April 09, 2004
The success and failure of Michel Thomas - teaching English and Spanish in South Central Los Angeles
This is the last excerpt I will be posting here, for the time being anyway, from The Test of Courage, which is about the life and achievements of the extraordinary language teacher Michel Thomas.

Once again, we are told how well it all worked, but not, in the end, what "it" actually consists of. What is this "method" that is so wonderful? And to what extent does it depend on having teachers as talented as Thomas himself to make it work? I get the feeling that this man has not been as forthcoming in answering such questions as he would have needed to be to have as much influence on the regular school system as he clearly wanted to and wants to.

But rather than italicise here at length, I will let this further excerpt speak for itself, and then, when I have done some further digging into the Michel Thomas phenomenon, I may then do some further non-italicised writing about him in later postings. But no promises.

In the early 1970s Michel was approached by Andrea Kasza, principal of Norwood Elementary School in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. The principal had a serious and fundamental problem with her five hundred pupils. The school had originally been split between sixty per cent black and forty per cent Hispanic students, but was moving rapidly towards a Spanish-speaking majority. None of the new arrivals spoke English, and there was not a single Hispanic teacher on the staff. 'There were only two who knew any Spanish at all - one of whom was Jewish, and the other Japanese.' There were no government programmes at the time to help, and while Kasza attempted to hire Spanish-speaking teachers, she sought desperately for something to fill the gap. 'I wanted the staff to learn enough Spanish quickly to be able to communicate with the students. I had heard about Michel's Foundation and contacted him. We set up a class for twenty teachers who had no Spanish at all, and they took one of his crash courses.' It was an unqualified success. 'The teachers were very happy with the programme and many of them went on to become fluent in the language.'

During the course, Michel decided he also wanted to work with the young children, which he had not done before, to help them speak English. 'I didn't have the money to hire him for a year, and he did it pro bono,' Kasza said. 'It would never have happened otherwise.' Michel was given carte blanche for a year to teach not just languages but every subject. 'I had thirty kids in the class and divided them into two groups. One used a teacher and one used tapes, and I rotated them. It worked like a charm.' A six-week block was set aside when the primary school children who spoke only sub-standard barrio Spanish were taught nothing but English as a foreign language. 'A child in America must speak English or become a permanent second-class citizen. So they learned English and also had their level of Spanish raised. They learned how to speak and write in both languages in these six weeks.' The second six-week block course was in mathematics, again using a rotating combination of teachers and tapes.

Kasza watched Michel at work and devised a curriculum over time to enable ordinary schools to adopt the method without disruption. The programme started with kindergarten and spread to involve all grades and the entire staff. The Spanish community approved because the programme maintained the use of both languages. The school became recognised as having the best transition programme in the country, and people came from all over the world to study it. 'We developed an outstanding programme,' Kasza said.

'The teachers loved it, the children loved it, the parents loved it and we had great press.'

The courses were given the official endorsement of the California Teachers' Association and the National Education Association. Michel was greatly excited and waited for the various state and federal educational bodies to express interest. 'I waited for the phone to ring. I expected the Education Department to hammer on my door. Instead, there was silence. Nothing.'

'I don't know why people don't support things,' Kasza said. 'It's so difficult to create change. Certainly don't look for it in the language departments of the universities. They're the most resistant to change of any educational group I know. They ignore the practitioners. A new approach means asking a whole department to change its attitude, and that's the problem. In the academic world people get comfortable with what they're doing. What would happen to all those Spanish professors with tenure? They'd have to change their ways. If the man who invented the paperclip needed the approval of a university department we would never have had the paperclip. They would say people had never used paperclips before, so who needs them?'

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:06 PM
Category: Languages