Just get on the bike and ride!

Just get on the bike and ride!

(This is a repost from last year, but I think it’s a good reminder for myself and for new students this year.)

I went to a training yesterday, and this is an analogy that really stuck out to me. Think back to how you learned (or are presently learning) in school. When I think back to my foreign language classes in high school and at the university a lot of what I remember is trying to memorize an almost endless amount of vocabulary lists, conjugating verbs, and doing lots and lots of book exercises. Don’t get me wrong, we also played games, had short conversations, read, watched videos, and other fun and interesting things, but it still seemed like the emphasis was on memorizing, practicing, and then regurgitating what we had (hopefully) taken in. Now, I don’t think that my teachers and professors necessarily meant any harm by this, but you kind of have to wonder just how effective this method (or methods) is when each year fewer and fewer students continued in the program, and many felt unsuccessful. How many people have you heard say, “I just can’t learn a foreign language.”? Perhaps it’s not them. Perhaps it’s the method.

I truly believe that a lot of the problem here is that much of this learning has been focused on learning about the language, and not simply learning by using the language. Now we’re getting to the analogy that I ran across yesterday. Imagine that you want to learn how to ride a bike. For some reason you never got around to it. So, one way is to go get a book about how to ride a bike. You go buy a book, read it from cover to cover, take notes, quiz yourself, and maybe even watch some videos of people riding bikes. You learn everything you can about how to ride a bike.

In scenario two, you decide to just go get a bike, and ask a friend who already knows how to ride a bike to help you out. Your friend encourages you and shows you how it’s done. Perhaps you even start with some training wheels so you can begin to get the feel for it without having to fall too much. But, eventually you take those training wheels off and you ride just a little bit by yourself (with a push from your friend), and you fall down. You get up, wipe yourself off, and try again. This time you go a little bit further before you fall down, but once again you get back up and get back on your bike.

Just imagine that you have two people. One person tries out the first option for a year, and the other person tries out the second option for a year. You could even extrapolate this out to four years or more. At the end of that time period you had both of them get on a bike and show you what they had learned. What do you think the results would be? Who do you think would be better able to ride a bike?

Unfortunately, a lot of the learning that has taken place in our schools is more about learning about things, instead of actually learning by doing. I think this is particularly poignant in foreign language teaching. I have even been guilty of teaching in this way as well. I have tried to teach my students to think about the language, which oftentimes just gets in the way of actually being able to use the language. Now, perhaps at a more advanced level it may be appropriate to teach about the language (or maybe not- how many of you really have to think about how English works at a conscious  level to be able to use the language well?), but considering the small amount of time that we have with students as it is, teaching about the language is of limited value if I really want them to be able to learn to use the language. It’s time to turn over a new leaf!!! It’s time to just get on the bike and ride!

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