By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial in Penang Monthly, August 2018.
It is often claimed that traditional Asian ways of teaching encourage students to memorise facts – so-called rote learning. The Western way, in contradistinction to this, it is claimed, is to teach children to think for themselves and to be critical – to be analytical.
Like all generalisations, these ones hold some truth, but they hardly tell the whole story. Far from it, in fact.
Rote learning, as we popularly understand, aims first and foremost at filling students’ minds with substance – with facts – that they can then ruminate over. There’s nothing wrong with that. How is one to think properly on a subject if one’s knowledge of it is patchy? One would tend to pretend, and develop semantic tricks to hide the deficiency.
And one cannot deny that rote learning is wonderful training for the memory, and that becomes useful in all aspects of life later on. It is training for the mind. Furthermore, traditional Asian understandings of knowledge – at least Chinese understandings of knowledge – compulsively give prominence to the historical context, and treat History as a backdrop for deep knowledge; as the mega-subject the way traditional Western education focused on philosophy and literature. For this, a good memory is vital.
What appears seriously wrong with heavy rote learning is that the student may not go beyond simple regurgitation of facts and may stay happy with the mere parroting of details. Being a living thesaurus becomes his or her idea – or ideal – of a scholar.
Having said that, I have to add that some of the smartest and most insightful people I have met appeared to have gone through the rote-learning system. There are important elements involved here that we are missing, but let me get back to that in a minute.
In turn, critical learning has obvious advantages. If done correctly, it encourages a child to express himself early, to air his views and to state his or her response to the words and views of others. But what may go wrong is that the child may learn to make claims without knowing enough of the relevant facts. He or she may learn to take short cuts in thinking and formulation, and make quick assumptions since what his immediate society seems to appreciate, to his mind, is for him to take a stand earlier rather than later; and that seems more important than learning the facts first and keeping an opinion for later.
To be sure, I think some fault lies in the lax use of the word “critical”. As we know, doing a critique of a piece of work is to do a detailed analysis of it; and does not necessarily require one to be critical of it. “Analytical learning” is perhaps a better term as contrast to “rote learning”.
I have of course also met many extremely insightful people who would have been trained through analytical learning. So if you ask me, there are strengths in both these apparently contrasting approaches to learning.
Both can go wrong and both can go right. Both can create crippled thinkers, and both can throw up powerful intellectuals.
What we should not forget in both cases is that we probably assume collective learning and regulated schooling to be the given and unavoidable backdrop. That is the elephant in the room which sets the conditions of learning and therefore warps its overall results. And so, we fear that rote learning turns education into a paper chase, and knowledge into superficial memorising of answers to anticipated examination questions; and we worry that encouraging children to be critical leaves them argumentative rather than contemplative, and they then tend to analyse matters the way lawyers do – to win a point; and not as philosophers do, which is to satisfy their own inherent curiosity.
My point is this: the dichotomy manifests itself largely because we think that education has to be done in a collective, in a school and in a hurry; and we think that education is functional and thematic. And therefore we wish to be able to see, measure and compare the results. Education is thus done not for the children’s sake, but for the sake of the future of the economy. In fact, we school children more than we educate them. We leave them half-educated in most cases, and so the ill-effects of both rote learning and critical learning become starkly apparent.
Developing the mind of the young is a delicate matter too important to be hurried or cut short; and an individual mind is an inherently sovereign thing that we may engage but not manipulate for purely collective and external ends, or to satisfy parental quirks.