Experiential Learning Vs. Rote Learning

The issue about rote learning and its role in the Indian system of education is widely debated across educational circles over cups of coffee and croissants. While the CBSE curriculum, that most of us have grown up with, has ingrained an ‘attitude’ of rote learning, the more competitive curricula like ICSE and IB have gone beyond information to turn it into knowledge. The reason I call the CBSE curriculum’s rote learning method an ‘attitude’ and not ‘behaviour’ is because that is a way of life for the teachers and students there. The excuse given – too much syllabus to be covered.

The basis of the supremacy of experiential learning over rote learning comes from Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development.

Any progressive educationist will agree that although there is matter that has to be learnt through rote, the overarching module needs to be experiential in nature. There is no other way to ensure that students learn than to get them to engage with it. There is no argument whatsoever as to which method is better. Multi-sensorial learning has been established by scientists as the ideal way to increase retention in students so that when the time comes the information they have gathered can be put into practice. Schools are constantly trying to include ‘activity time’ and ‘clubs’ into the curriculum which will allow students to interact in a situation where they will have to rely on their knowledge, instincts and skills rather than the teacher and the information she provides.

There exists a school of alternative education in Bangalore, which conducts all its classes out in the open and not within the confines of four brick walls. From science to social science to mathematics, all disciplines are taught by immersing the child in a situation where they can understand ‘application’ and not just theory, with of course guidance from the teacher in-charge. Realistically speaking, there is not much traction to be gained from here for the schooling system in India, because there are other overarching issues to grapple with – management willingness, bureaucracy, free education, education for the girl child, poverty, infrastructure, need for IT to be learned by all, learning disabilities, teacher competence, social standing, etc. The list is never-ending.

The relevant debate however, is whether experiential learning has a place in the academic lives of young adults in college. The amount of information that a student needs to process becomes multifold when they reach college and therefore the space required to engage with each bit of information separately may become minimal. When it comes to college life and processing large amounts of data, there is only so much students can rote and only so much exposure a lecturer can provide for it to be experiential.

A view less expressed, however frequently adopted, is the fact that engagement at college-level needn’t necessarily be outdoors, or for that matter using hands and feet to experience the knowledge at hand. While students do not necessarily realize it, allowing them to research a subject in the library is a way of information-discovery. Even bits of information about a certain subject, even if it is irrelevant to the classroom, allow the student to assimilate a complete picture and understanding about the subject in question.

The point of power point presentations, assignments that are graded, projects that require the student to step out in the real world and gather information are all more progressive and subtle forms of experiential learning. Law schools mandate that their students go through mock-court sessions starting from their third year. Schools of Social Work mandate weekly field visits along with a month of professional social work with a recognized organization. Doctors are allowed to perform routine procedures in their years of residency.

There is a reason colleges mandate these experience. A reason why colleges that offer graduation courses mandate that each student join one club or the other, based on their interest. Experiential Learning. And the whole point of experiential learning? Is to amass experiences and consequent lessons, which the brain stores for further use without us knowing, to prepare any and all of us for experiences of varied natures in our adult life.

That question that all students have been or are grappling with, what is the point of school and college? Gathering experiences that count that turns information and knowledge and allows students to react efficiently in real-life situations and not just artificially stimulated situations.




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