Third Alternatives

Yesterday I had mentioned Stephen Covey’s concept of the “Third Alternative” – a higher-level, creative synthesis of things that seem at first to be polar opposites.  Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Built to Last among other deeply influential books about business and organizations, has a similar concept that he calls the “Genius of AND.”  His point is that enduringly great organizations are able to create a synthesis where others see only a painful forced choice (which he calls the “Tyranny of OR”).

I certainly hope that the Joyful Latin Learning approach of “Tres Columnae” will lead to some enduring greatness! 🙂  But regardless of what the future holds, I think it’s important to attempt a “Third Alternative,” “Genius of AND” creative synthesis of some of the painful divisions in the profession of language teaching, and specifically ancient-language teaching.  There are two in particular that I want to focus on today.

1. Inductive vs. Deductive Teaching

For the non-educators in the audience, and for those who missed yesterday’s post, an “inductive” approach starts with examples of something and asks the learner to derive the underlying principles.  A “deductive” approach gives the general principle, then asks the learner to work with examples.  Proponents of the two approaches argue endlessly about which one is best.  I have a small bias toward induction (I think it’s more similar to the natural learning that we do in non-academic contexts), but I think the best answer to the question, “Which one is better?” is “Yes!”  [Besides, that was what a lot of my relatives said when the waiter asked if they wanted the cake or the pie for dessert.  I have some serious eaters in my DNA! :-)]

In terms of induction vs. deduction, “Tres Columnae” will generally use a “Third Alternative” approach that has worked well for me over the years.  We’ll begin with examples, usually several sentences that illustrate a grammatical principle, and ask participants to match the sentence with its meaning (a comprehension-level task) and notice something about certain words (an analytical task).  This is a self-correcting online exercise, and when they’ve finished, they’ll follow a link to a brief, deductive-style explanation [These words that end with -m are called accusative case nouns in English, or cāsus accūsātīvus Latīnē.  They’re used when a person or thing is receiving an action, or being affected by the action of a verb, rather than doing it.  This is how they’re made….]  From the explanation, participants will progress to activities where they sort out isolated examples of the “new thing” (comprehension, in Bloom’s framework), make some examples (application), and distinguish examples in context (analysis).  They’re now ready to use the new thing to create their own sentences or sub-stories (synthesis or creation) and to edit things that others have created (evaluation).   We’ll have some detailed examples later for those who are interested.

Rather than a purely inductive or purely deductive approach, then, Tres Columnae  will be a creative synthesis of the best features of both.

2. The “One Right Way” to teach Latin

If induction vs. deduction causes arguments, the “best way” to teach Latin (or other ancient languages) can lead to a war!  These days, there are at least three distinct camps.  In the “grammar-translation” method, the emphasis is on deductive presentation of grammatical rules, followed by lots of exercises in which the rules are practiced, culminating in activities where sentences or longer passages are translated from the learner’s native language into Latin and vice versa.  In the “reading method” approach, the emphasis is on reading comprehension – grammatical and syntactic features are learned in and through reading Latin texts, and the emphasis is on receptive-mode tasks (reading and sometimes listening) rather than productive-mode tasks (writing and speaking).  The “oral-aural” family of approaches is generally, but not always, on the inductive end when it comes to presenting grammatical and lexical features, but what sets oral-aural methods apart is an emphasis on hearing and speaking Latin over reading and writing, especially in the early phases of instruction.  There are certainly many sub-groups within each of these three approaches – and I may have left someone out!   Please let me know if I did, and I’ll revise this post to include your favorite approach!

In this area, “Tres Columnae” may have to be a “fourth alternative” since there are already at least three! 🙂  We’ll obviously feature a continuous storyline, which is a hallmark of the “reading method,” but it’s a storyline to which participants will be contributing from the very beginning of their study.  We won’t assume the kind of absolutely accurate control of grammatical features that some grammar-translation teachers expect, but we’ll provide lots of practice to ensure a steady growth in accuracy – and a motivating context (someone will be reading or possibly editing my story!) in which participants can strive for increasing accuracy over time.  In keeping with oral-aural approaches, we’ll make audio versions of stories available (especially when the stories are in a final, edited form) because listening to Latin is a critically important part of learning the language; we’ll encourage our participants to read out loud; and we’ll invite them to make video versions (0r illustrated audio) of finalized stories.  But our emphasis will be on reading – and writing – for understanding, for communication, for deeper insight, and for community building, in keeping with our roots in the Paideia model.

“Tres Columnae” does not aim for the “middle of the road” – the home of “yellow lines and dead armadillos” according to Lyndon Johnson (if you ask some Internet sites) or Jim Hightower (if you ask others).  Rather, we aim to transcend the “road” and help our participants soar above it.

Coming up next time, a brief overview of how “Tres Columnae” aims to meet these lofty goals.  Specifically, we’ll address the order of introduction of major grammatical and syntactic features.  We may also take a look at the “metastory” – but that may have to wait for another day.

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Published in: on December 15, 2009 at 10:32 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] like the Standards is that they aim for a “Third Alternative” (a term I’ve explained in a previous post) between the twin dangers […]

  2. […] You may have noticed that Tres Columnae deliberately attempts to combine the best features of things that are often viewed as opposites – what Stephen Covey calls the “Third Alternative.” That’s a core value for Tres Columnae, and we look at it in detail in this post. […]

  3. […] reader here, you already know that – and you know I’m always looking for the “Third Alternative” that resolves seeming dichotomies and […]


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