Ryan Irelan

is building Mijingo and doing limited consulting.

How I Learned to Teach

On January 7, 1998 I packed two duffle bags, containing almost everything I owned, and boarded a Delta Airlines flight in Atlanta on a one-way ticket. I spent the following 20 months living, working, and learning in Germany.

I moved there to live closer to my girlfriend (she’s now my wife of almost 14 years), who was born and raised in a northern Germany city near the Baltic Sea.

When I arrived in Germany, I couldn’t speak any German. So, I did the most logical thing one would do: I panicked. After I was done panicking and generally being mopey, I enrolled in German language class at the city’s Volkshochschule (“folk high school”).

The class was filled with students aged 15 to 80 and from all over the world: Iran, Iraq, Japan, Russia, Australia, Turkey, and Poland. We all spoke different languages so we had no common language with which to communicate. Our teacher didn’t speak her students’ languages so her only way to communicate with all of us was in German.

A German class taught in German? Seems strange, I know. It’s a challenge as both the student and the teacher, but eventually you adapt and realize that by being forced to hear and speak German from day one of the class, you are removed of the crutch of your native tongue. Do you want to ask to use the restroom? You better quickly figure out how to ask in German. Do you want to converse with your fellow students during class or on a break? Your only common language is German, so you better piece together that sentence with the words and grammar you have right now.

We learned German using real-world situations that we would be confronted with after leaving the class: buying groceries, ordering dinner at a restaurant, or going to the government office to get a work permit. All of our examples during class were within the context of the lives we would lead after we left the classroom. We were foreigners trying to be understood in a country with a language we haven’t mastered.

Learning a language in the target language and in an environment where you are forced to immediately use the skills is called immersive language learning. Immersive language learning takes on many forms but the key is this: it’s easier and faster to learn a foreign language when the learner is forced to learn in that language and can anchor the information to a real-life context.

After a school year of German, I was nearly fluent. In one year I went from knowing nothing to being able to hold a job that required me to talk to customers and co-workers all day. I thought–and sometimes dreamed–in German.

Two years after returning from Germany, I was a graduate student teaching elementary German to undergraduates. On the first day of the semester I walked into the classroom, stood in front of the class and introduced myself … in German. How I learned German was how I now taught German (thanks to an excellent teaching program). This was my first experience preparing a curriculum that used immersive learning techniques. It worked for me and it worked for my students. That experience stuck with me.

At Mijingo, the courses we create are not for learning foreign languages (well, not yet), but they are about learning something foreign to the student.

To make learning better for the students of our courses, we always teach within a real-world context. If we’re teaching a new CMS, we always use a simplified sample project that is something you might actually build for yourself or a client. If we’re teaching a new productivity tool, we use examples that students can relate to and will probably encounter in their own use of the software.

Here are some questions we ask to help better construct our courses:

  • In which types of scenarios will the student find themselves when trying to apply this information?
  • What’s the most common way someone would use this information?
  • How can we cover the relevant topics while still creating something that is useful to the student?
  • Does the sample project include enough information to be useful while still being simple enough that it can be built in the course?

These questions help keep the courses focused on making it as easy as possible for the student to really learn what we’re teaching.

Immersive learning isn’t limited to just languages. You can use it to teach and learn anything: code, software, content management systems, development frameworks, or productivity workflows.

Learning German in an immersive, contextual way helped me learn the language faster and easier. That learning success taught me how to teach others.

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