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Rote Memorisation In Singapore’s Education System: The Elephant In The Room

It is the elephant in the room; a common problem constantly highlighted by parents, students and educators, but seemingly ignored conveniently by the administrators at the Ministry of Education (MOE). The challenges of continued rote memorisation and the corresponding absence of creativity in the education system remain prevalent, and inadequate measures have been instituted by the MOE to move in the other direction.

These teaching-learning concerns have not gone unnoticed by the various Opposition political parties seeking to break the incumbent administration’s hegemonic dominance. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), in its 2011 Shadow Budget, has put forth the proposition for the MOE to “focus on nurturing creativity and analytical thinking in our students, [and steer] away from conventional rote-learning”. Some of the recommendations include the establishment of a general “Creativity Commission”, and the following development of an “Institute of Creative Thinking” for teachers.

Why Rote Memorisation?

But before we endeavour to devise solutions for the current predicament, we have to understand the primary reason behind the persistent proliferation of rote memorisation in our schools. Quite evidently, the answer lies in the assortment of standardised examinations – with parents and educators placing supreme emphasis on its importance – that has enshrined rote memorisation, affectionately termed as “mugging” or “pure regurgitation”, as a must-do if a student wanted to excel in these assessments.

A long train of expectations then follows. If a student did well, his or her chances of obtaining a scholarship or university entrance would multiply; and if the award or institution is considerably prestigious, having a successful career would almost be a given. Following that logic: if a student chooses not to pick up a Ten Year Series or pour over past examination papers, and consequently delivers sub-par results, then all of the aforementioned would be rendered a painful impossibility.

Rote memorisation is also employed because of its accessibility and near-guarantees of success: why pay attention to a year’s worth of lessons when you can simply work through test questions and commit answers to memory? Why bother genuinely comprehending concepts when examination questions simply demand “model” answers that could be regurgitated? Why waste time developing research, oratorical or presentation skills when all that is required to do well is proper rote memorisation?

Is The Integrated Programme (IP) The Panacea?

Cognisant of the popularity of “mugging”, and having experienced it first-hand during my Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) preparations, I was excited to be part of the pioneer batch to experience the through-train programme in its entirety. Having emerged from these six years of curriculum, it would be fair to assert that the IP per se is far from the panacea for the reliance on rote memorisation. In our sixth year, as students ramped up their revision for the GCE ‘A’ Level Examinations, I witnessed first-hand how my counterparts scrambled to find external tutors to cram as much information as possible, and poured over past-year or preliminary essay questions to master “reading” and “answering” techniques. I was guilty of these efforts, as we collectively sought to tailor our essays and responses to fit alien marking schemes and Cambridge expectations.

But the IP did one thing right: that was to remove the GCE ‘O’ Level Examinations. Even though there was a High School graduation examination in year four, assessment was spread out across the year, and included elements for class presentations, research projects, and rudimentary research papers. Time freed up from mindless test or examination preparations was dedicated to meaningful co-curricular pursuits such as community service and leadership development. Though rote memorisation was not completely eradicated, minimising its prevalence made learning more enjoyable.

Moving Forward

What then should be done? First, given that the complete removal of standardised examinations is neither feasible nor possible, institutions should seek to render assessments more wholesome. Instead of basing an individual’s performance upon a single paper, administrators should seek to expand pedagogies and include increased skill-based education, especially in non-major examination years. The MOE has done well to do away with primary one and two year-end examinations in select schools, though it is imperative for it to recognise that more can be done speedily, effectively.

Second, to complement changing mindsets, the SDP’s policy suggestions to review “ways of developing creative environments and curricula for our school children and higher education students at all levels of the education system” is constructive, and should be enacted. Creativity is the anti-thesis of rote memorisation; and the sooner stakeholders appreciate the value of the former, reliance on the latter would steadily decrease. Finally, significant work can be done with the National Institute of Education (NIE) to rethink existing methodologies, and think about what can be done to move away from pedantic, conservative teaching techniques so as to interest students, and get them enthusiastic and appreciative of learning beyond the stubborn framework of examinations.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


7 thoughts on “Rote Memorisation In Singapore’s Education System: The Elephant In The Room

  1. Neither does the writer intend to debate whether Asian learners or Western learners are more rote approachers or deep approachers. The writer here aims to discuss if there are two types of memorisation – rote memorisation for in surface learning approach and deep memorisation for in a deep learning approach. Original theories Memorisation – the remark of rote process with no understanding.In 1976 Marton and Saljo discovered two categories of approaches to learning – deep-level and surface level processing.

    Posted by offshore company | April 4, 2011, 8:43 am
  2. I share some of your same disappointments with Hwachong IP system.

    I remember us being surveyed on how we satisfied we were with the IP system in our J1 and J2 years, and I recalled asking myself this:

    “How could my Junior College years be reasonably counted as part of the IP system? We are the same as any other JC, working towards the appeasement of that unknown Caucasian marker, rumoured sometimes to be a underpaid undergraduate commanding our destinies with his red pen. God bless his soul and fickle mood, especially when it is my paper to be marked.”

    Posted by Norvin | April 6, 2011, 12:18 pm
  3. Singapore’s education is still far better than we have here in the States.Here there are a lot of bad teachers,parents don’t care about their kids grades and “education” is just good rhetoric for the politicians.On top of it all the kids know that nobody really cares in the first place. Wake up America!! The “third” world is rising fast and America is being knocked into second place! All you parents need to turn off the big screen TV’s for just one minute and re-prioritize your lives for your kids sakes.

    Posted by Otgoo | April 8, 2011, 12:12 am
    • I don’t know about the specifics, but it does reflect the importance of education as a pivotal pillar of society. Any administration should treat it with utmost respect and regard.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | April 8, 2011, 8:09 am


  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 1 Apr 2011 « The Singapore Daily - April 1, 2011

  2. Pingback: Education In Singapore: Rote Memorisation Should Not Be Demonised In The Classroom « guanyinmiao's musings - June 29, 2012

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