Reality of Learning by Rote

“Rote learning” has been bedrock of Indian teaching method since ancient times. A person blurting out passages from ancient texts was held in high esteem by the so called higher casts. In days before printing reached India, there was no way to access the knowledge other than storing it in your head, to be retrieved on demand.

I grew up in Nashik, a small town famous for its place in Ramayan. Every year, on the banks of river Godawari, there was a contest to recite various ancient shlokas and sutras. A panel of near senile, overweight and Dhoti clad men asked contestants to start reciting from any word that came to their mind and to contestant being able match his memory to their whims would be winner. I can imagine a few hundred generations doing exactly the same thing as pursuit of “knowledge”.

In contrast there are thousands of stories in ancient literature of such “knowledgeable” men falling prey to simplest tasks in life and often unable to save their own life. All these stories insist that “Wisdom” and “application of knowledge” is always more valued than being a mere “data bank”.

Lord Macaulay was looking for this dumbing down when he planned his infamous mass education system for India. And most of us are still victims of this “data bank” kind of education. A lot of schools still insist that students reproduce answers in exactly the same sequence of words as prescribed by textbooks.

Now there is this universal protest in more enlightened homes against forcing kids to learn by rote. I was asked this question by Dr. Venkat Panchgnula, an eminent scientist at National Chemical Laboratory, Pune. (Venkat does not agree with the “eminent” bit, so I will keep it for sake of controversy, after all what is a blog without controversy?)

Venkat’s daughter’s school has prescribed learning tables (up to 10, i think). He asked – “school teacher wants rote learning of tables. First occasion in my daughter’s schooling where rote learning is expected. I have encouraged concept learning so far, is it worth standing my ground or not? I am letting kid decide what she is comfortable with. Obviously, she is not comfortable with memorizing tables.”

Venkat is not alone this dilemma. Most sensitive and intelligent parents feel same.

My answer is –

Dear Venkat,

Rote learning is a tricky thing. There are certain data that need to be available to us “in a flash”. This saves on precious brain recourse of processing speed and time, e.g. – name, address, phone no. , passwords, etc. thousands of things. We memorize these things as we go along in life. We go on accumulating this “unconscious learning” thru our life. Even kinetic memory like walking, cycling, swimming, touch typing, etc is rote memory of muscles!

Tables are no different. In fact all kids should memorize 30 by 15 tables if possible. Our senior generation, they knew tables of 0.5, 0.75, 1.25! This facilitates higher learning in math. Without number tables, math can become a laborious, tiring exercise. It is one of the fundamental skills to learn math. You can compare it to learning atomic symbols and basic formulae.

So let your daughter learn tables by heart, it will give huge dividends very soon.

Best Wishes,


P.S. – I am completely against rote learning of concepts. Everything that can be understood must be understood and not learned by rote. You will agree that there is nothing to understand in tables. It is just data that should be conveniently available at the fingertips (like anniversaries and birthdays)

Within a day, my thoughts were challenged by my friends Amit Paranjape and (Dr.) Navin Kabra. Both insisted that though it helps a great deal to remember tables, there is no need to learn tables beyond 10! You can learn to use various multiplication tricks to come up with necessary answers. When Amit and Navin say these kind of things, I have to take notice as they both got into IIT, Mumbai ( it was IIT, Bombay then) and Navin did that without attending coaching classes ! (Amit also insists that learning tricks of multiplication is not to everyone’s liking in such cases tables should be learned by rote)

So my suggestion is that you must learn tables up to 10. And then try to learn multiplication tricks. If you realize that you cannot use these tricks with required speed, you have options

  • Learn tables by rote
  • Do not attempt IIT entrance exam
  • Learn to use calculator
  • Become an artist.

Navin suggested two books that propelled him towards math (by his own admission, he was “weak” in math till 8th STD!)

  • Figuring, the Joy of Numbers by Shakuntala Devi
  • Figures for Fun by Yakov Perelman.

Both are available for Rs. 100 or less, each, on Flipkart.

So like all good questions Venkat’s queston raised more issues than it solved. I like that. That is how we learn and grow and have fun with little bit of rote on the way.

One Reply to “Reality of Learning by Rote”

  1. I agree that some level of rote learning helps to do more difficult tasks faster. Multiplication tables upto 10 is only one example. Practice is the key. If we know how to go up to point x by heart, then we need to learn or ask or write fewer steps to go beyond point x.

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