Sunday, June 18, 2006

Japan, standardized tests, and how I memorized Finnegan's Wake

Nihonjin ni naritai by

It's not that I don't have the inclination to Blog recently, but I've been busy re-packing boxes and getting ready to head back to Japan. I've got a lot of paper work, things on my mind, and also my kanji writing/reading has dropped considerably in the three years I've been away.

The good thing is I know my memories will come flooding back when I return to the land of the rising sun. Hopefully I won't miss my beautiful native homeland too much. I didn't the first time, but I knew how fast a year goes by when you’re having fun. It seems like only a matter of weeks, months at the most, and then suddenly it’s a distant memory. Yet I'm not the type that easily gets homesick. Actually, I don't think I've ever been homesick in my life... and I've done my fair share of world traveling. I guess I'd be categorized as the 'adventurous' type.

Anyhoo... It will be nice to see all my old friends again, hang out, and study Japanese again. This year I promise to pass the Ni-kyu proficiency exam. This is the 2nd grade exam, which means for those who pass, have a Japanese proficiency of a graduating high schooler or first year college student. This will be great just for my self esteem, but it's also something many people in Japan do -for some reason the Japanese seem to be 'test happy.'

It all has to do with a standardized education system which teaches lots of facts but little to no application for the relevancy of the information being learned. For example, you can ask a Japanese person when the greatest 'historical' events of Japan occurred, and many Japanese would spout off the dates as if they were second nature, or more accurately, a programmed machine ready to respond to that very question. This is the standardized memorization at work, but there is no real knowledge in dates. If you were to ask them what the events meant for the country of Japan, why did it happen, and what did the ramifications of the event entail... they'd most like tell you they don't know 'trivia' like that. Really, the event itself becomes less important than the date. The fact that it happened was enough, but this type of thinking has gotten the Japanese into trouble with there neighbors China and Korea, on numerous occassions, on hot-topic historical sensativities which the Japanese qualify as a fact of being. It may seem insensative to outsiders, but in Japan, this is the standardized way. And for a homogeneous society of millions of people all trying to be the same the standardized way is the only way.

Standardized tests are one of my weaknesses. For example, I don't think I've ever scored greater than a C+ on any standardized test in my life. However, give me the chance to do a research essay and I'm all about the A++ grade. As a third year college student trying to keep my GPA up, it was a battle just to get B's with all the professors who were to standardized in their teaching methods. It wasn't until I found some teachers who mixed things up, had new techniques, a passion for teaching, and actually took the time to think up new original ways of getting an idea across that actually helped me understand that all those other professors were just too lazy to get excited about real teaching.

Standardized tests to me mean monotony and puts you exactly where 'they' want you... inside the mold. For the thinkers who like to think outside of the box, the standardized methods of teaching are an outdated nightmare. Everyone learns differently, and memorizing dates and filling in little circles on a bubble sheet only mean that at the end of the day you remember quite distinctly that 1492 was circle "B" darkened in with 2HB pencil lead. World changing events end up getting summarized into "1776" equals circle 'A' without so much as a thought to the ramifications of the event. Who really cares why the new world was discovered, it just was? Who cares about when the Declaration of Independence was signed? It's not like there is a national holiday celebrating that fact? And this is the 'great' thinking that goes on behind standardized tests. I'm glad my teachers didn't think that was enough. I learned that more was always expected from me... and so the endless nights of reading and writing. Memorizing not specific facts or dates but entire paragraphs and pages of information. My teacher liked to call it ‘Memory Theater’ and no amount of standard memorization would have allowed me the luxury of memorizing such large quantities of information. I had to be taught a new means to which I was later fully capable of doing. You don’t know what a memorization nightmare is until you are required to memorize three pages of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” And the only way something like this is possible is not by one standardized method, but by many different techniques aimed at getting your mind to tackle any subject from many numerous angles. Since our memories are 'associative' and less like 'data-input' machines, it would make sense to have a numerous means of association techniques to help memorize and strengthen our memorization. This way what we do memorize stays in the 'long term' memory vs. standardized tests type of memorization which often dissipates from the short term memory bank a few months or even weeks after you fill in the little circle 'D'; or whatever.

Yet passing a language test, like the Ni-Kyu exam, which originally would have seemed impossible for me now seems very achievable. All those "unorthodox" teaching methods by genuine teachers who cared, taught me some radical analytical thinking skills, and ended up giving me the proper tools I need to use my brain more fully. As I head to Japan to teach under the thumb of a very rigid and standardized system, I can't help but think I'll be driven insane by the Japanese unflinching 'by the book' methods. But maybe I can introduce a little something more 'radical' in the hopes that young minds will benefit. It's only something a gaikokujin (foreigner) could get away with in the first place. Yet it is a challenge I am looking forward to as a JET teacher.


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