Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Emperor's New Clothes

It’s not that getting older makes you any smarter. But if you pay attention during many years of professional engagement, you realize that issues are not always new, that past generations have discussed the same topics, and that the emperor tends to just put on new clothes every once in a while.

It is important for us as professionals to recognize what is at the core of “new” developments, that we pursue what is at the heart of our jobs of educating kids, and that we do not get side-tracked by peripheral issues. We always hope, of course, that each wave of new developments ultimately strengthens what we need to accomplish. And new wardrobes are not all bad.

This is my very quick elevator comment on what it is that world language and global education is all about:

Kids should know something about the world and participate in conversations with people around the world in as many languages as possible.

If that sounds too simplistic to you, it perhaps is. But I would challenge you to find a better five or ten second response to the question of what our subject area is all about. Young children tend to express the core of what they do very simply, often in ways that adults cannot. When ten-year old students in Lodi exchanged pictures of cranes with kids in Cuba, for example, a girl comments that “we know that our countries are not getting along that well.” The boy next to her chimes in, “And we want to change that.”[1] How simple is that? And how long would it have taken a teacher to say the same thing, how much longer would it have taken an administrator to say this, and how contortionist would a politician’s comment have been? So, at the core of the issue, things are very simple:  We see a problem, and we want to fix it. That’s it.

Keep this in mind when you “go global,” when you teach your students about the world. Don’t complicate things, keep it simple.

This is how a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction report[2] framed this issue in 1943, a war year:

In more than one respect can the high school be considered a training ground of citizens of the post-war world, who are to be endowed with the human and social qualities required of the builders of such a world….The hope of understanding other peoples in the world made small by post-war means of communication and transportation rests on the hope that more persons than ever before will know languages other than their own; and through those become acquainted with the manners and customs, the psychology, the spirit, the ideals, and the aspiration of other nations. The new methods in teaching emphasize the role of language as an art, and its influence on human relations.

Indeed, this is what we are trying to get accomplished, what we have been trying to get accomplished for decades. There has been progress, there have been improvements in teaching methods and resources; there has been huge progress in the immediacy of communication in the digital age. But let us ask ourselves to what extent we have made progress on the core purpose of what we do in our classrooms on a daily basis. Let us ask ourselves what we need to do to strengthen the core mission of world language education. If you think that more needs to be done, ask what it is that could be done.

As a ten-year old would put it: We don’t have enough students (or adults) who know something about the world and who speak several languages. We want to change that.

[1] Global Wisconsin Video Series. Watch
[2] Frank J. Klier (1943) Language Teaching in Wisconsin Public High Schools. 1941 – 1942. Madison, WI: Department of Public Instruction.