To witness excellence

This past weekend Skate Canada International was held in my small city of Kelowna, BC. It brings together some of the top figure skaters in the world. I am not really a figure skating fan, but thought this would be a great opportunity to see some amazing athletes at the top of their game (and in the flesh!). I went in with an open mind, and was certainly amazed at the level of precision these athletes brought to the ice — and at such young ages! Even to these untrained eyes, I could tell that they were special. All the skaters were amazing, but two stood above the rest: Hanyu Yuzuru and Alexandra Trusova.

Hanyu is a legend in Japan. Maybe more like a god. He won two Olympic gold medals back-to-back, and is the recipient of the 国民栄誉賞 (People’s Honour Award) in Japan. Once we found out that he was coming to Kelowna, we bought tickets right away back in early July. And we weren’t disappointed.

Tons of the local Japanese community turned out to see Hanyu, as well as lots of diehard fans from Japan and around the world (a Japanese fan sitting beside my wife came to watch Hanyu from London England!). It is probably easier to see Hanyu here in Canada than getting tickets to see him in Japan.

Rows of fans seated holding Japanese flags
The Japanese fans sure turned out!

And when Hanyu finished his last, first-place-winning routine which put him 60 points ahead of second place, the crowd reaction was amazing to behold.

The aftermath

There are lots of YouTube videos, live television broadcasts and DVD sets that allow you to see excellence, but it is a whole other thing to witness it — to experience it collectively with a group of other admiring human beings.

Like I said, I know nothing about skating, so I had never heard of Alexandra Trusova, the “Jumping Queen.” Trusova is the first female figure skater to land a quadruple lutz (one of those spinny-jumpy things) in a competition. During this event, she scored over 100 “technical” points, the first for a female in history. Oh, and she is 15 years old.

She was amazing to watch. At the very end of the event, when only the diehards were left in the arena to catch one final glimpse of their heroes, Hanyu and Trusova came out and had a “quad-off” (I caught it on video). Seeing them fail repeatedly; to not give up; to strive and not be satisfied until they have done it… is very inspiring. Combine all the hard work and the drive with the natural talent that the two of these have, and it is a privilege to see them in person. They are very rare beings on this earth.

It made me think of all the other human endeavours (besides figure skating or even sports) that I know nothing about and could experience. Even if I am not of their world, I can still go and appreciate their skill at a human level, and take away a feeling of awe and inspiration. You might be thinking sarcastically: “Boy, Chad just discovered the joy of sport…” Well, yes, I don’t think I am saying anything particularly insightful. I just feel a great sense of appreciation and freshness(?) after my Skate Canada experience. I am otherwise content by myself in my little office, reading and writing; or to walk places I have never been and take photos to share with friends and family. But now, I think I shall endeavour to get out more and witness excellence.

Advocating for the teaching of knowledge to kids

Having been in the Canadian education system for a few years now, I am very impressed with the high-minded ideals of the early education system here. Things like teaching critical thinking, creativitiy, breaking down a problem, LID, etc are challenging and interesting, and meant to get a jump on the future. However it is pretty unsettling how little our kids actually know.

A few weeks ago I tweeted a recommendation for this piece on skills vs knowledge-based curriculum in The Atlantic. This is an extract from The Knowledge Gap, a book by Natalie Wexler that challenges the shift in elementary education away from teaching knowledge (often derisively referred to as “rote learning”) to teaching skills “that will enable [students] to discover knowledge for themselves later on.” Wexler covers some of the history in the article, but I think her argument can be captured in the example she gives about an experiment in reading comprehension using baseball:

… they constructed a miniature baseball field and peopled it with wooden baseball players. Then they brought in 64 seventh and eighth graders who had been tested both for their reading ability and their knowledge of baseball.

[The researchers] chose baseball because they figured lots of kids who weren’t great readers nevertheless knew a fair amount about the game. Each student was asked to first read a description of a fictional baseball inning and then move the wooden figures to reenact it. (For example: “Churniak swings and hits a slow bouncing ball toward the shortstop. Haley comes in, fields it, and throws to first, but too late. Churniak is on first with a single, Johnson stayed on third. The next batter is Whitcomb, the Cougars’ left-fielder.”)

It turned out that prior knowledge of baseball made a huge difference in students’ ability to understand the text—more so than their supposed reading level. The kids who knew little about baseball, including the “good” readers, all did poorly. And all those who knew a lot about baseball, whether they were “good” or “bad” readers, did well. In fact, the “bad” readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed the “good” readers who didn’t.

There is a lot more in the article (read it!) — but it really hit me coming from an international family. We are always straddling the line between the British Columbian education system and the system “back home.” Furthermore, my day job is related to the US education system and kids’ education is probably the main topic of discussion amongst our immigrant friends, all who bring different perspectives. There is a lot of (amateur) comparative analysis going around, and a lot of confusion. Wexler’s article really captures one of the main challenges in understanding elementary education here when you come from Asia. It also makes me wish there was a way to mash the East with the West.

Now, I bring this article up again after reading an intriguing essay on developing transformative tools for thought. This essay argues for a new ways to leverage technology for efficient memorization techniques. It is adjacent to the “skills vs knowledge” argument from the above article, but hits some of the same notes.

For example, Matuschak and Nielsen present a caricature of a “skills first” proponent:

“Why should I care about memory? I want deeper kinds of understanding! Can’t I just look stuff up on the internet? I want creativity! I want conceptual understanding! I want to know how to solve important problems! Only dull, detail-obsessed grinds focus on rote memory.”

This sounds so much like the “we teach concepts not memorizing facts. The students can look up facts on the internet!” that I have heard from local elementary teachers.

Matuschak and Nielsen then go on to illustrate some challenges experienced in teaching quantum physics:

He noticed that people often think they’re getting stuck on esoteric, complex issues. But, as suggested in the introduction to this essay, often what’s really going on is that they’re having a hard time with basic notation and terminology. It’s difficult to understand quantum mechanics when you’re unclear about every third word or piece of notation. Every sentence is a struggle.

It’s like they’re trying to compose a beautiful sonnet in French, but only know 200 words of French. They’re frustrated and think the trouble is the difficulty of finding a good theme, striking sentiments and images, and so on. But really the issue is that they have only 200 words with which to compose.

So, in order to understand concepts, you need a certain fundamental layer of knowledge. I am not advocating a total swing back to a Confucian-centric pedagogy — there is certainly a balance to be had. We struggle with this as we try to support our kids’ learning from home. It would be ideal if schools took advantage of those little sponge-like young brains in their early years and filled them full of facts before introducing higher-order thinking skills. But in lieu of that, I suppose it is up to us parents to provide them with actual knowledge (eg. in the forms of structured textbooks, encyclopedia, atlases, etc.) to fuel the skill-based curriculum they get at school. We have tried a few things (tutors, workbooks from other education systems, etc) but are always looking to improve. If you have any recommended resources or techniques for supporting your kids, please share!