I started teaching undergraduate English courses and I quickly became frustrated. I love my job, but I was frustrated with myself, and I was frustrated with my students.
And it wasn’t anything my students were doing wrong. On paper, they were learning English. I would give them tests, and they’d know everything about pronouns, adjectives, syntax, and grammar.
You name it, they knew it. And they could prove it by passing the tests in writing. However, when I tried to have a conversation with my students, when I tried to have just a casual conversation, I would get this deer-in-the-headlights look like . . . And then they would go into what I call “Porky Pig Syndrome. ” They would go, It just wasn’t working.
And I was frustrated because I said, “I can’t do this. ” These young men and women, when they graduate, they’re going to go into a work environment in which they are expected to think at higher levels of cognition. They’re expected to analyze, synthesize, to evaluate, and they have to do it in a language that is not their first language, English.
And I wanted them to be there. And what happened was that I started experimenting with this and that, and after a while, I developed a system that I think worked. I call it “Teaching English without teaching English.
” What I did was I moved away from the grammar, and I developed a system in which I divided the class into three stages. In the first stage, I give my students a BS detector, and this BS detector is a fully functional, portable but high-maintenance mental device that they install into neurons. And whenever they detect BS, which is very frequent, the alarm should go off.
“BS, BS, BS, BS. ” How do I do that? Well, the BS detector has three parts. Part number one is critical thinking skills. I have my students learn that whenever they read anything, whenever they listen to a debate or a conversation, they should ask a number of specific questions.
For example, Is the speaker-specific? People who know what they’re talking about usually are very specific. They can say who, what, where, when, how many, and how often. Now, people who are – how shall I say it? – BS artists will run away from specificity.
They will not be specific because specificity entails responsibility. And when people are not specific, I point out to my students that usually it’s one of two reasons. Either they do not know what they’re talking about, and there’s nothing wrong there – we’re all ignorant in different fields.
And if you don’t know, you cannot be specific. That’s a human trait. But sometimes people are not specific because they don’t want you to know what they’re talking about. And now there’s an ethical element of betrayal there, of concealment. So, the first thing that they need to learn is to ask specific questions: Is the speaker comprehensive? Is she looking at all the available evidence? Is the speaker looking at the burden of proof? When you say something, you are responsible for providing evidence for that claim.
If they’re talking about a scientific topic, is there replicability, is there experimental data to support that claim? And once I get that part of the BS detector firmly installed, where they will ask specific questions on whatever they read, see or hear, I go to the second part.
They should detect logical fallacies. And logical fallacies are mistakes people make in the reasoning process. And we all do it. For example, Every time I forget my umbrella, it rains. Do you really think there’s a relationship between the weather and you forget your umbrella? Wouldn’t that be fantastic?
Because then this four-year drought they have in California. all we have to do is get Californians to forget their freaking umbrellas, and then it’ll rain, okay? That’s a non-sequitur. That’s the name of that fallacy of false cause and effect. A happens, then B happens. And then you assume that A caused B.
Maybe, maybe not. You have to check. Another logical fallacy that is very common is ad hominems. And ad hominems are nasty little things because this is when the person gets personal. Instead of attacking your arguments, the person attacks your person. They attack your integrity. And unfortunately, political debate is usually polluted by that.
When somebody is losing an argument, instead of sticking to the merits of the argument, they back off, and then start getting nasty and offensive. Ad hominems are terrible, but they’re very useful in the hands of people who have no scruples.
And another logical fallacy that’s very popular is an argument from authority. This must be true because somebody who knows more than me says it’s true. And I have my students learn how to identify at least five or six of those logical fallacies. The third part of the BS detector I take from Benjamin Bloom.
This was a wonderful scientist who started thinking about thinking. And this guy said, “What do we do with our brains when we’re thinking? ” And he identified five or six skills, depending on which taxonomy you use. And for example, the basis of all learning is remembering and memorization. And you need that for everything. You need that for everything.
However, if you stay at that level in which you only memorize and repeat, that’s not deep thinking, that’s not deep thinking at all. And now, you have a situation where you must find out if the speaker is really a deep thinker. Does he know his stuff in detail, or is he merely repeating some talking points that somebody gave him? Again, questions will help you identify whether you’re dealing with a deep thinker or not. And here you analyze, synthesize, you evaluate. That’s where I wanted to take my students, but first I had to get an obstacle out of the way.
Most people feel that it’s wrong to change your opinions, to be tentative. And no, that is not true. If we want to grow as a person and as a society, we need to be open to changing our minds and changing our minds constantly because as the world changes, we must change with the world.
And I’m going to quote George Bernard Shaw here. He made the following observation. He says, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. ” So, I had to destroy that paradigm that you must know all the answers.
No, you should know all the questions and not be afraid to ask them. Once they have the BS detector firmly installed, we move to the fun part of the class. Here we watch TED talks, we go to YouTube, and we read essays from the Internet or from the local newspapers. And we don’t use textbooks.
We use whatever is happening in the world. For example, this semester, we’re talking about Syrian refugees. Four million people running for their lives. Why are they running? Where are they? More than 1,000 have drowned trying to get from North Africa to Europe. That’s a current event, and I want to make my students aware that this is happening. And we also speak about Puerto Rico’s economic crisis.
And here we have a wonderful resource: Joseph Stiglitz. Joseph Stiglitz is a world-class economist who even has a Nobel Prize for economics. And this guy wrote a few articles about the situation we’re in and made specific suggestions.
So, we bring that to class, we read it, and we discuss it. We compare with what local politicians are saying and doing. And that fosters an atmosphere of conversation. And most of the students are so involved in what’s going on in terms of content that they’re not really aware that they’re acquiring the language, because the central thing is, “Let’s talk. Let’s check out what fulana wrote.
Let’s check out what fulano said. Let’s compare notes. ” Now, I have two ground rules for this noisy, semichaotic, or chaotic classroom. Number one: ad hominems are not allowed. Under no circumstances are you to offend personally or attack another person’s integrity. You must respect everybody’s freedom to differ from you. Rule number one.
Rule number two is ideas are not people. Ideas do not have rights. So, if somebody says something dumb, something that’s questionable, including me, the professor, you should feel free to question that idea.
And that’s not only a right that we have – to question ideas that don’t make sense to us – it’s maybe an ethical responsibility because a bad idea if left unchecked, can do a lot of damage. We forget, for example, that Adolf Hitler was in power for 12 years.
How did this man who was so brutal and so evil get control of one of the most civilized nations of Europe? Well, easy. His crazy ideas were not questioned early enough. So, by the time German intellectuals and people who had values were aware that this guy was taking them to a world war, he already controlled the nation’s narrative, he controlled basically everything: the military, the police, and the media. And he just had too much power.
It took a world war to remove Adolf Hitler from power. So, when you see a bad idea, especially a bad idea that can hurt people physically or emotionally, you may be morally obligated to raise your voice and say, “Mnh-hnhmmm. That’s not a good idea. ” Okay.
So, in this component of interaction in the classroom, once we have that out of the way, we go into the third area. And the third area is reading and writing. And again, I have to remove from my students the notion that making mistakes is somehow bad. No, it is not. It even has a name; it’s called developmental errors.
So, if you want to learn a language, you must be willing to make mistakes, lots of mistakes because that’s how you know the boundaries of linguistic rules. So, I try to create an atmosphere where my students feel completely comfortable saying whatever they want to say, however, they want to say it.
And it’s interesting because, at the beginning of the semester, I usually get two or three students that’ll say, “Profe, an mí el inglés no me entra. ” “I mean, I just can’t deal with English. ” And these same students – when we’re in the heat of the debate, of the conversation, they want to take part in the conversation.
And then they start leaning to the left and leaning to the right, and they ask the magic word, “How do you say . . . ? ” But then when they say, “How do you say? ” the other student says, “Like this,” and then there’s peer tutoring, and it’s happening spontaneously. I don’t even have to wait for these kids to raise their hands, because I saw what happened.
They look at me. Once we have eye contact, I say, “Julio, what do you think? ” And then Julio starts speaking in English. And then he goes into a little bit of Porky Pig Syndrome sometimes.
He starts going, When he goes there, when he gets the Porky Pig Syndrome, sometimes he feels a little embarrassed, and I say, “No, no, no. Go on. ” And then he says, (Spanish) “Can I say something in Spanish? ” “Of course. Do you want to use Spanglish? Use Spanglish.
Tell us what you think. ” And they realize that they can make mistakes. And nobody is going to judge them. Nobody is going to grade them worse. This is part of the language acquisition process. Now, there’s something interesting. Before I adopted this method, I felt a little awkward. It was like, for example, trying to have somebody understand what a special plate, a special food tastes like.
And you describe the food. You say, “Oh, my God. It tastes like this, and it smells like that, and the texture is like this. ” And can you really share the experience of good food like that? Somehow it doesn’t work. So, now you say, “OK. I want you to get a good cookbook and memorize the recipe. ” And will that do the trick? No, no, it won’t.
The only way of experiencing what good food is like, how it smells, the texture, and the taste is another way. And I want to take my students to the point where they understand that language is wonderful – it’s a living thing. And there’s no way you can learn a language by simply memorizing rules, by concentrating only on grammar.
And once these students are comfortable with making mistakes, the exchange in the classroom becomes so much more dynamic. Finally, when we get to the writing process, we go to the part where we say, “OK, let’s write. ” But again, form is secondary to content.
I want them to get their ideas, to get the evidence, to get their feelings on paper. And once they do that, then they go into stage number two which is, “Let’s correct the paper. ” So at first, you focus on content, not form, and then you focus on form, not content. This is where you correct all the grammatical mistakes and you look at the mechanics of the language, so to speak.
And they write summary-reaction papers in which they concentrate on one thing at first, and then they worry about the form of the language later. And I always stress content is more important than form. And I’ll prove it. You take Stephen King, or you take Isabel Allende. These are world-class writers.
Well, these people, when they write their manuscripts, they send them to the editorials. In the case of Stephen King, Viking Press. And in Viking Press, they have a professional nerd. And this professional nerd is going to go through Stephen King’s manuscript, and he is going to make all the corrections that are needed.
Now, who has fame and fortune? It’s Stephen King. It’s not the expert on grammar. So, you can learn grammar from a machine. You can have somebody proofread your paper, but you cannot fake content. You cannot fake the passion and the suspense that goes into a good short story or a fantastic novel.
And my goal is for my students to understand a number of things. Learning is a painful process. You have all these narratives that society gives you. Everybody around the world has narratives. And these narratives dictate how we feel about things.
But sometimes, these narratives can be wrong. And that’s where we get cognitive dissonance. And cognitive dissonance basically says, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe that – what you just said. ” But now you have to make up your mind.
Why are you rejecting that new idea? Because it’s wrong or because you have a predisposition against that? So, you have to explore your narratives, look at whatever is causing the cognitive dissonance, and then form your opinion, an opinion based on reason, on critical thinking, not on prejudice. So, hopefully, at the end of the semester, my students will take a few things with them.
I want them to understand that there’s nothing wrong with asking questions. They should be intense question-askers. They should resurrect the little boy or the little girl that was a three-year-old and was driving mommy crazy or daddy, (Spanish) “But why? Why? Why? ” And, “Shut up. Don’t ask so many questions. Children should be seen and . . . ” You know the rest. So, we beat the curiosity out of our students, and by sixth grade, they will not ask a question if their life depended on it.
And my job, I believe, is to resurrect that little kid, that little girl, and say, “You know something? Ask questions constantly, even dumb questions. Ask them. ” And you should fear not the people who ask questions.
You should fear the people who fear questions. Because growth and maturity, and all things in life come from our ability to say, “Why? Why should I believe that? ” People that are smart, that is competent, that is ethical are not afraid of questions.
Sometimes you just can’t get them to shut up because they’re so passionate about what you’re talking about or what they believe that they will just flood you with information.
That’s what I think we should concentrate on. I want to close this talk with this thought: “I believe my job as an educator is to open as many doors as I can for my students while allowing them the freedom to decide if and when they want to cross the threshold of any of these doors ” I want my students to learn how to cook, not to learn how to read a book. And that’s how I teach English without teaching English. Thank you for reading.
“Mastering English: The Most Effective Strategies”
“The Top Methods for Learning English Fluently”
“Achieving Fluency in English: The Best Approaches”
“Maximizing Your English Learning: Expert Tips and Strategies”
“Effortless English: The Most Efficient Ways to Learn the Language”