Sunday, January 09, 2011

A study in comparisons: How fun should learning be?

As a long-time proponent of both not freaking out about teh Azns and not permitting pedagogy to surrender to juvenile interests in video games and texting, the contrast between this:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up.
...and this:
A.P. teachers have long complained that lingering for an extra 10 or 15 minutes on a topic can be a zero-sum game, squeezing out something else that needs to be covered for the exam. PowerPoint lectures are the rule. The homework wears down many students. And studies show that most schools do the same canned laboratory exercises, providing little sense of the thrill of scientific discovery.

All that, says the College Board, is about to change...A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like...In biology, a host of more creative, hands-on experiments are intended to help students think more like scientists...The new approach is important because critical thinking skills are considered essential for advanced college courses and jobs in today’s information-based economy. College administrators and veteran A.P. teachers familiar with the new biology curriculum believe the changes...might bring some of the excitement back to science learning.
greatly pleases me. Except I realize that, in approximately seven seconds, Teh Internets will tear Amy Chua to shreds for 1) not authentically representing Chinese people everywhere*, 2) exacerbating negative cultural stereotypes about Smart Asians, and 3) being tyrannical, repressive, and possibly psychotic, whereas the changes to the AP exams will be lauded as beneficial and progressive. But I maintain that there is nothing about the supposed Chinese/Asian/ambiguously ethnic attitude towards education that is not wholly in keeping with fully mainstream American values, which, if you need to be reminded, do actually include hard work, persistence, discipline, and parental obedience. I have no doubt that ideas truly foreign to us do prevail in China, but these ideas don't make it to Scarsdale High without undergoing some congenial modifications. The real question is, how did Amy Chua get her children to obey?

*Sometimes, I am glad that there are, numerically, very few Jews in the world so that I will never be held to the standard of accurately representing the views of one billion people.


Withywindle said...

Grrl -- you represent more than three billion women.

Miss Self-Important said...

I suppose, although I don't foresee myself having to speak on behalf of all the womyns to an exclusive audience of men in the near future. But who knows?

Also, I represent 6 billion humans to aliens.

tz said...

i approve of this pedagogy.

Miss Self-Important said...

Me too, although I think I could permit sleepovers. And substitute Greek and Latin in for musical training.

Alpheus said...

All right, I'll be the voice of opposition, much as I love the idea of mandatory Greek and Latin.

I completely agree with Chua that American parents need to push their kids a lot more than they do, but I think Chua has lost a sense of perspective. These girls were "never allowed not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama"? Will this work for every student? What would happen if ten mothers in the same class were all demanding the same thing with Chua-like intensity?

And: why leave gym and drama out of it? I'm not going to try to make the case for drama, but isn't physical education pretty important?

I do wonder if it makes sense to deny children basic opportunities for socialization. I didn't watch much TV as a kid, and in retrospect it meant I learned about many of society's rules later than I would have otherwise. I can only imagine the sort of freak I would have become if I'd never been allowed to stay over at other kids' houses or play with them outside of school. Likewise, I think a kid needs *some* freedom in choosing extracurriculars. One of the most important things to learn as you grow up is how to make your own choices and live with them.

In general, I worry about Chua's kind of education in terms of the training it provides in self-reliance and integrity. Those values may be growing less useful in present-day society -- at least if you can stay within an elite cocoon -- but I guess I still think they're important (not least for society's sake). If you're never allowed to screw up -- if Mom is going to make you learn that piano piece no matter what you do -- then how do you learn to overcome obstacles on your own? How do you learn to take risks? To live courageously? To be independent? Can all that really take place after you're eighteen?

Chua ends her piece by saying her children are equipped with "inner confidence." I guess this is the part I have the hardest time understanding. Where does that confidence come from if they've never performed without a safety net?

Miss Self-Important said...

To address the most important issue first: no, gym is the most useless class in the history of American schooling. It was originally conceived for children who could get no more out of education than "basic life skills," and it continues to cater to the modern equivalent of this group. It should be immediately eliminated from curricula, and I applaud Chua for realizing this fact. Exercise is fine and athletic participation is good, but neither of these things occur in gym classes. What occurs, as I'd hope you remember, is: 10 minutes of sitting on the floor, 10 minutes of jumping jacks, and 20 minutes of standing around on the outskirts of a soccer/basketball/football/tennis playing space and eating Doritos. One month of the year is dedicated to flopping around in an icy pool if your school can afford one, and another to rehearsing the Heimlich maneuver on plastic dolls and learning that carrots are healthier than Doritos and smoking.

Miss Self-Important said...

As for the other points, I think you're taking Chua's program too literally. She's not actually some provincial Chinese lady who just got off the boat and is puzzled by our people and their strange ways. As I said over at Phoebe's blog, I think this tone is precisely calculated to make the heads of yuppie readers explode: tell them their kids are actually dumb, and probably also fat, and that your kids are better because you made them better. I suspect--though of course I don't know--that, given her own American childhood, her husband's Jewish(?) upbringing, and their present place in the world of Yale faculty-dom (the kids attend the fancy, progressive Yale-baby private school), the reality of her daughters' upbringing is a lot more mainstream than the image she projects. Her kids are also still in high school, and while I gather they're quite good at music, it's too early to tell whether her system has really worked for them in the long term. By our standards, they'll never have to perform without a safety net--she and her husband are law profs; even if the girls were all-around failures, they would have cushioning.

So, given all that, what is worthwhile about this argument? I think it's basically the point that parents can exercise authority, and children need them to do it. You may decide to permit your children to sleep over or watch TV in violation of Chua's precepts because you think these things are beneficial for them, but you should not lose sight of the fact that these decisions are yours to make and not your child's. You don't have to do it just because your child wants it and "society" endorses it. You might offer children more choices as they get older, but there is a kind of Emile-tutor relationship lurking behind Chua's argument: in the end, children's freedom to choose is a facade because they can never choose what their parents haven't already thought good for them.

Children are moreover not in a position to choose many of the things that are good for them and by the time they come to personally realize the value of these things, it is often too late to choose them. When you ask, "how do you learn to overcome obstacles on your own?", you're making the same assumption that children learn to become adults by practicing adult behavior rather than being taught it, that, in this case, they could learn to overcome obstacles by being left to their own devices. But children don't want to overcome obstacles. Left to their own devices, they would simply avoid obstacles. That's Chua's point about nothing being fun until you're good at it. Academics and music are two good examples of this difficulty. Few children would voluntarily study hard or practice an instrument until much later in life, and even fewer have a passion for math or cello that precedes their first tedious introductions to these things. But what use is it to discover an interest in math at 25 if you've already closed off the road to higher ed, and how many people take up cello for the first time at 40 because they discover an interest in chamber music? American society is porous and more late-bloomers stand a chance at satisfaction here than many other places, but it's still true that a failure to build a foundation for some very worthwhile and gratifying pursuits in childhood can permanently forestall future fulfillment.

As for what happens when everyone adopts Chua's techniques, I think maybe South Korea happens? It seems unlikely that this revolution will really take place here, but I think, if pressed, Chua would admit that being #1 is not actually the point--being disciplined, diligent, and persistent is.

Miss Self-Important said...

Finally, there is something about her view--even with its near-psychotic tone--that seems to me much more conducive to the appreciation and preservation of high culture than anything that mainstream American pedagogy presently offers. Rote learning, tedious drilling, memorization and incessant practice all instill a sense that there are truly difficult things out there--works of art but also pieces of the natural world--that are greater than you and demand reverence from you, and the reward of your patience and effort is a hard-fought mastery. How many kids who are told that the tedious facts of biology aren't worth their time while "being a scientist" by playing around in a lab is all the fun are going to appreciate the awesome complexity of living systems, and if they don't, then how are they going to be scientists?


Alpheus said...

MSI, I'm with you on the need to take education seriously, to assert parental authority, and to inculcate the value of hard work. I guess where we really differ -- apart from our experiences in gym class -- is whether we think Chua is presenting her case in a productive way. From my point of view, scaring yuppies with the idea that Chinese mothers' kids will be better evidence of parental excellence, and thus better status symbols, than their own kids is not an optimal way to encourage a real commitment to real education.

The thing you wrote that most surprised me was that children don't want to take risks and overcome obstacles. I need to think more about this. I know kids don't like drudgery (necessary though it is) and they usually have to be pushed to do things like practicing the piano day after day. But I'm not sure they don't like challenges and risks. No doubt it's different for different children, and parents need to figure out whether their kid needs to have his thymos -- that's the best word I can think of for it -- strengthened or restrained.

Okay, one more quibble: I guess I *really* don't agree that nothing is fun until you're good at it. Many things are *more* fun once you're good at them, and I think education works best when it proceeds according to what A.N. Whitehead called "the rhythmic claims of freedom and discipline": you go back and forth between enjoying what you're doing and pressing through obstacles so that you can enjoy yourself again. But I'd hate to raise a kid who thought he couldn't enjoy something he wasn't excellent at. That outlook seems like a recipe for forgoing available happiness.

Alpheus said...

I should apologize, BTW, for re-stating (as I now realize) a lot of points that have already been made in the comments to Phoebe's post on Chua's article.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, consider Chua's piano example: how many kids would continue trying to play that piece on their own until they mastered it, and how many would just pick an easier piece? Kids like certain kinds of risks and obstacles--diving off the high board, learning skateboard tricks, sneaking into the scary lady at the end of the block's yard, other things that could potentially end in broken limbs. But these are quintessentially childish pursuits--they are unlikely to derive any but nostalgic benefits from their high-diving and skateboarding. I think that in the spheres of art and learning, the desire for risks and challenges is much lower since the gratification of success in these things comes so much later. But these are in the long-run much more important and satisfying pursuits than those undertaken in the name of childish daring, and they're more important for the culture at large. These are the things children have to be goaded into and pushed to keep doing.

Similarly, there are of course fun things that don't require a lot of skill or practice (though these things are, again, largely things of not very great cultural importance), and even those things that are only fun after you're good at them offer small rewards and gratifications along the road to getting good, like playing the donkey song on the piano, or getting praised and esteemed for good grades in school even though neither of these achievements are the peak of the activity they represent. It's also clear that you can't, simply through hard work, become excellent at everything you undertake. But don't you think that most people who dedicate time as children to certain pursuits realize later that they don't have to become Beethoven to enjoy piano, and that they're now good enough to enjoy it a still relatively high level? I played tennis for many years as a kid and never became awesome, but I moderated my expectations over time as I became more interested in other things, and now I am good enough to enjoy it at a reasonable level of competitiveness and that is satisfying enough, since it's not my primary vocation.

Again, my main point is that this argument gets at the right disposition for appreciating and preserving high culture. It doesn't embody all the content of childhood, and I don't it's necessary to orient your children only towards things that are beyond their grasp. Their is enough time in childhood to discipline oneself for future adult pursuits AND skateboard.

Miss Self-Important said...


Miss Self-Important said...


Ponder Stibbons said...

First, note that the article was partly tongue in cheek and the headline provocative to help sell Chua's book. The book is actually more nuanced, as explained in this thread.

I disagree with MSI that Chua's parenting style is conducive to the appreciation and preservation of 'high culture'. I grew up in an Asian society where every upper middle class parent forced classical instrument lessons on their children, and most of these children ended up disliking classical music. In my case I could not bear to touch the piano for eight years after finally being allowed to cease lessons. I don't think forced learning is any better at cultivating an appreciation for biology, literature, or other academic pursuits either. As another example, many students schooled in my home country avoid Mandarin like the plague after 10-12 years of being forced to learn it.

I don't deny that there are certain benefits to the "Asian method" but I think that whether these accrue is highly dependent on the child's personality and other factors. I know many, many people (including myself) who are deeply scarred and suffer from psychological problems long into adulthood because of authoritarian parenting, but I also know many who seem perfectly well-adjusted (whether this success is because of the parenting method or despite it is not clear to me; however the cause of the psychological scarring, when it happens, is very clear since the maladaptive behaviour is strongly associated with traumatic memories).

My personality was particularly unsuited to an authoritarian style of parenting. I was not the kind of kid who was interested in "quintessentially childish pursuits" except perhaps outdoorsy things like biking and rollerblading. But mostly I spent all my free time reading. If I hadn't been forced to practise the piano, I would have spent that time reading math and science books. I wish I had been able to do that instead of tapping at the piano, since you really do lose those skills very quickly without practice, so my piano skills are back at a very rudimentary level. The main effect of being forced to practise (as well as various other authoritarian measures) was to completely destroy my relationship with my mother, my ability to trust humans, and any belief I ever had in the concept of familial love. You will read other stories like that in the link I posted above. You will also read about people who thought the Asian way worked for them. So I really don't think there's one answer about which method promotes learning better, and the most important thing is for parents to be aware of the dangers of both approaches and to watch out for warning signs.

lance said...

From my experience teaching and attending schools in Korea and Singapore, I can vouch for the strict discipline Asian students & teachers. One big difference is that team sports are much more important in the US. The US devotion to high school team sports like football and crew and basketball is pretty incomprehensible to a typical Korean, at least the ones on the receiving end of my explanation. And American parents and kids realize that team sports are a preparation for adult life in a way that practicing the piano for three hours a day is not. They're much more practical that way.