The article appeared in the June 2018 edition of India Seminar.

This article starts by explaining why one believes there is a learning crisis in India, How it probably originated and why it has persisted in spite of resources expended over many years. It goes on to discuss rote learning, seen as one of the root causes for the learning crisis, and board exams, which sustain rote learning. Finally, it talks about some proposed solutions.

Multiple studies have shown that there is a clear gap between what we expect children to know and understand, and what they are able to do. The reason we consider it a crisis in India (rather than just a learning gap) is that both in relative and absolute terms, the situation is extremely serious. India stood 73 out of 74 countries in the 2009-10 PISA test. Meanwhile, the ASER tests show repeatedly that about 50% of grade 5 children cannot read a grade 2 text. The results in arithmetic are equally poor.

We live in a world where basic education and critical thinking is becoming a prerequisite for most jobs. If a significant percentage of Indians do not acquire basic skills, this represents a danger not just to progress, but even peace and stability in the region and beyond.

What caused the learning crisis and why years of effort and resources haven’t addressed it? To understand this, we shall introduce the ideas of technical and administrative paradigms[1]. Every sector needs solutions in both the technical space and administrative (or governance) space. To take telecom as an example, the various core technologies (like 4G and 5G) relate to the technical paradigm. Practices like the process to allot spectrum correspond to the governance or administrative paradigm. A sector can flourish only if there is focus and progress on both these paradigms in that sector.

In public education, the focus seems to have been disproportionately on the administrative paradigm. The technical paradigm here refers to all aspects of curriculum, teaching techniques, research into learning and assessments, while the administrative paradigm covers topics like teacher accountability, teacher-student ratios, delivering textbooks on time, conduction of examinations, and so on. There is an unstated assumption that the technical dimension is easy or trivial. This is seen both in comments like: “What’s there to teaching Class 3 children – anyone should be able to do it…” and in administrative duties crowding out educational ones for many people working in the system.

We can now examine what sowed the seed for the current learning crisis. Our current education system was actually designed in the mid-1800s with a goal of producing effective workers and intermediaries to support the British Empire. While the world around has changed significantly and at an increasingly faster pace, education systems and curriculums tend to have a lot of inertia. The few changes that have been made (moving to the 10+2 system, semesterisation, etc.) have tended to be based more on the administrative rather than the technical paradigm. The disconnect in the vision, in the language used and the of change over time has tended to make the enterprise of education / teaching more mechanical alongside a disproportionate focus on making it ‘easier to test’.

This has led to what is called rote learning. We shall define it and discuss it in depth later. Seen through the lens of the administrative paradigm, education is about children attending classes in which teachers are present, those children taking tests from time to time, and examinations at the end of the year. The very concept of ‘learning’ (as opposed to marks in a test) needs an appreciation of the technical paradigm.

Teacher training is measured in terms of number of teachers trained and hours of training. This kind of training is inefficacious when the students are not from middle-class backgrounds with educated parents and access to learning material. As the system expanded, a large number of teachers had to be recruited but with training focussed more on numbers, teacher quality suffered further. Today, when evidence of poor learning can no longer be ignored, it is teachers who are blamed for their poor skills. Of course, teachers have poor skills, but that’s the symptom, not the cause of the problem.

How does teacher capacity building differ when seen from the lens of the technical paradigm? The focus would be on what training programmes are being offered, their impact if any, and correlating the actual learning gaps with those teacher training programmes. In many states, it has been observed that Block and Cluster Resource Coordinators do not play an academic support role (the original intention) but end up with administrative responsibilities – a classic example of the administrative crowding out the technical.

Let us now turn to the issue of rote learning and its role in sustaining the learning Crisis. Reforming an education system is not easy, especially when the problems have accumulated over decades. However, there is one key lever that is available in tackling the learning crisis that we face today, and that is addressing rote learning.

What is rote learning? Many people think that memorising or learning things by heart is rote learning. Rather, rote learning is learning something meaningless or which the learner does not understand, only or primarily because it is ‘required’ to be learnt for a test or because the teacher expects it. If one memorises multiplication tables (and understands what ‘5 7’s are 35’ means), it is not rote learning and actually improves your arithmetic fluency. But if one learns a formula or a definition by heart without quite understanding it, simply because it will be asked in the test, that is rote learning. If a teacher asks students to name three things made of wood, and then expects them to name the same three objects mentioned in the textbook, that is rote learning. If students can recite the definition of a triangle, but cannot identify a narrow three-sided figure as a triangle or if they memorise an answer in English literature or History containing terms they don’t understand, those are examples of rote learning.

People sometimes argue that though bad, rote learning is not as harmful as made out. We disagree. Once rote learning starts dominating a system, it kills meaning and purpose, not just for students but even for teachers. Learning can be a most exciting and passionate endeavour. Rote learning kills that curiosity and passion. What begins as rote learning in a chapter in Mathematics or Language becomes a system of accepting what a textbook or a teacher says, even if it does not make sense. It discourages thinking and encourages accepting things either because others accept it or because ‘that is the way things are always done’. This expands into a rote system where marks, certificates and jobs are valued, and not real life skills. This is the perfect formula for dividing things between ‘what happens in textbooks and the school’ and ‘what happens in real life’, a distinction that is very clear in today’s world (for example, ‘speak in mother tongue at home but in English in school’).

The opposite of rote learning is ‘learning with understanding’. Sometimes people mistakenly believe that learning with understanding is merely a higher level of learning beyond rote learning. But students cannot attain rote learning first and then ‘learning with understanding’ because very different skills are needed and developed in each of them.

Many countries complain about rote learning in their educational system. However, its extent and intensity are extremely high in India. For example, consider a common question in primary school Mathematics – calculating the least common multiplier (or LCM) of two numbers like 12 and 20. In many school systems, children follow a procedure to reach the answer of 120. It is also likely that in many of these situations, children do not fully understand the significance of what they are doing. The difference, we have found, is that in India (and some other countries), teachers accept this and say, ‘This is okay, we all learnt it that way only’. But in other countries, less tolerant of rote, teachers acknowledge that students often do not understand without implying that that is okay.

In 2006 and 2010, our company, jointly with Wipro, conducted studies which were published in the India Today[2], The Hindu and Mint publications. These studies showed that the problem of rote learning affects even our ‘top’ schools, and the performance of grade 4 students in these top schools was below international average. Further, the situation did not improve in the intervening years.

The cause and persistence of rote learning can be ascribed to one key attribute – our board exams, which influence all our school exams. On the positive side, this means that a lot can be achieved by reforming the pattern of questions in our board exams.

People are sometimes surprised that to know that Board Exams can make learning more rote-based in the primary classes. We observed this phenomenon when we started a school, initially only up to class 5 and then added one higher class every year. In the initial years we found the teachers and classes focussed on learning with understanding. But once teachers had to prepare their students to write a board exam, there was a marked shift which had a clear downstream effect. Teachers of class 9 would expect children to be prepared in a certain way in class 8 to be able to answer board questions well. These included things like ‘not writing the answer in one’s own words’, ‘using simple language’, ‘using terms and expressions from the textbook where possible’, ‘using examples given from the textbook’, ‘sticking to the information in the textbook even if it was wrong or outdated’ – perfect recipes for rote learning. This was the exact opposite of what we would normally tell teachers and students, and this is how rote learning in the board exam (which is the ‘goal post’), affects the system as a whole.

[1] Based on researches by Mariana Mazzucato including


The article is a part of a series of two articles. The next part to appear on 14th Septmber 2020.

Sridhar Rajagopalan

Sridhar Rajagopalan

Co-Founder & Chief Learning Officer at Educational Initiatives
Sridhar Rajagopalan is a co-founder and Chief Learning Officer of Educational Initiatives.
Sridhar Rajagopalan