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Memorise, Write, Repeat: How Students ‘Learn’ In India

By Sameer Sampat:


That is the sound of Rahul’s teacher, Sapna ma’am, hitting him over the knuckles when he failed to include the abbreviation of tangent in its definition as it is stated in the textbook.

“The tangent (tan) of an angle is the ratio of the sine to the cosine. Rahul, if you make these types of silly mistakes, you are certain to lose marks in your exam!” Sapna ma’am scolded him.

Rahul spent much of the past year preparing for his Class X exam, attending tuition classes seven days a week, where he would receive past exam questions and attempt to memorise the answer to each of them. Everyone knew that those who memorised the most scored the highest. He often found himself up in the middle of the night using visualisation techniques to remember “by heart” theorems and mnemonics to recall the keywords he had to use in each definition. Wasn’t school supposed to be about learning and understanding? Instead of focusing on analysing literature, or describing scientific phenomena, it seemed like his entire future hinged on whether he could memorise that he was to write “tangent (tan)” instead of “tangent”.

Rote Learning Crisis

Rahul could be virtually any student in any school in our country. According to a nationwide survey by EZVidya, 80% of principals believe that the emphasis on rote learning is leading to the poor quality of our education system. WIPRO recently conducted a study that found that the practice of rote learning was equally prevalent in the country’s top schools.

Some attribute the focus on rote learning to the traditional practice of memorising religious texts, whether the Vedas, the Quran, or others. Another faction states that this system was put in place by the British during colonial rule as a way to suppress critical thinking. Either way, rote learning has been the staple of the Indian education system for many years. While many Indians have attained success despite this system, simply being able to recall information is not enough in today’s world when that information is instantly available to anyone with a mobile phone. A survey of 200 Indian and foreign companies found that only 14% of Indian graduates were prepared for the workforce, largely because most graduates were unable to apply their knowledge to solve real-world problems.

The Need for Strong Leadership

The obsession with rote learning will only if we have stronger leadership in our education system and schools. The leaders of our schools – block officers, inspectors, management, and principals – must shift their focus from administration to ‘leading learning’. Leaders should ensure that all schools facilitate an understanding of the subject so that each child in each classroom is equipped with the ability to take information and apply it when necessary. This will begin to happen when schools are supported to implement three simple practices: planning, assessment, and accountability.

Teachers often do limited or no planning before they teach a class. This means that teachers tend to convey information in the easiest way possible – writing on the board or reading out of a book while students copy it in their books. The leaders in our schools must institute systems that support the teacher to plan not only what information they will present to students but also how the students will engage with this content. The process of thinking about this beforehand pushes teachers to incorporate practices beyond the standard rote method of teaching.

Much of the discussion about assessment of students has been about the need for board exams or the frequency of assessment in policies like the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) mandated by the Right to Education Act (RTE). However, there must also be a focus on the types of questions being our students are asked – whether in board exams, class tests, or even when a teacher is simply posing a question to his or her class. Students must not only be asked questions for which they must recall the correct information. Assessments must be designed to provide students the opportunity to show that they can analyse and synthesise content and apply their learning to real-world problems.

When evaluating the success of schools, leaders must not only ask ‘What have the students been provided with’ or ‘What have the students been taught’ but also ‘What have students learned‘. School leaders must structure time in their day to observe classrooms for evidence of student learning. The leaders themselves must have clarity in what to look for, so that they don’t settle for checking the word for word definition of a science concept but, instead, observe whether the student has the ability to use this concept.

Learning for Understanding

Rahul’s Class X experience could be different. Instead of fretting over losing marks because of a misplaced word, he could be spending his time understanding how the tangent function can unlock the secrets of our existence – how planets travel, how tall our highest peaks are, and how sound moves through the atmosphere. All of India’s students deserve this education and this is what will allow our country to flourish. Responding to the rote learning crisis is one of the biggest challenges facing school leaders and it is not an exaggeration to say the future of the nation depends on it.

Featured image for representation only. Credit: Featured image credit: Prabhat Kumar Verma/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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