What learning French has taught me about teaching

4 March 2018

Author: Vicki Barnett (Research Lead at Notre Dame High School)

At the beginning of this year, I made the decision to (re)learn French. Or some French. I did French at secondary school (not my choice – my school was a ‘language specialist school’ which meant everyone had to do a language whether they wanted to or not.) and managed to pass with a C grade. As my GCSE exams approached, I decided that as I knew I wanted to be a History teacher, I should focus on the GCSEs that would give me the best chance of achieving that dream, and so French revision was pushed to the side lines in favour of History, English, Maths and Science.

Almost 13 years later, and in the euphoria that the Christmas Holidays and sense of fresh start that New Year brings, I decided to retackle some French. My partner is very good at French, and so when we’ve visited the country I have been heavily reliant upon his ability to speak it almost fluently, with my occasional delight at recognising ‘Sortie’ on a sign and proudly proclaiming ‘that means exit.’ Having realised that our holidays will involve a lot of seeing France in 2018, being the proud woman I am, I decided that I didn’t want to just rely upon my other half’s knowledge of French whilst there, and that I wanted to be able to do some of it myself. Having a C grade, how hard can it be? I naïvely thought.

And so somewhat by surprise, I have found myself in the position of ‘the learner.’ This has been quite a change, and one that has taken a bit of getting used to. Having been a teacher now for about 7 years, I am not used to truly being on the other side of the desk as it were. We’ve all been on courses where we have learnt new things about our subjects, but it is usually within the schema of knowledge we already know and so it fits in nicely with our prior knowledge and understanding without too much difficulty. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that it quickly dawned on me how little I could remember from GCSE French, and so I am essentially starting from scratch. It is this perspective as a learner that has given me some real insights into my teaching, and has helped me to improve my everyday practice as a result.

*Disclaimer – my other half is a fellow History teacher (and now teacher of basic French) and so he purposely built some of these techniques into his teaching.*

  • Importance of retrieval practice and worked examples.
    Our French lessons, generally every Saturday over a coffee in a café of some variety, tend to include some retrieval practice of what has previously been learnt. The format of this can vary, from a basic recall of important verbs in a 5 or 10 question ‘test’ at the beginning of the lesson, to sentences that include new vocab learnt that lesson but constructed using previous work to build upon my prior knowledge. My other half will often go through these sentences with me, showing me their construction and how the words fit together (reasoning behind this becomes clearer later), and then I will work through a set on my own applying the same principles. My work in between is often to revisit my verbs and self-test during the week using my vocab flashcards. I have found these ‘revision’ techniques helpful in remembering and being able to retrieve the vocabulary when needed, and much of these ideas have come from Dunlosky et al’s study into effective revision (2013 – found here). The research examining the effect of worked examples, especially in Maths, can be found here.

What this has meant for my teaching: I have been plugging away with trying to embed retrieval practice into my teaching since September – since actually using it myself, I have learnt that it needs to become a more deliberate part of my teaching rather than just an ‘ad libbed’ recall starter task. I have thought much more about the types of question/knowledge I want students to answer, I have embedded them into a similar format more regularly and it has become usual practice in my room. With worked examples, I find that I work much more on construction of answers with my students. Previously I would get students to look at model answers and think that it was enough, but I have realised that students may be able to emulate the answer but not actually understand how to do it on their own. Now I make a concerted effort to work through examples using my visualiser, showing students how to construct a line of argument or an analytical paragraph rather than just giving them an example and hoping for the best.

  • Schemata are important.
    I am often asked by students how I know so much ‘stuff’ about History. My answer at the beginning of my career was that I taught it a lot, and so I just remembered it. Since beginning to examine research I know now that that answer is only partially correct – it is because new historical information fits into my pre-existing schema on that topic, and the schemata of how those topics fit together. My Year 13s are often bemused by how quickly I can change from talking about what was happening in the Middle East in 1979 to what was happening in the context of the Cold War in 1979, and what I want to be able to explain is how in my head they’re not separate entities: they compliment each other, help me understand the general history of that era, and often link together to help me analyse the significance of what was happening.
    Since beginning to learn French, I have realised how I have taken that schema and schemata for granted. I have no equivalent for French. I like to think of my History schema/schemata as ginormous mind maps in my head where there are links, constantly moving and interchanging as I read more and add new information to it (a tad BBC1 Sherlock Holmes perhaps). On the first lesson, my French schema/schemata was a blank space with a few GCSE phrases floating around as isolated thoughts with no links. I can see now that as the lessons progress, and as my other half has thought about how to approach them, those French mind maps are starting to fill out a bit more as I make more links between them and my other half points out the connections. For more on schema, see this very helpful post with PDF file

What this has meant for my teaching: I try to demonstrate more fully where the connections are between events in History to show how things fit together. I have been working on this particularly with Year 9 this term as we work our way through events between the wars 1919-1939. I’ve made much more of a point of connecting key events back to WWI itself such as how the USA’s roaring economy can be traced back to their involvement in WWI, as well as getting students to compare and contrast what was happening in multiple countries in the same year e.g. USA, Germany and USSR in 1929. By doing this my students are beginning to understand more fully the significance of WWI, both short term and long term, as well as the trajectories of some of the world’s leading powers in the run up to WWII. I’ve seen their recall improve, and their ability to analyse events develop. Previously I have examined the significance of WWI with students immediately after studying the topic and only once, but this year I have waited and revisited at different points and students’ answers as a result have been more detailed and analytical as a result. This notion of schemata now drives a lot of my starter tasks (that and retrieval practice), and I’m now beginning to look at links more widely across the Key Stages to expand students’ schemata further.

  • It is important not to assume prior knowledge.
    When I was talking this blog post through with my other half and telling him about the key ideas I wanted to discuss, he identified that one of the key issues in teaching me has been assuming the knowledge I know prior to the lesson beginning. For example, in our first lesson he decided to introduce me to some of the key irregular verbs and began the lesson. I found it really difficult, lost heart and almost immediately decided the task of learning French may be too big a challenge. However, after drilling down into what I found difficult we discovered that I needed to revisit the foundations. Before learning a French verb, I needed to revisit the definition of a verb, and then examine differences between 1st, 2nd 3rd person (very basic I know). My other half had assumed that due to my C grade in French I had those basics ready to hand, and this coupled with his understanding of the topic meant there was an assumption that I wouldn’t need to revisit it. There was also my lack of domain specific vocabulary that needed refreshing. We quickly realised that revisiting or learning key concepts needed to be done before moving onto learning the content, or the content of that lesson felt very difficult for me to get my head around. It was attaching itself to anything (see previous point on schemata!)

What this has meant for my teaching: I have become increasingly aware of my tendency in the past to assume knowledge, particularly in upper school classes. At lower school I did the same – surely all students in Year 7 know what Parliament is? Year 8 are of course familiar with Empire, and Year 9 could definitely define a dictatorship. I taught content to build upon those concepts, often assuming that they already knew them, or that if they were on the syllabus of the previous year then their previous teacher would have certainly covered it. At GCSE level with time restraints I just ploughed through content regardless with little consideration – of course concepts students have never come across before I covered, but I assumed my Year 11 historians would be aware of the differences between a democracy and a dictatorship for the Nazi Germany course. Two speakers had challenged by assumptions prior to my own French lessons – I attended a CPD session held by Michael Fordham in early 2017 on designing the History curriculum effectively, and one of the stand out sections was on the tricky nature of substantive concepts in History. How they are changeable – Parliament in the 1300s was different to Parliament in the 1700s and both are different to our current parliament, so is one definition of Parliament enough? So my assumption that knowing one definition was definitely doing students a disservice, and was something that I looked at embedding more in KS3 in depth last year (see this blog post by Fordham on substantive concepts). Building on that I saw Alex Quigley speak at ResearchEd in London in September 2017, where he spoke about the importance of language in our classrooms and domain specific language especially (you can see the talk here) As a result I created word lists of domain specific vocabulary for individual units at GCSE to get students to self-assess their understanding of terminology and concepts prior to teaching. That way I could see where I could build upon pre-existing knowledge swiftly (I would like to clarify I am not entirely taking their word for it, and do check understanding in starter tasks and similar activities) whilst also building in time to scaffold those concepts students struggled with. For my Year 11s for example, their assessments sheets suggested they had a good understanding of what Communism was, but they struggled with the concept of a Republic. This meant that in my lessons looking at how the Weimar Republic was formed we spent more time discussing and formulating the concept of a Republic, whereas when we came to look at the Spartacist Uprising I felt happy explaining they were Communist and that students would understand the connotations that came with that (which they did). My French lessons have reminded me of the importance of not assuming this knowledge, particularly with my GCSE and A-Level students.

  • Threshold Concepts!
    One of the things I struggled to grasp most when beginning to learn French was that they don’t construct sentences the same way we do in English, and that you can’t simply translate word for word. I would seemingly accept this when taught it to me one lesson, but the following week fall back in to the habit of trying to replicate a sentence from English into the French. I had assumed that this was a particular way to phrase sentences for the particular topic we were doing and not be able to apply it to the French language generally, much to the annoyance of my other half. Then one French lesson, it just clicked – after getting cross at mistranslating the phrase “I am cold” literally and getting it wrong (in French it is “j’ai froid – I have cold), it finally registered. Now, whenever I am attempting a task where I need to create sentences I always remind myself of I have cold. This I believe, was my first Threshold Concept. Once I had grasped it I couldn’t go back; I no longer make the same mistakes because I have understood it and I can now build knowledge on top of this.
    For some excellent posts on Threshold Concepts in the classroom try these blogs from my colleague Niki Kaiser, who explains their application to Science very well. Alternatively this paper by Meyer and Land (2003) explores the concept in more detail, and is where I first came across the idea.

What has this meant for my teaching: I initially read the Meyer and Land paper last year, and so since learning French I’ve familiarised myself with the key ideas and concepts in it. In particular I’ve spent some time identifying potential ‘bottlenecks’ and Threshold Concepts in History, and have spent time thinking about how to deliver these topics in lessons. In particular I have been thinking about those tricky concepts connected to using primary sources in the classroom, and how best to tackle them. I’ve started by trying to pull together a list of the key areas that students struggle with, and then I’m going to explore the best way to scaffold these concepts in lessons themselves. I’m thinking of looking initially at how to support this in Year 7 History, and then revisit it in Years 8 and 9, but it is still a fledgling idea and so a follow up blog post at some point in the future will be needed to explain my findings (if any).

Consequently, putting myself in the position of learner has had many unexpected benefits – for one, I am now marginally better at French then I was at Christmas (my first test comes with a visit to France at Easter, wish me luck!) The unexpected benefit was the opportunity it gave me to reflect upon my own teaching. Being a learner forced me to reflect on my everyday practice and work out what is actually important for my students. I realised that if these were things I needed to do then it was highly likely that my students need it also. The biggest outcome then has been that learning French has made me a better History teacher.

(This post is dedicated to my partner, a fellow History teacher and now my French teacher who puts up with a lot of infuriating questions and doesn’t get any extra time for it).

Posted on 4 March 2018
Posted in: Blog
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.