Duolingo: a model of an effective pedagogy?

Since receiving an offer to join a teacher training course after I graduate (woohoo!) I’ve been doing some things to prepare for it. As well as working hard at uni to get my degree, I’ve been reading up on some teaching theory and improving my subject knowledge ready for when I start teaching – and trust me, with teaching primary, there’s lots of subjects to familiarise myself with! Recently I’ve started to learn Spanish to improve my ability in languages, and to do that I’ve used a free website called duolingo.com that my housemate told me about, which is well good! [By the way, my favourite phrase so far is ‘los zapatos y los calcetines’, which means ‘the shoes and the socks’… it’s SO much fun to say!] Anyway, today I asked myself the question ‘why have I been able to learn so much so quickly?’ and when I thought about it I realised it’s because Duolingo puts into practice lots of the good teaching techniques I’ve been reading about! Let me explain…

  • When I learn something new, it situates it in its wider context. When learning about prepositions, for example (in, on, under, etc.) it gives me example sentences which contain vocab from topics like ‘colours’, ‘animals’, and ‘food’ that I’d learnt earlier on. This makes sure I don’t forget stuff I learnt a while ago, and also reminds me that it’s all part of one big picture rather than discrete topics that never interlink.
  • It provides a structure that ‘scaffolds’ my learning, showing me what I can currently do and helping me get to the next stage (hello Vygotsky!). Although it lets me choose what topic to do next, I can’t do topics x, y and z before a, b and c, which is an effective way of directing my learning while still enabling me to take ownership of it.
  • It makes me DO stuff with my new knowledge by making me answer a series of short questions. These questions help me improve my listening, speaking, reading AND writing, ensuring I’m developing all the necessary skills to be a linguist as well as receiving the raw knowledge. This ‘multimodality’ also gives me more opportunities to succeed (e.g. if I’m not so good at the writing, but I’m good at the other 3 skills, I won’t feel like a failure and I’ll stay motivated).
  • Through these short questions it continually assesses me to check my progress, so I know how well I’m doing and what I need to improve on (which also helps me take more responsibility for my own learning) and also so it knows what I know so it can ask more appropriate questions.
  • It implements effective behaviour management strategies! It makes learning fun in the first place, making it less likely for me to misbehave, and gives me a clear system of positive reinforcement, using rewards and incentives to encourage me to work hard and giving me clear goals to aim for. On the flip side, it consistently implements a ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ rule, making it clear that there are consequences for disobedience (well, in this case it’s for getting the wrong answer… but I think my analogy still fits!).
  • Finally, it fosters ‘metacognitive awareness’ (i.e. it makes me think about how I learn) so I can then learn more effectively.

Great! So if Duolingo’s so good, maybe we don’t need teachers! Oh, umm, actually that’s not true. There are some really important teachery things that Duolingo can’t do:

  • It can’t model the positive characteristics it wants its ‘pupils’ to have. It is only able to impart subject knowledge and can’t help the people it teaches to develop positive values, attitudes, or behaviour, which is an integral part of teaching.
  • It can’t provide cross-curricular links to situate the subject in a broader frame of knowledge.
  • It gives you the option to ‘quit’…
  • It can’t really manage my behaviour! If I don’t want to learn Spanish on a particular day, there’s absolutely nothing Duolingo can do to stop me.
  • While it provides the opportunity for collaborative learning, it doesn’t enforce it, meaning I might never learn good team-working and communication skills or develop the ability to relate well with people from diverse backgrounds.
  • Also, if there’s a slight technical hitch Duolingo can’t improvise like a real teacher can; it’s game over, and no learning at all can take place!

So while Duolingo does model some really good teaching strategies, it would need to drastically improve elements of its practice to achieve Qualified Teacher Status 😉

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