A roadblock to NEP 2020: Rote learning in primary education

Gourashyam Moirangthem *

The International Standard Classification of Education considers primary education as ďa single-phase where programmes are typically designed to (....) establish a solid foundation for learning.Ē 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? Indiaís 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 canít 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 itís 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 canít 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. Thatís why Indiaís 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 donít 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 donít 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 donít see any visible reward for working hard to achieve the studentís 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:

o 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.
o 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.
o School curriculum to be reduced to core concepts; integration of vocational education from class 6, and allow activity-based learning.
o Teachers will be recruited through robust, transparent processes. Promotions will be merit-based, with a mechanism for multi-source periodic performance appraisals and available progression paths to become educational administrators or teacher educators.
o A common National Professional Standards for Teachers (NPST) will be in consultation with NCERT, SCERTs, teachers and expert organizations.


Deciding factor for the real result of this policy lies with implementation. NEP-2020 is a beautifully and thoughtfully designed policy. But a policy is only as good as its implementation. In this regard, we can focus our reform implementations in the following order of importance:

1. Teachers

I believe teachers are the holder of faith of the next generation. They should focus on providing real knowledge. They should ensure the students internalize what they are being taught. They should be determined to let their students out of this vicious cycle of rote learning based colonial leftover system. They should employ one-on-one personalized evaluation of students and getting to know what they have learnt, not decided by marks alone. They should encourage students to be free thinkers and encourage innovative ideas.

We donít need teachers who came to the profession out of desperation. We need real teachers who passionately want to teach. To make people aspire for the profession, it should be made prestigious. They should be paid well, given perks and enough degree of status symbol and respect.

2. Parents

Parents should be made aware that knowledge is what matters most, not just marks. The focus should be to ask if their kids are learning enough to be capable to take on the world by themselves as an independent thinker when they grow up.

They should be encouraged to impart this idea to their kids. They should be sensitized that their childrenís education is their most valuable investment. They should regularly communicate with their kids about their day today happenings in school. They should impart their children the idea that knowledge is the ultimate aim. They should encourage their kids to honestly evaluate their teachers, and to report to them and to the concerned authorities.

3. Executives

Continuous evaluation of the teachers is the need of the hour. Take effective feedback about teachers from students and parents, and use them to decide the necessary steps to correct the faults. Set standards. Establish reward system for performing teachers, and hard disciplinary actions if not performed well. Effective timely training of teachers on emerging technologies and teaching methods should be focused on. Need to make the trainings enjoyable and interesting. Training for sake of attendance is a huge waste of resources. Proper evaluation should be employed after training to ensure its effectiveness.

4. Policy makers

Overall, NEP-2020 is a very good blueprint. A strong focus can be made on making the students to think independently, to think out of the box. Another point to be looked upon is taking of effective feedback from students and parents about their teachers and school.

I repeat again, a good policy is as good as its implementation. Policies formulated should be towards really achievable goals. Parliamentarians should formulate strict enough strategies to ensure the policies implemented. But at the same time the policies should be flexible enough to adapt with regional variations and to change itself according to emerging situations unfounded in the process. A degree of independence should be given to executives in this regard.

5. Society

Let knowledge and truth be the highest value and guiding light of the society. Let us respect each and every professional in accordance to their hard work and value to the society. Let us be proactive in weeding out the roadblocks on this path to an enlightened and responsible future generation.


In this modern world, human resources are the most valuable resources. The quality of human resources is mostly shaped in the early stages of education. According to Sir Ken Robinson in his book ďOut of our MindsĒ, ďThe more complex the world becomes, the more creative we need to be to meet its challengesĒ.

In todayís highly complex and competitive world we need to be creative and innovative. We cannot make someone innovative overnight. We need to inculcate such mindset since the early childhood. Therefore, it is imperative of our primary education system to focus on helping the students to be knowledgeable, creative and innovative, rather than rote learning questions and answers for the sake of marks alone.

Therefore, quality conscious, knowledge focused, creativity led primary education is the primary step we should take to produce a resourceful, logical, creative, innovative and civilized generation of youth. This is the mantra to resolve most of the social, political and economic problems we are facing in our generation. It should be regarded as the greatest gift we can offer to the future generations.

* Gourashyam Moirangthem wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on September 30 2020.

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