In order for the Snowflake Effect of mass customization and personalization to succeed when applied to learning, teaching and teachers will need need to scale exponentially. Imagined within our historical and current definitions and assumptions this would be deemed impossible. However I’ve had some recent experiences that have convinced me that both teaching and teachers can indeed scale exponentially and I am finding more and more examples of this all around. Here are some examples of both as I continue on my quest of the question of “What if the impossible isn’t?”
Last year while my sailboat was safely moored in El Salvador, I went ashore for a month to increase my Spanish language skills from a level of zero to a larger positive number and to learn more of the cultures and geography of the surrounding countries. I went to three places—Antigua, tiny San Marcos La Laguna on gorgeous Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, and Suchitoto in El Salvador—and in each location, I enrolled in a “language school” where I spent five to six hours a day Monday to Friday for four weeks, engaged in a on-on-one conversation with a Spanish language teacher. I learned A LOT! Not only a lot of Spanish, but also a lot about each area, country, culture, the people, and especially about learning.
Language Learning Dating Services?
I’ve often explained that I think it would be better to call these language schools “language dating services” because what they do is find a good match between two people—not for romantic purposes, but for learning as a teacher and a student. It is VERY effective! Similar to dating services, it is up to each pair to decide how they will structure the teaching/learning relationship so that it is just right for both people in terms of pace, level, goals, focus, etc. In my case, I was most interested in being conversant in Spanish so that in everyday situations I could understand others and express myself aurally. I also wanted to have some ability to read and write Spanish. As a result, I did the same thing with each of my three very different teachers, we had an extended conversation for 5-6 hours each day.
These were true conversations. They were unplanned and spontaneous with all the serendipity of any great conversation where the conversation wonderfully wanders along unexpected paths as you discover different areas of mutual interest. In my case, this included such things as conversations about the mutual interest in music, particularly what makes for “good music”, understanding the roles of technology in the day and life of average citizens in the different cities, and sharing our mutual love for great food and wine.
Note: I’m using the learning of a new language as the subject here but this same approach works well for just about any application I can think of.
One of the biggest and best things I came away with was a new sense of how personalized learning AND teaching can scale exponentially and how my notion of a future society of “Tearners” (Teacher + Learner = Tearner)—where each and every one of us are both teachers and learners—is both possible and already happening. If you’d like to read more about my experiences and thoughts on this form of language learning, please read these postings on my Learnativity blog:
Do It Yourself (DIY) Learning via “Tearners”
One of the essential elements for enabling this kind of limitless learning and teaching is to enable and empower an “expert”—anyone who is significantly better than you are in some domain of interest—to be an effective teacher, often without even knowing they are doing so. Rethinking expertise in this way enables us to tap into the skills and knowledge that others have, which in most cases they are not even aware of.
In the case of language learning for example, anyone who is a native speaker of a language you want to learn, including and perhaps especially children, can teach you what they don’t even know they know. The trick is in finding interesting, fun, and effective ways to do so. And as you’ll see in the following examples, and as was the case with one of my teachers, they don’t even need to know how to speak your language!
In my search for resources to assist with this type of limitless learning, I have found several good ones, including the book “Language Acquisition Made Practical” by Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster. Kevin Kelly featured this book in one of his “Cool Tools” postings and you can read this concise review for an overview of the book and its methods. I particularly like Kevin’s typically insightful observation:
“Like realizing that you don't need a degree in anything to build your own house, learning that you can become fluent in another language without a course or classroom is deliciously radical.”
The following is an excerpt from this book and it will give you a better idea of how this works in language learning:
Production of Modifiers
Kino says a sentence with modifiers. You repeat the basic sentence without modifiers.
Kino: "The blue jug with the pretty flowers is on the high wooden shelf."
You: "The jug is on the shelf."
Then reverse roles -- he says a simple sentence and you embellish it.
Kino: "This is a book."
You: "This is a good book about the people of this country."
Kino: "This is a candle."
You: "This is a red candle."
Look around you. You can talk about virtually any object, then restate it with modifiers.
Word/Thing Association Game
By using these sentence patterns you can get extra drill on new vocabulary while talking with people. You can touch an object and ask "What is this?" They may answer, "This is Kefala." You can then touch a similar object and ask "Is this Kefala?" and they will answer positively or negatively.
If you are talking with children, this can become quite a game and give you lots of practice with new words. Children will often catch on, and participate with you in the game. First, you can ask the questions while they answer. Then you can trade roles and let them ask the questions while you try to answer. If you enter into the spirit of the game, everybody can have fun while you practice vocabulary.
As is often the case, this type of learning is not a new idea or method and as the authors point out this method was used by missionaries trying to learn other languages without the aid of any formal resources, such as books, curricula, classrooms, or teachers. I’m sure you can see how this method enables a form of limitless learning and why I’m so excited about it. As you try it out and reflect upon it, I think you will also soon be able to apply most of the same techniques to many other subjects. I’ve used it for example to learn how to do wood carving and how to do whitewater kayaking.
Consider learning by doing and try using this both ways—as the learner the next time you need to learn something or as the teacher when you see a teachable moment to help someone benefit from your expertise.
I’d very much appreciate hearing back from you about your experience.