28 September 2012

Sometimes fate brings things together in a way that helps illustrate something you've been trying to explain.  But it's not normally fate -- there's usually an intrinsic link.  This time, is was the How-To-Learn-Any-Language forum, which I've been looking in on recently as a result of getting increased traffic from there to this blog.

There was a link there to an interesting project on Kickstarter -- Endangered Alphabets II.  Now I'm pretty broadly in favour of that project, although there's a slight irony in bending the scripts to his chosen medium of wood carving; after all, the diversity of scripts in India is mostly down to the availability of local materials.  Most Indian scripts evolved out of the Devanagari, changing over the years.  Where they wrote on banana leaves, the script was curved (as straight lines would split the leaf).  Others used ink on animal hide, others a clay tablet and stylus, etc.  As a travelling exhibition, perhaps the natural setting would be better, but there's no denying that what he's produced so far is quite beautiful, and the educational side of the project is very much worthwhile.

But any time I look at a project on Kickstarter, I always have a nose around for what else is on offer, and I particularly tend to look at languages.

There's not a lot on the go at the moment, but one project that's seeking funding is called The Simplest Teach Yourself Spanish Textbook, aiming to raise $8,800 (US) to retypeset, illustrate and generally prettify a little textbook that a teacher has produced and uses with her own students.  She tells us in her video that
I use it with all my students, and they tell me that thanks to the simple explanations, things finally make sense.

There's two problems here:
  1. "things finally make sense" -- this implies that we're not talking about true beginners.  That a book is good enough for a false beginner does not imply that it is adequate for a genuine ab initio new learner.  I can't stress this enough -- "I learned more in 5 days with X than in 5 years of traditional classes is a claim that's really hard to prove".
  2. "I use it with all my students" -- therefore we really have no proof of the effectiveness of the book, but merely claimed testimony of Kristen's abilities as a teacher.
IE. there has been no genuine testing of this book.  I was having a discussion on the comments thread on my post Michel Thomas vs Direct Instruction, and I suggested that it's pretty difficult to get people to buy into the full DI philosophy, so the most important point to get across is the importance of trialling the material.  In the case of Kirsten's book, the important thing would be to get it tested with other teachers, not her.  Are the explanations really that clear in the book, or is it something she says when presenting the material in class.  After all, if the explanations were really that clear, why would any teacher be needed?

Furthermore, she wants to spend the money on professional layout and illustrating to make it "even more engaging".  But I ask: what is the pedagogical value of the illustrations?  I imagine the usual response would be to make it more attractive, therefore engaging.  The pedagogical value, I said.  And pseudoscientifically, the answer is "to lower the affective filter".  I say "pseudoscientifically", because it is a claimed based more on belief than evidence.

There has been a constant drive to redesign and reorder books to match the expectations of the learner.  This has led to a culture of boxouts, callouts, side bars and other fancy panels.  Essentially, many textbook writers started to try to mimic the layout of magazines, "because that's what people read".  However, any good magazine designer will tell you that the function of magazines is fundamentally difficult from the function of a textbook.  No-one reads a magazine front-to-back -- they flick through and read fragments of articles before choosing what to read.

This is precisely what you do not want when studying a language.  I've used magazine-layout books with school age kids, and it's very difficult to keep their eyes on the right part of the page.  This book also made several errors in trying to select material that would be "engaging" to students, with exercises that the kids themselves derided as pointless (and justifiably so -- there was a picture of a pair of twins, and the students were to discuss which one of them was called Such-and-such, and which one was called Something-or-other, and justify their choice) and songs that they didn't like (a poor-quality Michael Stipe soundalike singing "Everybody Hurts" painfully off-key was once dismissed as "emo" by a metal-loving teenager).  The pedagogical value of these exercises was limited and the failure to engage student attention would have been self-evident if they trialled it under real-life conditions.

Going back to Kristen's textbook (Spanish is Your Amigo), there is no mention of any revisions due to student feedback since her first Kickstarter project got the early version.  I'm sure there will have been things that needed extra work or explanation, but she's presumably simply answered them adequately in class such that it's not a problem... for her students.  But for anyone else using the book, it will be.  The project does not mention a teacher's manual, which might point out common student problems or suggestions for activities that tie in with the course content.  (It's a poor substitute for making a course that anticipates these problems itself, but it would be a start.)

And that was what I was trying to get across in my comment the other day.  You cannot change someone's view of the fundamentals of teaching overnight, but if you can convince someone to adopt a rigorous testing methodology, you've made progress.

The learning experience for the writer doesn't end when they start doing proper testing, because of course brute-force trial-and-error doesn't work, and the sooner people start testing, the sooner they'll realise they need to think more carefully about planning and design.  And then they'll start looking for information on effective methodologies.

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