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Steve tells Mark about his recent trip to Europe. They also discuss different approaches to children’s education.
Mark: Hi everyone.
Welcome back to another installment of the EnglishLingQ Podcast.
I’m here today with Steve.
Steve: Hi everyone.
Mark: We’re actually doing this over Skype, but, hopefully, everything should be fine.
It sounds pretty good right now.
Steve: I think so.
Mark: I think so.
We thought we would talk a little bit about Steve’s recent trip to Europe and, of course, at the same time talk about our recent updates on LingQ, so we should have a pretty full discussion today.
Steve: Well, you know, it’s good to be back; here I am in Vancouver.
I’m looking out of my office window; there is a beautiful sunset here.
It’s a little cool and with cooler weather in Vancouver it’s generally clearer, we don’t get the rain, which is lovely.
I had a great trip in Europe, I was in Italy for about five days — Italy and Austria — looking at equipment for our sawmill; equipment that is needed to produce electricity from our biomass — from our waste material — at the mill.
Then I had one week on the lumber business as well in Sweden at the end of my trip.
I had two weeks in between and rather than fly back to North America and fly back to Europe I decided to stay there and I traveled around on my Eurail Pass.
Mark: Yeah and it sounds like you really enjoyed your time gallivanting around Europe on your Eurail Pass.
Steve: I did, I had a great time.
Mark: I should also…I was just going to mention that it is a lovely sunset this evening in Vancouver, but it is only 4:27; therefore…
Steve: Well that’s later in the day then it was in Sweden when I was there…
Mark: Is that right?
Steve: …because there it got dark even earlier.
So that’s not unusual, we’re not that far north; 49th parallel.
Steve: In Sweden it got dark a lot earlier, it seems to me.
Mark: Is Sweden that much farther north?
Steve: Well Sweden is, of course, a very long country from north to south, but Stockholm and Karlstad are, you know, 58.
They’re pretty close to the Arctic Circle, 55, anyway, degrees north.
Mark: Are they really?
Steve: Yeah, so it’s quite a bit north of where we are.
But, no, the Eurail Pass was a tremendous experience.
Any of you who have read my book will remember that I used to hitchhike around Europe when I was a student in France.
But, of course, there you were often cold and wet and waiting by the roadside and didn’t know where your next lift was going to come from, where you were going to stay and if you were going to be able to eat and you had hardly enough money.
Whereas, here you’re traveling by train, you’re dry, you know you’re going to get there, you know?
It was good.
I could plan to stay in smaller towns where the hotels are cheaper and then I could go into the town.
The quality of rail travel in Europe is just excellent, so, all in all, I had a wonderful experience.
Mark: They didn’t have Eurail Passes back in the day?
Steve: Well you had to pay for them; you had to buy them.
Steve: They didn’t give them out free of charge, so yeah, no, it was different.
So it was lovely to move around and in Italy we had five good days there, but I really enjoyed Germany this time.
I enjoyed the towns, Augsburg, Munich and Prague, which at least used to be partly German with a fair amount of German influence; although it’s, of course, overwhelmingly a Czech city.
But that whole…I mean Prague was involved in this Thirty Years War, which was, of course, a dramatic event in the history of Germany, which started…I saw the battlefield in Prague where the Thirty Years War began and then I was briefly in Paris, Brussels and Antwerp.
But I was in Koln, I was in Heide, which is near Hamburg and then I was in Berlin, which is very nice.
So, overall, I had a wonderful visit through this sort of German-speaking world, predominantly.
I read books in German and I listened to German, bought some audio books.
I had a great time.
Mark: Oh yeah.
Well yeah, it sounded like it and every couple of days you were somewhere else.
Steve: Yeah and I read a very interesting book, which I’m going to talk about on my blog, which was written by a German brain researcher, whose name is Manfred Spitzer.
He talked about how the brain learns and how the brain is very good at developing its own, you know, rules and seeing patterns and learning things and it does it sort of its own way, it doesn’t necessarily rely on having the rules explained to it, so to speak.
A lot of what was in that book was very much in support of the teaching or the learning principles that we espouse at LingQ.
Mark: Yeah, well I see you’ve been writing up on your blog or you posted something recently there talking about how kids learn in different countries and comparing the education systems in Asia and, I can’t remember, I think it was China or Taiwan.
I mean I think they’re all the same.
Taiwan, Japan, China, they all have this sort of heavy-school, cram-school approach to kids’ education anyway and you were saying that in Finland they don’t assign homework and the kids kind of…I don’t know what they do, but that it’s pretty loosie-goosie, which seems counterintuitive, but I guess they must be doing some things there.
Steve: Well it all started because our lumber company has now got two people stationed in Sweden, so I visited with them and with their families.
Both of these families have children of, you know, early school age and they were a little bit frustrated that in Sweden they don’t teach them to read until grade seven.
Mark: Grade seven?
Steve: Sorry, until the age of seven in grade one.
In other words, they have kindergarten up until the age of seven.
Steve: And, of course, the kids here have learned to read and they’re afraid that they’re going to fall behind.
In other words, if they stayed in Sweden they’d stay with the Swedish system and they’d end up okay, but if they have to come back here and they’ve spent a year or two without learning how to read they might fall behind.
Then I kind of inquired a bit more about this and in Finland they also don’t start reading until the age of seven, but in the International Comparison of School Children’s Outcomes, which is known as PISA (p-i-s-a), the Fins finish on top, both in Math and language skills.
So I looked up on the Internet and, sure enough, the Fins spend about…I mean the Chinese spend…I think the French spend a lot of time at school.
They spend say 1,200 hours a year; the Fins spend 800 hours a year.
Mark: That’s a big difference.
Steve: That’s two-thirds…
Steve: …year after year after year and yet at the end of…they measured 15 year olds, so after presumably eight or nine years of schooling, the Fins, with two-thirds the number of hours of schooling, do better than all other countries, including these Asian countries where not only do they spend 1,200 hours in school…we all know that they have these tremendous cram schools where they go from school to more school.
I am quite convinced that, just as in language learning, much of what is done in the classroom and much of the assignments that are given to people and many of the tests that are given to people are quite counterproductive when it comes to learning; maybe not counterproductive, but very ineffective.
Mark: And what I think…it just made me think of this while you were describing the Chinese schools.
I would imagine that as more and more stuff is crammed at you, you essentially turn your brain off so that, yeah, okay, on the one hand I’m trying to memorize this stuff, but I’m not interested in it.
I’m not trying to learn it I’m just kind of memorizing it for the test, which I would imagine tends to happen.
We had one person comment on my blog…like, you know, we learn the names, for example, of different angles.
You know if it’s more than 90 degrees or less than 90 degrees, so we have names for different things and then they test people on these names, but knowing the names doesn’t necessarily help you to do Math.
Steve: You know there’s a number…it’s like grammar terms.
Steve: Knowing the names of grammar terms is not necessarily going to help you speak the language.
Steve: I think there are a lot of things like this that are taught because they are easy to test, but they may have nothing to do with learning the skill.
The way the book describes how we learn is the brain needs new things, interesting things and then it gets quite keen on creating new synapses, new connections between neurons.
If it’s old and uninteresting then the brain isn’t doing these things and I am sure that many of the activities in the class are designed in order to keep the class active and busy.
Mark: I’m sure that’s the case, because my daughter, Annie, was doing an assignment recently on I guess Social Studies or whatever they call it and her assignment had to do with systems of government and economic systems.
Steve: That’s pretty heavy for an 11 year old.
Mark: Pretty heaving going, I thought.
And her she’s got to be explaining, you know, what a free market system versus…
Steve: That’s ridiculous!
Mark: …you know, a managed or a communist or whatever they call it — I can’t even remember the term they used — and, you know, she has no interest in that at all.
Mark: So it’s just a matter of, okay, I’ve got to try and remember this stuff, that’s essentially gibberish to me, so I can spew it back out for the test and, phew, that’s over.
You know, what did she learn there?
I mean until you’re actually interested in things in the economy, learning the terminology, what does that do for ya’?
I don’t know.
Steve: I’m quite convinced that if Annie or if people were able to do a lot of reading — and, of course, I believe in listening; I think listening helps too — on subjects of interest and if they develop a tremendous ability to read and, therefore, to absorb information through reading and to talk about it, express themselves, but always on subjects of interest to them.
Within reason, of course you have to learn Math and stuff, but certainly in the Socials area.
If at age 16 she got interested in that subject she’d pick it up in no time…
Steve: …and in the meantime you’re trying to push on a rope.
I mean I’m sitting here thinking, boy, she’s never even thought about the economy.
I guess to some extent you’re exposed to these ideas, but…
Steve: Why does an 11 year old girl have to know the difference between a planned economy and a free enterprise economy?
Mark: Yeah, why.
Steve: Why possibly?
Mark: I know.
Steve: And, ah…and, anyway, so there’s a lot of that and I’m quite convinced… The other thing about Finland, one of the reports I read on the Internet suggested that their teachers are quite well paid and they’re respected.
I think teachers should be well paid and then poor teachers should be fired.
In other words, it’s just not acceptable that…we always get on the subject of these teachers’ unions, but they protect all the bad apples.
Mark: I know.
Steve: You’re not allowed to criticize a teacher.
They’re all good, all teachers are the same.
No, that’s not true.
The quality of the teacher, I think, has been demonstrated to be the biggest influence, not the size of the classroom.
Steve: And I know myself, that if I think back, if I had enthusiastic teachers who were good and who inspired me I’d learn, I’d learn on my own.
Mark: Right, absolutely.
Steve: And the duds…I didn’t learn.
Steve: So pay them properly, respect them and make sure you only have good teachers and get rid of the bad because they were…
Mark: And not only do you want to…or do you listen to that good teacher and does he inspire you and, you know, during class time you learn better, but you also want to do better because you respect him and you want him to think highly of you or to be impressed with what you do for him.
Mark: Whereas, as you say, a teacher you don’t respect you’re, whatever, I’ll just go through the motions and be done with this class and move on.
Steve: You know that’s why at LingQ people say, “Well what are the qualifications of your tutors?” Well, they have to be enthusiastic and they have to speak the language well.
I believe in imitating; imitation is very important.
If I speak with someone who speaks their language well…like Anapaula and I had a discussion in Portuguese.
I mean she’s great.
She has lots of things to say; she thinks about different issues; I know she speaks Portuguese well.
I don’t…she happens to be a teacher, that’s fine, but I know that, you know, with her I’m going to learn and that’s good enough, which we should probably use as a springboard to get into a brief discussion about the changes we’ve made at LingQ.
Mark: Yeah, well, on I guess Thursday last week, we finally put up our new…essentially, our Courses Update.
We made all these changes, basically, to introduce courses, which are a more structured approach to using our site.
We, in the past, had a lot of people commenting that they didn’t quite know how to use the site.
There was a lot of functionality there, where do I start, those sorts of things.
And so, you know, for those people that were able to figure it out, great, but there were a lot of people that were not able to and so we brought in more of a structured approach to help those others navigate the site and just, more or less, more understand what we want people to do and how to learn on LingQ.
Steve: You know I think we should probably devote another discussion to the new LingQ.
I think the course model is powerful.
I think it’s an opportunity for tutors to come on our platform, develop their own courses using our basic learning methodology and talk about things that they’re interested in, whether it be working with beginners, whether it be literature, history, whatever it might be.
I think it gives us a lot more flexibility.
I think it’s going to be powerful for tutors who want to reach people through our platform.
It provides more structure, it enables a learner to make a commitment, but you know, Mark, the thing that I really like the most about our system…because I’m not…I’ll take a course, but the biggest thing is just the appearance of it is so much improved.
It’s such a delight to go there; different colors for different languages, the quality of the text, it’s easier to read.
I’m very pleased with it.
Mark: Yeah, I think it looks great.
And, yeah, we took advantage of the fact that we had to make structural changes to the site to update the design.
So, yeah, I agree, I really like the new design too.
Steve: But it is now very clear.
Even if you don’t take a course, it’s very clear what it is you’re supposed to do.
Mark: Exactly, exactly.
Anyway, probably with that we should wrap things up here.
Mark: We’ll get into more detail on the courses probably in another podcast, so…
Let’s make sure we do that.
Mark: And we’ll talk to you next time.
Steve: In fact, we give everyone a chance to get on there and explore, so they’ll know what we’re talking about.
Steve: Those of you who aren’t members of LingQ, now is your opportunity to go and join and we’ll talk about the new courses next time we meet.
Mark: Okay, sounds good, bye-bye.
Steve: Okay, bye.