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Don't Let Your Children Be Parrots

Learning isn’t fun.

Don’t all shout at once.  I am aware that learning is its own kind of fun, the kind of fun that you learn to have as an adult.  I learn for fun all the time, though I’ll admit I’m not very disciplined and not very good at doing it assiduously.

But learning can’t always be fun, particularly not when you’re a kid just starting out and you simply don’t have the fund of knowledge or the background to know how to learn easily.

This used to be understood. Kids were made to memorize multiplication tables, verb tenses and other parts of the underlying structure of most disciplines.

Once past that, they would, of course, find it easier to acquire other knowledge because they had that fundamental base established.

And the base lasted a long time.  I once amused my kids by saying the multiplication tables under my breath in Portuguese, while trying to figure out the layout of a complicated parquet floor I was installing.  That knowledge, painfully acquired, is not even remotely logical (I can, like most sane human beings, arrive at the multiplication tables by adding, but it takes longer when in the middle of a complex task) and is memorized “as is” in my native language.  So even though my Portuguese has grown rusty, and I think almost exclusively in English (unless I’m reading in another language at the moment), the multiplication tables will always be in Portuguese for me.  But they are there and they’re accessible.

The “let’s make all learning fun” thing seems to have invaded all levels of school the last thirty to forty years.  It’s like someone decided that since learning – once you have the basics done – is often interesting and the most fun thing ever for a certain number of us (and we might be broken) then all learning should be fun everywhere, and if it wasn’t fun you weren’t doing it right.

This is roughly the equivalent of saying that because most humans enjoy chocolate cake throughout life, everyone should live on chocolate all the time.

It’s not only not logical, but actively detrimental.

I first became aware of what I will call “the parrot syndrome” when I was hired in the late eighties as a German instructor at a local community college.  I went to the class and was highly impressed by how well the students answered the greeting and normal questions.

And then, because I’m me, I made a small joke in German.  And looked up at a class of students frantically flipping through their books for the answer they hadn’t memorized.

I then asked them what the answer they’d given to the previous question meant in English.  Not one of them knew.  They were brilliantly trained parrots.  Hear a string of syllables, respond with a string of syllables.