The Tyranny of Rote-Learning in Pakistan

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As memorization skills decline in the west, schools across South Asia continue to push antiquated pedagogical techniques. Reformers argue that it’s more important to read than to memorize.

By Saba Imtiaz


Pakistani students recite the Quran at their seminary in Islamabad on May 5, 2015. (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

On a Saturday morning in April, hundreds of women gather in the basement of a house in the upscale neighborhood of Defence in Karachi, Pakistan. The event has been organized by the Fahmedeen network in honor of its seminaries’ female students. As more women come in, the air conditioning creaks and slows, but the women don’t grumble, remaining fixated on the event and on their fellow students’ achievements in the field of memorization.

“This year, Masha Allah [praise be to God], 12 students have had the honor of completing the Qur’an at our seminary,” the emcee announces. One woman, the audience is told, has memorized the Qur’an in nine months. “You will be surprised to hear that two of our students memorized the Qur’an in just 10 months even while handling the responsibilities of their homes and children.”

They’re not the only ones. Across Pakistan, students are pulling off similar feats of memory, spending weeks and months learning large chunks of text by heart to prepare for government-administered secondary school exams.

The texts in question differ widely, depending on the school. Seminary students learn classical Arabic, while thousands of young teenagers at non-seminary schools study textbooks in English. Both groups have one thing in common: They have no clue what they’re learning, but they can rattle it off on cue.

Rote learning is a well-established practice in Pakistan and the outlying region of South Asia, where approaches to education and assessment are really just tests of memory: Exams focus on content over comprehension, at the cost of the most basic reading skills. Nearly a quarter of children in the fifth grade in rural Pakistan cannot read sentences, an alarming statistic that hints at how rote learning can impoverish basic education. Educators themselves are increasingly dissatisfied by this arrangement. In a survey in India in 2012, 80 percent of school principals cited rote learning as the reason for a decline in education. In Pakistan, rote learning aggravates an already dire situation: At least 25 million children are out of school, and half of the schools in the country don’t have electricity.

On a Friday afternoon this May, Mehreen Sharif stood outside a college in Karachi where she had sat for her 12th-grade Pakistan Studies exam.

Critics in Pakistan say the pervasiveness of rote learning is linked to a culture of memorizing the Qur’an without understanding its meaning.

“My entire class rote-learns,” Sharif explained.

In 2015, over 160,000 students sat for the 10th-grade exams in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. But they aren’t memorizing facts and figures or complicated names. Instead, students like Sharif memorize essay-long answers, scientific formulae, quotations, couplets, and headings to prompt their memory. “You can rote-learn in the physics exam,” Sharif said. “You do it when you can’t remember any other way. I memorize by writing it down again and again.”

That idea might seem unfathomable to physicists. But this long-established practice, which translates to ratta in colloquial Hindi and Urdu, is rooted in religious culture and a lethargic educational system.

The problem, experts say, is that the aim of education is not about understanding, but about passing the goalposts — the extremely important matriculation at 10th grade and the intermediate exams — where memory-dependent grades determine admission to public universities. In public schools as well as private ones that follow the government-mandated syllabus for the matriculation and intermediate exams, rote learning is seen as the smoothest path to graduation. As the local adage goes: “Rattafication is the best qualification for the examination.”

As a result, students can graduate while barely understanding basic concepts. According to the Annual Status of Education Report for 2014, only 39 percent of Pakistani students in the third grade from rural areas could do subtraction, and 54 percent of students (up from 50 percent in 2013) in the fifth grade could not read a story in their local language — not even a story meant for second-grade reading capacities. The statistics aren’t new: A 1995 study of Pakistani children’s competencies found that only 33 percent of children in the fifth grade could read with comprehension.

“The exams are about how much you retain,” says Samia Saifee, a director of Student’s Inn, a private tutoring business in Karachi. According to Saifee, rote learning dominates pedagogy all the way from secondary school exams to the qualifying exam to join the bureaucracy.

Rote learning has also become a frequent subject of complaint and mockery in the culture of the subcontinent. In the Indian film 3 Idiots (2009), the protagonist plays a prank on a studious antagonist by replacing a laudatory word in a sycophantic speech with the Hindi word for rape, which the student rattles off without realizing the mistake. In Student of the Year (2012), the students of an elite school lip-sync to a song called “Ratta Maar(“Rote Learn”) as they study for their finals.

Critics in Pakistan say the pervasiveness of rote learning is linked to a culture of memorizing the Qur’an without understanding its meaning. Pakistan, a majority Islamic state, has thousands of seminaries where children and adults memorize the Qur’an or train to become clerics. The tradition of memorizing the Qur’an dates to the revelation of the text itself: Early followers of Islam memorized passages as it was revealed. Memorizing the Qur’an is a venerated tradition. People who memorize the Qur’an are called hafiz, and can append the honorific to their given names. It is common to see students unconsciously mimic the rhythmic rocking back and forth of Qur’an students when memorizing for an exam.

Hafiz Abdul Rehman Ansari is the head of the Jamia Darul Uloom seminary’s Quranic education section, where he’s worked for 30 years. At the sprawling seminary in Karachi, the sound of Arabic recitation echoes through the buildings. It’s a cacophony of unfamiliar letters being repeated over and over again until they somehow embed themselves into the speaker’s memory. More than a thousand students, rhythmically rocking back and forth, spend over three years memorizing the Qur’an.

In Pakistan, rote learning aggravates an already dire situation: At least 25 million children are out of school, and half of the schools in the country don’t have electricity.

Ansari doesn’t feel that students need to understand the Qur’an while memorizing it — indeed, he believes it simply isn’t possible. The seminary says the ideal age to start memorizing the Qur’an is six. “That is the age of a child to rote learn,” Ansari says, as he sits in his airy office, where students file in and out, leaving their shoes at the entrance. “That age — from six to 12 — is not for understanding and awareness. At that age, even if you explain a thousand times to a student that ‘this is right, and this is wrong,’ he won’t get it.”

Instead of translating and explaining the Qur’an, the seminary focuses on the Arabic alphabet, syntax, and pronunciation. Long passages are recited repeatedly for days on end until the recitation meets a teacher’s approval.

At the Jamia Darul Uloom, over the course of a seven-hour workday, with only Fridays off, students repeat passages until their teacher believes they have mastered them enough to move on. Many seminaries also double as boarding schools. Reports of everything from sexual abuse to militant recruitment at seminaries are common, and Qur’an teachers are known for physically beating students to reinforce their lessons and punish them for recitation mistakes. (Ansari says that it was widely believed for a long time within seminary circles that students would not learn the Qur’an without physical punishment, though he says corporal punishment is no longer practiced at his seminary.)

While rote-learning is most widely practiced at the secondary level, it’s a tradition that continues in Pakistani public life—for example in medical school or for the entrance exams to join public service. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of physics and mathematics at the Forman Christian College in Lahore and a columnist for the Dawn newspaper, recounted sitting in on the class of a junior physics teacher. “He had memorized the lesson perfectly, glancing only occasionally at his notes while speaking and writing before the class. But there were big gaps between his steps. When I later asked him to explain the reasoning which led from X to Y, he had no clue. All he could do was re-produce the text.”

It isn’t just how students are learning; it’s also what they’re being taught. State-published textbooks are rife with creationist principles, nationalistic propaganda, and regional politics, often feeling like a throwback to a different era. A list of sample practical exams for a 10th-grade computer studies assessment includes tests to change the speed of a mouse pointer and re-name folders on a Windows computer.

The sad irony is that, even though public education in Pakistan offers little value, the expectations associated with education are sky-high. Education is seen as a mode of social progress, a way to break a cycle of poverty. But that promise seems increasingly empty.

“First, it’s the inertia of the teacher,” Jamil says. “And then it’s the inertia of the learning-teaching system.”

Some people are finally trying to break this inertia. Far from the seminaries where six-year-olds are memorizing the Qur’an, in an apartment in a busy commercial district in Karachi, a teacher asks questions of her students: three children, and a woman who appears to be a teenager but is actually in her early 30s. They’re sitting in a bright room with racks filled with blocks and educational toys.

“What is behind you?” she asks. A board, the four students respond. “Is it a white board or a black board?”

The questions continue. “Who is behind you?”

“And who is behind you?” another student is asked. “Who is in front of you?” “How many children are there in this room?” “Are we all children?” The question is reconfigured slightly so each student must pause and think for him or herself.

Reports of everything from sexual abuse to militant recruitment at seminaries are common, and Qur’an teachers are known for beating students to reinforce their lessons and punish them for recitation mistakes.

This is how the Reading Room Project prevents students from falling into a trap of copying their classmates or following a set pattern. “You’re constantly checking for rote memorization and trying to stop it in its tracks,” says founder and director Mashall Chaudhri. “We don’t always succeed, but we try to stop it and test it. So once they learn a sentence structure, we have to use it in a different environment.”

In another room, kids wearing headphones repeat the answers in the flashcards appearing on a computer screen.

The Project began as a pilot program in 2013 to teach digital literacy as an after-school program in a public school. While the program did well, it hit a wall: Children can figure out computers intuitively, but what pops up on the screen is another issue. You have to know how to put letters together.

“We ran into the problem of ‘we can’t read.’ Everything else you can self-learn. But we realized, unless you do that [teach reading], someone’s always going to have to scaffold or translate,” Chaudhri says. “We need to get them to the level where they can self-learn.”

The Reading Room Project has expanded into a digital literacy and English literacy program. The sound of consonants being labored on and clear diction echoes in this apartment-turned-lab where a dozen-odd children are gathered on a weekday afternoon. Some students arrive early to use the computers, and many jump a couple of reading and comprehension levels over a three-month period — at least according to standardized testing.

While Reading Room-style pedagogy has arrived years too late for some, it is ultimately bound to run up against another wall: the 10th- and 12th-grade exams, which don’t require comprehension and language skills but merely the ability to re-produce the text — a test, in other words, geared toward rote learning. Chaudhri is nonetheless hoping that these skills and experience will make students realize that they can excel despite the hidebound system.

“The smartest ones can do anything, even if they’ve been through the traditional system,” Hoodbhoy says. “Ibn-e-Sina memorized the Qur’an at the age of seven and yet became one of the greatest physicians and scientists of all times. Abdus Salam also went through rote learning but won a Nobel Prize in physics. But only the smartest of the smart can go on to do well in areas where comprehension, analysis, and invention are required.”

The Reading Room Project is a small, interventionist approach to instill lifelong skills: education as a way of life rather than merely a way to get to the next step. As a result of global attention on Pakistan’s dire education statistics, we are finally seeing the emergence of initiatives to reform the education system, including private and government-run efforts at improving everything from enrollment to evaluations. But reformers are still working against decades of lethargy and neglect in a country beset with challenges, from basic security to a reform-resistant bureaucracy.

While dogmatic rote-learning of the sort we see in South Asia presents a hopelessly limited approach, Western teachers shouldn’t forget the importance of memory skills. There are calls to bring back aspects of memorization in Western countries, where education tends more to focus on conceptual learning. In Canada, declining mathematics scores in almost all provinces prompted the C.D. Howe Institute in 2015 to recommend moving away from “21st-century learning” — i.e. toward “discovery-based education” that focuses on developing problem-solving skills and critical thinking instead of repetition and practice — and spend at least 80 percent of teaching time on direct instructional techniques. In England, students are mandated to learn their times tables by heart and will be tested at age 11.The challenge ahead for educators worldwide is how to strike a balance between memory and rote—how to make students practice, not merely parrot.