Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

Path to Understanding

books for memorizing

by Erika McIntyre

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]  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.[5]

[1] Darrin R. Leman and Roger G. Tweed, “Learning Considered Within a Cultural Context: Confucian and Socratic Approaches,” American Psychology 57, no. 2 (2002): 92.
[2] Daniel D. Pratt, Mavis Kelly, and Winnie S. S. Wong, “Chinese Conceptions of ‘Effective Teaching’ in Hong Kong: Towards Culturally Sensitive Evaluation of Teaching,” International Journal of Lifelong Education 18, no. 4 (1999): 7.
[3] Leman and Tweed, “Learning Considered Within a Cultural Context,” 93.
[4] John 14:6.
[5] 1 Peter 1:24-25.

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.

  • What does rote learning or meaningful learning look like in your context?
  • How has learning about your student’s educational background influenced your teaching?
  • Whose words have shaped your life?

Post Author

ErikaErika McIntyre has been a teacher for over twenty years and can’t imagine doing anything else with her life. She earned an M.A. degree in Leadership in 2009 and an M.A. in TESOL and Intercultural Studies in 2013. Erika has had the privilege of teaching in Hungary, Ukraine, and China.  In all the places she has lived and taught, her greatest source of joy is found in the Master Teacher.

Photo by Pixabay.

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This entry was posted on January 25, 2023 by in Erika McIntyre, meaningful learning, through my eyes, Yahweh's wisdom.



Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
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