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By Bitange Ndemo

As a child, rote learning—often referred to as memorization or learning by repetition—stood as the gold standard of teaching. This method has its place, particularly in establishing foundational knowledge. Memorizing basic facts, formulas, vocabulary, and concepts lays a strong groundwork for comprehending more intricate ideas across subjects.

This approach proved especially crucial when acquiring a new language like English. You had to memorize even things that did not make sense. For example, learning the plurals of words like “mouse” and “house” that had no formulaic pattern in their plural forms. Memorizing vocabulary, grammar rules, and commonly used phrases constructs the fundamental framework for effective communication.

Similarly, memorizing historical events, cultural references, and literary works enriches one’s grasp of the world and facilitates meaningful conversations, while also contributing to the preservation and transmission of cultural heritage.

Professionals such as actors, musicians, and performers rely on memorization to master scripts, music sheets, choreography, and lines. This enables them to deliver polished and consistent performances without external cues.

However, it is important to note that while memorization serves its purpose in these contexts, it cannot replace deeper comprehension and critical thinking. Mere rote memorization, devoid of understanding, can result in superficial learning and an inability to apply knowledge in varying situations. Striking a balance between memorization and comprehension is vital, with an emphasis on grasping underlying concepts and creatively applying them.

In modern education and professional environments, the focus has shifted toward understanding, critical thinking, and practical application, transcending mere memorization. The capacity to think critically, analyze information, and adapt to change holds great significance in today’s swiftly evolving world.

While psychologists acknowledge the benefits of memorization in certain scenarios, its effectiveness and appropriateness depend on factors such as age, subject matter, and educational approach. Unfortunately, in some educational systems, the emphasis on memorization has surpassed the age at which experts consider it useful. Consequently, a deep understanding of core concepts might not develop until later stages in life. This approach may foster mastery of facts, formulas, and sequences, but it can hinder the ability to apply knowledge meaningfully to solve problems requiring critical thinking and analysis.

Reflecting on personal experiences, my education primarily focused on memorization, inhibiting my capacity for critical thought and making connections between concepts. This approach hindered engagement in higher-order cognitive processes. It wasn’t until exposure to more creative learning environments that I began to appreciate active learning, problem-solving, and conceptual comprehension.

An example from my education underscores the limitations of rote learning. Despite my ability to recite a history textbook cover-to-cover, the content was regurgitated without scrutiny. The text portrayed a Eurocentric perspective, neglecting the African viewpoint. This instance highlights the importance of balancing memorization with deep understanding and critical thought.

I suspect that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has suffered similar limitations in the Niger crisis. For ECOWAS to effectively address the current crisis in Niger, understanding the consequences of attempting to divide the Hausa community in Nigeria and Niger could have significant repercussions. There will be a need to profoundly understand the underlying cultural dynamics and historical triggers of conflict.

This necessitates extensive critical analysis and a candid acknowledgment that the borders between Nigeria and Niger are arbitrary lines to the Hausa people. They remain one people irrespective of which side of the border they are on, and that should inform decisions regarding the restoration of democracy in the country.

In essence, memorization serves its purpose but should not eclipse comprehension and critical thinking. Finding equilibrium between memorization and comprehension, while fostering creative application of knowledge, is paramount. This is particularly crucial as the modern world places greater value on critical thinking, adaptability, and practical application.

Bitange Ndemo is Kenya’s Ambassador to Belgium and EU

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