April 2007 Archives

UCLA Heritage Language Journal


UCLA has a journal of heritage language learning at

Heritage Language learners often refer to students whose parents are either immigrants from another culture or are members of a minority language community. These students may know how to speak their heritage language (or perhaps familiar with only a few phrases), but have never been formally trained in educated "grammar" (including spelling or writing).

Heritage learners usually don't need to start from zero, but typically do need information on what the educated standards, information on technical vocabulary and exposure to the culture's literary classics (in the actual language).

Depending on the situation, a heritage learner may be stigmatized by the educated speakers of the language as "not really speaking correctly".

Note, there may also be learners whose ethnic background is associated with a certain language, but are at the same stage as true beginners.

Chinese Keju Exam Angst...with a tangent


Every now an again it's nice to check to see how non-US cultures handled education. A great example is the Chinese Civil Service or Keju exam. Lasting from the 7th century AD to the last dynasty in the early 20th century, this was an exam which determined if a person was academically qualified enough to become a well-paid government administrator/bureaucrat. Today we have counterparts like the SAT (how good a college you can go to), MCAT (how good a medical school) and the LSAT (law school).

On the positive side, exams like these theoretically allow anyone with the resources and ability to learn enough material to pass to become credentialed. But Dr. Hoi Suen from Penn State feels that this kinds of high stakes exam will inevitably lead to problems.

"With approximately 1,300 years of history and extensive official and unofficial records that were kept throughout this period, China‚Äôs is the only examination system that can provide us with a glimpse of what might be some long-lasting chronic problems of high-stakes, large-scale testing programs as well as of the efficacy of attempts to remove unintended negative consequences" — Suen (2006)

The Problems

So what were they? Pretty much what you get with the SAT/MCAT:

  • Keju test handbooks similar to the Kaplan handbooks
  • Violent or suicidal behavior from students who either failed the exam or were studying for the exam
  • Massive cheating in the form of
    • students memorizing entire essays and poems to copy down later
    • bribing test proctors and graders - sometimes they looked for "key phrases" in essays so graders would know who to score highly
    • hiring fake test takers
    • bringing in crib notes

  • Security implementations such as body searches, isolated exam rooms, anonymous forms and physical punishment for convicted cheaters.

Baton Effect

In addition to these issues, Suen also found something called the baton effect - which basically says that Chinese society focused only on learning material on the test, which in this case meant literature and poetry at the expense of medicine or technology. The baton effect shows that high-stakes testing actually can influence what people learn.

Think of how many people today who complain that we don't study literature and poetry enough because the US students are too concerned with studying "for-profit" fields like accounting, medicine or the law.

So the problem may not be that testing will inhibit education, but that it can be TOO influential. You ideally want a test that matches what your society really needs, and yes there are plenty of diverging views out there.

Any Solutions?

Of course, China and the U.S. are not the only high-stakes testers out there. Most countries today have some sort of high-stakes test for university admissions and some used to have them for high school. And I think it's safe to say that once a test becomes high stakes enough to count, you will get the cheating and the destructive psychological behaviors described. I've heard great academic dishonesty stories from some of my non-US colleagues.

But what are the alternatives? Traditionally the alternative has been "the old boy's network" or whatever variant you have in mind. I need to hire someone for a task and I check in with my social network to see what "qualified" applicants are out there. Actually, when the population is small scale, this might actually be the best solution.

But once your population gets too large, caste think tends to set in. Anyone not born in the right circles would somehow have to find a patron (possible, but not easy).

Is there a third way that's more equitable? Maybe the ultimate solution is just to open more pathways to success. We're not all meant to be doctors or lawyers or government workers, so why should we all be trying? Wouldn't a system that rewarded something other than academic performance be interesting?

For instance, a highly-skilled welder may actually be well-paid and know quite a bit about metallurgy, gas chemistry and structural engineering. Welders may even need to receive continuous training to keep up with the latest techniques...Some welders even wield their torches to become metal craftsmen (and their art may command high prices).

But how many professors or lawyers want their children to grow up to become welders? (Actually see P.S. 2 for my reasons why not).

Class and High Stakes Exams

All of this speculation leads me to think that the biggest reasons for the problems encountered by the Keju and the SAT/LSAT/MCAT is that they are entries for people to gain or maintain a relatively higher social status. Hence there is much more competition in them (as well as a very strong desire to circumvent the system).

There are actually lots of other high stakes certification exams like the CPP (Certified Payroll Professional) and ones for welding, yet I don't think the issues of academic dishonesty are quite as prevalent. They're challenging, but not as many people take them.


P.S. 1 - An interesting development recently is that "chef" has become a much more glamorous profession thanks to the rise of cooking channels. One person admitted that he was glad to have found cooking...because he really hated school.

P.S. 2 - Another annoying quasi universal is that societies often set the highest social class to those who do the least work. Cognitive labor is always above manual labor, and no labor at all can be the best. I think that part of it is that manual labor can be a bit dangerous (welding accidents are more likely than attorney accidents). And it is cleaner, which counts for a lot in our subconscious mammal brains....still many societies have missed out on key technical innovations because the philosophers "didn't want to get their hands dirty" doing actual experiments.

Cognitive Load Theory...I Finally Found You

A few weeks ago, I was complaining that the version of instructional theory I knew did not reference specific mechanisms of cognition (Help Wanted: Linguist Seeking Cognitive Components). But my horizons recently got expanded to include Cognitive Load Theory. Actually I first found it in The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (Chap 2) in an article written by John Sweller. The key concept I like
Learning has been defined as an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.
Specifically cognitive load theory says that knowledge (I assume facts/procedures in this case) is stored with some organizational structure attached (possibly all hierarchical schemas or schemas plus other structure). In contrast, new information has to be filtered through working memory (a type short term memory) Sweller proposes that when receive information, the working memory will try to get to a schema from long term memory to reduce cognitive load (I would say you try to recognize first, then learn new information). Interestingly, he proposes that if the learner's memory can't get a schema, the learner may first try to see if another person has one available (an instructor, a peer or the textbook). This fits the social aspect of learning, but it slightly contradicts the constructivist approach in that constructivism does not really assume that the learner is looking for a close match internal content organization. They assume the learner is constructing everything from scratch. On the other hand, if the learner already has a schema in place it is easier to process new additions (the more you know, the easier it may be to learn more). On the other hand, CHANGING a schema to fit new information can be pretty tricky. Some non-intuitive predictions I found interesting
  • Redundant/duplicate information adds cognitive load - because you have to process ALL the material before you can determine it was duplicate. Instructional designers sometimes advocate showing the same information multiple ways to help different learner types, but you can get into overkill territory if you're not careful (been there, done that)
  • Worked examples critical - Sweller cites research that learners may need to see fully worked example problems to best learn the technique. Asking learners to "recreate" a technique from scratch may not be as productive. On the other hand, you do have to help learners transition to solving their own problems. Interestingly, although Sweller does not address the creative arts, it is interesting to note that art is usually taught by showing many examples of how a "design problem" is solved.
  • Experts actually store a lot of "factoids" - But Sweller contends that experts index factoids in such a way so that they can recall the correct one given a current problem they're solving. It's different from being able to recite a random list of trivia. But you still need to get the factoids in there at some point...
I think this theory is on the right track, but there are a few valid criticisms I think a constructivist could make:
  • There is no overt role for motivation or emotion - although I generally feel that motivation is something that either enhances or interferes with the ability of learners to place content in long term memory. However, a complete model should take this factor into account somehow, and I actually think a model like this could easily accommodate affective factors as a factor affecting memory storage.
  • Assumes all hierarchical schemas - Actually I think this is what the EXPERTS store (but only "left brained" knowledge). Novices may be storing facts as "unstructured lists" and need help sorting what they know into appropriately structured schemas. Still some creative processes involve a "subconcious" or "right brained" mulling of the problem with strange tangents that is not well understood.
  • Cognitive load theory may be more math/science geared - That is his focus is on learning a set body of facts and procedures. He does not really address issues like creativity in the arts or multiple points of view in sociology. On the other hand, even policy studies rely on being able to interpret facts and figures.
  • Does not acknowledge cultural differences - Even if people are born with the same brain, they don't get the same upbringing. Conflicts between home culture and academic culture can interfere with learning (because of affective issue). Acknowledging cultural differences can enhance opportunities for learning (especially for the instructor)
    I suspect Sweller would NOT believe different cultures store knowledge with different mechanisms. Different cultures may have different schemas (e.g. the tropics subdivide fruits into "hot" and "cold" varieties for various reasons), but they're still schemas!
  • Does not acknowledge "inborn" learner differences - On the other hand, some people may wonder if such a thing exists!

Mammals Together Category


I'm a believer in the power of culture, but I confess here that I'm also a believer in the mammalian instincts that drive a lot of our cultural choices (especially stranger aspects like gossip, fashion and professional sports).

Before you think it sounds like I'm reducing humans to blind instinct, I should mention that I think that mammals (especially the social mammals like chimps, dolphins, dogs, elephants and others) are turning out to be a lot smarter than we give them credit for.

I think it's interesting to compare human behavior to other mammalian behavior. There are some obvious differences (thankfully, we have given up the social butt sniffing of dogs). But some things never change - like the efficiency of peer to peer learning (see dogs teaching other dogs the rules of the household).

One book I recommend is How Dogs Learn by Stanley Coren in which he describes a St. Bernard rescue work training program conducted entirely by the St. Bernards. Dogs can apparently develop individual cultures and workplace habits by themselves.

Fortunately, humans will always have cultural heritage and old-fashioned "free will" to fall back on in a pinch!

Dolphins Name Themselves


This is about a year out of date, but scientists did find that dolphins used different series of whistles to identify each other.


Apparently chimps still rely on identifying voices rather than name alone. Dolphins, on the other hand can recognize names even from a speech synthesizer. Scientists claim that dolphins choose their own names as infants (instinct or culture?)

Linguists are constantly asked about animal language, but this has been the most exciting evidence of I've seen for a complex communication system in another species. Chimp two word signing hasn't been nearly as exciting (sigh).

Language Geek Notes

1 - Dolphin phonology is apparently based on the whistle (not surprising), but no human language is (even though imitating whistles/bird calls is a reasonably common skill)