The people who wreck education [3]

By this stage, various comments and questions have come in, some detailed here. I thought perhaps the best way to proceed was to speak of my experience of teaching English as a foreign language in Russia, as well as my own efforts in learning Russian.

Chomsky has been criticized for his Eurocentric and English-centric theory, without application to other languages. It’s curate’s egg stuff, as many of his premises are not seriously challenged but the conclusions and lines of further theory are. Ditto with the criticisms and why a more simple way of putting it all might help.

Components of language acquisition

On Saturday, I was conversing with a French girl on a train and while I apologized for forgetting my French, she at least understood it and commented on that. Part of my French was immersion, part the four years of formal French I learnt and part the everyday taking in of the major French online dailies – written French – going on even now. Needless to say, my intonation was far more of a problem for her than my grammar.

When I went to Russia the third time, this time to stay, I’d bought three books – a Berlitz guide, a Russian grammar and a Russian verb book conjugation. They certainly helped and as I was sharing this with my travelling companion, this fuelled the learning but even so, we barely had sufficient basic phrases. The first people we came into contact with were Russian English teachers – they understood the Russanglais in reverse and spent much of the time both correcting errors and introducing key words and phrases.

Error correction

This idea of correction of errors is so vital and was spoken of in Part 2 in that American article. As Berlitz understood as well, certain key phrases were crucial to just getting about but it did need immersion to practise them and there was only really immersion once the Russian English teachers were out of the way, although they had an important bridging role. My companion went off with other girls most of the time and I was with professors and the like and so this stunted the learning. She was basically language lazy and as the girls all wanted to speak English, she ended up instructing them in English, just as I was being pumped for English. Our own language acquisition was grinding to a halt.

In my case, I was desperate to learn Russian but was getting only what was being presented to me, out of context quite often – at least in the situations I was facing. This is one thing the modern textbook is doing – much as we can lambast it for its level of grammar – it is trying to recreate real situations, real conversations but of course, assumes High Russian or High English, which the average person is not speaking.

Years later, I asked the students at university which English they wanted – the High English and perfect grammar, ordinary conversational English or street English? The teachers were in no doubt – it was formal grammar which the students had learnt, on average for ten years before reaching me, with heavy emphasis on intonation in the spoken form, through phonetic renderings of all major words. The pedantic Soviet system was excellent in a few respects and one was the heavy emphasis on formal instruction, error correction and placing language in the context of situations. Added to that was the fervour with which kids took to English plus an almost brutal workload, far in excess of anything in British schools.

With me in learning Russian, as with them in learning English, certain things rapidly expanded language acquisition. Immersion – conversations with natives – was vital. Every time I went out of the door in later years, English ceased for me – I thought and spoke only in Russian and steered people away from English. At home, English was spoken with clients but with anyone else, e.g. neighbours, the cleaning girls, people here and there, it was only Russian and this threw up so many grammatical issues that I’d mentally note them from the day and check the grammar books when I got home.

I kept my English up partly by blogging and reading blogs.

I had one other major plus – a phone connection with my Russian mate, a linguist and it was so free and easy that if he had an English question, he’d phone and ask it – ditto with me in Russian. It was wonderful. We’d both accumulate, ahead of our weekly meeting, all the grammatical questions from that previous week and go through them. We were both dedicated to that. He would walk up to the tram stop or wherever each day with a PS and cassettes of language, listening, repeating, listening, repeating, phoning me later, listening and drawing his own conclusions, especially when the cassette and my take did not seem to agree.

I wasn’t as intense and hence my language did not proceed at his pace. However, as my English-speaking girlfriend moved on and I found myself with native Russian speakers – or rather those who’d speak Russian most of the time – it most certainly improved but also deteriorated – my mate had wanted me speaking only High Russian but now a lot of street jargon was creeping in and I was certainly becoming Russianized. At what stage should a stop be put to this?

On top of that, it wasn’t only the language – it was the culture, the cuisine, the TV, the theatre, the newspapers, the jokebooks – all of them added value to the language acquisition, as well as something new – increasing discernment. For example, I could tell, from the word for milk, whether that person was from our city or from Moscow.

The nitty gritty

How far immersion would have led, I don’t know. I was certainly picking up my primary language – the vocab and syntactical elements – from immersion but I wasn’t able to extrapolate, if I might use that term. I’d be able to parrot a phrase but not make the connection, through understanding, to create a new phrase which was true to the original. It was painfully obvious that, never having studied Russian, I was severely handicapped, even though I’m not bad on languages overall – even on Saturday, with that French girl – if I could have been with her for four weeks and gone to France, I bet I’d be speaking fair French again at the end of that time.

Yet 1. I did long ago receive formal French at a high level of teaching and 2. I’m language oriented anyway and pick up on things quickly.

How far would just the grammar and vocab building have gone? Well, there was an Englishman who came to visit us and that’s all he had. His grammar was good but his speaking was woeful, naturally. I’d drop into easy Russian with him, which the natives would follow but he’d then stump me with wooden but correct questions using vocab he’d pick up and I hadn’t – plus his grammar was much better, as he’d studied the language formally.

My conclusion from all of that was that a mixture of all sorts of sources is required. Read voraciously but it’s not enough. Speak garrulously and let yourself be corrected. When they tire of you, go on to someone else and vary the conversation partners. Learn the grammar, the syntax, do the word building, form questions and listen to the answers. Listen, listen, listen. Immerse yourself in the culture. Have a friend whose native language is the other one and work together. Have a girlfriend or boyfriend where even the pillowtalk and talk over breakfast is critical to acquisition – happy talk, tired talk, worried and even hysterical talk.

The role of the teacher

I don’t like the throwing out of grammar but nor do I want to return to dry grammar with no context nor error correction. My way with the girls in the sessions at uni was to open by speaking in Russian, something they weren’t expecting and saying, “Nye boyatsa,” don’t be afraid. Speak and make your mistakes – I won’t be laughing at you in he least and any girl here who laughs at someone else’s language is being foolish. The only way is to try it – for my part, I’m honoured you would try to speak our language and would want to. Am I likely to make fun of someone doing that? There was a hell of a lot of coaxing went on and above all, I had to bite the lip and learn to say nothing at times, to never get upset. If I was ever frustrated by them, then that session had been lost.

Everything taught, though oral and free form, had a written backup in handouts they’d take home with them to check out in their own time. So many did not want to concede they hadn’t understood but later, with the luxury of phonecalls to friends who’d also received these handouts, they’d make sense of what I said. Instructions were in Russian but the work was all in English.

The level of English of those girls, after ten years of very hard work, using all sorts of methods, with a bit of tweaking by me in the final stages, was exemplary and I’d say many of them spoke better English than my neighbours do here. Certainly their grammar and intonation, with the slightest of accents, was admirable.

How vital was the relationship between pupil and teacher? Pretty vital, according to the Russians. They have a term “rukovodital”, literally meaning “hand-driver” or better translated – personal tutor and the way it worked is a student would come to you if he or she wanted and you, the teacher, could choose if you’d “adopt” that student. Then followed pretty intensive work – I’d get deeply involved in the thesis and in her [or occasionally him] and her ability or otherwise, highlighting strengths, papering up cracks and so on.

Everyone did it that way and different teachers had different styles – I was dedicated to that individual student, as all staff were but I was also known as a hard taskmaster, sending her back to do something again and again, ruthless on plagiarism and many shied away from that intensity but some had the courage to take me on, knowing they’d probably get 5 [the top mark] at the Commission hearing because of 1. their own talent, 2. their thorough grounding by the time they reached the Commission and 3. the tweaking we’d do near the end – error correction, refocussing, including this, dropping that, practising the talk. The last few sessions were on how to handle Commissions.

My view of the teacher’s role, after the formal lecture phase was that in the tutoring you need a personal academic relationship with every student – a teacher needs to give of him/herself, which immediately takes care of discipline questions. So you’d have twelve or thirteen separate relationships going on for that hour and a half, each with its measurable tasks for that session and you’d never forget each as you’d hvae written up the last session and reminded yourself just before the one coming up.

Work habits and class sizes

One boy had been working at a 2 or 3 level, playing truant and he approached me, hoping I could get him a 5. He was never going to do that as he’d missed so much through fecklessness and had huge gaps but now he wanted – perhaps he was panicking – and he knuckled down. His old fecklessness came back at times because of his typical laddish nature and I had to keep at him, which he was good-humoured enough about but it was a pain to do the work he had to. Once we had a summit and I asked him if he really wanted my help. He ended up with 4 and was my friend for life.

This highly personalized style of education was still present in Russia, as it had been in the Ancient Greek days and there are many good methodologies – catechism is most effective – but it also requires the dedication of a teacher who knows what he’s talking about. His desire has to be for the pupil to exceed, to surpass him and not be jealous but to be delighted. In my book, a teacher afraid to be shown up is a poor teacher.

Every teacher knows about these relationships with his/her kids and the satisfaction is in him doing well. Every teacher wants small class sizes and to give individualized instruction – the good ones do anyway. I’d say it’s not necessary in the instructive, lecture phase. We used to give lectures to about 200, which was fine in getting the main points across, after which came the tutorial phase and that’s where the important learning took place.

Vital is the student’s ability to research properly and find out more for themselves – skills training is a large component of that. So no – not only cognitive work please. Also, “student discovers for himself” is a vital method but it’s not the only one and certainly not in isolation. The teacher still needs to set up the experiment in the first place, his experience in realizing the students would probably make this discovery or that shaping the structure of the lesson. Though there are good online tools these days, you still need to manage them or the student gets overloaded and digresses. It’s a two-way thing all the way.

Knowledge and dedication

Which brings in the question of the teacher’s own knowledge. If he teaches just from a book, he’ll not get anywhere near as much out of the kid as someone with a thorough grounding. Bringing in experts from their fields from outside is good but not all of them know how to impart their message all that well. Again and again, we come back to a variety of sources and methods.

I’ve no time for lazy teachers who arrive shortly before the beginning of the lesson or even after it’s started, not even having tested the disks or tapes. Students pick up on that quickly and that brings in the role of example in a student’s learning. It’s vital the teacher is a role model. He needs to be a walking example as far as possible.

All of the factors above are necessary for rapid and solid learning. Sackers differentiated between “learning” and “knowledge”. The distinction is fair but the tent must be big – knowledge and skills are both important, as well as learning the skills to get knowledge.

The age of learning

How much is age a part of language acquisition? Only learning Russian coming into middle-age, whereas they had studied it from childhood, most certainly, in my eyes, made a big difference for me in the negative. The article writer in Part 2 says the window closes after a certain age. I’d not say it closes but most certainly it becomes more difficult to acquire language, partly because of the ear, partly because of other preoccupations getting in the way and skewing it, partly because one is not as freewheeling later.

Yet my French would be much better if I’d come to it later, when my brain was mature enough to process what I was learning and placing it in the context of other subsequent language learning and experiences abroad. I understand French far better now than when I formally learnt it. So age cuts both ways.

The eclectic

All manner of inputs and influences are necessary in language acquisition, as has been repeatedly said above – from the baby’s watching of the mother’s lips and the sounds coming out through to the formal learning of later years, hopefully free of trauma and/or hatred towards teachers and the boring nature of the “instruction”. It was so much easier for the enemy to throw off formal teaching because of the way formal teachers had become. Conversely, every one of you knows though of a teacher you may have had who brought the subject to life – maybe only for one lesson, maybe repeatedly.

Passion – for your subject, for your students – that’s vital too.

All of it’s vital but it also has to be a pleasant experience. At my site, I’ve mentioned a few times why I learnt Russian and not the local language. The answer was simple. With the latter, my initial experience was through a terrible teacher and it put me off [almost] forever. With the former, my first instructors were children and my second girlfriends. Which was I more likely to warm to? In the last two years, I met girls who wanted me to learn the local language and so I gave it a try again, under their bemused tutelage. Within weeks I could speak some of it. I’d never have got that far with just a formal grammar book, yet it was formal grammar or the lack of it which stalled further progress. Cut both ways.

Perhaps the answer is to come to the language through high interest and then cast around for the grammar. That’s where the personal tutor comes in.


Unfortunately, politics got into education [see Part 1] and people with a barrow to push – global socialists, the PTB, governments who thought they were onto a good thing, feminists and other -ists – interfered, imposing new fads and the problem with these is that they took universal truisms and valid criticisms of the old regime to mean an overthrow of all the best parts of the old regime as well as the bad and the result was plain wrong, not least because it was using methodologies and research methods which were just plain ideological constructs without foundation [see Bloom].

Part 4 of this series is about how research was hijacked by these people. After that, there’ll be a few days break and then Part 5 will be inflicted on the reader.

Politics in education is like diet – new fads undermine the balanced diet. Cutting out carbs, cutting out fat altogether, cutting out this or that is a recipe for disaster. We come back, time and time again, to the old question: “Did these people know what they were doing in throwing out grammar and formal instruction, did they know where it would lead? Or were they plain incompetent in their ideology? Or was it a combination of both?

I’d say the principals were culpable while the followers were probably just brainwashed sheep. Either way, there is a very great evil in education and the highpriests of that evil infest and control the closed shop of seats of learning. Just as with the political elite in general – they need to be purged.