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April 06, 2004
Michel Thomas teaches French to twenty-four eighth graders from the ghetto

I don't know for sure if Michel Thomas is a great teacher, but I am fairly sure he is, despite the fact that the picture of him at his website makes him look like he is wearing a cheap wig.

To try to find out how he does what he does, I have been reading a biography of Thomas called The Test of Courage by Christopher Robbins.

However, most of this book is about Thomas' experience battling with the Nazis and their various allies, collaborators, sympathisers and apologists. I have searched in vain for a systematic statement of his philosophy of education, for his one or two page explanation of how he does it, whatever exactly 'it' may be. Basically, Robbins is not telling us how Thomas teaches. He is telling us what else he has done, and what experiences he brought to teaching.

But there are a few clues, of which the description that follows, very long by the standards of blog postings, is one. You may not want to read all of it, but I found it fascinating, and inspiring. Is it really possible to teach as successfully as this?

The proof of the system, for anyone who cared to investigate, lay with the students. Sometimes, these came from the most unpromising backgrounds and circumstances, such as a class of fifteen-year-old black ghetto youths in a Los Angeles inner-city school still reeling from the aftermath of the Watts riot. Academic activity had been brought to a grinding halt after a series of student sit-ins developed into violent demonstrations culminating in a full-scale riot which almost completely destroyed the school. Teachers walked out, claiming unreasonable working conditions. The principal had a breakdown and had to be replaced. The new principal appealed for outside help. In the circumstances it seemed an almost quixotic gesture on the part of Michel to volunteer to enter the war zone to teach for a week. 'One of the criticisms of the militant community then was that what was taught to black youth was irrelevant. So I thought the most irrelevant thing I could do was to drive down to South Central and teach French.'

The principal was pessimistic about the entire enterprise. The government had given the school an emergency grant of thirty thousand dollars a large sum at the time to clean up the debris from the riot, but not a cent extra for education. Discipline in the school had declined to the point where teachers were forbidden to close classroom doors, as this provoked troublemakers to break them down. Authority was flouted to the point that couples fornicated in the corridors. Most students had no interest whatsoever in learning anything. Some were violent. Michel was warned that he might be exposed to verbal or even physical abuse.

'Just give me a class and I'll handle the rest,' Michel said.

'No, no, no - it's not so simple,' the principal said over the phone. 'You have to come down here first and assess the situation. It's wild!'

'I don't need to come down. Just arrange a class and I'll be there at eight o'clock Monday morning.'

The class to be taught was described as 'consisting of twenty-four recalcitrant eighth-graders, markedly below-average students, severely deficient in reading skills or other basic skills for that matter, but judged to be of average intelligence'. The principal remarked ironically in a letter to a colleague that he was interested 'in determining whether Mr Thomas could take an irrelevant subject, French, and make it relevant'.

Michel arrived at the school to find police with attack dogs patrolling the grounds. Many of the buildings looked as if they had been bombed, the flagpole had been bent to the ground and the Stars and Stripes removed and burned. No undamaged classroom was available, so a storage room was found. The students proved as difficult, academically dull and potentially dangerous as promised. Michel was confronted by the simmering mix of dumb insolence and hostility presented to every teacher who attempted to broach the shield of defiant ignorance. Michel responded philosophically: 'I have always learned the most from teaching students who are very difficult.'

From the first moment he wrong-footed his surly crew, who were unprepared for a tutor whose unspoken maxim was. The student is never wrong. 'Teaching is my responsibility, not yours,' he told the class, assuming a quiet, unhurried manner. 'Don't worry about remembering. That's my responsibility too. I don't want you to take notes. There will be no homework. No tests. The work involved here is mine, not yours.' He asked the class whether anyone knew where French was spoken. There was no reply. When pressed, one student suggested London. Why? Because London was in Paris. Michel made no comment, but quietly began to explain, without sarcasm or censure, that French was spoken in France, and also in a number of African countries. As he elaborated on the importance of the language in Africa, he began to teach, but in such a casual, offhand way that no one felt obliged to object. 'Much of English is French badly pronounced,' he said, illustrating the point with the French pronunciation of a number of words used in everyday conversation: experience, realisation, gratitude. 'In fact, you know a good deal of French already, much more than you realise.'

As he talked, he attempted to estimate the size of the problem facing him. Not only were the students below average, they were completely uninterested in learning at best, and disruptive and potentially violent at worst. Mentally, he divided the class into three groups. The first was made up of those who were shy and tried to hide behind others. The second, and largest, group comprised the passive and indifferent, some of whom had trouble sitting still: they rocked, drummed on desks with their fingers, tapped their feet, moved about, or even slept. Finally, there was a troublesome minority who were defiant or actively belligerent. Even to ask one of these students his name was to provoke an abusive answer. Michel decided to concentrate on the first group whom he designated the Shy Group while hoping to bring in members of the second group the Indifferent Group over time. He ignored the belligerent faction.

The first objective was to give as many students as possible an early sense of achievement within the first half hour. Using one of his many heuristic techniques described as 'mental hooks' he demonstrated to the class that they already possessed a French vocabulary of as many as three thousand words or more. And that these were not 'baby' words, but complex adult words, so they did not have to begin learning as children. He pointed out that most English words ending in -tion, -able, -ence and -ism were the same in French (condition, capable, experience, realism). And that many English words ending in 'y' had an 'e' in French: fraternity, paternity, liberty and so on.

No one was ever questioned directly or allowed to raise his hand. Students were never called on by name but were encouraged through eye contact. If anyone apologised for making a mistake, Michel asked, 'Why are you apologising? Why are you concerned? Eliminating mistakes is my problem. Why are you worrying? You are not supposed to know the language yet.' His gentle, continued insistence that he alone was responsible for each student's progress, and his acceptance of blame for all mistakes, led to an immediate reduction in anxiety and tension. He had removed what he describes as 'the terrible burden of expectation'.

Once members of the Indifferent Group saw the Shy Group respond, they began to take an interest. Those who were usually ignored by their peers, and rarely dared speak up in English, were beginning to form sentences in French. Even the most timid students lost their self-consciousness, while the indifferent were pulled in one by one. No one was ever urged to try harder or respond faster, but was advised to slow down at the first sign of tension or nerves. And while individual students progressed at different rates, the learning process moved very rapidly. Unannounced, informal exercises that seemed effortless were in reality carefully planned, and while the pace seemed relaxed and unhurried, the speed at which learning occurred was

Within two hours Michel was helping any student who bothered to listen through such complex sentences as, 'If I had known you were coming to town this evening, I would have made reservations for us at a restaurant, and would have tried to get tickets for the theatre.' Or, 'I am very glad you are going to come and have dinner with us at the house tonight because I would like to speak to you and I would like to know when you are going to be here because I am going to cook.' By the end of the first day he had the class pretty well in hand, and the interest of the first two groups had been greatly enlarged. He continued to ignore the belligerent group.

Before dismissing the class he felt secure enough to take a strong hand. Speaking in a friendly (in order to show that his purpose was not to punish) but firm manner, he said: 'I came here to teach. To show you that you can learn. That you can learn anything. If you want me to come back tomorrow I want to know I can teach without disturbances. There are some here because they want to learn. I also notice that some of you are not interested in learning. I feel it is unfair that those who want to learn should be disturbed and interfered with by those who do not. So I am going to separate the class and only teach those who want to leam. Will those who do not want to learn French please raise their hands.' Not one hand went up.

The next day started very differently. Everyone was involved, and even the belligerent group was quiet. Minor disturbances were punished by sending the offending student out of the room for ten minutes. The classroom had to be evacuated during the lunch hour, something many of the students feared because the playground had become an unpleasant and dangerous place. Michel told them he would be pleased to let them stay in the room if they could be trusted. Some of the larger, 'belligerent' students immediately volunteered to police the others. 'No. There are to be no bosses. If you want to stay in the room each of you has to accept responsibility for his own behaviour.' The students insisted they could control and protect the room.

After lunch, Michel was still in conversation with colleagues when the bell went. One or two of the regular teachers were sceptical when they heard of the progress achieved by a class generally acknowledged to be made up of hostile, dead-end losers. As the discussion continued there was a knock on the faculty door and one of the students stuck his head in. 'Please, Mr Thomas, the class is waiting.'

One of the most obvious student deficiencies was a general inability to listen, either to Michel or each other. He introduced a game in which he would try to 'catch' someone not listening. The students began to take satisfaction in not getting caught, and after a day the game became redundant. At the end of the third day an extraordinary thing happened: the students pleaded with Michel, and the school administration, to have the class continued for an extra week. This was arranged.

On the fourth day, Michel was reasonably satisfied with the performance of the class but still suffered occasional interruptions when talking broke out. By merely pausing for a couple of moments, these incidents stopped. Although remarkable progress had been made, he decided the intellectual habits of the class could benefit from further tightening. Choosing a minor lapse in attention on the part of several students, he staged a walk-out towards the end of the day.

'I told them I was quitting. I repeated that I was there to teach and could only do that to people who wanted to learn. "I will not teach with disturbances. So fine, I'm leaving."' Although there was an immediate chorus of protests, he left the room and made his way to the common room. 'The purpose of the walk-out was not to establish a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, but to
further train the students as persons willing to control their own impulses out of concern for fellow students and in the interests of their own learning.'

He waited five minutes, but the expected delegation failed to materialise. He feared he had misjudged his timing, and at the end of ten minutes was very tense, alarmed that he had made a serious mistake. He began to think of a way to correct this when five students appeared to say that the class had discussed the matter and had voted unanimously to request his return. As he re-entered the classroom he was touched to find that during his absence the students had swept and tidied the room, and found a chair and desk which they placed at the front for him.

'There is one more thing,' Michel said. 'No bubble gum. I don't want to see it or hear it!'

This was almost immediately ignored, but two large youths from the formerly belligerent group jumped up of their own accord and confiscated gum from the others.

During the lessons Michel had been shocked to learn that none of the students had seen the sea, even though they had lived in Los Angeles, on the Pacific Ocean, all their lives. At the weekend he organised a convoy of minibuses and offered to take anyone who was interested to the beach. The entire class went along. It was an easy, pleasant time, and the group had fun. A genuine affection and friendship had sprung up between Michel and his unpromising class.

Back at school during the second week Michel began to talk about the importance of education not only in getting a job and being successful in the world, but as an end in itself. Learning, he told his students, should be fun. For the first time in their lives they listened and tended to agree. By the end of the week each had drawn up a list of subjects of special interest. Michel organised for various students to take music and drawing lessons, and so on. To the stupefaction of the other teachers, this group of sub-standard, recalcitrant non-readers requested to stay on twice a week after regular school for the remainder of the term, purely for the privilege of meeting and talking with Michel.

Both the principal and the professor monitoring the experiment were profoundly impressed by the results. Black youths who spoke English in the jargon of the ghetto were now speaking grammatically correct, properly accented French. Where truancy had been the norm, attendance for Michel's lessons had been one hundred per cent. Noisy, disruptive behaviour and occasional violence had been replaced by self-imposed discipline that never broke down. Most startling of all was the increase in the attention span of the class, especially in view of the long sessions. Michel had the complete attention of the group all day, while the only control method he ever used was the threat of suspension from the class for ten minutes. Unruly youths written off as academic duds had been transformed into students with a passion to leam. The professor who monitored the class under Michel wrote: 'He uses no aversive controls, never scolds, never raises his voice, never acts as if he were disappointed in a student's performance, never frowns ... The reports I've had from other students convince me that the excitement and satisfaction which I experienced were in no way unusual, but something experienced by virtually all of Mr Thomas's students, whether poorly educated youngsters from the black ghetto or presumably better educated persons with graduate degrees.'

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:55 AM
Category: How to teach
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