Friday, July 15, 2005

Elementary & High School; or, The Temples of Doom

Big Ass Buddha
Originally uploaded by billmcgonigle.
So your kid starts learning English at age three, but the real education doesnt begin for another few years when they finally enter school proper.

I should note that while searching ESL Teacher boards lately, I found a game called "Chinese School." Thinking it might be appropriate, I read the instructions for the game. Basically, the point of the game was to go as long as possible without laughing and simply repeating what the person before you said without any variation.

Unsurprisingly, this is exactly like what real Chinese school seems to be like.

I can remember all my teachers fairly well, especially all my early teachers. Mrs. Nicholson taught me confidence in kindergarten, Mrs. Daniels instilled respect for education, Mrs. Wing introduced me to new wonders in reading, Mrs. Clark help expand my imagination and Mrs. Martin focused that creativity. These women shaped my early education, and did so through literature, writing, math, science, history, georgraphy, social studies, cultural topics, and a variety of other subjects. As a result, I consider my early education to be very well-rounded. More than that, I attribute my early education for my deep sense of curiousity and at times run-away imagination.

Here its Chinese, English, and Math. That seems to be all any of my students study prior to high school. And they study all three through simple, brain-numbing rote. Over and over again repeating the same vocabulary, sentences, statistics. Over and over again writing the same characters, grammar patters, or formulas.

Now, I can understand this approach for Chinese as a language, because I have no idea how else to study a character-based language other than through mindless repetition. Especially with Chinese, which at times can be quite binary. You are simply not allowed to use certain words outside anything but one specific context. For example, in English, "sharp" can mean "having the ability to cut something" or "clever, intelligent." Not so in Chinese.

Were this method of thinking left to the study of Chinese, that would be fine for me. Its there language, they can do with it as the please. But they apply this binary method of thinking to all aspects of education (and vis a vis, LIFE AS A WHOLE), which makes English teaching a chore at times. English is a very expressive language, and very free, especially when compared to Chinese, and the ability to have different answers to certain grammar/vocab/writing exercises confounds my students, and at time my TAs.

Recently I got my hands on the placement test for my school, completed it, and had my TA correct it. Apparently I failed. All of the answers I had given that she had marked wrong were grammatically and topically correct. When I asked her why she said they were wrong, the response was always the same: "We Chinese are taught whenever we see [this word], it has to mean that we have to use [that word] here."

My response: "Errr... no. You can do whatever you want," after which I supplied another half dozen potential answers to the question.

As I rag on the system, let me say that these kids work hard. Really hard. Everyday from 8 AM to about 430 PM they are ini school, and when they get out they often have evening classes at private schools like mine. And at most of these private schools its more of that same mind-numbing repetition, complete with an embargo on creativity.

One of my students recently told me why she liked my class: "We get to color." "Huh? I dont understand." "I like your class because we get to color and talk and tell jokes and when we color we can color what we want and talk about what we want."

I should add this student was 13 years old.

In the end, the schools here are breeding some excellent calculators and dictionaries. But a calculator can not do anything more than it is programmed to, and you can not have a conversation with a dictionary. Not only that, but by the time these kids get to college, they are so burnt out from stress and study (more on getting into college next entry) that some seem to have given up on life. Or at least my college students seemed that way.


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