Pioneers

Westward Ho! Language Learning in the 21st Century – Introduction

Pioneers

Introduction to your personal learning system and the choices afforded by online technologies.

“How could I have been such a fool?  I had devoted my life to running a prestigious University in Beijing. Delivering the most robust curriculum to the best students of China, I found myself to be a fraud of the worst kind. I sat down on the curb, cried and got on the first flight back to China. There must be a better way…”

These were the approximate words of a department head as related by Arkady Zilberman of Language Bridge an online language application. He was relating the story of a University Department Head who had come to the US for the first time and discovered that not only could he not understand spoken English, he could not even get directions to his hotel.

The facade of traditional educational systems have come under suspicion in recent years. Most graduates of these institutions find that they are woefully short of the promised fluency their education promised. Particularly in speaking and understanding standard English. I do not wish to be overly critical of academia. The truth is, most systems for language learning fall short of the expectations of all. How many learners are secretly suspicious of their language education? How many have internalized the problem as their own shortcomings? How many of us think there is something radically wrong with the way we learn languages?

What’s the problem? Why do our systems seem to be only firing on four cylinders? There are many answers. They range from “boring lectures” to being out of touch with modern learners of the 21st Century. Both the teachers and learners have failed to adequately assess the needs. Right down to the way our brains are wired. Yes, your brain is wired differently than most of us who would teach you. We will not go into the brain science herein, suffice it to say that you are radically different. Still humanoid but very different.

One of the problems has to do with mental images that we use to interpret our world and the paths available. What images do Education, Fluency, Academics, and Foreign Language skills bring to mind? Is it a certificate? A classroom with thick books? Test scores? What learning goals do these images then relate to you? A job? Entrance to a prestigious college? Is that really what languages are for? Will those goals actually deliver a better life to you? Have you been following false goals and dreams dictated by others?

The story “Westward Ho” will try to repaint some images in your mind. I cannot say what will work best for you. I do know that the mental images you have for developing your dreams and goals are critically important for choosing a path forward. Actually the subject is far too big for me to understand. I hope that by retelling the story from two views we can begin to piece together a way forward into the “wild west” of online learning opportunities available. We will assume that there are two basic spirits of a 21st Century language learner. Like the stories you have heard of the American frontier, there are two mindsets. One of a settler and one of a pioneer.

The settler mindset is my picture of a classical academic. He represents the person who is completely comfortable in the closed world of institutions and traditional learning. Mind you, I do not have anything against the “settlers”. Many of you thrive in that educational model. In many cases, it can be argued as being one of the most efficient modes of acquiring knowledge. However, the future and the promise of new technologies and an evolving society demands something more for the rest of us. The settler is the unadventurous cog in the wheel of manufactured knowledge. He dies by inches in that cast iron world of the industrial revolution.

The pioneer mindset is that of faith. Both in ourselves, the technologically enhanced world, and our religious paradigms. The pioneer knows that there is more “out there” than what can be written in a book. The technological advances in the last decades have opened whole new worlds. Waiting for academia to catch up, will simply not do. We are looking forward to an open life and vast horizons of uncharted territory. A pioneer is totally alive to all of the possibilities that our futures may hold. We stake our lives on the promises that the world-connected society offers. We also hold ourselves accountable to the promises we make in partnering with new educational models where all are interdependent. We, who go forth on this wagon train into the new frontier, know that we do not need “them”, we only need each other. And our survival depends on each of us carrying our own weight in the corporate learning societies of tomorrow.

The settler mindset is very much with us. The symptoms are fear of all change, the desire to protect ourselves and loved ones from the unknown, the constant doubts and pull to return to the old world models of authority based knowledge systems which promise the false security from a dangerous and strange new world.

But out there is an “event horizon”. A vast new wilderness of knowledge and dreams for the taking. Very few trailblazers have returned with guarantees. Truthfully, more have come back telling of catastrophe and sit quietly back in the settler towns. But there are rumors of vast riches waiting for someone to grab up. Some  have reported finding gold!

The story and journey we will be taking are not for the timid. We can not promise anything by joining this wagon train storyline except perhaps a better look at ourselves and the images we hold as most dear to us. Settle your affairs pardner, saddle up and meet me at the next fork in the road. Our story begins next week on Fair Languages. You can bring your children and women-folk along, there’s room for all.

Next up:  Church of Polyglot
Settler church = Institutional Administration
Pioneer church = Wagon Train

Note:  We will be addressing your mindset in a holistic way.  That of a complete being made up of body mind and spirit.  We will touch on spiritual themes but I hope to keep it generic enough that all faith paradigms can benefit from our story.

Note:  The inspiration for this story is from a book called Western Theology by Wes Springer.

  • Margaret

    To my favorite trailblazer: Great summary! As a counselor, I find myself thinking of how husbands and wives display differences in their roles as settlers and pioneers, at times. Perhaps listing more strengths of each, would be something to add. Also, I wonder if the title of the book: “Western Theology” might be mistaken for the western hemisphere, rather than the “Wild West” of the U.S. Enjoy the journey! Margaret

    • Thanks and for those of you wondering, Margaret is my fellow adventurer in life. If you are confused about George, do not ask me. Ask her! She is my one true love and the only one who comes close to understanding me. And she still likes me, well most of the time. 😉

  • bnleez

    How many learners are secretly suspicious of their language education? How many have internalized the problem as their own shortcomings? How many of us think there is something radically wrong with the way we learn languages? What’s the problem? Why do our systems seem to be only firing on four cylinders? What images do Education, Fluency, Academics, and Foreign Language skills bring to mind? Is it a certificate? A classroom with thick books? Test scores? What learning goals do these images then relate to you? A job? Entrance to a prestigious college? Is that really what languages are for? Will those goals actually deliver a better life to you? Have you been following false goals and dreams dictated by others?
    You now have 15 possible topics to blog about in your next installment (body). 🙂
    The settler vs. the pioneer seems to be an argument between formal and informal education. Two things: (a) I hesitant to place individuals into categories – situations are much too complex for that, and (b) my crystal ball tells me that the future of education (including language learning) will see the division between formal and informal education slowly fade, to the degree that the term “certification” will take on a variety of forms and will serve a variety of purposes.
    In order for any educative experience to exist, a (language) learner must provide evidence of what they know and can do. This evidence then becomes the basis for subsequent learning experiences and possible certification. Educators (formal or informal) are “auditors” that use evidence to make inferences about what and how others have (or haven’t) learned.
    Let’s discuss what makes up this (situational) evidence of learning by sharing opinions that link to personal experience. Instead of framing formal or informal learning as being “better”, let’s share what has worked and not worked in a particular learning scenario.
    Thanks George for the introduction, and will look forward to seeing it’s “body”.
    PS. You knew I wasn’t actually going to choose between a “settler” and “pioneer”, right? 🙂 Depending on the circumstances, we all shift between “settlers” and “pioneers” as we travel through life experiences.

    • Yes Ben, both within ourselves and educational systems, we are very complex. That is the beauty of story, especially fiction. We can set aside the many conflicting aspects of life and hone in on a few themes that can be treated in an often simplistic way.

      I suppose the choice of phrasing the questions could have been more inclusive. The trick in writing story is to encourage the reader to let go of their prime analytic filters to allow for some experiential what ifs? I think that my ability to craft story with some goals of challenging paradigms will be problematic throughout the series/chapters.

      However, I cannot achieve any epiphany for the intended audience by including the vast body of knowledge which may be pertinent. I will stick to an invitation, via story, to look at some of our basic drives and see where it goes. I think for the sake of story, most should be able to briefly allow for a very simplistic view of the premises offered.

      Now, for just a moment… Weren’t you completely in the role of pioneer? 😉

  • Islam

    Actually, you’ve touched the core of the problem. The questions you posed put us face to face with reality and with the fears that set us back from seeking new ways to improve ourselves. I wish all learners of language could read this article.

    • Hi Islam, Are you back in KSA now? Think about writing your own posts for this new blog. And thanks for sharing your thoughts from a player in the Arab Spring.

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