It’s customary to exaggerate a little in the post headline. But not this time. I would find it hard to think of a more important question for learners. Here’s where I heard it.
It was a coaching course, and early stages; we were sharing our plans and hopes for the event, the learning ahead, the future. One of the participants stood up and offered his answer to a question, with a moment’s hesitation. The coach focused on that.
“What happened there?”, she asked.
That’s when the interesting things began. The participant didn’t really feel sure he was in the right place. He felt he couldn’t really manage, but wouldn’t want to feel the pressure of withdrawing now. A few minutes and questions later, he was reassured and stayed for the entire event – and we could move on and keep learning. The thing that stayed with me, though, was the question – and the decision to ask it.
“What happened there?” as an error-interviewing tool
For a language learner, mistakes are golden. This is how you know learning takes place. Foreign language teachers are paid for working with your mistakes. If that’s the case, why do we let them get away with “WROONG, do it again?”
“What happened there?” is not judging or ridiculing. It’s an invitation to sit down and deconstruct everything that led to a mistake. It’s your chance to discover why the mistake happened, how it affected your language study, and what can be done to learn from it.
“What happened there?” as an excellence-spotting device
Here’s another one: your German essay turns out to be spectacular. Or your Spanish interview results come back, and they’re all straight “A”s. Or you just participate more than often in your Chinese conversation class. Your teacher could notice that, couldn’t they? It’s nice to be recognized. But how much good does “well done” really do you?
“What happened there?” opens up a series of questions. What did you do, this time, to prepare? What other things influenced that great performance? How much of this can be repeated, preserved, cultivated? Praise is good and addictive. Recognition, for serious language learners, involves knowing what happened and why it’s awesome.
“What happened there?” as a guerrilla language learner’s compass
- You really like learning French with podcasts, but this time around, it really sucked.
- You spent a fortune on this course, and it didn’t really deliver.
- You come out of a Japanese conversation meet-up and your head is spinning with awesome new stuff.
- This Portuguese learning website feels really simple to use.
All these scenarios should be expected if you take responsibility for your own foreign language learning. And if it’s your time, money and effort you’re investing, you want to know where you’re headed.
“What happened there?” is a chance to take a back seat and examine the situation you’re in. It’s an instant reckoning: do I want to be here? Is this where my resources should end up? Where do I go from here? How did this impact me?
“What happened there?” as the learning / teaching question of the future
“Wrong, do it again” is what you can expect of machines nowadays. This, for many, is what e-learning is really helpful with: instant feedback on right/wrong answers, self-marking tests…
Any machine can tell you what’s right or wrong. It takes a teacher to demand connections, conclusions, critique – and a learner to come up with those.
I’d love your thoughts on that, folks – and where these questions can lead. Feel free to let us all know!