up’ every small movement of birds, and repeated it.

    I personally, and very strongly believe that rote-learning is blasphemous.

    Before I end, I think I have figured out why even the best minds resort to rote-learning. Let me cite a few analogies:

    1. A 20 year experienced programmer is suddenly offered an opportunity to rise up the ranks. All her life she had despised the power-hungry, Dilbert’s pointy-haired-boss-types. She likes the money, she needs it, so she accepts the offer. Soon, she realizes that many of her peers are jealous of her. She cannot stand to see the very people whom she was a part of hate her. However, after the end of the standard five-stages-of-grief, she comes out exactly akin to the managers she hated all her life. Guess she figured out that that was the easiest way to ‘stay alive’, and with minimal effort. True story.

    2. A very bold, card-carrying atheist is suddenly faced with incredibly horrific situation, the outcome could be of unbearable grief. He prays, visits churches/temples/mosques – turning into a pious devotee;, what else, even visits soothsayers, psychics… Let me remind you, all this time he *knows* that these efforts can no way be related to the outcome. When I asked him why, he says, “I do not believe in these; however, I heard it works even if I do not believe in them”

  • Ramjee Swaminathan  On July 1, 2010 at 11:11 am


    Sipayi, I understand you and your outburst. Thanks for sharing your angst. That was sweet of you.

    But I don’t agree with you. I think the logic (ahem!) of my defense of the much maligned ‘rote learning,’ does not preclude (or belittle) the achievements of the likes of Srinivasa Ramanujan, David Gilmour or the Brothers Wright – or for that matter, the person who is known as Sipayi. I think all of you (and of course I) have benefitted from this rote learning business. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

    I would await your point by point ‘real sword’ debunking / rebuttal of my takes. So draw your sword!

    Kurosawa Akira’s ‘Shichinin no Samurai’ or ‘The Seven Samurai’ has a scene involving Kyuzo, the zennish practitioner of swordcraft ‘kendo.’

    Kyuzo and a samurai have a duel with bokken (wooden sword) and the latter loses. But the loser does not agree, does not see the writing on the wall and insists that they fight with real swords.

    Kyuzo says: If we were fighting with real swords I’d have killed you.

    The other, posturing and pretending samurai says: All right, let’s fight with real swords.

    So Kyuzo says: It’s silly, I’ll kill you.

    So the other samurai draws his sword, Kyuzo rather reluctantly draws his too (in a beautiful arc with zanshin and remarkable focus) – and the pretender rushes headlong towards Kyuzo, and in one lyrical blow of Kyuzo’s blade the pretender’s body falls in a slow motion to the dust…

    (remarkable cuts to Kambei in the interim – but this cannot go on)

    No. I am that pretender, who ought to know better than waste his time blogging, provoking, butting, rebutting etc etc.

  • sipayi  On August 15, 2010 at 1:35 am

    It has been a while, but this is one battle I surely will not bow out of. Ignoring your warning of real swords, and pointing you to the fact that fighting for honour and belief is never a loss, I submit my pontifications.

    Interesting sword analogy, by the way; one of us is surely wrong. Either it is me – for thinking I have never rote learned, or you – for thinking that it is impossible for anyone to not to have rote learned. I might be wrong: I am old and much too water has passed under the bridge. It would be akin to remembering whether I rented a blue bicycle or a black bicycle in school from that bicycle shop at the corner. Memories can cheat us.

    > I think it is incorrect (and very childish) to see rote and creativity as two ends of a spectrum.

    Education has been a colossal failure, in entirety, because rote and creativity are considered related. If you wish to tread that path, before doing so, let us stop and dissect the spectrum. The idea of rote learning stems from lemmas, facts, undeniable truths; argument being, “we ‘know’ certain things, and hence, it should be right to learn them as building blocks.” Well, we ‘knew’ earth was flat. We ‘knew’ earth is the center of the universe. Until a few years ago we ‘knew’ the universe’s expansion is slowing down.

    > Let us assume that we are talking about a painter, a good painter… MF Hussain…

    Funny you should quote painting. I can’t resist but quote something from one of our favourite books verbatim:
    [I noticed that the teacher didn’t tell people much (the only thing he told me was my picture was too small on the page). Instead, he tried to inspire us to experiment with new approaches. I thought of how we teach physics: We have so many techniques–so many mathematical methods–that we never stop telling the students how to do things. On the other hand, the drawing teacher is afraid to tell you anything. If your lines are very heavy, the teacher can’t say, “Your lines are too heavy,” because some artist has figured out a way of making great pictures using heavy lines. The teacher doesn’t want to push you in some particular direction. So the drawing teacher has this problem of communicating how to draw by osmosis and not by instruction, while the physics teacher has the problem of always teaching techniques, rather than the spirit, of how to go about solving physical problems.]

    > 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.

    This is where I point to the fallacy of the argument. Painters/artists have nothing to rote memorize. They may have personal styles, tastes, interests; their work shapes from these. However, they do not build upon ‘grammar’: I am sure every artist would consider it to be blasphemous. It is akin to a friend’s theory “all Led Zeppelin songs sound alike: they have some basic guitar routines, and they simply alter them a bit and made new music.”

    > They would rather concentrate on some higher order tasks (such as … hue or tint.

    Wrong. To start with, it is never possible to achieve the same hue or tint. It is never possible to tune the guitar to the same frequency. First discussions of “digital versus analog” studies. And, improvisation. Even the same artist never reproduces the same art-form twice. Every live version of a great song is different. Art adapts, art grows. I digress.

    > Coming to spontaneity… the learned behaviours happen only because of constant application,
    > repetition and practice…
    > Can we do without any ‘mugging’ at all? No. Sorry, if you are of the kewl_kat … But, I think it is
    > important. Example: You had a walk…

    Exactly! Habituation is *the* thing to avoid, not to promote! How can learning to do a certain thing the certain way be improvement? Let me apply your theory. An athlete can run 5k in 15 minutes. If the athlete keeps running the same way, 10k is possible in 30 minutes. With rote, the athlete’s brain gets wired to these values. Your theory [Even mugging can only be avoided by mugging…] appreciates this, what else, it even sounds right.
    Again we missed an extremely important facet: improvisation. What is getting wired here is the speed, the amount of fatigue body feels, the style of running! These are the limiting factors.


    > I think it is incorrect (and very childish) to see rote and creativity as two ends of a spectrum.

    along with

    > Well, it is actually slightly funny. The same parent who is against ‘rote memorization’ would send
    > his children to piano … do NOT have any basics that one has to be repeatedly trained on and are …
    > What are its limitations? The limitations of rote are in our heads … advantages of rote are also
    > in the same place.

    I believe, and can quote innumerable examples to support, the greatest achievers did not ‘repeatedly train’ in the basics. I recently learnt an interesting fact about Roger Federer: he did not have a coach when he began! This goes completely against the way tennis training is conceived to be. Tennis coaches all around the world will swear to you that if the basic strokes are not learnt correctly, tennis can never be taught.
    This is what rote does. It breaks the possibility of innovation.
    Learning is not the most difficult thing for the human mind; unlearning is. Wiring a kid’s minds with “A, A#, B…” will only turn an innocent kid into a music critic, and never a good musician. Worse, the kid might grow up critiquing like Mr. Prichard: http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoID=2029213794
    I point you to two true stories from my earlier response. I understand the fear that attacks every parent’s hearts, sending shivers. “What if my kid fails to achieve the extraordinary by walking the unknown? The tried and tested method of school, rote and tuitions will keep the kid ‘in-the-game’.”
    This entire ordeal of rote should be struck from the minds of humans. How unfortunate we are to see a kid memorize “The Road Less Travelled” for passing examinations!
    This reminds me of a test when we were asked in school: to reproduce a poem by rote. I ended getting the maximum score even when the content itself was from being close to the original. Reason? I put spurious commas and semicolons at the end of each line. No teacher had the patience to check against the book. It looked right, so I won. That is my earliest achievement against rote learning.

    Without ‘regurgitating’ my list (ho ho ho), here is what I think: rote is evil. It limits possibilities, it shrinks goals, it takes too much for given.
    I hope I have not digressed from the discussion, and I hope we can continue to rally thoughts about this. As unwise and futile as this exercise may seem, it holds great interest for me.

    • Ramjee Swaminathan  On September 7, 2010 at 5:26 am

      Sipayi dear – your lovely (no, I did not spell that incorrectly!)views, valid points and sarcatic rejoinders are a joy to read & savour. 🙂

      I think we would deal with this issue separately (as and when we could) – on the blog itself.

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