The Advanced Paradox

Advanced students being stuck on an endless plateau in a sort of Zeno’s Paradox of learning was one of my major failures as a teacher in 2016, and I’ve made finding some solutions to this one of my primary teaching goals during 2017.

The point of a Zen koan is to force a student to go beyond their conventional framework. That approach was useful to getting to the threshold of the advanced levels, but it must be set aside to go deeper. Something akin to this also happens in language learning. When I get into a situation when using advanced Russian is necessary, the whole thing becomes, almost magically, effortless. This is flow. It is very different to using Russian mindlessly for something inconsequential. My job as a teacher is to push students into flow.

If there’s only one thing that I’d ask of my advanced students it is to get out of Google Translate Mode. That’s my koan.

Beyond that, I have a few theories that I’m going to experiment on my advanced students with:

Hight Intensity, Low Reps

Low intensity, high rep exercises have their place in a fitness program. Before learning a new lifting technique at the gym, my trainer has me grab a PVC pipe and we go over the lift until my form is good enough to use a proper bard and eventually add weight to it. Since I’m new to the world of lifting and still learning a lot of the basics, this approach is the only sensible way to learn.

Advanced lifters walk into the gym, do five lifts just under their single-rep-max and call it a day.

This is where I want my high level students to be. Unfortunately, I see most classes geared towards lots of low intensity work. If it’s not deliberate practice, you’re not improving.

My idea is to to create topical lessons that go deep and use difficult sources. These classes will require a few hours of difficult preparation and will include tough discussion during the class itself. Ideally, I’d like to add an essay that can be peer reviewed before each meeting. The kicker, though, is that we meet no more than once a month.

Focusing on the Right Skills

Conversation clubs teach you non-intense language usage over a longer period of time. This is a useful skill to develop when you are in the A2 to B1 range, but in most cases that I’ve seen, C1 and C2 students don’t need to develop this skill any further. Going back to sports, once your aerobic base is in good enough shape for a longer endurance event, you have to start working with intervals and weights to see improvement. This doesn’t mean that neglecting base work is in order, but it remains only a part of your full training regiment.

Even my best students write emails that make cringe. The Economist or Harvard Business Review can be uncomfortably difficult to read and discuss. Attending another hundred conversation clubs with a native speaker will do nothing improve either of those skills. You probably have dozens, if not hundreds, of well written emails from native speakers in your mailbox. Study them and practice writing your own.

Once you identify what you need in order to complete tasks in English (identifying your blockers in scrum-speak), work on that. If you can read this blog post, you don’t need more work on general English.

Structure Above all Else

It might seem banal at this level, but a heavy focus on structure can lead to quick improvements.

You may not need to actively organize notes and make an outline before you write an email in your native language, but doing so when writing in English can very well be the difference between a beautiful, clear and understandable text and a muddled mess. In fact, an email that is well-structured yet full of typos and other mistakes is usually quite understandable. The opposite is usually not the case.

The same goes for reading. Take notes: write down the thesis sentence and the main supporting arguments when you come across them. Holding things subconsciously in your head while operating in your native language is possible; this becomes much harder while reading a complex text in a foreign language as simply processing the text requires a great deal of your brain’s computational power.

Focusing on active listening, reading and writing will improve your skills. Getting a feel for how to organize information better will do far more for your English than simply adding more vocabulary and advanced grammatical structures.

Go intense when you study English although do so intelligently. When you’ve properly analyzed your needs, focus on those skills ruthlessly and ignore what you don’t need.