470px-Sandham_et_ses_amis_Montreal_1880For some time now, I have been seeking a new paradigm in education. I easily tire of the wars between public and private schools; my concern is the education of the student in the course of conducting a for-profit education business. This pragmatic approach keeps my attention squarely focused on what is in front of me. In my case, this means focusing on the results of my Japanese tutoring.

In roughly two months (perhaps slightly over that), I have taken a student who began as a near complete beginner in Japanese with next to no knowledge of the language, guiding him to the point where I can no longer call him a beginner. Certainly, being an “early intermediate” student will be a status he will retain for some time; however, my patience and hard work seems to have paid off by instilling an understanding of the structure and feel of the Japanese language, in addition to the most fundamental grammar and a fair amount of basic concepts absolutely essential to future progress. Armed with this knowledge, Japanese no longer makes this student feel lost, even though specific words are still beyond him. (No surprise there.)

In fact, the ability to tone down the difficulty at any one time, as the tutor or teacher (I like “instructor” as a catch-all term) deems necessary, is of great service to the learner. Not everything in education is an issue of the complexity of the subject matter, that is, the “level” of the material; often, a person just needs time to become familiar with a new concept. That familiarity is gained through seeing something from different angles over the course of time. The mind recoils from learning by rote; knowing this, the wise instructor shows a new term in its natural environment from different angles, revealing the feel of its usage.

Education is not about taking a straight line. Sometimes, it is not even about repeating something, going over it again and again until something is retained (which in itself, is a luxury rarely afforded in both public and private schools). Often, education is best retained over the long term by going ahead a little, coming back a little, retreading old ground, throwing in crumbs of new things to keep things fresh, simplifying when simple is needed, and ratcheting up complexity when the student is ready – or hungry, at least – for more.

Learn Out Live is based on a simple idea: one on one care and concern in real time over Skype. However, teaching an individual student over a longer period of time creates a different kind of relationship. My time teaching Japanese semi-intensively with this one student showed me that we are touching on a paradigm that is new, precisely because it is very old: a “master” and “apprentice” relationship.

Neither Side Is Passive

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The main criticism of the "old" style of teaching, that is, the "lecture style" method, is that it turns the student into a passive listening post.

The main criticism of the “old” style of teaching, that is, the “lecture style” method, is that it turns the student into a passive listening post, hoping to decrypt and decipher the words broadcast by the teacher or professor. This resembles gathering electronic intelligence against a hostile force: the enemy speaks in code (jargon), follows habits unfamiliar to our own, and shows absolutely no concern for our own well-being or convenience.

The main problem of the “new” style of teaching, Classroom 2.0 (and other buzzwords), is that the “guide on the side” is largely passive; that is, the teacher exists to point the student to external information, and then… get out of the student’s way. In other words, the teacher is treated as an addition to the classroom rather than a central point of it. More to the point, all the pressure of teaching is pushed onto the student; the student essentially teaches himself, with the teacher providing a tiny bit of help here and there. The teacher, of course, expects to be well paid for this largely passive behavior.

Neither side of this argument is correct. At the very least, neither side is fulfilling the full needs of the learner.

In the first place, the instructor should know more than the student. In theory, Classroom 2.0 is easily subject to the “any idiot” theory; that is, any idiot can run it. If external information is adequate for self-instruction, and the instructor is merely a guide to it, he doesn’t need to understand any of it; he just needs to know where it is. Asking students to pay good money for such a class is a real stretch. Furthermore, in case no one has noticed, modern students are masters of Google-fu (The Not-So-Ancient Art of Using Google) to find what information is publicly and freely available for use in an educational environment. Modern students do not need the teacher to find these sources.

Well, guess what: public sources are not adequate to learn any complex subject in detail. Why should they be? The best information is still sold in “dead tree” books, copyright-protected and aggressively defended from piracy and illegitimate uses of all kinds. The student’s access to information is simply not unlimited. That’s why the student looks at a teacher as a source of information. If the teacher is unable, or unwilling, to act as a source of information, the student will be deeply annoyed, to say the least.

Furthermore, even if all the information about a specific subject can be crammed into a single book, or a small collection of books, simply handing the information to the student, in bulk, is not adequate for anything sane humans can call “learning.” Take one example: English grammar. Have you looked at a “serious” grammar book? These books are huge things, thick and bulky, and completely impenetrable and illegible to the ordinary English native speaker; non-native speakers who are not already masters of the English language have no chance whatsoever, and even non-native masters may find the exercise daunting and tedious.

Therefore, the true task of the instructor – the “master” in this relationship – is to find a way to turn information into practical knowledge, and convey this practical knowledge to the learner in the most efficient and effective way possible.

After all, if the instructor is more skilled and knowledgeable about a given subject, yet cannot convey this knowledge to the student so that the student may turn it into his own skill, the instructor’s skill and knowledge is meaningless, and serves no practical use whatsoever.

Making Mid-Course Corrections

In a master-apprentice relationship, neither side is passive. The instructor is constantly attempting to turn his knowledge into a form that can be absorbed by the student; however, the instructor knows that dumping the entirety of his knowledge onto the student would be crushing him or her under a 5-ton slab of concrete. The instructor must pace the conveying of the knowledge.

The student, for his or her part, is constantly trying to absorb the maximum amount of information, but confronts internal and external obstacles; this is an inherent part of the learning process. With lines of communication with the instructor open and regular, the student delivers a steady stream of feedback that enables the instructor to adjust the pace and the exact mix of the lessons to account for the student’s circumstances.

In doing this, the instructor keeps the long-term agenda – the big picture – in mind, while seeking to avoid a collapse in confidence by the student by being too hard at any one point. Like water, the instructor’s lessons follow the path of least resistance; in the end, the student’s knowledge is like a lake, gradually filling and rising.

Thus empowered, the instructor is able to exercise wisdom in his judgments. Thus empowered, the student is able to request changes without fear or reluctance, knowing his concerns will be listened to, for the instructor has the student’s benefit foremost in mind. Both sides gain familiarity with each other, establishing an atmosphere of trust, respect, and practical ingenuity as both attempt to reach the goal – the enhancement of the student’s skill and knowledge – in the best way that can be found, or created.

An Old Idea Becomes New Again

389px-Friedrich_Franz_en_v.Usedom_door_Georg_David_Matthieu_1767Did the ancient Greek and Roman aristocrats send their prized children to public schools? Did they send their children to religious academies? No, they assigned highly skilled private tutors to their children. These tutors gave such children their undivided attention at any one time.

In modern times, this idea has fallen by the wayside, partly due to ideology, but largely due to logistics: public schools and private academies are the only practical way to teach very large numbers of students in a way that is even somewhat equitable; and due to the enormous geographical spread of modern mankind, the odds of finding a tutor of exceptional skill within your own geographic area is very slim.

Then the Internet came.

With live chat technology, first in text, and now with voice with services such as Skype, we now live in a proverbial “global village.” What this means, in plain terms, is that extremely talented tutors are available across huge swaths of the world through Internet connectivity.

Certainly, there is a tangible limit to how many individuals a tutor can find time to tutor personally. (I have not hit mine, so if you want to learn Japanese or enhance your English, let me know!) For those who cannot find a vacancy, or who do not feel they can afford one on one lessons, an option that may help is downloadable PowerPoint files, audiobooks, and multimedia. In the near future, I will be going this route with Learn Out Live, using its online shop as a platform for selling my lesson content and voice recordings for reasonable prices.

One on one lessons are still better, of course, but not everyone has that option. For everyone else, modern means of distributing information can extend the reach of an expert, placing specialized knowledge and experience in the hands of those who want to learn. This way, I want to reach many more people and help them unlock new possibilities in their lives. After all, language is a tool for communication; making language less confusing is a public service… as well as good business.

I believe that this is the future.

Managing Student Success

The principles I have described here – flowing like water, not demanding more than a person can give, encouraging effort, altering plans according to circumstances, and so forth – are very much in tune with the writings of Sun Tzu, as well as my modern explanations of his writings as contained in Sun Tzu for the Modern Strategist. These are not pure “teaching” skills; they are management skills that enhance the learner’s ability to make progress.

Above all, managing student success is an idea that treats the learner as a human being, and as neither a listening machine, nor as a human search engine. Through the exertion of leadership, the instructor becomes more than a dispenser of information; he becomes a master of his art, someone who commands the respect of his learners – his apprentices, if you will – through leading not only through his words, but by the example he sets with his every action.

Education is not just perspiration. It is inspiration, too.