Getting back into the groove… how cognitive science helped

Getting back into the groove… how cognitive science helped

I started thinking about writing this post back in the dog days of summer. But it was too hot. Now those days have passed and clouds roil in grey skies. I wear a jumper on my back for the first time in what seems like a long while. Next Tuesday kids are back at school.  After that it will be students… all being well. Masked but present.  Did you know that in French Covid is a feminine noun rather than masculine? No, neither did I. It’s because it refers to the disease (la maladie) rather than the virus.  Digressing. Preparations for la rentrée: tidying my desk, sticking this coming year’s timetable into my diary, dusting my rucksack, trying to find my library card which doubles up as my classroom pass as well as opening up the barrier to the campus carpark… booking an appointment at the nail bar.

The hard-core (re)creating of course packs and pedagogical material was done in July. There is little point in revising them now because pertinent adjustments need individual students and groups of leaners. And that’s what the art of teaching is all about:  the awareness of specific learner needs and class dynamics and the ability to adjust accordingly. Flexibility. Sensibility. Confidence. Timing. Which is why every teacher worth their salt does not sleep the day before la rentrée. Students can learn without teachers but teachers can’t teach without students… And some of us haven’t had students for a good while now. Will we still have the knack?

I decide to do what I always do when I don’t know what else to do. Read. Always helps me to get back into the swing of things. I start with a scientific report written by Heather Hilton that I will be heartily recommending to my trainee teacher students this year:  

Thanks Amanda for sending the report my way.

The fifty page report is one of those texts that I wish I’d read twenty years ago or so.  But when I trained to be a teacher, cognitive sciences were not mentioned… although I did get to read Freud which I’m sure explains much.

Heather Hilton is a lecturer at the University of Lyon 2. She begins her report by outlining what happens in our brain when we learn a language. She clarifies the different memory systems that comprise long term memory (semantic memory, episodic memory and non-declarative memory) and she conceptualises working memory in terms of attention span (drawing on Baar’s Global Workspace Theory). In a similar way that a projector lights up the stage and leaves other parts in darkness so does our working memory focus selectively (requiring effort and concentration) on specific items.

Learning takes place when new activation networks are formed in long-term memory so that the use of knowledge and/or skills becomes automatic. Learning, whilst not increasing our number of neurones, exercises and changes the physical form of our brain, increasing the number of dendrites making it possible for us to form increasingly complex networks (Hilton quotes Sousa here). I always knew that learning was good for us.

Rather than follow Krashen’s distinction between learning and acquisition (upon which many communicative teaching methods are based) Hilton prefers the terms implicit and explicit learning. She illustrates convincingly how learning any language, including an L1, requires time, effort and pedagogy. The conclusions that she draws concerning L2 learning in a classroom environment provide much food for thought. One of the big differences in our education system between L1 and L2 learning is of course the time alloted for the apprenticeship. What are the most efficient ways of using the very limited time available to us in an L2 classroom? Some of the suggestions that resonated the most with me were repetition as a prerequisite of learning, the importance of vocabulary acquisition, working on the same theme over a period of time (rather than introducing a new topic ever week) so that vocabulary can be widened and efficiently acquired, as well as focus on form. She also reminds us of the need to take into account how physically tiring it is to learn a foreign language because of the conscious effort involved. In a higher education context she suggests (and I wholeheartedly agree with her) that training exercises could (should?) be carried out online (and tailored to individual student needs) so that precious classroom time can be spent putting the linguistic knowledge students have practised into action as they accomplish communicative and interactional tasks.

Suddenly I feel as if I’m all raring to go.

Next on my reading list: Writing without teachers (1973) by Peter Elbow, which is rather sternly dedicated to ‘those people who actually use it – not just read it’. Now there’s a challenge and a half.

Hilton, H. (2019). Sciences cognitives et apprentissage des langues. Paris: Cnesco.

Lovely flowers from Lou

2 Replies to “Getting back into the groove… how cognitive science helped”

  1. And I would love to have YOU as a student.Although I am not sure how much fun being a masked language teacher/student is going to be. Definitely going to have to develop new skills….such as mime.

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