My principal was coming in to my classroom last year for a required unannounced observation. Beforehand, she asked me how she could be of help, what to look for. I responded:
Hi Beth –
I thought of something for you to look for when you come in. Look and see what the kids are focused on. What part of their brains do you see them in at any given moment during class? It would be that they are either a) thinking about the language or that they are b) focused on the meaning of what I am saying. (They can’t do both.) That would be a good thing to help me with.
Thanks for the idea. To be really helpful, I could use a little insight about how that looks. What should I look for that might indicate thinking about the language as opposed to focusing on the meaning. They are fairly closely related, yes?
This is a very fertile question and goes to the very core of the change we are in.
Indeed, it is not easy at all to look at a bunch of students and tell what is going on in their brains. So we use tests. But that doesn’t work in languages, as I hope to make clear below.
Formative, on-the-spot assessment in real time is the only way I know how to gauge learning in my foreign language classroom. Yet, when we do language instruction based on comprehensible input, some students may look as if they are not involved but are, and vice versa. So how to assess their growth? What to do? If they can conjugate a verb, does that mean that they know the language? All sorts of problems occur when we talk about assessment in the new comprehensible input based classrooms that are happening all over our country these days.
I have two students, one in the class you observed in the fall, who just doesn’t look anything like they are with me, processing and being involved, but they are, and deeply. So it really is tricky. How to see what is going on, how to be able to tell if they are learning in the real way?
The first thing is to look in their eyes. The eyes are always the best source of information about how things are being processed in a student, far better than tests in my field, because tests can be prepared for via memorization, and languages cannot be memorized, they must be acquired in the narrow and deep way. So I would ask you to try and see if my students’ eyes reveal that they are truly focused on the message I am conveying, or are they not?
When the child is focused on the words and the language*, it is all futile for them because the conscious mind literally cannot keep up with the flow of spoken words as they occur, no matter how slowly I speak to the class. My speech is all a blur to their conscious minds (which they use with such success in all their other classes in school) but is easily picked up and processed (during sleep) by the unconscious mind.
So the trick in the language teaching of the future is to speak in such an interesting way that the kids forget that it is in another language and instead are totally and completely focused on what is going to happen next, and this happens in the realm of the unconscious mind.
Another thing to look for is in their body language and how they respond to questions. If they are thinking and in their heads, analyzing and focused on the words as words (vs. the goal of getting them focused on the message), then you will see a certain robotic quality in their interaction with me. They are not showing up for what language is – the negotiation of ideas between human beings (vs. the old way of studying the language by analyzing words on paper, which only a few out of a hundred kids can do succesfully in a language class as history has shown us).
In fairness to them, some kids have never been asked to do the human interaction thing in schools, so it is understandable when some fight back by shutting down.
Unless a child has learned – and this is my job in the classroom if they haven’t learned how to do it at home – how to play the rich game of human interaction that is required for language acquisition to occur in the real way, they cannot learn.
In the new model of foreign language teaching, the first successful model, in my view, in schools in the history of education (although stories as teachers of language have been around for as long as mankind has), we see the kids involved on an emotional level.
So please look for those things, for an almost palpable excitement on the part of the kids to know what happens, and look in their eyes, when you come to visit. My main goal as a teacher is to reach my kids with real instruction, with instruction that aligns with actual research, and not with instruction as handed down to generations of teachers by the textbook companies.
I want to be able to provide my students with a class that is fun and really involves them, so that they can feel really good about themselves and their ability to learn a language, which, as we know, hasn’t always been the case in my field.
To formally restate: I want to be able to gauge, as I assess formatively in each moment of class, if the students’ minds are focused on the message and not on the vehicle used to deliver it.
So all of a sudden thinking in the classroom becomes the enemy because it is a conscious activity! How can the single driving force of language acquisition – the unconscious mind – function if it is elbowed out by another part of the brain, the conscious part? This is so little understood by everyone in our field.
*All this is as per the research. Krashen leads the way on that, but Lev Vygotsky, Bill VanPatten (Michigan State), Wynne Wong (Ohio State, Simon Belasco (NW Conference on FLT), Sandra Savignon (U of Illinois) and a host of others concur that the unconscious mind is the key player, the sine qua non, in the language acquisition game.