Saturday, 6 December 2014

The importance of experience

I often talk about evidence on this blog (the name is a giveaway) but experience also has an important role. My various experiences as a language learner shape everything I do. Like most everyone, I generally get my opinions initially from my emotions, not from anything empirical. 

For example, I studied GCSE French in school because I used to love French in secondary school. I thought I was pretty good at it. Clearly my teachers disagreed. A few weeks into the course I found out I was in the bottom class and dropped out. I figured I'd never be any good at languages so I did music instead.

To this day, while the rational part of my brain tells me that levels are necessary and important my experiences makes me hate them. 
I studied a lot!

In summer 2000, I started my first teaching job in Japan with zero Japanese. In winter 2004 I passed the 1 kyu (now N1) Japanese test, the highest level of the test. This isn't to brag...well, OK, it is , yeah me! But it's also to say that everything about that experience colours my attitude toward teaching. I've done, what many of my students set out to do. I'm the "after" photo of slick advertising campaigns. and everything I do is filtered through the prism of being a language learner.

Firstly, I had no classes. I didn't attend a school, have a textbook or get a tutor. This makes me suspicious about the value of these things. That's right, I'm suspicious of the value of people like me. Research suggests that Instruction can aid language learning but It's also possible that teachers can potentially also do a lot of harm to students. So another conclusion from my experience is that an ineffectual but 'nice' teacher is much better than a teacher who bores students or embarrasses them. 

I also never found out what my 'learning style' was, I didn't know which was my dominant 'intelligence' nor did I meditate on the 'here and now'. What I DID do was study a lot of Japanese words with flash cards, listen to a ton of people talking and singing in Japanese and tried to speak (and drunkenly sing karaoke) as often as I could; Lots of input, lots of studying, lots of practice and high levels of motivation and encouragement.  

Every week I see articles extolling the virtues of the flipped classroom, reflective practice, discovery learning, Dogme and technology. Many of these posts are passionate, articulate and convincing but my experience tells me they are also often peripheral and "A balance is needed between ancillary concerns and the central language teaching priorities that they are ancillary to" (Swan, 2013:170). In order to learn a language students have to learn the language

The problem with all this is though is that experience, isn't always a great guide for what we should be doing. What worked form me may not work for someone else. I've seen some kids come out of 6 years of grammar translation classes with great English. Experience is powerful but it can also mislead us. We can see what we want to see, and also be unwilling to change our minds. And yet many teachers happily accept 'experience' as a good enough justification for just about anything. But this argument cuts both ways. 

I know many English teachers who, while claiming to know the best way to learn a language have failed to do so themselves, despite many years abroad. If 'experience' is going to be our benchmark then where does that leave teachers like this? Would anyone claim that these teachers are not as capable as those who have mastered a foreign language? And if it doesn't matter, why doesn't it matter? 



  1. hi

    if i follow are you saying "experience" should be secondary to "evidence"?
    that there are many teachers who prefer "experience" to any "evidence"?

    maybe what is preferred by such teachers is value judgements, which "experience" along with "evidence" can help in making such judgements?


    1. I would say there are many many teachers who, while I won't go as far as saying prefer experience to evidence, certainly rubbish 'academic research' if it doesn't line up with what they want to do/what they think right.

      I don't think experience should be secondary to evidence, they are both' evidence' in a sense. I think relying too much on experience is very dangerous though.

    2. thanks russ,

      yes i guess it depends if you see such teachers as incorrectly evaluating evidence as a mismatch with their educational goals?

      by the way what does Swann say are the "central language teaching priorities"?


    3. I'm not sure he specifically lists his philosophy of teaching anywhere, but this is as close as I've seen him come.

  2. " In order to learn a language students have to learn the language." a great truth which much (not all) methodological innovation is but an attempt to break dance around.

  3. I think this post has some similar points about learning vs being taught. I think maybe I've always suspected that going to class is like asking someone to be your personal chef plus trainer instead of just eating healthily and exercising by yourself, like most fit people do.