I’m going to make kind of a bold claim: I don’t think teachers really impart a whole lot of knowledge to their students.
Yes, we provide guidance, and scaffolding, and advice and so on, but if your goal is to move a list of facts from one brain to another, a teacher in a classroom is not all that useful. Books, documentaries, radio programs, and games are all a lot better at that. The real purpose of a teacher is to help students learn, and that’s actually very different from putting ideas into a person’s head. Teachers are at their best when they provide students with a new way to think, a new framework for understanding the world and organizing the knowledge that they themselves build.
If you’re not a teacher, the last paragraph probably sounds really hippy-dippy and lame. Bear with me on this.
I had a teacher in elementary and middle school named John Buissink, and he really had a profound impact on how I think about the world. In his classroom, everything seemed interesting. Everything was worthy of thinking about and going over. At the time, we teased him for going off on tangents, but now I look back and realize what a valuable lesson that was. Mr. B was telling us that the world is interesting. Sure, I learned some facts about inclined planes and Latin declension and how to structure a spy novel, but the core lesson was always be learning about everything.
Every year we participated in this international event called Future Problem Solving. They gave us scenarios, like ‘the cashless society’, and had us sit in groups and think about them in an organized way. Actually, a very organized way.
We sat down together and brainstormed possible challenges that might arise from the topic. We decided on what the “main underlying problem” was, brainstormed solutions, and then evaluated those solutions based on criteria we developed. Then we presented a detailed plan on how we could implement our solution to the future problem we identified.
What a clever thing to put in front of students! This is practical, well-designed training in how to think critically and creatively within a short period of time, while managing the social concerns of group work. It teaches students how to engage with one another, evaluating their own ideas and those of their teammates with rational criteria that they themselves define. For my money, Future Problem Solving is the very model of a constructivist pedagogy, situating the teacher not as the source of all knowledge and wisdom, but as a coach who helps students to develop their own potential.
And for a language classroom? You’ve got students engaged in talking with one another, writing down their ideas in an organized and semi-guided fashion, talking about their own ideas and things that are important to them.Instead of a vague feeling of having practiced some phrases, students are left at the end with concrete evidence of their efforts, in the form of a plan of action for tackling a real world problem, developed in their second language. You, the teacher, can hop around from group to group, offering language support, encouraging quiet students, and monitoring their progress.
If you’re teaching one of those standard 90-minute college courses, challenge yourself and your students to reach beyond the typical dialogue practices, and really put their language skills to use. Don’t just give them a few more phrases and send them on their way, but change the way the think about challenges. Teach them to be proactive and rational and critical in their thinking. Change your students’ lives, the way John Buissink changed mine.