Teaching VS Learning

Sandra Dominelli

Hello everyone and welcome to the first in a series of blogs in which I will share tips, primarily relating to language teaching, but ideas that also relate to good teaching practice in general. The first tip, the one that I will discuss today is very dear to me as it is what  inspired me to create what is now known as the Accelerative Integrated Methodology (or AIM), a methodology that rapidly accelerates language acquisition. So this is the tip, summarized in a quote by Alfie Kohn: Consider that what counts in a classroom is  not what the teacher teaches, but what the learner learns.

In order to explain why I love this quote and why I feel it is my first choice as a tip for you to consider in your teaching, I feel I should explain a bit about my background, which is also probably a good way to begin! I started my career as an immersion teacher in an inner city school in Ontario over 35 years ago…in some ways it seems like yesterday!

I really struggled through my first few years – I was not a good teacher at all – I just could not get a handle on the best way to teach and classroom management was really a challenge. However, the French language was a passion for me and I wanted so much for my students to learn to love it as much as I did AND to successfully acquire the language – that was key for me. If we can give students the gift of language, in my mind, we are among the most important teachers in a school. So after a couple of years, I started to improve my skills as a teacher, luckily and some of my primary immersion students became confident and developed a basic , beginning language proficiency. Then after 5 years as an immersion teacher, I switched to a different school… I got a job closer to home at a school that had a basic or core French program – This is how I learned French, so I was excited to work in the context in which I had l acquired French myself so well!

To my surprise, the students in this school…from the first through seventh year of instruction were no different in their language skills…imagine that that after seven years of 30 minutes of French every day, there was not one student who could speak to me, no one could read well with fluency nor with correct pronunciation, and to my dismay, no one understand when I spoke in French nor could they write a sentence …much less a paragraph. I remember being so frustrated, I didn’t know whether I should even stay in language teaching – I felt that I was failing the students. Since then, I have spoken to many teachers about the notion of teaching vs learning…I remember a few stories of teachers who describe how colleagues who receive their students come back to them, asking why the students don’t know this or that in the language and the teacher explains …but I taught it!!

So back to the quote…. what matters is not what we teach but what the students learn. Within the first year as a core French teacher, realizing that my students had really not learned any French over the course of 7 years I felt that HAD to do something! So I began my action research with my students, doing whatever worked to make sure that they learned and bit by bit, step by step over the course of 10 years I tried and tested different things and eventually I built a system/methodology that is now AIM.

The tip for this week is very close to my heart and I do hope that you might consider this in all that you do as a teacher…It became part of my day-to-day experience with my students and still does as I now work with both students and teachers…I am constantly asking myself …am I making sure that my students are learning what I teach? Am I doing everything possible to support my students and ensure that they are able to speak in the TL only in all interactions in the classroom with their peers and myself,  using the words I teach them? Am I recycling words that are key to language proficiency? Do I place these words in different context so that they are acquired ? Are the students able to use the words that I teach, to be creative…for example, am I making sure that they can write stories of, say 8 to 10 pages? I can say that it is absolutely possible to create an immersion environment in all language classrooms and to have students do all these things – I have experienced it with my students and in the many classrooms that I have visited.

In future blogs I will be providing tips that will help you to achieve this success – to make sure that students acquire the language that we work so hard to teach… These tips will be taken from questions that  teachers often ask me about in workshops – tips that are more concrete in nature and specific to certain AIM strategies….and others as well. Please join me again next week ! If you are interested in making comments on this week’s tip or on asking questions that we can include in future Tips for success videos, please comment below!