Why “Rote” Learning is NOT Good….

... school students take a mock college entrance exam. (File Photo/CFP

This is not one of my classes. But, it feels like it sometimes.

I have not had much to post lately. It is winter here. It has been cold and wet for many days. I am gaining my winter fat…ugghhh. I stay indoors as much as I can. I seldom feel like going outside. But, that is not what this post is about. I am just letting you know why you have not seen may posts lately from me.

Today’s posting is about my students. I have said, in the past, that creativity and imagination is pretty much dead once the kids get into grade 6. The focus of study becomes all about exams. Critical thinking, imagination, creativity, thinking outside of the box, problem solving, and any other form of thinking is discouraged for the most part. It is all about “rote” learning. Memorizing things a certain way. You think and do as a group. Individualized learning is thrown out the window. Even when they have a music class, art class, or computer class, all the students do the exact same thing. They all do as the teacher or the book instructs them.

Rote learning may be great for preparing for exams. But, it destroys all aspects of learning and thinking if that is the only emphasis. In China, Xi Jinping, the president, along with others in his party government, have spoken about their need to change. They do want Chinese people to be more innovative and inventors of new ideas again. I have read and heard this from the government many times over the past year. But, the problem they face, no one seems to remember how to do it. Unless they begin to change the educational teaching system in China, they will continue to lost the battle of creativity. You can not put 100% of your efforts and energy in teaching to an exam, and hope that imagination and creativity will spawn itself by magic. They need to find a balance of exam rote learning and other forms of thinking.

I have had several situations these past two weeks that demonstrates how rote learning holds a student’s potential back. How it squashes any ability for them to think for themselves and develop new ideas.

The first example is from a game I was playing. It is very simple. I give them a common word to make a sentence from. For words such as air, tree, water, and city, I received much the same answers in all my classes. Yes, there are always exceptions. But, this is making a point about rote learning. I was listening to some Chinese English classes last week. They were talking about the future. What is the future going to look like is the kind of topic they were learning. The teacher was telling them that the air and water will be more polluted, there will be less trees, and cities will become over populated. Back to the words in my game…can you guess what their sentences were about when they had to make a sentence using my words air, water, tree, and city. Yep. Most of them used the information that they learned in the Chinese English class and made a sentence like…”Cities will be over populated in the future” and “There will be less trees in the future”. I have a large number of examples I can use to demonstrate this point. My favorites are the following responses to standard questions. “Why do you like basketball? Because it is interesting.” “Why do you like hamburgers? Because it is delicious.” “Why do you like apples? Because it is good for my health”. Or, a standard English greeting, “Hello. How are you? I am fine thanks. And you?” I am not joking about these responses. You go into any classroom (so it appears from my experience) and you say to them in English one of these simple questions and you will more than likely get these responses (again…almost per verbatim).

The second example is over the course of several different classes. I asked the same question in each of my classes. More times than not, they would answer me, verbatim, with the same answer. This is in different classes and different students. And, sometimes, it is in the same class. Let me set the scene for you. 80 kids crammed into a classroom. Desks are 10 rows deep and 8 rows wide. If I am talking with one student on one side of the class, the other side seldom hears the response because everyone is talking to their friends when I am not addressing the entire class at once. I was doing a verb lesson. I asked one student to give me a sentence using a present tense action verb. In either the same class or differing classes, I get the same responses from many students. The responses are: “I am a student.”, “I do my homework.” and “I play computer games.”.

The third example is what brought me to these conclusions. I am teaching an English Corner. It is a small group of students that want to learn more English in their spare time. Today, I played them 14 music videos so they could choose some songs to learn to sing. We will break down the words of the songs and the meaning behind the music. One song was recommended by my teaching assistant. I had explained to her that I was looking for songs that they did not know already. What is the point of learning a song if you already know the words. She told me that they may not know the song. She was wrong. Our of 17 students, 15 of them chose that song. The tally of votes was not even close. So, I had to ask myself, what happened. I realized that they all knew the words already, so it was going to be an easy assignment for them. Always take the easy way out…right? They really are no different than any other student in the world. They all dislike studying, exams, classes and homework. And, since copying and cheating is seldom a strict punishable offense, they do it. So, when I, as their teacher, provide them with an easy way out, they took it. The same goes with the responses to questions in class. Why try to think of something new when they have memorized huge amounts of text from books and rote learning from their Chinese teachers?

No matter what the lesson I am doing, I can be assured that I will get rote responses to my questions whenever they can figure out how to slip them in. It does not matter what the lesson is. This makes teaching Conversational English very difficult. They try to recite things they have learned in the past. To ask them to create a fantasy story is so hard for them. To ask them to solve a problem becomes a task for them to try to find examples they have learned from their textbooks to respond back to me. Rote learning is not the way Chinese educators should be teaching language arts. Whether we are talking about English learning, or Chinese learning. Rote learning might be ok for learning dates and names in history or math formulas for maths. But, rote learning in language is not a good format.

One solution to this, if any government spies are looking at my blog (Ha Ha), is to input more creative classes and teach them creativity. Classes like creative writing and freestyle art would be helpful. Regardless of what the Chinese do to make changes, the way of thinking like everyone else needs to change. The environment that cheating and copying other people’s work needs to be discouraged. I understand the fear the Communist government has with people thinking freely and openly. But, if they want their people to be the new innovators of the world, they will need to let go of the fear. Robots do not think for themselves (yet). Chinese people are nothing more than robots today. As such, they will continue to copy ideas to put a man on the moon or develop the next Chinese made car. They will never be the ones finding a cure to cancer, developing the next great computer technology, or help the world with any of its problems. And, I think that is the saddest commentary of them all. Until it changes, all the bakeries will sell the same products, all the jewelry stores will have the same designs, and all the entertainment/arts will be cheap knock-offs from the real creators of the world.

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2 thoughts on “Why “Rote” Learning is NOT Good….

  1. Black Sabbath – War Pigs. They’re guaranteed to have never heard it and the lyrics may even be socially relevant to China today.

    • Well JJ Doe, that seems more appropriate for America than China. I did not like Black Sabbath when I was a teen. I was not into that kind of music. And, I am definitely not into it today. Since I will have to play the music over and over again, I think I will find something that I like to hear repeatedly. But thanks for the suggestion. I hope you enjoy the blog.

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