Thursday, June 30, 2011

When things that shouldn't teach teach!

My Experience with English Writing

I started reading English novels when I was a tween. Once I started, I was insatiable. Every book in the house was read from cover to cover, regardless of its contents. I read a lot of good stuff, classics, and a lot of stuff that perhaps I could have done without at that age.

But I had a tough time expressing myself in writing. I would be like a block of wood faced with English writing assignments. Part of the reason was that English was my second language- we did not speak in English either at home or at school. Whenever we would get English writing assignments, I would beg my mother to help. She, a busy doctor teacher, almost always obliged. I don't remember her ever saying that I should do them myself. It was perhaps because I asked for very little else. I was always surprised to see how quickly and effortlessly she would write out the essay or paragraph, as we used to call it.

One day when I was in the Seventh grade, we got an assignment to write a story in the present tense. A story! In present tense! This block of wood suddenly becomes a block of stone! :)

Once again I turned to mummy. She sat with me that evening and dictated a story about a boy in a desolate house in the wilderness, who senses something or someone entering his house and giving him company. The present tense in the story made it most magical and sad. It touched something deep inside me and I read the story many times, wondering how so much beauty could be created by words strung together by this wonderful woman. I looked at her with awe and adoration. The next day, my(!) story was selected as the best story and I won a prize. Although elated, I was ashamed at claiming it to be mine when it was my mother who had written it. But I felt flushed with pride too because I had never gotten so much attention from the English teacher I used to adore.

That was the last time I asked my mother for help in writing anything. The mixture of the first-hand view of a story being created, my intense appreciation of it, my awe for the writer, the attention I received, and the guilt I felt had done its trick and melted the block of wood into wax! I have been writing effortlessly since then. Having someone else write your assignment for you and taking credit for it shouldn't have triggered learning a skill, but it did!

Atreya's Experience with Hindi Numbers

Another example of an unusual trigger for learning happened with my son Atreya. He studies in the Singapore educational system, which insists on everyone learning their mother tongue. For Atreya it meant learning Hindi. Although he understood Hindi quite well and spoke a little too, learning Hindi as a subject was very tough for him. In his case, living in Singapore, Hindi was less his mother tongue and more his second language.

One of the toughest things about Hindi is the numbers. Unlike English, every single number from 1 to 100 in Hindi has a unique word for it. You can't just combine two words in a logical way to form a number as in English (e.g 36 in English is a combination of two known words: Thirty and Six) ; instead you have to remember 100 unique words, one for each number. So, there is almost nothing in common between any two numbers, say 51 and 61, and it is impossible to extrapolate like you can in English. It's a mind boggling thing to learn these words for 100 numbers when you never use them in your daily life. Atreya struggled. I know because I tried to work with him and help him see the oblique logic and similarity between words, but to no avail.

One Saturday, during his weekly Hindi school class test, he was tested on these numbers and did very well. When he told me about it during our nightly high-point low-point chats, he confessed that he had copied the answers from his book. He also said that since the book was under the table and inside his bag, copying the answers without getting caught was a lot of hard work. For every number, he had to struggle to find the page in the book, glance quickly at the word, remember it firmly for there was no chance of a second glance, and then write it out on the answer sheet from memory. In the process, he also figured out that there was indeed some similarity between the alien-sounding words and a logic.

Wonder of wonders, Atreya never forgot the hindi words for numbers after that day! The act of copying answers shouldn't have helped him learn them, right? But it did!

Strange how things that seem to be the opposite of good learning practices can become triggers for effective and life-long learning!

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