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Saturday, 13 April 2013

Learning: Fun or Sacred?

I was recently talking to a Chinese teacher at the school where I work, and I asked her what she though the biggest difference was between her Western and Eastern students. Her answer was interesting: "Western teachers and kids are really focused on having "fun." They believe that everything must be fun and enjoyable. Easterners have far lower expectations for fun."

Western parenting and education books repeatedly exhort parents to make sure that "learning is fun." Young kids are only expected to do what is fun and enjoyable, and Western parents are told to "stop" activities when their child's enjoyment begins to waver or diminish. Western teachers and parents go to great lengths to create activities that make learning fun.

Interestingly, this idea that all learning must be fun and that teachers must also double up as entertainers is foreign to the East. Teachers and parents in the East don't feel this need to make everything fun. 

In her book The Cultural Foundations of Learning, Dr. Jin Li, a professor at Brown University, describes the way East Asians believe that learning is a very serious (and even sacred) endeavor. She describes how the Chinese view learning as a "weighty personal matter" because they view it as a "personal moral obligation and commitment." This is quite clearly very different from expecting learning to be "fun." Moreover, Jin Li describes the value placed on "struggle" in East Asian homes. Learning is supposed to be challenging, and children are admired for facing these challenges, overcoming the obstacles in the way of learning, and mastering material.

In India too, books and learning are literally revered and worshipped. Kids are reprimanded if their feet ever touch books, and children are repeatedly told to "respect books."  Once a year, Hindu kids perform "Saraswati Pooja," a prayer where they pray to their books and to the Goddess of Learning.

Across Asia, this idea that learning and knowledge are serious and sacred endeavors  prevails. The benefit of this attitude is that  it  allows Asian students to focus, concentrate, and study hard, regardless of whether or not they find the material interesting and entertaining. The downside, if there is one, is that it could prevent students from questioning what they are being taught: they need both reverence for knowledge as well as skepticism about it.

Nevertheless, the idea that learning is a serious endeavor is worthwhile. I believe strongly that all kids -- Asian and non-Asian -- can find real, concentrated learning interesting and satisfying, and that they should be taught that the process of learning is one that is worthy of deep respect.  I personally find reading, learning, and studying very enjoyable, and I think it is important to ensure that students find the learning process enjoyable. However,  I think that the word "fun" trivializes what a cerebral journey is all about.

 I also think that the pressure to be entertaining as a teacher can lead teachers to design superficial activities -- fluff, if you will -- just to keep kids engaged. Worse, it has led many schools and teachers to abandon teaching things that really do matter -- grammar, writing skills, mathematical algorithms etc. In many Western/International schools, teachers are so  worried about making sure that  students have a good time in class that they stop teaching things that kids don't enjoy.

 In contemporary Western education, the following educational practices are often looked upon with condemnation:  memorization, practice , lecture, direct-instruction, tests, exams, worksheets, and even textbooks.  Any activity that requires practice is deemed a "drill and kill activity"; in other words, you drill the child and kill their imagination/love of learning. For the record, many of my Western colleagues also feel as though the pendulum has swung too far in this regard, so framing this argument entirely as an East-West issue would be inaccurate.

 A good classroom is one where everyone, teacher and students alike, understands the value of learning for its own sake. In this classroom, the teacher tries to engage students by facilitating lively discussions and debates and by designing provocative and meaningful activities. However, the teacher and students also know that sometimes direct instruction and practice are necessary, and these activities too are a part of the classroom. The ultimate goal is not for students to be entertained but for students to develop a deep love of and respect for learning and for students to master important skills.

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