George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"Those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed." --Charles Darwin

At an impressionable age, I was sent to a boarding school run by ex-servicemen on strict Victorian principles and the rules of cricket. Corporal punishment and bullying were rife, but the cane was a lesser threat if you were a good cricketer and got good exam grades. You could also reduce the bullying hazard by conforming to accepted behaviours such as Elvis Presley impersonations and participation in the swapping of James Bond literature.

It was a success. I picked up cricket, guitar, and a good number of the banned Ian Fleming books. The cricket instructor, Mr. M, was also the French teacher. He would write vocabulary on the walls as "targets for fielding practice." Teamwork was encouraged, and he would compete against us. Ammunition was coloured blackboard chalk which we threw from a measured distance. Chalk marks were carefully measured and counted. Our French grades were high, and a lifelong love of languages was born.

The Need for Multilinguals

We all know that the key to learning is motivation. Maehr and Meyer and Pintrich have written that it also determines the specific goals toward which learners strive. In the 1960s, language learning was a dry academic exercise confined to textbook exercises. The heady prospect of exciting links with exotic, Gauloise-smoking, wine-growing gastronomes was brushed aside, dismissed as "not needed for the exam." For young minds fuelled by rock'n'roll, the space race, and 007-like international lifestyles, the lack of connection with people in foreign countries was a huge disappointment -- the elephant in our French language classroom.

Today with the abundance of email, social networking platforms, and online language labs, teachers have the tools to provide the global connections we wanted but lacked. But are they being used as effectively as they could be? In recent years, the number of foreign language students has been in decline, with possible serious consequences -- national security issues in the U.S.A. and an annual loss to the U.K. economy to the tune of £48 billion a year, or 3.5 percent of GDP. These trends do not point to a rise of British and American workforces ready for multilingual cross-border trading and diplomacy, nor do they suggest hordes of youths hammering on the doors of language classrooms, burning with the desire to learn new languages and connect with foreign cultures.

Half a century later, at a point in history when the future of the planet could depend on it, are language students now collaborating internationally from their classrooms, or is the elephant still there?

The Rise of Cooperative Learning

A fly on the wall of today's educational institutions will see some changes in methodology. Studies (such as David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson's An Educational Psychology Success Story: Social Interdependence Theory and Cooperative Learning) have concluded that collaborative and cooperative learning methods improve students' time on tasks and motivation to learn. Language teachers are finding that group activities and conversational pairing have distinct advantages over individualised tasks. Students enjoy interacting with each other, particularly in speaking activities, and opportunities to do so are relished. The prospect of school exchanges, making new social links abroad, and exploring new cultures is another powerful motivator. The pairing of language students with counterparts abroad is the next logical step. Working effectively online with native speakers is a challenging and alluring proposition.

There are compelling reasons to prevent this happening. Assessment is more difficult. The evidence to show individual progression achieved directly from paired or group interactions is hard to quantify. Monitoring, recording, and properly assessing individuals' performances in collaborative tasks is more difficult to achieve than the correction and grading of individual tests.

We therefore see an enforced emphasis on solo performances. This is compounded by summative examinations and qualifications which do not give credit for the ongoing building of relationships with native speakers of the target language.

Yet this is at odds with the required end product of any country's foreign language curriculum -- a workforce with the skills to carve itself a useful place in the global economic jigsaw.

A solution to this must lie in new technology now appearing in classrooms. BYOD policies, 1:1 strategies, and "flipped" classrooms are providing opportunities where students who are linguistically, culturally, and geographically different from each other can connect in a meaningful and constructive manner.

Through such structured online interactions, students will grasp the importance of taking responsibility for their own learning and feel empowered to do so, while respecting the opinions and work of online partners. Detractors may cite security issues, cyber bullying, and the superiority of real face-to-face relationships, but network-based collaboration is indeed deemed to provide more equality than face-to-face group work (as discussed by Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec, among others), and the tools required for building the necessary relationships are now well established, secure and student-friendly.

It is high time the elephant left the foreign language classroom.

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Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Merci Monsieur Pierre!

You are spot on, of course. All too often, world language teachers have emphasized structures and tenses, when we have needed to emphasize communicative proficiency, language functions, and cultural contexts as our highest aim. There is a place for structures and tenses, to be sure, but methinks we have put the proverbial cart before the horse, or perhaps the pachyderm, as it were!

In my work on PBL for WL, I have tried setting up connections for my students with other native speakers (i.e., other than me!) by pairing my classes with others in Martinique, Paris and Senegal. The sharing across the globe has validated my students' learning by offering them access to young people who can share with my students insights and phrases currently in use in their part of the world.

I also am blessed to have access to a Francophone community here in Napa Valley. We have had the opportunity to invite people into the classroom as our public audience for students' movies, projects, and presentations. It is so validating to the students to be affirmed by others than just the teacher!

The challenge, of course, is to find ways to set up these kinds of exchanges. It is one thing to reach out to native speakers in our own community. Most resourceful WL teachers can find willing individuals in our own areas, although it is obviously easier for some languages than for others. As for on-line exchanges, that becomes a bit more of a challenge. The teacher needs a safe place for young people to exchange their thoughts and ideas, and in a context where those exchanges can be monitored. I set up my exchanges on Edmodo by posting a note to the French Teachers group. E-pals also offers such opportunities. When one has a friend in the target culture, it is possible to find connections as well.

I wonder what other ideas teachers have to set up such exchanges? How else can we heed the call to which Peter challenges us to respond? Let's share some ideas, and send those pachyderms packing!

Thanks again, Peter, for sharing your insights, cricket and James Bond, not withstanding!



Francine Varner's picture

"It is high time the elephant left the foreign language classroom."
I would say it is time for the herd still in the classroom to leave... I agree with what you mention. I would also say that leadership is not ready to fully "get on with it" and..... money still talks, louder than the elephants now at home in the room. :-)

Fox Lehjika's picture
Fox Lehjika
World Language

Great post! And I agree with Francine. Money is a huge problem. Leadership is all about willingness and capacity to lead. Money can be there when school leaders have an understanding of the world we live in and the world our kids will live in. The understanding will bring a vision and a vision will trigger willingness to not only implement the program, but mostly to fund and to attract, train, and retain skilled teachers.

Fox Lehjika's picture
Fox Lehjika
World Language

By the way, can someone recommend me organizations offering grants to support world language programs?

ChickenJen's picture

All too often, I hear students complain about wanting to learn to speak the language and it being a waste of time to learn all of the other "stuff." I try to explain to them that they have to understand the other "stuff" to be able to do well in college, just as they have to learn grammar in English class. The idea of being able to connect with students whose native language is Spanish (or another) would make the language much more relevant to our students and give them motivation to learn. They could not only practice the language with the students, but could see that those students are having to learn English and probably struggling more with learning the grammar part of our language because it is much more complex. Technology is such a blessing in that it allows for these encounters via chatting, etc. within a learning management system. Instructors would also be able to record the chat rooms, allowing for monitoring and possibly use in the classroom. Teachers would want to make sure the students were given specific topics to discuss/questions to ask, but think of the motivation this would give students to learn and practice the language. I don't know about the cost of a LMS, but there must be other options for integrating these "chats" into language classrooms. Thank you, Peter, for giving us much to think about.


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