I think it was only a few years into my teaching career that it dawned on me. A realisation of which I am not proud, a moment of self-awareness that still leaves me cringing.

I must have been one of those pupils that drive teachers to despair.

Not all my teachers, mind. No, my maths, science, and history teachers were more than happy with me, my English teacher comfortably ambivalent towards me. No, it is to the various French teachers I had through the years that I owe unbridled apologies.

In most of my subjects I was a model student, working hard and securing good grades. Except in French. I was lazy, I was unmotivated and I was probably a nuisance in lessons. I would have skewed the French department’s data (had “data” existed back then. In happier times, it didn’t) – despite getting “A’s” in my other  O’ Levels (no A* back then), I managed to fail French, (although I did secure a Grade 1 CSE in the subject. That dates me!)

But now I am making amends.

I have just returned from a wonderful week in Mallorca and, before I went, I determined to learn the most basic rudiments of Spanish. I downloaded the Duolingo app and began a few minutes study each day. I quickly picked up a few phrases and, whilst on holiday, tried to tune into to the local conversations and pleasantly surprised myself by being able to pick out the odd spoken word in a hundred.

Since I’ve returned, I’ve continued with my studies, in part (in main) to try and learn more Spanish, but its also been instructive to think about how and why we learn.

It is a well designed app and it makes some impressive claims (such 300 million users) that I have no reason to doubt.

It seems that, at its heart, it heavily uses the concept of spaced repetition (as discussed on my post about the Ebbinghaus curve) – having met a word or phrase in a lesson, you meet it again in the same lesson and will then probably encounter it again in your next series of lessons. If you make a mistake on a question, the question will be repeated before the end of the lesson to give you the chance to correct your error (looks a bit like Assesment for Learning to me!)

Each lesson takes circa 5 minutes to complete so your learning is done in small, discrete, bite sized chunks that you control. There are rewards – such as gems to collect, leader boards etc., which may appeal to some, but to this old cynic are peripheral to the learning.

In addition to helping me learn the language, it has got me thinking about two crucial questions – why we learn, and how, and thinking about those will also help me  develop as a maths teacher.

I now have the motivation (to learn a language) that I didn’t have as a schoolboy, and I’m enjoying some success – I think this may have been lacking before: the 14 year old me thrived on the success I achieved in maths, science etc, but having never quite “got” French I wasn’t successful in it, so didn’t bother with it – a viscous, downwards spiral.

And it has re-enforced my strength of belief in spaced learning – I can successfully learn a phrase one day, but need to see or hear it the next day, week, month etc to fix it into my mind. I spend two weeks teaching my Year 10s trigonometry in January, they “get it” at the time and can do some difficult problems, but if they don’t meet it again until the summer of Y11 in a GCSE exam they’ll be in trouble.

So the real take away from my Spanish adventure is not the vocabulary and phrases I’ve learned, but the knowledge that, to be effective, learning needs to be “spaced.”



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One Comment

  1. Posted 01/05/2020 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    Hi fantastic blog! Does running a blog similar to this require a great deal of work?

    I’ve absolutely no knowledge of computer programming however I had been hoping to start my own blog in the near future.
    Anyway, if you have any ideas or tips for new blog
    owners please share. I know this is off subject nevertheless I just had to ask.

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