The place of Rote Learning

As I read through module two, I was fascinated by the discussion question about rote learning. As I thought more about rote, I began to consider its possible place in history as well as its place in today’s culture. My examination of the themes discussed in Ong’s book, as well as other readings led me to an exploration of the prevalence of rote learning in oral, written, print or technology cultures. Through my research, I recognized that the use of rote learning rose as written and print cultures became dominant and is now diminishing in today’s technological world.

In considering the concept of rote learning, it is important to have a clear understanding of the term itself. The Oxford English Dictionary defines rote as “a mechanical or repetitious manner: (esp. of learning, etc.) acquired by memorization without proper understanding or reflection”.

When I first thought about the subject, I assumed that rote learning would be a dominant learning method in a culture without writing because memory is so important. Further reflection on the subject led me to deduct that this is not the case. The concept of rote learning is by definition a separation of the facts from the contextual framework. According to Ong (2002), people in oral cultures see themselves as situated within the context. He describes them as “situational thinkers” (p.51). Since people don’t separate themselves from situations, the concept of facts outside of the context would not occur to them. Consequently, rote learning would not have a large role in oral cultures.

In an oral culture, context is everything. Stories are about life events and are used to explain the world. They are told at specific times of year and in specific situations. For example, a story about marriage is told at a wedding. This strengthens context (Clariana, 1988). Since oral people’s memorization of stories and poems occurred in context, oral storytellers fully internalized the meaning of the story and thus were able to retain meaning and meter while making changes to the recitation as they tell it. This is not true for people who memorize passages using rote learning. Rote memorization is done out of context. Repeated repetition of facts leads to verbatim recitation of words without a true understanding of the meaning behind the words. Although words that have lost their meaning have been passed down through generations of Oral people, this is not the norm. People understand the meaning behind the words because they are immersed in the context that occurs with the stories.

A contrast to this is rote learning in our print culture which is associated with repetition of verbatim information, such as multiplication tables or complete texts. Success in rote memorization is a perfect word by word rendition of the original material and is usually achieved by consulting a text to check accuracy (Ong, 2002). This avenue of learning is clearly not available to a culture with no texts to consult. As Ong (2002) points out, people in an oral society would not be able to tell if a recitation was exact or not. There was no way to record the information and play it back and so no method to check if the recitation learned was exact. (Ong 2002 p. 57) Therefore, although it has been found by researchers, perfect verbatim renditions of stories are not the norm (Ong 2002 p.67).

Examining the place of rote learning in early writing cultures leads me to reflect on how the ancient Greek people would react to rote learning. The ancient Greek philosophers lived in a culture with a deep oral residue. One way that they developed and remembered complex thoughts is through shared conversations. Discussions with others leads to deep thinking in context, not rote memorization. My contemplation on this subject leads me to believe that Plato would not have recognized rote learning as real learning. Rote memorization is something done through consistent repetition, forcing the mind to memorize. Plato said “Do not train youth to learning by force or harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so you may discover with accuracy the regular bent of the genius of each…” . To me, this implies a search for deep understanding instead of a memorization of facts.

As writing cultures evolved and writing became more widespread, it is clear how the study of the characters themselves could give rise to embracing rote learning. Students must learn how to write each character before they can be put into context. Although once an accepted learning technique, the role of rote learning in modern schools has gradually been diminishing. This pedagogical shift has occurred as theorists have realized that rote learning doesn’t give rise to true understanding of the concepts and ideas. Since this method creates a list of facts with minimal understanding of meaning, the human brain has great difficulty using these facts in new situations. Newer learning theories such as constructivism and the social learning theories advocate for knowledge to be connected to context and for facts to arise from understanding. These concepts are becoming more and more common in classrooms today. Students work to understand the reasoning behind the facts so that they can follow the pathways of the reasoning and arrive at the facts when required. For example, if a student understands why 2×3 equals 6, he or she is able to follow the process again to get the answer and to then apply that process to other multiplication questions. Instead of rote memorization, teaching the facts in context allows students to understand the relationships surrounding facts and learn them as “instances of generalizations instead of rote associations” (Dixon & Carnine, 1994 p.360). These facts will then be remembered though use in context as opposed to rote repetition out of context.

This means that in today’s culture, facts used consistently will be memorized for quick recall and, because of the easy access to information provided by today’s technology, rarely used facts, such as historical dates, don’t need to be memorized, verifying my aforementioned premise.


Dixon & Carnine (1994). Ideologies, Practices, and their Implications for Special   Education. Journal of Spec Education 1994(28) 356-367 DOI: 10.1177/002246699402800309

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.

Rote (2010). In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from

Clariana (1988). Peace Corps Nepal 1988 Preservice Technical Training Manual for Math and Science Teacher Trainers. Retrieved from ERIC ED300 276

This entry was posted in Commentary 1 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply