I’ve worked as an educator of some kind for almost fifteen of the last sixteen years–and as an instructional content developer during the short time when I was not teaching–I have had a great deal of time to consider the work from a philosophical angle. My deepest belief is that teaching works best when students are motivated, passionate, and excited about the subject matter of their studies, to the point where they view and experience learning as a shared adventure in itself.
However, it’s also true that, at the same time, there are basic skills and structures that you need to master–particular structures and patterns you need to be able to use anytime, and particular expressions and words you’ll need to memorize. The problem is that people usually focus on these things, and not on learning how to actually speak. Why is this?
I think the biggest problem is our learning environments. Classrooms and the systems they’re built around push aside and minimize what helps us learn. Where students ought to be fascinated by (and learn from) their mistakes, they are instead afraid for their grades; where language ability ought to be seen as a means to the end of greater self-expression, it becomes an end in itself; where motivation ought to be harnessed from within students, it often is imposed instead from without by explicit grading rubrics.
But, of course, we can’t easily get rid of grading systems, classrooms, and classes… so we have to find a way to work around these limitations.
Creativity, Motivation, and Performance
The biggest mystery about creativity is why some people act in creative ways, and others don’t. Most of the serious research into creativity shows that the real reason for this is motivation, since when we look at what’s going on in the brains of people creatively painting pictures or writing music, we see the same kinds of brain-activity as we see when people are problem-solving everyday, normal problems.
Many things make it seem like motivation makes the biggest difference. People who are motivated from within to explore and experiment–with a musical system, a form of dance, a literary form, or a language–tend to make greater and broader progress more quickly than those whose whose motivation is external–in the form of, say, graduation requirements.
This is important for language teaching. Language isn’t just “words and rules”: it’s also communication. So if you want to learn a language, you can’t just learn the words and the rules: you need to get better at using the language to actually communicate, too. So it’s important to be open to taking risks and experiencing failures, to learn to master your performance anxieties, and to “have something to say.”
So I think the following things are necessary for successful language teaching: