The Illusion of Learning

A couple of weeks ago, a local primary school held an event of sorts. The children worked in groups and took their places in various classrooms throughout the school building. There, they gave small presentations, demonstrated how to make things, or administered lighthearted quizzes. Other students, parents and guests moved between the rooms and visited each of the groups. It was well run and reasonably enjoyable.

At the end of the event, people gathered in the school gymnasium where the principal delivered a closing address. He then invited a few students to the stage to speak about the day’s programme. Two students who attend my English school were chosen as speakers and both gave short speeches, relaying their thoughts about the day and which activities they personally had enjoyed the most. They spoke  articulately and with confidence and I told them so when they came to my class a few days later.

Of course, the speeches were too well crafted to have been written immediately after the event and I assumed therefore that they had prepared a draft beforehand and had just inserted the relevant details about the activities they enjoyed in the appropriate places.

‘When did you write the speech?’ I asked the students individually.

‘I didn’t,’ each replied. ‘The teacher wrote it and I just had to read it.’

‘But, did you tell the teacher what you wanted to say?’ I asked.

‘No,’ they both replied.

This saddened me. It saddened me because I wondered what the point of such an exercise was and the only conclusion I could come up with was that it was for show. It was designed to make the students and the school look good. It also made me wonder just how many of the activities in each room had been similarly crafted by teachers. I suppose giving students an opportunity to read aloud in front of an audience has its merits, but I can see no reason why the students shouldn’t have been allowed to express their own thoughts.

It reminded me of the English speech contests where speeches are often written almost entirely by a teacher and simply recited by a student, and of the time I worked part-time at a kindergarten where the kids put on an end-of-year show and large sections of the show were pre-recorded with the audio being piped out rather than having the kids speak on stage. The reason given was that the kids might forget their lines.

All of this saddens me because education is no place for illusions. Let kids express their thoughts, let them forget or, more likely, remember their lines, and have faith in their abilities. If they make some small mistakes, so what? Isn’t that part of growing up, part of education? No decent parent is going to think badly of a school because a child makes an error on a public stage, and no decent school should care that any parents may harbour such thoughts. Schools of all places should be concerned with what kids can actually do rather than what it looks as though they can do. The illusion of learning benefits few.

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5 Responses to The Illusion of Learning

  1. sendaiben says:

    In the run-up to several speech contests here, and completely agree with you 🙂

  2. Ri says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. It’s one thing to give support and directionーit’s another to entirely take any choices out of the hands of the child. Such a wasted opportunity for children to learn how to express themselves and take pride in something *they* have created (or at least contributed to). :/

  3. Usman Makhdoom says:

    Japan is finished. Less than 50 years from now, infact. Who really cares?

    Let this old nation with such a sweeping history as no other go quietly like the poor, descrepit old wheezing shadow of itself that it has become. Certainly, her time should have come much sooner. Certainly, she should have died a more dignified death at the end of the War by refusing her occupiers and rapists.

    But what is done, is done. Japan is spent. Goodbye, Japan.

  4. James says:

    Speeches are one of the most depressing aspects I have come across as an ALT. Last year, I helped 3 students with their speeches, and after some frustrating back and forth with one of the students it was clear to me that she was saying a lot of things that contradicted what she wrote in her initial draft. After a bit of digging I found out that she didn’t write the draft, but she had written the Japanese version and her teacher wrote the English version. The funny thing was that the English in the draft was so poor it never crossed my mind that an English teacher wrote it. I checked with the other students and sure enough they all had the same set-up arranged for them. I didn’t realize this until it was too late to do much about it though, so I just corrected the English and tidied it up as much as I could. The teacher wasn’t particularly happy when none of the students finished in 1st place, when really, what do you expect when you write their speeches for them and regurgitate it from memory?

    • Very common for student to write in Japanese, Japanese English teacher to put it into an approximation of English and for a native speaker to tidy it up. If students were asked questions about their speeches afterwards in natural English, many would struggle to give even the most basic of grammatically correct answers.

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