In the unusually heated discussion on a previous post, ‘How angry schools can make me’, it was suggested to me that I shouldn’t be ‘arrogantly berating teachers’, and that at SSi our work ‘is already at least half done for you’ because anyone searching for a language course must by definition be motivated.
As someone who was brought up by teachers in a family of teachers, who married a teacher from a family of teachers and who spent eight years teaching, this startled me slightly. Yup, I think that teachers are pretty much the most important people in the world (I consider parents a subset of teachers…;-)). I went back and double-checked, and yes, the post still said that it was schools that made me angry – at which point, it seemed to me that the misunderstanding might have arisen in part because I hadn’t gone on to talk about potential solutions.
The focus on SSi, and how it does or doesn’t work, made me feel that it was being taken for granted that I thought schools should just be using our methods – but as I’ve said elsewhere, the method I’ve developed was designed for individual learners, and it has been a surprise to me when people talk about using it in groups. I know it’s been used occasionally in schools, but as it stands, I don’t think it could possibly solve the problems in education.
So today, I feel like mulling over some ideas about how language teaching in the UK could be improved – to the point where even the occasional bad teacher wouldn’t upset the apple cart. I hope this will make my feelings about teachers (and their various insanities, such as ‘staying in the job’) a little clearer!
Oh, and I’ll come back to that bit about ‘at least half’ our work having been done for us at SSi already…;-)
So, let’s recap.
Language teaching in UK schools is (with honourable exceptions!) in a pretty dire state. Years of education lead to students who are not capable of maintaining a conversation in the language they’ve been studying, and many of them believe that they’re ‘bad at languages’ even when they have no problems talking English (a language). This is a waste of their time, and it’s a waste of their teachers’ time, it doesn’t make anyone feel good, it’s almost certainly a bad thing for the economy, and it’s a particularly bad thing for languages like Welsh.
There are two broad problems happening, as far as I can see.
One is that language teaching is a subset of teaching as a whole, and the education sector in the UK has suffered enormously from being a political toy, with changes imposed by government every half-hour or so for decades, many of which have focused on measuring the immeasurable. You can’t measure it? At all? Stop doing it, then, and do something you can measure. And then spend more time measuring it. Talk about the education sector to a teacher who has resigned, and I can guarantee you that the term ‘paperwork’ will come up.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, though, language teaching also suffers from historical ideas about how to learn a language – that you have to learn a grammar to be able to speak a language, in the same way that you have to learn how an engine works before you drive a car. Oh, hang on.
At this point, I realise that I’ve embarked on writing a book here, not a blog post. So let’s just stick to the chapter titles.
Over-worked teachers with too many made-up targets to hit.
Students who have no current need for the language they’re learning.
A common focus on reading and writing because of historical ideas and because it’s just easier to manage a class of 30 or more when they’re reading or writing – when they’re speaking and listening, it can get, er, unmeasurable very quickly indeed!
Students who are shown the component parts of a language, and told to learn them on their own – given vocab lists as homework, that sort of stuff – and given how little time the average teacher has to keep up with developments in our understanding of how learning works best, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most children have very little idea of how to learn. For example, a recent test showed that highlighting key terms in a text was more or less entirely ineffective – but it remains very popular, perhaps because at least it adds a splash of colour to a boring activity.
Students who succeed tend to succeed by the intellectual equivalent of brute force – going over and over mountains of material until it is fixed in their memory for long enough to pass an exam. Oh, by the way, how much of your school mathematics or history or biology do you remember?
[List cut short by a sub-editor].
Possible and exciting solutions (focusing on stuff that schools can do themselves, without change coming from the government)
Change the focus to speaking and listening – deal with reading and writing in the last couple of years before GCSEs, by which stage your children could and should be confident speakers.
Use technology to create new opportunities to play – get children to make friends via video links with children who speak the target language but don’t speak English – obviously, the younger the better for this in English-medium schools, because in most of Europe fourteen and fifteen year olds will already have a LOT of English.
Work on creating entertaining games for 2 to 4 players that can be played via video links and which need teamwork and communication – this is something that should be done at research level, rather than thrown at individual teachers to help push them over the edge.
Build games for 2 to 4 players that work in the classroom, needing teamwork and communication, but with built-in volume control (perhaps some value attached to an element of secrecy). Make sure that each group can achieve a target – don’t make it a zero sum situation – so that every group that achieves their target can be given praise.
Give children homework that actually guides their learning – in other words, automates the process of interval and repetition that is so important in acquiring anything new. This is where something similar to SSi might come in handy – it would need to be refined quite a bit – shorter chunks, more focus on the language needed in the game playing – but ten minutes of listening to an audio track on their phone or computer is likely to be completed a lot more than an open-ended, read this vocab list until you’ve ‘learnt’ it kind of task.
Put all this together, and you’re working towards building a situation where language lessons are a welcome interval at school – a chance to relax, chat with friends, play games, gossip, as long as you’re doing it all in the target language.
If this is happening from Year 7 (that’s 11 year olds) onwards – or even starting before Year 7 – by the time you get to the last couple of years before GCSEs, reading and writing would just be a matter of adding increasing amounts of written material to the game process, and would be an addition to an enjoyable process, rather than something that made students feel overwhelmed and unsuccessful.
Any chance of any of this actually happening?
Well, as William Gibson famously said, ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.’
In other words, almost everything in here is happening at a school somewhere in the UK – you can pretty much guarantee that. There are teachers going above and beyond somewhere in every county, and whatever the framework they have to work within, language teachers all instinctively know that using the language in a social setting is going to help their children succeed.
But are there any schools building an entire approach to language teaching like this?
I’d love to hear about them, if there are.
The biggest barrier I see is the communication that would be needed – getting curriculum designers to talk to game designers, getting them both talking to online learning designers, building the technology or the models of best practice with existing technology, all that sort of stuff.
But it’s do-able, that’s for sure.
And the fact that it’s difficult doesn’t make it any less important.
Oh, that bit about at least half our work being done for us at SSi?
The desire is there, certainly. But we have a large number of people who reach us with very low levels of confidence, and desire without confidence isn’t what I’d call motivation.
We’ve had interesting discussions on this blog previously about the importance of the praise in our lessons – by now, I think that praise, and the obvious functionality of the lessons, is significantly more valuable than the fact that someone originally fancied speaking Welsh.
We’ll know more about this in the next few months, when we can (ironically!) measure what happens with our early stage learners rather more precisely. I still think, though, that we’ve got a huge amount of work to do, which I don’t think would be the case if most of it had already been done for us…;-)