Learning Environments and Forms of Learning: Places of Teaching and Learning Settings for Learning German

Settings for Learning German
Settings for Learning German | Illustration: Melih Bilgil

In many cases, German is learnt not only in the classroom but also in a wide variety of other settings. What role can such settings take on? And what significance is assigned to the classroom within the network of places of teaching and learning?

Abstract

Places of teaching and learning are settings in which learners have the opportunity to be active and gain experiences. Normally, knowledge of a foreign language is acquired in a network of places of teaching and learning. The classroom is usually, though not always, at the centre of this network. Teachers have the task of systematically and productively linking their lessons in the classroom to all the other places of learning. It is important to note not only that teachers and learners evaluate the importance of the various sites of teaching and learning differently, but that the expectations as regards the role of places of teaching and learning can also differ considerably from learner to learner, depending on their individual interests.    

Well into the 1990s, researchers in second language acquisition were convinced that language acquisition is exclusively a mental activity. If this were the case, then places of teaching and learning would indeed be generally interchangeable: classes could easily be moved to other rooms at any time, face-to-face teaching could be combined with online teaching through a “blended learning” approach or even be replaced entirely by “virtual” online courses (cf. Althaus article). Essentially, the function of places of teaching and learning would be reduced to providing input intended to foster learning.

This view, based as it was on generative and cognitive theories of language acquisition, was fortunately abandoned in foreign language teaching with the advent of the communicative approach in the 1970s. Ever since, current research has come to believe that learners can only become proficient achievers in the target language if their foreign language lessons provide the opportunity for experiencing how it is to be an active participant in communicative situations. Accordingly, the places of teaching and learning should be designed so as to enable learners to have such experiences.

While the physical construction of these places of teaching and learning is one important prerequisite, the most crucial aspect is their didactic design. First and foremost, the content which is taught and learnt in the classroom, and the manner in which this is done, is determined by curricular requirements or didactic concepts: concepts which are based largely on social or educational policy decisions or stipulations.

PLACES OF TEACHING AND LEARNING ARE SETTINGS

Places of teaching and learning are by no means neutral meeting places in which knowledge in the foreign language is directly taught and learnt, and in which language use is practised. Instead, their specific physical characteristics in themselves suggest specific forms of lesson interaction. For example, a classroom with flexible furnishings practically calls for the implementation of varied social forms. Ultimately, of course, it is up to the teacher to decide whether to take advantage of the available opportunities for creating a communicative and action-oriented place of teaching and learning. However, a teacher-centred classroom in which the learners’ desks may even be fixed to the floor will create a challenging obstacle for teachers – purely on account of its physical circumstances – when trying to design communicative lessons. Such cases clearly illustrate the extent to which the place of teaching and learning influences the way in which lessons are designed: there is a risk that in such circumstances teachers might shy away from the additional burden in terms of didactics, methodology and possibly organization which the implementation of communicative or open lesson forms entails, preferring instead to adjust their lessons to the physical circumstances.

Places of teaching and learning are not neutral meeting places or rooms. They are entire settings in which learners are offered – or in some cases denied – the opportunity to be active and gain experiences. This becomes abundantly clear when we look at open and creative lesson forms. Project work, for instance, can teach participants the target language in a realistic and action-oriented manner, thus allowing them to acquire new experiences in the foreign language. To a certain extent, role-plays and theatre projects can serve as virtual (and in some cases also real-life) settings in which learners can experience themselves as actors. Such settings provide them with an opportunity to playfully engage in communication in the target language, to refuse to be assigned to specific roles or to compare their role perceptions with those which prevail in the target language culture. In this sense, places of teaching and learning can enable learners to experience the target language and the target language culture in a way that extends beyond the mere acquisition of communicative skills.

THE NETWORK OF PLACES OF TEACHING AND LEARNING

As a rule, foreign languages are learnt at several places of teaching and learning which can sometimes differ considerably. Apart from the classroom itself, these may include a study at home, a library, a study workshop or digital learning environment, or indeed a visit to the zoo or workplace. Teachers have the task of systematically and productively linking their lessons to all these places of learning. They must ask themselves which skills their students can acquire at the other places of learning and which methods and social forms they can use to take advantage of the learning opportunities available in these places of learning for both formal instruction and independent learning.

This can happen in a variety of ways. For example, a study at home is often used to prepare for and follow up on classroom lessons. A study workshop and library, on the other hand, are the domains of independent and, in many cases, cooperative learning activities which can quantitatively and qualitatively extend classroom lessons. Just like a computer lab, they also offer greater access to the target language and culture due to the available media. However, it is also important to gain experiences with target language speakers as well as with the customs and behavioural habits of the target culture (for example by visiting a German company or the German consulate), or at least to experience products of the target culture (for example by visiting a German bakery, a German restaurant or a newsagent selling German press products). Furthermore, periods of time spent in the target language country allow learners to meet target language speakers and encounter the typical local culture and society. Such experiences at places of learning in the target language environment can have a lasting influence in every respect on the learner’s future language learning activities and language development.

DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

Communication in the classroom, which has become the focus of teaching and learning processes ever since the communicative approach in the 1970s, thus represents only a small part of a more or less complex network of teaching and learning settings. From the perspective of teachers, the classroom is their main workplace and the central place of learning from which they can assess the activities taking place at other places of learning and include them in their didactical considerations.

Although classroom lessons can function as an anchor for the learners’ language development, the learners themselves often tend to give differing priorities to the places of learning in the described network. For example, some learners only wish to develop specific skills or work on certain content areas in the foreign language classroom (in preparation for exams, for instance), while their main learning activities take place in another learning context (perhaps in a theatre project). Furthermore, the network of places of learning normally changes throughout the course of the learner’s individual language development: one place becomes less important while another comes to the fore and yet another is discovered. Classroom sessions may then serve as just one step along the path towards achieving long-term and further-reaching goals, such as the desire to embark on a course of study in the target language country after the successful completion of the foreign language course.

Places of teaching and learning do not simply exist but must be specifically designed as settings for the learning of German. Initially, it is the teachers’ duty to organize the network of places of learning starting from the classroom, thereby taking into account the prevailing institutional, curricular and physical circumstances, to ensure that learners experience a wide variety of settings. Educational institutions also have an important role to play, however, as they are responsible not only for creating the ideal structural and physical prerequisites for places of teaching and learning but also for supporting teachers in their attempts to design a productive network of places of teaching and learning for their students even under difficult physical and organizational conditions.
 

Literature

Legutke, Michael: „Lehr- und Lernort.“ In: Surkamp, Carola (Hrsg.). Metzler Lexikon Fremdsprachendidaktik. Stuttgart: Metzler 2010, 171-175.
 
Swain, Merill; Kinnear, Penny; Steinman, Linda: Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education. An Introduction Through Narratives. Bristol et al.: Multilingual Matters 2011.
 
Walz, Heidi: „Überall ist Sprache – außerschulische Lernorte verbinden“. In: Frühes Deutsch 26 (2012), 5-9.