Ideas Without Labels: A Discussion Framework

It was John Bracey who reminded me that if either of us just started discovering CI right now, we’d have NO IDEA what to do or where to begin. It was very clear a few years ago when Story Listening wasn’t as popular, and Ben Slavic had yet to write his Big CI Book, let alone create The Invisibles with Tina Hargaden. TPRS wasn’t even promoting its version of MovieTalk, which is now standard practice in its workshops as the easier gateway to story asking. These all have positively contributed in some way to those teaching in comprehension-based communicative classrooms—don’t get me wrong—but the culmination has also made communicating ideas about CI more complicated. For example, the Teacher’s Discovery magazine has begun selling products branded with “CI,” regardless of actual comprehensibility, let alone amount of input, and some methods mention CI while simultaneously drawing from older methods shown to be ineffective (i.e. Audio-Lingual), and aligning practices with the latest publications from the research-lacking ACTFL. This isn’t a jab at ACTFL, it’s just the reality that most of what they promote is determined by committees, not actual research.

There were fewer teachers interested in CI, too, which meant that there were fewer opinions. In a way, it was almost easier beforehand to be dismissed by most colleagues than it has been lately, falling into debate after debate over what used to be quite simple. Professional groups have also migrated to Facebook, a more active platform. Instead of ignoring messages from a single list-serve daily digest email, folks have been receiving notification after notification on their phones, and responding promptly. There doesn’t seem to be as much time as there used to be to absorb ideas, formulate thoughts, and respond accordingly. For example, while my principles about what language is have been refined since the release of Tea with BVP in October of 2015, many teachers are just now discovering that resource, some of whom have been responding on Facebook with their ideas that haven’t had much influence since the 70’s. It’s becoming difficult to communicate ideas about CI clearly.

So, there are a lot of voices now, which is great, but just not that much support, which is not great, and not as much clarity, which is really not great at all. Many ideas I observe being discussed share no guiding principles, yet teachers go back and forth as if they’re the same thing. Most ideas aren’t, or there’s a crucial difference that one or all parties don’t see. There might be a way to move forward together…

In February of 2016 on Tea with BVP’s 14th episode, Bill VanPatten discussed the end of methods, instead basing teaching on, and evaluating practices against a set of principles. We’ve recently seen this described as a “post-method era” promoting “eclectisicm.” Eclecticism usually refers to using parts of different methods in order to cover all bases in a safe way, with the intent of reaching the most students. This probably appeals to Classicists under the principle of μηδὲν ἄγαν (i.e. nothing in excess). Eclecticism, however, could result in the worst possible combination, taking all the “wrong” parts from various methods! Here, “wrong,” would be any practice that violates guiding principles about the nature of language that inform teaching practices. Unless teachers establish the guiding principles for themselves, their “eclecticism” is no better than randomly choosing any single method. In fact, one notable Classicist felt so strongly about eclecticism that he recently left at least two Facebook groups recognizing too great a range in ideas with conflicting principles.

I propose that we begin discussing ideas without labels. Instead, let’s present ideas in a standardized way, like stating the Context, Goal/Assessment, Purpose/Procedure, so that each of us can evaluate whether the ideas match our principles without having to claim loyalty to any particular method—something others have seen has a divisive move. For example, if Teacher X wanted to share a common idea about grammar knowledge, they’d post the following:

1) Context – 9-12 public, 30+ students per class
2) Goal/Assessment – To read Caesar/by correctly fill out charts
3) Purpose/Procedure – To conjugate/by filling out verb synopsis in the following activity…[share idea]

Let’s say that Teacher Y takes a look at Teacher X’s idea. If Teacher Y is in a completely different teaching context, or has other goals, she probably wouldn’t use Teacher X’s idea. A fruitful discussion would be to discuss whether the Purpose, indeed, leads to the Goal, or whether the Assessment is a valid measure of the Procedure. In this example, Teacher Y could point out that “reading” is being used by Teacher X in place of the more accurate “translating,” or that the Goal might be inappropriate for the Context. If Teacher X rejects these, Teacher Y could provide anecdotes, or research as support. The teachers don’t have to agree, but at least both parties (as well as observers/lurkers) now have a common way to critically look at practices without any method governing ideas.

Overall, I think this would be a much better framework to use while discussing teaching practices. Let’s say a staunch grammar-translation practitioner shares an idea in this manner with a Story Listening practitioner, yet the idea aligns with the latter’s principles. This could avoid much debate, whereas without the framework the two might be focusing too much on particular features of their method without considering any guiding principles. Of course, this requires us to take a moment and determine our principles:

  • What is language? Should we teach language as subject matter? Are words separate from grammar?
  • How/why do humans acquire language? Are there particular conditions? What is communication?
  • How much control do I have over my students’ acquisition? Can anything I do speed it up? What might hinder it?
  • What is my role in class? Do students need to listen to me? Do they need to interact with me? What does this interaction look like? Does it vary from 1st year to 4th year? What should I expect my students to do during class?
  • Do students need to know grammar rules first in order to understand language? Do grammar rules exist in the mind the way they were taught to me, and how I teach them? Can I support/prove this?

2 thoughts on “Ideas Without Labels: A Discussion Framework

  1. I, too, have thought about how Facebook as a forum for discussion is different than previously writing articles and letters. When I formulate a post, I take some time, but I don’t give myself very long to process and think through my post. I respond immediately, instead of making a note of it and letting it sit on the back burner for a few days.

    Your three points for sharing a technique are good. They are the things to consider when choosing an activity or unit. It’s seems a bit much to ask everyone in a teaching Facebook group to follow that. It might scare newbies away. I don’t know much about wiki’s. That may work. Or just a community of bloggers. Not sure. I should let the idea sit on my back burner for a few days! 😉

    • If it is too much to ask, it might be used to stop things from getting out of hand, or at least centering a discussion that’s already spiraled out. Like, “hey MagistraClara, I’ve heard blah blah blah,” and then you could post the CGAPP (Context, Goal/Assessment, Purpose/Procedure) to get us back on track.

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