I wrote a science fiction novel called Motherless Child which takes place fifty years from now. In it, all American students are taught online in huge online classrooms. Given the impact of the Coronavirus on American life, is that a likely scenario for our future?
This last month I and my teachers at the Grant Park Academy of the Arts had to move our in-person music lessons completely online. Like many people, we began teaching via Zoom. I suspect from now on we’ll always have to offer some kind of online teaching.
In this blog, I’d like to come at the question from a couple of different angles. The first has to do with our ability to learn a new language.
In addition to teaching music, I’ve also been teaching English to Chinese students online. That’s changed the way I answer the question. While certifying for a new level of teaching, I ran across this amazing little video.
In it, the lecturer tells us that babies between the ages of 6-8 months are categorizing every sound they hear from their primary caregivers (usually Mom). They’re looking for the sounds they will need most in their primary language, so English babies do not end up prioritizing sounds that Chinese babies need in order to speak Mandarin. By 10-12 months, if they haven’t been listening to a lot of these sounds, they substantially lose the ability to distinguish those sounds that they won’t need in their primary language.
But the researcher found that if you take an English baby and you have a Chinese speaker read to them only in Chinese for just 12 sessions during that 6-8 month-old period, then by 10-12 months that English baby will be able to distinguish Chinese sounds that most adults can’t piece apart. In fact, they’ll be able to do it as well as a Chinese baby that heard those sounds from birth. But that’s not the coolest part.
They did some variations, one where the Chinese speaker was just on a TV, or only on headphones. They found that the English baby did not acquire the sounds this time. It only worked if the Chinese speaker was there in person!
I have never been able to speak a second language. I always found this odd, because I love the study of language. I could never understand why I wasn’t able to teach myself to speak Spanish, German or Italian.
I spent two years studying Italian. I worked thousands of flash-cards, worked through the complete workbook on grammar, and listened to hundreds of hours of interactive audio. At the end of all of that, I never learned to speak Italian, not even a little bit.
A few months ago I wrote a blog about what I’ve learned about the impact of the mother-baby interactions on a child’s development and sense of self. I posited that my mother, for many reasons, did not interact with me sufficiently in a motherly way, and I could infer the results from the kind of difficulties I experience as an adult. Now I am beginning to wonder if there was an impact on my ability to learn certain things as well.
Let’s assume that my mother did not interact with me sufficiently during that critical 6-8 month period. If that were true, it might have had some impact on my ability to learn and speak English. Of course, I am a good public speaker, and as a writer I use the English language extremely well.
If I’m really good at speaking and writing my native tongue, I should be able to apply those same skills to another language, shouldn’t I? The fact that I can’t suggests to me that, perhaps, the way I learned English was a little different than a child whose mother was fully present. What if I learned to speak a little later, and was forced to rely on different kinds of thinking? What if my English acquisition was more deliberate, more intellectual and less visceral? That might have interesting consequences.
Because I did not receive that nurturance-type of learning, I might have never learned how to receive it. I might have gone through the world unable to enter into an immersive teaching relationship that is necessary for the learning of certain things. In other words, in some ways I might not know how to be taught!
I have had many great teachers. However, it should be noted that I have always tried to learn as much on my own as possible, as if I didn’t trust or wouldn’t want to rely on the teacher. And when I teach my students, I move them in the direction of self-sufficiency as quickly as possible.
Am I incapable of being taught a language, or even certain types of things about math or music, because I do not know how to bond with a teacher in a nurturing way? Am I a great self-teacher because I was deprived of nurturance? Can I learn to be nurtured at this late age, and would that change my ability to acquire language rather than simply learn it?
These are all just speculative questions. However, they suggest others that might lead to worthwhile research. Do poets and writers who have a deliberate approach to their language, who get into the nuts and bolts of it rather than simply express it naturally, have a pattern of parental neglect, and did that pattern help and hinder them in the same ways?
Back to our original question: Would online learning, in which the human connection, the nurturance, is absent, really be an effective replacement for in-person instruction? We can see that, for babies, it absolutely would not. What about older learners who are not in that critical period?
Perhaps the answer to the second question is dependent upon the first one. Maybe the learners who benefitted from the nurturance relationship require such a teaching relationship, and would not be able to learn just through a screen. Meanwhile, the learners who had to sink or swim can become their own teachers and nurturers, and a screen will just provide the necessary information for them to take and run with.
Unfortunately, I suspect that among the nurturance-deprived, I am one of the the lucky ones, and far more people who do not get the nurturance they need sink rather than swim. I would much rather teach the nurtured people methods of self-instruction than require that the nurturance-deprived find a nurturing relationship. They are hard to come by after the mothering stage is over, and are fraught with all kinds of emotional, physical and social complications.
By that I mean that completely replacing teachers with screens would ultimately do more harm than good in the long run. It could create a nation of damaged self-learners who were either better or worse at compensating for their loss. I would hope that we as a nation would choose instead to invest more heavily in person-to-person education, especially at a young age, and save the screens for something else.
*** News From A Jazz Musician Who Writes Books ***
DemoOon, The Unwashed Demos of Adam Cole, Vol. 2 has just come out on Apple Music and will be available anywhere you can find good music. My second collection of songs that didn't make it on any other album, DemoOon contains fifteen songs including two previously unreleased Patience Grasshopper performances. You can listen to it here.
Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books
When you talk, is your audience listening? I can help! Find out more!