Education the great unequalizer. – learning English as a 2nd language.

One of the most naive assumptions I have made in life is that it is through education that a person has the best chance to shape his own destiny. Actually, education drives further apart the initial small divide. People with certain professions get to live in certain areas which gives them access to certain schools. People who are misinformed or less informed send their children unwittingly to “the wrong school”. This has serious repercussions; if you go to the wrong school, you’re going to miss experiencing certain things or learning from certain great mentors and these differences greatly affect how you shape your world beyond your education experience.

We know how parental advocacy and engagement (or the lack of) affects or thwarts the opportunities to privileges, access and benefits which further widens the divide. Today, in discussing Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, I drove home this  point myself.  Some students, and their parents, say  they are “lucky” to have learned under me; just as many parents think learning under me is a big waste of their time because I don’t teach grammar and I don’t teach to school and standardized tests.

This “lucky” thing  illustrates Malcolm Gladwell’s point that successful people tend to say they have been “lucky” because they had an extraordinary opportunity to meet the right people or be at the right place at the right time. It’s not just the 10,000 hours you have to put in to achieve concept mastery – it has to be a deliberate practice (good learner qualities), feedback rich and mentor-filled journey.

Let’s put this in the context of learning English as a Second Language. You’ll need your 10,000 hours…not just mere listening to the radio or watching movies but DELIBERATELY wanting to understand the  meaning, context and use of the language.  And then the most important thing your teacher can do for you is to MENTOR how you learn and give you FEEDBACK.

You can imagine how impossible this is with students who do not make a deliberate attempt to learn but just sit “passively” in class. They don’t see that my most valuable contribution to them would be in showing them how learning happens for me and thus, be a mentor for them. They don’t want to produce work or ask questions that would get feedback from me.

Now, I don’t care anymore for excuses such as “but our school….” or “in our culture”. I’ve done enough discussions on how to get over the cultural attitude, the self-esteem issues and the wrong habits of learning. I’m just telling you as it is; my job is to take money for teaching thinking and responding in an English-speaking world. Sometimes, like it or not, I have to advice on the flawed perspective and experiences learners bring into the classroom that prohibits meaningful interactions and engaged learning.

Of the many non-native speakers of English who aspire to a better life by learning English, almost non of them will succeed. Those Asians who do think in and speak English fluently have other conditions in place which did not include regular English lessons after school.

It would seem obvious that pursuing English language lessons WOULD NOT ensure personal success in the future because those who succeeded in life on top of having English as a medium of thought DID NOT learn English from regular English lessons.

To be successful in learning English is first to have the habits and cognition of a really good learner. If in general you have a lousy or unimpressive set of learning habits and cognitive skill, you’re also going to be  lousy learning English.

I knew there is absolutely no way a person can be good in the language even after 3-4 yearsof weekly lessons. The one factor that separates the more successful learners from the other 90% is, to simplify it, existing conditions. Some people just have pre-existing conditions in place which make them better learners. I would have a better chance at ensuring language learning happens if I paid attention to illuminating the qualities that make up better learning.

Many people understand that certain extras give you the edge. But they are mistaken that classroom instruction gives that advantage. It is their attitudes towards life and learning that, in addition to an incubator environment, provides those advantages. Attending English lessons simply widens the gap between  the small percentage with existing conditions from the rest of the other learners. Some people already have conditions in place which language classes then widens the divide.

This is not to say that making an effort is useless. It’s true that going for basketball practice gives you a better shot at being a professional basketball player but not if you’re 5-footer. Michael Jordan cannot make you an NBA basketball player if you’re 5 foot 2.I can’t make a fluent English speaker out of someone who doesn’t have the minimum drive, initiative, habits and cognition of a good learner.

Before we can teach the language or anything for the matter, it seems that we have to prep the conditions; the teaching of the learning before the learning or to go even further, the fulfillment of the deficit needs of the learner. That is why so many mentors sometimes bring it upon themselves to fulfill the role of counselor or replacement parent and are equally frustrated when familial and social (or cultural) contexts thwarts the opportunities for success.

In a world where varying degrees of comprehending Intangible Knowledge (the knowledge to make sense of other knowledge) will become a premium those who don’t have the learning behind the learning will fall behind indefinitely.

Curricula will continue to be designed around Tangible Knowledge but testing may change to determine the level of confidence a question is answered with or to determine how a person arrives at their knowledge. Those who struggle to learn will simply continue to struggle with everything else. Those who have highly developed learning habits and cognitive skills will sail effortlessly when demonstrating how they came to know what they know.

It looks to me that as the speed of change accelerates, there is less and less we can do for those have already passed through or are passing through the schooling system without ever developing the learning habits behind learning or the cognitive skills required.

Read Part 2 – Education the great unequalizer, the unschooled children, here.

Also, a related post, So What’s the Point in Learning English?


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Filed under Education 2.0 for 2020, Up the ante on teaching

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