Pretending to learn

One of the hidden advantages of learning Chinese is that I often catch myself pretending to learn and it gives me an acute insight and experience into the nature of real vs. faux learning. I’m doing a lot of “busy” work today on trying to get my document together for my ISTE certification (faux learning) so this will be brief.

Real learning literally makes your brain hurt. Sometimes I feel like my brain is creaking when I’m concentrating hard. It’s hard to keep up for very long and you tend to need physical breaks. Some of the things that I’d include in real learning is when you’re not just trying to remember characters but when you’re using them to make sentences – and incorporating previously learnt characters and sentence structure. That’s hard work. Memorising and reproducing a list of characters is easy. It’s also easy to use apps to go through lists of words and pick the right word / sound / character combination from 4 or 6 options. That’s my “pretend I’m learning Chinese in the taxi on the way to work” learning. Funnily enough if I do the same at home at my desk with a pen and paper, and look up the etymology of the words as I go along and write the sentence examples from my dictionary it’s coming closer to real learning. Similar actions but a twist that enhances.

Something similar happens when you’re practising music. Playing a piece through is great fun. But just focusing on one part that’s tricky and repeating that until it’s fluid, and even perhaps breaking it down into smaller and smaller bits – that’s real learning. Anton Nel in his DSS talk at WAB hinted at this. Others have also talked about it in the “10,000 hour debate” that morphs into the “deliberate practice” discussion.

Real learning takes place when you do the things that you like to avoid by doing other things – like fill in the blank sentences and worksheet versus reading an authentic text. I really do understand why so many students avoid reading a book. Because it’s hard work. Really really hard work. Especially in another language. You’re recognising characters, thinking about the meaning, flipping sentence around in mental gymnastics so it makes sense in your mother tongue grammatical structures. Looking words up. Looking pronunciation/pinyin up.

I’m reading “The List” with my group of early morning read-aloud students. It describes a dystopian world where one has only 500 words to use. When we started the book I joked with my crew that that was my Chinese language reality. I also recently finished “All Rights Reserved” where each spoken word and gesture is billed to you. Imagine how reality and potential is limited in these scenarios. Now have a look at this site – this is mind blowing and what a fabulous way of joining research, art, reality and literature by Dr Pip Thornton. Her piece NEWSPEAK shows the whole text of Orwell’s 1984 as a stock market ticker-tape, with the word prices fluctuating according to live data from Google Ads.

NEWSPEAK 2019 from Pip on Vimeo.

I’ve recently subscribed to “The Syllabus” of Evgeny Morozov – the best description of how this came about is in a Dutch podcast (with the worst cover art I’ve ever see outside a primary classroom). It is the epitome of going against the easy consumption of media and information through human and algorithmic curation of a weekly reading list within various fields. Which is how I stumbled on the whole art around the above discussion.

Keep those brains creaking everyone!


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