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 😉


Who’s in control?

Imagine this. You’re playing THE most important important match of your life on FIFA 14 – let’s say it’s the cup final of a tournament. It’s a derby match too, so there’s even more at stake. City vs United. And you’re playing against your worst enemy.

You started off okay, but before long things go downhill. Really early on in the match you get a player sent off: you thought you’d done nothing wrong at all, but the ref gives you a straight red. Then it happens again. And again. Before half-time you’ve only got eight players left on the field – oh and by the way you’re 5-0 down. Nightmare! You feel like you’ve completely messed it up, that there’s absolutely no way you could win now after what you’ve done! Surely you’ve blown it now: no way back.

But at half-time, while you pause the game to get a can of coke, everything changes. You walk back into the living room and someone else is in the room with you. You start talking to him. He claims to be able to do the impossible, to help you be on the winning side no matter how many red cards you’ve got, or even what score you’re losing by. Come to think of it, you’d heard of this guy before! There’s a book about him that your friend reads, but you never read it yourself: you never thought you’d need his help. Anyway, even though you’re 5-0 down with three men sent off and half the game gone, you stubbornly refuse his help, telling him that if you’re gonna lose, you’re gonna go down with a fight.

The second half kicks off. Almost immediately you concede another goal – in fact, it’s straight from kick-off. 6-0. You throw your controller on the floor in complete and utter frustration. You feel ashamed, humiliated, inadequate. The man who’s still sat on the chair next to you asks again if you’d like his help. Again you stubbornly refuse, and carry on doing it yourself. Before you know it, you’ve conceded a penalty, got your goalie sent off, and, to make matters worse, you’ve played all your substitutes so you have to put an outfield player in goal! That’s it: there’s absolutely no way back now, you think to yourself. I might as well give my controller to this strange man, surely it can’t get any worse! As you do so, he smiles warmly, sits back in his chair, and saves the penalty for you. Okay, good start, you think to yourself, but there’s still a long way to go!

In what seems like an instant, the man has scored a few goals, and you’re winning. YOU’RE WINNING?! Whaaaaat?! In the blink of an eye, your situation’s totally changed. Your shame and inadequacy has gone, and in its place you have an amazing joy that you can’t put into words, which only keeps growing and growing as the match progresses. Then the final whistle blows, and as you watch the crowd and the players celebrating your team’s victory, you can’t help but celebrate too! You’ve won! Your worst enemy is defeated! And as you bask in the glory of your triumph, you realise that actually, the glory should go to the man who won the victory on your behalf. As you sit and think about that even more, it becomes clear that letting this man take control was absolutely the best thing that could have happened to you.

Okay, you can stop imagining now. What if something really similar happened in real life, but on a much bigger scale? What if someone was willing to swap places with you, whatever mistakes you’ve made in the past, and totally turn your life around? What if he gave everything he had to make sure you’re on the winning team when your time is up? And what if all he asks in return is that you believe he’s real, be genuinely sorry for what you’ve done wrong (and try not to make those mistakes again), and let him take control? Surely something so life-changing would be worth looking into?

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, The Bible)

Mr Smith goes to London: Chapter One

“Marley was dead: to begin with,” Mr Smith said. Was that convincing enough? He decided to say it again.

“Marley was DEAD… to begin with.” That was much better! His tone of voice was much more interesting, almost shouting “dead” which contrasted well with the quieter, intriguing “to begin with”. The way he calmly moved his hands while he spoke kept his listeners focused on him, stopping them being easily distracted. He thought the way he moved his eyebrows added something too. Good.

“That’s the opening to a book by a guy called Charles Dickens. He was a really famous author who made lots of money! Now today, I’m really interested to find out why. Why did he make so much money?” He began to speak faster here, conveying his urgency. “Why did his readers read the whole of his book, right to the end, instead of [throws book across classroom] throwing it away after they’d read the first line? Now, I’m going to say that first sentence again.” Dramatic pause. “Marley was dead. To begin with. Joe: why is that such a good opening to his story?” There was no-one called Joe in the room. There was only Mr Smith and his reflection in the mirror. But in his imagination he was talking to the two assessors he would be delivering his lesson to in only a week’s time. He was incredibly excited for his assessment day! He really wanted to be a teacher: he had a passion for helping to shape young lives into the people they were created to be. It would be his first ever time going to London too. His friends couldn’t believe that he had never been to the capital city and had told him of all the exciting places he should visit there, and now was finally his chance to see them! It would also be an excuse to wear a suit, something he hadn’t done for ages. He felt very official in a suit, very teachery and grown-up, and he liked that.

Did Charles Dickens really make lots of money? Or was he one of those authors who was successful but was actually poor? He would have to look that up on the internet later. In the meantime, Joe had probably had enough time to reply, so Mr Smith responded. “Yeah that’s good Joe, well done. It’s very important to introduce the main characters in the opening to a book. Do you think Marley is a main character?” Silence. “Yeah maybe he is! But we aren’t sure, are we? And that’s one thing that makes this opening so effective, right? The fact that we don’t know all the information. Jessie,” he said, directing his gaze to the right hand side of his mirror rather than the left, “does that make you want to keep reading?” Silence. “Exactly! So let’s write that on my mind-map on the whiteboard.”

There was no whiteboard. There was no mind-map. There was no Jessie. If any of his housemates came in to his bedroom now, they would think he was being silly, talking to himself in the mirror. But if actors can spend hours diligently practicing their lines, why can’t a teacher practice the start to their lesson? Well, a trainee teacher. Well, he wasn’t even that yet, but he wanted to be, and if this lesson went well, he might be. He sighed as he remembered the reality of his situation. He urgently had to write an essay on William Shakespeare’s play King Lear, and he needed to get good marks in his university assessments if he was to have any hope of teaching real people in the future.

When he was younger, he never understood why people would want to be teachers. It must be so boring, he thought, to wear a shirt and tie every day, to be at school when nobody was forcing them to be there. They must be so miserable too – why else would they shout so often? But now he understood. They want to make a difference. They’re at school because they want to help the children who are forced to be there. And they only shout because they care. Without discipline in the classroom, how are children supposed to learn? It would be chaos!

As John sat at his computer typing his essay, he wondered whether this would be a good story opening. The first chapter in his career as a teacher might be about to begin! Then again, it might not. The unanswered questions made him excited, nervous, apprehensive, and lots of other adventurous words. If he was reading this in a book, he would certainly want to read chapter 2.

A coffee with Walter

Old guy from Up

Walter’s even cooler than the old guy from ‘Up’, and that’s saying something!

When you meet someone old and wrinkly, what do you see? Someone who’s past their best, irrelevant and useless in the modern era? Someone who fits neatly into a stereotype with everyone else the same age? Well there’s a guy from my church called Walter who’s 92, and he’s neither of these things. My Dad and I went round to his house for a bit yesterday afternoon, and I was amazed by some of the things he said! Here’s three things that struck me while we talked:

1) Seize the day! – If I live to be 92, I hope I have so many exciting stories to tell my friends and family! For example, Walter crossed the Arctic Circle during his time in the Royal Navy, and on another occasion his ship was hit by a torpedo and was fortunate to survive! He’s also worked down the mines, and later lost his sense of smell and taste after an accident while working for a scaffolding company, AND only a few years ago showed his immense willpower by changing a life-long habit and giving up smoking. Amazing! These things didn’t just happen by themselves, though; if I’m gonna have great memories to look back on in the future, I need to make stuff happen in the present. I need to be proactive, take some risks, and seize the day, not just sit on my sofa and wait for things to happen by themselves! Not only that, but I want to be a great role model to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren like Walter is. I want to be someone who always lives by the values I hold, even when life makes it really difficult, and who can present my descendants with a pattern they can live by, an alternative to the rubbish ones the world offers. I want to leave behind a great legacy, and that starts with the things I do today!

2) Trust in God – It’s obvious that Walter believes 100% that nothing is impossible with God, and the way he lets this conviction govern the way he lives is inspirational! He’s so generous cos He knows God will provide to replace what he gives away, and he doesn’t worry about things cos he knows God’s in control. As a Christian I believe this stuff too, but too often I think ‘but what if..?’ rather than trusting in God completely like Walter does. Think what incredible things God can do through us if we totally trust in Him and don’t let our doubts get in the way!

3) Don’t judge a book by its cover – Yeah it’s a cliché, but it’s so true! If I hadn’t made the effort to get to know Walter as a person, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to hear about his amazing experiences and learn from his wisdom. Not only would I have missed out big time, he’d have missed out on my friendship too, something that elderly people are sadly often deprived of, especially from younger people. It’s so important to get to know who people really are, then, and to dig deep rather than judging them on appearances, both for their benefit and for ours.

So next time you talk to an elderly person, are you going to see their wrinkles as signs of their age and of their difference to you, or marks of their struggles and the wisdom they’ve gained through overcoming them? Are you going to look past their bodily weakness to the unbelievable strength of mind that may be hidden beneath their aging exterior? And are you going to disregard them as a relic from a previous generation that doesn’t belong in our technological age, or engage with them as an individual and appreciate their uniqueness? Walter’s warm smile and firm handshake as we said goodbye made it clear how much it meant to him that we’d done the latter, and I left feeling privileged that I’d had the chance to talk to such a great man.

Prose Corner #1 – ‘Sleepy Defiance’

Dozing in and out of consciousness, he lay prostrate on his small single bed in his small room, the subject of conflicting impulses. He knew he must get up, but in a dazed rebellion he resisted with every fibre of his being. Serene piano melodies danced elusively around him, and vague thoughts of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Gissing attempted in vain to rouse him from his slumber. The blond-haired, blue-eyed boy knew he must leave this childish defiance behind, but at this precise moment he longed to pause, to briefly step outside of time and simply be. This temporary stasis must come to an end soon, he was under no illusions there, but if he could only prolong it…

Suddenly, the young man seizes control. Leaping from the bed, he sits at his desk, the grainy wooden surface barely visible beneath a flood of tea-stained scraps of paper and a myriad of coloured pens. He begins to write. The piano melodies blend harmoniously with the frantic scribbling on the coarse A4 sheet, and the loud shouts from the corridor become indistinct murmurings that cannot detain him now. His deep blue eyes are alive once more: no longer are they glazed and fatigued, they convey fire, power, determination. Larger battles lurked ahead, but he had at least emerged victorious here, and he knew the power within him would be sufficient for the journey. As he continued to write, he marvelled afresh at Shakespeare’s intellect and literary skill, but something greater – someone greater – was motivating him again. He had defeated his lethargy, progress had been made: revision had begun.

Christmas Presence

So it’s only four days til Christmas – woop! If you’re a student like me, it’s almost time to let your revision notes gather a thin coating of dust for a couple of days, shut away your textbooks, and relax with family and friends. But amidst all the frantic last-minute shopping, the terrible cracker jokes, and the leftover sprouts, it’s so important to remember the reason we celebrate Christmas: the birth of Jesus.

We’ve all heard the nativity story loads of times, but that doesn’t make it any less amazing, or any less true. In Luke 2, an angel says to some shepherds:

‘I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.’

Jesus wasn’t some random baby; He is the Son of God, the Saviour who had been foretold for generations, who would eventually die an excruciatingly painful death on the cross and rise again three days later, sacrificing Himself for our sins to allow us to have a close relationship with God. But this passage highlights another important aspect of Jesus’ mission. He didn’t just come to save the privileged minority (kings, presidents, rich entrepeneurs, for example), He came to save everyone – ‘all the people’ – and this is shown through the situation He was born into.

Maybe you think if God was gonna come to Earth He’d be born in a palace or something – that’d be a birth suitable for the King of Kings, right? Well, Jesus didn’t see it that way. He came to save the lost and the broken as well as the elite, so not only did He come into a messed up, sinful world, He was willing to be born in a stable, a spare section of the inn that no-one else wanted, and instead of being placed in a top-of-the-range incubator, He was put in a manger; a feeding trough. Hardly the grand, dignified birth you’d expect, is it? Also, the first people to be told about Jesus’ birth weren’t wealthy or of a high social status; they were ordinary shepherds, living in a field looking after their sheep. God revealed Himself to the everyday folk first, then, showing through actions as well as words that He came to save us all, regardless of our circumstances.

The shepherds’ reaction is great too – instead of just thinking ‘wow that sounds cool, but I don’t think it’s for me’, or ‘I don’t care about this baby, I’m too busy minding my sheep!’, they immediately decide to go to Bethlehem and see Jesus for themselves. A mate from uni pointed out recently that they must have either left their sheep on the hillside, the flock they’ve devoted their lives to protecting and rely on for their livelihood, or they took all their sheep with them, making their journey incredibly difficult. Whichever option they took, they recognised the importance of investigating this amazing claim for themselves, not letting anything hold them back.

So what’s your reaction gonna be this Christmas? Whatever great presents you get, God’s already given you all you could ever need; unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, peace, joy, and hope, all of which are available to us because He gave us Himself. Surely that’s worth looking into? Be a shepherd! Happy Christmas 🙂


Judges 6, describing Gideon being called to become leader of the Israelites, tells us a lot about us and God. Firstly, God can use even the weakest person and transform them into a powerful leader. Gideon didn’t think he had much ability, asking ‘how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh [one of Israel’s 12 tribes], and I am the least in my family’. What he did have, though, was availability; he was open to God using him, which was much more important. To me, this shows that anyone can stand up and make a massive difference in the situations God puts them in – if He can work through Gideon, He can work through us too! However inadequate you think you are, God sees your potential; ‘Go in the strength you have’, He says, and He’ll equip you with everything you need to succeed en route.

Secondly, our identity isn’t based on the stuff we do, it’s based on who we are. For example, the angel refers to Gideon as a ‘mighty warrior’ before he’s done anything even remotely mighty or warrior-like, showing that our identity is fixed and God-given, not depending on good works to be created or sustained. Ultimately it is constant because it’s in Christ, based on what He’s done for us and the eternal truths He reveals to us through His word, and because He never changes, our identity is stable and secure too.

Finally, Gideon’s victory in Judges 7 makes it evident that he actually is a mighty warrior. Obviously this is because God’s with him and he’s trusting in His strength – if this wasn’t the case, Gideon and his 300 men would have been absolutely slaughtered! However, it’s also a reminder that God’s promises always remain true, even when your circumstances suggest otherwise. What He says about us is the absolute truth: no matter what, we are loved unconditionally by the God who created the universe – amazing! – and we are incredibly valuable to Him. This is true whether you’re a Christian or not, by the way; He loves us ALL equally, something Jesus showed by sacrificing Himself on the cross, paying the same price for everyone. Furthermore, God sees who we are becoming; people can only make judgments on you based on your past and your present, but God, the One who sees the bigger picture, knows your future too, making what He says about us sooo much more accurate than comments people make to limit us or hold us back.

The Bible is full of men and women God used who were essentially imperfect vessels; what they had in common, though, was obedience and a willingness to serve Him. This is what we need to have as Christians, and if we trust totally in Him we’ll be secure and confident in our God-given identity, determined to do His will and being well on the way to becoming powerful, effective and influential ambassadors for Christ.