Monday, September 29, 2014
2. The goal of a language course then is to teach language. We will produce better students of texts if our students acquire more language first, more linguistics later.
3. In my view, my dream is to see the development and spread of courses/teachers/methods that have some of the following features:
a. Instruction in target language 90% of the time or more. Actually I would really like to see methods that moved to 100%. I will explain why. I'm not opposed to shared language instruction, I think it can be very useful, it can shortcut long and difficult attempts to convey something in the target language. However, my experience teaching here is that students who do not already possess a majority language (English, French, German, etc..) are regularly needing to learn Greek/Latin/etc., with or through another non-native language. This is quite frankly a little absurd, it's not fair and it's not easy. I'm not complaining about the unfairness of it, but I think we could rectify this by pushing language instruction towards 100% in the target. Then anybody with the skill and training could turn up in a place like here and teach Greek directly. That's the direct method in action.
b. Hours in the language count. Pegging the required hours to academic standardisation, particularly the concept of the US credit-hour, doesn't work. It's an equivalence driven by US academic bureaucracy, that has no real bearing on genuine language learning. Want to produce genuinely competent language acquirers? Give them the hours in the language necessary to acquire it. Anything less is selling students short and deceiving ourselves.
c. Change the assessment. Students learn to the test, even when teachers don't teach to the test. Assessment ought to be linked to communicative competencies. Can students perform communication tasks X, Y, Z. I would peg this to something like CEFR, or the ACTFL standards (though I can't speak to whether Alira is any good. Remove translation as a way of testing competency. It only encourages students to learn to translate. Translation is not a basic skill, it's actually a high level art that should be held-off, rather than brought forward. Test students to see if they understand and can respond to target language material. Recognise that output generally lags behind comprehension. Test for what we want students to achieve.
c-1. Actually I think we should minimise as much assessment as possible. For the following reasons: (i) continual assessment tasks detract from teaching. (ii) effective small-group teaching will result in the teacher having a fairly accurate idea of student competencies anyway, (iii) formative assessment is irrelevant because of (i) and (ii), we are actually only interested in summative assessment: what can a student do with the language at the end. (v) students must learn, but if we are doing acquisition-based teaching right, then students will learn; if they don't reach those outcomes either (a) we didn't teach right, (b) we didn't teach enough.
d. Emphasise community. Western education is endemically individualistic. But language is about communication, which is relational, and languages don't live or die by individuals, but linguistic communities. We need to foster living language communities in classical languages, if we value those languages enough to want to study ancient texts. If a language is only useful 'inside the class', students will only value it in the classroom, and ultimately that will mean a decrease in motivation.
4. Anything short of communicative competency will not set students up for textual studies. In my view, that's about a B2 on the CEFR. Of course, students may stop before that level for many reasons, but if we are talking about designing a course of study, we need to get to this level. Otherwise, students are not genuinely equipped to deal with high-level texts. If we short cut the language to get to the texts, we will produce genuinely less good scholars. Or we will take a lot longer to do so. Or we will produce a lot fewer of them. We already have that.
In a future post I might talk more about what the goals of text courses should be. Let me close with a few caveats.
А. I'm not opposed to common-language instruction, but I think it should be minimal. Time spent in a common language is time spent (a) talking about the language rather than acquiring it, (b) time not spent in the language. The primary exception is that a common-language explanation can sometimes shortcut a difficult or impossible target-language explanation, and may actually save time for more target language time.
Б. I'm not opposed to grammar, I just think this goes with the above. We are trying to acquire/impart a language, not a study of its grammar. However, grammar will certainly help us. What is best, is to learn and discuss grammar in the target language. Then we are doing both.
В. I'm not opposed to translation. Rather, as I said above, translation is actually quite a difficult skill. Students will generally be better at translation into their native tongue than out of it. Time spent in translation in early stages encourages 'translation mentality', rather than thinking and processing in the target language. That's why it's better to delay it. Also, written translation should probably be put off until after some exposure to the difficulty of oral translation.
Г. I would say I am opposed to Grammar-Translation overall though. It doesn't produce what I think we want. It actively works against language acquisition. It favours a minority of exceptional students who are likely to reproduce the same method. It leaves students behind, reinforces stereotypes about 'language giftedness', 'translationese', 'code-breaking', shortcuts to difficult texts, and has created generations who have blatantly wrong and false ideas about Latin, Greek, classics, and language learning. While I love grammar, I believe the current changes in classical language pedagogy have the challenge of simply undoing a lot of what G-T created in this pedagogical field.
Friday, September 26, 2014
The core of the backwards design model is to begin at the start. That is, what is the goal or outcome of the course or subject supposed to be. Only be knowing and establishing where you want to get to will we have any chance of arriving there.
This was broken down into identifying a series of Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) across three/four areas:
A lot of courses are designed purely around 1 - the impartation of knowledge. This, as most of us well know, is simply not that useful. Trying to merely impart a body of knowledge rarely creates good learning or successful learners. Undoubtedly we are trying to impart knowledge, but we must consider carefully not only what knowledge but what for.
The second element is also relatively clear - we generally want students to emerge being able to do certain things. In some courses this will overshadow knowledge. We have very practical goals.
The third element is more elusive. In some course syllabi that I have read it is taken to the Nth degree, it seems like some universities are producing paragons of modern western ethics just with their entry level courses! However, much as I am inclined to be a little dismissive, all learning is also character-forming. We do communicate and impart values, even if we don't think we are. All the more reason to think clearly about it.
The fourth element emerges when we recognise that we are creating learning communities, and shaping learners who will go on to work in communities. We didn't discuss this a lot in our seminars, but it was good to highlight it and at least bring it to the table.
When we consider CLLM and Classical Languages, what are our ILOs? What are yours?
This needs to be done at a macro, mediate, and micro level. That is, we want to think about the whole course of study, individual units of study, and then each lesson. For the course of study my goal is something like this:
To produce persons who know a body of vocabulary around the 5000 word mark, and all the fundamentals of grammar, who can utilise this knowledge actively in four key areas of reading, writing, speaking, and listening, and have been shaped to be persons self-aware about the nuances and challenges of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural interactions.
If I was talking in CEFR terms, I think a course of language study ought to produce students at a B2 level, after 2-3 years, and at a C1 level after 3-4 years.
There is more to say on this level, but this post is primarily exploratory. So let me move on.
From the ILOs, we then consider 3 more things sequentially:
1. Achievement Based Objectives
3. Learning Strategies.
Our Achievement Based Objectives are attempts to describe clearly what a student will be able to do at the end of the course. They must be linked to the ILOs in a way that expresses: how do we know that a student has reached this outcome.
To give an example, if my outcomes include students being able to parse Greek verbs accurately, then one of my Objectives will be "will have accurately parsed (number? range? etc??) Greek verbs".
How we shape our Outcomes and Objectives eventually will shape how we teach, and more importantly how our students learn. In other words, even if we don't teach to a test, students learn to what they are tested on. Objectives are closely connected to Assessment.
So if my goal is an active vocabulary of 5000 words, my Objective must express this, but express it in a way that isn't, say, a 5000-word vocabulary test. Because my outcome isn't "knows English glosses for 5000 words". Instead, I'm going to have Objectives something like, "has read Greek texts with required vocabulary around the 5000 word range", "has given oral presentation demonstrating 5000-word breadth of vocabulary", etc.. I may have several objectives for one Outcome. Again, I am not saying that they need to demonstrate in speech exactly 5000 words, but rather I would expect that their oral activities would demonstrate that there was a 5000-word vocabulary "in their head".
On to Assessment: answer the question how will the teacher know that the student knows?
These can often be formulated in relation to the Objectives. Essentially I must design actual assessments that provide proof that a student has attained the objectives. This is a really key point, because the reality of assessments is that (a) students will learn towards what is assessed, not towards what is 'proposed'. I can tell my students as much as I please that I want them to have a core vocabulary of 5000 words, but unless I have a means of testing that requires a core of 5000 words, they will not strive to acquire it. If, however, I should devise assessments that require, say, a passive 'flashcard-type' knowledge of 5000 words, that is also exactly what I will get - rote memorisation. So if my Objective is actual acquisition of circa 5000 words, then my assessment must be designed to elicit proof of 5000 words. Not that I necessarily have to hear 5000 different vocabulary items come out of their mouths in comprehensible sentences, but at least their output must reflect a body of vocabulary around that large.
Last is Learning Strategies, and this is very closely tied to assessment. How will the students learn. Not "how will I teach?". Teaching is one thing, learning is another. They are obviously related, but it we ask the learn question first, we will often get to the teach question better. One may teach and no one learn, but we are unlikely to have students learning without any teaching (unless we are fostering autodidacticism, but that's another thing!).
If I want students to emerge with a core 5000 word vocabulary, and I am going to design assessments that require them to expressly demonstrate actual communicative competency in both oral, aural, written, and reading formats of this kind of vocabulary, then my learning strategies must be geared towards this. So, handing out vocab lists and telling them to memorise is just not going to cut it - I will end up with students with rote knowledge. If I test for rote knowledge, that is also what I will get. Instead there must be another way. Since I have been talking about vocabulary in this post, it's going to be something like this:
Students will learn 5000 words of core vocabulary through continual, repeated exposure to gradually increasing amounts of new vocab in comprehensible contexts over the course of the whole syllabus. That exposure will be firstly aural input, reinforced by reading practice, and then further solidified by opportunities to utilise acquired vocabulary through oral and written output.
All of this is going on at the very macro level. I'm talking about designing a whole multi-year syllabus. Once that has been done, across a number of objectives, then one must break it down into units (e.g. semesters), sub-units, and even individual lessons. If we are talking vocab, then what are my Objectives for each semester, how will we go from X vocab to X + Y vocab? Will we employ different processes at different stages? Will the assessment vary significantly in the first unit? How much will each lesson emphasise this aspect, as opposed to other objectives we are working on.
I think this is enough on this topic for today. If you have either some thoughts or questions, please comment away. I hope to return to this theme in relation to the question of teaching the discipline and field of History.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Which gets me to today's reflection. What ought to be going on when we read a text?
One of the helpful realisations over the last 200 years is the necessity of attention to genre in deciding what a text is trying to mean. We don't want to misread texts by deriving an understanding that those texts did not intend to mean. This is, ultimately, authorial intention. It was fashionable, for a while, to deny that authorial intention was meaningful at all, or accessible, or something to even think about. Texts just 'are', cut off from their makers. But I think that view is a philosophical anomaly safely left to the side for the moment. Texts are the means by which speakers and auditors communicate (or writers and readers, if you prefer).
When it comes to biblical texts this whole argument has higher stakes. What do different parts of the Bible mean to mean? Attempts to answer this question form the battleground of hermeneutical methodologies. There are those who have cut biblical texts free from any context, and implied author, so that they may be freely interpreted only with reference to what the reader finds in them. This is merely allegory repackaged, and quite frankly it's not a good way to read texts in general. The pure allegorical reader has the ability to find whatever they want in a text because the text exercises no control over the meaning they derive from that text. They are solipsists engaged in a narcissistic spiritual conversation with themselves.
There are others who are super-hyper-extra-literalists. Starting from a doctrine of Scripture that asserts the truth and inerrancy of the Bible, they feel constrained to interpret its every statement as true and meaningful in the same way. This is the essential hermeneutic of very conservative fundamentalism. I portray the position only for exaggerated polemic.
I would say that most readers find themselves lining up some version of a reading that involves an attempt to understand what the implied author was attempting to convey to implied readers in their socio-literary-historical context. That is the product of the history of philology and biblical criticism in the last couple of centuries.
Which brings me to discussions of genre. We rightfully recognise that texts signify in different ways. One way to describe that is through genre. Genre is a way of classifying and describing different 'types' of texts that have different conventions, different purposes, and different methods of conveying meaning. Genre is best thought of as a mostly firm, but slightly fluid, category. That is, every instantiation of a genre both draws on that genre's history and convention, and slightly alters it. For example, Vergil uses Epic, but he also changes what 'Epic' is. Later Latin poets utilise post-Vergilian Epic, and also alter what 'Epic' is. Eventually 'Epic' becomes unstable enough and unsuited enough that it cannot genuinely be written in the way Vergil wrote it. No one writes Epics today, because the endeavour has become impossible.
One of the macro-categories of distinction is between prose and poetry. We recognise that poetry does something very different to most forms of prose. Saying something is poetic seems to give an automatic license to recognise that the kinds of statements poetry makes, are not meant to be taken 'literally'. I think this is an area where there is real lack of clarity in interpretation. There is far more going on here.
In ancient writings, there is a far stricter and more formalised understanding of poetry than in contemporary English. Indeed, after what I call the 'free verse revolution', English language understandings of 'poetry' are far more varied than ancient counterparts. This is part of the problem here: in English, the presence of a number of poetic techniques may lead us to consider something poetry rather than prose, vague and slippery as that distinction can be. But in Greek, Hebrew, etc, the mere presence of poetic techniques does not poetry make. Rather the presence of formal markers of poetry convention demarcate what is poetry.
If we identify a certain part or portion of a biblical text as poetry per se, it is necessary to consider and read it in relation to ancient genres of poetry and their conventions. That is what I could call responsible reading.
However if we identify something as exhibiting a high number of poetic techniques or features, we have not then found 'poetry'. We in fact have not resolved the genre question. There is not a 'catch-all' category of 'prose' that demands certain interpretations. Rather the presence of poetic techniques are a guide to the type of text we are dealing with. It's for this reason that, for example, simply recognising that Genesis 1 is not 'poetry' does not demand a 'prose' interpretation. It's still highly formalised and poetic writing. We have excluded some forms of genre analysis, but we have not thereby resolved the genre question itself.
This simple dichotomy of "poetry is not meant to be taken literally, prose is" must go. It's like trying to sand wood with a hammer. It just won't do.
Monday, September 22, 2014
Traditional grammars tell you that Greek has an active, middle, and passive voice. And they parse out the meaning like this: "I kill you" (Active); "I am killed by you" (Passive); "I kill you with some relationship to myself" (Middle). And then they tell you that there are deponent verbs which 'lost' their active voice and just use middle and passive forms for active and passive.
But most in this field now agree that this is not really correct. In fact, we would be better off speaking of two voices: active and 'subject reflexive'. The old 'middle' and 'passive' are really subdivisions of a form of verb that sees the subject as somehow involved in the action, hence 'subject reflexive'. And the so-called 'deponents' are not deponents at all. Their 'core meaning', if we can indulge that for a moment, already involves the idea of "subject affectedness", which is why they aren't unusual, they never have an "active" or "common" voice to begin with.
Traditional grammars tended to teach the Greek perfect tense-form along the lines of the Latin perfect. That is a shame because it was mistaken. More recent work has highlighted the complexity and interrelationship of tense and aspect in Greek, particularly the way aspect is primary outside the indicative mood. So now there is considerable debate about what aspect the perfect tense has. If you go with Con Campbell, the perfect tense-form is actually imperfective in aspect, and marked for 'proximity'. Porter et alii describe the perfect as 'stative' in aspect, a more widely held view. Some still hold that the Perfect is perfective, but I would describe this as a relatively minor view. Overall, the momentum of opinion is that the perfect is not perfect!
Absolutes are not absolute
This is the point that really inspired me to write this post. If you've studied Greek, you'll know that the genitive absolute is a construction that involves generally a noun and a participle, in the genitive case, usually at the start of a sentence, that tells you something correlated to the sentence, but having no grammatical connection to the rest of the sentence.
Galatians 3:25 is a good example: ἐλθούσης δὲ τῆς πίστεως οὐκέτι ὑπὸ παιδαγωγόν ἐσμεν. trans. "with the coming of Faith, we are no longer under a paidagogos."
The key element of it being 'absolute' is that 'faith' is not attached to any other grammatical feature of the rest of the sentence. If it were, so traditional theory goes, it would be in the appropriate case and so would the participle.
This is all well and good, until you realise that many, many times the relevant noun in the genitive absolute phrase does appear in the rest of the sentence. So, for example, Mark 5:2:
καὶ ἐξελθόντος αὐτοῦ ἐκ τοῦ πλοίου εὐθὺς ὑπήντησεν αὐτῷ ἐκ τῶν μνημείων ἄνθρωπος ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ,
Trans. "as he got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs, unclean in spirit, encountered him".
The αὐτοῦ of the genitive absolute is Jesus, and this is the same referent as the αὐτῷ later in the sentence.
I don't have time to fully explore this, but instead I refer you to an excellent article Lois Fuller, "The 'Genitive Absolute' in New Testament/Hellenistic Greek: A Proposal for clearer understanding." Fuller shows how 'absoluteness' is not in fact one of the essential properties of this construction - the absolute is not absolute at all.
Things are just not as simple as they seem. Grammatical research continues to sharpen our knowledge of Ancient Greek. One of the things this should do, though, is change how we teach introductory Greek. This isn't 'advanced' knowledge, and one shouldn't have to unlearn 1st year Greek in order to do 3rd year Greek.
Friday, September 19, 2014
Monday, September 15, 2014
Earlier posts in this series may be read here (Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five).
Some closing thoughts from me
I'd never corresponded with Jason before, as I mentioned. I'm not sure a Koine version of Rosetta Stone would be useful, simply because Rosetta Stone is a wildly over-priced, unsuccessful learning tool. While I am in theory very pro- using technology to facilitate language learning, I have yet to encounter much in the way of truly useful language learning software.
Meanwhile a 6-month Greek immersion school would be a wonderful thing. I expect it will remain a pipe dream for a little while yet.
I have some other thoughts on related topics, but they will need to await another day. I have at least one more interview slated to come in, but we're definitely open to hearing from anyone else teaching Greek communicatively, in whatever context; don't wait for me to e-mail you, e-mail me today.