Saturday, November 7, 2015

Still Learning

Recently I signed up for an Internet Spanish course.  It seemed a bit like buying a lottery ticket, although I probably have a greater chance at winning the lottery than learning another language. Having sat through numerous college classes, viewed foreign TV marathons, taken adult ed, made friends who speak no English, I still do not know another language. When I lived outside the U.S. my new friends and neighbors, seemingly through their acquaintance with me, learn enough English to discuss Plato. Despite all my efforts, when I left their country I could say yes, no, and order a glass of wine.

For my next attempt to learn a new language I selected a self-paced course through fluencia.  The first few lessons are free but then I have to pay. I hesitated, decided I needed a challenge, and spent the money. What did I learn? Well, yes I am learning that while I am still terrible at languages I can pick up a bit of Spanish. But this endeavor is reminding me of some teaching truths:
  1. It helps when materials are presented in more than one way. The method fluencia uses is basically: hear it, see it, try it, repeat it.  Too often we do not give children several ways to learn a topic. Just listen! we tell them. "Are you listening?" we ask when they don't quite get it.  Well, I listen but it sure helps me to see it, too. 
  2. Speaking of listening. I am amazed at the simple things I forget that I just heard and saw. I find myself forgetting something that I supposedly learned two minutes ago. When children are learning new information, even when they are paying attention, sometimes they forget. As adults we tend to forgo things that are difficult. We then forget how the brain reacts to learning difficult new material.
  3. Old knowledge helps. The fact that I know what an article or infinitive is helps me recognize some of my mistakes. Past knowledge often helps children learn new material.
  4. Old knowledge hinders. I tend to want to type the Spanish word cu├ínto with a qu. The kw sound is wired into my typing fingers as a qu.  The child who learns something incorrectly such as writing "sed" for "said" has to work doubly hard at losing the habit.
  5. Learning strengths are deceptive. I think that I have a good auditory memory. Actually I have a great memory for conversations. When I was a journalist I seldom took detailed notes because I could remember exact words spoken. I realize when attempting to learn Spanish that my auditory memory depends on context. Just because a child can memorize a poem, Pokemon cards, or name 50 dinosaurs does not mean he can easily remember all the vowel sounds.
  6. Small steps also help. So do hints. When given a word bank (a set of words) I can arrange then into a coherent answer to a question given in Spanish. Ask me to just answer the question without giving me some words to use and the results are not nearly as coherent. Having the word bank  is a good step in the right direction. It helps me realize that I am learning. It does not mean, however, the material has been learned.  I will not always have a word bank and must venture out on my own. Yes, word banks can be a helpful modification for children with LDs, but they need to be weaned away from them.  Life seldom provides modifications. 
  7. Rewards help. Just seeing that I am on a 7-day learning streak makes me determined not to break it. This is not a major reward for children so stickers, checks, etc. do have a place in education. Having skin in the game also helps. I paid for a year long course and remind myself not to waste money. This helps me force myself to try the exercises every day. Children are sent to school. Despite what we tell them most really haven't invested anything to be there. So remember the rewards.
  8. Repetition is essential. When I am learning something difficult I need to have the ability to go back and review constantly. As a adult I select the areas I need to repeat. For some children the chance to decide what to review would delight them, giving them the opportunity to be in charge of their learning. Most children, however, don't know what they forgot so ongoing review of everything is essential. Often children are rushed through a skill. They may say "Got it," but without repetition and practice the new skill is never really learned. It is essential that children who need time to learn material have that time. 
  9. Long breaks don't help. A short trip out of town interrupted my learning. Getting back in the habit was difficult. Children with LDs often show regression after a four-day weekend. The summer break can be devastating to their learning.
I believe adults benefit from the experience of learning something difficult every now and then. It can be a physical or mental challenge, but it needs to be outside of the circle of things that are easy. The lessons learned help our interactions with children and get us out of any self-imposed ruts. It is a great gift to our children and to ourselves.

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