Is it possible to learn without really understanding? And, moreover, pass tests or exams with flying colors? Hmm…let’s ponder those two for a minute… Understanding seems foundational for learning and even more for passing tests. Yet, could normative teaching—based on the concept of what a student should learn by a given age—and standardized testing be both skewed to such an extent that students could mindlessly take in and output information without really knowing what it meant? The answer to that question is an undisputable “Yes!” So, let’s look at how this learning without understanding happens, and what we can do about it in the language classroom.
Zoom in with me to my experience growing up in France. In high-school, I had flatly flunked my baccalaureate. Yet, when I repeated my senior year, one wonderful teacher inspired me to excel in math, my worst subject (the epic story is here). By memorizing all the sequences of computations for logarithms, I was able to get high marks on the math tests and by the end of the year got honors on the math baccalaureate (and finally got my certification …hurrah!). But, quite oddly, although I was getting the calculations right, there lingered this strange feeling that I didn’t understand what I was doing. I couldn’t shake off the impression that something was wrong.
After that, I forgot about math, working towards becoming a language instructor, so years later, when I stumbled across American philosopher John Searle’s Chinese room experiment, I had a mind-boggling “Aha!” moment: “So that’s what my math experience was all about!”
Imagine you are in a room and a person outside slips a paper through a letter-hole with a question written in Chinese characters. That person expects an answer but isn’t aware that you don’t know any Chinese. Fortunately, there is a ledger with instructions in English that tell you how to convert each character into new ones so as to form an appropriate answer. You slip an answer back to the person, who is now persuaded that there really is a proficient Chinese speaker in the room. The person doesn’t suspect for one moment that you just followed the rules in the book without a trace of Chinese ability and manipulated a bunch of symbols with no clue as to what the question or answer were all about.
Well, that’s exactly what I was doing with algebra in high school: I was trapped in Searle’s experiment room, force fed problems, and mindlessly outputting solutions based on the classroom math manual. With no clue to what this all meant, I was operating just like a machine. So, you see, the answer to the introductory question is “Yes!” Students can mindlessly take in and output knowledge without really understanding what they were doing, and this can lead to results that are highly appraised by institutions.
With the Chinese room argument, John Searle made the point that computers could not display intelligent behavior simply through a formal manipulation of symbols. This was in 1980: he could refute the theory that human minds are computer-like information processing systems, a theory of mind that was heralded by the enthusiasts of computationalism of the time. Computing may look similar to language processing but never produces real understanding in the machine. Computers can at best simply simulate human cognition. And humans, like me with math, can end up simulating computers!
Mindless math is so because its symbols are not grounded in any sensory-motor process. It’s just an up-in-the-air abstract operation. Rather than mindlessness, we should strive towards understanding, and this is where the body comes in. As we are finding in neuroscience, all abstract understanding is based in real life, concrete experiences. Counting on fingers helps kids learn numbers and even carry out complex calculations at amazing speeds. Using your knuckles helps you figure out which months have 30 or 31 days. Manipulating an abacus brings about positive effects on children’s mental calculation skills, and experts actually make use of a “mental abacus” to calculate at extraordinary speeds. Likewise, playing around with colored rods, blocks and beads has been a successful grounding principle in Montessori schools for decades. With these examples in mind, grounding mathematical symbols with similar motor-sensory tools should become the norm in K-16 classrooms. Thankfully, math is moving in new directions and researchers are now developing unique tools that use gestures, individual, and group body postures and position and even 3D video gaming, to enhance and ground abstract understanding of numbers and operators.
But, as the Chinese room experiment shows, symbols are also part and parcel of language. Could it be that some students learning a language are functioning somewhat like the person in the Chinese operating room or like me in my math class? For example, you might have had students who excel at rote-learning lists of vocabulary but later do a poor job employing the words in context. One baffling instance I recall, happened when I was teaching at a language school. A middle-aged lady had a notebook with some 60 or so pages scribbled full of long bilingual lists categorized under semantic groups: household items, transportation, adjectives, etc. The most unexpected grouping was a long alphabetical list of flower names, some I had never heard of. She was obviously a gardening enthusiast. The thing is that, despite all these lists, she was quite incapable of properly communicating with other classmates in English. As linguaculture scholar Joseph Shaules would put it, she was stuck at a data processing level in terms of learning awareness: Suisen = Daffodil; Suiren = Water lily; Suzuran = Lily of the valley; and on and on. This is a kind of basic computing approach that does not tie into more complex modes of cognition, including the use of context and syntax for communicating. Unfortunately for her, she was attached to that data-driven mindset and was oblivious to more integrated ways of learning. Could it be that she was pre-formatted by the rote-learning environment of her school days?
Indeed, mindless learning has its counterpart: mindless teaching. Cramming information into students’ heads still seems to be a widespread teaching approach used with elementary school students all the way up with undergraduates. In mindless teaching, the delivery of information is the goal, often superseding more effective playful and interactive embodied learning. This type of learning is usually calibrated to meet examination protocols. This still goes on today despite studies showing that playful and embodied learning allows learners to internalize the deep structures of a subject matter, whereas cramming only allows for shallow recall suited to superficial examination goals.
So, how can we move language students from superficial data-bit processing to deep grounded learning? Or, in other words, how can we move from manipulating abstract symbols, such as words and syntax in SLA (the counterparts of numerals and operators in math) to grounding these abstract symbols in sensory-motor experiences? Grounded ways of knowing can be staged in class through various mechanisms that are engaging to students. The MindBrainEd Think Tanks are replete with ideas. Let’s review here three designs for embodied lesson plans.
their naïve view of a given language problem. Instead of having them mindlessly memorize words and rules, have them reflect together on new information and try to discover what it means. For example, when I introduce articles in French, I let students figure out what the bolded words in Figure 4 might mean.
After discussing for a few minutes, they usually come to some basic explanation such as “de la” probably means a “part of something” in French, and “une” means “the whole thing” as in “I am eating a whole whale!” I can then provide nuance where necessary and we can then move to other examples to refine their understanding. And that image of the whale on the plate sticks in memory! New knowledge is grounded in a classroom experience that is visual, vocal, and social. And gestures help, too.
Gestures ground language into the body and into memory. I have students make use of French-like gestures all through the year. The key is that, by learning gestures, an act of embodiment, students learn the language tied to the gestures as well, as if the new language is glued to the gestures.
Here is a simple example with numbers: students count on fingers the French way, which is different from both the Japanese and U.S. ways. Most students get stuck with numbers 4 and 9 as they cannot bring down their pinky without dragging along their ring finger. I then tell them about French brains, whose motor-cortex has been trained since childhood to lower their pinky while keeping all other fingers straight up like soldiers standing at attention. Students then get into small groups to see who can best emulate the French finger gestures while counting in French. Which brings us to learning together, or socializing.
In math classes of our yesteryear, none of us students ever interacted. We were each on our own, but at any time we could be interrogated by the teacher and asked to produce the result of our solitary operations. Unfortunately, this was true for English, Spanish, and Latin classes also. Grammar and translation were the norm in my time (Uh, still today in some contexts…). Manipulating language by oneself to get it right (read “process the grammar or syntax correctly”) was the normative goal of such competition-driven classes.
Such a mindless approach totally ignores the socially situated nature of knowing. People learn best when learning together collaboratively and those very interactions serve as grounding.
This is why the Flipgrid app was so popular this year. Students could record dialogues, upload them, and share them with the whole class. They watched each other’s productions (I was amazed at the number of cross-viewings!) and they added short written comments such as “Your talk is such fun!” or “Me too, I’m from Miyazaki!” The synergy was fantastic. This activity had meaning because they were talking about themselves, and in the process, were getting to know their classmates although they were all confined between the four walls of their homes during the pandemic. This was a great way for them to reach out from their cloistered room situations induced by the pandemic. Flipgrid flings the doors and windows of communication wide open, bringing meaning and, even more importantly, personal meaning.
Unfortunately, during the pandemic, many instructors have not provided an open environment with rich online social interactions. By uploading pre-recorded courses on the university’s LMS platform, instructors have relegated students to the solitude of their rooms. Such on-demand courses carry the risk of reproducing the formal classroom situation where students get trapped into the position of the isolated operator of Searle’s experiment room, with the screen and keyboard the slots in the wall.
One basic prescription would be to do everything possible to recreate nurturing social environments in our classes. One way of doing this, is helping students to get to know each other and work together in embodied design-based classrooms. Whether online or not, students should be provided with opportunities to ground their knowledge, building in meaningful ways such as discovering, gesturing, and socializing. Let’s avoid putting students into the situation of the operator in Searle’s experiment room, who are simply lost in meaningless translation. To avoid mindless learning, we must avoid mindless teaching. The online situation can exacerbate the mindlessness or, conversely, if we do it right, enhance the mindfulness. It’s up to us to make learning the enjoyable, social, and embodied experience it should be.
- Abrahamson, D., Nathan, M. J., Williams-Pierce, C., Walkington, C., Ottmar, E. R., Soto, H., & Alibali, M. W. (2020, August). The future of embodied design for mathematics teaching and learning. Frontiers in Education 5, p. 147.
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Bruno Jactat (MA) teaches French language and linguistics at the University of Tsukuba. He currently carries out research on auditory processing disorders and how they affect SLA. He lends an ear to anything related to listening.