Meaningful rote learning and the ‘Chinese Learner Paradox’

Guest post by Mark Souter, psychology and sociology teacher

There is good research evidence to show that systematic drills, such as those provided by Learnclick, can enhance learning. This claim challenges some of the assumptions about learning taught in Western pedagogy. I am convinced these assumptions are wrong …

Conventional wisdom in British pedagogy (and much of the ‘West’) is that rote learning is empty of meaning and unhelpful. The paradox is that this is exactly the approach of the most successful cultural group in education. British school children’s test data are thoroughly (excessively in some ways) tracked by the state. One of the beneficial outcomes is that differences between social groups can be identified, though explaining differences is not as straightforward.

In Britain, the most striking and persistent difference in achievement is that between socio-economic classes, followed by that between ethnic groups and then by gender (ONS, 2015). In my setting, the first difference is of most direct importance since I teach in a school which encompasses the most deprived area of the UK. One of the subjects I teach is sociology and the persistent and striking success of students of Chinese heritage intrigued me – not, alas my students who never asked me to explain this phenomenon, nonetheless, I wanted to know! The international evidence is consistent and it is striking that despite the fact that the label ‘Chinese’ encompasses well over 1 billion people, academic success in this group is a worldwide phenomenon. In the UK detailed research shows that the difference is deeply culturally embedded since it is consistent across those who have been settled in the UK for many generations as compared to new arrivals, and across socio-economic classes. This last aspect is striking in the context of the UK. Among those of ‘white British’ heritage the difference in GCSE exams (a public exam taken in Year 11, at 15-16 years old) between the national mean and those poor enough to be entitled to free school meals is 30 percentage points. Among students of Chinese heritage it was too small to measure accurately (HoCEC, 2015). Their gender gap is also the smallest of any ethnic group (Connolly, 2006).

Such is the healthy state of British social science that detailed research has been carried out on possible causes of this difference. In particular, Woodrow and Sham (2001) sought the views of students of Chinese heritage. For those interested in the methodological details there is a reference at the end of this article; here I am going pick out what I think are the implications for learning in general. Firstly, learning is revered. Parents and teachers, in particular, are also held in high esteem (though, reading between the lines of their responses, I suspect this is despite some disappointment!) The students value subjects which the see as contributing to future economic success; being told what is important for forthcoming tests; and teacher directed learning in general. They do not value discursive learning methods such as group work. There is a widespread commitment to study between lessons and to correct errors. In short students of Chinese heritage are almost invariably relentless in their pursuit of knowledge.

It seems entirely unreasonable to assume that the academic performance shown by these students happens in spite of their labours. Although they tend to have a marked preference for vocationally relevant learning they excel across all subjects, and on into undergraduate and post-graduate study, so this attitude to learning does not let them down when the knowledge they cram needs to be used at the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (in its post-2002 or ‘classic’ form). The ‘paradox’ of the power of supposedly ‘empty rote learning’ has been accounted for by rejecting the core assumption that such learning is empty. There is good evidence that empty learning is possible, as demonstrated by one of my heroes of psychology, Ebbinghaus. I will expand on his virtues in another post. I’ll just say here that he isolated meaning from his studies for the purpose of scientific rigour, not because meaning it unimportant to memory – on the contrary, he was acknowledging its power through his realisation that the powerful role of prior learning was a variable that needed to be controlled.

Equally, it is possible to memorise otherwise important data in a meaningless fashion – al la Mr. Gradgrind (and my French teacher, for whom I learned “me, te, se, nous, vous, le, la, les, lui, leur, y, en”. To this day, some 40 years later, I remain totally ignorant of its significance – though it did save me from finding out whether he would follow through on his threat involving the sharp half of a snooker cue). The point here is that knowledge and understanding are not independent phenomena. Piaget has been caricatured as saying understanding comes before language – ideas have to be learned first and independently before the words that refer to them. In fact, Piaget acknowledged the importance of social context and language in development (Becker and Varelas, 2001). In this respect, his differences with Vygotsky have been exaggerated. For teachers the central point is clear – language can scaffold learning; ideas do not have to precede words, they word together. Presenting our students with drills that focus on the use of key language is not empty learning.

Some of the other findings about Chinese learners relate to the influence of parents in respect to completing homework and other studies at home. This echoes the ‘Tiger Mom’ phenomenon in less academic sources. When I raise the topic of Chinese learners at presentations in the UK other teachers often express concerns about the work-life balance for students, and even suggest that this can have negative effects on their mental health. I am going to side step this issue here because – as has been pointed out in other research – 5,000 years of Chinese culture is not going to be simply transferred wholesale into the lives of occidental students. For my classroom teaching the issue is more straightforward: what aspects of the Chinese learning phenomenon can be transferred?

Much as I would like automatic reverence from my students I think I have to accept that this is going to remain hard-earned. I also doubt that my charges will readily adapt correcting their errors or a relentless attitude to study – but this is something I can facilitate with some technological support. The acquisition of new knowledge is especially important in my subject area (social science) since it is not part of the UK National Curriculum. At 16 years old they leave the straight jacket of the National Curriculum and can choose from a much wider array of subjects. Psychology and sociology bring with them a very large, new vocabulary, just as the level of cognitive demands in general takes a large step upwards. It has been difficult to convince students of the need to up their game.

It is hard to add wisdom on top of all the other things I have to teach; all the more so, when teaching adolescents. Sometimes it takes most of two years to do this, which is a shame because the final exam comes just weeks later. It made me feel a little better to hear a student say ‘you were right; I wish I’d taken you seriously at the time, sir’, but it was something of a pyrrhic victory. My conviction that information technology could contribute was not immediately matched by my attempts at implementation. The main problem was that the effect of IT was not tested since it was initially only those students who would study anyway that took up. What I have been focussing on in the last few years has been finding electronic learning systems that do not impose their own extra demands on students, and ones that lift burdens from teachers. There are a lot of card-sort systems (Quizlets is my favourite), but when it comes to cloze learning I’ve found nothing that matches Learnclick.

Becker, J. and Varelas, M., 2001. Piaget’s early theory of the role of language in intellectual development: A comment on DeVries’s account of Piaget’s social theory. Educational researcher, 30(6), pp.22-23.
Bhattacharyya, G., Ison, L. and Blair, M., 2003. Minority ethnic attainment and participation in education and training: the evidence. Nottingham: DfES Publications.
Connolly, P., 2006. The effects of social class and ethnicity on gender differences in GCSE attainment: a secondary analysis of the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales 1997–2001. British Educational Research Journal, 32(1), pp.3-21.
House of Commons Education Committee, 2014. Underachievement in education by white working class children. House of Commons, 142.
Woodrow, D. and Sham, S., 2001. Chinese pupils and their learning preferences. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 4(4), pp.377-394

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One thought on “Meaningful rote learning and the ‘Chinese Learner Paradox’

  1. Very nice article, Philip. I also took a look at quizlet which looks quite stunning I have to say but unfortunately doesn’t offer cloze or scrambled tests. Which is why I have decided to try learnclick for my German online course. Thank you for putting that much effort into creating it and for offering it for a very reasonable (I’d say too reasonable) yearly fee. You might want to consider building a sound business around your tool. I’m happy to have a chat with you about this.

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