Mumbai, October 2 2008 ( Indian Express)  “Despite being one of the largest producers of academic degrees in the world, the quality of education (in India) is still unsatisfactory,” said ex-chairman and chief mentor, Infosys, Narayana Murthy while delivering a lecture on the ‘need for world class educational institutions’ to a gathering comprising students, professors and alumni of the University Institute of Chemical Technolgy (UICT), Matunga.


“ India has hardly produced any worthwhile inventions. Almost every technology we use is from abroad. The reason is the low quality and quantity of our doctoral programmes and our emphasis on rote learning,” he rued as the audience listened in rapt attention.


History of Rote Learning: It seems reasonable to assume that it represents the earliest and the original teaching method. Among the first to break with the rote tradition were Greek scholars like Aristotle, the teacher, and his pupil Plato. The Greek concept of learning through questioning, which was taken up by the Egyptians and then the Romans, resulted in a spectacular knowledge explosion in mathematics, the sciences, architecture and philosophy. The Mediterranean basin (what was the then Western world) had become the hub of a remarkable human awakening.  When the “Western world” began to break apart, its symbols of intellectual progress, the university and library in Alexandria , were torched. Thereafter the questioning approach to teaching and learning all but disappeared. With learning restricted primarily to rote-drill memorization as taught in the monasteries there was a dramatic decline both in reading and intellectual production. It was the rediscovery of the Greek philosophers, among them Plato and Aristotle, which actualized the Renaissance. With it came an intellectual reawakening that created the Western world of today.


What is Rote Learning?


Rote learning is learning something by repeating it, over and over and over again; saying the same thing and trying to remember how to say it; trying to say it fluently and fast, without trying to understand the content. Rote-drill learning by its very nature makes fewer cognitive demands and therefore fewer demands on our brain’s integration of previous experience and knowledge. For this reason, it requires less intellectual involvement and students are never intellectually challenged.


What is its drawbacks?


Drilling students to memorize small bits of disconnected information doesn’t require thinking on the part of either the teacher or the students.  The danger of rote teaching is that it allows, even encourages,students to avoid having to think. Because it can be so comfortable, rote-drill instruction subtly undermines the importance of reasoning not only for the students but also for the teacher.


 Students who have the endowment to become outstanding abstract thinkers, to be major contributors to knowledge, find no need for the work required for genuine thinking and questioning. They are discouraged from indulging in such pleasures. As a result, what can be highly original minds are instead turned into parrots  that spout back other people’s ideas and findings, albeit with impressive accuracy and detail.


There is another possible danger created by rote teaching. It is its indoctrination potential. Note: rote teaching and indoctrination have a linked history. If you want to indoctrinate you do not want questioning. Therefore you teach using the rote memorization approach. The results of rote teaching with the intent to indoctrinate can range from bland and stupid to truly terrifying. Much of the mindless mob violence seen in India can be traced back to the lack of independent critical thinking inherent in the Indian psyche.


 Who practices rote learning in India ?


Nearly everybody practices rote learning in India . Indian parents emphasise the importance of passing exams. This process begins in kindergarten and goes right through the system to graduation from high school.Parents will do virtually anything to achieve their aims for their children. At one level this is very admirable, but it has unintended consequences. Parental pressure is brought to bear on the school principal, if there is a perception that students do not do well at the school, as in “get good marks in the exams”, parents are liable to complain or take children away and send them to a “better school”.





Are there any alternatives to Rote Learning?


The very opposite of Rote based learning is comprehension based learning, where the pupil questions his/her teacher till there is a very clear understanding of the lesson objectives, and the underlying principles behind each topic is established in the student’s mind.

learned knowledge is fully understood by the individual and that the individual knows how that specific fact relates to other stored facts in his/her brain.


The student reads carefully, trying to make sense out of the topic being taught. When asked to recall the material, the individual can remember almost all of the important terms and facts in the lesson. Furthermore, when asked to use the information to solve problems, she/he generates many possible solutions. In this scenario, the student not only possesses relevant knowledge, but s/he also can use that knowledge to solve problems and understand new concepts and can transfer the knowledge to new problems and new learning situations.  As comprehension and integration of ideas takes time, individuals who are taught this way appear slower on the uptake but they can reason in terms of implications, of abstraction. They are thinking organisms and are able to reason, analyse and innovate. The ability to invent leads to technological advancement , which is is what separates the Third World from the First.

This method of teaching is alien to the Indian educational system.


 It demands that every teacher is himself/herself clearly understands the topic he/she is trying to teach, and is able to explain it to his/her students without getting upset with the implied erosion to authority that a inquiry based teaching system entails. Keeping in mind that introduction of such a system entails training the teachers first, a very systemic broad based attempt has to be made to change the mindset and processes followed by Indian educators.


Is there any place in India where this change has taken place?

The Rishi Valley school in Karnataka has done away with rote learning and replaced it with activity based learning. The school has a rural out reach programme and has been cited by, and partnered with UNESCO to develop an Activity Based Learning module for the Tamil Nadu Government for all the state run schools. The following paragraphs are excerpts from the school and UNESCO websites.

“After fifteen years of intense work, we have developed a unique structure for village education that consists of a network of Satellite Schools where a community-based curriculum is taught by village youth trained in especially designed multi-grade methodologies, where the academic curriculum is graded for individual levels of learning, grounded in up-to-date information, and framed in the local idiom and, finally, where the curriculum is integrated with activities aimed to promote conservation, and sustain local culture.

The education kit called ‘School in a Box’ consists of graded cards. These cards represented a breaking down of the learning process into smaller units. Groups of cards are then assembled into a set of ‘milestones’, which lead students from level I to level V in the areas of language, mathematics and environmental science.

These carefully designed ‘study cards’ and ‘work cards’ are supported by a pictorial ‘achievement ladder’ that gives a clear sequential organization to what are essentially self-learning materials.

Children at different levels within a single classroom share the same kit. A textbook in each subject for each child can be dispensed with or used as enrichment material.

The cards allow children to learn at their own pace by selecting, with the help of the ‘achievement ladder’, the appropriate ‘study card’ for their level and performing the necessary follow-up activities or exercises contained in the ‘work cards’. This method encourages silent self-study and individualized learning, though teacher instruction and group work are also a necessary part of the learning process. It gave ample room to the fast-learner as well as the slow-learner to progress at their own pace. Student absenteeism is not a problem in our schools because a student is able to simply take up where he or she had left off on returning to school after a period of absence.

Learning by rote and dry comprehension exercises are abandoned in favour of activity-based learning. Work cards supported by teaching aids are prepared in such a way that children are actively involved in what she is doing and the possibility of her sitting “dreaming” in front of an open book is reduced to the minimum.

Given the rich folk tradition in which our villages are steeped, folk art, folk songs and local stories and legends are also incorporated into the curriculum. Education is seen not as a process of trying to bring every educated person’s competencies to one homogenized level, thereby alienating the child from his own roots and ironing out cultural differences, but as a tool for deepening an understanding of herself, of her traditions and roots, while also exposing her to a wider cultural and knowledge base. This value-based model of education communicates ideals such as tolerance for other cultures, protection of the environment, preservation of folklore and local medicinal traditions.

The model of rural education provides a viable and attractive alternative to traditional education in villages, based on the one teacher per class, mono-grade, mono-level model”


“Chennai, Tamil Nadu, September 1: Each day, Amudha, a teacher at the Corporation Primary School in Chennai’s Thiruvanmiyur area, looks forward to school. “It’s encouraging to see children asking questions, voice their opinions and enjoy their lessons, something they never did just a couple of years ago. They treat me as their friend and I like it.’’, she says with delight.


Amudha’s optimism isn’t misplaced. When the Corporation of Chennai adopted Activity Based Learning (ABL) on a trial basis in 13 government schools in the city in 2003, it was in effect transforming the way children till then had been taught.A transforming trip




The effort paid off. “Children today are able to understand what they learn. The system allows children to learn at their own pace and hence slow learning does not stop a child from gaining an education.  I feel proud to be part of this system,’’ says Meera, an ABL teacher at the Corporation Middle School in the city’s Purasaiwalkam area.

Earlier, even if a child didn’t do well in class, he or she was promoted to the next grade. That’s why, shockingly, even fifth-graders struggled to read a simple sentence in Tamil, their mother tongue. With ABL, the teachers had an opportunity to change that.

Today, ABL classrooms encourage children to ask many questions and think creatively. Amudha, Shanthi, Sathianathan and Meera say they will give all it takes to help poor children get the education they deserve, to make learning child-friendly and to build confidence in the young minds. 

They are encouraged to see their children motivated to learn well. “As teachers, we are happy to have a chance to give these children quality education. Even at home I’m thinking of new activities like puzzles and picture stories to present in class. I hope the system will be adopted successfully across Tamil Nadu,’’ says Shanthi.

As the children excitedly took to this new teaching-learning method, the teachers met every Saturday to discuss ways to improve card content, correct symmetry in material presentation and exchange ideas to induce participative learning. In February 2004 the revised cards were out and soon, all 270 government schools in the city were using them.

Many of the children in government-run schools come from marginalized families or are very poor. “While making the activity cards, I would constantly think about how much these children go through emotionally. I wanted to make their learning as joyful as possible,’’ says Sathianathan, who teaches at the Corporation Primary School in Pulianthope.

Starting this June, the State Government has taken the ABL learning initiative to 4,000 Government-run schools in the state. The way children are learning is changing across the state thanks to the efforts of hundreds of teachers like Shanti and Amudha.”



There are 26 states in India. Are the other states and the Central Government implementing activity based learning in their schools and colleges?


The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in operative in 35 states and Union territories of India . There are other attempts made in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh,Karnataka, Himachal,West Bengal, Gujarat,Punjab, Kerala , UP and Uttarakhand (a total of 10 states) to improve the quality of education but no other state follows the ABL model in TN, which has been commended by UNESCO, the World Bank and the European Union as well. The following article in the TOI is of interest:

CHENNAI: Going by the reviews of an expert team from the World Bank and the European Commission, a silent revolution in primary education has begun in Tamil Nadu.



The team , on a two-day tour to study the implementation of the activity-based learning (ABL) and active learning methodologies (ALM) in schools in Tamil Nadu, was all praise for the state for adopting on such a large scale with such a high rate of success the new pedagogies in one-and-ahalf years.






The challenge before India is to get the other 34 states and Union Territiories to follow suit.  You can advocate change in your state by working with advocacy groups. The Government of India has partnered with the Azim Premjee Foundation and you may like to contact them at:

Advocacy and Communication,
Azim Premji Foundation
134 Doddakannelli,
Next to Wipro Corporate Office,
Sarjapur Road,
Bangalore – 560035
















Telephone: 91- 80 – 66144900 / 01 / 02
Fax: 91 – 80 – 66144903


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The team – comprising Venita Kaul, Deepa Shankar and Savita Dhingra from the World Bank and Shanti Jagannathan from the European Commission – studied five Corporation and governmentaided schools in Chennai and 10 panchayat union schools in Dharmapuri district.

“We are extremely impressed with the improvement in the quality of learning among the children in schools adopting the ABL method,” said Venita Kaul, senior education specialist, World Bank.

“There are good initiatives in other states, but they are still in the pilot project stage and are less comprehensive. And they don’t incorporate individual-based learning. Credit goes to Tamil Nadu for elaborating and scaling up an innovative project,” Kaul said.

The team feels that compared to other states Tamil Nadu had taken a quantum leap in primary education – something that would have implications when the children move to higher classes.

In January, a joint review mission was conducted by officials from the World Bank and the Central and State governments .

While expressing satisfaction over the enrolment in schools, they had recommended enhancing the quality of education . This time, the team, on a “study mission” (as one of the members called it), saw a marked improvement.

A senior official of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan wing said the team noted that the new pedagogy allowed children to learn at their own pace and also individual learning. They also appreciated the in-built evaluation that the system allowed where a child moves to the next milestone only if he or she is able to perform the appropriate activities: a novelty considering that the normal curriculum is usually straitjacketed.

Democratic principles are followed in the classroom with the child deciding when to move to the next activity. Kaul refers to this as “the rights of children being ensured in class.”

“The team told us that the challenge lay in sustaining the momentum of development,” the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan official said.


What’s impressive is the holistic approach to education in schools across the state. “The methodology is well-entrenched . There’s no fumbling and the children don’t give unsure answers,” said Kaul. “




Amudha was among the first 26 teachers who were selected for training at Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh. They learnt the fundamentals of activity based learning from the UNICEF supported project there. [UNICEF supports Chennai Corporation in their schools programme and RISHI Valley Education Resource Centre (RIVER) has been identified and advocated by UNICEF  as a resource agency to promote child-centred and activity-based learning]


Back home in Chennai, they got to work together.  Shanthi, her colleague, remembers the many hours the team spent analyzing the best way to present words and numbers and add colour to lessons with rhymes, song, drama and charts. “We wanted to help children gain a real education,’’ she says. They created activity-cards, shattering conservative convictions that creating curricula was the exclusive preserve of the highly-learned.




The principal does not want this so the pressure comes to bear on the teachers who work long and hard. The only way they can deliver the results wanted is to teach using rote learning methods. They need to know the questions and they teach the answers and the children learn them off by heart. Then every one is happy.

Unfortunately this is a “no risk” teaching method. The principal runs a good school, the teachers deliver exam results and the parents are happy. This results in students who do not know what risk is about, because the teaching involves no risk or very low risk. When the students get to university they feel very comfortable with this kind of education and demand it on occasions.

The problem with this kind of education system is that if you want creativity you cannot have it. Creativity by its very nature is a very risky business. To be creative one must take risks. With creativity one steps into the unknown and one is not sure what will happen, or how a creative effort will be accepted. One may fail dismally but due to the no risk rote learning method failure cannot be tolerated, because one has always got positive results.


This results in a population in which very few people take risks.