Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Covert Operations

by AJ

"In good video games, overt telling is kept to a well-thought-out minimum, allowing ample opportunity for the learner to experiment and make discoveries".

--James Paul Gee

Much of what passes for "student centered" education is anything but. Ive noticed that many teachers implicitly define "student centered" as a lack of "teacher talk". They put their students into groups or pairs, give them a "focused practice" drill to do together, then roam around listening to students.

Id hardly call that student centered. In fact, it seems totally teacher centered... despite the teacher's silence. The teacher, after all, chooses the "grammar point". The teacher chooses the highly structured (artificial, contrived, context-less) activity. Whether or not the activity has any meaning to students makes no difference.

Student-centered, in my mind, refers to a process in which the students are encouraged to experiment, probe, choose, and make discoveries... in which the language has context and deep meaning for them. Overtly explaining a "grammar point", then drilling it, has nothing to do with discovery or meaning or even usefulness.

Far better, I think, to let students wrestle with authentic materials... be they books, articles, movies, TV shows, actual conversations, songs, whatever. Rather than explain the grammar in a fragmented way... let them discover it through exploration... by exploring a piece of authentic language that THEY find interesting. As they probe, they may encounter unfamiliar words and grammar structures. Often, they can figure out their meaning on their own.. by using dictionaries or context... or, by directly asking an "expert" (ie. native speaker).

Language discovered in this way tends to "stick" much better than the meaningless language memorized from textbooks. I think video games provide an excellent model in this regard. Few game players bother reading the manual that comes with the game.... and even if they do, most are very short.. giving only the most basic information.

Most gamers jump right in and learn as they go. They tend to use the manual (or game guides) as a reference.. something to consult when they are completely stuck, have tried many failed approaches, and just cant solve the problem. Then they may consult a guide to help them move on.

That is a good model for the use of a grammar book.... something to be referenced only AFTER a learner has become stuck.. has tried many ways to decode the meaning of a piece of language.. and cant seem to solve the problem. Only then might they consult the grammar book... to use it to understand a meaningful authentic piece of language. Then, they put away the book and return focus to communication and meaning. Even in this case, they are using the text in a very different way than the traditional approach. Rather than viewing the grammar text as primary... a bible to be memorized... they see it only as a reference tool... something to consult should they hit a puzzle they cant solve by themselves.

Apart from being a more affective way to learn a language... this is also a much more interesting method. This kind of student spends her time immersed in authentic meaningful language: watching interesting movies, reading fun books, listening to real interactions. The traditional student, on the other hand, spends most of his time in drudgery: memorizing grammar "rules", memorizing lists of translated vocabulary, doing "focused practice" drills.... in other words, doing boring and routine activities, divorced of context and meaning, in a rote fashion.

The next step for my teaching, I realize, is to find ways to maximize the discovery process... and minimize the overt telling I do. Ive got a lot of thinking to do on this subject. Its time for me to do a lot of probing & experimenting as a teacher...

San Francisco, CA