Making student groups: a souflée that didn’t rise

Or, “how many posts on an e-mail list are ‘too many’ for a given topic?”

I note with some amusement a loooong ongoing thread on a foreign language teachers’ e-mail list concerning how to get kids to work in the groups you assign them to work in. This would be the same list that recently put the kibbosh on discussions of CI on the grounds that the thread was too long (I guess too many electrons died, since we’re not doing trees in anymore for this sort of thing?)

The interesting thing, to me, is that had the first thread continued long enough for folks to adopt CI-based instruction, the second would be utterly extraneous. How to make up groups of four seemingly at random, how to get kids to talk to other kids in the target language, how to get kids to sit still and talk about the stuff on the list of questions for the day rather than talk about themselves — all these are just not questions that people doing CI commonly have to ask.

Of course, the desire to divide the class into groups and have them read to each other or parrot questions back and forth is based on the premise that doing so — outputting the language in an imperfect form — is going to help them acquire it. Will having someone who’s never made a soufflé before give you a flat, soggy one — even with all good intentions —  help you learn how to cook haute cuisine?

And what happens to the hapless diner who has to swallow all that oversalted, rubbery, burned-at-the-edges mess? Is that going to be good nutrition to get him through the day?

And, come to that, why is it absolutely necessary that the foreign language class — which is way too short to come close to giving the students all the input we’d like in the first place — needs to devote some of those precious minutes to teaching “cooperative skills” that are not really needed to acquire the language?  Do we take time out of gym class for reinforcing good handwriting? Or time out of math class to teach the importance of good hygiene? Aren’t those things important and overarching, reaching beyond the purview of a single academic discipline?

Just because foreign language is often not considered to be a “core class” is no reason why it shouldn’t hold fast to its own core, the reason it’s there in the first place — to get students proficient in a language in a seriously limited amount of time.  To be successful at that – rather than only getting “the smart kids” there — we need to be focusing on the things that are absolutely the fastest track to long-term retention (acquisition) every second of the way. There just isn’t enough time to eat rubbery souflées.


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