Monday, May 2, 2016

Rote Not!

Max Wertheimer would tell this story: A school inspector was impressed by the children that he had observed, but decided to ask one more question before departing, ‘How many hairs does a horse have?’ A student answered ‘3,571,962’. ‘How do you know that your answer is correct?’ asked the inspector. ‘You can count them yourself’, answered the boy.

The inspector broke into laughter and vowed to tell the story to his colleagues back in office. When the inspector returned the following year for his annual visit, the teacher asked him how his colleagues responded to the story. Mournfully he replied, ‘I wanted very much to tell the story but I couldn't. For the life of me, I couldn't remember how many hairs the boy had said the horse had.’

Wertheimer contrasts Rote memorization with problem solving based on Gestalt principles. In the former, the learner has learned facts without understanding them. Such learning is rigid and acting upon memorized facts without understanding them, makes us prone to silly mistakes.

Learning in accordance with the Gestalt principles, however, is based on understanding the underlying principles of the problem. This type of learning comes from within the individual and is not imposed on by someone else. It is easily generalizable and is remembered for a long time.

So often, so many of us are doing things by rote, without understanding the real situation. Human beings are turning mechanical apes that pause at the surface of observation and imitate without imbibing the truth. We should instead choose to delve deeper into the understanding of the situation before us. Then we shall be able to connect truly with the inspiration.

Deeper understanding is akin to the right foot…
Skip silly mistakes that thrive on the Rote route!

- Pravin K. Sabnis

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