Learning Chinese And What It Has Taught Me About Teaching

I'm learning more than Chinese!

I am back studying Chinese and my grades are beginning to reflect my assessment of my real comprehension.  I’m studying harder, longer and using a wider variety of methods; I am working for recall and not merely recognition but I still flounder.  I am very frustrated and am too tired at the end of the day to pursue my first love, thinking and writing about education.  Chinese was supposed to be a hobby.

We have the good fortune to have two professors of psychology as neighbours.  I asked Dr. F why I was working so hard with so little effect.  She pointed out that memory starts declining at the age of 25, “… and I bet the class is full of kids in their twenties.”  I am probably 30 years older than the oldest of them.  Learning a language requires memory work and Chinese requires more than usual as there is no connection between a character and its pronunciation.  Not only that, but Chinese has no connection to English or French so there are no connections to use.

In fact, it is all memory work.  I have tried hard to use my analytical skills (which improve with age) by tracking homophones, noting components of characters and using mnemonics of all kinds.  Still I lag.

It did start me thinking about the implications for education.  We, and I among us, have turned up our noses at memory work or “rote learning”.  I am beginning to reconsider its value.  Before I go on, I must assert that I strongly believe in teaching children to think and analyse from their first day in school; however, in order to think, there must be something to think about: facts, ideas, issues.  Architects and engineers are necessary to design large buildings, but if bricks and mortar and construction workers don’t turn up at the site, the design wouldn’t come to fruition.  Nor would it come to fruition if the planners didn’t know the physics and mathematics of solid construction.

While children are at their strongest ability for memorisation, the education system should be taking advantage of that strength to teach them.  Recently I observed a primary class where numeration (arithmetic) was taught as a concept, not to mastery.  It isn’t difficult to teach arithmetic to mastery; I have found five minutes a day throughout the year is very effective.  Some children will go further, some will lag, but mastery will allow them to focus on other math skills that can’t be memorised.

Imagine the panic a student feels as she tries to understand area and volume when she can’t remember the times table.  She looks at l x w x h and instead of thinking about how cool it is that length, width and height are used to create volume, she is looking at the two x’s and worrying about dealing with them.  Instead of thinking that this is just area multiplied by one more number, she is unhappy about multiplying three numbers together.

She may understand the models with blocks and other manipulatives, but she won’t want to translate that into numbers.  Without being able to easily retrieve the product of length, width and depth from memory,  she must resort to her fingers, a multiplication table or a calculator, all of which are slower and more distracting than knowing her times table.

Why is this a problem?  If the student doesn’t have an easy relationship with arithmetic, she won’t be able to comfortably estimate the answer to mathematical problems and see approximately what the answer should be.  It means she will not know if an answer is probably right without looking it up.  She may not get past arithmetic into the fun of mathematics.  If you had to build a desk and chair every time you needed it, wouldn’t you get fed up?

More practically, checking the total of grocery bills, calculating tips, estimating change, doing her own taxes and other mundane applications will become too bothersome to be worthwhile.  She will end up trusting others instead herself to take charge of her money.

History educates our children to become informed citizens.  The big patterns of history repeat and understanding reasons and results is important to understanding the current play of events.

While I am not keen on memorising dates in history, it is important that the sequence of key dates be understood.  One way to aid memorisation is a timeline running through the halls so that all the history that is studied in elementary school is displayed with only the important-to-learn dates on them.  Below are some of the dates I would include.  For the events linked with the dates, see the next post.  As students learned about these events, posters and pictures could be put up below them so students could learn the sequence of events and eventually, the dates.  It is important, for example, that students learn that the Quebec Act preceded the American Revolution and the French Revolution was roughly coincident with the American.  Why was the Quebec Act necessary and what role did it play in the American Revolution?  Is it a coincidence that there were two major revolutions going on at roughly the same time?

Some teachers might argue that putting up the same timeline year after year would be boring.  It could, but  the approach to the events might be varied, the children will certainly have grown and have learned and even the dates could be varied.  Within each classroom there would be a more detailed sequence of the period that class is studying.  My hope is that within the classroom there would be more emphasis on the social history of the time.

Presumably as the students get older and have a better understanding of history, they will see the events in different lights. That and remembering the key dates will start them on the road to understanding the sequence of world events.  With those tools, they can begin to look at cause and effect and use history as a lens to look at the events unfolding in the daily news.  At least they can if their teachers help them to do so.

Memory work in geography is even more vital.  How often do we laugh when our comedians go south to ask Americans simple questions about Canada?  I suspect that our ignorance is only less by comparison.  We should be using the children’s strong memories to ingrain the continents, the countries, the rivers, mountains, oceans and major cities. Will they remember it all twenty years down the road?  No, but  literature , the news and the study of other subjects will reinforce some of it.  Their memory for others can be jogged by references to what they do remember; “Tunisia, oh is that on the Mediterranean or the Atlantic – no near Libya somewhere – ahhh and Libya IS on the Mediterranean so Tunisia probably is, too.”  And some they will indeed remember.

They will have a rough idea of the climate, vegetation and the economy of each region.  They will know what the key indicators are of health and welfare in each country.  This kind of information along with the well learned and understood sequence and pattern of events of history will help them make sense of the current politics and business.

The facts are no substitute for understanding.  At the beginning of my Grade Seven geography class, I used to hold up one of those three page plasticised summaries of physical geography and say.  “Everything you need to know for this course is in here but if you were to memorise it all, you still would not pass this course.  What you also need to know is what the facts mean, what you can do with them, how to use them.  In short you are going to start to learn to think like a geographer.”  Then I pinned the summary to the back wall and we went to work.

I would argue that there is much to be gained in memorising poetry.  The first is that by memorising poetry a child goes over and over the words.  Given the right poem, the child may begin to see things in the poem that a teacher could not have pointed out.  Secondly, poems are meant to be spoken.  A child who has memorised a poem and then learned to speak it, has learned viscerally the effects of rhythm and rhyme in poetry, or if there is no rhyme, then the effects of the literary devices.  Finally, the poem has become a gift; the child carries it in his head as something he can turn on and turn over.  If you still hear a poem or song in your head that you learned many years ago, then you know what I am talking about.  Since that is the case, choose carefully the poem you ask a child to memorise.  Make it worthy of the effort.

At one point in my teaching, I looked for an alternative to detentions so I asked students to copy a chapter (about the equivalent of a poem) from the Tao de Ching, an early work in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism.  The writing is not easy to understand but I felt it gave the students something to think about.  Many students began to memorise some chapters by heart and occasionally quote them in class. One lad who was a persistent talker often got Chapter 24 which starts, “To be always talking is against nature…” and goes on to reflect on the power of stillness.  One day he came to me and said that he was beginning to get the passage beyond the message of the first few words.  The repetition had engraved it in his memory so it was always with him to contemplate.  This is one of the gifts of memorisation.

So to go back to Chinese and the dull tools I must use to learn it; will I stop?  No, because I CAN learn it, just much more slowly than the university students in my course.  Instead I remind myself that learning Chinese is a hobby and ask myself if I can pare my goal down to what I can reasonably achieve.  When April comes, I will write the final exam and then hire a tutor or swap English for Chinese conversational lessons.  Since I want to speak and understand, that is what I will focus on.  I am exploring spending time in China in the fall.  In the meantime, I will put reading about education and the brain and writing about education first.

Some dates I think are important, especially to Canadians.  This is not intended to be definitive!

~5 BCE to 650 CE
1914 – 1918


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