Thursday, April 20, 2017

Know Thyself

On last week's Tea With BVP show (episode 56), Bill Van Patten had a great discussion about explicit grammar. A listener had called in asking if there were advantages in explicit grammar instruction in a language class, as he and his wife felt like they had both greatly benefited from it when they were learning Spanish; knowing endings and grammar charts considerably aided their learning experience. I really liked Bill's answer: while there are explicit learners, there are also implicit learners. There are indeed those for whom explicit grammar lessons are beneficial, but for most, explicit grammar is not effective, but rather affective. In addition, in a research experiment of two groups where one was given explicit grammar instruction but the other was not, there was no difference between the two groups in terms of performance.

Why I enjoyed the discussion so much was because I felt like the caller perfectly described me and my experience of learning language. I LOVE grammar, so for me, when learning Latin (in a grammar-translation setting), the language made perfect sense to me. Visually, I could see the charts in my head, identify the patterns, and isolate words into its various parts. In fact, in my learning of other languages, I cannot help but to see the patterns and to create a working grammar chart in my mind. Grammar just makes sense to me.

About four years ago, though, I came to this realization: the majority of my students are not like me and do not share the same passion for grammar. For my first 16 years of teaching, however, I taught as if they did (and should), and I blamed them for not being like I was. In reality, the issue did not lie in my students, but in my thinking that they should be like me and learn exactly like I do. 

I think that the problem lies at times when our classes are composed of explicit learners. As an explicit learner myself, I LOVE those kinds of classes. Unfortunately soon that becomes the norm, as only explicit learners are the ones who take my class. But essentially all I am doing is replicating myself. If we wish for our language programs to grow, we need to attract all kinds of students in the building. This syndrome is not just limited to explicit grammar instruction, as I have seen teachers who flourish as learners in "incomprehensible" (and I mean that to mean "incomprehensible to me") immersive-language environments replicate the same setting in their classrooms. Soon, unintentionally, it becomes a rather exclusive setting where only certain types of students succeed.

On today's Tea With BVP show (episode 57 - Blaine Ray was his guest!), Bill Van Patten addressed this issue, calling it a situation where we teachers are projecting ourselves onto our students (starting at 38:57 in the episode): "If all students were like language teachers, then they would be teachers of language, and they're not. We're the weirdos." When we transpose ourselves and our natural passions/strengths onto students and expect them to learn in the same manner which we do, then we are only successful in teaching students who are like us. In the episode, Blaine even says that we teachers cannot think like teachers by focusing on the textbook and where we think that learners should be by X, but rather we must think like students and focus on their needs (starting at 37:17 in the episode). Well put, Blaine.

To me, this is the key: know thyself. We need to be aware that whatever attracted us as students ourselves to language learning is not what will attract the average student to our classrooms. We as language teachers sometimes are the biggest obstacles to our own students' learning. When we can get past ourselves, then successful learning can occur.

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