Saturday, February 17, 2018

Binaries Be Gone! How Flipped Learning Can Help Students Think Critically

My department at East Carolina University is called the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. There are hundreds more similarly named college departments in the world. All of them help cement a perception of a field divided: on one side, one may say, stand the foreign languages taught as a skill instrumental to communicating; on the other side reside (often canonical) bodies of foreign literature that are read and interpreted as repositories of cultural memory. As the Modern Language Association noted in 2007

"This configuration defines both the curriculum and the governance structure of language departments and creates a division between the language curriculum and the literature curriculum and between tenure-track literature professors and language instructors in non-tenure-track positions. At doctorate-granting institutions, cooperation or even exchange between the two groups is usually minimal or nonexistent. Foreign language instructors often work entirely outside departmental power structures and have little or no say in the educational mission of their department, even in areas where they have particular expertise."

One of the distinguishing differences between learning to read, say, a poem in a language class versus the same poem in a literature seminar is the focus on critical thinking. The poem may be used in the language class because it employs a lot of grammatical structures that are being studied in a chapter; sometimes it is evoked to illustrate a cultural topic that "garnishes" the chapter, such as Ausländer in Deutschland [foreigners in Germany] or Fernweh [longing to travel]. Language learners may distill phrases from the poem and use them to communicate with each other. The same poem, however, when read in a literary course, may serve as an object of inquiry into pressing socio-cultural questions or historical intellectual developments; it most likely will be analyzed, evaluated, and maybe even showcased in a research paper. 

We can evoke the revised version of Bloom's famous taxonomy of educational objectives to visualize the binary nature of language versus culture instruction: skills on the bottom, intellectually enriching engagement on the top:

As the MLA concluded in its report, "this two-tiered model has outlived its usefulness and needs to evolve." What I find particularly alarming is the neglect of critical-thinking instruction in the lower division courses. First of all, such an omission reduces L2 learning to mere "mechanics," and it robs students of the opportunity to practice cross-cultural analyses and evaluations that could help inform their language production. 

Flipped learning can help infuse L2 instruction with all of the educational objectives in Bloom's taxonomy, ushering in learning that brings about translingual and transcultural competence, two goals advocated by the MLA:

The idea of translingual and transcultural competence, in contrast, places value on the ability to operate between languages. Students are educated to function as informed and capable interlocutors with educated native speakers in the target language. They are also trained to reflect on the world and themselves through the lens of another language and culture. They learn to comprehend speakers of the target language as members of foreign societies and to grasp themselves as Americans—that is, as members of a society that is foreign to others. They also learn to relate to fellow members of their own society who speak languages other than English.

How can flipped learning do this? By allowing the instructor to move the grammar explanations, vocabulary exercises, and readings of cultural texts into the individual learning environment so that class time can be used to use the language as the mere tool that it is with which to experience the culture, to discuss it, and learn from it.

My second-semester learners are currently comparing U.S. American and German patterns of consumption, investigating why Germans have sales-free Sundays and no credit card debt, how the recycling mentality has shaped German views about environmental resources, and what mental health has to do with excessive materialism. They are using their albeit limited German to practice shopping dialogs and to act out scenarios involving merchandise returns. But by the day they are assessed on this unit, each group will have worked out an undergraduate research poster that explains the German and American approaches to function and form, or, stated more concretely, the difference between using three pairs of practical, well-made shoes versus owning twenty pairs of cheap footwear.

The binary structure created by this comparison is one they can then overcome, if they so choose. But to grasp the difference between judicious and frivolous consumption, they have to first become acquainted with alternate ways of consuming, with different "normals." And that difference they won't encounter by simply memorizing vocabulary lists and grammar rules.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Four Reasons to Flip Your Foreign-Language Classroom

Recently I was asked why anyone should flip their foreign language classroom. What a great question! There are many positive outcomes (less arduously graded homework landing unread in a waste basket! more dynamic assessments! enthusiastic learners clamoring for more discussion! students wanting to major in your language!), but these four are the most significant to me.

The most immediate benefit of flipping delivery and application of content lies in the guidance we as instructors can provide to un- or underprepared learners as they try to apply the content in class. When they do traditional homework, no one is there to point out an error on the first exercise so that all subsequent work may contain the same error, potentially fossilizing the inappropriate structure in the student’s mind. Correcting traditional homework in class only catches a few of these errors, but even then, students with limited comprehension often cannot abstract a specific correction to their own work.

Working through an exercise in class, on the other hand, provides the instructor with instant insights into individual students’ challenges before these turn into full-fledged problems. In addition, a well-staffed group can support struggling team members even before the instructor may intervene. That is why, at the beginning of a semester, I assess my new learners’ abilities and then create Familien in which strong students help their peers.
Inverting the conventional order of content delivery and content application also provides the student with a more stress-free environment in which to learn. In my courses, we call “mit der Sprache spielen” [playing with the language] because that is what we do. My learners create with the building blocks they gradually acquire through a chapter, from simple structures to truly impressive ones in the end. As they are practicing how to “stack their blocks” while I am in the classroom with them, I can assess them in a more up-to-date formative manner because I witness each student’s progress through the material and am able to intervene if their tower of blocks should tumble.

There isn't a foreign language teacher in the world who doesn't aim for more communication in the target language in his or her classroom. We all want to have our students speak more, but often there is so much housekeeping to take care of! Going over homework, explaining grammar (sometimes even of the native language because you cannot teach relative clauses if students don't recognize them in their mother tongue), introducing vocabulary, providing realia (real-life objects such as authentic news clips, cartoons, magazines, toys, food, train tickets, menus, money, etc.), quizzing, and testing.

What if you moved all the informational items out of the classroom, introduced them in the individual learning space, and only did the hands-on activities in your classroom? Now you have lots of time for active learning in the target language, using games, group projects and the realia that so fascinate our students. My learners are usually so engrossed in exploring the German culture that they don't even notice that they are using the German language and its grammar in the process.

Our textbooks tend to introduce culture as mere backdrop to grammar and vocabulary. Thus, the concept of staying healthy and fit in Germany might play a subordinate role to, say, reflexive pronouns and subordinate clauses. There might be a cultural capsule or two about Germany having universal healthcare or the Versichertenkarte [insurance identification card] shown at the physician's office. But this is only a smattering of culture and doesn't entice the students to hone their analytical thinking skills. 
Here is how I approach the chapter on health and fitness. Over the span of eight class sessions, my students prepare at home by watching brief videos of people calling their physicians’ offices for an appointment, checking in with the receptionist, being examined, and picking up their prescriptions at the pharmacy. On their worksheets (one each per class session, comprising all at-home preparation and in-class team work), they soak up the vocabulary they encounter in these authentic video situations by filling in blanks, choosing the best possible answers in a scenario, determining whether an utterance is culturally suitable in given situations, and reading dialogs together. At the end of the chapter, my learners write their own dialogues, which lets them delve deeper into the German culture by simulating their participation in it. Grammatical structures and vocabulary are acquired as a secondary skill, and do not constitute the focus of the chapter.
Finally, I summatively assess mastery of the content through group-produced videos in which learners role-play four separate scenes:
1.     conversation with a sick roommate and calling a doctor’s office for an appointment or the physician’s Sprechstunden [calling hours for immediate care]
2.     check-in with the receptionist, using a (homemade) Versichertenkarte and waiting to be called
3.     examination and asking for a Krankmeldung [medical certification of inability to work]
4.     filling a Rezept [prescription] at the Apotheke [pharmacy]
Here is a brief clip from a student video (check-in at the doctor’s office):

Because I can provide information in English on the at-home portion of my worksheets, I use the lessons I have developed for each chapter to introduce my students to brief, but judiciously scaffolded readings about aspects of the German culture. All information is thoroughly documented, cited or hyperlinked, and as up-to-date as possible. The questions that follow each reading require higher-order cognition.
The early cultural enrichment segments on the healthcare system begin with the German reasons for Kuren [medical spa "vacation"] and Spaß- or Erlebnisbäder [waterparks], describe the historical and political reasons why Germany introduced universal healthcare in the 19th century and how it adheres to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in recognizing health as an inalienable right of its citizens.
In further readings, students compare the costs of medical school in Germany and the United States, the average salaries of healthcare providers and their staff, as well as the numbers of hospital admissions, deaths due to medical error, and malpractice suits filed. The information students see on a worksheet might look like this:

A.     (50P) Kultur im Vergleich [cultural comparison]:
In Germany, public universities are free to attend, but you must have graduated from a free college-prep school called „Gymnasium“ (which is attended by circa 50% of all German pupils). Your graduation GPA is very important because only the very best students can study popular subjects such as medicine.
Median medical school debt (2013)
Median monthly health insurance premium, 21 yr. old student
3.4 (2003)
2.3 (2002)
Average physician salary (2009)
Average registered nurse salary (2016)
Average receptionist salary (2016)
Hospital admissions per year (2013)
Patient deaths due to medical error (2013)
17,000 (2010)
251,454 (2013)
Malpractice suits filed (2013)
Malpractice awards granted (2013)
Contingency fees (lawyers’ share of monetary damage awarded)
* Before there might be a trial, representatives of the doctor’s medical association and the patient’s health insurance company enter a no-cost mediation procedure.
B.      Please infer (= to make an educated guess). In your estimation, how might these facts affect medical treatment costs of sick or injured people in Germany and the United States? Why do you think that – which facts in the text and table above guided you in forming your opinion? You’re welcome (but not at all obligated) to research this question further, but cite your sources properly.
(10P) Possible effect on medical costs in the US and Germany:
(40P) My reasoning (Explain how each of at least four statistics supports your response):

The next worksheet provides my students with health statistics that show the German and American positions on global rankings on heart and lung disease, cancer, dementia, obesity, smoking, alcohol consumption, and drug use. Learners are asked to assess which country seems to be healthier. After that they receive information about the costs of each nation’s method of managing healthcare: how much individuals pay on average, how much the government subsidizes, per capita expenditures on healthcare, and the medical costs accrued by the un- or underinsured. After each reading, the students analyze the (again, fully documented and hyperlinked) statistics provided, compare both countries’ data, and draw conclusions about the feasibility and flaws of each nation’s approach to ensuring its citizens’ health. Each worksheet serves as another window on the topic until the combined comparative information provided allows groups to evaluate the two nations’ positions on healthcare.
The final chapter project reaches the top of Bloom’s venerable taxonomy: creativity! Each student Familie writes an article for the campus newspaper (where we will submit the best version) about the national and private connections between health and wealth in Germany: How does the German approach to financing universal healthcare enable employees, employers, and the government to keep medical costs down, productivity up, and taxation equitable? At the time I write this, the newest version of a Republican replacement of the Affordable Care Act is being debated, so we hope that our newspaper contribution will enrich the conversation on campus by bringing a little known, but valuable international dimension to the table.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How I Started Flipping

I have been teaching German language, culture and literature at the college level for a very long time and have always enjoyed it. There are, however, a few aspects I truly love about interacting with my students, and I wanted to multiply them in depth, intensity, and duration:

  • Making class time dynamic and FUN.
  • Harnessing the knowledge of more advanced students and/or the energy of highly motivated learners to help their struggling or less interested peers.
  • Having sufficient time in class to answer students' smart questions about German culture: "Why don't Germans smile at random strangers more often?  or "Why is a college education nearly free in Germany?" or "How do many Germans construct a self-identity?" 
  • Leading students to discovering answers to these questions by providing them with the tools of critical thinking
  • Seeing students overcome the fear of producing utterances in a second language.
  • Helping students individually, depending on their personal needs.
  • Assessing all of the learning that occurred in my classroom, not just isolated vocabulary or grammar.
  • Giving students the tools to evaluate German culture, warts and all.
  • Making space and time available for learners to analyze differences and similarities between their own cultural practices and the way Germans handle theirs. Is there something to learn from these analyses?
  • Offering alternate German identities for my students so that they can walk in another Schuh and shed their monoculturism.
  • Laughing and playing in my classroom.
  • Celebrating students' success in creatively communicating in German.
  • Boosting the motivation in the classroom and outside through in-depth cultural discussions that make my learners think critically.
  • Providing explanations that students can access a second (or third or fourth) time around.
  • Witnessing students connect to the German culture in their own meaningful ways.
  • Talking less while my students interact and collaborate more in the target language.
  • Developing more intellectually each semester rather than repeating the same lessons and jokes year after year.
  • Giving students detailed feedback on the spot (instead of grading stacks of homework that those students who need my explanations usually just toss as soon as I return to them my toil of many hours).

The search for a teaching strategy that allowed me to achieve all the above took me many years. I constantly added and eliminated classroom practices, but the problem remained: LACK OF TIME! There simply wasn't enough time to do the pleasurable, mind-stretching, analytical, and creative activities that I saw as so desirable (and my students did, too). Not only that: it seemed, as the years went by, that students' grammatical preparation in high school was less and less adequate, with the result that I needed more time to explain grammar, first the English version and then the German variation. And that is when I discovered the flipped classroom. Shifting all those grammar explanations out of my group learning space gave me the breathing room I needed to start transforming my classroom into a dynamic group learning community in which amazingly smart insights occur by enthusiastic students.

Incorporating flipped learning into my German college classrooms supports my students' needs and my own desires as a professional educator. I hope you, too, will discover the same joy of reconnecting your discipline, your students, and yourself in this innovative and gratifying manner.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Letter to My Future Students

Welcome, dear fellow learner, in our classroom!

I am delighted that you want to learn more about the German language and culture. By the way, do you know why it’s so beneficial to learn a foreign language? Studying another language exposes you to a new culture, increases your tolerance for different opinions and behaviors, diversifies your political and social views, and helps your entry into the globalized workforce (even potentially increasing your salary; see the graph of career-time economic gains by an employee proficient in a foreign language).

Speaking a foreign language is a practical skill and should be approached as such. How do you best learn to ice-skate, paint, or play the piano? By listening your instructor give you daily lessons and then practicing for half an hour? Or by practicing, practicing, practicing, and practicing some more, with a trainer or teacher watching and giving you concrete tips to improve your growing skill? Of course, it’s the latter approach that will yield the best outcome.

In most classrooms, you have the following ratio of instructor-to-student input:

The professor lectures and you listen or take notes. This is called passive learning. If you’re lucky, you get some hands-on experience using the newly learned content, but usually you will apply it at home (or not… we all know students who don’t do their homework, right?). At the end of a learning unit, you get tested on the material that you have memorized by staying up the night before. For the final exam, you need to re-memorize all of the semester content to demonstrate your knowledge. Aber weisst du was [but you know what]? Knowledge of a foreign language equates only to theoretically understanding its grammar and remembering its vocabulary, not being skilled in actually using the language. That only comes with practice.

That is why we will approach learning German differently in this course. Our time will be split like this:

All that practice in class will be done in groups, and you will carry out tasks that relate to real-life situations. That’s called active learning. Your group members (and your instructor) will be there to help you complete a task successfully. That’s called cooperative and collaborative learning. Your homework will be to absorb the digitally delivered information and fill out worksheets with the details that are needed to complete the in-class tasks. These tasks will help construct knowledge, interweaving the information into useful applications which, in turn, provide you with the skills necessary to use German. The process of culling useful information from the digital content is called self-directed learning and will enable you to become a life-long learner, that is, someone who has the intellectual resources and the will to analyze questions voluntarily, to find answers independently, to evaluate sources of information, and to apply the gained knowledge toward solutions and skills.

Since this course concentrates on practicing a skill, not passively accumulating knowledge, your learning will be assessed through group projects. You will practice (in class and outside of it) and then play-act real-life tasks such as going grocery shopping, booking a hotel room, going to the doctor, or viewing an apartment. Tests are take-home worksheets that ask analytical questions about the German culture, sport a short grammar section, and outline the expectation for your group performance.

In summary: In this course, you will transition from passive to active learning; from acquiring knowledge by rote memorization to practicing a skill by applying the knowledge; from solitary to cooperative and collaborative learning; from chasing a passing grade in GERM 2003 to constructing deeper meanings derived from dissecting parts of the German culture.

A warning: some students won’t like it. They’re the ones who prefer to coast through college and life with as little effort as possible, who have relied on memorization skills to make it through the lower levels of the German language, who don’t want to leave their comfort zone, who expect a dog-and-pony show from their instructors, who resist the growth that comes from facing challenges. They’re the ones who blame others (parents, roommates, instructors, etc.) for their failure to develop into functional adulthood, as shown in this particular evaluation:

This class has made me lose all interest in German. I really don’t care about the culture and am only learning the language because I have to for my major. The first semesters were easy. But now that I am forced to think about stuff and not just do the homework and be done with it, I don’t like studying the language anymore. Frau Jensen is not helpful at all. When I needed her to help me with grammar, she forced me to figure it out in front of her in her office. I could have done that at home by myself! Also, there were too many discussions in class about how terrible America is in comparison with Germany. If Germany is so much better, then why do people come here to work? I often felt really uncomfortable and just said nothing rather than saying what I really think. I guess I also didn’t care enough. The same goes with our group projects. I couldn’t work well with my teammates because they wanted to make a longer skit when a short one would have been just fine. They didn’t care about my schedule and often met when I couldn’t make it or even met without telling me. So, I learned almost nothing new in this class. It was boring and too much work. Total waste of my time.

Contrast that sample student’s frustration (1%) with this representative feedback (99%) from another learner who was able to appreciate that our efforts bring results:

The actual usage of the language to carry out a project was the best part. It created leaps in our abilities to understand and to speak. It also challenged us and stretched us beyond our comfort zones, which made some angry but it is the ONLY way to learn. I enjoyed the immersion aspect, it seems that though we meet 3 times per week, you really need it every day to cover a lot of the material. It was a lot of work but I think the benefits are clear. I can understand much more when I read now and understand more comprehension-wise with listening. I do not need to understand every word in a sentence to get its grasp, and I can finally "get it" when something is in a different tense, or uses a possessive case, or changes a verb to something else. I can understand the gist, even if I am not able to describe the word. I can formulate more natural sentences to describe things without thinking for five minutes ahead of time. I really liked having the debates in class, they were very helpful to see things from a new perspective. I liked the classroom style and feel I learned more this way than in the last course here, though I still may be struggling. It is just taking it a while to all sink in, but I feel like my growth has been incredible. And really the language usage in class is my favorite part; I want to have a basic ability to use the language if I have spent years taking classes, and we use it in class enough that I feel I could actually ask for things in person without having to ready it from a guidebook whereas before I am really unsure if I could. Plus now I know why Germans might react a certain way because I have learned a bit about the way they think. Wow - we've learned a lot this semester and it was so much fun! 

Binaries Be Gone! How Flipped Learning Can Help Students Think Critically

My department at East Carolina University is called the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. There are hundreds more similarly n...