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  • Writer's pictureRitu Lamba

How People Learn: Rote Knowledge and Inflexible Knowledge

The Big Questions:

  • How do our brains RECEIVE and PROCESS information?

  • How do we REMEMBER, and how do we FORGET?

  • What does it mean to LEARN?

This article is the first in a series called 'How People Learn'. It summarises the article 'Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise' by Daniel T. Willingham.

Rote Knowledge and Inflexible Knowledge

Rote Knowledge

Example: A student defined the equator as A managerie lion running around the Earth through Africa instead of An imaginary line...

-> Therefore, rote knowledge might be "memorizing form in the absence of meaning." Clearly, there is no understanding involved.

Inflexible Knowledge

-It is the broad middle ground between rote knowledge and expertise.

-In fact, it is the unavoidable foundation of expertise.

Example: A student who has just learnt the definition of classical conditioning (Pavlov's dog) is able to identify an example involving a red light, a cat, and water in a bowl as classical conditioning by mapping each element to a bell, a dog, and food respectively. However, she is not able to identify another example of classical conditioning, as the elements don't map exactly. Her knowledge is not rote but inflexible.

Knowledge is flexible when it can be accessed out of the context in which it was learned and applied in new contexts.

Inflexible knowledge is meaningful (as opposed to rote knowledge) but narrow -> it is tied to the concept's surface structure*, and the deep structure** of the concept is not easily accessed.

*surface structure = the particulars of an example

**deep structure = a principle that transcends specific examples

When the human mind encounters new material, it is biased towards learning the surface features and not towards grasping the deep structure.

  • We should therefore encourage students to think about material in deeper, more abstract terms, which will then generalize to other contexts.

  • HOWEVER, the mind prefers that new ideas be framed in concrete rather than abstract terms, which is why, when presented with a new abstract idea or formula, students clamor for examples.

So, what are the implications for teaching?

Knowledge tends to be inflexible when it is first learned. As you continue to work with the knowledge, you gain expertise; the knowledge is no longer organized around structure forms, but rather is organized around deep structure.


My Opinion: In summary, deep understanding cannot be the first step that a learner takes. Initial understanding is on the surface and narrow—such initial understanding is not immediately generalizable, and it is therefore the teacher's role to enable learners to generalize this knowledge and apply it to other contexts. Such deep understanding then becomes a part of long-term memory and facilitates more efficient use of brain resources in the performance of tasks related to that knowledge.


unboxED is based on multi-disciplinary learning. It offers the child and parent resources to build a growth mindset at home while exploring Literacy and STEM concepts through conversations and creation, and letting kids be kids. These educational boxes have been built keeping in mind the academic and cognitive skills needed at various stages of the child’s development.

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