Hark, the research speaketh

I just spent an hour with Megan Howard (@mmhoward) and Alicia Andreou from the Trinity School.  They shared with us the redesign of their World Language program as a student-directed, formatively assessed, pan-lingual approach to learning a language.  Teachers become facilitators of the learning process, not the authors, designers, and assessors of it.

In all it was a marvelous, well-expressed presentation.  2/3 of the way through it a teacher thundered away about research on language acquisition in a way that began as authoritative and finished almost combative.  I tried to offer up this counterpoint, but time got the best of us and I wasn’t able to offer this perspective.  So I offer it now.

But first, here’s my paraphrasing of the contrarian teacher’s remarks:

All the language research tells us that efforts at language acquisition fail if they are not reinforced by one-on-one, student-to-teacher communication…I challenge you to make this work.

Point #1: Research is ironclad only as long as circumstances remain the same

Every word of protest was true and cannot be refuted.  The research, I assume, tells us that kids dabbling with a language in isolation will not work.  However, the world has changed significantly since the 1960s-80s when this research was conducted.  Websites like LiveMocha offer free or fee-based opportunities to engage in self-directed, peer-corrected language practice.  And this is just one.  I shutter to think of all the opportunities for peer-to-peer online language practice.

As the protester argued that a child at Trinity taking Filipino will fail in her efforts because her teacher and parents don’t speak Filipino, I logged on to LiveMocha and found a conversation partner that will help me learn Filipino.

Tingnan kung paano madaling na! (See how easy that was!)

So, my first point is this.  The research she quoted no longer needs to spell out our infinite doom if we cultivate self-directed learners who seek out people to learn from (which, I suspect, is one of the objectives of Trinity’s language program)

Point #2: Treat the cause, not the symptom

What does it say about our mindset as educators that we have so completely innoculated our students from extrapersonal language practice that we GUARANTEE FAILURE if a teacher is not around to point out corrections and model proper usage??  Skype has been around for five years??  Why have we not blazed a trail to online bilingual communities that can help broaden our students’ language practice and deepen their cultural understanding?

In the end, there’s one truth that we can all agree on.  If we tap student excitement, and make every effort to put that child in a position where success is possible, we are fulfilling our role as educators.

Salamat sa iyo para sa pagbabasa!

7 thoughts on “Hark, the research speaketh

  1. We have to be very careful about defending traditions in the face of new research and the practices that have been demonstrated to work. My daughter has taken 12 years of traditional language education in five EXCELLENT independent schools, one of which is WMS. She has been taught in a one-teacher to one-student format for 12 years by good teachers no doubt. She has been a very strong language student in most respects. She is in on way FLUENT. It is no one’s fault and I am not ranting on the teaching, but let’s not try and defend tradition foreign language education which by and large does not produce fluent speakers after 12 years of education in the same language. We know why. Their experience is not an immersion in the language, which is the best way to learn, practice, and assimilate the skills.

    What definitive research defends this person’s perspective. I doubt it is ironclad.

    Kudos to Trinity for trying something new in the 21st Century which gives students the option to take 1 of many languages, most of which a school like WMS could not offer. I hope their experiment lights an alternative path for lanyard education.

    It is possible that the old ways might become irrelevant. This is a good conversation-point-counterpoint.

    Bob Ryshke

    1. Bob,
      I share the frustration of seeing students three years after having class with them, and they still struggle with simple forms and usage. I was speaking with an elementary teacher this morning, and we both agree that at every level we’re doing excellent work, yet the lack of immersive language experience (whole-year immersion, not 50 minutes, 4 days per week, 10 months per year immersion) continues to hobble our efforts.

      Elective year abroad? Large-scale exchange?

      You’re right. This is an important topic to keep going. Language learning is at the heart of 21st century competencies given its self-evident ties to global connections, as well as the other C’s.

  2. Ted,

    Thanks for posting and not “letting it rest.” When we share we learn more and others learn more (if willing). Many thanks to Megan and Alicia, and to Trinity, for taking this bold step, experimenting wisely, and sharing their experience.

    We (people in general) seem to think often that what worked best in the past will continue to work best in the present or future. But conditions change. I bet some scribes around Guttenberg’s time and some typewriter makers around computer debut could tell some tales! Your point #1 is a great reminder.

    As for point #2…BRAVO! How dare any teacher say to strongly, or at all, that something is not possible to learn. I wish we knew so much about learning that we could be sure, but I revel in the human ability to learn, adapt, unlearn, and relearn…if willing!

  3. First, Ted, a word of appreciation for this post. You have inspired me to carve out time to write and reflect when I know I should write and reflect…even in the face of missing lunch during an all-day conference. I appreciate your kind words, and of course, your support as we continue on this journey to make learning relevant for each child since we are well into the 21st century.

    I spent a bit of time re-reading chapters of Ramo’s Age of the Unthinkable this afternoon. (It’s a must-read — and the greatest thing is that it has nothing (and everything, of course!) to do with education. In the early pages of his book, Ramo writes about foreign policy and Louis Halle, an American diplomat and strategist in the 50s, who observed that foreign policy “was made not in reaction to the world but rather in reaction to an image of the world.” Ramo goes on to write…

    “Our image of the world now, constructed by people we once thought we could rely upon for such work is false, actually and philosophically false. It’s time to replace it with an image that actually works. What we need is a framework for the sort of change that fits our world–and that lays a foundation for widespread personal involvement in millions of people that will make such change useful, durable, and sustainable. Without these two elements, hope for change will dissolve into lethargic frustration at best and, at worst, panic.”

    An image. A framework. A foundation.

    Today, I heard more and more teachers say, “I want to know what this looks like.” I wonder, is that a sign of progress? I really don’t know.

    In preparation for our presentation today, I eliminated a lot of the “nuts and bolts” of Trinity’s World Language program in exchange for explanation about our strategic initiatives, student-centered learning, and metacognitive process. Interestingly, the conversation kept turning to the what and the how (which was frustrating for me because there’s so much more than 488 children and 18 languages). The conversation, I felt, moved toward”what is the right image of foreign language instruction.” I wonder, how do we — at Trinity and at WMS and even at our schools of education — know exactly what that image looks like? Do we keep doing the same thing in reaction to past images that show the way it’s always been done? Or do we take a risk (even in the face of difficulty collecting quantitative data at the outset), trust our instincts about the resilience that self-directed learners possess in varied learning spaces, and work to create our OWN IMAGES that work (for our children, for our teachers, for our schools)?

    The more and more we share the risks we are taking with those in and outside of our network…World Languages, tablets, Synergy8, new forms of assessment, PLCs, netbooks…the greater hope I have that our schools will be ones where positive changes occur that are useful, durable, and sustainable. And the more hope I have that we are growing children who will actually be able to navigate this ever-changing world, and maybe even be able to kindly and confidently converse with those from other cultures and countries.

    Thanks for listening. This conversation will continue, I’m sure. And, for that, I am grateful.

  4. Isn’t it great to work and learn in an environment where we are challenged? How often do we take the time to share our practices with each other and with colleagues from other institutions?

    If we value life-long learning and aspire to model risk-taking, then shouldn’t we all be willing to walk on the path that MH and AA are traveling – or at least a similar path? I am inspired by their work. It causes me to question and consider how our team can provide support for student choice in their learning. We should all embrace this type of struggle.

    Isn’t this the type of dialog that we are and should be seeking? How much learning was prompted for MH and AA by this “conflict”? How much learning will there be for RS [pseudonym], the teacher struggling with practice? Will RS continue to think about MH and AA’s approach to learning and teaching? Will RS go find said research to support the assertion that it will be a challenge to “make this work”?

    How is there ever new research if someone does not risk a new method/technique/practice?

    Ted is absolutely right…We need to “Treat the cause, not the symptom.”

    I am inspired by Ted’s question: What does it say about our mindset as educators if we have so completely inoculated our students that we GUARANTEE FAILURE if a teacher is not around to point out corrections and model?

  5. I applaud Megan and Alicia for their great presentation on Monday. It has engendered multiple conversations that continue days later (rare post-conference in my experience), starting with a conversation with Bob at the coffee machine this morning to a heated discussion in our Spanish PLT at this moment. I learned a lot in the workshop, and although I still have lingering questions, I am excited by a new approach to language learning in line with 21st century learning.

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