Monday, May 30, 2011

Yesterday Once More

I had an interesting conversation with a friend some years ago. We were reminiscing about our school days; the mistakes we had done, and how differently we would have done some things had we been able to turn back the clock. And then something he said struck me as quite profound—"The best way to learn in life is by making mistakes."

Let me explain that sentence.

All of us make mistakes in life, of course. And most of us learn from those mistakes. When we encounter the same situations again, we are better able to make the correct choice(s) in the hope of getting a better outcome(s).

Nevertheless, some people have the habit of repeating their mistakes over and over again. What's more, after failing a few times, they still don't know what's hitting them! Such was my friend's case. He had to get married because he accidentally made a girl pregnant. He said it was never really about love. It was a rocky start from the beginning. He reckoned that he'd make the best of it and hoped that he'd fall in love with the girl after a while. I know all of this sounds like something from the movies, but believe it or not, it happens in real life too! Unfortunately, he failed to fall in love with his wife. But instead of ending the misery for both parties, they had another child—also accidentally...

Many of us will not learn from our first mistake, but thankfully, we will learn after repeating them a few times.

My daughter, JJ, repeated her mistake in her recent English exam. A few months ago, I posted an article about an English exam, of which she made wrong past-tense sentences without including the word "yesterday".

In her recent English exam, a similar situation arose. The instruction in the paper was for the pupil to "use all the words below to make one correct sentence." And the given words were "walked" and "school".

So JJ wrote:

He walked to school.

That sentence, to me, albeit very simple, is correct. After all, JJ did use both the given words in one sentence, as per the instruction. But actually, it was marked as wrong because, of course, there was no "yesterday" at the end of the sentence. I'm guessing that the "yesterday", which was supposed to have been included in the sentence, was meant to "prove" that the pupil understood the significance of the tenses, i.e. the "ed" in "walked".

As you can see, there is here a pattern in the teaching of English in school. JJ got it wrong in the last exam because of that forsaken "yesterday". And now she is again wrong because of that "yesterday"; or rather because of its omission. It makes me wonder what would have happened if she wrote "today" instead of "yesterday". I won't be surprised if "today" would have been rejected too! And if indeed rejected, it would be solely because that answer does not conform to the taught-and-supposedly-memorised "yesterday".

What I see in the education system these days is mechanical thinking—solutions to problems are restricted to only some acceptable ones which are the norm. Anything other than those are discouraged. Original ideas or creative thinking will soon become rare phenomena.

In time to come, we will see many of these kids entering the job market, full of knowledge which they had memorised from school. They will be equipped with "mechanical brains". We will not have many inventors, if any at all.

When in due course some of them end up becoming English teachers, they, too, will insist that past tense sentences must end with—and only with—the word "yesterday".


Lisa said...

Grammar is v.mechanical just like math, i think. like...calculation with the right steps but the wrong answer? it's still wrong but the idea/understanding is there. then again, she DID fulfil the requirement of the qst..?ummm...~ no further comm.

Cornelius said...

I was teaching math for a few years ages ago, so I'm able to say something about the subject.

Back in my days, if one used the "right steps" to calculate, he is bound to arrive at the correct answer. Math is truly that simple; once the correct "idea/understanding is there", you can't go wrong. For as long as you still can't get it right, there is something wrong in the approach. I admit it's been a long time since my school days, but I seriously doubt that things have changed very much as far as math is concerned.

Grammar, to me, is not like math at all. Although it is governed by a set of rules, there are many, many exceptions to those rules. So we have "fast, faster and fastest", but not "good, gooder and goodest".

We have "I before E, except after C", so we spell BELIEVE with the I coming before the E. Yet the E comes before the I in SEIZURE; and in both cases, the I and E do not come after C at all.

My view is that any attempt to teach the language in a rigid way is bound to backfire sooner or later.

Lisa said...

err...? was nv good in math. =.=" that is totally a random ignorant assumption thinking grammar's like math, bcoz it is to me somehow somewhere. >.< very tight with rules. exception with comparative and superlative do exist but don't think tenses hv any (correct if wrong).

d qst for JJ,use all words to make a correct demands a "correct" sentence in this case using the words to make a simple past sentence. to my knowledge,all tenses must hv timeline whereby "yesterday,a month ago,etc." indicates it's in the past. it's a keyword,it's an indicator. dats d reason y i said it's like math. the rule is there like a formula. not the problem of norm,acceptable or not acceptable or creative thinking but it's according to the rule to make a correct sentence. it's like memorising a formula to answer an equation? if she put "today" it means she doesnt get the idea/understanding of the tense, therefore get it wrong.

of cos she did use all the words given but incorrectly. i guess if i were to correct JJ's exam paper,that would b my explanation.but grammar is nv emphasized in primary/second. sch so i guess that's y they start memorising instead of understanding,altho i would say grammar needs a lot of rule-memorisation as well. i mean...i don't know,that is just an opinion.:) *wow..long reply.sorry,cant help it! >.<

Cornelius said...

Look, I'm going to bed now, need my rest, very tired... so will keep this short.

Why can't "today" work as well? It can't work because you are thinking mechanically.

Why can't I be sitting at the dinner table at 7pm at night, and telling my parents what happened in the morning at 6am with:

I walked to school today?

Why must it be yesterday? Are you sure that sentence is wrong if "today" is used instead of "yesterday"?

But never mind lah. If you say "today" is wrong, that is up to you. Fair enough?

Lisa said...

i understand wat u r trying to say.m still learning toooo...

i am a mechanical thinker.

can use "today", "yesterday", "a month ago", "a year ago", "tomorrow", etc. in the sentence.ok lah...whatever u say.

Anonymous said...

Uhh, I thought JJ's sentence was completely correct. As a native English speaker, I don't see why it is wrong.

Her grammar is correct, it seems the teacher is having a hard time figuring out how to teach the lessons.

I've always seen language as an art, never ever have thought of it as something mechanical. It is fluid and ever-changing. It is "alive."

I think JJ could make a very good argument to her teacher as far as the "correctness" is concerned.. Of course that would make her teacher look dumb, and maybe that wouldn't go very well. LOL

Cornelius said...


Things are slightly different here in Malaysia. For the sole purpose of scoring good grades in school, I would try to remind JJ to add a "yesterday" - and only "yesterday" - at the end of past-tense sentences. Using "today" would be too risky. But at other times, I would encourage her to be creative with alternative words. Mechanical approach will secure her the good grades in school. The creative approach would keep her ahead, hopefully, in the job market.