This has reference to the debate on cram schools in this newspaper a couple of weeks ago. When one sees the immense popularity of rote learning, one is compelled to ask: What is the alternative to cramming or rote learning? And secondly, why do students do it instead of analyzing the data before them and using application skills?
One big factor appears to be the emphasis we place on grades: The higher the GP the better placement one is afforded, whether it is in an institute of higher education or the job market. Cramming requires little intelligence as opposed to critical thinking.
The alternative to rote learning is analyzing data and applying it to the demands or criteria of a question. Why do students find this so difficult? One of the reasons, perhaps, goes back to earlier learning patterns, when the child is still at the developmental stages of cognitive, motor, sensory, physical/social, etc., changes. Normally, children arrive at the different milestones sooner or later owing to differences in genetic, social, family or cultural factors but somewhere along the way, it is possible that greater emphasis begins to be placed on patterns of uniformity strongly based in the cultural context of Saudi Arabia; a general discouragement of thinking outside the box; an indescribable fear of appearing or being different and a tacit approval of the herd mentality. Both India and Pakistan, and large parts of Asia including Saudi Arabia are relatively conservative societies and conservatism necessitates that there is little to disturb the status quo. Is it possible then that a certain mindset prevails in these countries which simply does not make room for originality or creativity?
In the education systems in these countries, perhaps the spill over is that students simply don't have the skills which should be inherent by the time they are adults, to make sense of data in front of them or for application skills.
Surprisingly enough, the English language is not the main obstacle to learning. Arabic speaking teachers often raise concerns with students not understanding instructions in Arabic. On the other hand, students are constantly disappointed that they can no longer rely on rote learning when it comes to learning English at the Foundation Year in Saudi universities.
Now that we have a background to the discourse above, one invariably looks for solutions. As learning patterns are instilled early in life, perhaps there should be concerted efforts to establish schools which offer bilingualism and that from an early age; in our context, this would be both Arabic and English.
While we have succeeded in attaching some sort of prestige tag to the learning of English which is important for instrumental motivation, rote learning defeats the very purpose of learning a foreign language.
There also needs to be a gradual shift from academic subjects being rote learned and instead approached with emphasis on analytical and critical thinking skills in tandem with the basic reading, writing, speaking and listening activities prevalent in our classrooms today. — Ozma Siddiqui, Jeddah