Resilience and perseverance in the foreign language classroom – Inhibitors and catalysts

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with my colleagues Dylan Viñales and Louise Miller as part of the Garden International School PLA’s (personal reflection afternoons) 

Academic resilience is defined as the ability to effectively deal with setback, stress or pressure in the academic setting. Resilience is related to the notion of Perseverance, the persistence in a course of action; the ability, that is, to stay on course despite adversities. These are two of the core generic life-long learning skills that many educators rightly posit as fundamental for academic success, across all subject areas, including languages. Yet, in my experience, as I will argue below, a lot of the language teaching carried out in many MFL classrooms works against the development of these pivotal skills. Why?

The main reason is the spoon-feeding that a lot of MFL teachers do in their classrooms, afraid as they are that their  students might get bored or lose motivation. Lots of modelling, lots of scaffolding, lots of support material, lots of word-lists, lots of praise, lots of rewards. What about developing learner resourcefulness, one of the most important attributes of a resilient autonomous language learner?

Another reason is the over-‘gamification’ of language learning. Don’t get me wrong, there is room for games and ludic activities in MFL learning, but there is a marked tendency, in many settings, to gamify everything, to make every learning activity into a game. This has the danger of creating a perception of the MFL classroom as a place to go to in order to have fun and play games; of language learning as a ‘playful’ less ‘serious’ or less ‘academic’ subject.

And what about the over ‘cartoonization’ of language learning? The overuse of cliparts, cartoons and animations in the illustration of the target language items on posters, PPTs, websites, iMovies, etc.? This, in my view, does contribute to a small extent in terms of engagement, but much more so serves as a distraction, thus often ending up hindering learning.

Finally, the misuse of emerging technologies by some MFL practitioners has made things worse in a number of important respects. Firstly, the use of apps like Tellagami, Yakit kids, Chatterpix which are basically the digital version of old school colouring and drawing on paper, with juvenile voice-over; more acceptable for some teachers because associated with the digitally-assisted-learning hype. Secondly, the overuse of websites which not only gamify learning but also, in our opinion, tragically unambitiously focus on the ‘easy’ bits of language learning: word level learning (e.g. www.linguascope.com). Thirdly, the general focus on the ‘wow’ effect that a lot of digitally assisted learning involves in order to grab student attention; such an approach, when overdone, does create wow-dependent engagement that is too ephemeral to result in a strong life-long learning ethos.

Getting our learners used to this kind of spoon-fed, ludic, gamified, fun, wow-mongering type of learning since a very early age can result in creating a generation of overly reliant language learners who lack the two very skills this post is about, perseverance and resilience, for the obvious reason that these skills do need to be practised in order to be learned. In order to learn to stay on task in the face of adversities one has to practise overcoming obstacles, such as boredom, task complexity, mistakes, cognitive deficits and failure in general.

Therefore, exposing our learners to the boring, dull and ‘painful’ aspects of language learning becomes a must; and it is our duty as teachers to equip students with the metacognitive, cognitive and affective strategies which will help them cope.

Hence, from the very early days instruction ought to include:

  1. Inductive learning;
  2. Challenge and risk-taking in a safe and non-judgmental environment (see point 6, below)
  3. Activities fostering autonomy and resourcefulness;
  4. Awareness-raising of the rationale for each learning activity – especially the boring and dull ones; that is, how it can enhance learning;
  5. Praise for each observed instance of resilience and perseverance;
  6. A positive attitude to error-making – students must be made to accept error as a necessary and valuable by-product of learning which propels language acquisition further; not something to be afraid of. A lot of care must be taken in order to ensure that corrections are perceived by the students as non-judgmental as possible
  7. Self-efficacy enhancement (see my post on self-efficacy for this) – teachers must develop ways to heighten their learners’ expectancy of success, i.e. their sense of being able to succeed at specific language tasks and at MFL learning in general.
  8. Cognitive and affective coaching by the teacher– students must feel that their teacher is going to support them every step of the way should they get ‘stuck’; not by doing the work for them, of course, but by pointing them in the right direction through effective questioning and/or cueing;
  9. Role-modelling – research on resilience shows the importance of the input of ‘charismatic adults’ in developing young learner resilience. If the teacher or other adult in the classroom is perceived as a resilient and tenacious individual, this may inspire their student to follow in their footsteps. Older students, too, may serve as role-models if the target pupils can identify with them across a range of attributes (e.g. gender, age, sub-culture, ability range. family circumstances, etc.); the fact that someone perceived as similar to them was successful, may enhance their perseverance and resilience.
  10. The establishment of a culture of empathy and mutual respect and support in the classroom, so that when students do make mistakes or experience setbacks, they will have empathetic peers who will provide affective scaffolding.
  11. Affective strategies modelling – strategies like inner talk or self-relaxing techniques can be modelled to the students through think-aloud techniques or videos to help them enhance their coping skill. Modelling the use of motivational quotes (like the ones that you will have posted on your classroom walls) as a strategy to ‘push’ oneself forward when feeling down can be of a great help, too.
  12. Last but not least: some ‘boring’ activities (e.g. old-fashioned translation, verb drills and conjugations), provided that the students are told why they are important and relevant to their learning.

In conclusion, MFL language learning (in the classroom) should be an enjoyable and stimulating experience. However, if we do want to forge perseverant and resilient learners we must be mindful of the effect of overly spoon-feeding and entertaining them with games, wow-inducing app-smashing and other gimmicks which encourage a misconception of what language learning is really about. In order to become resilient our students must be made aware of and experience the challenges and inevitable setbacks that language learning entails whilst feeling part of a safe, supportive and empathetic learning environment where errors are tolerated or even encouraged.

4 thoughts on “Resilience and perseverance in the foreign language classroom – Inhibitors and catalysts

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