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  • Destiny Yarbro

My Thoughts on Creating an Active Not a Passive Language Learning Classroom

I taught American Sign Language as a student tutor at Brigham Young University in Utah, USA. The average GPA at BYU was 3.9 so the greatest challenge for the students (and for the teachers) was perfectionism. The students were used to doing well and were often scared to fail. Being that this was a university, students came into the classroom, sat down in their seat, and expected to learn quite passively (except for a question / answer session now and then). I found that most of the needs of my students were in the upper three tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1943).

I noticed that learning came most readily as students felt safe to try. Most sign language courses begin with fingerspelling English words so the students forever afterwards rely on spelling the words they don’t know in sign language. I felt this was extremely limiting and quite damaging to a student’s ability to let go of written / spoken language and switch over to visual language. Thus, I did not teach fingerspelling until much later. Instead, the first day I would act out popular Disney movies with students guessing the answer. This would break down barriers, make them laugh, and give permission to students to act out ideas the best they can (even if the results were quite silly or humorous). When they’d act out a concept, I’d then teach the sign for it (which, interestingly enough, was often similar to or related to how they acted it out).

True learning is not a passive process, it’s active. Yes, we can hold onto information for a few minutes or a day, but it’s not learning until the information is adopted into the deep recesses of our brain. Even then, is processing information learning? Or is learning when the information is directly applied to our reality and futures? I believe learning comes when what we learn is relatable, applicable, and less abstract than traditional learning methods. Another thought: We forget, especially when we struggle with perfectionism, that everyone feels dumb while learning something. In fact, we feel stupid clear up until we learn something. That is normal. I have found that students learn best when I give their subconsciouses permission each day to try and make mistakes. I felt that was one of the foremost roles of being a teacher: to reduce mental barriers so true learning could occur.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.


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