“Lowered Expectations”

There appears somewhere, in some publication, the following quote:

“…though he does not lower his expectations and students really do still have to memorize things.”

The source isn’t important. The “he” doesn’t matter (it’s not me, btw). It’s the rest of this statement that deserves a duly critique, not an ad hominem. Shall we?

In my research, I’ve been learning about “positionality,” which is making one’s interests, motivations, and assumptions known. I’ve also heard these referred to as “priors.” A researcher’s assumptions might be found in their theoretic framework section, which allows readers to understand the perspective, and situate the entire study. For example, the same study could be conducted by two teachers: one whose theoretical framework supports comprehension-based language teaching, and another who rejects that. Everything, from the epistemological view to the research question(s), data collection, interview protocol, analysis and interpretation—all of it—rests upon one’s assumptions. Well, in unpacking the quote above, we can identify three assumptions:

  1. memorizing is a high expectation
  2. the teaching approach this quote was referring to is associated with low expectations
  3. students don’t memorize anything in the teaching approach this quote was referring to

#1 is laughable. I’m not joking (jajaja, get it?). Memorization is widely regarded as the lowest thinking level. Granted, there is a particular school of thought that this lowest thinking level skill of memorization is necessary to advance in language development. However, there is no evidence to support this school of thought. This is an unsupported claim of something being more necessary and being a higher expectation than it actually is.

#2 is a typical story. Many teachers get the wrong impression of certain teaching approaches because they associate them with one single technique, strategy, activity, or method. For example, some teachers think of silly TPRS stories whenever they hear “CI,” and will probably continue to do so until the end of time. Having fused the two together—somehow—the method is now synonymous with the theoretical acquisition term, causing all sorts of rifts in the language teaching world. Consider the teacher providing input who doesn’t use TPRS. One mention of “CI” can lump them into that category of silly stories. That assumption also brings everything associated with the former, including negative connotations (e.g., decades of “Krashen bashin'”). The quote being duly critiqued does exactly that, and there’s quite a bit of history there. For example, when people blow the whistle on ridiculous expectations, any alternatives suggested will be characterized as being lower, or lesser, when they ought to be characterized more like realistic or reasonable. The matter worsens when the supposed high expectations produce spotty, unreliable results. This has basically been the case with Latin teaching for at least one hundred years.

#3 is outright false. The teaching approach this quote was referring to elsewhere in the publication broadly falls under “communicative,” a term that has its own issues, but let’s say the teaching approach really is communicative (i.e., purpose for reading & listening to Latin), and not just spoken Latin/active Latin/conversational Latin, etc. If so, a communicative approach is certainly supported by ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages). In ACTFL’s documents, the beginning (Novice) learner is said to understand “memorized phrases,” among other hallmarks. The assumption in the quote being duly critiqued is that a particular kind of memorizing is a high expectation, while other kinds of memorizing is not, yet on whose authority? There’s no support for this. Zilch.

What’s the point?

I’m mostly just disappointed something like this is in print somewhere. It illustrates how easily misunderstood certain approaches are that deviate from status quo legacy ones, and pretty much turns back the clock on pedagogical progress made in the last 30, 40, or even 50 years of language teaching. For example, I referenced my lite data collection on how many words are on the AP syllabus. It’s damning, to say the least, right? From the perspective of a comprehension-based and [even a] communicative approach to language teaching (CCLT), no learner has any business reading texts that far beyond their developmental level. However, no one’s actually suggesting we let the works of Caesar and Vergil die out. Not at all. Those dudes haven’t been canceled by teachers who hold comprehension first and foremost. That’s a grossly misunderstood conclusion that some over in “AP Latin world” and perhaps beyond have arrived at. here is a point at which students can truly read those authors—and we mean really read, not some other kind of close-reading or some analysis-based approach to the texts that requires notes, discussion, and constant lexicon references (vs. having a glossary available to consult occasionally as needed)—but that’s all beyond the scope of beginning learners. Let’s not confuse that with “lowering expectations.” If we’re being truly honest, most Latin teachers with Classics degrees cannot read the texts, themselves. Once we start asking beginning students to do not-reading things with those texts, it’s only a matter of time before the tasks become obstacles to learning.

Moreover, the case for not reading X by teachers who don’t have students memorize certain kinds of things is actually author-independent. It’s got nothing to do with whether a Roman wrote that work, some 15th century monk, or one of our contemporary Latin novella authors today. If the text is that far beyond the developmental level of the learner, regardless of who wrote it, that text shouldn’t be used. That’s not a “lowering of expectations” at all. That’s acknowledging reality, meeting students where they are and moving forward.

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