Teaching-learning pedagogies have evolved, and stakeholders – especially students and parents – have correspondingly proactively articulated an assortment of perspectives on the education system in Singapore. With these developments, two significant trends have emerged: first, “creativity” has not only entered our education parlance, but has also been used extensively as a positive buzzword for educators and bureaucrats; second – with this first proposition – many have contended that rote memorisation (conveniently coupled with the notion of regurgitation) is necessarily negative, because it stifles innovation, has little relevance to future endeavours, and is extremely monotonous et cetera.
I too, over these years of writing, have been guilty of making these hasty generalisations (here and here); for it is awfully tempting – albeit fallacious – to assert that we should not be drilling schoolchildren with seemingly redundant knowledge. But should rote memorisation, under all classroom circumstances, be generalised as a pejorative? Is there truly value in these academic-scholastic methodologies? Or is the maxim “drill and kill” an accurate representation of such an education strategy?
A few weeks ago, Miss Laura Miller – in the Salon commentary “Make Kids Memorise Poetry” (here) – posited that rote learning could yield benefits in the domains of literature and poetry. She highlights that the persistent stigmatisation of pedagogies premised upon memorisation (for instance, an educator who gets his students to mechanically remember information could be considered to be insensitive, or even doing harm) may not be entirely fair. There are tangible advantages associated with these forms of teaching-learning; she writes:
“As with any other skill, memory improves with training and there is evidence – most recently reported in the New York Times Magazine – that exercises to expand ‘working memory’ (the stuff you can hold in your head for immediate use) also increase ‘fluid intelligence’, the ability to reason and solve novel problems.”
Rote Memorisation Should Not Be Demonised In The Classroom
Drilling is an essential component in the classroom; nevertheless, balanced approaches and the complementary advancement of related skills are equally significant. Rote memorisation should not be employed in isolation, obviously. Educators, I believe, are capable of being flexible with expectations, and can encourage collaborative efforts by having students do memory-based assignments in groups. Disparities are inevitable during these assignments because of different inherent capacities, but the providence of support – coupled by constructive criticism – can be very helpful.
Rote memorisation is not an antithesis to creative learning processes. Before a student can endeavour into critical thinking exercises or activities of a higher intellectual order, some basics and essentials should be committed to memory beforehand.
With the learning of a language – for example – the skills that need to be strengthened include reading, speaking, listening and writing. I vaguely remember my initial experience with the English language: repeating the alphabets, reading progressively to build up my vocabulary bank, memorising sentence structures and reciting grammar rules. It is apparent to me that the regimen of language studies provides the necessary rigour for one to achieve mastery and fluency. We might think otherwise presently, but it could be attributed to the possibility that languages have become so second-nature to us that we have forgotten what it took for us to attain proficiencies. Even today, incorporating effective phrases or expressions (through memory and continued usage, no less) remain permanent fixtures.
Even with a subject like History, in which students lament the endless pool of facts and figures demanded; in retrospect, comprehension of this information lays the necessary groundwork before any analytical or research competencies can be processed.
A reader at Salon quoted Albert Einstein as quipping “Never memorise anything you can look up”, and “Imagination is more important than knowledge” (but both are not mutually exclusive). InSingapore, rote memorisation might have gotten a bad rep because some students (me in the past) fall into the trap of cramming last-minute, when – on hindsight – the syllabus could have been spread out competently across weeks for revision. Don’t be too quick to dismiss rote memorisation, because there are genuine benefits associated with it.