The main thing that many students learn in a foreign language class is that learning another language is just way too hard for them. They mainly learn that they stink at it. They think that becoming fluent is beyond them and that they will never get it. But they are wrong. All students can learn another language. They can learn if their teachers will skillfully ask series of questions that lead them to fluency.
It has been said that reading about Plato is much more difficult than actually reading Plato. Philosophers and professors have written such complicated essays about Plato that they leave lay people intimidated. But the classic writings have survived precisely because they are interesting and accessible to the common people. They are for all of us, not just the professional philosophers. The writings of Plato can be as helpful for us today, as they have been to others for millennia. For foreign language teachers, Plato can remind us of what good teaching has always looked like. And we cannot be reminded of that too much.
In Plato’s dialogue Meno, Socrates has a discussion with an uneducated slave boy. Through a series of simple questions, Socrates shows how he can bring the boy to an understanding of an advanced geometric concept that the boy did not understand just moments before. Most of Socrates’ questions have simple yes/no answers. The steps are so small and obvious that it seems as if the boy already knows everything that he needs to know. It is as if Socrates is just having a conversation with him and occasionally reminding the slave boy of what he already knows.
Good teaching often looks and feels more like a conversation than a lecture. When I read Meno, Socrates dialogue with the slave sounds a lot like a comprehensible input-based teacher engaging a student in a language class. There are lots of yes/no questions and some either/or questions, but the teacher is doing much of the talking. The student is getting comprehensible input. He is listening and responding simply. The student is not being forced to respond before he is able. Socrates asks a series of questions and the feedback shows him when the slave boy is getting it.
Meno models what good teaching feels like when we are gently reminding kids, not scolding or correcting them. Not even actually explaining things to them. Just talking. Just asking questions. Here is how Socrates explained what he was doing:
“… I am not teaching him anything, only asking.”
“…I am…simply interrogating him on his own opinions.“
Good teaching is the skillful use of questions with an end in mind. It is bringing along our students with one eye on the learning goal and one eye on the learner. To become better teachers we have to learn how to skillfully ask the same questions over and over–many times and in different ways until they get it:
“…if the same questions are put to him on many occasions and in different ways, you can see that in the end he will have a knowledge on the subject as accurate as anybody’s.”
We have to work together with our students to engage them and bring them along with skillful questioning. It doesn’t always happen perfectly in the classroom, but when it does, it is glorious. One of the most gratifying questions ever asked of me in a class was, “Are we making up these stories or are you?” The students and I were working together so closely that they could not tell who was inventing the story. I knew what grammatical structures I wanted them to acquire, and a general direction for the story, but the students were adding so much to it with their own ideas and creativity that we could not tell where my ideas ended and theirs began.
We have to believe in our students and in ourselves. We have to believe they can learn and that we can learn how to connect with them. As language teachers we have a model from Socrates, a research base from Stephen Krashen, and a method from Blaine Ray. We have something to aim at:
“… we shall be better, braver and more active men if we believe it right to look for what we don’t know than if we believe there is no point in looking because what we don’t know we can never discover.”