What Works?

Middle child has a controlled assessment in German next week. He’s predicted A/A* in all of his subjects except German, where he’s currently working at a grade D. I need to do some work with him on his fixed mind set in languages but our conversations seem to stall at “I’m just crap at it”. So I was a little surprised when he came home seemingly unperturbed about his latest challenge. “I just put some of these phrases together and make sure I’ve got my tenses right – I know my tenses – and then I learn it off by heart and write it up. If I can do that, I should pass it,” he says nonchalantly.

He can’t/won’t speak a word of German. He’ll leave school having studied a language for five years, like his brother, who gained a grade B in the subject, unable to communicate on even a basic level with a German speaker. It’s not the fault of his teachers who are enthusiastic and committed. It’s the fault of a system that has prioritised the rote learning of grammar and tenses over the practicality of speaking a language. How absurd. It is no wonder that take up at A Level and University level for languages has fallen. At advanced level, there is an expectation that one can communicate in the chosen language. Surely that’s the bottom line? Well no, because learning in this way ‘Works’. It works for the school – EBacc measures are met. It works for the government – Ebacc measures are met. It does not in any way, shape or form, work for the child in being usefully applicable to his/her future.

It’s an extreme example of how our obsession with passing tests has blinded us to the real purpose of education, which at its most basic level is surely to equip children with knowledge and skills which will help them in some way in the future. Whether this is simply being able to access a classical reference at a dinner party and not feel like an idiot, or if it is to be able to accurately figure out how much carpet you need, time spent in education should produce either joy, interest or useful application. Beauty and utility.

When I hear the words ‘what works?’ I want to ask ‘works for what?’ If it is to simply pass tests, especially when the tests themselves are flawed, we have a very short term vision indeed. We are not equipping children for life. We are crippling them. The recent 75 year longitudinal study from Harvard on quality of life summed up its findings in three words – ‘Happiness is Love’. We should be looking at our education system and asking ‘Does education equip children for love?’ For loving learning, for loving people, for loving life? How much joy is there in being able to reach across a language barrier and connect with another human being? How little joy in learning a paragraph off by heart on healthy living?

Let’s ask again, “what works,” but let’s add to those two words some others: “What works in order to live a full and happy life?”

35 thoughts on “What Works?

  1. The problem of teaching languages in the UK is complex. I visited some Russian specialist language schools some years ago where the approach was very formal. Filing cabinets of worksheets were labelled ‘modal verbs’, ‘countable nouns’ and so on, and the children learned whole phrases and sentences by heart in order to present a semblance of conversation. The difference was the intense motivation of the students, the amount of time given to instruction (8 hours a week in higher years) and the small classes of no more than 20.

  2. Hear hear! Brilliant post. We need to break this wide open. So much of the discourse around “what works” wilfully refuses to address this fundamental concern – what works for whom? It has huge implications for research, but the Research Excellence Framework trammels education faculties by only recognising and funding research that serves the neoliberal performativity agenda. The question is – where to begin? It’s kind of a biggie.

      1. I guess the REF would be one obvious place to begin. That and some sort of sustained and systematic effort to enhance public understanding – I’m not sure many people outside of academia could even put a name to the discredited ideology that underpins all of our woes…

  3. Except….maybe there just isn’t a way right now for him to love German? My French teacher, bless her, did everything in her power to get me enthused about French but I hated learning languages – I still do – and so instead she plumped for an approach much like the one your son has here. She just…TAUGHT me it. Basically, straightforwardly, in a way that made sure I still got great marks. Zip forward 6 weeks from my exams and I was in France and absolutely unable to speak it, even though I got an A*.

    BUT – here comes the twist in the tail – zip forward five years and I find myself in an odd situation where I HAD to speak French (it involved french nuns and the HongKong government, like I say, ODD)….and at that moment, when it really mattered, it flooded back. Why? Frankly, because I had memorised it, even against will, and because the basics of the tenses were in there and so I could vaguely make myself (and the two odd groups) understood to one another.

    Zoom forward another few years and my other half has an Italian family, and my hatred of learning surges forward again. It STILL hasn’t gone away. But, again, those basics that Miss Watson persisted with, and got me that A*, are lurking away in the recesses and they become useful. I can muddle by in Italian waaaaay quicker than expected because of them.

    So, no love of learning for me. Boo hoo. But, under the circumstances, the ‘shoving it in’ approach seems to have worked anyway. Not that I think this means it should be our first approach, but I also wouldn’t lament someone focusing on it for one subject too much either. Balance is likely the most important thing.

    1. 🙂 Yes, I see your point. But I don’t think it’s been shoved in either. It’s in a hand out, ready to be copied out and learned. Not quite the same. I don’t think he’ll be able to do anything other than trot out ‘I have never taken drugs’ in German. But then, could come in handy at border control!!

      1. Well as “the son” you’re in a fine pickle then aren’t you, between whether to agree with your mum or with a stranger on the internet. Obviously your mum wins out, and I’m not here to interfere with that. Might be an interesting science fair project (assuming Science Fair is not just a Canadian phenomenon), investigating what makes people stop at red lights. But to address your mum’s overriding concern, with whatever material you encounter, however you choose to learn it, I see no reason why you cannot expect to retain it to the extent that you need to. I’ve used material in which I got 60% in school to do 100% quality work in later life.

      1. My interpretation of what you’ve written is that he has decided to do exactly what he needs to do to “know.” If you’ll pardon my bluntness, you seem to me to be seeing that through an ideological lens that renders his decision invalid even though it is going to work for him.

        1. The point is he doesn’t know. He’s quite happy that if he copies out what he’s been told to and learns it by heart, he’ll pass, but this is it the same as knowing is it?

      2. Yes, it is the “same as” knowing; in fact, it IS knowing. It is like knowing to stop at a red light; you don’t have to love it. And as far as school is concerned, it is how my parents, for example, learned classic poetry (German, as it happens) that they could continue to recite into their 80s and may only have fully appreciated and “loved” when they reached that age. Which makes another point, you can’t love what you don’t know. If it had not been drilled into them in their teens, they would not have had it in their 80s. Let your son learn this way, He will find things he loves for himself, and the intellectual infrastructure he builds up in learning (yes, he is learning) this German will provide him with a better learning framework for whatever he wants to pursue for love. Having been up many learning curves in my life, I can say with certainty that each successive one is easier because of the scaffolding of the bodies of knowledge acquired earlier (Kieran Egan wrote on this), and love of any of the subject matter did not matter one whit. What it’s really all about is pattern recognition, and German, as I know as a speaker of it, is a very good foundational pattern 🙂 And speaking as mom to mom: recognize what he’s doing right here. He’s finding a way to productively engage with something he’s not all that keen on. His future wife will appreciate this when dishes or 3 am feedings and diaper changes are on the program.

        1. if the next time you come to a red light, you drive through it because you don’t remember then you don’t know it. This is not Mum by the way, this is the son.

        1. Funny how pedagogy is so inconsistent: first grades don’t matter, but then suddenly a D is a disaster. As a mom, I look at my kids’ whole life program in assessing a situation like this and judging how concerned to be. When we think something is bad, the only alternative we can generally imagine is some utopian ideal: ‘A’s across the board. How about something worse: quitting school? taking drugs? lashing out? Not all the important things kids are learning in school are graded. He is learning, as I said, to find a way to productively navigate through something he’s not that keen on, something adults have to do every day (enjoy riding the bus much? No, but you have to get through it). We’re looking here at a kid who is developing a very valuable capacity, and being quite cheerful about it. Who cares what the grade is? If it is indeed a D (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it will in the end be a bit better), then it gives him valuable feedback about his interests and skills right now, and helps him find the next step he will take in life by ruling something out. Obsessing about getting him to do this your way for your results is blocking out the myriad positives there are to observe about this kid, D or no D.

  4. The ‘shove it in’ approach only works if the receptacle is willing. My language teachers tried to force German and French into me in my 1970’s secondary modern, but it was a futile attempt. I was lazy and unreceptive. Yet, no one bothered to try and engage me, or explain why, or give me the chance to speak. Result? Utter and complete failure. I didn’t even bother to sit the exams.

    Lurking at the heart of Debbie’s blog is the question of student agency. A nasty, messy and inconvenient truth. Yet, one that can not be ignored. Those that expect compliance, total concentration, and student engagement with the subject, whatever and however they teach, are doing their students and the profession a disservice. Really, really it is time to acknowledge that teaching is about more than doing the bear minimum and we have a responsibility to make the subjects we teach accessible, meaningful, and real.

    1. I do think the problem is greater than individual teachers and pupils, and the efforts of each. The modern languages teachers in most schools where I’ve worked have battled against a culture of indifference specific to the UK. My daughter experienced ‘immersion’ methods (talk rather than grammar) and was frustrated at not being ‘taught’ anything – but her teachers were just trying to engage the students. It appears we’re now back to a grammatical approach. You can’t say that teachers don’t try.

      1. The reason why it is specific to the UK was once explained to me as this….. Where we learn “modern foreign languages” almost every other school child across the world learns “English”. That’s a pretty straightforward reason for the indifference.

  5. Excellent blog Debra. It has made me think not just about languages but yet again about the thorny question of what works for whom and when? The excellent Madame Roberts and then the (I could never say it in a French accent) Madame HIgginbotham, failed utterly to either get me interested or to pass O level. The the Head of Modern Languages, Mrs Buck asked me if I would like some one to ones to retake in November. She did two things-one, persuaded me that with my excellent memory I could memorise enough vocab to get through the oral with flying colours. I learnt everything I could about camping and persuaded the examiner that I was keen….The second thing she did was chat to me in French over coffee and it was fun. I passed. Now, I am a very keen language learner, and can even get by in Montreal, where their French is frankly, different! I love watching Inspector Montalbano- Avanti! Thanks for making me think on a Friday.
    PS MY brother got ungraded (!!) in French. He now speaks fluent Russian cos work necessitates it.

  6. Complicated area. But, to be ‘useful in the future’ should probably be Chinese, not German (or French). What will be ‘useful in the future’? Over what timescale? etc. etc. As you say, your son is predicted good results in all his other subjects; so, is the lower probable result in German a real issue?

    1. It’s not the point though, and it’s not really about my son or about languages. It’s just that if we are going to be studying something for five years, then perhaps it might be good to be able to use/retain it.

  7. I wasn’t suggesting that the teachers weren’t trying (well mine never did) but that the emphasis on grammar over application has distorted language teaching in Debra’s son’s experience. This is a problem when focusing on exams rather than the purpose of speaking a language. Systems over people. Of course learning the grammar of a language is important, who would say it wasn’t?

  8. My daughter is bilingual English-Russian and now learning German and French. All these languages were/are taught in different ways and contexts, unsurprisingly given the cultural variations. She finds some easier than others, but this is the same for a range of subjects at school. I’m convinced that being multilingual is an asset in the modern world, no matter what standard you achieve in a language.

  9. Language learning (IMO) is all about spontaneity, creativity and fun.
    This leads to long-term retention.
    Students will retain language if it is taught in an engaging way, recapped in different contexts and if communicating spontaneously and creatively in the language is seen as not only part and parcel of the lesson, but also as a fun thing to do.
    Grammar is a vital cog in all this. It should never be learned in isolation but must be fully integrated into the study of the mechanics of the language. Again this can be done in a fun way. Revision of the present tense of Spanish verbs with Year 10 this afternoon involved rapid-fire actions, Simon says, True / False game and (at their insistence) Pass the Pigs.
    They now have a good understanding of regular verb patterns and therefore have the building blocks for creating an infinite variety of sentences.
    The problem lies more with the exam system which reduces students to their default ‘learning by rote’ setting. Even the most gifted linguists learn off-by-heart currently. The sooner we encourage and reward more spontaneity in speaking / writing a modern language, the sooner we will be preparing students for life in the real world, where conversations are not carefully scripted, but created in the moment.

  10. I’m in a similar position but with a daughter being taught by “immersion” with little instruction on grammar! Unfortunately, she only has 50 minute lessons a couple of times a week and is in a class of other English speaking year 10s so it is more of a cold shower than a full immersion! This is not working for her and she is, also, memorising a long passage – on holidays – for assessment.

    My analysis is similar though – that we have been reduced to teaching “what works” for the test – but I would add a further caveat; that children differ in their motivation and approach so need a choice of diverse routes. This is not easy to achieve in England at the moment with enforced changes of syllabus and the assessment strategy changed since she selected her GCSE options back before Easter 🙁

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