The ideal approach, which Wu’s team adopts, is a compromise between the two: it’s rather like planning a shopping trip by seeking the shortest path between shops while also contriving to pick up the heaviest items last. Adjusting the relationship network by giving a certain weighting or priority to each character depending on its use frequency, means the learning path spreads gradually through the network while picking up most of the common characters first.
The researchers compared the learning cost of their strategy with that for the most widely used textbook in Chinese primary schools (covering 2,475 characters) and a popular textbook for learning Chinese as a second language. For a given cost, their new strategy picked up both considerably more characters in total and a significantly greater total use frequency than the two alternatives.
What’s more, the researchers say that their approach would allow each student’s learning strategy to be tailored to his or her individual strengths – for example, to suit those who have already learnt some characters. This just isn’t possible with traditional approaches.
Of course, the ultimate test is whether students do actually learn faster. This remains to be seen. But with the debate continuing to rage in China over current teaching methods, this new proposal shows that there may be rational ways to pursue the question.