This Essay uses concepts developed in the Essay "The Brain - Thinking", which should be read first. "Teaching" could have been part of that Essay, but because the subject is of such general interest I have chosen to devote an Essay to it alone.
The "Fresh Look" tools to be used in this Essay are:
- Splitting the process of one person teaching another into very fine slices and discussing each slice separately, in the same way an engineer defines a system.
- The "neurological" viewpoint. Looking into the brains of the teacher and the student to see how the knowledge is stored and how it is transferred.
- The "motive" viewpoint. Which of the fundamental drives come into play in teaching and learning?
- "Communication theory" (see "Tutorial")
You had met him on the bus climbing up the mountain on the last lap of your journey to the ski-resort in Austria. The only other Englishman on a bus filled with festive Germans, all in the latest ski gear, he stood out in his shabby blue anorak. Len his name was and from somewhere north of the Tweed by his accent. Pleasant enough but not very talkative. Yes, he had been to Kreutztal before and had had a few skiing lessons. No, he had his own boots, but hired the skis. You looked up at his worn boots on the luggage rack in a plastic supermarket bag and then thought smugly of your new Sorbo-fit Autoloks. When the bus arrived at the market square you parted - he for his Pension and you to the Kreutzhof Hotel, vaguely arranging to meet at the bottom of the main ski-lift next morning at 8am.
You are there next morning at 8:15am, standing by a small group of athletic young Germans in ski suits talking together boisterously and watching the first skiers clump on to the swinging chairs of the ski-lift to be whirled aloft. Suddenly one of the Germans in the group says something and they all stop talking and look up the ski slope. You follow their eyes and see the black dot of a solitary skier high, high up, just below the tree-line but descending rapidly. He is swinging from side to tall feathery plume of snow which glitters in the slanting rays of the early morning sun. As he approaches his trajectory straightens and he visibly accelerates, crouched down over his skis, sticks tucked under his arms, moving like a bullet and heading directly down for us. You look nervously at the other members of the group but they are watching unconcerned. The compact figure approaches closer and closer at a tremendous speed and we can now hear the hissing of his skis. At the last possible moment, when it seems inevitable he will plough into our group, he turns abruptly to the left in a dramatic sliding Christiana and stops suddenly in a shower of forward-thrown snow. One of the girls shouts to him, brushing snow from her hair. Pulling his gloves off he says something back and they all laugh. He now bends down to unfasten his skis, straightens and pushes up his ski goggles. It is Len! With ski goggles on his forehead and dressed in a slim fitting nylon suit he looks like a ski instructor. The eldest of the group asks a question and listens respectfully as Len points back up the slope explaining something in apparently perfect German. The group then shoulder their skis and move off towards the lift, one of the girls looking backwards over her shoulder at him. You instantly resolve to learn to ski and speak German as well as Len.
You have no doubt that it is possible, you have "learnt" many things before. The only questions in your mind are those concerning who the teacher will be, how much will it cost and how long it will take. But if you think a bit, it really is remarkable that it is possible for someone to teach you a skill without you having to go through all the boring and time-consuming steps of learning it yourself by trial and error. This ability to learn a skill from someone who has it must surely be one of the main reasons for human progress.
So you start to look for a Teacher, and Teachers are found in Schools. In order to avoid meaningless generalizations and to focus the discussion, I am going to assume that the first task you set yourself is to learn to read, write and speak German. I also assume your mother tongue is English.
A "block diagram" of a typical School is shown below.
This organization inputs Students who cannot speak German, slightly modifies their brains and outputs Students who can speak German. This brain modification is done by Teachers in the controlled environment of a Classroom. The Students pay for this service.
The School also inputs people who already have had their brains modified so they can speak German. The School slightly modifies their brains further so that they can pass on this skill and become Teachers of German. Teachers are paid by the School for their services by some of the money received from the Students.
This is the overall picture. First note that as in any good organization there are initial and constant checks (feedback loops) to ensure it functions correctly. Teachers are not allowed into the classroom until they have been selected and trained. Their performance is constantly monitored and if necessary they are retrained or rejected. Students are also selected and their performance monitored. If they cannot follow the course they are reassigned to another course or rejected.
How must the School change your brain?
Let us first examine the differences between the brain of Len, who can speak German, and your brain, who cannot yet. Your teacher is going to have to somehow change your brain so it resembles the part of Len's brain that enables him to speak German.
As explained in the essay "The brain - thinking", our brains are conceptually quite different from a modern or "von Neumann" digital computer which has roughly speaking a memory section and a calculating section. The program we want a digital computer to perform is first loaded into the memory section (typically taking a few seconds) and then the computer pulls it out bit by bit as required to perform the task it controls. But our brains are unfortunately not like digital computers in this respect. Don't expect to be able to look into Len's brain and find a small "SPEAKGERMAN EXE." program in one corner.
Knowledge in our brains consists of a mesh of extremely complicated "paths" or networks hooking together many, many neurons and these networks comprise everything we know. I am not using an analogy here - these are actual physical connections between neurons and our ability to learn means our ability to "wire up" these neurons ourselves. It is theoretically possible to look into someone's brain and find a network which corresponds to some "fact" that he has remembered.
When we wish to remember some new piece of information (to build a new network in our brain) we first look around in our brain to find a network which is as similar as possible to what we want to remember and then just "add on" the extra bits. We say we "associate" the new knowledge with the old. This still leaves the old networks (the old knowledge) unaltered, of course. The "newer" the new information is, the more new connections have to be wired up.
These new connections will normally very quickly disappear (short-term memory) unless we do something about it. If we want to make them permanent we must use them. If the network corresponds to a word we say it over and over to ourselves. A melody is learnt in the same way. An action is learnt by doing it over and over again. See cowboys practising their lightning draw.
Something is said to be difficult to learn if lots of new connections have to be made - in which case the new network may have to be wired in a bit at a time. Like learning to swim. The arm movements first, then the feet and then both together.
Something is said to be easy to learn if a very similar network already exists in your brain. Badminton, squash and tennis are very similar - learn one and you're in a fair way to be able to play the others. The easiest thing to learn is when someone points out that with just one or two new connections you can join together two large networks in your head that you hadn't realized were so close. This is called Insight. (See “The Brain - Thinking")
We use our brains by jumping from one "concept" network to another "concept" network to (say) a "muscle-control" network. If some chain of reasoning or action is often used, the paths joining the various networks become strengthened so we can jump from beginning to end without thinking of the intermediate steps, in the same way a path gets worn across a grass field by constant use. This is the physical basis of learning. (Think of all the steps you had to take when your driving instructor told you to "turn right here" - change down, signal right, check oncoming traffic, check rear-view mirror, wait for a gap in the traffic, give gas and enter the turning, straighten out and change up ... Now you can turn right while you are arguing with your passenger, tapping your head at an aggressive taxi-driver and noticing that pretty girl at the bus-stop).
So if we were able to look into Len's brain we would find a lot of extra networks hooked into the rest of his brain (the equivalent of a German-English dictionary and grammatical rules), plus a lot of well-worn paths joining them up to the muscles controlling his speech organs. But if you looked more carefully you would find there were some small but important differences between the paths in Len's brain and the paths in the brain of a German. But of this more later.
If you want to learn German you must somehow duplicate these networks in your brain. The easiest way is to visit a teacher and he will modify your brain so it looks like Len's.
"Most theorists attribute at least 3 stages to memory function: immediate, short-term and long-term. Immediate memory seems to last little more than a second or so. For example, subjects may be asked to remember where specific objects are located within a complex array they have just seen. Their performance shows that considerable information is retained only briefly, rapidly fading unless it is given special attention.
Short-term memory lasts about 15-30 seconds, as after looking up a telephone number. You start to dial, discover you have forgotten the number (perhaps in the middle of dialling), and have to look it up again. Nevertheless, such short-term retention does make information available long enough to be rehearsed; if the learner repeats it to himself the number can be transferred to some sort of longer term storage.
The rehearsal seems to facilitate the transfer of data from short-term to long-term memory."
Then of course the stored data has to be retrieved:
"Considerable evidence supports the theory that the process of retrieval first locates stored data in some sort of associative network and then selects the item with specific characteristics."
And if we retrieve it from "some sort of associative network" we must have obviously have first looked around in our brains to find associative hooks to hang the data on when we stored it.
So - unfortunately unable, like a computer, to load data directly into our permanent memory, we must memorize it in 3 steps:
A - Load data into short-term memory
B - Determine where it is best "hung" in our permanent memory
C - By repetition "hang" the data in our permanent memory on the selected "hooks".
Loading the short-term memory. This is data transfer and as a communications engineers would say, the Signal to Noise ratio
should be as high as possible. In practical terms, this can be done in two ways:
- by focussing the student's attention on what the teacher is saying either through interest, fear or some other motive. This has the effect of increasing the Signal from the teacher.
- by the removal of all distractions such as external noise, bad health, an irritating teacher (including one that is too physically attractive!). An engineer would call this reducing the Noise.
Knowing where to "hang" the data, what to associate it with. You can do it yourself, of course, but a teacher can do it for you better. This is the real skill of the teacher, to find analogies, metaphors, "hooks" for the student to hang on the new data.
Reinforcement or repetition. The school can help a bit here by "role-playing" and questioning, but the real learning must ultimately be done by the student himself. It is a painful process, and feels like trying to write something on a piece of paper with a blunt pencil in a bouncing bus. Even with the greatest pressure we can only ever so lightly mark the paper and have to go over the writing again and again. No wonder we look around the piece of paper to see if we haven't written something similar already, so we can just add on the minimum (to associate the new knowledge with the old).
You need to be strongly motivated and it's not surprising that mankind usually only learns new things when it must – hence the advances in administration and technology during wartime. (I'm surprised some school hasn't yet developed a method of teaching based on hate. The obnoxious teacher sneers at the student telling him he has not the slightest chance of learning anything because the other students are not only intellectually but also socially superior to him. It's a method that has often worked for poor children winning a scholarship to a Public School.)
The steps A - C just show how we memorize words when we learn a language. There is obviously a next step where we actually string the words together, to make "paths" from one word to another.
Humanity probably first discovered that its young could only really be motivated to go through a painful learning process by the yet more painful application of a cane from behind combined with some sort of carrot in front. Anyone who has read anything from "Tom Brown's School-days" or Dickens will learn that the cane part at least, was extraordinarily effective. You yourself probably remember that you learnt best from a teacher you liked (carrot) or a teacher you feared (cane). You learnt nothing from one who bored you. This method is little used today, probably because of the brutalizing effect it had on the teachers.
Learning a language
But remember we want to learn German so we look in the Yellow Pages, where we will see there are many schools offering to teach foreign languages, and they all have their own methods. From the Berlitz Method, to the Linguothek Method via the Euro Method, the Inlingua Method, the Polyglot Method ... Not forgetting the "Super-Learning" method of which more later. Either this is mere commercial competition or humanity, after thousands of years of talking, has still not found a "best" way of teaching a language.
But examination of the various methods reveals that all the schools use the same method (as you would expect) but some emphasise one of the above steps A, B, C or D more than the others.
From the Mysterious East, this time from Bulgaria, (remember the "umbrella gun"?) comes Super-Learning. Although there's nothing in the advertising to that effect, I can't help feeling that it is sold as a gentler form of brainwashing. But Super-Learning has been around for 30 years now and it seems to me that if it were any good it would have replaced all other methods - it hasn't so it cannot have anything special to offer apart from the placebo effect. In other words, if you think that a mixture of mysticism and science (Baroque music, right-brain for intuition, alpha-waves) will make you learn a language better, you will learn better. That you learn at all is also possibly because only a part of the course is listening to relaxing music. The rest is conventional “picture describing, role-playing, grammar training and local excursions(!)" I played the sample cassette and found the classical music and the hypnotic voice indeed relaxing – I almost fell asleep. But perhaps I am being too unfair, the relaxing atmosphere of Super-Learning must increase the Signal to Noise ratio of Step A in the learning process.
I used the word above so here is an explanation:
"Ideological reform", "political indoctrination" or "brainwashing" is teaching too. It is an attempt to change the deeper or "perception of reality" part of the brain and is done in three stages. The aim of stage 1 is to break the prisoner's resistance down, he is completely isolated in a cell, severed from all contacts with the outer world. Since his sense of personal identity depends upon communication with others he ceases to be `himself'. Stage 2 is interrogation over long periods which makes him unable to distinguish between his thoughts and those of the hostile interrogator. And finally stage 3 is where the interrogator becomes suddenly friendly, usually after some sort of "confession" has been obtained. From here on he is treated as a "convalescent" and placed in an environment with other "convalescents" and he is "re-educated" in a sort of group psychotherapy class, ready for his trial.
Does it work? As regards the learning of Marxist/Leninist dogma - 100% effective. But at three years the Course is longer than those offered by your average language school. As regards the "perception of reality" - "You come to believe a great deal of what you are saying but it is a `special sort of belief'. You are not absolutely convinced but you accept it - in order to avoid trouble - because every time you don't agree, trouble starts again." This is a quotation from a medical doctor, Dr Vincent, who practised in Shanghai and was one day arrested in the street by the Communists. His brainwashing course lasted for three and a half years before he was ready for his show trial!
But when he returned to the West he rapidly returned to normal, except for vivid memories. He made the point that the "behaviour change" part needs continuous reinforcement, in the same way you don't normally throw chocolate-bar papers on the pavement if you live in Germany.
Brainwashing itself - political indoctrination - has been around since the Russian Revolution in 1917, and judging by the way the Russian Empire just fell apart one month in 1989, it couldn't have been very effective. Those crowds rioting in the streets of East Berlin and pulling down statues of Lenin sure didn't look as though they were very deeply indoctrinated in Communism. And you can't accuse their rulers of not trying.
Let us leave the theory of learning to one side for a while and examine why people want to become students and why other people are willing to teach them.
The student’s motives
We now know roughly what must be done to learn a language. But like learning anything, it is going to be time consuming and you are going to have to push aside lots of your normal activities to find time for it. Furthermore, you will also have to temporarily push aside your normal self-confident adult personality and accept a position of child-like inferiority before the teacher. And as an adult you have probably got out of the habit of learning so know you are going to make embarrassing mistakes in front of the rest of the class and try his (and their) patience. Also you are going to have to induce the teacher to impart his knowledge to you (probably by giving him money).
There may be another difficulty - the so-called "Inhibition Barrier". This is the almost instinctive barrier that rather unsure people throw up when they contemplate something new. "Learn to speak German? Oh, I couldn't do that". Somehow you are going to have to overcome this barrier (perhaps with the help of the teacher).
If you want to avoid feeling a fool in front of the rest of a class, you can choose to use a private tutor, convincing yourself you will learn quicker and better. But it will be much more expensive, and not only for the obvious reason..
Alternatively you can try to learn German by yourself, avoiding shame and cash outlay. This will take longer and you can easily go off in the wrong direction.
So you need to have a pretty strong motive to submit to all these discomforts, real and imagined. Remembering that the basic drives in our lives are survival, sex and position in the herd (power/aggression), I would suggest that power/sex is probably the main drive in learning a language (in case you missed the point in the introductory sketch). At least for men.
You can imagine amazing your friends and disconcerting your enemies by winning that vital contract because only you were able to answer a long distance call from Germany.
Even more alluringly you can think of yourself conversing easily with beautiful blond German girls, with none of the inhibitions you may have with English girls. You will forever be exotic to them and they to you. Even the most beautiful and arrogant girl cannot avoid straightening you out on the nuance of some word. The differences between languages supply an endless subject for conversation and you can quite easily imagine opening your exercise book on a beach crowded with those beautiful but now bikini-clad blond German girls and casually asking one of them to explain some point of grammar.
Of course there are more intellectual inducements. I had a friend who was so in love with France that he wanted to learn French so that he too could animatedly discuss Proust under plane trees on the Paris boulevards. (Unfortunately when his French was finally up to speed he found that what they were animatedly discussing was the criminal increases in apartment rents or where you could get a refrigerator for 30% off list price!)
And then you reflect that the classroom may not be without its attractions, giving you a chance to shine in front of the prettier female students or influential male students. And you will have an excuse to speak to them afterwards.
I think girls have a calmer and much more rational approach to learning a language (or learning anything). An English girl would probably learn German so she could visit Germany and talk with Germans. She would certainly agree with the Frenchman who said that "Another language is another soul". Women like talking, are better at it than men and will very likely speak German with a better accent. The female of the species probably has the original patents on speech (yes, women are supposed to have invented speech during mankind's evolution - "Sex").
The teacher's motives
Why does someone become a teacher?
As you can imagine, teaching can often be a drag. Especially teaching teenagers at a State school, where the teacher can sometimes feel he is forcing unwanted information into unappreciative slobs whose only motive is to learn the minimum necessary for some qualification so they can earn more money - or at least escape the child-adult relationship unavoidable in any school.
And then, as pointed out above, "knowledge is power" and teaching is giving this power away. Power to earn more money, to impress other people. It can lessen the teacher's uniqueness, diminish his or her relative power if he or she (eg) teaches someone to sail. The pretty girls/handsome men may now prefer to go sailing with the ex-student. And worse, it's not unknown for students to become better than their teachers.
These disadvantages are usually alleviated by a cash transfer.
But teachers have other motivations too. At least in adult education, which is what we are discussing here. It can be fun to stand up in front of a class of willing admiring students, to know the subject perfectly and have them hanging on his words as he presents his subject with practised ease, moving slowly and methodically from one inescapable conclusion to the next. To be able to make perfectly timed jokes (made many times before). To be able to control the work and thoughts of say 20 people for an hour. To be able to distribute praise or censure. That is "Power" and he won't get the same attention and respect in many other walks of life from so many people at once and for so long a time. He is permanently "one up". Power over his own sex, display of this power to the opposite sex. This is the primitive motive behind teaching. He can get on a "high".
This is the condition that we can reach when the lower or primitive "feeling" brain is involved. The clinical symptoms of someone "on a high" are elevated blood pressure and pulse rate. The face is red, the eyes dilated, the voice raised, speech rapid. Limb motions are jerky and rather uncontrolled. Association is greatly improved, inhibitions are reduced, the pain threshold is raised. Adrenaline is flowing, he is excited.
It is a condition that can be brought on by feedback, by positive feedback. You say or do something and other people react to it enthusiastically (feed it back to you positively) which in turn makes you emphasize what you are saying or doing which makes them react even more enthusiastically "Yes, yes! Go! Go!" which spurs you on to... Positive feedback can be seen in riots, pop concerts, brainstorming sessions. In our case the feedback comes from his students. An appreciative sigh from the class when he neatly explains some difficult point. This provokes him to make a little joke and the class laughs. He suddenly thinks of an apt analogy which clears up another point - "Gosh, I never thought of it like that!" says the pretty girl in wide-eyed admiration.
And he's off, riding high. Joking, blowing out his cheeks to show what "dick" (fat) means, sweating and swinging his arms wildly as he goose-steps across the stage to illustrate "marschieren" (march) ... The class are roaring with laughter. But how much are they learning? Not much, they are just being entertained and he is speaking so quickly some of them can't even understand what he's saying.
You can now also see an extra reason why you have to pay much more for private tuition. Apart from the obvious fact that you have to pay the teacher's entire salary, teachers don't like private tuition. It's boring, time passes slowly and his ability as a teacher can be assessed more easily. The teacher is now in the much less dominant role of a "deliverer of information". He misses the "high".
All the above has been written for male teachers, but female teachers are just as susceptible to being in the limelight although for slightly different reasons. Both are tempted by the role of actor, by being able to "show-off", but the male is predictably also very interested in the "power" aspect.
Other teacher motivations
But there is an intellectual satisfaction too, of course. I spent some time teaching radar in the RAF to men and there is a deep pleasure in being able to present ideas and concepts one at a time, and then see the looks of eager satisfaction as some difficult concept finally clicks in with the help of an apt analogy.
Another advantage of teaching a subject is that the teacher's own knowledge of that subject deepens. The best way of learning anything is to have to explain it to a critical audience. Gifted students passing through will now and then reveal some flaw in his presentation or even find a better one. He, and the next class will benefit. This must be the reason that in so many universities the roles of teacher and researcher are combined. There is no better teacher of a new idea than the one who had it ("Look what I've found!") and defending it before critical students is the best way of testing its validity.
As a teacher he can also aspire to a small amount of fame. I remember that wherever I went in the RAF after my stint as instructor, I would find ex-students (or trainees as we called them) who remembered me (usually favourably, I'm pleased to add). The same thing can happen if he teaches in a small town. And if he teaches children, they will remember him all their lives. I am sure you can still remember all your school teachers and their names.
With all these inducements to become a teacher, it is no wonder that the profession can seem very attractive to some people. The laws of supply and demand thus ensure that teachers are notoriously badly paid.
The "Fresh look" language school method
As I wrote this Essay on "Teaching" and started analysing what had to be done at each step when a language is taught, I found myself automatically thinking of what I would do if I were organizing a language school. I find I have therefore been forced into designing an ideal "method" to be taught in an ideal school (using an ideal teacher for ideal students, of course).
The "method" which follows will be called, for lack of a better name, the "Fresh Look Method” of language teaching. It is based on the neurological or "network" model plus some concepts from system design plus common-sense business rules.
Selecting teacher candidates
But let's get back to the school - see block diagram.
The school has a Personnel Officer who has an extremely important role. He selects the teachers, makes sure they meet the school standards, has them retrained if necessary, and makes sure they keep to the school standards.
The Personnel Officer selects applicants for the post of teacher in the same way industry selects salesmen. The first thing he examines is competence in the subject they are going to teach. Examination of academic qualifications and/or an interview with a German speaker will complete this stage. But the potential teacher is going to have to "interface" with many types of students and so must be "sociable", he must like people. He must not be pompous or full of his own self-importance. He must not use the "power" of his position to compensate for lack of success in other life situations. He must have an open friendly personality and be acceptable to the school's type of student. This will vary with every school but being modestly presentable and taking a shower once a day can be no disadvantage. The teacher after all, determines the "image" of the school.
[It is perhaps the place here to make a few remarks on Personnel Selection generally. New people coming into a Company, in this case into a school, are the very life-blood of the Company and I have often been surprised at the casualness with which they can be selected. Surprised too at the exaggerated respect accorded to people called in for interview and the embarrassed reluctance to ask them questions other than enquiries about their version of past performance. I was once in charge of a development lab and had no hesitation in asking "hard-nosed" technical questions of applicants, the sort of questions they would have had to answer to pass their exams. They were often outraged that they had to answer such "simple" questions, but those that saw the importance of knowing the answers (and knew them!) usually made good co-workers].
The Personnel Department must then find out if the applicant can teach. Being a professional teacher already is no guarantee. Like an actor, he should be "auditioned", asked to give a sample lesson first in an empty classroom and then to a typical class.
The Personnel Officer carefully examines the results of the "audition". It is possible that the candidate teacher passes the test with flying colours and is exactly the sort of teacher the School wants. But it is unlikely. During his last employment the teacher will probably have picked up some uncorrected bad habits.
At this stage Personnel selects those candidates which it thinks will, with the small modification to be provided by the Teacher Training Course, make suitable teachers. All selected candidates should be put through a training course, just so that none of them feels discriminated against. At the same time they can learn something about the School Method (the "Fresh Look" method in this case).
Required reading on the Teacher Training Course will be extracts from this Essay, explaining the "neural network" analogy of the "Fresh Look" method. Then the new teacher should be instructed, in a small class of other teachers, where he will learn or re-learn that:
- he should speak slower and more distinctly than usual.
- to face the class and not mumble to the blackboard.
- he should write clearly and simply on the blackboard.
- he should not have any irritating and distracting
- students cannot concentrate for more than two minutes at a time. So he must break up his lesson at these intervals (with questions, for example).
- he should keep everyone in the class with him.
- asking questions is an excellent way to keep the class
alert and to check individual progress.
Each teacher should give a small talk in front of the others and they should take notes and then criticize him.
He should be taught tricks of the trade like how to ask questions. (He should not say "John, can you tell me what is the German for ...?" He should know that as soon as he says: "John, can you tell me ..." the rest of the class will switch off. Rather he should ask his questions: "What is the German for..?" pause to let everyone sweat, and then select a victim. In this way everyone works during question time).
The School will give him all the information they have on each student and he should commit this to memory.
And above all he must never forget that he is there to teach German and not provide a music-hall turn. Feeling exhausted after a lesson is not a sign that he has done a good job. It is more likely the "low" that follows the "high" that he shouldn't have been on in the first place.
These are common-sense, almost trivial rules, taken from any first course on Public Speaking, but the teacher must know and practise them constantly.
Each School will have its own Method (the "Fresh Look" method in this case) giving the sequence of subjects to be taught, carefully designed (in our case) for teaching German to English-speakers. The teacher is going to have to follow this Course, and the book that describes it (not yet written!):
- to keep him on the beam and make sure he doesn't miss anything out, covering all the subjects in the right order.
- so he can be replaced in case of illness.
- so other teachers in the school, who will also teach the class (in pronunciation, for example) will know where the class are in their course.
Size of class
The school administration has found and trained a teacher; it must now find suitable students for him.
As pointed out above, it is possible for a student to elect for private tuition but this is not necessarily the best thing - not only because of poor teacher motivation but also because it is inefficient. A gifted teacher is wasted on just one student. It is much more efficient to teach a number of students in parallel. But the question then arises, how many in parallel, how big should a class be?
In a University the Nobel Prize winner lectures to as many students as possible. But he is really only motivating them or giving them an overview. The real work of learning is done in small seminars of 10 students maximum.
The School Director can also give an introductory talk to a large number of new students for the same reason, before they split up into their classes. They can be brought together now and then to hear some well-known speaker on German literature, for instance. But the actual work of learning German should be done in small groups.
I suggest that 10 is the largest number that can be taught in parallel in a language school.
The disadvantage of having one teacher to 10 students is that he gives the same general instruction to all 10 in parallel and they must resemble each other fairly closely if they are all to react to it in the same way - same education standard, for example. A teacher can modify the level of his instruction to a homogeneous group of 10 but not to 10 disparate individuals.
So it is very important that someone very carefully interviews each student and evaluates him to make sure he is assigned to the right class. And not only on an intellectual but also on a personality level. We are talking now of a group of 10 humans who are going to pass many hours with another human, in artificial authority over them. As with anything to do with human beings, this gives fantastic scope for complexity. Classes should therefore avoid the obvious combinations of playboy and very pretty female student, elderly colonel and punk, etc.
If a student is too far from the norm for one reason or the other he should be refused (with some excuse like all classes full at the moment). He will not only not benefit from the course himself, but also hinder 9 other students. (If he/she is way out of the norm there is no harm in referring him/her to a competitive school.)
The teacher meets the class
The teacher is introduced to the class by the School Director of course, who will praise him. To reinforce this, to improve his credibility, it is not a bad idea for the introduction to be interrupted by the entrance of a pretty German secretary with a paper for the teacher. They chat together in German. If the school doesn't run to pretty German secretaries, a phone on the teacher's desk can ring and he is heard to answer authoritatively in German.
Yes, when the teacher and students enter the classroom it is like the curtain going up on a new play. The teacher looks at the 10 unknown faces. What interesting people may be here, future friends, his future wife perhaps? At the very least a group of people who are prepared to listen carefully to everything he says and who have not heard his jokes. He is ready for his "fix".
The students look cautiously and some of them rather hostilely at their new teacher. This is the person who they are going to have to submit to, to accept as their "leader" for many hours, with all that that will entail. This is the person who is going to be their guide to learning German. They hope he is going to be a "good" teacher, one who is not going to run off on ego-trips and talk too much, one who will make them work but not so much that they cannot follow, one who will allow them to speak sometimes. Is he going to be worth the usually not inconsiderable sum of money that they have paid? They temporarily give him the benefit of the doubt.
So finally the selected and motivated students in a class of the optimum size have met their motivated and well-trained teacher, to follow a course which has been designed for them.
The teacher, if he were now able to switch to the "neurological viewpoint", would see 10 brains in front of him, all grossly programmed the same but with small and vital differences. It is going to be his job to graft the new knowledge, the "How to speak German" networks, on to these 10 brains. To somehow copy the networks in his brain into the 10 brains in front of him. How does he start?
The teacher knows that the difficult job of learning German can be split up into small easily assimilable bites. It is his skill to know these bites, to know how they are going to "taste" to the students and how fast they can be fed in without causing indigestion.
The nationality of the teacher
The not-very-surprising first conclusion is that, were it not for the actual pronunciation of German, the best teacher of German to English students is another Englishman. (The same can be generalized to all languages and all nationalities. A Japanese will learn Italian best from another Japanese).
One reason why a German should not be used to teach German to English nationals is that he learnt his German "at his mother's knee". He has forgotten how he learnt it, and unless he has taken special German grammar courses, he has only a general knowledge of the structure of his own language and is thus not capable of teaching it.
In other words, someone who learnt German as an adult has the language laid out in his head in a reasonably ordered fashion and if he wants to link a concept to his larynx he can see all the intermediate steps. He can therefore teach German better. Compare this to the average Englishman, who asked by a German if some sentence is good English, will say it over to himself, "tasting" it, and will perhaps say "Yes, it's correct. I know what you mean, but it doesn't sound quite right. What we would say is ... I can't explain why". And so the average Englishman would normally not make a good teacher of English.
Examine the figure below.
If you could look into a German's head you would find a
relatively straight path between what he wants to say (a group of concepts) and the signals to the larynx to say it. See A. And if you look into Len's head you would find (as you would expect) something very similar. See B. But note that Len also has a faint network of paths in the background. This network is the remains of the paths that Len had to take to get from concepts to larynx when he was learning to speak German. (Like all the steps you had to learn when you were learning to turn right in a car). Len doesn't need these intermediate steps now - he has "worn" a more direct path. But, and here is the important point, he remembers the intermediate steps. As you are going to have to learn these intermediate steps too, Len can teach you to speak German better than a German can.
Another reason for having an English teacher for English students is personal compatibility. He, like them, went through the English educational system and remembers the sort of teacher he and his friends liked - hopefully he will try to emulate one. One who knows and loves his subject but is modestly aware that there are other subjects. One who is conscientious but will occasionally throw in a merry quip. One who will sympathize with them over the difficulties of the German language but still emphasize the importance of (eg.) learning by heart the apparently useless gender of each word. He will not be as formal as a German might be, or too talkative as a Latin might be. Friendly but firm.
I think most Englishmen would agree that they would rather have an English teacher to teach them German, certainly at the beginning.
But without reflection, very few would agree that the best person to teach English to Germans is another German. They would come up with all sorts of arguments about learning the right accent from the beginning, etc. What they really mean is that an Englishman would make a much more reasonable, friendly, tolerant teacher. But the German who really wants to learn English quickly and thoroughly will want a German teacher. One who will have a University degree, speak slowly, have a clear explanation for everything, wear a neat suit... The classroom will be clean with the desks lined up properly, the tape recorders will be in good condition. They will contrast this with the cheerful incompetence of the English they know, who often can't explain their own language and are always making silly meaningless jokes.
And if you think I'm exaggerating here, try to imagine a Frenchman agreeing that the best teacher of French to Germans is another German!
Of course, the students must be able to understand spoken German and have their German recognized by German nationals when they speak, but a competent German-speaking Englishman can take them a long way. English larynxes are no different from German larynxes.
Learning a language
But back to the classroom. There are three stages in learning a language:
1. Learning the words in both directions, by sight and sound.
(This was the Steps A - C above)
2. Learning how they must be strung together grammatically.
3. Learning to connect strings of grammatically correctly connected words together between the various concepts you wish to express and your speech organs. And the contrary, of course - being able to direct German words which arrive in your ears directly into the "concept" part of your brain. (This was referred to as Step D above)
As an analogy, stage 1 can be compared to learning what the controls in a car do. Stage 2 is learning how to change gear, to park, to start on a hill. And stage 3 is actually stringing it all together and driving the car around a town.
Let's look at these steps in more detail, taking first the simplest task, that of learning vocabulary.
Step 1 Learning the words
As pointed out above, our brains can be considered as myriads of "fact" networks, all hooked together. Those facts which I feel I am very sure of are those that are hooked to lots of other "fact" networks. An example would be the fact that "everything falls down if not supported." I can think of a million examples about things falling to the ground if precautions are not taken to stop it - climbers on a rock face supported by tensed ropes, the water cascading down in a spectacular waterfall, the thick pillars supporting a railway bridge, the force in my arm as I hold a glass of beer, the remembered pain in my back when I slipped on the ice once, ...etc. etc.
There are other facts that I am not so sure of. "A horse", for example. I know horses are large heavy smelly animals that eat grass... People like knights and cowboys ride horses, jockeys race on horses ... Horses can gallop and trot... A few minutes of this and I run out of things to say about horses - there are just not many hooks between "horse" and the rest of my data bank of facts.
Yet other facts are even more tenuously hooked in. "Phyllis", for example. Phyllis is a girl's name. And that's all I know. I don't know anyone called Phyllis, I can't remember where I heard the name, and saying the name over and over again to myself conjures up no associations at all. It seems to be a piece of information all on its own.
The foregoing should have led you to think that the best way to learn anything new is first to classify it - to try to hook it on to something you know already. And this is what your well-trained teacher will do. "Glass" in German is "Glas", "book" is "Buch", "bring" is "bringen" - these are easy. "Wine" is "Wein". Spelt slightly different but sounds the same. Then "chair" is "Stuhl" which is like "stool", and "crying" is "weinen" (whining) - one hook removed but still easy. There are words you probably knew already like "Miss"/"Fraulein", "god"/"Gott", "children"/"Kinder". And then there are words like "Rad" for "wheel". This can be fairly easily hooked into the student's brain if the teacher reminds the student of English words like "radius" and "radial". Or "schreiben" is done by a "scribe" in English. But then we come to word pairs like horse/Pferd", "reed"/"Schilf", "read"/"lesen". These are the hard ones, there is no hook available, you just have to manufacture one for yourself, perhaps by imagining a picture of the object or action.
It is the skill of an English-speaking teacher to know these hooks in the 10 "English" brains opposite him and to know how to hook German words on to them as painlessly as possible.
In order to enter the students' brains with the maximum bandwidth, as many of the 5 senses (eye, ear, nose, touch and taste) as possible should be used. The eye has by far the widest bandwidth, but the ear has a very special importance in language training, of course.
The teacher, using the "Fresh Look" method, should therefore start by showing the student some pictures, each with its name in German. He will explain how the German words are pronounced and get the class to repeat them out loud as he points at them. The words chosen are words that can be easily hooked into an "English" brain.
At the end of the all-important first lesson the students should feel that they have achieved something. “Look how much we learnt in the first lesson - German is not half as difficult as I thought!” (Ah, disillusion will set in later but by then they will have invested so much time, energy and money that they will have got past the point of no-return and hopefully grind on to the end of the course.)
During following lessons the teacher should repeatedly exercise the class in pronouncing these words. The labels can be removed and just the pictures pointed to, the class singing out the German words. A game could be played with one student pronouncing one of the words and another indicating the corresponding picture (using the easily learnt German words for "up", "down", "to the left", "to the right").
As recommended above, the senses of touch, smell and taste should also be used to hook in the appropriate words. Carefully chosen articles could be handed round and described - a knife "scharf" (sharp), a stone (Stein) which is hard (hart). Wet fingers can be dipped in a white power and identified as "Salz" (salt) or "Zucker" (sugar). Petrol sniffed and identified as "Gas". But still using words that are easy for English speakers.
You could call this the "expanded audio-visual" method.
Towards the end of Stage 1 the teacher should start introducing some simple points of grammar, like adjectives having to agree with nouns.
I should now point out, if you don't know it already, that it is one thing to "academically" learn a language (reading and writing) and quite another thing to take part in a conversation in that language. If you learnt a language at school in your youth, the emphasis was almost certainly on the reading and writing, with only very occasionally a "speaking" lesson. You remember these lessons very well because they were fun and much more boisterous that the dry grammar lessons. Shyer masters probably dreaded them as the pronunciation of hilarious foreign sounds made the class hard to control.
But now you are older and may have more inhibitions about making these strange noises in front of your classmates. For this reason some schools "cop out" and send their students to a "language laboratory" where they sit in individual cabins with head phones clamped to their ears, listening to recorded German words and then repeating them into a tape recorder and hearing them played back. A teacher sitting up front can plug-in to any cabin. I tried this method once and thought it a gimmick, the constant button pressing on often defective tape recorders too distracting. Furthermore I think it goes in the wrong direction. I think one should not spare the students' embarrassment. I remember once during a conversation class, using the word "Deutscherin" instead of the correct "Deutsche" for "female German". I blush even now remembering the contemptuous and incredulous laughter that greeted this elementary (but understandable) mistake and will never make it again. Emotional linkage is an excellent way of learning.
Yes, the students must be able to understand spoken German and have their German recognized by German nationals when they speak, but a competent German-speaking Englishman can take them a long way.
However I am not against the idea of using another teacher for conversation, for "larynx gymnastics". Ideally it should be a German national, which will have the added advantage of also teaching the students something about the character of the people whose language they have chosen to learn.
Once a reasonable and carefully selected vocabulary has been built up, the words should be formed into simple sentences. Neurologically speaking we are now beginning to form short paths in the brain between the word networks. Jumping from hook to hook. But these should be purely "factual" to start with - "the dog eats the bone", "the yellow sun shines on the green grass", "yesterday it was cold" etc. These paths can be made longer and longer "Tomorrow I will visit my mother in the distant town, if the weather is good", sort of thing. Stage 2 is the heart of the course as it is where the bulk of the grammar is taught. This is universally boring to English students who think German grammar is unnecessarily complicated, (and they're right!) so now and again the teacher should leaven the dough by dipping into Stage 3.
Here the teacher shows the students objects that have not yet been seen and identified with a German word and asks the students to describe them in German. Shown a piece of ice the student will use his eyes, fingers etc. to identify that it is ice (and not glass), ie. cold and hard. Initially he will go into the speech center of his brain looking for the English words "cold" and "hard". He will hopefully find the German words "kalt" and "hart" hooked to them, together with instructions on how to activate his larynx to pronounce these words. With practice he will go directly from identifying the object to pronouncing the word in German. It is an important step - he is beginning to "think" in German, to start to form paths directly from concept to larynx.
They should have to learn to pick words themselves from their own vocabulary of German words. Initially perhaps in filling in a missing word in a sentence. Later in composing sentences themselves, in teacher-controlled discussions.
Stage 3 is where the role-playing, picture description, exercise of a new word or construction ...is introduced. The class should be encouraged to get excited and the teacher should speak as little as possible, confining himself to keeping order and correcting only the grossest mistakes. He should take inconspicuous notes of consistent mistakes made by individual students, writing them down and handing copies out after the lesson. He should insist the student correct them and check him at the next lesson. (I say this because I have lots of German acquaintances who speak well-nigh perfect English but consistently make simple mistakes.)
Of course these three Steps are not separate. There is a lot of overlapping between them, little sentences being used even in Stage 1 ("Ich bin Peter", sort of thing.)
So far we have been viewing the Course as though it was only for speaking German. But the student must also learn to read and write German too. Therefore each of the three Steps has its written equivalent - done by students reading out of the Course book, by taking dictation and by doing exercises (at home) which are brought in for correction. I thought the Berlitz method was good, and would incorporate it into the "Fresh Look" method. There the students brought in their written exercises which they dropped in a box in the school entrance hall. A week or so later they could pick up their corrected exercises.
Not only is writing and reading German necessary, but it also reinforces the spoken German. Lots of people have a better visual than aural memory.
Computers vs. human teachers
Apart from the actual pronunciation of German, all the 3 Steps above could be done by a computer with a terminal for each student. We have had a lot of experience in writing complex many-branched learning programs. Most computer application programs (like a word processor) have a "Tutorial" program built in. If you are bright and have a good memory you can sail through them quickly, if you have difficulties they will give you supplementary explanations and graded questions. I am sure there are plenty of sophisticated "Learn German" programs on the market.
But how can a computer be good at teaching? Of course you are not taught by the "computer", but by the program which runs it. This program was first written by a qualified and imaginative teacher, modified and improved after it has been in use for a while by other qualified and imaginative teachers, with inputs from students who have used it, from psychologists, psychiatrists, time and motion experts etc. etc. When you use a computer you are being taught by a whole team of teachers.
So why not dispense with the human teacher? This is not a trivial question. I imagine there are some students who would prefer to buy or hire a "Learn German" program and work at home on their PC. They could work at their own speed, work when they had the time, and learn the pronunciation from tapes. It would be very much cheaper than attending a class. In fact:
"Most educators agree that computers help students with their schoolwork. Computers can be especially helpful for slow learners who have problems with subjects that require memorization, since drill and practice are the most common types of computer exercises. Studies show that student's attention span increases when at a computer".
(American Council on Education)
But these students need to be very highly motivated, real "self starters", who can work alone. For most of us the motivation would flag after a while if we only used a computer. We need an ongoing incentive and there is no great incentive in answering correctly all the questions a computer asks. Even a sophisticated program can only cover the screen with coloured compliments and perhaps play a squeaky parody of "Here the conquering hero comes" when you answer correctly.
Most students would prefer to learn in a class because:
- the human teacher can "fine tune" the instruction better than the best computer as he has better feedback. He can adjust it if the weather is hot and humid, if half the class has colds etc.
- the presence of other students acts as a reward if he sees he has grasped something before the others or as a spur if sees he is the only one who doesn't understand.
- people who want to learn a language almost always want to learn it so they can talk to other people, and the best place to practise this is in a class.
- going to a class is a "fun thing", there is a social side. You meet people with similar interests, you can all go to a pub afterwards.
So the answer is "motivation". And even with all these motivations it isn't enough for many students. Look at any class in a night school. It starts with a full complement of 20, but after a few weeks it has dropped to 5 or 6.
I therefore recommend that the bulk of the instruction be given by human teachers in the classroom, but computer terminals should be available and the "Fresh Look" method in fact requires them to be used by the students at least 15-30 minutes per day, after the "live" lessons. See the box "Daily student computer check" on Pg. 155A.
The students use them:
- to make a quick "factual" revision of what they did that day.
- to receive a print-out of that day's work.
- to receive their written "homework". This may well be different for each student, depending on how well the revision went, what the teacher thinks, etc.
Yes, the big advantage of a computer is its flexibility.
But these computer terminals have other purposes too.
The learning sequence as described so far is the ideal. The teacher has closely tracked the "Fresh Look" Course syllabus, all the students have eagerly followed, gradually becoming more and more competent in reading, writing and speaking German. When the day comes to sit for their final exam they all pass with flying colours.
This might happen, but unless precautions are taken it won't. The School has already taken some very important precautions in carefully selecting the teacher and the class he has to teach. But this is far from enough. Human beings are very complicated. Examining the students and the teacher just once at the beginning of the Course will not determine how they will actually behave in the future nor how they will behave towards each other as the Course unfolds.
"Trusting is good: checking is better" as the Germans say. We must make sure that when the students sit for their final exam they will all pass - this is the only criterion of success. This requires lots of on-line feedback designed to constantly and objectively monitor each student's gradually increasing knowledge, checking that it is rising at the right minimum rate to ensure a pass mark at the end of the Course. If it isn't, something must be done immediately.
Monitoring students' progress
Monitoring each student's daily performance is the key.
In most schools this monitoring is done by the teacher through his personal contact with the students, his constant verbal exercising of them and the marking of their frequent tests. But you will remember that the original purpose of class-teaching was to allow a group of students to benefit from one gifted (or at least well-trained) teacher. Such a teacher should not be loaded with routine checking of students' performance. Anything which unloads him should be used.
The second purpose of the daily session on the computer is therefore an objective monitoring of the student's individual progress. The computer can quite easily be programmed to record anything the School wants about each individual student at each individual session. Recorded can be answers to the questions:
- How long was the student was working with the computer?
- Did he follow the program completely?
- Did he answer the questions correctly?
- Which questions did he have difficulty with and had to
go on a revision loop?
These are just examples. The computer can be programmed to record anything - number of keystrokes, average pause between keystrokes, the length of the pause before answering each individual question etc. etc. There is no limit to the subtlety with which the computer can be programmed.
All the students' sessions can be then analysed by the computer and some sort of Figure of Merit assigned to each student, which can be compared with other students in the class, with what other classes achieved in the same time with the same teacher, with a different teacher etc. etc. If any individual student is seen to be falling behind, remedial actions can be taken after interviewing the student and the teacher.
Notice the line from "Daily student computer check" back into the "Student selection" box. Yes, if he is not following the course he may need to be "re-selected".
Should the daily Figure of Merit be revealed to the student? Feedback of performance is a tricky thing. If it shows him that he is ahead of the average, he may slack off and not reach as high a standard as he might otherwise. If it shows he is a bit below average it can spur him to catch up. (The case where he is found well-below average should never obtain because of the pre-selection of students and the frequent monitoring). So in answer to the question, the student should only be told he is "falling behind" or "satisfactory".
Use of advanced computers - the future
Of course the normal computer can only communicate with the student by means of a keyboard and screen ie. only check written German. This is very useful and should be done anyway. But computers can just as easily be used to control some audio recording medium like a CDROM, to verbally ask questions which the student then answers on the screen. But I'm sure there are already computers which can recognize the voice and check his pronunciation, and they should be used as soon as they become available at an affordable price.
Monitoring teacher's performance
So much for the monitoring of individual students' perf saying for that claout the teacher's performance? Yes, certainly. Teachers are paid for their work and should not be exempt from having their work checked like other workers in industry. Their work is much more important than that of the average industrial worker and they should be checked correspondingly. Think back to your school-days and how a bad teacher probably put you off some subject for life (you and a whole generation of school children). Incredible! Why were such things allowed to happen?
The Berlitz language school in Paris checked its teachers by bugging the classrooms. It was done obviously, with a large box like a loud-speaker mounted above the black-board. On reflection, I don't think it was actually connected but the young teachers seemed to think it was and would silently point at it with warning grimaces. One evening, supported by the entire class, I brought in a pair of wire-cutters and inconspicuously snipped one of the wires. No one seemed to notice, so maybe it was just used for its deterrent effect. However – no one liked the idea so this is not the way to go. (Apart from the fact that if you wanted to do it properly you would have to record all the lessons in all the classrooms and then play them back, comparing what the teacher said with what he should be saying for that class in that lesson).
It is preferable to use the computer outputs, which are already being used to monitor students' individual performance. If any individual student is not tracking the course, it can be assumed it is in some way his fault or at least unique to him. But if all the students are not following, it starts to get complicated. It can be caused by poor instruction or substandard students (defective incoming student selection procedure). If the teacher is experienced he may be going through a bad patch with personal problems. If he is a young teacher he may still be learning. And if 5 students are fine but the rest are falling back ... it starts to get really complicated, there are endless combinations. But whatever the cause, it will be detected by the daily monitoring of students' progress and a remedy can be found.
This then is the explanation of the second line from the "daily student computer check" box back into the "Teacher check" box. The teacher may also need to be "re-selected" if his students are consistently falling behind.
Should the students be asked by their computer terminals to comment on their teacher's performance?
No. The teacher would be aware of this and it would inhibit him, undermining his authority and perhaps making him worry more about his popularity than his teaching technique, where a bit of steel may be required now and then. If there is anything wrong with the teacher it will be revealed by his students' performance, which you will remember is checked after every lesson.
But I see no harm in asking the students general questions like:
"What do you think of the course speed?" fast, OK, slow
"Is there enough conversation practice?" no, OK, yes
"Is there enough grammar?" no, OK, yes
"What do you think of the class?" too clever, noisy, too slow, OK
Resistance against using computers
Experience in other fields leads me to think that the use of a computer to constantly monitor the performance of students and teacher is going to meet with repugnance if not resistance, particularly from the teacher. But as this monitoring is an important part of the Course, the only solution is a policy of absolute openness. What the computer does and how it analyses the results should be explained to students and teachers. It is after all a more benign method than bugging each classroom.
Features of the "Fresh Look" German Course for English speakers
A - Careful selection testing and training of teachers.
B - Careful selection and "streaming" of students.
C*- Careful explanation of the Course to students, including explanation of the role of the computer.
D*- Students taught reading, writing and speaking by English teachers up to the final stages when a German takes over.
E - Parallel course in pronunciation given by a German.
F - English-language associative-based teaching course.
G*- Class learning strongly associative in their own language using "augmented audio-visual" methods, roll-playing, songs.
H*- Continuous individual student progress monitoring by computer.
J*- Continuous teacher monitoring.
(* - Perhaps unique to the "Fresh Look" method)
Learning a mechanical skill
You probably know that our brain is divided into two hemispheres by a vertical line between the eyes. The two halves are connected together by a bundle of fibres called the "corpus callosum". The left side, usually the dominant half, talks, writes, does mathematics and thinks in a logical serial way. The minor right side recognizes shapes and faces, appreciates music, puts on it's owner's clothes, solves spatial problems and works in a global, intuitive fashion. The verbal ordered culture of the Western world, dominated by scientific and technological progress, is managed by the left side.
What we have been doing so far is teaching the left side. This side understands speech, you can therefore talk to it. The right side is of course very similar to the left side in that it works the same way (neural networks) and can be taught but – it is deaf and dumb. It is therefore a completely different kettle of fish to teach something to the right hand brain. Try writing down a description of how to tie your shoelaces. It's almost impossible using words. Try explaining it to a child:
"You take this bit here and fold it over like this, see. Now you have to hold this other bit into - no, don't drop the first bit! - fold the other bit into a sort of a loop which you er...lemmee see .. Just hold everything". (You untie your own shoe and tie it again). "Right, you push the second bit with - no, with your first finger - no, the first finger of your right hand. Yes, it's tricky. Now let's try again. Make a loop and hold it between your thumb and first finger of the left hand. Good. Yes, I know Mummy’s shoes just push on. - Now the second bit, watch me.. dammit I've forgotten again. Well, Daddy does it quickly without thinking. Got it! Look, you make it sort of twist round your finger like this and then you push it .. No, you mustn’t drop the first bit until you've pushed the ...No, dear, I'm not cross with you ..."
But you are. You are realizing that words are of very little use in teaching the right brain. But all is not lost. The right brain still has "fact" networks in it and these networks are all connected or associated. We still use it by jumping along the networks from one fact to another. But this time the "fact" networks are (for instance) the elements of movements of our body, and the paths we have worn to join them up are well-practised sequences of movements, like walking. So it should still be possible to modify it, to "write in" paths that enable the owner to play some sport, for instance.
As an example of how to teach the right brain, I am going to use the example of teaching it to play tennis.
Learning to play tennis
I don't intend to repeat all the descriptions of motives, motives of tennis students, motives of tennis teachers. They are just as important as in learning German so you can take them as read.
The principles of teaching tennis are essentially the same as teaching German, but there are significant differences.
But let us first compare playing tennis and speaking German. When you go to take lessons in German, the end result is that you can speak German. That is, speak German like you speak English. You haven't learnt anything about speaking German amusingly. If you are a poor conversationalist in English, you will be not be any better in German.
But tennis is different. You are going to have to learn the "language" of tennis, of course, - how to do a forehand, backhand, service etc., but you are also going to have to learn the tactics and strategy of the game. This is a step further and is the equivalent of teaching your student, who has just learnt German, the art of conversation too.
You remember that when you learnt German you had to spend some considerable time in "larynx gymnastics" - sending commands to the larynx to produce unusual sounds and doing it until the various complicated muscles in the larynx could work together to do what was required. But note that these muscles were already in good shape, they were quite accustomed to speak English. What you were really practising was combining their effect.
This is not necessarily the same in tennis. You may be fairly fit, but there are muscles in your body (you use the whole of your body to play tennis) which may be under-exercised.
Step 1 in tennis is therefore gymnastics. You must develop the muscles that you don't use in your ordinary life but will in tennis. Look at any tennis game and ask yourself what muscles are the players using that you don't normally. You will find they are mostly leg muscles. Hopping, jumping, and especially side-jumping across the court, always facing forward.
Step 2 is the equivalent of learning vocabulary and this is where the teacher enters. He will know how to split up the complicated movements of a forehand drive into small mini-movements or gestures. As in teaching a language he will look for "hooks" to hang these gestures on. For instance, he will hold the racket out to the student, head vertical and ask him to grasp the handle "like shaking someone's hand". This is the conventional "forehand grip". What he does next depends on his estimation of the student's character, background, intelligence. If the student has a scientific, or at least practical background, he may do some Socratic questioning (ie. cleverly designed questions which force the student to arrive at the conclusion the teacher wants)
Teacher `You want to hit the ball so it moves fast. So what must the speed of racket head be?'
Student `The racket head must be moving fast when it hits the ball.'
Teacher `Right. And how do you make the head of the racket move fast?'
Student `Er. I have to swing it back first, I guess.'
Teacher `And ..?'
Student `Then hit it like ..' Makes a sweeping movement.
Teacher `Right. You swing the racket back and then sweep it forward with your arm outstretched so the racket-head moves as fast as possible. Like beating a carpet.'
Student makes a few swings, making the racket-head hiss through the air.
Teacher `Good, that's the idea.' Teacher now hangs a tennis ball on a piece of string so the ball is 1 foot above the ground. `Now show me how you hit this hard.'
Student places himself, swings back racket and thwacks ball.
Teacher `Good. Now I'm going to do that again but this time I'm going to move the ball towards you as though it had just come over the net. Hit it again so it goes back over the net.'
Student eyes the ball and moves around a bit. Then he swings his racket back, waits until the ball is within reach and hits it.
Teacher `OK'. Now hold everything. What is your position
when you hit the ball? Where is your left shoulder pointing?'
Student (Looks around) `I was like this and (surprised) my left shoulder is pointing at the net.'
Teacher (pleased) `Very good!'
This is a vital point. It's an unexpected and unnatural movement (like having to turn into a fall on a bike, or having to lean on the outside ski when you want to turn). You would naturally think that in tennis you keep looking forward all the time. But no, it's like cricket or golf - if you are a right-hander you point your left shoulder where you want the ball to go. (Later on the student will learn that the only time he can hit the ball and look at his opponent at the same time is in the service and the overhead smash).
The student has now seen three gestures, the grip on the racket, the swing of the forehand drive and where he must be when he takes a swing.
The teacher will then go on to say that the ball can come from all directions and that the student must run to position himself so that his sweeping-forwards fast-moving racket-head and the ball come together at the right moment.
`You play tennis with your feet,' he will tell the student.
He will then show the student how to wait, racket in both hands, and then to run forward, shoulder pointing at the net, at the same time swinging back the racket. There are lots of other little gestures like flexing knees, putting weight on left foot, throwing out left hand to balance, which are pointless to verbalize. The teacher is trying to talk to the student's right brain which is deaf and dumb. He can only say `Imitate me.' The student follows and gradually gets a certain `feel'. He is stringing a large number of small gestures together. It is the equivalent of speaking a very short sentence.
As an aid the teacher will now place a tennis ball mounted on a stick 2 feet above the ground in front of the net and then get the student in the right position, arm swung back, ready to hit it over the net. Then he will tell the student to note his exact position, where his feet are, where his shoulder is pointing etc. and then tell him to go to stand on the base-line.
"Imagine you are still standing by the ball," he says. "I now want you to dash forward and `fit yourself' into the same position".
He will then get him to do this from different positions and distances from the ball.
The next step is one up in complexity. The teacher now (ideally) switches on a ball-machine which lobs balls over the net and he and the student alternately knock the balls back, the student trying to imitate the teacher's movements. The student's returns will fly all over the place to begin with, but then suddenly, almost by accident, one will go back over the net, just right.
Ah, joy! A myriad of little gestures have come together in just the right way. And probably just in time as the student is flagging. But now he will remember the effortless way he hit the ball, in the center of the racket so there was no jar up his arm, and just at the right point in its trajectory. He will remember with delight the way the ball snapped back, just over the net. He has "spoken a whole meaningful sentence!"
It's a very important step. The student now knows he can do a forehand drive and how it feels. Finally the right brain knows what is expected of it, after all these useless words! The student won't do it again for a while but at least he knows what is wrong with each bad return and can internally criticise himself. And so gradually the good returns become more and more frequent.
(Note In many tennis Courses it is the teacher who lobs the ball to the student, which means he is a very expensive ball machine. Furthermore, while he is doing this he cannot serve as a model for the student as the student sees him from the front, as in a mirror. There are remote-controlled ball-machines and technology should always be used when it helps.)
The Course proceeds and the student learns more sentences, like how to do a back-hand, to serve etc. After a time the student can perform all the shots and has been trained to receive them from all angles and return them to any chosen part of the opposing court. He is now ready to begin to learn to play tennis.
This is the final stage and one which doesn't exist in a language school. No language school teaches their students to make witty conversation in their newly learnt language. But in a tennis school this must be done. Of course one strategy is to return every ball that comes over the net and wait for your opponent to make a mistake. But if you make it easy for him to get to the ball for his return, he will make it harder and harder for you to return and ultimately you will make a mistake. You must play aggressively and put the ball where he cannot get it.
Your teacher will now teach you how to play aggressively. How to rush forward to the net whenever possible as this widens the angles and enables you to place the ball almost anywhere. How to disguise your return until the last moment. Where to place your ball so as to make it difficult to return (at your opponent's feet, at a point he is running away from etc.)
Comparison between making a conversation in German and playing tennis
The linkage between the concept "drive ball into left hand of court" and the muscles required to do it, is very long. Much longer than the most complicated sentence in German (and they can be long!)
Consider a typical sequence in tennis:
The ball is detected coming towards you and you must start to run towards its predicted impact point. As you approach you must arrange that when you arrive your body will be in exactly the right posture, weight on left foot, racket swung back and at exactly the right distance from the ball on its estimated first bounce. On the way you decide on the stroke. All this is easy to write, but the ball can have an infinitude of trajectories and velocities and you must adapt to the actual one in a fraction of a second. You don't have time to work it out, you must have done this shot so many times that you have a network worn already - you have in fact barely time to choose the right network. (A fast serve can be at 200km/h which means it reaches you in a 1/2 second and so you have this time to react). You say "go" and the commands to all the muscles are given in the right sequence. If you are fit, the muscles obey without pain signals and the ball is returned.
It is a bit difficult to compare playing tennis to speaking German because speaking a foreign language is really only an "add-on" function to your brain, whereas playing tennis is, as they say, a whole new ball-game. To learn tennis you have to create new paths right through your brain, from fundamental aggression right through to delicate muscle control. Which explains the deep primitive satisfaction you feel when you put the ball straight at your opponent's feet and see him fall over in trying to make a return not allowed by the laws of physics.
If you haven't spoken German for a long time you will find you can pick it up again very quickly. You can understand most of it immediately but your larynx and face muscles will feel strange when you try to reply. The necessary harshness in speaking German has become disused if you have only been speaking English.
Muscle condition obviously plays a much bigger role in tennis. When you play, you find that at the beginning the muscles are not warm, you have slightly lost the path to a perfect forehand drive and you need a few minutes practice to get “in the groove”. For some time you now play at your peak. But after a while you get tired, your legs start to complain and instead of running for the ball you start to reach out for it instead. The result is bad returns. At this point you should stop for a rest as if you continue you will get used to these bad habits and use them even when you aren't tired.
It is very frustrating to try to play tennis after a long pause. The ball approaches, you press the button "forehand drive" but then find the right path to your muscles has become covered with weeds. You fight your way through only to find that the muscles themselves just won't obey. There is a danger that you now start to play cautiously, using less grown-over paths to less tired muscles, which lead to little spooning shots. And as in the case above, you can get into bad habits.
Learning and teaching – Summary
When we are very young we are apparently programmed to teach ourselves certain skills like walking and to speak whatever language we hear. Lots of other information and skills we learn by imitation.
When we go to school we continue to learn by imitation but also we come under the influence of teachers who actively push pieces of information into us in the right order so that each new piece of information can be associated with the preceding pieces. To start with we just do what we're told: repeat the "times table", practise forming letters etc., not always knowing what it's all about. But as we grow up we gradually begin to see a pattern in what is being done to us. We start to understand that Learning means first trying to associate new knowledge as much as possible with old knowledge and then learning by repetition, the extra bits, the difference.
By the age of 15 or so we have "learnt how to Learn" and the function of the teacher suddenly changes - he now just tells us what we should learn. In fact, there is usually a fairly detailed list of what we should learn, covered in the syllabuses of various exams and the teacher's job now is more to show us where we can get the information we need to solve a problem and exceptionally to help to explain some difficult point.
And so we hopefully pass our final exams and enter the world of adults, able to use a library, a train time-table, a computer. To ask meaningful questions. To have learnt enough about ourselves to be able to determine what we want to do with our lives, what we need to know to live that life and where and how we can learn the appropriate specialist information.
We have become educated.