I’ve said a good deal here in the past about using puzzles as language teaching and learning tools, but there are a few more points I think are worth making. Then, having addressed theoretical and philosophical considerations, I plan to focus on posting very specific and practical ideas for puzzles and games and other activities, starting with my next blog entry. (That is the “Adventure Ahead” in the title!)
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BETTER, DEEPER LEARNING
I think we can take as a given that teaching language as a puzzle can make the learning process engaging and motivating. But I submit that it also makes for better learning. Here’s why.
Being presented with language as a puzzle gets the learner really thinking rather than simply memorizing.
As the learner grapples with the problem to be solved, multiple neural connections are formed in the learner’s brain, giving the learner a stronger and more robust grasp on the target. In the course of this, the brain is using prior knowledge to work out the new problem, and the resulting complex web of neural connections allows the learner to make meaningful connections between prior knowledge and the newly gained learning. And that’s a really good thing!
Consider an approach to teaching in which language targets are explicitly presented to the learners: “Here is an English word. This is what it means in your first language. Remember it. Now, here is an explanation, in your first language, of a grammar structure in English. Understand it. And here is a list of model sentences in English, accompanied by translations in your first language. Memorize these English sentences.”
This is what I think of as the ‘bank transaction’ approach to teaching.
The learner is reduced to a memorization machine—a data bank. The teacher makes deposits in this ‘bank,’ and expects to be able to withdraw those funds on demand—for example, by administering a test.
This seems to me to be a terribly dehumanizing approach to teaching. It does work well—for a few students. And these are then the students who are deemed “smart.” But this doesn’t necessarily show that they learn better than other students. All it really shows is that they learn better with this teaching approach.
And now a hierarchy is cultivated: the ‘smart’ students—the outliers who happen to have brains that are good at processing information this way—and the ‘not so smart’ students. But shouldn’t the goal be to have all students do well?
I think we can do better.
LEARNING TO LEARN
It seems to me that if one takes the bank transaction model of teaching—if we spoon-feed our students answers and solutions—all we can expect our students to learn is what we have handed them on a silver platter. (Two eating metaphors for the price of one. You’re welcome.)
But if we give our students questions to answer, puzzles to figure out, and mysteries to solve, then guide them in finding their own way to conclusions and resolutions, those learners will not only learn the target of the lesson—they will learn how to learn. They will develop the skills to take whatever information and clues are available and work with them until they have achieved comprehension and mastery.
We as teachers have so much more to offer than just the obvious lesson targets. We can instill a sense of adventure; we can foster independence; we can nurture autonomy.
What an opportunity and what a privilege for us!
NEXT TIME: A classroom game you have never seen before!