Rote Learning: the best of a bad lot?

By Sam Graham and Truong Thuy Van, LSU

Rote learning has a bad name in the West.

Sure, we need to memorise things. An immediate grasp of times tables, for example, is useful. We also need a foundation of knowledge before we can do any serious thinking.

However, encouraging rote learning or memorisation for it’s own sake is generally frowned upon in the West. Where something needs to be memorised, it is ideally with a greater goal in mind, and it should be done by thinking about the information, not just looking at it a hundred times.

So, when we (Van and Sam in the LSU in Hanoi) watched this video, we scoffed a little. What a waste of time! How could anyone think this is a good idea?!

In the video, around a thousand students are in a private class to prepare them for their university entrance literature exam. Students parrot the teacher as they read out a ‘sample’ essay, one which students will be able to reproduce word for word in the exam.

We were surprised, then, to find that most of the comments were positive (Van estimates around 90%), defending the students and the teacher. (All comments are translated from Vietnamese and were on these articles in Dan Tri: Chuyện lạ: Tập đọc ê a tại lò luyện thi ở Hà Nội and Cô giáo ở “lớp học ê a” lên tiếng.)

I am very disappointed to read this article because I did this class last year and passed the exam. Looking from the outside, it is just a class where students learn by heart, but if you look closer inside there must be something that makes the class so attractive.

I think these kinds of classes are effective because not many students are independent enough in their learning.

…In such a crowded class, it’s impossible to check individual’s understanding on the lesson. The best way is for all to read out loud because it not only reviews knowledge but also wakes students up.

One simply saw no alternative:

I studied in a gifted school, so I went to this class not because it’s fashionable or following the trends and friends, [but because it is useful]. I can assure to you that my teacher’s teaching skills is as good as any lecturers at university level. Can you give us another fast learning method that you consider to be more acceptable? You will never get higher than 6 (out of 10) with only the foundation knowledge from the textbook.

Raised in the comments is the issue of how far we want to consider student-centredness – a core principle in educational dogma in the West. Does it just mean getting students active in class? Or does it go further into putting student demands central to deciding curriculum content and teaching methodology? What happens when students demand something that educators consider suboptimal, if not wrong?

I used to join this class. I think it’s just a way of learning that helps us remember knowledge better. Many students in this class have achieved high marks. So, why don’t we ask if students like this method of teaching? If the learners think this helps them learn better, that’s the most important thing.

I found it (this learning method) very creative and not destroy students’ creativity and emotion in literature… Let students voice out whether it’s effective or not.

A small minority condemned the practice.

How ridiculous it is! It [this learning and teaching method] isn’t different from what is taught in 1st and 2nd grade.

I was shocked to hear about this class and that many people think it’s normal to learn and teach like this, and that some students even promote it. Everyone wants to pass exams, but is it necessary to pass in this way, by repeating the teachers? I found this learning method bad. Students fail to build the habit of thinking independently and to create their own writing style.

With this way of teaching and learning, are we creating human beings who can think and have initiative, or are we just making programmed machines ?

But even where being criticised, a lot of the comments defended the teacher and students on the grounds that it was ideal for preparing the context they were in – the context being an impending literature exam.

The purpose of this kind of classes is to teach students to pass university entrance exams, not to teach students literature. Therefore, whatever it does or doesn’t do doesn’t matter, as long as it is effective to achieve its aim. It’s not teacher’s fault nor students’. The Ministry of Education made the system like this, the system in which students need to rote learn to get into university.

As a teacher, I am sympathetic with the teacher here. It’s obvious that this teaching method is outdated and destroys all creativity in students. However, literature teachers still need to use this method because the literature exams do not have room for creativity. It’s risky to be creative in giving answers that are out of standard answers. We choose this method because it is useful to help students cope with exams.

So where to from here? Should teachers and students put up with a system that is unlikely to dramatically change anytime soon, and accept that education is for exam preparation, not for actual learning? Or should they – accepting that change is slow – plough on and accept that this is the best of what is, in a lot of people’s eyes, a set of bad options?

Post script:

Our own Dy wrote about this issue in September (link):

I remember my Literature teacher used to read her sample essays to a class of more than fifty students. Every student wrote down her words carefully and learnt them by heart for exams. Once I asked my teacher “If I do not follow your essay, but use my own ideas, what will happen?” She replied: “Other students will finish writing their essays (which means my teacher’s essay) while you are still composing your own ideas and run out of time”. But I was stubborn, and in the exam I abandoned my teacher’s model answer. Indeed, that year, my Literature mark was not as high as my friends’. The unpleasant lesson I learned was that it was better to repeat what was provided to me than to try and think for myself.

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One response to “Rote Learning: the best of a bad lot?”

  1. Tan Huynh says :

    It is nothing strange and unexplanable. The system has been designed in a way that gaining entrance to University was deem to be the only way for less-than-able family.

    The critique/theory of Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be referenced here. Apparently, they (The teacher and the advocators) see such method as a meaning to an end – derived by the tacit knowledge that they (the teacher) have acquired through his/her time of teaching an UEE-prep class.

    The goal was very clear: To perform well in the UEE and it should be seen as extrinsic motivation.

    The need for autonomy, or self-improvement …etc in pre-College education in Vietnam is nonexistent.

    Now the bizzard thing: in Le Hong Phong Highschool for the gift in Saigon (one of the best school here from which many RMIT Scholarship bearers are from) are actually organizing “Workshop” for their “elite” students at the grade 10th in order to prep them with a nice profile to gain scholarship to RMIT.

    It’s a fair game when money involved, but there isn’t that much relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation up until that point. The responsibility will fall under RMIT or maybe the harsh reality of life later on.

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