Language Mentoring Course: An Example of Agile-Based Learning

Now that I’ve finished with my project of going over every process in the 6th Edition of the Project Management Body of Knowledge or PMBOK® Guide, which shows you the traditional “tricks of the trade” of project management.

However, there is a new set of approaches to project management collectively referred to as agile, which brings a new flexibility and dynamism to project management.   Agile itself is a reaction in the project management world to the effects of the fourth industrial revolution, a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres, collectively referred to as cyber-physical systems.   As the power of individual computing machines launched the third industrial revolution (as the power of steam did for the first industrial revolution and the power of electricity did for the second), the power of computing machines that are linked together through the Internet is transforming entire systems of production, management, and even governance through the effects of digitization and artificial intelligence.

The influence of agile project management is spreading to the point where the Project Management Institute or PMI, when it published the 6th Edition of the PMBOK® Guide late last year, decided to put out as a companion piece, the Agile Practice Guide, which was developed jointly by PMI and the Agile Alliance.

My new project is to go through the Agile Project Guide and to blog about its contents.  In the very first section, the Introduction, I read a sidebar note that fascinated me about agile-based learning:

“Education is a prime and fertile ground  to expand agile practices beyond software development … Agile techniques are used to provide focus on prioritizing competing priorities.   Face-to-face interaction, meaningful learning, self-organizing teams, and incremental and/or iterative learning that exploit the imagination are all agile principles that can change the mindset in the classroom and advance educational goals.”

(from Sara Briggs article “Agile Based Learning:  What Is It and How Can It Change Education?” published in on February 24, 2014)

When I read that note, I knew I had the subject of my first post on agile approaches!   As a coincidence, I had just started a few weeks earlier a course put on by Lydia Machova of Language Mentoring s.r.o. called Language Master.   It is designed for those who already have an elementary grasp of their target language, and want to move on to intermediate or advanced levels but are feeling stuck using the more traditional language-learning methods of using a textbook in a classroom setting.

This is her description of what Language Mentoring does in this course:

“The main aim of Language Mentoring is to help people enrich any form of learning with additional learning based on 4 pillars of language learning:

  • We must enjoy learning a language (if it’s not the case, the methods must be changed)
  • Mastering any language requires a huge amount of contact with the language.  (There is no shortcut; the work simply must be done.)
  • A great amount of contact is of no help if it’s just once a week.   You need [methods which will allow you] to learn often and in smaller amounts–ideally every day (ideally an hour a day, but this can be adapted.)
  • Language learning is only sustainable if you find a system–when you know your destination and the way to get there.

Within these basic principles of language learning (fun-contact-methods-system), everybody is able to put together their own combination of methods and resources that suits them best.  Just like a jigsaw puzzle. ”

Now compare those principles Lydia set forth in her blog

to the agile techniques mentioned in the paragraph above, and you can see that they correspond rather well:

  • Face-to-face interaction (contacts, meaning contacts with native speakers)
  • Meaningful learning (fun, where you choose materials which interest or motivate you)
  • Self-organizing teams (system, where the participants choose the language they want to study, the three main focus areas, and the materials they choose to use)
  • Incremental and/or iterative learning (methods which are pursued often and in smaller amounts)

Okay, how does this language class work if we don’t have a traditional classroom and use traditional textbooks?

  1. First, I chose my target language:  Chinese.   I studied Chinese for three years in graduate school, but since I didn’t use it after I graduated, my ability to communicate in that language deteriorated.   I decided a year or so ago to start studying Chinese again in order to gain the knowledge I had lost.
  2. Second, I chose a target goal:   B2.  Let me explain what this means.   I took the official Chinese language proficiency exam called HSK (which stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) at the third or B1 level.  There are six levels in total: A1 and A2, B1 and B2, C1 and C2.   B1 is the intermediate level, and I wanted to be able to get to the upper intermediate level, which would allow me to understand the main ideas of a complex text such as a technical piece related to my field of project management.
  3. Third, I chose the prioritize those areas of language learning I wanted to focus on:  in my case, listening, speaking, and reading (other focus areas on writing, vocabulary, and grammar).    The primary focus was listening, and I decided to study that for one hour a day (for six days out of seven per week), and the secondary focuses were speaking and reading an hour every other day (i.e., for three days out of seven per week).
  4. Fourth, I chose a series of methods (including a few textbooks, but mostly apps that I could use on my mobile phone, such as:
  • Listening (ChineseClass 101 podcasts, Yoyo Chinese)
  • Speaking (Rosetta Stone, Intermediate Spoken Chinese textbook)
  • Reading (LingQ, Intermediate Written Chinese textbook)

I did also choose materials that covered writing, vocabulary, and grammar, but the main ones I wanted to focus on were the methods listed above.

Now what did Lydia do?   She set up the system, including an accountability sheet, where we enter into an Excel spreadsheet the number of minutes we study in each category of methods for the week, with our goal of meeting or exceeding the goals I set for myself.

And it’s already having an effect!   I do a lot of my listening practice in the car while commuting.   It isn’t making the other drivers any better drivers, but if any of them cuts me off while I’m trying to change a lane, well then at least I can now swear at them in Chinese as well as English!

I recommend Lydia’s class, and you can check out the link above to check out her methods.   But even if you are not interested in learning a foreign language as I am, you can definitely see that agile is not just influential in the world of project management, but in other fields as well.

The previous world of project management was like trying to manage a river through irrigation techniques.   By building various walls and dykes, you try to steer the water into productive uses in order to grow food.   In traditional project management, you use planning to try to steer the financial resources of your company into productive uses in order to complete a project.

But with the extent and the pace of technological change becoming so rapid, it’s more like trying to trying to surf the ocean waves as they crash onto the shore.   You can’t steer the waves of change, but with agile methods, you can at least try to ride those waves so that you go in the direction you want to.

With that, let me bring my post to a close.   My next post will cover the topic of disruptive technology, that tries to win the game in a clever way:  by rewriting the rules!


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