Monday, November 17, 2008

my own experiences learning: part 1 -- Germany.

Much of my views on learning and education were formed through two powerful learning experiences. They fully changed my mind as how I learn, how quickly I can learn, and how others learn. They helped me value one's own intuition for how the learning process is going above and beyond any system or institution's feedback. Said another way, it is way more important that learning feels fantastic than getting good grades. The first experience was going to Germany my junior year in college, and the second was being a TA at MIT the next year.

Germany: learning how I learn!

1. Getting ready to go.

During my first semester of junior year I was at MIT majoring in theoretical math. I was taking lots of classes and I was putting lots of time into them and yet I was learning very little and retaining even less. I felt like I was never getting enough done and in was in general quite unsatisfied. I'm writing from the personal perspective, but in my experience this has been the perspective of every MIT student, whether or not they're aware of it.

Personally, I knew I was not learning nearly enough for the amount of effort I was putting in, the work felt like work (it was not satisfying), and I began to have the suspicion that not only did I not know why these mathematical tools -- the material I was studying -- were important or worth working on for a lifetime, most of my students and professors didn't know either.

I wanted out pretty badly, and somehow stumbled upon the idea of going abroad for a semester. I talked to my friend and fellow math major Ananda about it at dinner one night, who felt similarly about MIT and was game for trying to go abroad. We chose Germany, for no particular reason beyond an opinion from an advisor that they had good math programs in Germany. We talked to the study abroad officer, who while being puzzled that we didn't know any German and yet still wanted to go to Germany, got things set up for us and we were set to go for the next semester.

We got to work on learning German, starting with Pimsleur's language tapes. Some of the tapes were from the 80's or 90's, and had you repeat sentences like "I love to work on spreadsheets! Do you have the floppy drive?" They were an excellent introduction for us -- with no tongue, ear, or mind for the language -- by using a call and response system that built up a simple vocabulary of tourist-useful phrases ("I don't speak much German"/"I'm from America"/ "Where is the ____?," and so on.)

We got a German tutor who met with us twice a week the month before we went. She gave us a wonderful crash course in all the different cases and tenses, all the rudimentary tools we needed to decipher a sentence, given a German-English dictionary and ample time. She has us read a kids' book, played lots of fun games with us, and was overall really fantastic.

And then we were off!

2. The first weeks in Germany

The first week in Aachen was pretty overwhelming and bleak. Our German was really weak then and we couldn't hold a conversation. We hadn't realized that we were in effect leaving our warm, co-operative home, all the people we knew, and a common language all behind by going to Germany until we got there. This was compounded by the fact that we arrived two and a half months before the school semester started, at the beginning of the inter-semester holiday period. The idea was to give us time to learn German, but it meant the dorm we were staying in was practically deserted , compounding the feelings of being lost and lonely. It felt like we had done something massive and gotten in way over our heads.

Things started to settle as we slowly made sense of the city -- where the supermarket was, how the town was organized, how to use the busses, and so on. The math department at the RWTH, where we were studying in Aachen, gave us an office to use, a kindness Ananda and I were really surprised by and thankful for. We had signed up for an intensive language class that would meet four hours a day, and we'd expected to fall into a rhythm of filling up our days with the class and its homework, building a daily routine around that, and feeling a bit less on edge about not knowing what to do with oneself in a place where you didn't know the language.

We went to the first day of the language class. The beginning of the class was spent with administrative work (the teacher wanted to split the class into beginner and intermediate sections, but no one wanted to leave the faster paced class.) We did a worksheet conjugating strong verbs in the present tense (Ich trete/I kick, er tritt/he kicks, that kind of thing) and took turns individually reading sentences out of a book out loud.

The class felt really ineffective to me afterwards. Watching a Chinese student read out loud, I realized the pronunciations difficulties she was going to have were going to be completely different from mine, which was interesting but not useful for learning German. I had really disliked the worksheet, and while I couldn't articulate why, there was something about it that felt like a trap. I couldn't do all of the exercises in it, but the natural idea that one should therefore do more of it felt wrong to me. The worksheet felt like a mechanical struggle -- there didn't seem to be any path to doing such worksheets other than memorizing and trying again.

The whole experience felt like a really poor use of time, and I told Ananda what I thought. I was really cranky by the end of the class, saying things like "We're not going back!" Ananda and I talked about it and settled on trying it a second day. We both acknowledged that being around classmates who also spoke in broken German was a relief and we tried it a second day. That was our last in the class. I can't even remember if we stayed in the whole class, but it was more of the same and it became clear that this wasn't going to work for us.

3. Learning on our own

The next week I remember being quite nervous. Ananda and I weren't taking the intensive German class, but of course still wanted to learn German. How were we going to do that? My own nervousness was heightened by dragging a friend along with me: while my own dropping out of a class would've been one thing, I had a convinced a friend to do so too and felt responsible for the situation we were in. We wanted to learn German, didn't know how to, and had just jettisoned the plan we'd been relying on to do so.

Gradually, over the week, we found ways to fill our time up with German. Each activity seemed like a stroke of genius, and then quite obvious afterwards. We went to the library and checked out lots of kids books and some audiobooks. We found a few international student groups and would go to pubs to meet up with them: while we couldn't talk to Germans yet beyond the beginner's exchange of pleasantries -- "Es geht mir gut, und dir? / I'm good, and you?" -- international students would happily talk to us at length, despite how slow our German was. We started watching Hollywood-produced movies in German (which was the majority of what played in theatres,) which was a surprisingly immersive experience: without all of the foreshadowing and clues about what's coming next, movies that would have utterly bored me in English were spellbinding in German.

We began to fill our days with these sorts of activities, happily rotating between them. We intermittently had a German tutor for two hours a week who would answer our grammar questions and clear up confusions we'd had but couldn't find the answer to. As our German got stronger we bought a TV and watched the news. We also found tandem partners: native speakers who would practice with us for an hour in German in exchange for an hour in English. As time went on we stopped seeking out tutors and directed all of our questions to the tandem partners.

The days went by quickly and happily. The learning was so fast and clearly palpable -- every week a new skill or a new idea would be mastered, practiced, and in our active usage. With so many different ways of approaching German: reading books, listening to audiobooks, watching TV or movies, speaking to people, and a bit of writing, we were able to round out practicing all the various parts of a language, and never got bored.

The most amazing test of our German knowledge came with taking math classes in German. (though not all of our classes were in German. One prof. lectured in English solely because Ananda and I were in the class. Most Germans have a conversational command of English from their schooling, so it wasn't crippling to his students, but to give an entire course in a foreign lecture just for two guests blew me away. What kindness!) The first month of classes was sluggish -- lecture was often spent writing down new words to look up after class. By the second month we began to understand our classes in German without too much effort. In the last month, I was able to converse with other students about our homework. Understanding lectures on partial differential equations was astonishing to me. It was very empowering!

4. What made it go so well?

This experience has been a personal reference point to me -- comparing how I feel in a given situation to how I felt learning German is a way I check to see if I am learning as best as I can. The whole physical and mental feeling and experience of being there has been an invaluable tool to me over the past 4 years.

This has led me to analyze the experience deeply and to break it down into the individual factors that made the whole situation so effective, so that when a current situation isn't going as well, I can look concretely at what factors are different and what potentially could be changed.

Learning the parts of a skill in an order determined by using the skill itself: I mentioned above not trusting the conjugation worksheet but not being able to put my finger on why. I found that as my German progressed, the order I was learning the language in was quite different, and in some cases inverted, from the order it was traditionally presented in.

For example: the traditional method has one learn how to say a short, simple sentence perfectly, like "I want to borrow books from the library." To say this sentence perfectly, you need to be acquainted with the accusative and dative cases (for direct and indirect objects) and how to decline plural nouns. You'd first have an introduction to the dative and accusative cases and how to decline plural nouns, be presented with charts for memorization, and then do a lot of exercises that amounted to memorization practice.

In real usage -- i.e. talking and understanding German -- we found that the most important thing for being understood was the idea of putting verbs in 2nd position. Basically, this means that the verb needs to be your second grammatical unit in the sentence -- you have one grammatical unit before the verb (like the subject, object, or adverb), then the verb, and then your sentence goes on. Your verb in the second position is what the rest of your sentence pivots around. This is different way of thinking about sentences than in English -- so much so that I had trouble with English for a day or two on my return, still being in this habit.) And, unsurprisingly, if you don't do this, no one can understand anything you say in German. It's like saying "Tomorrow work I late." in English instead of "I work late tomorrow." The word order is one of the first big things that needs to be right in order to communicate successfully.

This rule -- one that is regarded as an intermediate rule in a normal German class' sequence -- was one of the very first things we learned. And there was tremendous feedback from learning it: by constructing sentences this way instead of translating word-for-word from English, people instantly understood us much better. It was a sudden, magical shift. With the feedback being so strong, the idea stuck permanently. I can't imagine lapsing into thinking "was it 2nd or 3rd position that the verb goes in?", though this would be unsurprising had I memorized this rule out of context.

In this same light, learning the details of when to use what case and what gender (German nouns have three genders -- male, female, neuter -- which come up pretty much whenever one uses a noun) was one of the last things that fell into place for us. It actually started happening on its own around our last month in Germany -- Ananda noticed one day that her cases were coming out of her mouth correctly, with no particular effort having gone into cases or declinations beyond the general daily effort of communicating in German.

It made sense instantly in light of looking at how important it was to communicating: Germans could understand us fine when we swapped "den Tisch" for "dem Tisch" (different cases), or even "die Tisch" for "der Tisch" (different gender.) If the rest of the sentence was constructed correctly, the meaning would be clear and it was just a simple sound that was off. On the other hand, without putting verbs in second position, our words were in the wrong order and we were practically incomprehensible.

So looking simply at the rules of German -- we needed to learn the rules that had the largest impact first. Putting words in the right order was much more important to being understood than the details of genders and cases, and so it made sense to learn word order first. This is a completely different sequence from how German is traditionally taught -- where attention is paid to cases and genders first in order to construct perfect simple sentences, before more "advanced" ideas about word order are covered. I think it's because this order is out of sync with what's most important to communication that tables and memorization are used to teach this material. Simply using the skill -- using German -- is a natural way to sort out what's important to learn when.

Having a learning partner: One of the big things I've taken away from being in Germany is the tremendous value of having someone on relatively equal footing to think with. 90% of the time, when Ananda or I couldn't understand a sentence or a grammatical idea, we could figure it out together. The rest of the time we had a tutor or a tandem partner to save the question for.

This meant a few things. One, we would save our own questions for each other -- we had an instant resource whenever we were stuck. Since we had a similar level of language comprehension, understanding each other's mistakes was quite natural. I once asked a tutor why she kept using the verb "to cook" (kochen) all the time -- it seemed to mean something like look, and she used it all the time, like "cook something in the dictionary" or "cook something over there". I figured that this usage was simply a colloquial use of kochen that didn't make sense literally. The tutor had no idea what the hell I was talking about. Through discussion, Ananda and I were able to generate enough examples for her to recognize that I meant "gucken" (which indeed means to look.)

This kind of mistake is easy to puzzle out with someone who has a similar understanding as you do (in this case, a sufficiently untrained ear to hear g's for k's) and find different ways to articulate the question in a way that an expert can understand: without several examples, I think the tutor would have just been baffled. Upon arriving at the answer together, we realized not only that a different verb was being used, but more importantly that we couldn't tell hard g's and k's apart.

In general, questions for native speakers came ready with examples and a clear explanation of what we were confused about. When Ananda and I would get stuck, we would generate examples and clarify the question as we tried to figure it out. This made our use of the expert's time very efficient and receiving the answer for us very exciting -- finally understanding something we'd been wondering about for days. It also helped us remember the answer: it's hard to forget something you've put so much personal effort into.

Finally, there's the structure that two people can create for each other. We informally agreed to work on German from around 8 am to 6 pm every day -- going to our office to do so -- and would occasionally do more in the evening if we felt like it. Having another person really kept me to this structure: while it took getting up a bit earlier than I wanted to, our overall progress was so rewarding that I was eager to keep the going. The human aspect of having a partner -- someone to bounce off of when feeling confused or tired or just out of it -- also makes the whole process much smoother: learning German was more like hanging out with someone than a force of will.

Having lots of time to practice and a high "practice time:instruction time" ratio. This is of course the whole theme of what I'm saying here -- by using German and finding ways to make it work with our skill level, we learned quickly, easily, and happily. In particular though, we had one or two hours of time with an expert (a tutor) for about half of the weeks we were there (we didn't have a steady tutor.) Teacher-student exchanges often fall into the rhythm of "You should learn this skill: let's introduce it" on a first meeting, and then on a second meeting, with the learner having had very little time to practice or use the skill, a repeat of the ideas of the first meeting with some sort of drill-and-practice routine.

In our situation, the lessons were largely spurred by our own questions, and the ratio of hours of practice to hours of instruction was at least 20:1, and usually more like 30 or 40:1. This meant that in the time that we were given a new idea or insight into how the language worked, we'd had time to try it and practice it, often to the point of mastery. Ananda and I would discuss any questions that came up, and usually work on figuring out a new skill. Our next lesson would start with resolving any last questions about the old skill and quickly move on to questions about a new skill we were working on. This kept the instruction from getting stale and made the instruction invigorating for both teacher and learner -- rapid progress is exciting to experience and to work with. It also kept us out of the trap of "I just didn't have time to do this/If only I'd worked harder" of traditional student/teacher interactions. I believe this happens when learners haven't had enough time between instruction to try something out on their own. This can derail a learner's path from making their best efforts on learning something to wondering why they aren't able to do something, taking their attention away from their learning process and into self-doubt.

I have found looking at the ratio of practice time:instruction time to be a valuable one when understanding why classes are working well or not. I believe people need more instruction at the beginning of learning a skill, when they have no foothold from which to practice and to experiment, and less and less as they find more and more to explore and question on their own. This is one reason that I think the Pimsleur tapes were so effective -- they were a self-directed way to get a lot of instruction on listening and speaking, via listening to phrases and repeating them, and could be done on one's own, whenever you wanted. They really helped us get an ear for the basics of the language, which becomes an entry point into deeper activities like listening to audiobooks or movies or having introductory conversations. One of the great things about Pimsleur is that while being able to listen to a phrase, repeat it, and listen to it again is a great way to begin to understand unfamiliar sounds, it's something that would be really tedious for a German speaker to work on with a beginner and a difficult resource to find otherwise. The tapes were an ideal format for that kind of instruction.

Being in control of feedback: We were free to make commitments and break them as far as learning German went. The first example was with our intensive German class that we dropped, but this happened with a number of other things. There was an international students group that hosted day-long outings. The first was fantastic: we were dying to hang out with other people and talk to people that would tolerate our slow, fragmented German, and were absolutely thrilled with the trip and level of conversation. By our third trip -- two months and lots and lots of German later -- we were beginning to feel like the general pace of conversation was excruciatingly slow for us, and so we stopped going.

Here's another example: tandem partners became the heart of how we learned German, once we could comfortably hold a conversation in German. The first few times we met with a tandem partner were like using a muscle you've never used before: we were incredibly drained afterwards and our minds were quiet and exhausted. While there was a value in watching ourselves become more and more comfortable learning German, and that first meeting showed us how difficult speaking in German for an hour was at first, it took us a while to really get into tandem exchanges simply because it took our German a few months to get to the level where it was a useful activity (and not just a taxing one.) By being able to control the frequency of these meetings, we were able to make use of them when were ready to.

The point is that we were in control of all of these interactions. What went well we did more of, what didn't we did less of, and we changed paths as we felt we needed to. By having complete flexibility, we stayed on a path of learning German as well as we could, and were very happy watching our progress unfold so smoothly. We never felt the typical institutional trap of "I have to do this", agreeing with the long-term goal but not the short-term methods. When the short-term methods needed changing, we could change them!

It all felt easy: The first week of learning on our own, and figuring out what to do, was tough. From there on out, things got easier and easier, until it began to feel really natural and almost effortless. It was such a rewarding pattern that it felt satisfying to work on in a long-term sense, and it consisted of doing so many fun things that each day was a joy. Gone were the feelings I had at MIT of "I should be working more" and "I'm not getting enough done." We felt like we were getting tons done and were really content with it.

In my experience, this is how every good learning experience feels. It feels good. Starting camp was like this too -- it had the same hallmarks of intense engagement and intense immersion (too busy doing it and loving it to question whether I'm doing it to the best of my ability), and similar daily bursts of understanding -- in this case about how to excite children about making things.

I'm really grateful for the experience -- I had no idea how powerful it would be. It's been extremely valuable to have this experience as a reference point for how to learn and how to live. It helped me trust myself as a learner and doer, and to trust the systems I was in less instead of trusting myself less when learning and doing wasn't going well.


Chris said...

Great post! I strongly agree with a lot of your points. It was very interesting to compare/contrast my own experiences learning Japanese (I didn't have a language partner and had to learn a lot more information by rote since I was studying the 2000+ Japanese characters which are necessary for reading). I think that my experience was vastly less pleasurable than your own, but there might have been other reasons for this (e.g. I had to learn while at work, which meant that I didn't have the freedom to seek out diverse resources, talk, etc. Mostly I just sat in my chair and tried to read Wikipedia.)

What are your thoughts on "meta-learning?" E.g. learning how to learn languages? How does having an easy/good experience vs. having a difficult/annoying experience influence meta-learning? Do you agree with the use of the term meta-learning?

jay said...

My favorite part about this post is that you give folk wisdom at the end. You tell a story about your experience, then you try to give advice for how to do good learning that comes in pithy statements followed up by discussion. It's also interesting how valuable the right learning partner can be.

Anonymous said...

It agree, the remarkable message