Tag Archives: Hermann Hesse

Reflections on learning theories inspired by Nellie Deutsch

I joined an online course with Nellie Deutsch on WizIQ this week on teaching with technology, Nellie is a clear and methodical teacher, more interested in getting you to learn than in exhibiting her knowledge, everything she says is aimed at clearly transmitting ideas and then urging you to go on from there and further your knowledge using all the resources available on the web and also recommended reading.

In her class on Learning theories (https://www.wiziq.com/online-class/1393945-theories-of-language-learning) she covers the six main learning theories and asks us to reflect on these and relate them to our own experience of learning a language and of teaching.

Those of us who have been teaching since the 70s will remember the audiolingual approach. We presented ready made phrases to our students, drilled them, encouraged repetition and got them to reproduce them, usually in response to a given stimulus. I remember my Swedish ladies begging to know the meaning of what we were saying but I did not have the language to translate and so we struggled on repeating parrot fashion. This was useful for greetings and the like but their learning did not allow for creative use of the language. This was based on behaviourism, which is interested in the outcome as exhibited by modified behaviour rather than any thought processes behind it.

We then moved on to universal grammar, Naom Chomsky’s theory of learning. He claims that we have a natural predisposition for seeing patterns in speech, even from an early age. This would explain why an infant is able to generalise a rule and say for example ‘I telled you’. The infant has been able to perceive the –ed past pattern and apply it to her speech. This theory is quite convincing. The implication in the language class is that the learner should be presented with natural language   containing the grammar teaching goal but not explicitly explaining it. She is then led to perceive the pattern, identify the meaning and practise first in a controlled way and then communicatively. Krashen came next with his acquisition theory. Language is assimilated in the same way as a child through experiencing it communicatively. Hence the language texts driven by the aim to present authentic speech and information gap, task based activities.

Then the conversation theory, just by talking in a meaningful context we learn.

We move on to the cognitive approach, explain the grammatical rules, then learners can apply them. Conversation theory powers many of our classes, relating to each other with real interest and responsiveness stimulates emotions and enhances learning. Finally, Schumman’s cultural approach suggests that people are motivated to learn in order to belong to a language community and share their culture. In many text books we can see that the materials reflect the values of a culture, be it British, American or other and learners are motivated to know more about that culture and share in it by learning its language. This is exemplified in immigrants who become more British than the British. However in cases where some ethnic groups are marginalised they create their own version of the language to hold their particular sub-culture together.

I learnt French with the grammar translation approach. Our French teacher also used drilling and repetition. I can remember watching the sinews on her neck jump out as she thrust her chin forward to enunciate the French word ‘rue’. I could not speak a word until I went to France for a month with a French family and came back fluent and of course with perfect grammar. My Italian was learnt on the streets and to this day I am uncertain of a word ending, it never got as good as my French. Thanks Miss Dupont, you really helped me to get great French, however boring your classes were at the time.

So maybe it is a mixture that is required. Fluency should be accompanied with accuracy. I get my students to speak but I correct their significant mistakes. We repeat and drill ,based on behaviourist theories. I share my thoughts and my culture with them, through anecdotes and conversation and we delve into English music, films and literature based on acculturation and conversation theory. Most text books contain a mix of all these approaches and we teachers have to live in this quandary .The answer perhaps is eclecticism . Let them learn by acquisition, ask concept questions rather than giving them the rule. Get students to perform a task, analyse their language use post-task. Engage study practise/ test study practise/ task-based learning.

These days my students are instrumentally motivated. Learning English opens up career opportunities or at worst keeps firing at bay. Knowing English represents power and the English speaking employees are hungry for business jargon. Our CEO peppers his English speeches with idioms to a sickening degree. However in contradiction to this need, when I ask a student what she wants to do, the answer is invariably to converse. Teaching English has taken on a semi-therapeutic role in these stressful times. There are moments when I wonder what happened in the lesson as I am faced with a wall of words, an urgent desire to speak in English and tell me about their lives.’ Is this teaching?’ I wonder as I scrabble to make a note of their mistakes without interrupting the flow. Is there a learning theory behind this? But then there is the safety of the modern text book, underlying each activity is a learning theory, from the controlled practice which is the old style drilling often wrapped in a communicative package, to the assurance of authentic and stimulating texts ..a touch of Krashen? To the induction of rules, Chomsky? We know they have got the rule somewhere in their innate knowledge, it is just a question of dragging it out of them and then of course the book provides plenty of opportunities for conversation. Every base is then covered.

But the learner is changing, the role of teacher is being eroded and internet has opened up new opportunities for the autonomous learner , collaborative learning is undermining the role of the educator and   assessment is shifting into the hands of peers. This new breed of learners is able to perceive the gaps in her knowledge and seek solutions autonomously. As the ability to learn and change becomes a fundamental part of survival in this post-recession age, learning becomes something urgent and life-long. On top of that generations learn differently and the need to develop generational learning theories is a real one. As Moocs and other free online courses become significant learning environments we need to evaluate how learning opportunities are delivered and the kind of learning that takes place.

These are my thoughts after watching Nellie’s class once more. I wrote it last night and I remember every detail. It took the class, a later viewing and then reflexion and a task for these theories to become learnt. At this point, as a learner, I need to decide how deeply I want to go into these theories. How relevant is further information say about Schumman’s theory to my learning needs? How interested am I? This morning I have decided to go on and examine Schumman’s theory, it represents a gap in my knowledge. I would like to revisit Krashen and conversation theory. Behaviourism is familiar to me and does not inspire me.

But any further research should be focussed. Anyway, I ould be interested in Learning about your thoughts on Learning a Language.

Hermann Hesse revisited::I do not consider myself less ignorant than most people. I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams — like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.
Each man’s life represents the road toward himself, and attempt at such a road, the intimation of a path. No man has ever been entirely and completely himself. Yet each one strives to become that — one in an awkward, the other in a more intelligent way, each as best he can.