Classes suck. But could they be made to suck less? Even, *gasp* worthwhile? A reader named Kurojohn asked me that, and I got carried away with the response, so for the purposes of easier discussion, here it is as an article. First, the question:
Khatzumoto, I know that language classes are not highly regarded by you, and understandably because they often become a barrier to effective language acquisition instead of a help. When I say language classes, I’m not thinking about eikaiwa schools, but courses offered in high schools or universities for academic credit where graded evaluation is a given. I would love to hear your thoughts on possibly how a language teacher in such a situation could teach in a way that is complimentary to this approach instead of a hindrance. How could a teacher encourage and facilitate this kind of approach and still take a graded progress evaluation? Any brilliant ideas? Would love to hear your thoughts, and of course anyone else’s.
I haven’t really been interested in making language classes better, but for what it’s worth, here is my response:
Wow, that’s a really good (and really constructive) question. I’ve spent so long either ignoring classes altogether or talking about how they suck that I haven’t given much thought to how they might be made to work.
As I see it, language is a very all-encompassing thing. Virtually anything and everything could constitute language practice. Part of the reason classes suck is they’re designed to optimize grading and not learning — to be easy to grade, but not necessarily to be easy to learn. “Why should they be easy to learn?” someone might say? Well, because learning is easy. You take one block of information and tie it to another. It’s easy. OK, but you know that already, so what you’re wanting to know is how we might:
>still take a graded progress evaluation
I think something that takes the SRS into account could be key. The teacher could take a student’s SRS database, and randomly select questions from it to produce a test; the random selection could bias toward older information that’s been reviewed a lot, which is even more interesting because it’s older information that usually trips up students. That way, every student could be tested on chunks of information that they actually were interested in [so, if you like Star Trek, more power to you!], and that connected to things that they wanted to know, because that’s what a language is (or should be) for — doing (reading, watching, listening to, writing and saying) what YOU want.
That test, randomly produced from the student’s own SRS, could take several forms to test different skills. There could be a part that just tests reading comprehension (given a sentence, read it out loud). Another part that tests listening comprehension (teacher dictates a sentence to you from your own SRS collection, and you have to write it down). Maybe a little spoken test where the student just talks about one of the materials that were the basis of her SRS entries (so, say she watched Cowboy Bebop, she could explain an episode, or explain the whole series, and answer questions about it); as a cautionary note, this spoken test shouldn’t be about how well the student knows the material in question — that’s not the point of the test — but about her Japanese: can she talk her way through and/or around a complex situation, with natural pronunciation, usage and cadence? Even if you don’t know the word for “spaceship”, if you can say “a space-travelling vehicle”, or you don’t know the word for “bounty hunter”, but can say “people outside of government organizations who catch criminals for money”…even if you forget something, or stumble, if you break out of that stumble in a Japanese way, then that has to count. The essence of fluency isn’t rote. It’s being quick on the old feet.
The SRS combines a lot of features that students and teachers both love. The teachers love the fact that an SRS rewards a consistent effort — not cramming. The SRS can also crunch out numbers that the teachers can combine in a more or less objective evaluation — number of items, number of kanji (variability), kanji frequency (quantity), average length of items, reps per day, adds per day, etc. Simply put, you can’t much lie or cheat past an SRS because it’s all about long-term effort. Furthermore, the teachers are also freed of the burden of making a test, the SRS randomly (and so, in a sense, fairly) creates a test based on the self-directed work of the student. The students, on the other hand, get freedom to choose their materials: no stupid, expensive textbooks, instead, the teacher could have a recommended list, and even build a library of student-suggested materials (books, comics, videos, the whole gig).
It’s the 21st century. People have access to information, to use a hackneyed phrase, “at their fingertips”. You don’t need a textbook, and you don’t need a teacher to give you information. You don’t need a supervisor sternly watching over you with carrot and stick. BUT, a consultant, someone who can tell you the things you can’t look up, someone to advise you on methods, someone to encourage you when you’re down, this is the kind of teacher that is appropriate to the situation we live in now. The teacher need not teach; the students can teach themselves. The teacher just needs to stand back, guide if asked, and evaluate fairly — almost like an uneven mix of coach, line-judge and referee.
Another thing — I’m envisioning this class having little or no class time. Or, it should only meet for administrative purposes — share SRS items, ask the teacher tough questions, borrow materials, share techniques and experiences. The main learning has to be done by the students in their own time; the students should spend less time with each other and more time with native speakers (whether in real life, or in simulo through audio and video); I think that one should always try to be outnumbered by native speakers. In my experience, anyone who thinks that classtime — an hour every weekday with 20 people who have no clue and one person who doesn’t care (to be fair, they may not have enough time to care) — is going to lead to real language proficiency is kidding themselves.
Anyway, thank you so much for that question. If you or anyone else have something that comes to mind, please feel free to add.