Benevolent Dictator or Learning Concierge?

Why do kids fail?
Why won’t they do the work?
Why aren’t kids more motivated?
How do we increase student participation?

Sound familiar?

Yesterday a colleague passed along an email from a teacher in an online language course. One line really started me thinking. “Students don’t have the urgency to complete the tasks because those tasks are not counted for grades. Without the step by step practice, students can’t truly develop the language proficiency.”

I looked at it in a way I hadn’t considered before.

Is the question
“How do we get those darned kids to do what WE want them to do?” (Benevolent Dictator)

or is it
“How do we help learners who have formed personal goals for which knowing another language is going to be vital?” (Learning Concierge)

I think we have to consider both parts of that since they lead to very different places.

We have traditionally focused on the first one exclusively. As teachers we are confident that “we know best”, and so the task is making kids conform to what we know is best for them. This is the control/coercive model that is the foundation of our education system and our efforts. The email noted that “without step by step practice, students can’t truly develop the language proficiency.” To use an expression from my days in Nebraska, Horse puckey! Now I am sure I need to work this into a valid Aristotelean syllogism, but frankly, we know that we can coerce kids into step by step practice but not get the result of language acquisition. We can get them to get good grades, we can get them to complete assignments. In other words, we can get them to do what WE want them to do, but we don’t get language acquisition. :-( We hate this, and for the most part we refuse to acknowledge it as the result, but it seems to me that there is pretty strong data to support it. There are wonderful anecdotal exceptions which make language teachers proud, but the plural of anecdote is not data.
We also would have to admit that many folks who find themselves immersed in a foreign culture acquire language without step by step practice. In fact, the data would make a strong case that the only people that have really acquired a high level of proficiency in another language are precisely those who have NOT had step by step practice — they spoke it at home!

Teaching in the modern era has traditionally been a profession of coercion — how do we get students to do things they don’t want to do but which we want them to do. It seems we employ two main tactics. Carrot and Stick — On the one hand, we try to make what we want them to do entertaining, engaging, relevant, fun, positive recognition, etc. But we always have the stick at our disposal — and they know it. Do it, or else! And the else is always punitive to some degree — bad grades, extra work, public shame, communication with parents. But whether we use the carrot or the stick it is still the consequence of doing or not doing what WE want them to do.

How many kids take driver’s ed because they need an elective credit? They take it because they know they are going to be driving and it will be useful to them (safety, insurance discounts, etc.). Maybe we are fun, entertaining driver’s ed teachers who kids will enjoy, but I bet there aren’t many Old Order Amish kids who take driver’s ed (unless they are planning to one day leave and drive!).

If there are teachers out there who want to explore a gradual shift to a role that might be thought of as a “learning concierge”, let me know.

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