Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Interesting article in Dong-A Ilbo -- Elementary, middle and high school in Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education will have increased emphasis on tests in essay format. One portion of the article was particularly interesting:
Education experts agree that "The easiest misunderstanding for the students to make is that they will no longer have to memorize." In fact, there are many cases in which  simply understanding the prompt will not be enough to give a specific answer, because it is difficult to score high without precisely expressing the key words in the answer. Experts note that while the main concept of a lesson must be clearly understood, the words that are used to express such concept must be accurately memorized as well.
교과서 학습목표 파악-논리적 생각정리 습관을 (Dong-A Ilbo)

Long live rote memorization!

Oh, and before anyone thinks Korean educational system produces uncreative robots, Min-Kyu Choi of Korea just won the Brit Insurance Design of the Year award. Last year's winner, apparently, was the Barack Obama HOPE poster.

19 comments:

  1. Are you REALLY trying to suggest that the Korean education system has ANYTHING to do with fostering and training creativity in students?

    Are you serious?

    Wow.

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  2. Heh the fact that he has to point out that Korean education systems do not produce robots is highly indicative of the fact that the Korean education society produces robots.

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  3. Your blog has started to be boring recently.

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  4. Jason,

    In the very least, Korean education system does not hinder creativity, and in fact provides the students with the work ethic to pursue where creativity takes them.

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  5. Well of course he designed a versatile plug. Being a robot, it's an utter necessity for him to be able to recharge his batteries wherever the War of Robots takes him ...

    Also, with not one, but two Robot Theme Parks being built in Korea, and the Ministry of Robotics stating that there will be a robot in every household in the near future, I don't anticipate the robot jokes to cease.

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  6. I'm with Diana. I love giving quizzes and tests with open-ended answers that must be written out. It's more work to mark, but it throws the students for a loop and provides a good challenge. They can't give me a neat, rehearsed answer.

    Korean, I agree with your comment about memorization, as well as the highlighted quote from the article. I do, however, just want to bring up a point related to that: I remember in a recent post about learning English that you asked rhetorically about how "rote memorization" came to be regarded so negatively. I think the negative connotation comes from the fact that many Korean students memorize lots of English words but don't actually know how to use them.

    Sometimes students at my university frantically come to me wanting to confirm the meanings of several words and expressions. I speak some Korean and so sometimes I give explanations in Korean if I need to. But later on, some of those same students inadvertently demonstrate they don't really understand the expressions in question.

    Recently I gave a class of lower-level students an article about envy--a mildly abstract topic, but certainly not an unfamiliar one to people here. After several detailed explanations (with Korean translations), most of the students seemed to understand the content pretty well. I told them to take the article home and study it. The following week I reviewed some more expressions and then gave them a surprise quiz based on the article.

    I noticed before the quiz some students actually went through all six paragraphs of the article and translated several of the words, writing the Korean beneath the English. One student translated, it appeared, every single word. If I applied this habit whenever I read a Korean article or handout, I might be fluent in the language by now. However, the quiz was a disaster; several students didn't know what to do with the expressions that I thought I had explained and they had memorized. Later the Korean department head called me and asked me to make the content easier. So I discontinued the "Envy" article and discounted that quiz.

    I'll be the first one to admit that my content could have been too difficult, and I'm open to making changes in a lesson so students aren't lost or bored. However, I was really disappointed that some of my students were memorizing so diligently and ultimately it was useless. I respect my students and know they're not stupid, but it's difficult for me not to think that they are sometimes. Even a Korean friend with whom I shared the situation said to me: "They just memorize, but that's it." And I think it's in such contexts that "rote memorization," while certainly not useless, has a negative connotation.

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  7. It's disingenuous to suggest there are two mythical schools of thought when it comes to memorization, and you're either for it 100% or against it completely.

    Contemporary educational theories do seem to indicate that rote memorization by itself is pretty useless, however. There's a reason you can't learn a new language by simply reading the appropriate dictionary.

    Also, with the American SAT adding an essay portion a few yeas ago this seems like a significant trend re: writing portions of tests for evaluation.

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  8. Marc,

    It's not really clear from what you wrote whether or not your students who did not do well actually memorized what you told them to memorize.

    At any rate, the Korean disagrees with your friend's assessment that "They just memorize, but that's it." It is NOT "that's it." They may have memorized it in a wrong manner, but that does not mean that memorization is not the answer. In fact, MORE memorization is the answer. Koreans often do not realize this.

    wetcasements,

    It's disingenuous to suggest there are two mythical schools of thought when it comes to memorization, and you're either for it 100% or against it completely.

    There are many who think memorization is nearly useless, or pay only lip service to it. The Korean thinks that is completely incorrect. Memorization has to be the foundation of all learning.

    There's a reason you can't learn a new language by simply reading the appropriate dictionary.

    Actually, the Korean learned Mandarin Chinese by reading (and memorizing) the dictionary (and the grammar lessons written in the dictionary, the Korean must add.) It is entirely possible.

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  9. "and the grammar lessons written in the dictionary"

    That's a significant add-on.

    Do you consider yourself fluent in Mandarin? Because I really doubt it's possible that you are.

    "Memorization has to be the foundation of all learning."

    This is patently untrue. Do seven year-olds become fluent in their native tongues through memorization? It's part of the equation but I challenge you to show me a single respected linguist or educational specialist who will back you up on this.

    Against, I'm not denigrating memorization as one among many valid educational approaches or techniques. But you're making two claims here that I find highly suspect.

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  11. wetcasements,

    That's a significant add-on.

    Agreed. But the greater point is that memorization alone worked.

    Do you consider yourself fluent in Mandarin? Because I really doubt it's possible that you are.

    Fluent? No. The Korean stopped memorizing at some point, which stunted his development at that level. But much better than the peers with which he took his Chinese class? Absolutely.

    Do seven year-olds become fluent in their native tongues through memorization? It's part of the equation but I challenge you to show me a single respected linguist or educational specialist who will back you up on this.

    Is Stephen Pinker good enough for you? He teaches linguistics at Harvard. The Korean wrote about his Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Language Instinct in this post.

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  12. "But the greater point is that memorization alone worked."

    Um, no. The greater point is that memorizing vocabulary without learning grammatical rules will not teach you a language. Contemporary linguistic theory has proven this. Learning new words is important, but useless if not combined with contextual learning of grammatical rules.

    "with which he took his Chinese class?"

    Sorry, but you implied you learned Mandarin by yourself with a dictionary solely by memorizing vocabulary. But actually you were taking a class, meaning you had a teacher giving you contextual examples and grammatical instruction. I hate to say it, but this borders on lying.

    And having read Stephen Pinker's books, he never says that language acquisition comes purely from memorization. Linguists haven't thought this for over 100 years, actually. I challenge you to show me where he (or any other respected linguist) says that memorization alone allows for language acquisition.

    If I was trying to argue that memorization was useless, that would be silly. To claim "Memorization has to be the foundation of all learning" is just as silly, and an obvious misreading of Pinker and any other contemporary linguist worth his or her salt.

    Love your blog, but you aren't doing yourself any favors here with your disingenuous arguments.

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  13. From Stephen Pinker's The Stuff of Thought (2007), p. 28 (italics his):

    "To become so fluent in a language, children must have analyzed the speech around them, not just memorized it. We see this clearly when children say things that sound wrong to adult ears but that reveal acute hypotheses about how the ingredients of language may combine."

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  14. The greater point is that memorizing vocabulary without learning grammatical rules will not teach you a language.

    If that's your greater point, the Korean agrees. But when you said early that ...

    Contemporary educational theories do seem to indicate that rote memorization by itself is pretty useless, however.

    ... it was not clear what you meant by "rote memorization". If you meant "rote memorization of words only", that statement is obviously true. But if you meant "rote memorization of words and grammar rules" (which is how the Korean interpreted it,) then that statement is false.

    But actually you were taking a class, meaning you had a teacher giving you contextual examples and grammatical instruction. I hate to say it, but this borders on lying.

    Fair point. The Korean was not lying, but he can agree that he did not provide the full context, which was unusual. He was in his senior year in college, and he did not give a crap about the grade. So he decided to learn Chinese, and thought he might as well get course credit for it. So he enrolled in a class, but only showed up to class to take the exams. Instead, he memorized the dictionary. He has a higher test score than everyone in the class for which he showed up less than 5 times entire semester.

    And having read Stephen Pinker's books, he never says that language acquisition comes purely from memorization.

    Pinker does not. Pinker actually says the opposite -- that our first language acquisition is genetically predetermined, and occurs instinctively during the critical period when we are young. This necessarily means that our second language acquisition CANNOT happen like the first language acquisition. (Which is what you suggested when you asked "Do seven year-olds become fluent in their native tongues through memorization?")

    Now, the Korean thinks that the point of confusion is: you consider first language acquisition to be "learning". If you take that position, the Korean's statement that "Memorization has to be the foundation of all learning" is obviously wrong. For example, we can't learn to breathe by memorizing.

    But as all aphorisms are, the Korean's aphorism has be taken in the context. Learning to breathe is "learning" in one sense, and learning a second language (which is what brought about this conversation) is "learning" in another sense. And as Pinker demonstrated, first language learning is not like second language learning at all. Learning the first language is like learning to breathe.

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  15. Ask a Korea used to be funny, witty and entertaining. More snark, less information please.

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  16. Re: learning. There are several different types of learning, which are governed by different brain structures. Procedural learning, like learning to breathe or learning to ride a bike, is learning, even though it is governed by the basal ganglia instead of hippocampus and cerebral cortex. The question is whether rote memorization is the best strategy for making and retrieving semantic memory.

    Memories seem to be linked to one another, and the more previously-learned knowledge you can connect a fact to, the easier the new fact is to learn and recall. Often when people talk about "rote memorization," they are talking about strategies that treat every fact unto itself and do not integrate these facts into a larger framework. Some subjects are just like that; if you are learning English when your native language is Korean, there are very few ways to relate your new knowledge to your old knowledge. But rote memorization of physics facts, for example, results in a lot of college students who can plug numbers into equations on exams but who can't correctly answer questions about how real objects move in the physical world.

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  17. I grew up in the United States and I did my fair share of memorizing. Remember the quadradic formula and Avogodro's number? I do. Remember the capitals of Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela? I do. There was plenty that I had to memorize not knowing the full reason as to why I had to memorize it other than that there would be a test, and I'd better memorize (or program the formula into my calculator) if I wanted to do well on the test.

    Am I an uncreative robot? No. Those who say that it's because I went to school in the US are seeking the simple answer and are uncreative robots themselves.

    Korea's education system has many problems, for sure, but education alone doesn't create uncreative robots. Intense pressure from insane parents to study with very little sleep every day might have something to with it.

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