A roadblock to NEP 2020: Rote learning in primary education

Gourashyam Moirangthem
The International Standard Classification of Education considers primary education as “a single-phase where programmes are typically designed to (…) establish a solid foundation for learning.” Only after having this foundation, a person can become an efficient, effective and independent learner in whatever trade he/she may chose. Only then the dream of a developed and a self reliant Nation can be realized.
For almost a decade, India refused to participate in Global Education Ranking - PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). Last time India participated was in 2009, where it stood 3rd to last (72/74). Seemingly the testing criteria were not suited for India. Since then India prepared very hard, and in 2019 announced its decision to participate in the 2021 cycle.
But are we really ready? India’s own survey by ASER (Annual Status of Education Report, 2018) reported that only half (50.3%) of all students in Class V can read texts meant for Class II students. According to the latest report of ASER-2019, only 16% of children in Class 1 in 26 surveyed rural districts can read text at the prescribed level, while almost 40% cannot even recognize letters.
Manipur can’t live in the illusion that it is better than what is reported here. Rather, we have a unique set of problems. Our Government schools are in a difficult position. The topic on Government schools is a complex one, and it’s not possible to cover here. So, this article is focused mainly on the private English medium schools, which delivers most of the so called quality education in Manipur.
The concern at hand is, in what standard a student can read and understand a simple sentence. When 5th standard students can’t understand and internalize the questions and the answers they are writing, I feel this is a serious problem in our education system.
If we look deeper, we will realize that the root cause of this problem is over-dependence on rote learning, and our attitude in sidelining the value of real knowledge and creativity.
I conducted a small questionnaire among a sample of kids in so called prestigious private English medium schools in Manipur. Each one of them told me they prepare for exams by rote learning. Even the language/literature paper is learnt this way. The literary language with which to learn the concepts are crammed! God bless the children.
I am not saying rote learning is bad. Rather it is an effective tool to memorize complex things like mathematical formulae, vocabulary, names, historical chronologies, facts and figures etc. It is a mandatory tool in the education process. The problem arises when this method is used in the wrong way. When we learn the basic concepts, ideas and knowledge by cramming alone without really understanding, where is the meaning of real education left ? How students can think logically, and go beyond the concepts to apply them in real life ?
I feel strongly personal about this, because I am one of the victims of this tradition. I grew up mostly topping my class in early years of schooling mostly by rote learning. I realized the mistake when it was already too late. By that time I have wasted most of my formative years to internalize many valuable knowledge of the world.
Indian education system is still tinged with a color of the erstwhile colonial education system, which was based on rote learning. The colonial system was aimed at producing docile, orderly factory workers. The colonial rulers did not want to produce self-reliant and independent thinkers. That is why most of the freedom struggle leaders we saw were foreign educated. Unfortunately it has spilled over even today, after 70 years of independence. It is robbing our potential youths from becoming creative, innovative, independent thinkers. That’s why India’s strong workforce is still mostly represented by mundane workers, and not much innovators.
The reasons why this colonial tradition of rote learning is still holding our education system in a choke-hold can be discussed as:
1. Toppers hype
The fame fuelled by media for State toppers in the State blinded the young and old alike. It led to the mad rush of securing a position in top 20 by hook or by crook. The secret to it is rote learning, as it is the shortcut to score high marks. Cramming the beautiful answers formulated by teachers, and vomit them in the answer paper is the sure shot method to be among this group of highly decorated students. This is possible because the testing method employed still does not effectively take into account this fallacy.
2.  Mushrooming private English medium schools
Why the hype of English medium schools ? There is real advantage of knowing English as a language, because it gives an edge to continue higher studies. Also it greatly helps in the competition to get Colonial hangover jobs. Apart from that, the toppers hype is sustained by private school business. They employ toppers as an ultimate selling point. And they employ rote learning as a tool to maintain their selling point of high scorers and toppers.
3. English Language as medium of study
Under the circumstances of already established tradition of rote learning, English medium of study reiterated and amplified the problem. Generally, these kids don’t know the language properly as it takes great efforts and time to learn a foreign language very well to employ as a medium of study. But, these kids are learning the foundational concepts with this language. Thus, with the already built up tendency to rote learning, the language made it inescapable that most of the students automatically have to rely on it. A chakravyuh!
4. Attitude of teachers
The band of teachers who grew up in the same fashion takes up the jobs, and the cycle repeats. The teachers who evaluate papers don’t encourage personal attempts to form a sentence in their answer paper, but rather encourage them to cram their decorated answers and vomit down in the exam. That is because they don’t see any visible reward for working hard to achieve the student’s results otherwise. What do you expect what happens in coaching centers where the parents are in mad rush of ? They teach highly probable questions that can be asked in the exams, and give ready-made answers to be crammed.
5. Attitude of parents
Most parents are unaware of what they should expect their kids to learn from school. All they care is marks, marks and marks. They are unaware that their skewed goal towards marks should be rather towards what their kids have learnt - the real knowledge. They are not able to judge schools/teachers which deliver genuine knowledge apart from the ones which produce results through rote learning.
6. Policy makers and executives
The policy of producing docile, orderly workers may produce results in the short run, but it is depriving the country of strong, independent, creative and innovative youths who will be responsible for bringing creative and innovative solutions to compete with the developed Nations, and for bringing economic excellence of the country. To illustrate the situation, if we raise our children to be too docile to stand up for oneself, how can we expect them to stand up for us when we get old ? That strategy might be effective for Colonial rulers, not for independent India. Our policies need to be very careful to avoid this fallacy.
National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is a big leap forward in resolving the existing problems in our education. Specially, it strongly emphasizes the mother tongue/ home language/regional language as medium of instruction. I for one highly applaud it. To name a few of the remarkable policies regarding primary education:
· Board exams to be based on knowledge application, to be made easier. To test core competencies rather than memorized facts, with all students allowed taking the exam twice.
· Regular Exams to track progress. All students will take school examinations in grades 3, 5, and 8 which will be conducted by the appropriate authority.

(To be contd)