Much progress has been made in the field of pedagogy within the last few decades – the establishing of new learning techniques, improvement of a few old ones, experimentation inside the classroom, and many more. Nevertheless, one of our favourite punching bags has been the oldest form of education, predating the printing press and withstanding the test of time: rote learning. In the days when sages and scholars passed down knowledge and wisdom to their pupils, the only way to learn and further your knowledge was through memorising the teachings of your Guru or Master: you trusted them implicitly, as is the case with your teachers and professors today. The alternative being that you sought knowledge of the world yourself and most people do not have the perseverance required for a completely self-taught education.
However, the rote method still stands the test of time because certain concepts and ideas cannot be learnt in another way. Considered central in the enhanced learning of mathematical concepts, rote learning has been criticised by everyone who is not and was not any good at it. For instance, mathematical theorems, the foundation for so many further applications in science and technology, cannot be imbibed experientially. Yes, you can prove them time and time again but this will not change their fundamental nature. Multiplication tables are another: once a child understands this elementary function, it does not stand to reason that he, or she, will perform multiplication for the most basic of numerical values. Memorising certain, well-understood concepts permits them both to be applied readily and to further thinking onto more complex concepts, saving time and the mental effort involved in performing an elementary task.
In Biology & Medicine
Similarly, doctors are held in high regard because of their vast knowledge accumulated by rote learning and supplemented by actual practice. If they cannot recall the diagnosis for a certain ailment or prescribe its treatment, then would not be very good in their roles. The knowledge of biological organisms never changes; a human heart, along with other organs, always is located in the same spot and dissecting a cadaver will reveal it as such. These discoveries and formulations will remain as clear as night and day so learning them experientially will not shed any further light on them.
In Religion & Music
In earlier times, the study of religion and faith was another area where rote memorisation was central to converting, promoting, and gaining more followers. True, the advent of the printing press has made memorisation redundant but crossovers into music and chanting require memorisation. Vedic chanting, for instance, requires a dedicated method of rote memorisation to conserve the intonation and the accuracy of the text. This is precisely how scripture was transmitted prior to codification.
For children, this learning technique enables them to imbibe as much textual material during their formative years, preparing them for future dissection of the material. True, overburdening the child with rote memorisation of pointless information stifles the ability to think freely and this method should complement the overall learning process rather than be central to the learning process. The instruction of music combines the two rather well: learning by ear and interpreting the notation. We have all seen and appreciated performances where an exhaustive amount of notes are played without musical notes.
As is the case with other topics, such as law, rote memorisation is a fundamental form of learning that has no equivalent. However, combining this with other forms of education – active, associative, experiential, and meaningful – enhances the learning experience. So do not knock it down; understand the flaws, appreciate the benefits, and implement along with other pedagogic techniques, which results in a holistic education.