What are teachers really needed for?

By | October 8, 2015

The central theme of this blog is self-studying Japanese, which means not only learning a difficult language, but doing it without much (if any) formal classes.

Come to think of it, since I graduated over a decade ago I have had very few opportunities to learn in a formal class setting with a professional teacher, not only for Japanese and other hobbies but also for work-related education.

Recently I did had an opportunity to attend a short class on a work-related topic (software development). Even though this has  practically no connection to learning a foreign language, the teacher was quite good and this got me thinking about what it really takes to excel at being a teacher.

For this short training course, much of the material was available in the form of a PDF book or powerpoint slides, so technically I could just leave the classroom after the first hour and try to learn material on my own. I actually considered doing that, but after a few hours of listening to the teacher lecture I was convinced to attend the rest of the sessions.

The teacher, whom I’ll just call “John”, had many attributes that made the class worthwhile. Firstly, he was a true expert on the subject, being an author of several books as well as internet articles. But being knowledgable in a certain domain doesn’t necessarily make one a good teacher.

Besides his obvious command over the subject matter, to me one of John’s other strong points was that he was fun to listen to. This is due to a combination of factors, such as him not reading off slides verbatim, but simply using them as a loose reference, adding anecdotes and other things not present on the slides. He also added jokes or interesting phrases throughout the class, which made some of us laugh and kept us focused. I also felt his pacing was quite good: he would rush through parts that were less important and slow down significantly for other areas that we really needed to learn.

On top of all this, he really tried to get us involved through little mini-exercises, which he kept reminding us to do along with him during the class. It’s true that doing something yourself helps you not only remember better but discover new things on your own, but some teachers will simply state once at the beginning of the class “please do the exercises” and leave it at that. John would also persistently ask us at the end of each module, “Any questions?” and if nobody did he would press us, “Are you sure there are no questions? Don’t hesitate to ask.”. Using these techniques he managed to get many members of the class to participate and follow along, instead of just passively watching and eventually getting bored.

While in theory I could have read through his slides and PDFs and memorized all the material, this would have taken days, if not weeks, for me to read through every page, and odds are I would loose focus and end up quitting midway through. This is especially true because it was not a college course and there was no end-of-class test. But by selecting the material he felt would make the most impact and teaching it in a way that would keep us interested and participating, I feel that I definitely learned more in the class than had I just decided to self-study on my own. I’m pretty sure I’ll also retain the information I learned for a longer period of time since I enjoyed learning it. In my experience, the more emotions engaged during an experience, the better likely it will be retained.

Sure, if I had dedicated myself to spending several weeks mastering this material, I could have probably learned a great amount with just self-studying, but in this case I lacked the motivation to do so.

For those of us studying foreign languages, I think it’s important to knowledge the limitations of self-study. We should either make a conscious effort to attend formal classes for the sake of efficient learning, or do our best to fill in the gaps with our self-make study programs. For example, no matter how dedicated one is to self-studying a language, there are always times that we have a question that needs to be answered to clarify things for us. Fortunately, there are a variety of resources online to help satisfy that need (online forums, etc.).

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2 thoughts on “What are teachers really needed for?

  1. Jolineys

    You were lucky to have someone like John teaching this class 🙂

    I wonder how one could apply the idea of “mini-exercises” to language learning without slowing down the class. The way I remember it, whenever my teachers tried to get their students involved, it took a lot of time. Sometimes the class had to stop to 10 to 30 minutes so we could read / think about / write something, and the teacher only had time to ask some of us to share our answers (and couldn’t correct what the others had come up with). Or no preparation would be required but a teacher asked the same few questions to every single student in the class – which certainly seemed beneficial to her, but I can’t see of hearing a foreign-language version of “Hello, my name is X, nice to meet you” 30 times benefits the whole class.

    Sorry if this sounds like a rant. I didn’t mean to complain, I’m just curious about how a language teacher could get all students (of a large group) to contribute to their class in a time-effective way. Any ideas?

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Interesting question – I agree that having every single student respond to the teacher’s question is not unreasonable, especially if the class is sufficiently big (say over 10 people). I think that initial introductions might be an exception though, as it might be OK to take an entire class for that important activity.

      I think even if 50 students in a class are assigned to do something and only 5 of them are called upon to answer, the other 45 have still been motivated to do their best on the assignment since they might be called, and not being prepared would make them look bad to their classmates.

      The other way I think this can be done is by breaking up the class into small groups (say 5 each). The students within each group can talk amongst themselves, and the teacher (and any assistant teacher(s)) can go around the classroom, jumping from group to group to make sure things are going smoothly.


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