Learning speed

Nanjing University has one very smart policy: they let students try out various levels and change classes in the first two weeks of term. The teachers in Gao Shang were abominable, so I shifted up a level to Gao Xia, or ‘upper advanced’. The class was harder, and quite overcrowded, but at least our teachers explained what would happen in the class and what the structure of each unit was. I thought it could work.


But then this happened: I missed a class on the Monday of the second week, and came back the following day, unprepared. The full class was spent going through the details of two paragraphs we were supposed to prepare. Had I done my homework, this would have been the most boring class – and indeed, all students were remarkably passive. As it was, it wasn’t thrilling at all. I started wondering, should I multitask and bring some writing to class, or could actually I skip en masse. But then I thought: I didn’t come all the way to Nanjing to skip classes or multitask. My Chinese is not that good yet. Surely, there must be some way for me to learn something here.

There’s a level above Gao Xia yet, called the Wenhua Ban, or ‘culture class’. I heard it was impossibly fast and stressful, with ruthless teachers just pacing on. I still thought I should give it a try, since I started to plan quitting options anyway… And the class was amazing. I enrolled on the spot.

The main difference between the Wenhua Ban classes and the Gao Xia classes is not so much the level – both have difficult material with relatively rare words, and activities require quite precise understanding and a capacity to put together an option – but the speed. In Gao Xia, the teacher explains all components, whole periods are devoted to close-reading a paragraph or a set of new words, with long feedback loops between students and teachers. In Wenhua Ban the focus is on contents, and you’re expected to follow. No word by word explanation of each sentence here, few Sheng Cis – all this is homework if you need it. And no waiting for someone to volunteer an answer, you’re put on the spot, and the teacher will expect a quick reply.

I believe in speed. When you’re biking surfing or skating, speed is key to balance. Slow down too much, and you’re sure to fall. The same I believe applies to learning: go fast and you may skip a few points, but you’re getting there, and enjoying the journey, pushed ahead by some natural impetus. Our advanced class teacher understands that, even encourages us to guess if we don’t know the meaning of a word, or be comfortable with blurry knowledge, if the time is too short. Lower levels at Nanjing University force you to dismount and push your bike at the smallest obstacle. It’s definitely painful, and I’m not sure it works. So why is it happening?

One thought on “Learning speed

  1. “I believe in speed…” This final paragraph is really thought-provoking, and I love the biking/balance analogy. Thanks for giving a model for ways in which students can be motivated by momentum, even when it feels like risk.

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