As I approached the Foreign Language Building, I saw students walking around talking to themselves while occasionally glancing at their notebooks. Continuing upstairs to my classroom, I heard the collective hum of students repeating passages to themselves. After eleven years in China, these sights and sounds have become a familiar backdrop to life on campus. When I first started teaching English in China, I didn’t have a high opinion of rote learning as my own experiences were connected to test prep, but after formally studying Chinese and learning more about Eastern culture, my views have softened.
Rote learning is defined as the act of learning or memorization by repetition. This method has a long history and is still heavily used in China. When using this method, students are usually reading aloud, writing down information, drilling, or employing other mnemonics to make the information stick. This approach can be beneficial when learning foundational information and when quick recall is needed, but rote learned information may not be fully understood or processed. Rote learning is often contrasted with meaningful learning, a theory developed by cognitive learning theorist David Ausubel who suggested that new information needs to build upon prior knowledge and experiences. Meaningful learning encourages students to actively engage with the content, reflect upon the information, and personalize the material so that it is stored in long-term memory. Language teachers aid meaningful learning when they activate student’s prior knowledge, contextualize new information, and provide opportunities for students to make real-life connections to the material.
Confucius (551-479 B.C.E), one of China’s most influential teachers and philosophers, valued education as a means of transforming behavior that resulted in a more harmonious society. He encouraged students not just to repeat words (from experts) but also to understand them and allow the knowledge to change their behavior. I talked to one co-worker who described memorizing passages from a methodology textbook until it became part of their own pedagogy. Another teacher explained that this process of repetition and drilling deepens students’ understanding, allowing for new insights to form. For Chinese students, the order of learning is memorization, understanding, applying, and then questioning or modifying, and if done in this way, memorization can become a path to understanding and not just seemingly mindless intake. Though it’s true that not every Chinese student or teacher applies rote learning strategies in this way, rote learning continues to be an important part of the learning process.
After talking with co-workers about their experience with rote learning, I couldn’t help but think about meditating on the Master Teacher’s Word. My co-workers described a process of sitting with information and churning knowledge repeatedly in their minds, giving space and time for connections to be made within, which sounded like an opportunity for meaningful learning to take place. As I apply this in my own life, I think about not just the potential value of memorizing academic knowledge or contemplating words of wisdom from virtuous people but meditating on the life-giving words of the Master Teacher. He too has called people to learn of Him and to follow His ways— for He is the way, the truth, and the life. Beyond meditating on His truth, I have been sealed by the Helper who empowers, comforts, convicts, and reminds me of truth even when other knowledge has faded. I’m thankful for these diligent co-workers and students who model rising early or staying up late to memorize valuable information for their professional and personal lives. What a gift is this reminder to meditate on the words from the Ancient of Days! Though the world’s knowledge withers and human understanding fades, His Word will last forever.