Monday, September 20, 2010

Foreign Language Classes as a Paradigm For Successful Instruction

To put this article in perspective, I should mention that I write a lot of harsh articles about the counter-productive practices used in public education.

A few weeks ago I wondered: well, is there any good news? Let’s approach this thing from the other direction and ask: are there still classrooms that are sensibly conducted; are there still subjects that are taught in an intelligent way?

I thought about French (or other foreign languages). And I was immediately sure that this was the least contaminated area in American education. Here’s why:

I bet that most French classes are still taught today very much as French classes were taught 100 years ago. This is great news. It means there is a laboratory where we can see how it should be done.

And what are the main components of this successful formula? There are two. First, teachers and students are deeply respectful of the content being taught; everybody loves French and wants to master French. Second, language classes are completely transparent; everybody in and outside the class can view and evaluate the progress made by all the students.

Think of the contrast with a typical public school classroom, where content is disdained, and the proceedings are so murky that almost nobody knows what success looks like or whether anybody is achieving it.

I wrote up these reflections in an article titled “French Class As A Paradigm For The Perfect Way To Teach Everything.” (On

Trying to keep the article short, I left out some interesting points. Run through your own list of the most popular fads in American education. You would probably think of Constructivism, Self-Esteem, Multiculturalism, Cooperative Learning, Portfolios, No Memorization, and many more. Now imagine a good French teacher evaluating these gimmicks (as I think of them) for use in her French class:

Constructivism? This means the kids are going to invent French? Sure they are.

Cooperative Learning? Learning French is like eating lunch at a bistro: you have to do it for yourself. When you interact, you should interact with the whole class or the teacher. Kids shouldn’t be chatting with each other, whether in French or English.

Multiculturalism? That’s why they take French to begin with. They’ll learn the glory of French civilization. Are you saying we have to stir in some stuff from Africa, Asia and South America. Bizarre!

Self-Esteem? Where does this go? Kids will hear records, movies, television news. Can they pronounce it like that? Then they’re good. If they can’t, should the teacher say they’re good. Everyone knows it’s a lie.

Portfolios? Oh yes, students will learn French by cutting out pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Maybe this is a way to learn about France in elementary school. But it is clearly not the way to learn to speak French in middle or high school.

No Memorization? And you want to learn French? Does this actually work in history and science?? Well, it doesn't work in French. The whole point is to memorize French...

My point here is that thinking about French clarifies how useless all these things are. My thesis is that these gimmicks are harmful in history, biology and all other subjects. You don’t always feel it because the Education Establishment has woven them into the fabric and made you think it’s normal to have contempt for content, and murkiness and ignorance in every direction.

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