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Learning is Confusion Figured Out

By Jessica Aggrey

Day 2: Porterville Acceleration Training

It’s time to reflect on day two of the Porterville Acceleration Training lead by Melissa Long. Again, if you’re not sure what I mean by acceleration, check out this page. Also, you can read reflections from day 1 here.

One of the goals I have for myself this summer is to create a getting started unit for my class on “How to be a language learner.” Sure, my students are coming to class, but not all of them know how to be effective when it comes to learning another language. Some seem to have the idea that taking a class and doing the assigned homework is enough to make them fluent.

In my experience as an educator and language learner, taking a class is not enough if you really want to excel and feel comfortable in a language. Yes, a class is very important and helpful. I’m not trying to write myself out of a job. I mean to say that a class is a launching pad for learning, a support system, a resource, and a question board. If you really want to gain strong fluency in a language, you have to do more. You have to embrace confusion; you have to be thirsty to learn as much as you can; you have to actively seek out opportunities to practice; you have to become obsessed with the language.

A couple of the things shared during day two of the conference spoke to this idea.

First, let’s consider the nature of learning itself. What do you think? Is it the job of education to provide knowledge to students, or is it the role of education to foster in students the ability to embrace a path of problem solving, even when such a path is often longer and leads you through confusions, doubts, and more questions?

Melissa shared a very interesting video on the idea of the learning pit created by James Nottingham. The proverbial pit is a place where students struggle, are confused, wrestle with ideas, and eventually (hopefully) climb out the other side with an “aha!” moment of understanding and sense of pride. He argues that confusion is an important step to learning, but too often we focus on the right answer as opposed to the journey to get the answer, which is a much more powerful outcome. Check out the video below.



Along the road to language mastery there are many learning pits. If a student doesn’t know to embrace these learning opportunities or realize that mistakes and confusion are all a part of the ride, then that student won’t take the risks or opportunities needed to truly master the language. Afterall, if we waited until we knew 100% of a language before we spoke a word, the whole world would be silent. We aren’t true masters even in our native languages.

So the question is, how can we as teachers use our class time to help foster in students the ability to embrace the learning pit, to embrace those times that are comprised of uncertainty and require active engagement and problem solving?

Let’s next consider the role of the classroom. Although it may not be the end-all solution to language mastery, it certainly plays an important role in the journey. What things can we do in our classes that support this view of learning? Can our classes be structured differently to help our students gain the desire to take their curiosity and their love of learning the language to the next level?

Yesterday, Melissa reviewed the five-pillars of accelerated pedagogy. If you’d like to read about them in detail, check out this great article here. In many ways, some of the pillars read like a training book for language teachers. It’s not new to us that the affective domain is important. We don’t want to raise our students’ affective filters. We do provide lots of practice time and collaborative activities. But there are areas in which we can improve. Although I think all of the pillars are relevant and important, I do want to touch on the second one and how it applies to the idea of the learning pit for ESL students.

    1. Backwards design from college-level courses
    2. Relevant, thinking-oriented curriculum
    3. Just-in-time remediation
    4. Low-stakes collaborative practice
    5. Intentional support for students’ affective needs


Relevant, Thinking-Oriented Curriculum.

In the article “Toward a Vision of Accelerated Curriculum & Pedagogy by Katie Hern and Myra Snell (linked above), the authors argue that relevant, thinking-oriented curriculum “asks students to engage with issues that matter, wrestle with open-ended problems, and use resources from the class to reach and defend their own conclusions” (7).

I teach adults who have a great wealth of knowledge and skills. They just don’t have English, but their lack of English doesn’t mean they aren’t capable people. In fact, they are so much more capable than we often give them credit for. However, they won’t do more if we don’t ask more of them. To get an idea of what I mean by this, read Dr. Lyn Neylon-Craft’s reflection on the changes that came to her classroom after she started expecting more from her students.

I think too often in an attempt to keep students out of the pit (and I’m certainly guilty of this as well), we’ve slowed down the learning of our students by not giving them engaging, relevant material that fosters the confidence to be curious and willing to take risks, things so vital to language development. In not expecting more, we’ve shown them that we don’t think they’re capable of more.

Let me give you an example. I have a friend who teaches in an EFL program in another country. I was chatting with her a while back about the structure of her school’s program. She expressed some frustration that she wasn’t able to write her own assessments and therefore had to teach her class in a certain way to prepare students for the exams. The tests that were given to her consisted of mostly grammar questions, a short reading section, a listening section, and a writing section that dedicated only ¼ of a page to a small paragraph.  This pattern isn’t just for the lowest levels. It persists throughout all of their levels of which there are around 12 (2 months for each level). She said that by the time students are in the third academic level, they’re only being asked to write about personal narratives and they still get basic grammar messed up that they should have learned at the beginning levels. Why aren’t these students getting it? They’re studying for 2 hours a day five days a week. If they started at the beginning level, they’ve had 24 months of training that equals around 900 hours of class time, and yet they still struggle with basic things and don’t produce a whole lot.

I don’t think it’s that they’re not capable of more. I think that they’ve never been asked to do more. They’re not being challenged, and they’re not being given instruction that helps them use the language in a meaningful and thought provoking way, and if something isn’t meaningful, it sure isn’t going to be remembered easily.

There are a lot of changes coming down the line in California regarding the structures of our ESL programs, but I believe that this is our opportunity to create curriculum that engages our students and helps them embrace all that learning a language entails, even the frustrating and confusing parts. If you’re curious how this might look, check out Cuyamaca’s accelerated ESL program. 


And as a final tidbit, here’s a great video by an avid language learner who might serve well as an inspiration to your students.

Say Thanks. Get Jessica a cup of coffee.

March 23, 2019

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