Friday, November 08, 2013

In transition: Reflections on the art of teaching, part 3

This is the last in a series of three reflections. In this post I’ll continue to reflect on some of the major things I’ve learned over the past 12 years of teaching. There are obviously more than three lessons I’ve learned during this time, but have been three that strike me as I am leaving China.

This particular reflection is of more practical nature that the previous two, but I hope it will still be thought-provoking. I will also point out that I am writing this at 3:00 a.m. in a jet-lag induced state of alertness.

Reflection 3: Memorization is overly maligned

Memorization has gotten a bad rap. Memorization (a.k.a. rote memorization) was the whipping post of my academic generation. It most likely still is. I'm not sure I ever heard a single professor speak well of rote memorization, let alone advocate its use. What was stressed was rather communication, critical thinking, creativity, self-expression and the like, all of which are good, essential, and perhaps even the goal of all instruction. I likewise attempt to foster these skills in my students. Nevertheless, after years of teaching English to English learners (as opposed to already literate high school students or university literature majors), I have concluded that to completely exclude memorization is neither desirable nor educationally sound.

Part of me wants to focus on mathematics and discuss multiplication tables because they are often cited when memorization is mentioned. However, in this entry I will try to stick to language, Chinese specifically.

Have you ever tried to write Chinese? Though it is a popular language choice at present and is gaining in popularity by the day, most of you have not. Here is one thing to know about writing Chinese: It cannot be studied without memorization, generally active memorization. To write Chinese (to “spell”), one must memorize. A learner can't simply “sound it out” like learners can somewhat do with English and more easily do with languages that have more standardized spelling systems (e.g. Spanish or German). Over time one simply may be able to acquire the skill relatively passively or subconsciously (Stephen Krashen's Input Hypothesis), but it is highly improbable, and not even native speakers wait for such acquisition, as young Chinese boys and girls labor to write characters over and over in their practice books. If Chinese children have to do so, would such memorization be a lesser need for second language learners of Chinese?

Of course a Chinese learner may be able to predict a possible meaning radical when writing a character (assuming those radicals been memorized), and yes, a Chinese learner can guess a possible sound radical (assuming those have been memorized as well), but when push comes to shove, a Chinese learner either knows how to write a character or doesn't. Yes, computer technology now makes is possible to “read” one’s way to writing ability. The pinyin system used to enter Chinese characters into a computer allows the composer to select the proper character from a list of many characters having the same sound, essentially letting someone read rather than write their way to a composition. Though this technology is incredibly helpful, this phenomena demonstrates a fundamental deficiency of language ability. Even well-educated Chinese forget how to write characters. I don't mean that they forget whether it's “relevant” or “relavant”. (It's the first, by the way). I mean that they sometimes cannot even begin writing the character. It's simply lost in the fog, as if they'd never learned it at all. This is a much discussed topic in China, one that has even led to the creation of a spelling bee type game show that foreign media have also picked up. (See articles in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.)

Creativity, critical thinking and other higher order thinking skills are wonderful and are essential to academic success, but there really are some things that people must memorize: laboriously, monotonously, rigorously memorize. I am well aware of the pitfalls of overemphasizing memorization. Having worked almost exclusively with Chinese students for the past decade, I have known far too many students whose curiosity in all things not entertainment has been stamped out by the high pressure, high stakes, memorization-focused Chinese education system. I am all too familiar with the cognitive and creative underdevelopment that occurs when memorization becomes the goal rather than a component of the learning process. But therein lies the real point of contention: Is memorization the ends or the means?

There is nothing inherently wrong with memorization. Memorization itself is useful and valuable. Used well, with all strategies and mnemonic devices that have been employed over the past several millennia, it is still one of the important means to academic and professional success. Educators should not fear memorization, nor should they deride educators who ask or expect students to memorize this content or that content. However, memorization should never be a goal but should always be a means to fostering those higher order skills of thought and expression that we hold so dear.

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