Thursday, September 29, 2011

What - and how - should we be teaching world languages? What is the goal of attaining proficiency in a new language? Howard Gardner, in his book "A Disciplined Mind," asks us to think about why any subject or materials is taught to anyone - before we spend all the effort and time to determine proficiency objectives, assessment methods, curriculum, teacher qualifications and student classroom assignments. Gardner's vision is idealistic. He believes the goal of education is to help form the mind and character of students, so that they will be able to meet the challenges of our future society with creativity and confidence. How can language teachers contribute to this capacity? Why not be inspired with idealism? What new roads might our students travel, now that they have the capacity for language learning awakened within them? World literature is filled with stories of characters who learn a new language in a matter of weeks or months, (and in some cases it's just a necessary plot device so that they can get on with the dialogue in the following scenes.) In the James Cameron movie "Avatar" it was essential that our hero speak the language of the aboriginal community. He began with an intention to infiltrate, and ended up becoming a member, and a leader of the community. De Llosa's hero in "The Storyteller" makes a similar journey, and no doubt there are many others. It seems that teaching language is fundamentally different from teaching math, or science, or even the grammar and literature of a student's first language, or the dominant language of the community. When we teach a person to think, speak, read and write in a new language, we give them a unique gift. The inside of their head will never be the same.

Friday, September 23, 2011


When we say the goal of language instruction is to "awaken the language learner within each student," what we really mean is "activate the language acquisition device (LAD) within each student's brain."

It is amazing to think about the enormous impact of Chomksky's ideas on modern linguistics. But even more interesting, Chomsky's ideas about education challenge all of us who teach. We all might get so focused on our own subjects and proficiency objectives, that we can forget about the big picture. Our work as teachers makes an enormous impact on the lives of our students, no matter what subject we teach and no matter how briefly we may be working with them. The most important classroom experience can be a momentary breakthrough, a flash of insight, that a person remembers all their lives.

As we are thinking about how games stimulate learning, a nice recap of Noam Chomsky's theory of learning on the New Foundations website caught our attention.

The annual ACTFL conference in Denver is only six weeks away.

Are you attending this year? With the many budget cuts across the country, we wonder whether teachers will be able to travel.

We noticed that the Denver Art Museum is offering a "China Teacher Workshop" on November 1 and 8, so if you are in the area for a few extra days before or after the conference this might be worth checking out.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Games are the enemy of boredom

Boredom. Here is the student, trying to sit still, trying to look only at the teacher or at one's own notes, trying not to be distracted by other students' actions. Annoyed when the class is reviewing material one already knows, or completely at sea when the lesson content makes no sense, and yet if one asks too many questions, the other students will think one is dumb. When will the class period end?

Then -- hooray -- it's time to play a game. Everyone gets out of their desks, moves around, is able to interact and express personality, is allowed to enjoy being human.

Home that evening. What did you do at school today? We played a game.

A year later: Did you learn this material? Yes, we played a game, it went like this. Smiles, remembers, enjoys telling how to play the game. Wants to play it again.

A fun classroom game is not only exciting for teacher and students, it is highly effective for learning!!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Assessments and Readiness

How can we help students to realize that their performance on a test, or any assessment, is not a value judgement on their worthiness as a human being, but simply an opportunity to strengthen neural connections? The preparation for an assessment, the anticipation of questions to answer or problems to solve, and then the pleasurable experience of getting the right answer, or the "Awww....!" of getting an incorrect answer (think of the studio audience on those game shows, they groan "Awww....!" but they don't condemn or ridicule).

Assessments should be experienced as a fun part of learning. Athletes know they must track their progress in order to improve. They also know the coach will not put them on the field if they are not ready. With language proficiency, the progress is often obvious to everyone except the learner. What if the teacher were able to wait and deliver the assessment only when they deem the student is ready? So the assessment can give them that perspective -- "Hey, look what I have been able to accomplish! Wow!"

Memorization and fun

At last people are realizing that memorization "by rote" does not work - not for language learning, and probably not for other fields of study. The students who appear to learn "by rote" are actually making a game for themselves, assigning meaning - even if it's just their own private meaning - to the material they are memorizing.

Why not teach all students to make a game out of learning - and give teachers the flexibility and tools to make the game as much fun as possible, and include all the students?

Mind, Brain and Education

Annie Murphy Paul wrote a nice piece in the New York Times called "The Trouble with Homework," in which she notes that written homework may or may not contribute to learning.

Mass market magazine articles and popular books for business executives, students, and self-improvement wonks, have generated enormous awareness of how various learning and memory systems rely on scientific discoveries about how our brains actually work. 

It is good to see that an academic discipline of Mind, Brain and Education is now recognized as a legitimate and important field of research.

Any serious researcher who would like to visit a QTalk classroom or construct a language acquisition study including the QTalk method relying on visual cues, neuromuscular rehearsal, and the QTalk four steps, is invited to contact us.