Monday, January 9, 2017

Response to Chris Cashman - part 2 - Learning vs Acquisition

This is part two of my response to Chris Cashman's questions, which can be seen here. Part one of my response can be seen here. I have put Chris' text in blue so you know whose words belong to whom.
First of all, I’ll share some common points between how I teach and some of the methodology you brought up. But then, I’ll launch into a big gap that remains for me – a gap from what you shared, and the lack of response about it when I post about these things on other blogs, discussions with colleagues, and ACTFL Discussion Boards. Still coming up dry.
The thinking behind your grammar videos actually overlaps a bit with the pattern that I myself use to present grammatical structures – and vocab too, actually (I give vocabulary lists for four out of eight units in Spanish 3).  
Keep in mind that the grammar videos are there to help others learn Spanish. They are not necessarily made for my students. While some of my students use them, I would say that the majority does not. And considering the medium (online), it is very hard to replicate what goes on in my class with the internet since what I do is not lecture at all, but instead incredibly interactive and contingent upon my students to provide feedback, ideas, reactions, input, etc.  Meaning: we have conversations in the TL on a variety of topics.

First, you have students:
(1) observe the structure in a communicative, or meaningful, context. I do that. I never start an explanation of a grammar point with “We’re going to learn how to speak in the past tense today. So take your verb, chop off…” Ehck! Try to have students discover it for themselves. Sí, simón.
Yes, I learned in my methods class when getting my master’s about the deductive vs inductive approach. I prefer having them figure it out (even if it’s guided) whenever possible. In that way we can treat it as a journey and remind them how wonderful it is to figure things out.
(2) Define it. Ok, what are those endings? What is the whole tense paradigm? Let’s nail it. Guided notes. Students have probably figured out a lot of it anyway if I’ve presented a good sampling set in stage 1.
(3) Input – This is a stage that the traditional folks don’t do. Before requiring students to produce anything with what they have now successfully observed and defined, I use the grammar – and vocab, by the way, and yes I do lists – in the context of goofy stories, PQA’s, and T/F questions (about the class, about pop culture, about stuff).
Sounds good. I can tell that you are incredibly passionate about what you do! Your students are very lucky to have you as a teacher to give them so many passes of the language in a variety of contexts, to help build the mental representation in their brains of the language.
(4) Output – By the end of a unit, I do expect and require students to produce a story, write a little paragraph about a camping trip, or compete to be the meanest “Mean Girl” with present perfect, write a letter advocating for environmental change using subjunctive, lo que sea.  
I am thinking that (4) is where you and I differ – the output / production piece. You view it as much more longitudinal; I expect pieces along the way. Perhaps we differ on (2) as well, but based on your awesome video industry, I’m thinking we don’t – but I don’t know how it intersects with your current teaching model. So let’s focus on (4) for now.
My biggest issue is how assessment and accountability to learn happen within a TPRS-type teaching set up.  
How do you assess learning, and all the while keep it academically rigorous? Do you ever assess output?
The only things you’ve said in that regard in your post is that students must “communicate their ideas” and that “their understanding of grammar… doesn’t show up in their production”.
Do you at any point in a four year sequence assess them on putting an “---o” at the end of present tense ‘yo’ verbs, or “Tú tienes” instead of “Tú tengo”?  
So I am quite fascinated by all of this and appreciate the discussion. Nevertheless, I am wondering if we are mixing terms.
I need for you to define “assessment” and “learning”. Because when we mix meanings of terms, we can really think we are talking about the same thing, while talking about very incongruent concepts.
For example, in a presentation that I recently gave, I used the term “Comprehensible Input”. My understanding of “Comprehensible Input” is that of a way to deliver the language to students in such a way that they will get the language in their heads by focusing on the meaning and not on the grammatical features.  I think of it as a more comprehensible immersion.
Nevertheless, the very wise Eric Herman has pointed out to me that the term, “Comprehensible Input” is something that any teacher will do in some capacity with their kids. Any teacher that gets any of the language into the heads of their students technically has given them comprehensible input. While some might accomplish this through repetition of vocabulary and conjugation of verbs, some language is still getting into the students heads so that later they do have something that represents Spanish there.  This is still a very big difference from what is there in their brain when we are using the language in context constantly like you would with a child.  Therefore, Eric proposes that we instead use the term, “Comprehension based approach”.  In saying this, we are owning what we do in our classes more so than by simply saying, “Comprehensible Input”.  When we say, “Comprehensible Input” (Unlike TPRS), we tend not to alienate people as quickly.  But this could be because everyone believes they do “Comprehensible Input”.  Now their degree of actually doing it in their classroom will depend on their actual instruction.
So back to terms, you have used the terms, “Assessment” and “Learning”.
Let me first get to learning, because our understanding of it will lead us to the next.
You mentioned being really excited to jump onto TPRS years back in perhaps a sort of parallel journey we shared in our paradigm shifts.
If you were trained in TPRS, then I would imagine you were taught about (and came to recognize) one of the fundamental differences between what TPRS and Comprehension-Based-Approach (CBI) see in the mind of the learners. In fact, if you ever listen to Tea With BVP, you will notice a similar distinction constantly playing out in the rhetoric of the show.  That is that there are two terms that many Modern Language teachers throw around as if they were synonymous.  Those terms are learning and acquisition.
I’m sure you can already see where I’m going with this if you’ve taught with TPRS and been trained in it, and talked to teachers that use it.
When we talk about learning a language, we are talking about it as if it is math or history or a subject like any other in school. We are talking about using the part of the brain where facts are stored. It requires recall of information.
I like analogies so here’s one: Learning would be like me telling all the fingerings on the guitar for all of the chords and all of the parts of the guitar.  And learning all of the strumming patterns. If we learn these skills separately, maybe eventually I will put them together. Oh and don’t forget music theory.  That’s how I understand learning.  You might notice many of my videos focus on the language in this way since they tend to model more textbook type teaching and explicit grammar points.

*Please note that none of these are inherently bad. Many will come across these at some point in their learning to play the guitar. But the question is would it be necessary?
Acquisition, on the other hand, is the unconscious process by which our brains absorb the language.
So back to the guitar analogy:
This is actually how I taught myself to play the guitar.  I would find a song, I focused on how I would play that song and learned the chords needed. I didn’t learn every chord known to man. As I got better, because I was interacting with the guitar instead of studying it constantly, I learned more chords and mixed those with chords I already knew. I also was able to play more accurate chord shapes to a key because my ear was slowly developing. For example, you play guitar in a Spanish church. So with worship music, I have noticed that in the Key of C, it often sounds better to play the actual C shape: 030210 than the worship C2add9 (I believe that’s the name): 032033.  
In the key of G, I often prefer to play both C and EM with the two bottom strings on the third fret. I find that those sound better within the key than those two fingerings do in any other key.
I definitely wouldn’t play that Em fingering in the key of D. It doesn’t sound quite right.
While there is most likely some music theory there, I can tell you that my guitar playing is functional. Perhaps to get better at this point, I need to increase my input and watch others play harder things with more chords.  I’ve tried the music theory route, but find that the more I know about the guitar, for whatever reason it doesn’t translate as well into my playing better.  (Granted, I’m  sure there are probably guitar players out there that find the opposite results).
And something to think about: how would you “assess” my abilities on the guitar?
Would you give me numerous chord names and tell me to draw those on the frets of a guitar diagram?
Would you ask me what all of the chords in a song were?
Would you ask me, “what’s the difference between a Cadd9 and a C” or “what’s the difference between a Dsus2 and a Dsus4?
Or is there another way that you would assess my understanding?
Would you ask me to label a diagram of the guitar anatomy like so:
Does my explicit knowledge of those things necessarily make me a better guitar player?  
Or if you were to ask me all of the chords that I could play within a key perhaps. Would knowledge of that make me a better guitar player when I can’t even play a chord?
So how does this translate to my classes. My students might understand endings of the words. But as I’ve experimented with grammar over the years through pop-ups, short explicit lessons, I very rarely see those things being used 100% effectively. From what I understand, this is completely normal as they are slowly building their mental representation.
Going back to learning and acquisition. You can learn about a language relatively quickly. But actually acquiring the language is something that takes a lifetime. I continue to acquire Spanish each day.  Perhaps the times this has caught me most off guard was when I was immersed in SPanish in a college class with the teacher who spoke only Spanish in a Spanish history (or lit?) class and I suddenly started using the terms, “en cuanto a” and “acerca de” in my speech without knowing exactly what they meant. Yet I was using them accurately. I actually had to look them up to confirm my suspicions and sure enough, my brain had simply snatched them up in that linguistically rich environment.
Secondly, similar to you, I have been involved in Hispanic ministry for years and I hope to swap stories with you whenever we’re finally able to meet!
A majority of the people at the church at the time were from Mexico. So the input I was interacting with was incredibly Mexican.  When I went back to school after years of being out of college, I was in a graduate Spanish class.  I remember that I was telling my reaction to something and kept saying, “se me hace que” (me parece que).  The best part was: again, I didn’t even knew I knew that phrase!
That’s acquisition at its best.  While I could have learned those phrases and used them, it turns out my brain does that when the language is being used, and then I can retrieve it without trying.
When I learn it, I have to be way more conscious of what I am saying.
So going back to the guitar, when I am playing guitar, am I pulling out all of the amazing theory and knowledge of the guitar or am I playing what comes naturally?
I am no expert on language acquisition. I pray I haven’t misstated anything thus far. If I did, I hope those who are wiser than me will correct me quickly.
But it seems to me from my observation of when I learn something is that language is something stored in the brain completely differently than math or science or even vocabulary terms. Even my understanding of grammar doesn’t show up in my speech necessarily.  Trust me, I’ve corrected my pastor SO many times on how “differiencia” isn’t a word.  ¡Ni modo! (oh well!)
When I type this out to you, or when I passionately talk to others about what goes on in my classes, am I consciously thinking about every word and analyzing every facet of what I am saying? By no means!  I am instead focusing on the idea I want to communicate and the words I need seem to come out relatively effortlessly.
So is my teaching a Target Language that much different?
Bill VanPatten states all the time in his show Tea With BVP that how we acquire L1 and L2 are fundamentally similar processes in our brains.
You asked about rigor in my class. I don't believe that class has to be a "rigorous" in the sense that many administrators feel it might need to be. But it can be a lot of work. In my class, students must pay constant attention, interact with the input and with one another, and demonstrate understanding and misunderstanding. In the average class, they can passively receive the information. In mine, that doesn't work. So I would argue that my class is incredibly rigorous. Just not with "busy work".
But this whole distinction of learning vs acquisition is tricky from what I can tell when it comes to “assessment”. So how about I give anyone reading this a break and write one more post talking about “assessment”.

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