Rote learning a necessary part of education

In learning, curiosity and passion are necessary but insufficient; rote learning alone is insufficient but it is necessary.

Imagine a doctor who is passionate but needs printed or electronic references whenever he is with a patient. Imagine an actor who does not memorise his parts, or a concert pianist who cannot perform without musical sheets.

Is there an Olympic athlete who enters the arena without going through days of drills?

We think in languages and our thinking would be muddled unless we have learnt the rules of grammar and amassed a rich vocabulary - all of which is done through rote learning.

Our mind is not a seaport where goods are just passing through. It is a factory where raw materials are selectively imported, methodically stored and laboriously processed.

Learning should be fun, but, at times, it has to be painful to be fruitful.

It is said that students should be taught to experiment to discover knowledge, and not just be told or informed. This is true but it can be carried too far.

It is shocking that some people still think Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects are to be taught by rote learning whereas only the humanities require curiosity and originality. They should open their eyes and look at the inventions around them made possible by inventive scientists, mathematicians and engineers.

It is said that students should be taught to experiment to discover knowledge, and not just be told or informed. This is true but it can be carried too far.

Do students have to reinvent every wheel? Are they to be denied access to everything man has discovered, and have to retread all the painful steps of our ancestors?

Experience is a good teacher but it is very time-consuming and costly. It is cheaper and more delightful to learn from the experiences of others. Isn't that why we have schools?

Rote learning can kill curiosity, but it can also sustain and reinforce it. Rote learning is intelligence exercising and enriching its inventory.

Ee Teck Ee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2015, with the headline 'Rote learning a necessary part of education'. Print Edition | Subscribe