Changing How We Look at Language Education

A few weeks ago, I received a very exciting email:

It came from Rachel M. Paling, a famous language coach and language learner who created the method called Neurolanguage Coaching® and one of the first-ever language coaching certifications in existence, accredited by the International Coach Federation and known as the ELC Language Coaching Certification®.

The email was an invitation to take part in the 2nd Neurolanguage Coaching Conference, which will take place in Edinburgh, Scotland, from 2nd to 4th May 2018.

She wrote:

The 2nd Neurolanguage Coaching Conference will be an interesting forum to bring people interested in neuroscience and education together to share information relating to learning, coaching and neuroscience. This will enable an exchange of information, new insights, networking and brainstorming to take place.

As soon as I read Rachel’s message, I was immediately on board, as the conference promises a unique and organic perspective on three disciplines that are close to my heart: language learning, neuroscience and coaching.

(If you’d like to learn more about this conference—and possibly attend yourself—check out this excellent video:

 

These disciplines are the very same ones that I’ve spent most of my life trying to understand. I’ve been a language learner for several decades now, and when I became a language coach over five years ago, I became more interested in how understanding neuroscience could lead to better learning outcomes for my students and myself.

Learning languages has immensely helped me figure out what it really means to learn, and have given me a practical tool to better understand how many of the most important mental mechanisms work.

But before I delve into the content of the conference and my role within it, let me explain why this invitation means so much to me…and how attending this conference could be of great benefit to you as a language learner.

A Revolutionary Change in Perspective

It is the late 1990’s. I had just returned home from university, and was completely devastated. I had just flunked the most difficult exam of my entire life.

The topic was General Physics. As a student in an Electronic Engineering program, it was an exam that I was required to pass. But I didn’t pass—I failed. Not just once, either, but twice in a row.

I voiced my frustration to my father, who himself is a refined mathematician and engineer. I even showed him the exam paper, along with the exact question that had completely stumped me during the test.

“This is actually pretty simple,” he said.

I was aghast. “Easy for you to say,” I thought.

But in that moment, he took me aside, and showed me how easy it actually was. Not by answering it for me, but by asking me smart question after smart question until, just like that, the answer appeared in front of me. Amazing.

In minutes, my father helped me discover an answer to a problem that I had been agonizing over for hours prior, thinking it was impossible.

But how did he do it?

Or rather, how did I do it?

How could I have thought the solution impossible one minute, and then have it stare me right in the face the next?

My father showed me that it all boiled down to perspective. Whether or not the answer appeared to me was not a matter of raw skill, or talent, but of the point of view I was taking in the moment.

That lesson resonated with me strongly, and inspired me all throughout the rest of my time in university. Instead of trying to master subjects and solve problems through sheer force of will, I changed my perspective, and decided, as the saying goes, to “work smarter, not harder.”

Instead of trying to study everything, I focused on fewer, more essential subjects. I went through these foundational elements of the subject matter until I knew them backwards and forwards, and then used that knowledge to better understand everything else. Soon, I began to see patterns in the material, and to think critically about how it these patterns and pieces fit together. Everything became much easier.

With new lessons learned, I sat that General Physics exam one more time. This version was harder than the last.

Even still, I passed, with flying colors.

From that day forward, I was a believer. I knew that there was a better, more effective way to learn, and it was not the boring and unrewarding way that I had been taught in school for the majority of my life.

The truth of the old method seemed to be “either you’re smart enough to get it, or you’re not smart at all.”

The new method, however, held a much more inspiring truth: “You can learn anything, so long as you take the right perspective towards learning.”

A Look Back at Formal Education

Those lessons I learned after that talk with my father were shocking and groundbreaking for a number of reasons, perhaps most of all because I had actually discovered them years prior, but had never thought to apply them to my learning at school or university.

You see, by the time of that General Physics exam, I had already learned to speak five foreign languages well. Aside from my native Italian, I spoke English, French, Spanish, German and Dutch, all at comfortable levels.

At the time, languages were just my hobby. I didn’t learn them how I was forced to learn school subjects; I just learned them in the way that was most enjoyable for me.

To summarize my methods:

  • I chose to learn languages that were the most interesting to me personally.
  • I developed a method that worked with my lifestyle, interests, and goals.
  • I learned only from the material and resources that I liked the most.
  • I practiced my languages every single day, on my own schedule.

Since I managed to learn to speak five languages in just over ten years, it is clear that these strategies worked, at least for me.

Why, then, when I was achieving such great results with self-study techniques, was I struggling to master subjects taught in university, the very institution designed to help people learn complex topics?

After lots of thought and deliberation, I believe I’ve determined three specific reasons why schools have become an inefficient place to learn:

  • The school system uses old, out-of-date educational models.
  • The school system encourages the memorization of facts over the development of practical skills.
  • The school system uses a classroom-model that is based on competition, and not cooperation.

Improving an Out-of-Date Model of Learning

The school system hasn’t changed much in the last two hundred years.

In the majority of cases, the classroom is still a cramped space where up to thirty children at a time are force to spend a half hour or more each day, trying to learn as much as they can from one person.

That one person is the teacher, who acts as the “source” of all knowledge, and is given the possible task of ensuring that every student in the room gets a good grasp of whatever facts are being taught that day.

This is despite the fact that every student in that room has different aptitudes, likes, dislikes, preferred modes of learning, and more. In the classroom, learning is mostly “one size fits all,” and the individual strengths and desires of each student are minimized in the hopes that all students can “learn” the latest topic before the curriculum forces the teacher to move on to the next.

This old model is built on the premise that individual differences and learning styles are irrelevant, or at least too unpredictable to allow the teacher to move through the curriculum in a timely fashion.

This model clashes heavily with the environment that allowed me to learn all of my languages. That environment, as I discussed in the last section, was one of choice, freedom, and desire, all built on the back of my personal strengths and the things that I wanted to do with my learning time.

What I would like to see is a shift in the classroom model that moves closer to the freedom of self-study. This would potentially include:

  • Fewer students in every classroom.
  • Greater variety of courses, curriculum topics, and learning objectives.
  • Greater flexibility in how each student is allowed to meet his or her learning objectives

Promoting Skill Development over Memorization of Facts

A large part of the school experience has to do with the memorization of raw, dry facts.

  • In math and science, we memorize formulas and equations
  • In history, we memorize dates and names
  • In language class, we memorize words and conjugations

Though a certain amount of memorization is necessary in any discipline, it doesn’t lend well to the acquisition of practical skills, which are essential for personal growth.

This is especially true in the field of languages. I’ve met so many people who have spent countless hours in school memorizing Spanish verb forms or English vocabulary words, and yet they can’t string together a single sentence in either language. They can still list off the random word here and there, but they can’t actually speak.

That’s a terrible shame, especially when you consider that these same people have spent years of their lives in language classrooms.

What students in school need more than facts are practical skills that will benefit their lives and the lives of others once they graduate beyond the school system.

These don’t need to be restricted to languages, either. Some useful skills that I believe should be taught in schools are:

  • How to manage your own finances
  • How to thrive in social situations
  • How to think critically
  • How to tolerate those who are different from you
  • How to stay organized
  • How to manage and relieve stress

These are all skills that many adults in this day and age are sorely lacking. These skills are almost universally useful in modern society, yet to develop them requires being fortunate enough to grow up in a context that will teach them to you.

If the educational system prioritized skill development over the teaching of dry facts, I believe school could be that very context. But it isn’t yet.

Encouraging Cooperation over Competition

For most students, the most stressful part of school are the grades they receive as evaluations of their academic performance.

These grades (usually letters or numbers) are meant to represent how well a student performed on a given task or assignment. Typically, these grades are recorded over time and their accumulated total is gathered in a report card or permanent transcript. This transcript can then influence opportunities that these students have both within or beyond the educational system.

The importance and permanence of these grades are what foster an atmosphere of competition in modern-day schools. Students practically need to get good grades, otherwise they risk jeopardizing many of the opportunities they will have in post-academic life.

So they spend many hours studying and cramming, stressing themselves out in the hopes that they will receive the desired letter or number grade on their assignment. Even worse, some try to circumvent this stress by cheating, which encourages the same practice in adult life.

In my opinion, I don’t believe that this stressful and competitive atmosphere helps the development of well-rounded, effective learners. This is because learning is not a performance, but a process which improves progressively over time, so long as time and effort are expended.

Mistakes are not to be avoided, but encouraged, so that learners can use the feedback from these mistakes can become more effective and more skilled at what they want to do.

If schools were to promote an environment wherein students worked together to support each other, and provide constructive feedback and other input on learning tasks, I believe students as a whole would become much more capable, and willing to take risks in the name of learning and developing their capabilities.

 

Conclusion

What you’ve read so far are just a few of my key opinions on how to improve the educational system for the modern day, particularly in the realm of language learning.

I’ve suggested many tweaks and changes, but believe me when I say that I still believe the formal education system can still be of immense value for learners.

At the Neurolanguage Coaching Conference, I will be further discussing my thoughts on the matter in my talk, titled:

How to Energize Language Learning at School to Bring Better Results: 7 Golden Rules

During that talk, I will be bringing my experience as a language learner and coach to bear, in order to show students and teachers:

  • How learning a new language can change their life for the better.
  • How to develop enthusiasm and proactive habits around language learning.
  • How to promote language learning as the development of practical skills.
  • How to start using a language effectively, even from the beginner stages.
  • How to choose interesting and relevant language learning materials.

Written by Luca Lampariello

 

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