15 December 2011

Teaching the language of the disciplines

Earlier this week, I attended the launch of a book. The people around me are constantly publishing monographs and scholarly articles. Some of them are good, some of them are mind-boggling boring (to me ... not to everyone). Some of them deal with narrow academic studies, some are the result of years of focused attention on a PhD topic, and some of them emerge from wide, cross-disciplinary thinking. Many are predictable, if worthy. Few are unexpected, if you know the people involved.

This one took me by surprise, perhaps because I didn't really think about what would be likely to emerge from a meeting between an energetic teacher of Chinese and a thoughtful, quiet scientist with research interests in virology, innate immunity and bio-statistics over a cup of coffee in a seminar about university teaching.

This pair are both committed teachers. Their book came about because of a discussion about how the scientist might best teach the language of his discipline to his students, and because there was a very practical problem to solve. Brett knows the language of his discipline, but was having trouble teaching it to his students. Felicia knows how to teach languages, but didn't know the language of Brett's discipline. They set about learning about each other's areas of expertise. Felicia attended every class Brett taught for a whole semester. Brett spent hours learning about the language teaching techniques that Felicia uses.

Dr Felicia Zhang, the teacher of Chinese, suggested to Dr Brett Lidbury, the scientist, that he incorporate language teaching techniques and practices in his biology classes. Then they brought in Dr Alice Richardson, a statistician, to check the results. They invited a whole raft of other people to think about the issues and to contribute their tips and tricks ... and came up with the script for the book.

It seems like a pretty good idea to me. After all, one of the first things that discipline novices have to conquer is the language of their new discipline.  If you don't sound like a physicist or a biologist when you talk about physics or biology, you probably aren't one, right?

from left to right: Dr Brett Lidbury, Dr Felicia Zhang, and Dr Alice Richardson

Take a look. The book is full of concrete suggestions about how to teach the language of science. I'm pretty sure most of the ideas could be adapted to other other disciplines as well.

Zhang, F., Lidbury, B., Richardson, A., Yates, B., Gardiner, M., Bridgeman A., Schutte, J., Rodger, C., and Mate, K. (2011). Sustainable Language Support Practices in Science Education: technologies and solutions. US: Business Science Reference. See http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sustainable-Language-Support-Practices-Education/dp/1613500629

Isn't it great when the people you know teach you something unexpected, unexpectedly?

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