By Brinda Gurumoorthy
Physics and calculus are the same everywhere; a student in Canada takes derivatives in the same way that an Indian student does. However, schools across the world vary greatly in their styles of teaching. While the United States of America tends to aim for an educational system that focuses on critical thinking and application of concepts, eastern countries such as China have used rote learning, a method rooted in drilling and memorization, for years.
The rationale behind America’s preferred system, known as active learning, is just what the name suggests: in a competitive market where technology evolves at the speed of light and qualified applicants outnumber jobs available, the best way for an educational system to prepare students is for it to teach application-based concepts. For example, rather than a textbook simply giving algebra problem after problem, usually a textbook contains a realistic hypothetical scenario with a problem built into it. “Jane wants to get a pool built in her backyard. Assuming the volume of the pool is Insert-number- here, what are the largest possible dimensions of the surface of the pool?” Or something to that effect. Education is supposed to give young people a broad knowledge that they can use to solve problems in the real world, and real world problems are not going to be cookie-cutter or pure mathematics.
Consequently, an application-based program enables students to understand the reason that they are studying certain subjects, from economics to biology.
Rote learning is also designed to maximize students’ understanding of subject matter, but the approach to learning is markedly different. Countries in Asia and Eastern Europe practice this style of teaching in their schools, and they promote this style over the active learning methods that characterize American education. The reasoning behind rote learning lies in the old adage states that “practice makes perfect”. If students can spit out multiplication facts and recite the Preamble to the United States Constitution, soon the information will be etched into their brains and they will pick up speed when completing schoolwork. Speed and accuracy are the goals of this method; when students master the art of balancing speed and accuracy, they demonstrate understanding of the material.
So which learning style is superior? Of course, the subject matter in question can have an impact on which learning style is preferable; for courses heavy on memorization of acts, rote learning is the only option available. But critics of rote learning claim that it only leads to cramming, which results in a temporary absorption of material.
Students will study because they have paid to take the AP exam, but after the AP Government exam, perhaps dozens of chapters of learning will just vanish, rendering the entire course a waste of time. The pitfalls of rote learning appear glaring (perhaps because I am a student in an active learning setting). Yet empirical evidence does not show that there are pitfalls in rote learning; rather, some nations who avidly emphasize rote learning boast the highest scores in reading and mathematics. For instance, China is cracking the whip with drills and seas of practice problems; in the minds of Chinese educators, there simply isn’t time for excessive creative fluff. And with that system, its students are outpacing American students; researchers tested fourth and eighth graders in math and science and found Chinese students to score some of the highest scores overall.
There are some problems with rote learning: it may seem dull, obscure, and tedious. But if it is helping students to perform well on tests, maybe that means it is time for the United States to think about revamping some aspects of its educational system. A dash of rote learning may be a bore, but it may be for the best as well. Perhaps implementing some rote techniques in a few different subjects, such as math and science would help. A good educational system can and should implement both active, application-heavy sections and rote-based sections because both have their respective merits.