Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Learning to Learn

So, I'm applying for a promotion, hoping to move up from a yearly contract as an lecturer with a huge course-load but no expectations or either service or scholarship to a tenure-track position as a professor of Foreign Language Education where the service and scholarship that I'm doing anyway will be more rewarded. It's an equally exciting and daunting prospect as I put myself up for, effectively, judgment by my peers.

A part of any application for a position is academia is defining your "Philosophy of Teaching," those basic principles that guide the crafting of lesson plans and assessment tools. For many years, this was a constant preoccupation for me as I revisited the pros and cons of what I had been doing and seeing what worked and what didn't. But, after 11 years of foreign language instruction (wow, more than a decade now...), I've really established some comfortable parameters, to the point that I pretty much copy/paste the same paragraph whenever my work comes up for review:
My philosophy of teaching has three major tenants: 1) respect the free-will of the student, 2) serve as a guide and a facilitator, 3) adapt to the needs of the student. Respect for free will is paramount in avoiding the “Atlas Complex,” which engenders little more than the parroting of preprocessed information. It further helps to convince the student of his capacity to learn through exploration, creativity and personalization. This relates as well to the second tenant of my philosophy: that instructors are most effective not behind the lectern, but amidst the students. My primary role is to structure activities, not to directly transmit information. The former allows the student to explore the material and adapt it to his own needs and interests; the latter squelches these practices. Finally, the most effective structures are adapted to the constantly-shifting needs and capacities of the student. These three components coexist in a cycle of testing, correction, implementation and critical feedback.
As I was reading this over, the last phrase struck me, particularly the idea of critical feedback, that need for self-reflection. Because, while my three main principles are solid, there are some underlying counterpoints that I'd like to take the chance to nuance.

I've had teachers like this; it's how I learned what not to do.

Respect the Free Will of the Student
This is more than a pedagogical approach for me; it's a fundamental ideology in life. As simple as it may be to state, and as appealing as it is in the abstract, it's a difficult line to walk, especially for a teacher. Part of the teacher/learner binary is an assumption of superiority/inferiority. On a certain level, it's true: I have a mastery of the subject that my students lack; not just in knowledge, but in skills. It's tempting, seemingly efficient, to simply transmit this knowledge in a top-down fashion: lecture, drill and assess student retention of cultural and linguistic information. However, cognitive theory and many years of experience demonstrate that this doesn't work. Students may be able to, in the short term, perform well on a test, but they quickly lose the general skill-sets and specific knowledge that the instruction is supposed to instill.

Instead, the acquisition - and retention - of the knowledge and skill sets that define a skilled language user actually requires a bit of trickery on my part. And this is where my professed "respect" for students' free will can seem to become suspect. Rather than a direct transfer of data, it's more effective to establish a goal (the more realistic and authentic, the better), and then show students some tools helpful for accomplishing that goal. The precise method of getting there is up to the student. There's a certain level of frustration and uncertainty inherent to this method. Some students don't respond well to this, especially as first. Conditioned by more hierarchical and discrete teaching methods, they feel lost, splashing about in a seemingly-infinite sea of possibilities.

Yet, eventually, they start swimming. Some are faster than others. Some have already taken a few lessons at the local pool; others just have a talent for the best stroke; still others just barrel through with sheer stubborn determination. But the end result is the same: a finished product of which they can be proud (whether that be a letter, or an oral presentation based on independent research of Parisian cybercafés, or the ability to conduct a meaningful, unscripted conversation with the professor), and a set of skills and knowledge that they have accrued on their own.

Be a Guide (not a Demagogue)
As you can see, the solution to the paradox of my first tenant is my second principle. Yet, this gives rise to another contradiction. If building assessments in an open-ended but helpfully structured manner best aids learning, it is best conducted with a interactive style that many find uncomfortable, even confrontational or hostile.

It's called the Socratic method. In some ways, it's a microcosm of my assessment approach. (You might begin to see that I don't really differentiate instruction from assessment; more on that later.) I prefer to ask questions rather than make statements. Indeed, each session in the classroom begins with a question; I call them démarrer questions, from the French term "to start up." It's a verb used with machines like motors or computers; the connotation is that something gets revved up, starts turning over and conducting power. These questions aren't necessarily the central idea of the entire session, but they have several purposes. First, they are a capstone of the previous night's homework. The questions are published in the syllabus and I encourage my students to prepare their responses to the démarrer question at the end of their work at home. Secondly, they induce the students to begin thinking differently, to jump-start the French parts of their brains that they need to be developing: the different sounds of French phonetics, the unique manners of syntax and the different ways of thinking that speaking in another language not only implies but needs. Thirdly, it provides a moment for formative feedback. A successful, correct response by the student in turn prompts a meaningful, encouraging response from me; an unsuccessful response to the démarrer question is a "teachable moment," where we can collectively highlight a discrete difficulty or address a misunderstanding of the specific grammar or vocabulary at hand.

Finally, the démarrer question models my typical approach to the rest of lesson, wherein rather than drill students on verb conjugation or lead them in choral repetition of vocabulary, I prefer to pose questions: "What's this? What's a synonym for this term? How would you respond in this situation?" These questions are rarely posed to an individual student, but to the class as a whole and creates an context of collective problem-solving, where the stronger students can feel a sense of accomplishment by leading, and the weaker ones can learn by the examples of their peers rather than from me.

Adapt to the Needs of the Student
This last practice leads to my final tenant. Using questions as the basis for lessons and crafting assessments that are authentic but with open-ended methods of completion allows me to keep a quick, constant pulse on how well my students are doing. It not just a matter of "Is their pronunciation correct?" or "Did they conjugate that verb right?" or "Did they use the best word for that idea?" These are important; but other questions are equally pertinent: "Are they asking the right questions of themselves?" and "Do they demonstrate initiative to reference outside resources?" and "Do they make useful connections between the various parts of the curriculum? Between their native culture and those of French speakers? Between French and the other language(s) they speak?" These are forms of my own self-assessment.

When the answer is "yes," then things are going well; I keep at it. When it's "no," it's time to step back and re-examine. It's time to pose more questions. "Why did they have difficulty with that exercise?" or "How can I make this clearer?" or "How can I modify the goal to make it more authentic?" These are the things that drive a constant continuum of refinement in my lessons as well as assessments.

This is the crux of effective teaching for me: reflect, employ, assess, reflect again. It's the same process for both me and my students. The result, for them, is more than the ability to speak French, it's learning how to learn. For me, it's a never-ending puzzle, a constant progression that is adaptive by intent. It's learning how to help people become learners.

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