The Learning Revolution

Thursday June 16, 2011

The Learning Revolution
Jonathan Solity

This book is even branded with the same "Michel Thomas method" banner that adorns the language learning products, and there is more than a bit of Michel Thomas hero worship throughout. The tone throughout is basically, "Michel Thomas could save the children, the education baddies just don't understand."

I'm afraid the book fails to deliver on the cover's promise of revealing the secrets of the Michel Thomas Method. I think it may just be that there aren't really secrets. It's execution. It's always execution.

There are some principles that I agree with, although after over three years of classroom teaching I can't really say that I agree with them 100%, necessarily. For example, the book emphasizes avoiding measures like intelligence or otherwise trying to predict student achievement. I absolutely agree that we should have high expectations for all students and work to get every student to achieve, but the fact is, at least in some extreme cases, there are student differences.

Another overarching thing that I agree with is that educators should focus on what is taught and how it is taught. I've heard a lot of people say that research shows (I haven't ever actually seen the research, mind...) that the teacher is the biggest variable in students' success or failure in school. I wish I could see the research. Do they control for curriculum? Even if they do, most "curricula" don't really specify how teachers teach. I think it may be that the what and how of teaching are more important than who the teacher is. Of course, the teacher's execution will matter, and in a sense the teacher ~IS~ the what and, or at least, the how of teaching, but I think really strong curricula could help eliminate at least some teacher-to-teacher differences.

Going through the book to recall key points, maybe I was too harsh in my statement above that the book doesn't reveal "the secrets of" the method. I'll try to pull out those key points:

* No aversion to direct instruction. Cites the Project Follow-Through study results in support of direct instruction, and an old book by Ziggy Engelmann and Doug Carnine, called Theory of Instruction.

* Reference to Pareto's Law (the 80/20 principle) in relation to choosing what to teach and what to teach first.

* Focus on the teaching environment. (Make it nice, make it comfortable.)

* People remember well what they remember often. ("Rational analysis" focus on environment.)

* "Theory of optimal instruction": identify an optimal amount of information to teach pupils. (In Michel's case, then: high-frequency vocabulary and grammatical structures.)

* Responsibility for learning placed on teacher, not student.

* Learning without memorizing or forgetting: mix old and new -> "interleaved learning" (fewer items reviewed more often) + distributed practice and contextual diversity for generalisation

* Self correction

* Deciding what to teach (Ch. 9)
- Teach what is most useful
- Teach only one new skill at a time
- Teach easier skills before more difficult skills
- Separate similar skills (don't show them right next to each other at
first) and then teach concepts through minimal differences (positive
and negative examples)

* Norris Haring and Marie Eaton's "instructional hierarchy"
1. Acquisition
2. Fluency
3. Maintenance
4. Generalization
5. Application

Direct instruction AND constructivist approaches, but at different stages of learning

Michel's strategy for "teaching skills to accuracy":
1. Teach students to use a skill without any explanation
2. Provide an explanation, rationale, or rule for the use of the skill
3. Teach the skill further with more examples
4. Introduce exceptions to the rule
5. Teach exceptions through the principle of minimal differences
6. Show more negative examples

* Practice makes perfect / repetition rather than variety: ample opportunities IN CLASS for students to actively recall what they're learning

* Teach the principles that allow generalization

* Questions: don't try to teach new material just by asking questions (but Michel does ask questions, pretty much constantly, to which he has already taught the pieces needed for answering)

* Mnemonics: are good.

* Assessment: (normative), criterion-referenced, ipsative
- assessment-for-learning

* Praise and success: are good.

* Student errors: reflect on the teaching, not the learning.
- Strategies for correction:
1. Give the correction
2. Lead to correction by suggestive analogy / things known
3. "shaping" (accept imperfect but progressively better answers)

* Teach one thing at a time
* Make teaching explicit and open to only one interpretation
* Interleave learning and memorizing new vocabulary
* "Assess" throughout

* Questioning a class: ask, allow time for all to think, call on a student at random

* No homework

* Learning is fun!

Words I didn't recognize:

aetiology (p. 65) is etiology is the study of causation (sometimes esp. of disease)

dyspraxia (p. 105) is the inability to perform coordinated movements

dyscalculalia (p. 105) is dyscalculia is just what you'd expect (inability or loss of the ability to perform arithmetic operations)

plenary (p. 210) is originally an adjective to describe meetings/sessions attended by all; now also a meeting of this type

militate (against) (p. 222) (of a fact or circumstance) is to be a powerful or conclusive factor in preventing (not really a military meaning)

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