Sunday, July 24, 2005

My genealogy of instruction

My resume says very little about the most powerful influences in my thoughts about teaching and learning. I have loved graduate school, my program in philosophy and education has been enlightening and broadening, and I have loved my association with excellent colleagues and professors. I feel blessed to have studied with some of the most thoughtful, dedicated and renowned contemporary educational scholars. (I say this both to brag and to make the case for what I have learned through formal education strong.) But graduate school pales in comparison to the influence of my family upbringing, and my Dad in particular in how I think about teaching and learning.

My father, Robert Blair, is a linguist. He has spent his career learning languages and teaching languages. His approach was always results oriented. The results he sought were usually more broad than most: does the method give a student a meaningful "in" to the language community? Does it help a student become a robust language learner (i.e. not strictly dependent on the teacher) ? Is it based on a workable understanding of how humans learn? Our home was always somewhat of a laboratory, and all my brothers and sisters (8 in all) were taught at least some basics in several different languages and cultures.

We are probably not the most desirable students in most language classes. Our Dad raised us with a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to language teaching. I remember being in a class with my brother, (I think it was my oldest brother, Dell). The teacher was basically reciting phrases and motioning the class to repeat. Most of the class seemed to be excited, as if to say, "Can you believe this? We're really learning Russian!". My brother and I looked at each other as if to say, "kak skazat: Are you kidding me?"

On the other hand, if a language teacher is doing something that appreciates that people are more capable than say, parrots, I can be a devoted if not enthusiastic student. Our upbringing (in the realm of language learning) was both skeptical about "traditional" language teaching, and optimistic--even perhaps overly excited about the possibility of transcending such efforts. One mantra infused in us (seemingly from birth) is that people were built to learn languages. Given good methods, success is all but inevitable.


  1. Setting: Provo High Teachers Lounge sometime in the 80's

    PHS Spanish Teacher: How was your summer?

    PHS German Teacher: Great! You?

    PHS Spanish Teacher: Not long enough. It looks like I have another Blair in class this year.

    PHS German Teacher: Ooooooh. Too bad.

    PHS Spanish Teacher: They think they already know everything. Man are they hard to teach.

    PHS German Teacher: Not only that but they all have red hair. What's up with that?

  2. Yeah. In a sense I do feel that it is difficult for a language teacher to impress me. I don't know everything about language learning, but I know that much of what happens in these classes is as productive toward language-learning as napping.

    And maybe I'm just voicing what many language teachers already know and have repeated for most of their career: "Most every activity we do in this class is worthless and noone will be able to carry on a simple conversation with a native speaker as a result of taking this class." But if a teacher will stop wasting our time (including his or her own) and insist on getting desired results, I would be an enthusiastic student.

    And dude, only 3 Blairs have red hair, and most people think I have brownish-reddish hair now, so get your facts straight.

  3. Rachel12:44 PM

    Ben, love your blog.
    Salem's note makes me wonder what was being said all over Washington County throughout the 80's and 90's.

  4. Robert Blair taught me more Finnish in an hour than I learned in the first two weeks of the MTC.