"the illusion of understanding and mastery"

Nice quote here from AJ: As I slowly progress with Spanish, Im beginning to understand the appeal of grammar-translation for so many students. In a nutshell, grammar study is comforting. It gives one the illusion of understanding and mastery.

Nice! I would tweak that a bit and say “the illusion of learning and progress.” It provides this illusion to both teacher and student! (From far away, I hear a distant echo from Carlos Castandeda‘s magician-teacher, Don Juan: “That’s the problem with words: they make you think you really know something.”)

Full marks to AJ for actually trying to learn something alongside of his work as a teacher. I remember talking to a Japanese lady who taught Japanese at the YMCA in Kobe, many years ago; she had taken up Chinese in order to better understand the language problems her Chinese students of Japanese were having. A dedicated teacher.

A problem that I have been struggling with for a while is, how to wean students away from this false comfort? When I was 15, after learning German in school for a year, I had the opportunity of a homestay in Hamburg for a couple of weeks. I always did well on tests, and was also learning a lot on my own. Imagine my shame and embarrassment when, upon arriving in Germany and meeting my host family, I discovered I couldn’t understand a word they said, nor could I express anything beyond basic greetings. “But hey, I had good scores on the tests. ” Indeed! The irony of this hit me right between the eyes, and I had a headache for the entire 2 weeks of my stay. I was at last beginning to express myself a little and understand a bit of what was said to me when it was time to return home. I learned the lesson then that “classroom learning” is not the same as communicative competence.

In my “autonomy” class, we have materials lying around, and students are free to choose what they like. I still recall a student last year who picked a graded reader… and proceeded to translate it in writing. I guess his past experience had taught him that that is what you do to learn English. Translating in writing is “learning English”, or perhaps, as Brian McVeigh suggests, it is helpful to realize that “English” is different from “Eigo”, the subject that students study in school. My student was “doing Eigo”. He got a sense of accomplishment. I doubt he learned very much, or certainly not as much as he could have learned in the same amount of time and for the same effort, but then, what do I know!

I’ve mentioned Bob Leamson before, and do so again now. His book really is a treasure trove. As I read AJ’s post I was reminded of something Leamson wrote and have just spent a few minutes digging it out. Here it is:

In the field of contemporary education, responding to students’ needs is a good thing. But less clearly articulated is who is best equipped to determine what those needs are. That students are the best arbiters of their academic needs is highly questionable. Most students have goals, but these are usually long-term and nebulous, and are better described as wishes for the future. Students’ academic goals are pretty much limited to getting into the school and major of their choice, getting a degree, and maintaining a certain grade-point average. You are not likely to encounter a first-year student who expresses a need to learn a foreign language, some math, psychology, something about human institutions, or chemistry. In general, first-year students have little knowledge of what they need to learn in order to achieve their long-term goals. Their interests trend more toward credentialing than learning. Deciding what students need to learn in order to achieve their long-term goals is our job. This aspect of a teacher’s philosophy (determining what needs to be learned) is a fairly obvious one. Less obvious and frequently less considered is the new students’ need to become acclimated to college work and the new and (usually) more demanding expectations they face.

Leamson’s definition of learning borrows from biology:

Learning is defined as stabilizing, through repeated use, certain appropriate and desirable synapses in the brain. This definition implies that learning is not exactly easy… Students do not understand learning in these terms. And because the results cannot be seen in a mirror, the value of permanent brain change is lost on many. Like anyone else, they will avoid strenuous effort if there appears to be no point to it. The danger… of a completely reactive philosophy of teaching is that it can produce a pedagogy that maximizes a student’s comfort level – a situation that is not compatible with learning. … Because so many [students] do not really know what’s in their best interests, your efforts can put you at cross purposes with their desires. It is for that reason that a useful philosophy of teaching cannot be just reactive. A philosophy that develops in a reactive way and completely out of experience runs the risk of producing a pedagogy that merely accomodates students’ felt needs. (pp3-5)

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