Learning through not understanding? – CLIL (content and language integrated learning) art project

Yesterday I worked together with twenty three twelve year old pupils and two of their teachers (thanks Roderick and Wap!) on an long (8 hours!) and intensive art and language workshop day.  For the children this was just the start of their second week at secondary school and perhaps more significantly the start of the second week where these Dutch school children are getting most of their lessons taught to them in English.

This was the reason that I was brought in to lead the workshop. As a native speaker of English I can provide a kind of immersion day where all the pupils hear is English.  It’s a big language challenge for the children, and for me something of a challenge too as I try to hold back from allowing a single word of Dutch to slip out!

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We hear a lot about short spans of attention in the children of today and such a day as yesterday kind of puts that theory to the test a little. The children are more used to switching from one activity, subject, teacher or classroom at regular intervals, how will they cope with being in one room, with one project and one project leader (supported by a couple of others)?

Well on the experience of yesterday I would say just fine.  Yes the overall project was broken down into a number of smaller parts.  This is important for boosting and re-boosting the energy and focus of the class. Also important is that they could see what they (as a group) were achieving, this is undoubtedly a luxury of an art project, but a quality that surely can be simulated in other subject areas.  But above all, the opportunity not to be continuously interrupted by the school bell announcing that the class must clear up and move on to their next lesson offers new chances for ambitious work and prevents so much time being wasted in the day.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should do away with the fragmented timetable of ten or twelve different subject areas, but I would certainly be a fore stander for more occasional project days, as long as the lesson material, plans and teaching are strong enough to maintain a greatly extended lesson.

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Another interesting point of reflection after a day like yesterday is the question of what exactly is going on in the heads of the pupils on such a language ‘immersion’ day.  I think that the results that the group made yesterday show that the group as a whole understood the project pretty well.  But I am realistic enough to acknowledge that these twelve year olds in their first week of lessons that are being taught in their second language are likely to struggle at times. Yesterday I translated nothing into Dutch to make it clearer or easier to understand. This approach forces a couple of things to occur:

  1. They have to listen hard, probably harder than they have listened to a teacher before
  2. They have to learn to cope with missing or failing to understand some parts of the instructions that I give
  3. They inevitably and importantly starting to ‘train’ their ear in the listening skills that are going to be crucially important in the coming months

Points one and three are obviously very desirable elements of this sort of teaching strategy.  The second one sounds rather less positive.  Although as an adult who has learnt to speak a second language since leaving school this kind of ‘joining up the dots’ in speech is a skill I remember being so important to me. It is about having the confidence to make little conceptual leaps to link up elements of content when sections of language interpretation are missed for whatever reason.  Put me in a noisy environment, where everyone is speaking Dutch and I still find myself having to consciously try to do this.