My criticisms of undergraduate education (e.g., here) have three bases:
- my experiences at UC Berkeley. Both sides — faculty and students — disliked the situation. I accidentally found a way that worked much better.
- my theory of human evolution. My theory explained what I saw at Berkeley, and a lot of other stuff. It says that learning specialized job skills is a basic part of being human. Our brains have been shaped by evolution to make this happen.
- the everyday observation that people successfully learn specialized job skills all the time and did so long before colleges. Or any schools.
Set up by people who didn’t understand how learning works — the crucial ingredients — colleges teach poorly, just as malnutrition is common.
At Berkeley I was a teacher. In Beijing I’m on the other side — a student — in a different but similar learning situation: learning Chinese. We learn languages naturally, without any special structure, just as people learned job skills. There is the same broad dichotomy: between language learning via official channels, involving classes and textbooks, and natural language learning that happens without any classes and textbooks. So there should be a better way to learn Chinese than via a textbook or a class or even a tutor.
What that is, I’m trying to figure out. For reading, flash cards may work. I’m starting with food words — I see hundreds of them every time I eat a meal (in the student dining halls) — and sign words and the preset messages on my cell phone. Listening and speaking is harder. When I get better maybe I can watch TV but now I can’t understand any of it.Â I always enjoy my Chinese lessons but they happen without context. During the day I may want to say “Where is ______?” but my lesson happens much later, when the motivation has gone. Maybe I will get a tape recorder show I can record what people say to me and then play it for my teachers to translate.