Tags: amy chua, asian parenting, childhood, education, learning, teaching, tiger mother
My response to Amy Chua, Part 2
“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” – Mark Twain
Student: (sarcastically commenting on a challenging piano exercise I’d assigned): “Oh, fun, fun.”
Me: “Maybe it will be fun – why not? You haven’t played it yet, so how do you know for sure it won’t be?”
Student (after a moment’s reflection): “You win.”
Last week I wrote Part 1 of my response to Amy Chua’s article on “Chinese parenting” featured in the Wall Street Journal. A storm of controversy followed Ms. Chua’s article; in the intervening week her book has been released and she has given several interviews, such as this one, which help to “moderate” the tone of her WSJ piece. Ms. Chua emphasizes the book is more a memoir than a parenting guide and that she is not trying to tell others how to raise their children. Yet, even in the interviews, she still makes some sweeping claims about “Asian” vs. “Western” forms of parenting. It’s these statements I’ll be responding to now.
In particular, one quote from the article leapt out at me.
Western parents romanticize the idea of pursuing passions and giving your kid choices. If you give a 10-year-old the choice to pursue his or her passion, it’s going to be doing Facebook for six hours. I don’t think it’s going to be playing the violin or doing any school work very seriously.
Ms. Chua, it seems, is convinced that Children Are By Default Lazy. If they do have “passions” – perhaps to play an instrument or win a sports competition – these are transitory flickers of desire which will soon fade, leaving nothing but TV-seeking apathy behind. Children don’t have the planning or time management skills to work towards a long-term goal. Above all, they aren’t interested in learning, because learning is Hard Work and couldn’t possibly be fun. Hence they must be forced to learn, as they certainly won’t do it on their own.
Is this the case? When I think back over my own childhood, here’s a small sample of “fun” activities I remember:
- Going to the local library with my mom, picking out armloads of books and going to a nearby park to read beneath the trees. (In the following years I would read thousands of books).
– Drawing maps of various fictitious countries described in the books I read (The Phantom Tollbooth, “Ponyland”, Narnia…)
– Learning various math concepts from my mom (before their introduction in the school curriculum): place-value, negative numbers and tessellations.
– Playing soccer from age 6 to 14.
– Major roles in four school plays: Titania (Midsummer Night’s Dream), The Goose (Charlotte’s Web), The Wicked Witch of the West (Wizard of Oz) and the First Witch (Macbeth).
– Taking piano lessons through Grade 12 (and flute until Grade 11; I also played in a youth orchestra.)
– Making a large hooked rug for my room.
– Writing a short story which won first place in a city-wide competition, as well as dozens of poems and other short stories.
– Memorizing a large amount of Romantic poetry, including Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, around age 9. (I still know it today!)
All of these activities have three characteristics in common: (a) I had fun doing them, (b) I learned something in the process and (c) they were totally voluntary. Some of them my parents suggested or provided help with, others were entirely my idea, but I was never coerced or “bribed”. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who remembers these sorts of childhood activities being “fun”…so why do we take for granted that children need to be forced into doing them?
This vast disconnect between what we expect from children (laziness) and what’s actually there (energy, creativity and curiosity) goes right to the heart of what’s wrong with our educational system today. Our society has a collective idea that Learning Is Boring. “Obviously” children are not going to want to learn about negative numbers, write stories or practice piano on their own initiative, right? So either we have to bribe or coerce them.
Bribery comes in all sorts of forms in our educational system. Most often it’s a sensory form; for example, a computer game that will let you practice your times tables by lighting up and flashing every time you get the right answer. Exciting, isn’t it? From a post by my fellow blogger Montecelery: “Somewhere along the line, the idea that children need stimulation went horribly, horribly awry…there’s just this conception in our society that children need or want brightly colored stuff, stuff that lights up and makes noise, whatever.” If it isn’t loud or flashy things, it’s cute dancing cartoon characters, the promise of a movie after class, or chocolate. But, so goes the conventional Western wisdom, they will not swallow that bitter spoonful of educational medicine unless we promise them some sugar to go with it.
The traditional “Asian” method is rather less subtle. Why bribe the children if we can coerce them? It’s their job to clench their teeth, buckle down and learn those math concepts or spelling lists, distasteful, boring and tedious though it may be. No spoonful of sugar needed here; they’ll learn to take their bitter medicine each day and do it promptly, or they’ll have an angry parent or teacher to answer to.
In contrast, I’m going to advance an alternative theory.
(1) Children – in general – are naturally creative, curious, and enjoy learning. (Obviously, some children will have more energy or passion for a given subject than others. However, if there’s a child out there who has absolutely no interest in learning, I haven’t taught or met them yet. ) There’s even a school in Britain named Summerhill, where the children are under absolutely no obligation to go to classes, take tests or learn anything at all. But, amazingly enough, they do!
(2) Though children enjoy learning, they won’t just spontaneously learn if they’re entirely left to their own devices - not through lack of motivation but lack of tools. It’s absolutely essential to expose them to a wide range of possibilities (teaching them to read or introducing math concepts at a preschool level; signing them up for soccer or other recreational opportunities; going on nature walks; taking them to the library to borrow books; and so on.)
(3) If you want your child to enjoy learning, the best thing you can do is spend time interacting with them. Opportunities for learning will naturally come up. If there’s one thing that almost all 5-year olds have in common, it’s that they never stop asking questions! Learning is much more fun when there’s someone else there to do it with.
(4) “Educational” TV shows and DVDs, by and large, do far more to dampen intellectual curiosity than to sharpen it.** They teach children that learning consists of sitting passively and absorbing information. (Of course this prepares them very nicely for the mainstream educational system…which involves 12 years of sitting passively and absorbing information! Is it any wonder that parents, a few years down the road, bemoan their children’s “apathy” and “lack of motivation?”) Learning is an active process, and watching TV is by nature passive.
And most importantly…
(5) Learning doesn’t consist of stuffing information into one’s brain. It’s a process of exploring the world around us and finding out how it works. An interest in learning, and “being well prepared for tests”, often have very little to do with one another.
This is why the Asian model is so self-defeating. It supposes that one can generate curiosity through hours of drudgery. Does Ms. Chua truly believe that memorizing lists of spelling words, or doing pages of long division, will give one a passion for literature or mathematics? Of course, spelling and arithmetic are useful skills in our society; I’m not denying that! But the very idea that one can “drill” a passion into a child through rote repetition is, to my mind at least, absurd.
Children do not need to be “motivated”. They come that way naturally. The danger is that they will become “demotivated” – either through passive TV-watching (usually when both parents work outside the home) or through an educational system that emphasizes “right answers” and “good marks” over intellectual curiosity. But, if they are given the tools that will let them pursue their passions, they won’t be spending six hours a day on Facebook.***
Of course, these may not be the same passions that Ms. Chua appears to personally value, such as academics and music. For example, one of my cousins has an amazing talent for renovating older cars and re-selling them. Why shouldn’t he “pursue his passion”? If a 9-year old longs to be in a school play, or on the school basketball team, why does Ms. Chua not consider these good choices?
The truth is that children come with a wide variety of interests and this is good. Yes, our world needs doctors, lawyers and engineers. It also needs teachers, plumbers, computer programmers, entrepreneurs, retail workers, dental assistants, musicians and far too many other careers to mention here. Your child’s interests may not match your own, and that’s fine – but it’s also none of your business to tell them what they “should” enjoy.
In closing, I’ll hand it off to my dad, whose advice on careers was always as follows: “I have only three requirements for what career you pick. One, you need to enjoy it. Two, it has to be legal. Three, you need to be able to earn a living at it.” That’s all any parent should insist on. After that – hands off.
- The Contrapuntal Platypus
* Just for those who are curious, the maps of imaginary countries, the short story/poetry writing, and memorizing the Ancient Mariner were entirely on my own initiative. (Nobody could have been more surprised than my parents at that last one.)
** To clarify, I am not telling parents never to turn on Discovery Channel or to borrow educational DVDs from the library. This shouldn’t, though, make up the bulk of the child’s “learning time.”
*** Unless, of course, their passion is for network design or computer programming…in which case they may be the next Mark Zuckerberg. That wouldn’t be so bad either.
Tags: amy chua, asian parenting, education, piano, western parenting, why chinese mothers are superior
(This is Part 1 of my response to Amy Chua, focusing on her article though a music teaching/educational lens. UPDATE: Part 2, consisting of some more general thoughts on parenting and how to “motivate” children to learn, is now up here. Comments, questions, and debates are welcome!)
A friend of mine tweeted an article today titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, which he suggested would more accurately be called “How to Rob Your Child’s Life and Live it For Them.” It’s written by an Asian mother, Amy Chua, who quite genuinely believes that the Asian method of education – rote memorization and practice, insistence on high achievement, and strict discipline – produces the most successful, and in the end happiest, children. When I tweeted back my initial reaction to the article, my friend responded, “She forgets that in order to become a musician, you need talent first and then you can practice like hell.”
I found this assertion extremely interesting, but limiting – just as I found the author’s stance more compelling than one might think at first glance, but also ultimately flawed. The Asian model assumes that rote practice and strict discipline can ensure “success.” In contrast, the Western model argues that inherent “talent” – either you have it, or you don’t – is first and foremost essential. Frankly, neither of those educational models seems ideal. Isn’t there any other alternative?
Though there are aspects of Ms. Chua’s article I quite strongly disagreed with (never allowing one’s children to have a playdate or be in a school play? Requiring them to be the top student in every academic subject?), I felt she hit some things right on the mark. She states:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work… Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun…One of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.
Agreed 100%. This is where the Asian theory, for me, comes out far ahead of the Western theory of “talent”. The Western model is horrendously disempowering, not to mention disheartening; children tend to assume, if they can’t get something right away, that they “aren’t good at it” and should just “give up.” (Of course, if I’d done this there’s no way I’d be a pianist today.) Say what you like about the Asian system – at least it provides some scope for improvement.
It’s only after this point that, for me, the Asian theory goes totally off the rails…
Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.
Ouch! The problem with the Asian model is that it assumes any failure to do well (in academics, music, etc) is due to lack of motivation, practice, or work ethic. As a teacher I know that far more often it’s due to a fundamental lack of understanding. The child’s current level of comprehension is on one side, the concept is on another, there’s a gap in between – and no amount of screaming, punishment or shaming will give the child the ability to jump over the gap, any more than yelling at me would make me able to leap a fifty foot wide crevasse. Excoriating the child for “not getting it” won’t make the child any more likely to get it, only make them feel guilty for something that isn’t their fault. Rather, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to give them – one by one – the tools they need to bridge the gap on their own, and guide them through the process.
As an example of what can go so terribly, horribly wrong with the Asian model, I’ll hand it over to Ms. Chua once more.
Here’s a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7…working on a piano piece called “The Little White Donkey”…incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms. Lulu couldn’t do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off. “Get back to the piano now,” I ordered.
“You can’t make me.”
“Oh yes, I can.”
Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day…I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic….I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.
Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.
Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.
“Mommy, look—it’s easy!” After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn’t leave the piano…When she performed “The Little White Donkey” at a recital a few weeks later, parents came up to me and said, “What a perfect piece for Lulu—it’s so spunky and so her.”
A success story for coercion? Not quite. Not being a child psychologist, I won’t speculate on what sort of damage can be done to a 7-year old by repeated insults, bullying and threats (not to mention withholding water and bathroom breaks – surely this would count as physical abuse?) As a piano teacher, however, I can pretty firmly state that no real progress was made here.
Here’s the first warning sign: “We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart.”
This is pretty much a universal problem among pianists – playing left and right hands separately, and putting them together, are two very different mental and physical tasks! It was certainly not due to the 7-year old being “lazy”, “self-indulgent”, “cowardly,” or “pathetic.” Even less was it due to a fundamental “lack of talent” (as per the Western approach). Rather, it is simply a technical problem the child hasn’t learned to deal with. Tackling a problem like this is not the child’s responsibility nor, in fact, the parent’s (unless that parent has extensive training in music.) It is the teacher’s, and Ms. Chua should have taken the issue to him or her in the next lesson. Trying to “shame” a 7-year old into playing two-hand cross-rhythms, without help from an experienced teacher, is like trying to “shame” her into solving algebra problems when she’s never been introduced to the concept before. Lack of understanding is not something one should feel guilty about.
However, it’s pretty clear Ms. Chua did not herself have the musical experience to analyze the problem and break it down into a form that Lulu could solve. Rather she tried to solve the issue by brute force – and for hours on end this was unproductive. But then, the light dawned…or did it?
Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.
Just like that! Magic! And all it took was hour upon hour of bullying, threats, verbal and physical intimidation, insults and screaming, right?
Not so fast. Unfortunately, by Ms. Chua’s account, it sounds as though her daughter stumbled across the solution by exhaustive (literally!) trial and error more than anything else. All piano students have moments where something that didn’t work before, magically starts to fit together. Unfortunately “magic” can only go so far; the student is left with little or no understanding of what they did to make it work, or how to fix it if – almost inevitably – it stops working again at some point in the future (usually the night before a major performance!)
Threats and insults aside, the problem with rote drill as a learning method is that it tends to entirely bypass the important long-term goals (musical understanding) in favour of more peripheral short-term ones (learning “The Little White Donkey” for the next day.) As a result, the child gets “good” at playing a lot of individual pieces but often has little or no general musical comprehension, artistic expression, or even music reading ability. (More on the weaknesses of the rote system, in my own and others’ experience, here.)
An ideal educational model neither relies on inherent “talent” nor “discipline” as primary strategies for teaching. Certainly, it can be useful to exploit a child’s strengths as a teaching tool (case in point: one of my students had an amazing memory for pattern and harmony, though he had difficulties reading music. I assigned him various technical exercises in the circle of fifths pattern – usually something only more advanced students would tackle. He learned them easily.) Likewise, rote memorization and repetition can be a useful tool for learning. However, neither works as a good fundamental teaching model.
Above all, a good teacher needs the ability to be both creative and analytical (pop-culture notions of right- and left-brained people aside, the two are not mutually exclusive!) Creativity is needed in order to formulate a problem in new ways, using analogy, stories, visual images, metaphor or whatever else is needed to get an idea across. Analysis is essential for breaking down a problem into steps and then handing the student the tools they need to process those steps, one at a time – so that the previously unleapable gap becomes a series of shorter hops, or if necessary easy steps.
This dual strategy of creativity and analysis produces short-term results as well as long-term understanding. But, more important than either, it gives the student the tools they will need to solve, not only musical problems, but any problem requiring creative and/or analytical ability. Ms. Chua’s assertions aside, bullying and insulting a child won’t give them self-esteem. However, neither will telling them that “everyone has different talents” and “someday you’ll figure it out” (what kid can’t see through that sort of rhetoric to hear the underlying “you’re not good at this” and “I’m not really sure why you can’t get it now”?) What will give a child self-esteem, however, is showing them the strategies they will need to solve any problem they encounter. And, unlike a late-night, tearfully forced mastering of “My Little White Donkey”, these are positive, empowering lessons that will last a lifetime.
- The Contrapuntal Platypus
* I taught an Asian student last year who transferred into my studio. After several years of study under a “rote” method, her technique and imitative ability were quite good but she was unable to read even a simple 2-line piece in C major. Furthermore she had no comprehension of how the music was constructed, what the composer’s markings meant or what the piece was trying to portray.
I told her mother that we would need to spend some time working through the lower RCM levels to improve her reading ability, after which we could return to more advanced music. We did so and she made excellent progress, moving through about 5 RCM grades in as many months. However, about 6 months after she began lessons, her mother called to tell me that she was leaving my studio. The reason (as I found out when I asked to speak with the daughter; her mom wouldn’t tell me) was that, apparently, she “wasn’t progressing fast enough.”
I asked the mother how quickly she expected her daughter to progress – and how passing six grades in half a year could possibly be insufficient. From her answer I gathered that she wanted her daughter to be playing the sort of “flashy” music that she’d been working on before and that goals such as long-term understanding, music reading and expressivity were, for her, secondary to surface brilliance and showiness.
Similarly, when my sister taught English in Japan for a year she found that the educational system was almost entirely structured around drill. Students would memorize, word-for-word, a small set of formulaic conversations with little understanding of their meaning or structure. As a result they would be able to say, for example, “I’d like a cup of coffee, please” but have limited ability to modify the sentence to ask for two cups of coffee, or a cup of tea instead. Many of her students who had studied English in school for years still were entirely unable to have a basic conversation with a native speaker.
I don’t mean to suggest with these anecdotes that all Asian teachers or students fall into this stereotype. However, it does seem to be a major weakness of the rote system that it promotes quick results over true understanding.
2011 Weekly Challenge: Write Year-Round for Human Rights! January 1, 2011Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Human Rights, Iranelection, Saving the World.
Tags: #iranelection, 2011, amnesty international, human rights, human rights challenge, new year, new year's resolution
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Happy New Year! As I mentioned yesterday, today I’m unveiling my 2011 New Year’s Human Rights’ Challenge. Though I created it as a personal New Year’s Resolution, I invite others to join me!
A few months ago I featured this video on my blog:
For the past two years I’ve meant to participate in the Amnesty Write for Rights event (held Dec. 10) and Greeting Cards Campaign (Nov 1-Jan 31), but it’s a busy season for piano teachers, and this year in particular was…chaotic. I did consider about setting myself the goal of writing greeting cards to the 31 prisoners over the 31 days of January. However, these cases have already been widely publicized and by all accounts these 31 prisoners are getting enormous volumes of mail. What Amnesty needs, I suspect, is more people who will make an effort to consistently write appeal letters during the other 11 months of the year.
So my personal goal for 2011 is:
Once a week throughout 2011, I will pick an Amnesty Urgent Action, write and send an appeal letter, and feature the case here on my blog to help spread awareness.
Why this goal?
(1) I’ve known for a while now that I wanted to become more involved in fighting for human rights in a number of regions. I’ve been on Twitter’s #iranelection hashtag for a year and a half now and have sent dozens of Iran-related Urgent Action Appeals for prisoners suffering in Evin or on death row.
However, as my interest in human rights has deepened over the past year, I’ve become less and less content to simply focus on a single country. There are oppressed people worldwide who need our voices, both to demand their rights be respected and to spread awareness. Even if all those in prison in Iran were liberated today, the fight for human rights would go on in many other places…and until all of us are free, none of us truly are.
(2) One of the perennial challenges of blogging is, as a friend observed last night, getting started. If I’ve made a commitment to blog about a human rights case once a week to help spread awareness, this will definitely be a strong motivating factor for blogging in general. A popular #iranelection saying, “We are the media” – “we” being bloggers, tweeters and other social media users – is particularly applicable when it comes to human rights cases, which the mainstream media tend to neglect. If we don’t publicize these cases, nobody will.
(3) A great side benefit of following the current human rights issues in Iran is that I’ve come to know so much about Iran’s amazing history, culture, and language. But Iran’s “story” is only one of hundreds. There are so many other cultures and countries in the world that are equally fascinating. What better way to discover them than while fighting for human rights?
What this means is that I’ll be posting here about a new human rights case each week. At the very least I’ll repost Amnesty’s summary and instructions for writing an appeal letter. If time permits I’ll hopefully do a bit of digging and include some more background. (I may include some sample letters for particularly urgent cases, but Amnesty does encourage people to write appeals in their own words. And really, if it were my life in danger…would I want people sending “form letters” to the only person who could save me?)
Please do leave your responses, comments, questions…I would love to get feedback on this idea! (And if you’d like to participate, please do subscribe to my blog for weekly updates!)
- The Contrapuntal Platypus