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The ability to “communicate clearly and very ably with another person in Spanish” was something they felt they did not get a chance to practice very often. When I asked them to think about some highlights from the Spanish Language AP course, their attention turned to two experiences that seemed to focus on language use as they had experienced it in elementary school. Teresa recalled having studied Picasso during a unit on Spanish artists and art history.
Teresa: I liked studying Picasso Merritt: Ok, so you-you studied-you studied some art.
… Teresa: Well, yeah, I liked it because we like-we came in here and we like were looking at paintings and we had to be like (to talk about them), and it was just like more fun.
Before my first visit to his class, Mr. Mann had shown me some of the artwork the students had produced, still hanging in his room. They had held a mock gallery showing of their work, getting a chance to talk about the qualities of the paintings in terms of what they had learned about Picasso’s work. Teresa’s recollection of that experience prompted several other students to tell about another activity in which talking freely with other students in Spanish had been the focus.
Mateo: Oh, oh I loved that (the art gallery activity). I liked the Love Boat!
Virginia: Oh the Love Cruise!
(Several students make positive comments, talking over each other.) Virginia: It was this thing where we came in here and we like had to-it was like, I don't know if you've heard of the-the soap opera, like the Love Boat or whatever, it was that in Spanish and we each got a secret role that we had to play and so basically the entire hour and a half block period we were just walking around and we had to like make conversation with people in Spanish. It was just like natural talking in Spanish.
Anne: I think that really helped.
Virginia: Yeah that really helped.
These two highlight experiences seemed to point to the desire of some of the students to have more autonomy and purpose in their use of Spanish, to be able to “make conversation with people in Spanish” and to focus their language use on content other than Spanish grammar or AP exam practice. Virginia added later that she would have welcomed a course that allowed them to read books and talk about them, or even focus on current events as the source of discussions in Spanish. Though they did not all have the same opinions about the role that grammar knowledge played in their own language development, the majority of the group was interested in language courses that involved using and extending the language they had learned during their Spanish Immersion experience.
Encapsulated Learning: Artificiality in Language Use
In his examination of the encapsulation of school learning in the context of understand the process of the phases of the moon, Engestrom (1991) begins his consideration with Resnick’s (1987) argument about the relationship between learning in school and thinking, reasoning and problem solving outside of school.
The process of schooling seems to encourage the idea that the “game of school” is to learn symbolic rules of various kinds, that there is not supposed to be much continuity between what one knows outside school and what one learns in school.
There is growing evidence, then, that not only may schooling not contribute in a direct and obvious way to performance outside school, but also that knowledge acquired outside school is not always used to support in-school learning.
Schooling is coming to look increasingly isolated from the rest of what we do (Resnick, 1987, p. 15).
In this expansion on Resnick’s argument, Engestrom uses Cultural Historical Activity Theory to illuminate how school learning can come to mean not learning about the reality of the phases of the moon, but about what the textbook (or the teacher) says about the phases of the moon. He explains that in the activity system of learning about the phases of the moon in school, the object has shifted from deriving an adequate explanation for the natural phenomenon to experiencing success in answering the teachers’ questions about the phenomenon. The outcome of the activity has changed because of the encapsulation of school learning in a textbook representation of the phases of the moon, which has meant a reduction in the tools used to understand the phenomenon to only “’study skills’, pencil and eraser” (p. 248). Engestrom, turning to Wagenschein, uses the term “synthetic stupidity” to explain the effect of the encapsulation of school learning on the learner: “[The learner] had mislearned through so called learning” (p. 246).
I would argue that such encapsulation of school learning was in effect in the Spanish Language AP courses at Midville High School; that its effects were identified by former Spanish Immersion students by virtue of their earlier experiences with language use; and that it was inherent to the AP Spanish Language courses because of their emphasis on academic forms and processes, as well as a lack of clarity of the Object of the activity of language learning on the part of teachers.
During the focus group, the students discussed at length what they saw as some of the differences between their language learning in their immersion program and in their secondary World Language classes. In their discussion, they emphasized their sense that they were “relearning” Spanish, not in expansive ways that fit with the learning they had accomplished earlier, but in “artificial” ways that created doubts about their earlier language learning and use. Mark began by emphasizing the role of memorizing rules in high school.
Mark: In high school it's all about memorizing the specific rules for different verb tenses and like-like it sort of like ruins what you think about it sort of.
Merritt: OK. How does it-how does it ruin it? What does it do to you?
Mark: It like makes it seem more artificialMerritt: hm Mark:
-and not likeVirginia:
-and you don't actually learn how toAnne:
-you don't actually speak.
Kyle: You're sort of relearning.
Chris: Yeah, in elementary school it's much more just speaking and talking and just always talking in Spanish and not in English.
Anne: I think in elementary school it's more natural. Like you can go to another country and talk to them. Like you wouldn't have a problem. But now you're always thinking about whether you're saying the right verb tense.
Teresa: And it's like you can usually feel what's like right when you're (…) you naturally just like feel what tense you're supposed to be using or whatever but now you just have to think about all the rules and it just sort of slows you down a little bit.
While Teresa softened the effect of this “relearning” on their language use to simply “slow[ing them] down a little bit,” Virginia added another layer to the effects of encapsulated school learning, self-doubt.
Virginia: I know last year like, I was fine through middle school but um in last year I started like whenever I was like-like on a test or whenever I was talking I would always like just have to like I would second guess myself, like I would think well am I actually saying this right? Like maybe what I think is wrong, because I don't know, like especially in (my) class like it had to be exactly the way it was in the book.
Kyle: Yeah Virginia: And not it like-like even if you do something right, like the right way on the test, if it's not the way they have it in the book then you get it wrong on the test.
Kyle: bastante and suficiente Teresa: Yeah, yeah exactly.
Virginia’s self-doubt was directly connected to the role that the book and teacher came to play in what was considered acceptable language use. While the students didn’t posit a theory as to why the book (and by extension, the teacher’s ways of using language) became so central to the determination of correctness, one can speculate that wanting all the students to learn the same structures, vocabulary and usages could have motivated that emphasis, as could the teachers’ need to be able to grade student work quickly, without having to think too much. Kyle’s example of having to use “suficiente” rather than “bastante” (both meaning “enough,” but representing different registers) could be explained by the teachers’ desire to see the students expand their repertoire of vocabulary; however, that was not the way the students understood it; rather, they saw the practices of the classes as arbitrary, and recognized the potential for “synthetic stupidity” in the practices. Even though they learned to adapt their language use to comply with these practices, their perception was that the practices had to do with the teachers’ having imparted certain knowledge themselves, an emphasis on knowledge acquired through a specific school experience, rather than on the reality of how language was learned and used.
Anne: Like if it wasn't actually taught (to) you, she wouldn't expect you to know it.
Chris: Thus it's wrong on the test.
Virginia: And it's wrong.
Anne identified the persistent problem of not acknowledging or recognizing what language knowledge and use they brought into the classroom with them, that teachers “wouldn’t expect you to know” how to use Spanish or what possible answers would satisfy a test question. And in this high-achieving school environment, being “wrong on the test,” even tests with little value in a course grade, was to be avoided at all costs.
Virginia and the other students learned by trial-and-error not to rely on their own language use and knowledge, but to relearn what they thought they already knew in order to perform well in the class.
Virginia: Or just even the way-there were just different ways to say stuff in gralike with grammar and stuff so like I don’t know. After last year like because of that, I would like-I didn’t do very well on the first few tests, because I would just do it the way I thought it was supposed to be and like not-like I would never memorize the stuff in the book because I was like “I already know this stuff.” But then-so then whenever I was-was like talking and stuff I would always second guess myself and think “Well, is this the way that she would want it?” Or like, I don’t know, it just slowed me down a lot and made it less-a lot less natural.
Concern about doing things “the way she [the teacher] would want it] began to take precedence over communicative language use for Virginia and the other students. The final effect did not seem to be a sense of how their language use had improved or matured but a sense of diminishing confidence in their ability to use Spanish. As Kyle expressed it, he felt that “good students who started in seventh grade, with you know Spanish 1A are just as good as me at Spanish now.” However, as we will see later in this chapter, the former Spanish Immersion students outperformed their non-Spanish Immersion counterparts on that day’s AP exam.
The encapsulation of school learning of Spanish proceeded from the reliance on textbook versions of language usage, which necessarily had to represent a version of Spanish. While all Spanish Language textbooks today attempt to represent variations of Spanish, the fact that the language is represented in and by a textbook in a course will mean that the language uses will be limited to the representations chosen by the authors.
A teacher can try to overcome that encapsulation, and some models of World Language instruction do try, but in a school atmosphere in which language use is limited to academic activities such as reading texts, writing essays and taking tests, it will be more difficult to overcome encapsulation.
In addition, if teacher understandings of the outcomes of language learning are unclear, as they seemed to be for Mr. Mann, it will be more difficult to recognize encapsulation of school learning when it occurs. Mr. Mann’s lack of clarity on the outcomes of high school World Language learning (in comparison with those of TWI education) were significant in understanding how encapsulation of school learning could become the focus of a World Language course.
Mann: Well, I uh you know the difference, how are those interacting (nearly under his breath), um um we want to eventually--I mean our goal is for students to become, I-I don't know, if, you know, in only four years, if we're talking about just 9-12, if we can say “bilingual” by the end of four years because there-there're gonna be significant gaps still. They just haven't had enough time and experience, (breath), you know, they haven't had enough exposure compared to if you start your whole school day as a five-year-old, obviously you're gonna have a lot more time than you are having 50 minutes a day, four days a week. So, um, but I mean our goal is to develop some level of um proficiency, let's say, in terms of language acquisition in Spanish.
If the outcomes of the AP course are set by the exam and by the College Board’s view of appropriate curriculum, there may be little reason for a teacher to examine this encapsulation of school learning. Teaching an AP course could contribute to a lack of clarity of the larger outcomes of World Language learning, the outcomes associated with life-long language learning and use.
Finally, we might understand the experience of Spanish Immersion students in high school World Language classes, their sense of having to relearn, their reduced sense of confidence in using Spanish, through the way a teacher uses encapsulation of school learning as a limit on what students can and should be able to do with language. In discussing some of the issues Spanish teachers had had with Spanish Immersion students and parents as the students entered middle school, Mr. Mann emphasized the students’ and parents’ sense of overconfidence, of unrealistic expectations which needed to be scaled back significantly.
Mann: … the expectations I think of the parents in the past have been, in general, that when the kids are finished from 6th grade, that they're fluent in both languages.