Shall We Let Go of Rote Learning?

Enter the classroom and take a student’s textbook. Dive straight into the lesson. Read out and teach based on textbook. Write questions and the answers on the board. Ask students if they have understood. The end.

This is how classes by many teachers begin and end. This lecture style of teaching, in which the teacher is the speaker and the students are the passive audience, doesn’t teach students to inquire and think. It only teaches students to simply read out and copy what is already in the book or what they have learnt. It only teaches students to rote learn.

The teaching methods of teachers in most schools are limited to getting students to memorize. According to the report based on the National Assessment of Students Achievements (NASA) from grades three, five and eight done by the  Education Review Office (ERO) under the Ministry of Education, rote learning and memorizing were found to be the primary classroom activities. “Students are good at memorizing, rote learning and copying. But when it comes to being creative, they are weak. They are weak when it comes to practically applying what they learnt and writing detailed analytical answers,” says Dr. Lekh Nath Poudel, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Education and Head of ERO.

If primary level students were to write about cows, almost all of them would write similar answers. They would write: ‘Cow is the national animal of Nepal. A cow has four legs. It is either black or white in color. We get milk and cow dung from cows, etc’. Students from a generation before us and even many among us, learnt to write like this. Students still continue to write like this.

Could there be possible benefits of cow urine? What types of cows are found here? How is animal husbandry evolving into an industry? If we were to ask students whether they know about these questions and other such information, or if we were to ask students to find and write out answers to these questions and then share with a friend, then they could do the necessary research. Based on the information they collected, they could write about the cow in their own way and share this with their friends. The main objective, after all, is to develop their writing and expression skills.

The Curriculum and Teachers’ Guide describes what, how much and in what way to teach children depending upon their age, class and level. A summarized version of this can also be found in the textbooks. A majority of teachers from community schools and institutional schools  also receive training regarding this. However, a blanket lecturing technique is being used to teach students regardless of differences in their learning styles and pace. Some of the younger students are so used to regurgitating answers that when asked a question, they mention even the full-stops. The student who can memorize the most is considered to be the best.

Before teaching a lesson on the life cycle of a plant, if the teacher were to demonstrate, even if only in a flower pot, the growth of a flower or vegetable seed – how it germinates, grows into a sapling, how the plant develops a bud, which later turns into a flower- students would be able to easily understand the life cycle of a plant. They would perhaps put forth their curiosities and opinions in the process of observation.

Psychologist Dr. Ganga Pathak shares an incident from a classroom. A student pointed out that a teacher had misspelt an English word. The student got a scolding from the teacher. The student then took out their mobile phone and showed the correct spelling to the teacher. Once again the teacher scolded the student for bringing a mobile phone to class. “Whether a mobile phone is allowed or not in the classroom is beside the point. The teacher should have actually thanked the student for the correction. This wouldn’t have hurt the teacher’s reputation, rather it would have brought the teacher closer to the students.”

The Indian writer, Sudha Murthy in her book ‘How I taught my Grandmother to Read’ says, “Sometimes the students would ask such difficult questions that I couldn’t give them answers immediately. In such cases, I would tell them that I would research, read up and give them the answer another day. And I would.” Since Q&A sessions are a good way for teachers to easily gauge student’s understanding of the course, Murthy used to separate some time for questions at the end of each class in her college.

Many teachers get angry and reprimand students for wasting time when they ask questions outside of the course or when they are unable to answer questions that students ask. Similarly, students who require explanations of lessons more than once are also often scolded. When students are discouraged to ask questions in class they become afraid, their body language shrinks. This is why classrooms become lecture halls and teaching and learning is limited to memorizing. Such learning can never be applied practically. Talking about the failure of applying what is learned in classrooms into real life, Dr. Lekh Nath Poudel of the Education Review Office shares, “If we ask students to calculate the area when the length is four meters and width is threee meters, they are able to apply the formula and give an answer. But if we ask them to use the same formula to calculate the area of a table or a desk in the classroom, they aren’t able to do so.”

Meaningful learning takes place when students are able to connect what they have learnt informally in their local contexts to what is being taught formally inside classrooms. Lok Bahadur Basnet, a math teacher at Padmodaya Secondary School in Dang shares that if students of class four and five need to be taught how to calculate area, then even before going into the actual lesson, teachers should talk about relatable experiences that students will probably have. For example: some students might have measured a field using a stick or their hands when playing dandibiyo. If the discussion is allowed to flourish, when asked how one can measure the length of a desk, some might suggest the use of sticks. Others might come up with other solutions. Basnet, who has created a mathematics laboratory in the school, shares that, “Only after discussing such relatable and practical concepts, should we get into the formula of calculating area. Then, the students will not face any difficulty in measuring the area of a desk, bench, classroom or anything else.”

Directly getting into the lesson or teaching a class entirely by lecturing students is forcing students to rote learn. If different methods such as observational learning, inquiry, discussion and research are used to teach children then learning becomes practical and engaging. Students will also become more interested and active in the learning process. They will be better able to develop life skills such as research, creative and critical thinking, writing, debating, and presenting their ideas in front of others. These skills can never be developed in students if all we are teaching them is to parrot textbooks.

Roshna Subba is the President of Education Journalists’ Group.

First published: 26-07-2017 in Kantipur Daily. Translated from Kantipur Daily by Ritu Rajbanshi and Yukta Bajracharya for the Innovation In Education 2018 Catalogue. 

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