Monday, April 11, 2005

Play, not "Work", not "Study"

by AJ

Create interesting, fun, absorbing happenings in the target language-- thats how AUA's David Long describes the goal of his program. And it was great (well, in level one anyway.... see my teaching blog for more details about AUA's language program and my critique of it: Effortless Language Acquisition).

He also had another great saying, "all education should be kindergarten". He envisioned a school for adults that was structured on the same principles as kindergarten. The "school" would be a giant room with many centers. In each center, a teacher would create HAPPENINGS (experiences, workshops) around a particular topic. These would NOT be passive lectures. Rather, they would be hands on workshops. One teacher might teach Thai massage. Another might be taking apart a motorcycle with students. Another would be teaching the basics of SCUBA. Another would be telling stories, while still another would be teaching a class on making SomTam (spicy papaya salad). All of this would be happening in Thai (geared to the level of the students). So a beginning level class would use very very simple vocabulary,... while advanced students would delve into the fine details of the project.

Students would be free to wander into the school, peruse the centers, and join whichever appealed to them. If the teachers did their jobs well, the students would be so absorbed in the happenings they would forget they were occuring in the target language (in this case, Thai).

I got a taste of this in AUAs level one classes and it was great. I learned that when you learn something unconsciously, you truly ACQUIRE it.

For example, I learned the Thai word for "pineapple" this way. I did not learn it by memorizing a translation. I did not learn it from drilling a language point using a flashcard of a pineapple. I learned it by cutting a pineapple, eating a pineapple, and listening to stories that included pineapples. I learned it by making dishes that included pineapples and doing a goofy "pineapple dance".

As a result, if someone asks me in English "Whats the Thai word for 'pineapple'"... I will often pause and be confused. It takes me a second because I didnt learn a translation.

But if you show me a pineapple, I will instantly think "sapparot".... no hesitation. If I want to say the word, I dont first think of the English word "pineapple" then scan my memory for the Thai word. Rather, I picture a pineapple in my mind and up pops "sapparot" instantly.

On my teaching blog I detailed my disappointments with AUAs other levels... but those disappointments stem from the fact that they neglected their own method at those levels. The method is sound. Its tremendous fun, its totally stress free, its interesting, and it works.

Which brings me back to kindergarten.

What makes these experienes so effective and fun? I argue that it is the element of play. In AUA's level one classes, we did not "study" Thai. We played IN Thai. We were entertained IN Thai.

What if we took this approach not only with foreign language education, but with all of education and indeed, with all of "work"? What if your "job" was to show up in a big room and peruse various projects that were going on... then join the one that seemed most interesting? You'd make an income based on your contribution. Or maybe you'd operate on "alternative economics"... using barter or your own units of exchange.

This is one reason I enjoy freelance writing so much. I choose a topic that Im interested in, write an article, then share it with some extremely cool people-- who pay me and publish it if they like it. I dont consider it "work" at all.... though I may spend hours... or days, on a simple short article. A few months ago I played with an article on Muay Thai. I wrote it, then re-wrote it, then re-wrote it again. I put a huge number of hours into the thing.... and in the end, it still sucked. No one wanted it, and rightfully so. But I still had a good time playing with it and didnt care.

By contrast, I am loathe to do even an hour of imposed "work" at my job. I hate it. I resist it. I do the minimum with as little effort as possible. If I didnt get paid for this effort, Id go ballistic! Id strangle them. There is little joy in the process itself.... its not "play", its drudgery... so I want my damn money.

The trick is to carve out playful freelance (or free agent) projects that bring in a livable income. Writing is one option. Both Matt and I use it as a supplemental source of income. My friend Wat, in Thailand, makes jewelry and sells it to tourists. Matt finds that being a free agent teacher is fun and playful. My friend Kristin enjoys massage so she does that. She often trades massages for goods or services (she's gotten a great deal of typing and editing out of me, for example!!).

What we are all trying to do is to return to kindergarten... to that time when learning, effort, and play were not separate, but one and the same. Im not saying its an easy goal to reach.

But I believe it is doable. If we remain persistent and determined, we can bring play and joyful effort back into our lives.... at first slowly, as supplements or part-time... but sooner or later, full time. The end of "work".

Achievable. Doable.

Back to Kindergarten.

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