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August 7, 2018

The difference between rote and conceptual learning


If you're a rote learner, you do best with step-by-step instructions which you can follow exactly in order to perform a task. If you're a conceptual learner, you will want to know the general idea of something, and work the details out yourself. It just has to do with your preference, or learning style.

Speaking for myself, I'm a conceptual learner. I'm terrible at memorizing a series of steps and repeating them back. In fact, I'm amazed at people who can do this. And for people who can do this, I seem awful stupid. If someone gives me directions that say "go left, go right, go five miles, turn left at the second turn, then...." I zone out. I take out a piece of paper and sketch out a simple map.

I've been lucky, as I've had a lot of teachers, and mentors, who have helped me. I ask them to set aside the list to be memorized, and ask them about what I call "the big picture". This has given me the kind of flexible thinking that I always wanted, and it means that if I understand something conceptually, such as how an internal combustion engine works, it doesn't matter if it's a V-8 or a DOHC 4. It certainly doesn't matter if it's a 1948, or a 2018 engine. And if you're scratching your head, I'm sorry. Because I've known a lot of people who can only do a task if there are no variables at all, and goes step by step. That's the definition of "rote".

Rote learners can do great in school, get good grades, and then flounder when faced with "the real world". Conceptual learners can quickly adapt to changes, but often do poorly with structured tests. And so while I did OK in school, it really wasn't good for me. I needed to get out there in the field.

Conceptually I learned how computers work, how software operates, and I was ready as each new change happened in my field. I was quick to learn updates, I was quick to adapt to new things. People who had memorized steps would flounder when software was updated - they would get lost. They knew where everything was, and things being out of place was a very bad thing for them. I knew a lot of those people, and they would get angry, as their process was interfered with. Conceptual people would just lean back, look around and say "wow, the buttons are now over on the left, instead of the right" and move on.

As you can tell, I have a strong bias towards conceptual thinking. A few years ago I went to get Adobe Certified for some software that I had been using for years, and teaching, and I floundered on the test, which was simply a series of things that had to be memorized. Rote thinkers had created that test, and I'm sure to them it made perfect sense. I certainly wouldn't have hired any of those people to use the software, that's for sure! I never did get certified, because it would have required taking a "rote learning" test that I could never pass, but I've used that software for over twenty years, and people who know it know that I'm pretty darned good at it!

Anyway, as a teacher, I got to see both rote and conceptual thinking, but most people never give it a thought, just thinking that there's a "right way" and a "wrong way". I think that it's important to learn both, and then choose the one that works best for you.

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