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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.

I found they’d been taught by the “immersion” method, which is one of the many methods of making learning “fun” or at least less dreary… for the teacher.

Yes, I know, one or more of you is going to tell me it’s the method that Special Services use. Turns out it’s not precisely that. The armed forces don’t just put people in a classroom for an hour a day, jabber incomprehensibly at them, never translating, and then magically these people acquire the language.  That’s the myth, and it’s been eagerly embraced because of its promise that one will not have to memorize.  But it’s not true.  Having talked to people who have gone through various kinds of foreign language training in various armed services, I’ve found that not only do they have classes on grammar and syntax, but their immersion is far more immersive – as in, full time, 24/7 -- and comes after learning the rudiments of the language.

In fact, even if you just drop people in the middle of a culture that speaks the language 24/7 for months or years, they will not learn the language particularly well.  The average person will learn a sort of pidgin or non-grammatical language, which we’re all familiar with from various immigrants.

What the “false immersion” method does do quite well is cut out the early one or two years of memorizing the verb forms, syntax, and other annoying mechanics of the language.

The truth is that “immersion,” even in a classroom, works quite well after those initial two years.  In my case, I used to brute-force a language by learning the basics and then reading in the language to internalize everything else, which is its own form of immersion.

But first you must have the basics.  Without the basics, you can teach people to answer by reflex, but they’ll have no idea what they’re saying.

Turns out it would be worse.  When my own kids entered French in high school, I found that they weren’t even training them to answer by reflex anymore.  It was all “fun” and “immersion” (which isn’t). My kids were handed French magazines to cut pictures out of.  They were taught to sing French songs.  What they weren’t taught, in any way, shape or form, was to be able to use the French language.

There was nothing wrong with their ability to learn.  They simply weren’t being taught.  In fact, because the older needed to know French, when I lost patience, I made him memorize grammar and syntax and basic vocabulary, then handed him French books to read.  In three months he was speaking the fluent French they’d never taught him in five years in school.

But the problem isn’t just with foreign languages anymore.

One of my friends (well, several of them, but--) is a college professor and was recently venting about the papers that get turned in to his class. “They have random sentences jumbled together, not forming any meaning, but trying to pretend they learned something.”

This linked in with the times I’ve been asked to help friends’ children or other people in their late teens or early twenties, and I realized with horror that the parrot syndrome has gone local.  We now do it to kids in their own native language.

I don’t know if it’s a deficiency in teaching them to read, so that while they can read, they are not fluent enough to express themselves in writing, or if it’s a situation like the teaching of a foreign language, where at a prompt, or the use of a certain word, they respond with some obscure phrase they memorized, and which they were never forced to explain.

I’ve seen it a lot though.  In fact, one of my children’s 12th-grade teachers suffered from this syndrome while teaching English.  She had not absorbed half of what she was supposed to know and therefore kept coming up with novel and strange rules for compositions.  For instance, you could not, under any circumstances, use the word “show” because (and she wrote this on the edge of a paper) that reminded her of a flasher.  And I don’t know if she was confused and thought pronouns were adjectives, or if she’d decided to take the minimalist rule for adjectives to the extreme, but she objected to the use of pronouns… you know like “he, she, they.”  Not just objected to them when the referent was unclear but objected to them at all times.  You go on and try to write an essay using none of those.

In fact, when she orchestrated an attack on my blog by her illiterate protégées (they were disputing the fact that I’d referred to her [without naming her] ideas of culture being genetically inherited as outright Hitlerian) I got it to stop by announcing publicly that one more stupid profane comment on my blog and I would scan and post her “gifted” corrections on my son’s papers.  They stopped.

But the thing is, at the base of this inability to use the written language or even to understand it very well, is the fact that these children (including the teacher) were taught to parrot a lot of things, but not to understand what they were saying.

The hard work of learning to read and write until it becomes second nature and an easy conduit for your thoughts was never done.  Instead, there was “fun” learning which consisted of regurgitating segments of ill-understood knowledge.

Beware. Your child might seem very learned and just be suffering from parrot syndrome.  Read essays they’ve written.  Demand they explain what they’re trying to say, then make them rewrite them. (This worked with both their children.)

Once you break through the habit of just writing what they’ve learned without thinking, and the purposeful use of words and thoughts, the child won’t go back.

But first, you need to identify the problem and make sure the child understands it too.

And you can’t trust the school to take care of it. Unless you want brilliantly mal-educated parrots.

Problem is, I don’t think a nation of unthinking parrots can be self-governing.