Friday, 26 July 2013

Learning from learning a new language with Michel Thomas

At school I spent 5 years learning French. I got a grade B and moved on, completely unable to have even a basic conversation in the language.

On other hand, I became a confident conversationalist in Spanish within 9 months including, but not limited to, learning by the Michel Thomas method (btw, if anyone is trying to learn the basics of a new language, I can't recommend him enough). Don't get me wrong, there are many reasons for the big discrepancy in the time it took to learn (e.g. Immersion, 5 hours a day study, urgent need, age, etc), but I want to look specifically at the differences in the methodology of my learning.

School learning

  • Focused on learning common phrases and vocabulary, split up in to common situations (e.g. Ordering food, Sports).
  • Lots of new words to learn each week.
  • Little practice on sentence construction emphasised.
  • Common situations are left fairly separate.
Basically, the emphasis here is on getting a large vocabulary. Unfortunately, I never gained much confidence in creating my own sentences and so could only say very specific things ('Ou est la gare?'). On top of this, many of the sections we covered were never returned to, and I forgot much of this grand vocabulary I was supposed to be building up. Doesn't this sound familiar to a Maths class?

This is me with French.

The Michel Thomas method

  • Focused on learning sentence construction including verb conjugation and tenses.
  • Very little vocab introduced - what vocab is introduced is extremely common and generalisable to most situations.
  • Every rule and word introduced is practiced often and is quickly connected and used in different ways with previously introduced concepts.
Here, only the generalisable is learned: sentence construction, conjugation, common words and tenses. These are all things that are used in every conversation. It wasn't complete - when I first landed in South America, I could still say very little as the amount of vocabulary I knew was minimal. However, every word I learned afterwards was because I had direct and regular need of it, and I was confident that I could use it by connecting it to the rules I already knew. It gave me the confidence to learn new words on my own.
Michel Thomas teaching Sofia Loren

How can this be related to Maths education?

The reason I've been thinking about this is because pupils I have seem to have a similar tendency that I had in French class to over-compartmentalise different Maths skills rather than seeing them as part of something bigger. Also, one of my worries about SBG is that (if used incorrectly) it could exacerbate this.
I also worry about pupil retention when so much syllabus is gone through every year.
So what would Michel Thomas' Maths classroom look like?

The Michel Thomas Maths class:

  • Much reduced syllabus, focusing almost entirely on Maths skills that are generalisable/transferable to many situations.
  • Most of the emphasis is on becoming fluent with these (fewer) skills and on the ability to combine them in different ways.
  • All skills are constantly repeated as they are brought in to combine with any new skills learned.
  • Struggle (particularly to remember certain skills) is discouraged and comfort and ready fluency with skills is encouraged.

What would be the advantages and the disadvantages of such a method?

What parts of this method should we keep and what parts should we discard?