Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Why my husband is a rubbish German teacher


My German is a little bit, erm, gramatically challenged – but unfortunately, having a German husband is not equivalent to a live-in German-teacher. The problem is that German is so natural to him that he has forgotten how he learnt it and he finds it difficult to respond to my questions about why you have to say something a certain way.

The assumption that someone who knows something will know how to teach someone else it, crops up all the time in the field of international development. People recognise that there is a gap in capacity and then they identify someone who has that capacity. And then they organise for that person to go and “pass on” their capacity. I think there is an assumption that it will work a little bit like this….

The problem of course is that people WITH capacity (knowledge, skills, attitudes in whatever area) might be really rubbish at supporting others to develop that capacity.

For example, I often hear of training programmes for academic researchers in developing countries which make use of senior academics, usually from the north, as trainers. In my experience, one major challenge for junior researchers is critical thinking skills; some people are very adept at learning new facts and theories but really struggle to synthesise information, to draw out meaning from it and to critically engage with it. These are skills which many of us who have grown up in a highly questioning environment have acquired without thinking about it. But for those who have gone through an education system that has relied on rote learning and discourages questioning, they can be a big challenge – and this can clearly be a major problem for aspiring academics. Now, I don’t doubt that the senior academics from the north who are brought in as trainers have bags of critical thinking skills – but what I am not so sure about is whether they are always well qualified to pass these skills on to others.

In fact, I think that with many capacity building projects – particularly those which aim to influence behaviours and attitudes – we need to think more carefully about how we can support people to learn. How do you break down an area of capacity, like critical thinking, and facilitate a process that allows someone to develop it? How do you support capacity building in a way that doesn’t bore or patronise people (I love Nathan Chiume’s description of capacity building as “a euphemism for cramming 30 ppl in a room 4 a few days and trying to kill them with power-points and flipcharts and group work”). And how can you support local actors to act as facilitators of learning – rather than parachuting experts in from the north? These are not simple problems… but they are really important ones.

The good news is, that there are people out there who have been thinking about this kind of thing for a while – they are called… teachers! Well to be more precise, those who train and study teachers – the educational psychologists, pedagogues, instructional scientists and educationalists. There are lots of them out there (I follow some of them on twitter and they seem to be very nice people) and I think it would be great if we in the international development community joined up with them a little more and found out what they could, you know, teach us.


Update: in response to a comment below I give a more specific example from my experience – would be interested to know if others have experienced similar.


15 thoughts on “Why my husband is a rubbish German teacher

  1. Thanks for this post Kirsty. Could you share the Twitter handles of a few of the pedagogues/educationalists you mentioned?

  2. Thanks for an interesting post, and yes, most of us teachers are nice people (I would even say, very nice ;-))

    Your post reminded me of my uncle who was a fantastic scientist, but when I once asked him ta question, I almost lost the will to live – he just could not explain it! He knew his stuff, but had no idea how to pass it on!

    Oh, and if you’d like to know why it’s die Karotte etc… I can tell you 🙂

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  5. Kirsty,

    Lovely post…would love to know what your hubby said 😉

    You touch on some issues close to my own heart…many educators are “socialised” within what we might call the “TEACHing Literacy Paradigm”. We become “experts” at TEACHing…but not always experts in LEARNing – this is pretty funny because, at the end of the day, it is LEARNing that is the “ends” (TEACHing is just…one…of the “means”).

    In the world of academia…our experts are trained in RESEARCH methodologies – very few are provided with opportunities to LEARN about effective TEACHing (let alone effective LEARNing). Many lecturers (teachers, too) TEACH in the same way they were TAUGHT…often 15, 25 even 35 years ago). This is not their fault per se…but we have to realise that all of us can only see as far as our own EXPERIENCE.

    Change, improvement…growth (as a LEARNing facilitator) requires that we re-write our own narratives…as LEARNers first…and then, as EDUCATORS.

    Keep up the GR8 work 😉


  6. Thank you for lovely post – you remind me of two things … that there are (nice) people out there who know stuff – what not get in touch with them and learn something or even get them to do the thing and not assume that a subject matter expert is the best person … and that capacity building is complex so maybe requires a little more nuance/time/subtlety/attention than people+room+powerpoint.

    I live in Germany and so also get to learn German … I learn through TV (Die sendung mit der maus and Tatort (or is it die maus)), Radio, conversation with neighbours and classes.

    One of my teachers has a great skill in working with what ever themes are current for the group, pretty much what ever we come into the room talking about and probably interested in and then we play with the German we need to work with those themes. We progress though stages of learning grammar and we get the level of correction we need to learn stuff but keep flowing and build fluency. It is a very dynamic form of teaching. The teacher has a high degree of expertise in the language and is able to bring the right level of expertise to bear at the right moment to help us learn, or help us see where we can learn.

  7. Mostly agree, though to me your German example seems a bad one. My experience of language learning is that having someone explain to you why it’s die karotte and der apfel is a terrible way to learn a language! I’ve seen many (adult) language classes taken over by people who demand these explanations, struggle to understand the teacher’s (often shaky) explanations, and then seen how it does not advance their ability to use the language one bit, the reason being that languages in use are not governed by logical rules but by a long history of slow evolution, amalgamation with/influence from other languages, and so on. It seems to me that the way to learn is to forget the idea that their are reasons for language patterns and instead practice intensively and let your brain’s unconscious language capacity sort out the (bendable and often inconsistent) ‘rules’. I don’t know if pedagogical research backs up my entirely anecdotally-formed view here though…?

    There may be a parallel in capacity building. People think that knowledge about how to do things can be transferred quickly by first encapsulating that knowledge in formulae or rules and then simply telling the formulae to the knowledge recipients. It may be, as you say, that the capacity builders are inept. But it may also be that the process of encapsulating the knowledge in the first place was faulty, because real know-how often involves much more complex knowledge than the people possessing it realise. Maybe capacity builders need to spend a lot more time in the ‘field’, *showing* people how they do things, instead of thinking they can boil it all down to a set of rules of the type that can easily be conveyed in a lecture or seminar presentation.

    • Hi Stuart
      You are right – on reflection the german example I gave was not the best. Perhaps a better one can be seen in the tv programme title which one of the other commenters mentions – Die Sendung mit der Maus. The word Maus is feminine but in that title you can see it is written der Maus – which seems to suggest it is masculine. The reason for this is that after the word ‘mit’, nouns always change into the dative case and this means that die turns to der (confusingly, der happens to be the dative form of die – bloomin German!). I once asked my husband about this and he could not explain why it was ‘der Maus’ even though he knew instinctively that it was correct. My point is that someone who is trained to teach languages would understand such rules and how they tend to trip learners up and be able to explain it.
      On your point about showing how something is done – yes this can work in some circumstances but in others it is tricky. Let me give an example from my experience. I once ran a capacity building workshop on the topic ‘Writing scientific policy briefings’. The participants were research advisors from an African parliament. One of the session was on summarising skills. The participants were given a piece of text about climate change and asked to summarise the main message of the text. The text started with a sentence which was something along the lines of “There are still many unanswered questions about climate change” however, the second sentence, and indeed the rest of the article, basically said – however there are many things that we do know and we need to communicate better what is known for certain. When I asked the participants to summarise the main meaning of this text, every single person said the main message is that there are many things we don’t know about climate change. In other words everybody read the first sentence and took that as the main message without reading through the article and summarising the overall message. As the session went on, I could see that this was not just due to a confusing opening sentence. The participants really really struggled to summarise each of the paragraphs of the text and generally just used the opening sentence of each as a summary. I found this experience really eye opening. I was quite shocked by how difficult the participants found the task – they were not stupid nor uneducated people but they just really lacked this specific skill. They could easily learn bits of the text and recite them back but they were really unable to pull out the meaning from it. What was also shocking was how difficult I found it to ‘teach’ people how to do this. Although it is something I can do easily, I realised I didn’t really have the tools to pass this skill on to others. I guess it was this experience – and many other similar ones – which I was thinking about when writing the blog.

      • Even with your Maus example I’m not wholly convinced that just being told ‘That’s just how it is.’ and waiting till your unconscious brain figures it out, wouldn’t be better than trying to learn about cases (especially if you never studied them at school) and apply it in real time. But maybe German’s more consistently rule-based than languages I’ve studied. I’ve seen the look of wretched confusion on a beginner learner’s face as he tries to take in an explanation, in Italian, of the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. Probably better just to tell him “These ones take essere, the rest take avere, just learn them.”

        I was once trained to summarise research through a painful process of doing it, having it criticised (constructively!) by someone with more experience, and rewriting it accordingly (and repeat as necessary)… The point about this is that it took engagement and close supervision over weeks, if not months. I agree with Jon Harle’s comment. For sure, introducing some abstract or theoretical knowledge could help accelerate the process, although it sometimes causes more confusion than it solves. At best, in the course of a single workshop (or a week of workshops), I reckon a great teacher could probably create a spark that gets bright people thinking about the nature of writing and the idea of the main meaning of a text. Then after that you could start learning the practical business of writing a summary. (And by the way, ex-colonial education systems seem to be terrible at teaching critical thinking… with apologies for taking a ‘deficit’ perspective, it makes me realise how much we are doing /right/ in education in Europe and N. America)

  8. Hi Kirsty – spot on as always. Thanks for a very thoughtful and timely post. In the ‘HE & development’ field (if you can call it that) I think that a big part of the problem is the idea that critical thinking is something that can be taught in a course or workshop in the same way that you can give a session on more ‘technical’ things like preparing a funding proposal or writing a journal article. As you point towards, it’s something fundamentally different – about a long, slow process of learning and thinking that happens over years and is embedded (or should be) in the whole experience of studying at university level (and before too of course). I think academics do have a really important role here – they may not all be expert trainers or learning-facilitators (and there are many bad lecturers out there!) but an awful lot of my critical abilities were developed through a process of interaction and discussion with some great teachers. I was undoubtedly lucky there with the tutors I had and the ability to interact in very small groups – much harder when you have huge lecturer halls of people to teach.

    In so far as the capacity building approach goes, I think one of the big obstacles that prevents Northern academics playing a more useful role (if we agree that Northern universities/institutes/staff do have something to contribute here in support of what Southern universities do themselves…) is that they often only spend short periods on campus. The model is to send somebody over for a week or two max (usually attached to a particular research project, where the capacity bit is an add on) to deliver particular sessions. But this doesn’t allow for the sustained interaction in a supportive and questioning environment that is needed here. So while the approach is OK to a point for more ‘technical’ training, I totally agree that we need to find new approaches here. Lots of universities have learning and teaching units to support their own staff and students – this might provide a source of expertise which often isn’t tapped into – and we also need to think about taking this out of ‘training course’ mode and into longer, slower processes of mentoring and interaction I think – or at least where there’s an external contribution being made. But ultimately it’s about reinvigorating teaching practices in universities themselves, not in bolting on externally provided stuff. And that’s the difficult one.

  9. Hey Kirsty, I could not agree more with your article and I had to laugh really loud about your little comic. Teachers feel so generous with there tremendous amount of capacities.

    However, I am yet not sure, whether educational advisors maybe not step into the same trap of plausibility. There is so much more to say, I will keep that in mind for the next day. And I feel that I actually should have a blog in English on this topic 🙂

    Greet you husband from me (Grüß Gott)

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  11. I can totally relate to that from when I was in my final years at school. Initially I started in the top graded class for maths. The teacher for that set was a brilliant mathmatician, but unfortunately not a good teacher. At the end of the first term I was really struggling, and had to study through the Christmas holidays to take another test to check I could continue.

    I passed that test, and was put into the ‘lower’ class of the top set. The teacher there, may not have been such a great mathmatician but he was a fantastic teacher. I really worked hard the next two terms, and enjoyed learning from him. End result was that with the exams at the end of the lower sixth, my grades were 10% higher than my peers including those from the ‘better’ class.

    Being able to facilitate learning, and giving people the tools to learn is a different skill to acquiring, knowing and using skills.

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