Letter to My Future Students

--Originally published at Flipped Learning in My Beginning German Courses

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! 

 

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