Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Rote Memorization and Literacy

I'm not sure if studying psychology gives one an interest in understanding the underlying causes of things or vice versa, but one thing about my time in Japan is that it has offered me the opportunity to find new human behavioral puzzles to ponder. For instance, why don't the Japanese wear shoes in their homes? The Japanese like to conclude that they're such wonderfully clean people by nature. As someone who grew up in a multi-cultural society that embraces nurture over nature, that's an explanation I reject. Japanese people may be clean because they grew up in a culture which embraces cleanliness at a deeper level, but it's no because it is encoded in their genes. The best guess is that it has to do with the fact that they have eaten, slept, and sat on the floor during their history and what is on the floor is of paramount concern. If they'd have developed furniture which had legs, they might be wearing shoes inside as well.

Before anyone protests that they are Westerners and also do not wear shoes inside, let me say that this isn't about wearing shoes in the house (and keep in mind that the usual temperature of one's area has a huge impact on this point as well). That's actually a topic I addressed in my previous blog. It's simply an example of a cultural difference which is interesting to reflect on past the self-important or self-deprecating conclusions that are usually offered as explanations for behavioral differences.

Recently, my husband and I have been listening to psychology lectures (for university classes) and one point the lecturer made was that memory is influenced by literacy rates and the availability of reference materials and the perception of intelligence was related to the ability to memorize. In the middle ages, for instance, people with excellent memories were seen being important and very bright because few people could read and write and books were in scarce supply. The lecturer also noted that, because of ready access to information via the Internet and modern publishing techniques, we no longer see the ability to remember facts, quotes, passages, etc. as a reflection of intelligence. If we can access the information at any time, then memorizing it is a waste of mental energy. We have come to value what we can do with the information more than retaining it perfectly.

Anyone who has taken a few moments to look at the Japanese education system knows that one of the biggest features is an emphasis on rote memorization. Teachers want nothing more than for students to commit facts to memory and spit them back out when tested. There is a rigidity to Japanese thinking as a result of this which makes teaching languages cumbersome. Japanese people are conditioned by their education system to endorse the idea that their is one right answer to each question. I've actually had students insist grammatically incorrect sentences must be right because they followed some pattern the student learned which a teacher said was the "right way". Japanese learners are most comfortable when everything follows the rules, expectations are clearly understood, and there is a correct reply that they can offer which you have given them previously.

The converse of this is that students often become uncomfortable in situations where the answer was not clearly given, but is hidden in the overall content or must be derived logically from the given information. Time and again, I've had students insist the answer simply was not there because it was not overtly stated. They don't naturally make inferences because that is not something they spent a lot of time doing in school and aren't accustomed to doing it. That doesn't mean they are incapable mentally, but rather that they were simply not taught to do so and, in fact, they may be punished in school for doing so in some cases since they are taught not to question the teacher's answers or assertions.

(Note: I speak about general tendencies here and not about specific people. Clearly, there are exceptions and people are located along a continuum in their tendencies, so please don't pepper my comments with anecdotes that "prove" I must be wrong. I reach these conclusions based on having dealt with teaching and working here for two decades and also having been coerced to structure information in textbooks I wrote to cater to the most comfortable way of learning for Japanese people rather than the most effective way for speaking English well.)

I never really thought much about the value placed on fact regurgitation in Japan except that I felt it had to do with status, authority figures, possibly linguistic patterns, and Japan's political history. Yesterday though, the point in the lecture about the value of memory and literacy rang a new bell in considering this issue. Becoming literate in Japanese is a fairly daunting task with 2 phonetic alphabets of over 50 characters and thousands of logographic characters. Literacy itself is only achieved through a daunting amount of memorization and it takes about 4 years more for a Japanese child to reach the same level of reading that a Western child, who only has to deal with 26 characters, to memorize.

I started to wonder if another part of the high premium placed on memorization is the time, complexity, and difficulty the Japanese must face when becoming literate. If the perception of intelligence, the ability to memorize and literacy rates are related, then a culture where one has greater difficulty mastering the written language would certainly place a premium on memorization. While Japan currently has one of the highest literacy rates (if not the highest) in the world, that wasn't always so and this is a culture where changes in priorities come at a glacially slow pace. Even if the value of memorization when weighed against the value of a more analytical or deductive way of learning has diminished, there is likely a cultural precedent which will keep the focus on rote memorization in place.


Girl Japan said...

For instance, why don't the Japanese wear shoes in their homes?--- I often asked myself this question, but always just assumed it was the same reason I followed. I got my first Apt when I was 18, and took them off on occasion, when I got to my early twenties (also mum yelling at us kids to remove our shoes) I began to take them off, for me I liked to read and lay on the carpet and felt repulsed just thinking about all the scum my shoes walked over.. so not to take them off for me was a personal choice and saved me time.

My husband mentioned to me once that it was because the floor is where one would sleep and then he added to why do we were slippers in the bathroom (I don't think this applies now to the modern way of living) because this place was considered "dirty" ???

What I can not understand culturally is why I we have to remove our shoes in schools which have desks and chairs (no one sleeps or lays on floors there)..

I liked your post in regard to memory-- I feel like I've lost my footing to rambling off correct spelling due to the Informational Age or the Internet Highway.. where it is easy to find answers not having to remember or right click the red underscore = )

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

That's a really interesting piece. The Japanese students insistance on memorizing and repeating drives me a little crazy and we work hard in our subject to break them out of it. It's interesing though to relate it back to how vital memorisation is to learn to read and write Japanese.