Return on Investment

I feel like I’ve spent all summer talking about methodology, instructional planning and curriculum development! That’s not a bad thing, though. I’ve been working Google to the bone, exploring all the ways other teachers and schools handle these broad issues. Oddly, in the midst of it all, I came across a LinkedIn article that really got me thinking. I’d cite the article here, but the title is a little less family friendly than I’d prefer. (And let’s be honest, that’s what caught my attention.) It had nothing to do with language pedagogy and everything to do with return on investment. What kept me reading?

Well, first of all, the author had a poetic knack for incorporating four-letter vocabulary in his article. It was just like sitting in a power-hungry boardroom, and that was an exciting change of pace. But what really hooked me was the sudden realization that I could apply a lot of the author’s expertise to teaching by simply replacing “money” with “language”.

A lot of businesses copy what other businesses are doing without ever considering whether it’s right for their own business. What do they get in return? Nothing.

The author went on and on about factors like audience, time, loss, gain, and the million ways that businesses can fail to account for them by not setting clear, specific goals and tracking their progress toward them. The real point of the article was this: a lot of businesses copy what other businesses are doing without ever considering whether it’s right for their own business. What do they get in return? Nothing. No two businesses are alike. Each business has its own team, location, clientele, products, sources and mission. Businesses can learn from each other, but a business that doesn’t focus on its own interests won’t get the full return on investment that it’s capable of achieving.

So, what is a return on investment? It’s a quantitative measure of what you get out of the things you put in. It’s a two way street, or perhaps more like a roundabout: deciding what kind of return you want, choosing the right investments to produce that return, and then adjusting those investments according to the actual measured returns.

In the world of teaching, we do a lot of this on a small scale. We set a unit goal, choose activities to build students’ proficiency toward that goal, and then assess their progress through formative and summative assessment. But there’s a much bigger picture. The ROI model can also be applied to the whole-curriculum scale. That’s where things get hairy. It’s hard, especially in the foreign language field, to plan at that broad level, but we must start thinking that way. We teachers spend most of our careers either riding a pendulum or trying to skirt around it à la Indiana Jones. Either way, we’re just as bad as those copycat businesses. We have to focus in on our school, our students, our curriculum and our goals. We have to be our own research and data producers. Most of us get poor training on how to do so, and it shows in our ROI. To make matters worse, large-scale things like national standards and standardized tests pressure us into thinking that we all need to fit into a particular mold; having someone else dictate your target ROI doesn’t mean that you have a clear understanding of it.

We teachers spend most of our careers either riding a pendulum or trying to skirt around it à la Indiana Jones. Either way, we’re just as bad as those copycat businesses.

How do we focus on our own ROI? It starts with understanding what our students want and need out of the curriculum, overall and at various levels. How many of my French 1 students will travel to France in that year? What will they communicate about? What will they use French for in other situations? Remember, your students’ answers will vary. Whatever their answers, that’s what I need to be teaching to. I need to invest our shared time, energy and resources to those particular goals; anything else is a waste.

Let’s get more concrete. I flip the page in the textbook and see forms of finir. Why? We’re learning to talk about our school schedules, when things start and finish. At this point, it’s my job to decide exactly what kind of investment I want to make in finir. I need to be honest. Is this really the time to teach “regular -ir verb endings in the present”? Finir is the only one introduced in the chapter, and honestly, it’s a pretty limited range of verbs anyway. Do I need to teach all the forms of finir? The book introduces and uses them all at first, but very quickly the verb is relegated to its basic function in the unit: X finit à heures “X ends at Y o’clock”.

If I take the grammar approach that my textbook wants, I need to (a) teach all the regular -ir verb endings, and (b) introduce more -ir verbs for students to practice with. Which should I add: obéir “obey”, rougir “turn red”, grossir “get fat”? What in the world will my French 1 students do with those words right now, in real life?!

There’s another option. Right now, I can just teach finit. We’ll practice the heck out of it as a vocabulary item. Sure, my students will see forms like finis and finissent, but they’re smart enough to realize that those are just variations. I won’t expect them to produce the variations right now. But later, when the students have seen other verbs with endings like -s-t, and -iss-, we can break things down and bring them together. I can save that for later, when the content load is lighter. I’ll teach them a song at that point, and suddenly they’ll be able to conjugate -ir verbs, -re verbs and a host of irregular verbs that we’ve only seen in third-person forms up to that point. Now that’s a return on investment. I invested a little, invested it the right way, and got a lot in return. It takes a lot of faith and patience, though. Between finit and the song we’ll learn months later, my textbook will constantly bombard me with the fact I didn’t “teach a lesson” from it. And if my song isn’t catchy enough, I’ll have wasted months of time when students could’ve been practicing those forms.

The takeaway here is that my finit lesson plan only applies to my ROI. If any element were different — students, textbook, time, goals — that plan might not work at all. This is why it’s so important that we teachers learn to be methodology hunters and not methodology gatherers. When we gather methodology, we walk around with this huge basket and pick up or discard everything in sight. We end up with more or less than we need, and half of it ends up in a filing cabinet. We do worksheets that produce no results, create lesson plans that take twice the time (or half the time) they should. We dismiss ideas because we don’t like the way they look in our color-coded basket. But when we hunt methodology, we use the ROI concept to aim our arrow and score the exact target we need. It’s a great way to foster backwards planning, keep ideas flowing, and explore methods and resources that might be out of our usual comfort zone.

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