Over dinner yesterday evening, my son (you know, the one who reads the EasyItalianNews.com broadcasts) was telling us that today he has a test at school, but expects to do badly.
It’s some sort of online multiple-choice test, apparently, at which you only get a few seconds to answer each question, and (this part is uniquely Italian, I think), if you answer wrongly you get a negative point.
This time last year the class had done a similar test, with the same teacher, and it had been a disaster. Everyone had failed, and the teacher had been ‘incavolata’, blaming the kids for not having studied.
This reminded me of the first time I administered an ‘end of course’ test, I told him. Way, way back at the beginning of time, when I was first starting out as a language teacher. ALL my students did terribly!
That came as rather a shock when, first thing on a Saturday morning, full of enthusiasm, I sat down to mark their test papers.
In a panic, clutching a sheaf of test papers that I’d covered in red crosses, I rushed to the school to phone my boss (younger readers may not know that in the past there were no smartphones or mobile networks…), who kindly invited me around to his place so he could take a look.
In his dressing gown, he glanced through the papers and confirmed that virtually the whole of my class would have to repeat their month-long course.
“Didn’t you prepare them for the test?” he enquired, though it must have been obvious that I hadn’t. I’d worked hard for a month planning and delivering lessons, to the best of my ability and according to what was on the syllabus, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that I should (cheat?) and look through the test my students would be expected to pass during their final lesson with me.
Back at yesterday’s dinner table, my wife (also a language teacher by training) and I concurred: if everyone does badly on the test, it’s likely to be a problem with the test, not with the class. Cioè kiddie, it’s the teacher’s fault. She should have known better. So if it’s another disaster tomorrow, don’t feel too bad about it. You’re in the hands of an incompetent.
I tried to think of other learning situations, with which to illustrate my point to the lad, though he’d lost interest by that point. Learning to drive, for example!
Obviously, there’s some individual variation in the quality of the learner-drivers, in their driving instructors, and probably in examiners, too. But the system broadly works – most people pass, sooner or later, and the ones that don’t, probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel in any case.
See? Not everything about the world is as screwed up as at your school!
Which, in turn, has made me think about learning. Learning to drive, taking the theory test, passing the practical, are ideas that I guess most people are familiar with, so not a bad place to start.
There’s a defined goal – getting your license/permit.
(Have you defined a goal for your Italian?)
There’s a defined set of knowledge and skills – the Highway Code, reversing into a parking place, and so on.
(What are the most ‘necessary and immediate’ things you need to learn to achieve your Italian goal? Says who?)
There’s a feedback system, so you’ll know how you’re doing – your instructor at first, then the theory test, then the practical examiner.
(How will you know you’re learning? How will you measure how much? How will you realise when you’ve achieved your goal?)
You get the idea, I’m sure.
But learning a language is a much BIGGER, much LONGER, and much less WELL-DEFINED task than learning to drive a car.
You might, for example, consider that ‘knowing Italian’ would include being able to understand most of what you hear (allow months, or years), being able to express your thoughts with only a minimum of hesitation (ditto), or being able to pronounce the language in a way that doesn’t make you a laughing stock (good luck with that.)
I’m sure I could list dozens more elements that could quite reasonably be included in the umbrella goal of ‘knowing Italian’, and so feature in your studies. We could add ‘an extensive vocabulary’ – but to what point? Or how about ‘confident and accurate use of grammar’ – but ALL of it, and to what ‘tolerance’?
And not to forget ‘having cultural knowledge of the Italian-speaking community’, which is a rabbit hole awaiting the unwary with time on their hands. You could spend lifetimes just on that one.
See? Learning Italian is not the same as learning to drive. My analogy is a limited one.
What about learning to play better chess (I’m not a beginner, just bad at it), which I mentioned on Wednesday?
Some elements are common to learning to drive, for example the presence of feedback systems and resources. My app shows me my ‘ranking’ (which seems to get worse and worse), and that of my opponents. Each game is won, lost or drawn, so that’s very immediate and useful feedback. And there’s a myriad of exercises and puzzles to try, which are organised by their nature and purpose (checkmate in two, checkmate in three, forcing stalemate, openings, etc.) Those are really helpful in understanding what I need to learn, and how I should go about it.
Yet some elements are common to learning Italian and NOT to learning to drive.
There’s no ‘end point’, for example. I have to set my own goal – how much ‘better’ do I want to be, and what does ‘better’ mean anyway? If the app’s algorithm will, by its very nature, attempt to match me with players of a similar standard, I’ll always have close to a fifty/fifty chance of losing no matter how much I learn, which, to all practical purposes, eliminates one of the feedback mechanisms. All that’s left is the ranking number, and who knows what that means or how it’s calculated?
It’s something to consider: whether you’re a beginner at Italian, or super-advanced, or massively-experienced but wildly-inaccurate as I am, THERE’S ALWAYS SOMEONE BETTER THAN YOU.
Which means that any coherent, sustainable learning-activity will depend on having appropriate goals.
Will I ever become a chess grandmaster? It’s highly unlikely (though I once had one on the back of my motorbike…) Does that mean I shouldn’t try to improve, then? Well, of course it doesn’t.
Will I ever perfect my Italian? That’s equally improbable, especially as I’m not even trying, preferring to spend my time on other languages which offer more scope for escape from the day-to-day frustrations of life in Italy.
Insomma, it’s about knowing what you want, but more importantly, why. I want to improve my Swedish, to show I can, to prove something to myself (Physician heal thyself!), to please my wife’s extended family, and to learn about the process of learning from the student’s point of view.
What did Tom’s teacher want, when she set her class an impossible test? To motivate them, maybe? If so, it probably didn’t have the desired effect. But hey, no one’s perfect.
Perhaps it was to set a benchmark, so as to be able to measure the progress achieved in a year! By comparing the results from 2020 against 2021’s similar test? I wouldn’t want to credit the lady with a vision and strategic ability that probably doesn’t feature in her professional toolkit, but it’s not impossible.
At the end of the day, though, she’s the one making the decisions, not the kids.
And if you ask me, lone voice in the wilderness, THAT means that if the outcome is not what is hoped for, it’s the responsibility of the person who selects the goals and feedback mechanisms.
Think about that.
A lunedì, allora.
Here’s a final reminder about this week’s two ‘eBooks of the week’, Amarcord (Fellini’s film, retold for learners of Italian) and La coscienza di Zeno (the sort of literature teachers shouldn’t inflict on teenagers but which makes perfect lockdown reading for a man of fifty-three…)
They’re both half the usual ebook price, until Sunday night, when the offer ends.
On Monday I have something new for you!!
Watch this space.