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My Take
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 6:59am

In praise of rote learning

I am mathematically challenged. When I was in secondary school and university, I had no idea about the many long equations we had to memorise or the meanings of the symbols and their relationships.

Yet, I scored A's in all my maths and physics classes when I graduated from high school and survived two years of university before switching to less mathematically challenging subjects. I did it through memorisation, willpower and rote learning, with little understanding or "creativity". It was all pressure, no joy - year in, year out.

Yet, to this day, I don't regret my brute-force method of learning, which is a much-criticised characteristic of an Asian education. It was the only way I could do it, and it didn't kill my curiosity about science and maths, which I still find fascinating (albeit incomprehensible). If I had been allowed so-called creative, individualised and fun learning - whatever these mean - I would have learned much less science and maths before dropping out.

I mention all this because Hong Kong's students again scored very high in the latest Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

We are third after Finland and South Korea, and ahead of Japan and Singapore, which place fourth and fifth. Britain and the United States, favourite education destinations for Hong Kong students, rank sixth and 17th. Such high results for our students - and those from Shanghai, Singapore, South Korea and Japan - have been consistent over the past decade in similar findings by authoritative studies such as the OECD's PISA survey.

But when you point out these results, many foreigners and even locals dismiss them. Our students are just automatons, they claim, and not creative individuals capable of high executive function and decision-making.

These critics are so fixed in their ideas of creativity and individuality that no amount of statistics or facts will convince them otherwise. Individual creativity is important in science and the arts. But it's meaningless to talk about it unless you have mastered the essentials, which, like the multiplication table, often have to be learned by rote.

Yes, our system is full of problems - but it's also doing something right.


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The news of the result of Siemens' science competition in US is a timely one. There are quite a few bearing Chinese family name who

are the winners. Asians in US are often seen as nerds in school as they do better than their peers in math and science subjects. Giving

a level playing field in school, why do Asians are prompt to do well in those subjects? Could they be influenced by rote learning in

memorizing theory and formula privately? Or those competition winners are taking advantage of a better education in US in developing their

cognition to the fullest? The Siemens science competition were it opened worldwide would the winners to include Chinese students from Hong Kong

who were rated 3rd in 2012 PISA in academic rating? Is a combination of rote learning and a US way of education in liberal arts breed scientists

or just rote learning breads young scientists with achievements comparable to their older peers? I suggest that SCMP would travel to US to

interview those winners with result to illuminate the issue on rote learning.
Let’s rethink the M formula of titans, their route to Eureka.
The best known and most misinterpreted is:
Einstein = 99% P + 1% I
Exhibit 1: Newton’s Waste Book (Google surely, Wiki ?)
e.g., to square the hyperbola, he calculated a series to 55 decimal
Exhibit 2: hearsay - a HK secondary student rediscovered calculus on his own thru a similar route
Speculation: What did AE do 99% of his T?
Toiling over minutiae as a bureaucrat in the patent office?
Toying with the little and simple knowledge of physics the world had then?
Voilà - Annus Mirabilis
Compare AM with his time, attempting 99% I, in IAS
The right Eistein M formula is
Eureka = I; I = f P
Why else am I here but the diversion needed to keep me busy and released from real work pressure elsewhere?
I aim’t enthusiastic about KP but would welcome Popperite’s refutation
In the patent office, AE worked in discovery frontline, albeit dealing only with characteristically mundane and tiresome nature of the bulk.
Small world theory?
There may be this cretive dimension which one has to get in to be creative.
The titans’ experience was, that dimension may best be accessed thru hardwork.
pslhk owns copyright of this formulation, its application and ramification.
Dear Alex,
The league statistics in education, as with other demographic numbers, are often distorted by the methodology and study group selection used to measure the performance of a section of students. They vary from country to country and are usually not truly representative of the real situation.
Therefore the results you quote may well be pretty well meaningless.
There are, however, some aspects of learning that can only be rote learnt. Examples include the hundreds of acronyms medical students have to learn in the study of anatomy, or lawyers learning the names of case reports in law, others mathematical formulae or irregular verbs in French or German. None of them teach a person to be a brilliant doctor, lawyer, mathematician or linguist, but one just has to learn them. Rote learning, however, is a foundation in many processes of learning, but it is not in itself true learning, as proven by your admission that you are still **** at maths!
At some stage there has to be a creative thinking process which aims for the attainment of excellence.
As Mark Twain said, and attributed the remark to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, "There are lies, damn lies and statistics."
Rote learning is certainly suitable for arithmatic (times tables, etc.) It is not suitable for social science. I taught social science subjects at Chinese University for over 20 years and saw that many of those we turned out could not think on their feet. The problem is not just that professors cram students heads with facts and seek regurgitation on multiple choice and true-false exams instead of posing essay questions. The problem is (or used to be) the examination system used to select university students. I have graded the old Higher Level Exam and even wrote the questions one year. The questions require a model answer which means students must have particular items in their answer. The year I wrote this exam I tried to dispense with the model answer. The representative of Hong Kong secondary schools on the panel, a school principal, refused to accept this and demanded a model answer for each question. The best I could achieve was a model answer with different possible elements in the answer. I suspect this was too complicated a marking scheme for the graders since I was never invited back to write exam questions. So teachers teach for an exam which requires rote learning.
My daughter, who attended Shatin College and had the International Baccaleureate curriculum, did not have to deal with this method of learning. Teachers were interested in what students thought and how they built their arguments. Now my daughter is thriving in her freshman year at Temple University.
I think I can understand your observation
Which seems to attribute problem cause not to RL but to exams and their preparation.
Do you observe the same problem in non HK ethnic Chinese students?
If “problem” is due 30% to RL and 70% to other factors, we may wish to address these other factors as well and not just focus on RL per se
I believe, as you pointed out, exam format is the principal culprit.
When my boy studied A Maths (not just the M table), supposedly requiring operational thinking and not factual regurgitation, he also found RL useful
He has since taken many post graduate level maths courses, for interest.
We may wish to make better use of the strengths of RL and avoid its defects.
Rote learning leads to tremendous knowledge of facts. That is undisputed. The West must not become too critical towards rote learning, as the emphasis on "creativity" often is just an excuse for laziness.
However, on the other side of the spectrum, if the focus on rote learning becomes too dominant, there is little time for the development of personal skills. Unfortunately, this is a real danger for Asian students. Whilst their Western counterparts engage in socializing and still score good grades, the cliche Asian student sits at home on weekends to study just to absorb even more factual knowledge. Whilst the Western student learns how to interact as a person, to make a stand in difficult social situations, to behave properly, to pick up girls or boys, the Asian student trades all of that in for another huge chunk of mere information, learned by heart.
Later, in professional life, the Western person can easily gather information they missed during university via books whenever needed. The lack of social experience, however, the Asian person can never ever make up.
The physicist who understands patients and has only 80 % of medical knowledge is better than the physicist who does not and has 100 % of knowledge.
The outgoing attorney who knows how to psychologically manipulate his opponents is superior to the introvert attorney who knows all the laws by heart.
Similar examples can be provided for any field.
You’re right about the need for balanced development
and the problem of going to extremes.
But, rote learning in Asia may and may not induce nerds and
easy schooling in the West may or may not induce good social skills.
Students who don’t develop a sound foundation in hard disciplines in formative age may never have the rigor to recover in college age, just like students who don't mix well in school may have social difficulties later.
Some Asian students' social inertia may not be caused by rote learning.
It is difficult, for example, to isolate the effect of rote learning on ethnic Chinese studying abroad. They are quite different while sharing some common characteristics according to their origins: the mainland, Taiwan, HK, and Singapore.
Asian students under RL pressure are human like their Western counterparts, with appropriate interest in co curricular activities.
In my time, we played soccer, went to movies and dances. Youngsters nowadays have different activites. Most surprsingly, they don't go to dances any more.
Socio-economic and other factors may better explain some Asian students’ social inertness, than RL.
But I understand your physician example.
One such told me he had learnt about irritation being a symptom of flu onset in a child
but never realized what it meant by irritation until he observed it later in his own child.
The end justifies the means.. How many Nobel Prize winners from Asia compared to the West in the last century?
That said, departing from the dichotomy from 'rote learning' vs 'creative learning' will lead to a paradigm shift. Just do whatever it takes to understand, comprehend and master. The end justifies the means...
I beg to differ. Yes, Nobels were won especially from US, but from people who migrated there. They have all the money, equipments and conducive environment to grow the potential.
Yes, we need _some_ rote learning as was pointed out, but we need to rethink how much and how little. If you do away with rote learning, I'm afraid the level of science and maths among the majority of the people will fall down a cliff. What the European has is a model where the students who have natural talents to these hardcore disciplines can shine without rote learning, but the rest of the class will say "Oh, maths is so hard ! " and they shy away from it. Believe me, I teach these European kids. Without some kind of small "battering" into these people who say everything is hard to them, they won't realise that they can't just rely on their innate capabilities alone, but they need to "find" their way to master the sciences. What we as educator is to provide them some "rote" or "hard discipline" to them, otherwise they felt like a failure when faced with all the science questions and in the end, they never appreciate how much S & T has done to their life.
Anyway, what we need is more educators per class to see to the variety of ways needed for each students. No one method suits all.
What the East lacks are sessions where students can go about exploring their curiosity and experimenting by themselves. Those with natural talents will show out and will bring the East to win the Nobels in time.
What is cognitive skills? What is important to young minds is open-mindedness, curiosity and
imagination, when confronting matters finding various aspects of "answers" to issues which we understand very little. Such is at the heart of "liberal" education.




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