Are we fostering a culture of rote at our homes?

May 26, 2018Vivek Dadu

“So tell me, Amaya, what does a carpenter do?”, asked Abhinav to his 4 year old daughter. “Carpenter make things of wood” replied Amaya confidently. “Very good, Amaya. Chikki, now you tell me, what does a carpenter do?” “Carpenter… make… things…” Chikki stumbled as she failed to copy what Amaya just said so effortlessly.

I was listening intently as my friend Abhinav was animatedly playing with his daughter Amaya and my daughter Chikki, both of them about 4 years of age. With a little nudge from me, my child continued, “Carpenter baahar… trees ko cut karke… table-chair banaata hai”. “Very good, now in English?” “Carpenter… Make…. tree table chair.” But, Amaya protested, “No, Uncle! Chikki is wrong, a carpenter makes things of wood.” After all, Amaya hadn’t learned it that way. She hadn’t learned the application of the job of carpentry; she simply repeated what she had heard at school. When I tried to explain how they both meant the same thing, my friend interrupted, “Kya, yaar! 4 saal ke bacche ko ‘things’ or ‘wood’ ka matlab thodi pata hoga. Wo toh bechaari ne jo school mein seekha hai vo bol rahi hai. Tum usse confuse mat karo.” I disagreed with him but kept quiet. I disagreed with the fact that 4 year olds cannot be taught by explaining, but agreed that most schools teach this way only. And since one can’t keep a child out of school, one can’t do much about this method of teaching either.

But is it fair to put the entire blame on schools? Don’t we glorify rote learning at home too? We all take pride in our young ones reciting “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, “Johny Johny Yes Papa”, or even the “Gayatri Mantra”, or couplets and hymns from other holy scriptures without caring to understand the meaning. Don’t get me wrong here, I am not against any rhymes, chants, or mantras; instead I firmly believe that we must make our children learn all of these at a very young age for they help in improving speech and memory and also instil a sense of poetry and music in them. However, I am against glorifying these recitations by parading the children in front of friends and relatives rewarding them with applause from the audience. A child, just like any other human being, loves being the centre of attraction and affection and once he/she realises that this reward is easily achievable by memorising a few lines without understanding their true meaning, he quickly takes to it and arms himself with more and more repetitions. As kids grow up, the harmless recitation of rhymes and hymns to the applause of the audience quickly turns into word-for-word “carpenters make things out of wood” as the only answer to a question about the profession of carpentry. No other answer would do; no other explanation is correct. “Jo ma’am ne bataya wahi correct hai. Jo book mein likha hai vahi correct hai”. Perhaps, one might think that education in India has always been like this and yet most of us have turned out just fine. And I believe if you are reading this blog, then you are one of those who did turn out just fine. But, let’s look at what “turning out just fine” means in terms of numbers.

“Our education system has resulted in 36% of NASA scientists, 34% employees at Microsoft, 28% at IBM, 17% at Intel and 13% at Xerox being Indians or Indian origin foreigners (reported by the times of India, 2008)”. Sounds cool, right? Indians are present in large numbers at some of the most reputed institutions in the world. But here are few excerpts from what Mr. Narayan Murthy (Founder of Infosys) has to say about Indian education system (reported by Global Schools Foundation, 2013):

  • “There has not been a single invention from India in the last 60 years that became a household name globally, nor any idea that led to an ‘earth shaking’ invention to delight global citizens"
  • "Our youngsters have not done much impactful research work despite being equal to their counterparts in intellect and energy in Western universities".
  • "Have the institutions (in particular IISc. and the Indian Institute of Technology) over the past 60-plus years contributed to making our society and the world a better place? Is there one invention from India that has become a household name in the globe? The reality is that there is no such contribution from India in the last 60 years."

In our defence, some might say that we are a poor country crippled by a lack of resources after the British looted us for close to three hundred years and it’s unfair to compare our achievements in the field of science, technology and art with the resource rich and prosperous westerners. Some might even say that given the fact that we have achieved so much with our limited resources is indicative of the fact that “we are doing just fine”, or maybe even better than fine.

But there is another staggering statistic which reveals that it would be unfair to justify everything with “the lack of resources”. Here it goes: “In India, we have more than 200 million (till February 2017) monthly active WhatsApp users, which is nearly 9 times the number of WhatsApp users in the USA, while only quarter million (2.5 lakhs) monthly visitors to a popular and free learning app (Khan Academy) as against 8 million (80 lakhs) monthly visitors in the USA for the same free learning app.” Doesn’t this data point to a deeper malaise, one that indicates that we are quick to embrace the Internet for free communication, but so very slow to embrace it as an opportunity to learn, even though it’s free! Doesn’t it say that our education system is not producing enough eager learners? Can an education system which produces reluctant learners be called “fine”?

And then you realise rote learning has caused more damage than good, and this method of learning has now become a habit. There is a reluctance to learn in detail when all a child needs is memorised answers! And sadly this teaching method is not only practiced at schools, but at home too. So it doesn’t come as a surprise when guide books and answer keys are more sought after than textbooks in our country.

We from HumbleSchool sincerely request parents (that includes those of us at HumbleSchool who have children!) to stop glorifying the act of giving learned answers and start honouring the act of ‘trying to understand questions’ from an early age itself.

We would also love to engage with you in meaningful discussions related to our education system and know your thoughts on the aspirations of a parent or teacher towards their child. Please comment to share your views.