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Showing posts with label pedagogy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pedagogy. Show all posts

Sunday, 17 November 2019

The "Ball of String" Theory for Learning English as a Second or Foreign Language


The "Ball of string" theory

I believe in the “ball of string” theory of learning English. Imagine that the English language is an infinitely long piece of string. You begin rolling the string into a ball. The English that you have mastered, can repeat and understand almost perfectly, is your ball of string.





Daily English is redundant and repetitive

Your ball of string begins with the English words and expressions that you might hear every day: “Hello,” “How are you?” “How much is it?” “Where’s the bathroom?” “Coffee and a cheese sandwich please.” “Nice weather today.” “Tomorrow.” “Next Monday.” “That’s nice!” All the simple words and expressions that you hear constantly repeated. Assuming you are somewhere where people around you speak English, you don’t need to learn any grammar or how to conjugate verbs or have a vocabulary of unusual words or expressions. If you are surrounded by people who speak English and you pay attention, you will discover that in daily conversation people use a small variety of words. English, as it is spoken in daily life, is repetitive and redundant. You only need to learn how to understand and repeat the things you hear most often being said around you in order to begin “your ball of string.”


To Learn is to add something new to what you already know

When you are rolling a ball of string, as the ball gets bigger it becomes easier and easier to add more string and you will do it faster and faster. Learning is the process of adding something new to what you already know. The process is fast and efficient because you only learn what you really need to know right now. In every course, book or program for learning English, you will be asked to learn things that you don’t need immediately and you may never need. For example, a course or book might encourage you to learn, the conjugation of the verb “to write” in the present continuous: “I am writing, you are writing, he is writing, we are writing, you are writing, they are writing.” In real life you are probably never going to say any of these things, so why waste time learning them. Learn only what you need right now for your life, interests and occupation, (maybe “I’m writing to him right now” will be useful), the rest you will be able to learn easily when your ball of string is much bigger.


Watch low-budget television

This approach means that you focus on what you already know, practicing, repeating and perfecting what you know, instead of constantly trying to learn something that you don’t know and may never need. If you are living in an area where people around don’t speak English, you will have to try and artificially create the environment where the “ball of string” approach will work. I would recommend watching television soap operas—not big-budget shows. The lower the budget, the more tv-shows depend on actors talking a lot in normal dialogue and common language. You don’t even have to understand the show, just begin to understand the words and phrases that are being used most often to add to your ball of string.


What a teacher is teaching isn't necessarily what a student is learning

Even if you are taking a course to learn English, you can use this “ball of string” approach. I have often told teachers of English that what they are teaching is not necessarily what students are learning. Imagine a teacher is giving a lesson on verb tenses and asks each student in turn to repeat the different tenses. He might say “okay, good,” and “now your turn,” “very good” and “now you.” The teacher might think he is teaching the verb tenses but what the attentive, ball-of-string student will learn is “okay, good,” “now your turn,” very good” and “now you.”

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Does Knowledge Require Truth?

The absolute truth

I spent a career telling university students that if they encountered someone who claimed to know “The Truth,” they should run in the opposite direction because what would follow was bound to be religious dogma or a schizophrenic rant based on an encounter with God—the kind of truth that could not be checked or verified or even questioned. The notion of absolute truth disappeared after Nietzsche announced that “God is dead” in 1882 and Einstein followed up with a “theory of relativity” in 1905.  Marx’s claim that “religion was the opiate of the people” made it plain, at least for we egg heads who occupied the universities, that the Twentieth Century was going to have to get by without “The Truth.”

The tree of knowledge

The problem I faced as a professor was that my job was to be the serpent in the garden, encouraging young people to take a bite out of the apple from the tree of knowledge (no, not that kind of Biblical, carnal knowledge, just ordinary knowing things).  How could I claim to be passing on knowledge without at the same time claiming that what I was teaching was true?  Luckily, for me, I taught literature which had already been described as “The lies which tell the truth.”  This paradox allowed me to evade the issue of “The Truth” and even “the truth,” but the question still dogged me.


The correspondence theory of truth

Every five-year-old knows the difference between the truth and a lie, but once you’ve got a university degree under your belt, chances are you’re not so sure anymore.  The five-year-old knows that if Mom asks “did you eat the cookie?” and you’ve still got crumbs falling from your lips, the truth is “yes, I did” and the lie is everything else . . . Martians, the imaginary friend, the dog and plain old “nope.”  This is known as the correspondence theory of truth, and it is the default theory, which means if you have never thought of this question before this is what you think.  A statement is true if it corresponds to “reality.”  Did I mention that right after Nietzsche killed God, Einstein killed reality? 


Relativity, skepticism and the absence of truth

The reason the correspondence theory of truth doesn’t really work is that for the last hundred years or so, since Einstein said “E=Mc2,” and physicists admitted they really don’t know what “matter” is, we’ve all been pretty uncertain about what is and isn’t reality.   Actually, for as long as human beings have been able to record their thoughts on the question, we have been uncertain about the nature of reality.  The Greek philosopher Pyrrho took his skepticism and disbelief in reality so far that, we are told, his disciples had to go before him moving objects out of his way so that he wouldn’t walk into them. Nowadays our disbelief in reality isn’t so much of the walking-into-walls variety, but our certainty that we are uncertain has become widespread.  The problem is that this uncertainty gets translated into a vague belief that there is no truth or the idea that truth really doesn’t matter anymore.  Truth, in the postmodern era, is the baby that has gotten thrown out with the bathwater.


Coherent truth

However, in the absence of absolute, God’s honest truth, and corresponds-to-reality truth, what is left to us is an imperfect form of truth known as “coherent truth.”  Something is true because it is coherent in relation to something else that is true because it is coherent in relation to something else that is true and so on.  Truth prevails as long as there is no break in the chain, no spot where something believed true upon which other truths depend is proven false, then the chain of truth must be reconstructed.  More frequently, as we follow the trail of coherent truths we arrive at a moment where we have to shrug and admit that we just don’t know.  This moment and gesture (the shrug) are known in rhetoric as “an aporia.” 


Truth only applies when there is meaning

Why would I accept such a seemingly weak form of truth?  In the first place, there is a limited category of things which we can call true or false.  Wandering in the forest, you would never stop before a tree and declare “this tree is true!”  Entering a room you would never find yourself saying “this chair is true.”  We only apply the question of truth to things which have a meaning.  Only when there is a meaning can we say that something is true or false.  It is impossible to say that something is incoherent yet true.  


Heuristic truth

In fact, there is a form of truth, that some people would consider an even weaker form of truth, which I accept.  I accept it as the only kind of truth that is available to us. It is called “heuristic truth.”  “Heuristic” is a tricky, and even dangerous, word.  It derives from the Greek for “find” or “discover.”  Heuristic truth is the kind of truth we discover through trial and error, though dialogue, though logic, through deductive and inductive reasoning, from experience and evidence and examples, because, in the simplest of terms, it makes sense; it is coherent.
If you google the word “heuristic” you will find definitions like “temporary” or “a short cut” to the truth.  Maybe, but human life and the history of our species are temporary relative to the time frame of our universe.  “Short cuts” are all we have time for.


Heuristic pedagogy

Heuristics is also a form of pedagogy.  It is how we learn, not just in the classroom but in life.  We keep adding new information, and adjusting what we believe to be true.  The only test available to us is that we keep trying to put it all together and if the result is coherent, it is the truth so far.



The Acropolis: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato and Aristotle

This is a picture of me standing on the Acropolis,  a few weeks ago, looking down on the theatre where the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were first presented.  Here in Athens, this is where truth was first invented by Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.





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