On my last post, I suggested that the best way to focus on students’ learning is by focusing on teaching. The rationale behind this is that we can’t control someone else’s actions or thoughts, but we can control our own. This means that if we pay attention to what we can actually do in order to make learning more effective, we’ll end up being a lot more helpful to our learners than by trying out many different techniques and methods just because they are (or have become) mainstream. We still can’t fully understand how we learn, what really happens in our brains apart from the synapses and all the wiring in the brain. We may come to the point in which data, not guesses (even educated ones), will be the driving force behind our actions. However, until then, we might be better off by thinking and reflecting on our teaching practices and on what happens in our classrooms, with our learners, than by trying out the next big thing. The first thing teachers should learn is that what they do matters. If teachers don’t believe this, they’re in the wrong place. But just how much does it really matter? How can we measure educational success? Neil Mercer says that,
The educational success students achieve is only partly under their own control, and only partly under the control of their teachers. This is where the sociocultural concept of ‘scaffolding’ … is useful. The essence of this concept, as developed by Bruner (1986), Wood (1988) and others, is that an effective teacher provides the kind of intellectual support which enables learners to make intellectual achievements they would never accomplish alone; and one way they do so is by using dialogue to guide and support the development of understanding. (Neil Mercer – Language for teaching a language)
Apparently, the concept of conversation-driven lessons and scaffolding goes a long way. But who would have argued against that? It is not hard to think about our own learning experiences, the ones in which we had a good teacher by our side. This, by the way, is one of the topics that sparks teachers’ interest in training sessions – reflecting about their own learning experiences. When we think about our own learning experiences, when we have the benefit of hindsight, it’s a lot easier to see what has truly made a difference and what was only fun. How many are able to think back of a funny teacher whose teaching didn’t really stick, or a funny teacher whose lessons are so ingrained that you find it hard to separate the person from the classes? It’s not humour that is the defining factor for successful or unsuccessful teachers. At the end of the day, what truly matters is how much effort and attention you’ve put into that lesson of yours, and how thoughtful you’d been when planning the lesson for those specific learners. What matters is how often you reflected on the activities that you tried out in classes and the effect these activities had on each one of those students sitting there in front of you – or next to you if you’re that lucky.
This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt as a teacher. Being a teacher means caring about the time and effort your students are putting in by being there in front of you. I may not be the sole responsible for their learning, but I can’t shun the responsibility of being partly responsible for their learning. When this thought dawns on new teachers, they stop asking questions such as, “but why would I do that when most students just don’t seem to care?” or “why don’t they learn it if I taught them?” We do what we do because we are aware of our role and we are to be held accountable for all the things we choose to do in a class. And if students don’t seem to learn what you’ve taught them, perhaps it’s time you started reflecting a bit more about what you could do to help them instead of asking questions you can’t possibly answer.
Being accountable for what we do also means coming to terms with our own shortcomings. This is the moment you start thinking about developing and becoming a better professional. Accountability can do many things for you – one of them is helping you decide what kind of a teacher you want to be. Are you the kind that looks for excuses elsewhere, or are you able to look into your own world and find out what’s wrong? Are you capable of teaching the same subject differently to better help each group of learners, or will you simply do things the way you’ve always done and blame students for their not learning as effectively? Being a teacher means being on the move. How far are you willing to go?
*Neil Mercer – Language for teaching a language – in English Language Teaching in its Social Context
Lately, it’s become mainstream to state that we should focus on students’ learning. By saying that we account for the obvious expected outcome of a teaching / learning environment – students’ learning. Currently, with all the debate on the impact of technology in the lives of children everywhere, it’s pretty obvious that we’re more likely to read and witness the promotion of change in education by the advent of technology. If used properly, it allows us to put students’ on the driver’s seat of their learning. We can get them to actually do things instead of just passively absorb content from the teacher or their course books.
There is also the idea of multiple intelligences and how it can be applied in the classroom given that we’re able to cater for different learning styles much more easily now that we’ve got access to the wonders of the myriad gadgets that are now part and parcel of a number of students’ school materials. Finally, criticism to tests as a means of assessment abound, and the notion that tests don’t teach is widespread. The main problem with this is that it seems to make a lot of sense. But why would this be a problem?
To begin with, in education we are dealing with the brain – something we don’t really know much about. In a recent National Geographic article about the brain, Professor Lichtman of Harvard University makes clear how little we have advanced in brain research by telling us that he usually introduces his course about the brain by asking students, “if understanding everything we need to know about the brain is a mile, how far have we walked?” The answer? 3 inches. When we think about how little we know, and we take into account the idea of intuitive heuristics, whose essence is described by Daniel Kahneman in the following very short sentence:
When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution. (Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow)
It might just be that the difficult question we’re facing these days is exactly the one that Sir Ken Robinson asked in one of his TED Talks. “How do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st Century given that we can’t anticipate the economy will look like at the end of next week?” Whether you like it or not, school and its purpose has to go through some serious revision. Another highly acclaimed advocate for change in education, Professor Sugata Mitra, tells us a story of where present day schooling comes from and what its early-day purposes were. He’s got a very strong opinion when he states that schools are outdated in the world we currently live in and the urgent need for change. And I don’t think we can argue against this point – the current system of education doesn’t suit the world we live in anymore. Hence, our need for change.
This might be exactly the difficult question we have to answer: how do we change our current educational system to cater for the needs of our present day society? The truth is that there’s no simple answer, but I’d argue that a lot of it involves a better understanding of how we learn. If we are unable to proper answer this question, very little will actually change. On the bright side, many qualified people have something to say about it, and not only about where we should be headed, but also a couple of things in relation to all the changes we’ve been experiencing as a society, with connectedness all around us. However, all that glitters is not gold, and before we actually buy into this or that idea, we should investigate further. It is likely that we may be supporting something that has little evidence of being true.
If we’re going to move forward, we will have to admit that a one-size-fits-all model of education is doomed to fail the majority of students and teachers. Let’s also admit that while we have plenty of beliefs, dogma, and rhetoric about how to prepare students for the future, we have little solid information about how to do this successfully. We have no idea about whether to limit or encourage their access to social networking, computer games, television and other forms of media. In the absence of real data, teachers and administrators rely on popular books by nonscientists who generally misinterpret the little data that do exist. The bottom line is that we don’t know if these activities are hurting their cognitive and interpersonal development or better preparing them for the world ahead. (Louis Cozolino – The Social Neuroscience of Education)
Let’s have a closer look at this sentence: “In the absence of real data, teachers and administrators rely on popular books by nonscientists who generally misinterpret the little data that do exist.” The truth is that we, as human beings, have a natural tendency to rely on our intuition rather than analyze a problem and give it as much time and effort as it deserves, as Daniel Kahneman states in his book (Thinking Fast and Slow). This is why we end up going with the flow and failing to further look into a point and give it the consideration it deserves. For instance, how many teachers blindly accept the theory of multiple intelligences as being true without actually having read about it? Is it just because the way that people sell it makes sense? Is it because it helps us with the self-esteem of learners who struggle at school? How about delving into this issue by reading this article, which starts by saying that:
This article reviews evidence for multiple intelligences theory, the Mozart effect theory, and emotional intelligence theory and argues that despite their wide currency in education these theories lack adequate empirical support and should not be the basis for educational practice. Each theory is compared to theory counterparts in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuro- science that have better empirical support. The article considers possible reasons for the appeal of these 3 theories and concludes with a brief rationale for examining theories of cognition in the light of cognitive neuroscience research findings. (Lynn Waterhouse – Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review)
Or perhaps this passage from this other article (which leads you to the article shared above) might also be of interest:
It is fair to say that among academic scholars who study intelligence there is very little acceptance of Gardner’s theory due to a lack of empirical evidence for it. A critical review of the topic by Lynn Waterhouse in 2006 found no published studies at all that supported the validity of the theory. Even though Gardner first made his theory public in 1983, the first empirical study to test the theory was not published until 23 years later (Visser, et al., 2006a) and the results were not supportive. Multiple intelligences theory can hardly be described as scientifically generative. (Scott McGreal – The illusory theory of multiple intelligences)
What we should take into account in order to move forward is that all that we currently know about our practice may be proven wrong in the near future as research into how we learn develops. What we should understand as educators is that there’s no simple or single answer (at least not yet) to how we learn best. This is the reason why we must never cease to learn. This is why we should take things that might seem to make sense with a pinch of salt and consider that we might as well be trying really hard to validate an opinion. What if Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences makes sense because we strive to make better connections with our learners? This is a major factor of motivation for us, humans, and this could be what leads to improvement when we claim to make use of activities that cater for different intelligences. What if this all happens when we hold conversations with our learners and, owing to this, we’re able to boost their attention and interest, thus making learning more effective? The bottom line, though, is that it doesn’t really matter. If the theory, as the articles suggest is not valid, or only good on paper, or if it is really true and valid, makes little difference at the end of the day for practical purposes.
It is only by trying to learn more about how we learn that we can adapt our teaching and ensure that we’re able to focus on our students’ learning. We don’t focus on students’ learning by playing games with them; we play games with them because we may have learned somewhere that this fosters their learning. The same end result, but with a different starting point. It is only by focussing on our teaching that we will be able to come up with strategies that will facilitate learning. In order to focus on their students’ learning, teachers must first and foremost focus on their teaching – but do so in the right way. Focussing on your teaching means understanding that learning is the expected outcome of each and every little thing you do in class. It doesn’t matter if you do so by using summative or formative assessment. What matters is whether or not you have mastered the tools you have chosen to use so as to enable learning to take place. Tests, for example, can be effective, as this study has demonstrated, but it’s all a matter of how you deal with them. The key difference in any learning setting is the teacher, and teaching isn’t simply being able to provide information to your students.
In my view, the best way to focus on your students’ learning is coming to terms with the fact that we still know very little about how we really learn something – what we’ve learnt to do is constantly reflect on our practices and experiences. This is what truly makes the difference. We must always keep an open eye for new theories, research and practice. We should be able to critically reflect on these and reach a conclusion so that we can focus on learning. Yet, we ought to understand that we cannot control someone else’s actions and thoughts. We can only control our own actions, and this is why we have to focus on what we do if we hope to help our learners. If you want to focus on your students’ learning, how about really focussing on your teaching first? Let’s talk a bit about a teacher’s accountability, shall we? Maybe a possible continuation for this post.
Language is quite a complex system – one which we try to organise according rules and norms. One of the common ways for us to think about such organisation is prescriptively, the way many of us were taught a second or a foreign language. If we look at what David Crystal says about prescriptivism, we will see that it “is the view that one variety of the language has an inherently higher value than others, and this ought to be imposed on the whole of the speech community. The view is related especially in relation to grammar and vocabulary, and frequently with reference to pronunciation.” And here we have the three pillars of what we learn when we study a language. If we don’t learn vocabulary, we won’t be able to get our message across as other speakers of the target language won’t know what we’re saying. However, if we only know the vocabulary of a language and lack any understanding of what glues the pieces together, a.k.a. grammar, we’re likely to be unable to convey more complex thoughts and communicate something that may require further, more complex thinking. Finally, there is pronunciation, which is not the same as accent. Pronunciation is needed should you want to speak to other user of the language you’re learning. But why teach a language prescriptively? In a nutshell, it is much easier to teach something that has a fixed structure, and to a certain extent, there seems to be some logic in saying that it is easier to learn something that has a rigid structure.
Perhaps we mistake learning a language for learning any repetitive process, which leads to the belief that a structural sequence will make things easier. Yet, memorising processes and formulas is actually more difficult than really thinking about them. But we don’t follow this pattern simply because we don’t want to uncover a more effective way – we constantly repeat the processes we’ve gone through in life simply because, well, it’s worked for us. How can we claim that something that has worked for (many of) us won’t work for students when we ourselves are living proof of the success of the current system? But let’s not forget that most people who managed to succeed did so because they were so interested in the subject that they’ve actually chosen it as a career. This is not true for most language students, who may not be motivated enough to go beyond the basic rules that prescriptive grammar teaches. Thus, they are unable to grasp the subtleties of everything they’ve learned and how it overlaps with new content instead of simply add to it; they have a hard time thinking about language more abstractly. I believe that motivation has a major role in learning per se. As Jeremy Harmer said, “one of the main tasks for teachers is to provoke interest and involvement in the subject even when students are not initially interested in it.” However, Harmer reminds us that motivation comes from within, and we can only hope that our actions and words will lead students to start prioritising the subject we’re trying to teach them.
How have we been teaching them? We think of the least expensive way to teach and learn something – following guidelines and rules. In language teaching, this takes us back to prescriptivism, which makes it easier for teachers to judge right from wrong and allows students to have something to hopelessly cling to when they try to make sense of something that they simply can’t for lack of the development of an ability to look at language from a more holistic perspective. Such need for rules is a double-edged sword as students, after a certain stage, will be unable to find them as neatly written as they have grown used to. At this stage, they can only stop grappling with the understanding of language if they’ve developed the ability to think about language more as an organism – one which does have its rules and regulations, but one where these rules and regulations should be a bit less prescriptive and a tad more descriptive – if even that. By thinking so hard about the language, students end up making it harder for them to acquire the fluency level they initially hope to achieve.
If we consider what Daniel Kahneman says about this, we realise the problem lies with the laziness of our brain. Kahneman tells us that there are two systems in our brains. Roughly speaking, System 1 is the intuitive response, the system that doesn’t really think about the events; it takes into account the experiences we’ve been through to respond to external stimulus. System 2 is where thought really takes place. This is the system that rationally validates our actions. We fool ourselves by thinking that we’re much more likely to use our System 2. We aren’t, and this passage should show you why he states this:
The defining features of System 2 … is that its operations are effortful, and one of its main characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary. As a consequence, the thoughts and actions that System 2 believes it has chosen are often guided by the figure of at the center of the story, System 1. However, there are vital tasks that only system 2 can perform because they require effort and acts of self-control in which the intuitions and impulses of System 1 are overcome.
By focusing on prescriptive rules, we’re getting our students to focus their attention and effort on rules that should allow them to tell right from wrong regarding their speech. What happens when you are put in a stressful situation? Instead of thinking about the rules you have learned through grammar exercises, learners tend to lose the capacity to let their monitor system, as Krashen calls it, regulate what they’re saying. Stress is an indication of a threat, so their brains will instinctively respond to this by putting their System 1 in charge. We’ll then see two kinds of students: those who don’t care about what others might think of them and will speak freely, without worrying much about proper language, and those who will simply be unable to carry out a basic conversation because they are unsure if they should use the simple present or the present continuous, or if they should use the word good or fine. I’m pretty sure most EFL teachers have had the chance to work with both kinds of learners, and my personal experience is that adults lean towards the latter.
This is where a conversation-driven lesson might help, yet again. If we encourage our students to engage in an effortful activity in class that is not simply related to answering grammar questions on a sheet of paper, we might just end up fostering their ability to allocate less energy to the daunting act of speaking through practice. As Kahneman says:
As you become more skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved. [...] A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.
When we think about skills in language learning, we usually list four: reading, writing, listening and speaking. By practising speaking more frequently, you should be able to develop the three pillars of a language (grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation) for this skill in particular. This means you won’t need to make a lot of effort to both understand what happens in the process of having a conversation and trying to get your message across. You can now focus on the message, which will already require a lot from memory. As Kahneman says, “effort is required to maintain simultaneously in memory several ideas that require separate actions, or that need to be combined according to a rule.” I cannot help but think that there’s a lot more into play in an exchange of ideas between two people than grammar rules and vocabulary.
When we have a conversation with others, we need to focus on both the verbal and non-verbal cues if we are to fully understand the message. We need to be able to understand sarcasm and irony, for instance. We need to listen to what our interlocutor says and then respond. This involves a lot of effort. As teachers, we need to show our learners that they are capable of doing such things in their L1 already, and that this ability can and should be transferred to their L2 self. However, if we insist on getting them to focus on rules without actually getting them to put the rules into use, it’ll be harder for their System 2 to realise that not all that is involved in having a conversation should require so much attention and effort. By focussing on discrete items of the language, we end up teaching our learners a tendency to focus on rules instead of putting the rules into use in order to communicate. As a result, the former takes precedence over the latter and most learners freeze when they need to hold a conversation with a native speaker.
This is not the same as saying we should focus on fluency rather than accuracy. I strongly believe accuracy is paramount to the development of fluency. What I question is the way we’ve been trying to get our students to learn. It seems we’ve been repeating what has been done for the past 20 or 30 years because either because it’s easier to explain logically the steps we’re taking (first we learn this, and then we move to that, once that has been mastered, we’ll then step forward to that other topic on our list) or because this is how some highly motivated individuals have managed to learn. It may even be very logical, but who said that there’s no structure or rationale in conversation-driven lessons? And, as I said previously, there’s a huge gulf between a conversation-driven lesson and a simple conversation. If we consider the way our brains work, conversation-driven lessons might actually be a lot more logical than a structural curriculum.
The short answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’, and I could base my answer on experience – mine and also the one’s from lots of colleagues. However, we should all be wary of such things as “it’s worked with all my groups,” or the converse “it didn’t work with any of my groups.” These comments per se should not be the sole reason for us to jump to a conclusion as we do not really understand what’s happened in each one of these experiences. This leads us to the step of reading and trying to understand a bit more about the things we end up doing as educators. I’ve come across the following passage from Cozolino’s The Social Neuroscience of Education, and I guess this will be a good starting point for us to analyse the success of conversation-driven lessons:
The interactions we have with others directly affect the receptivity of the brain to take in new experiences and learn from them. If we are not receptive, we cannot learn. (Cozolino)
Conversation-driven lessons facilitate bonding
We all like it when we are heard. It is actually of the sentences new teachers are likely to hear a lot in training sessions: you should ask genuine questions and be actually interested in the answer. If we look at a conversation-driven lesson, these genuine questions are likely to be the very trigger we need to teach something we had established as an aim for the day. Not only will your lesson be more meaningful to your learners because they might end up talking about something that came from them, but paying close attention to the opportunities these answers give teachers in class a chance to help students socialise and learn from each other.
The human brain is a social organ of adaptation. By an organ of adaptation, I mean that the brain has evolved to interact with and learn how to navigate its environment. And by a social organ, I mean that humans have evolved to be linked to and to learn from other brains in the context of emotionally significant relationships. Therefore, the brain has evolved to learn within a naturalistic setting in the context of meaningful group and interpersonal relationships. (Cozolino)
This certainly helps me understand the importance of having a real conversation with learners in the classroom and how it helps me build rapport. By being genuinely interested in what my learners have to say, I can come up with questions and comments of my own that might lead towards the learning objectives of the lesson. This certainly helps me with scaffolding, and it builds trust. We need to understand how important trust is if we expect learners to accept what we are telling them as something that is worth their attention and effort. We need to work hard in building rapport and creating relationships. As a matter of fact, one of the most important aspects in the teaching-learning environment, in my opinion, is rapport.
Relationships are our natural habitat. From birth until death, each of us needs others to seek us out, show interest in discovering who we are, and help us to feel safe. We all yearn to be understood, recognized, and appreciated. Regardless of age, it is vital for us to feel a part of, participate in, and contribute to our “tribe.” The inabilities to connect, contribute to others, love, and be loved result in anxiety, depression, and alienation. This is just as true for principals, teachers, and school board members as it is for our students. (Cozolino)
A conversation-driven lesson is not just a conversation
I’ve also constantly heard teachers saying that they enjoy teaching advanced groups because students are able to carry out a conversation. Even though this is true, we need to understand the differences between a conversation-driven lesson and a simple conversation among friends. Students don’t come to lessons because it’s pleasant and just because they like their teacher’s company. This might be one of the results of being able to successfully connect to your learners, but it is not the primary objective of a lesson. Suppose you yourself decide to enrol for a course. What would you like to have achieved at the end of the course?
a) a better understanding of what you applied yourself into learning; or
b) a new friend – your teacher – even though you haven’t really learnt much about the course’s objectives.
At the end of the day, it is our ability to focus on our aims that count. An aim may or may not be achieved in one lesson or two, but not in the whole course. The fact that students who are already advanced learners of the language are able to hold conversations does not mean that they should be there just to practise what they already know. In any course you take, there should be learning. Perhaps, it is our inability to realise that there is more to learn – even for quite fluent speakers – that blinds us to the problem that the plateau of upper-intermediate learners. This might lead us to yet another conundrum: who should set the final aims of a learning activity?
If someone has decided to enrol for a language course, they do so because they expect to go past their current level of understanding and production. And this is exactly where I take issue with the claim that what matters is your ability to communicate. Learners can communicate at an A2-level in the common European Framework, and they are considered independent user of the language at the B level. Perhaps what we should do more often is asking students exactly what their objectives are and help them visualise what they need to achieve them. This is why I believe we should focus on the words driven and lesson when we think about conversation-driven lessons.
You can demand high and still build rapport – actually, you should!
If we understand that our role as a teacher is not one of either being too much content-oriented or being too focused on the affective part of learning, we’ll understand that balance between both is not only desirable – it is a requirement. You cannot expect learners to thrive in an environment of competitiveness and stress.
Brains grow best in the context of supportive relationships, low levels of stress, and through the creative use of stories. While teachers may focus on what they are teaching, evolutionary history and current neuroscience suggest that it is who they are and the emotional environment in the classroom they are able to create that are the fundamental regulators of neuroplasticity. Secure relationships not only trigger brain growth, but also serve emotional regulation that enhances learning. [...] The activation of both emotional and cognitive circuits allows executive brain systems to coordinate both right and left hemispheres in support of learning, affect regulation, and emotional intelligence. (Cozolino)
It is, then, a matter of finding the right balance between how much you should demand from your learners and how you do it. As Brown argued, the very first feedback we give our learners is the affective feedback. If we send them a negative message, they’ll simply block your cognitive feedback. However, if we do not give them any kind of cognitive feedback, they’ll fail to see that they aren’t really learning what they should be and mistakes will be fossilised.
A conversation-driven lesson might be just the key that is missing if we are to strike this balance. Instead of coming up with a whole bunch of tasks or content-oriented questions, how about developing your ability to actually listening to your learners and mastering the art of adapting your questions or being able to pinpoint elements that will be useful in your lesson’s objectives?
A while ago I wrote a text about teaching, and even though teaching is one of the key elements in lessons, learning is, obviously, part and parcel of the process that takes place in lessons – it’s the actual aim of lessons. If teaching is a lot more than transmitting information, learning is more than simply receiving information. What does learning imply, then?
Learning implies being able to transform information into knowledge, first and foremost. For one reason, information is widely available to anyone who’s got access to the World Wide Web, but the only thing this has done is leveling the play field for those who have access to the wealth of information the Internet provides. Those who live in areas where Internet access is nothing but an idea inspired by a sci-fi book should, therefore, fear that the gap is only going to increase between those who have access to the Internet and those who are still oblivious to this world. But who said information is the same thing as knowledge?
Being knowledgeable means you’re able to purposefully and intentionally use information to tackle the myriad challenges you face in life. If all you are able to do is retrieve an event from memory and repeat the same steps, you haven’t necessarily learnt anything. If, on the other hand, you’re able to use information from a past experience, assess what could work for the situation at hand, you can probably say you’ve been able to transform that piece of information into knowledge. This may help in the creation of possible solutions to future endeavours.
What I mean to say here is that knowledge – on most occasions – precedes creativity. It’s a lot easier for us to come up with creative solutions for problems once we’ve been able to transform the information into something a lot more relevant than a simple memory of something to be reproduced. When we’re able to come up with our own solutions for a problem, learning has taken place. It goes far beyond simply being able to apply the information we’ve received to another situation, though that is part of the process.
Learning implies a willingness to go further, which demands a good deal of effort. Learning does not take place if there’s no effort involved. It is the degree of effort involved in the learning process that will make the difference between being informed and being knowledgeable. It’s the fine line that divides learning from just remembering for a short period of time. If you want to learn something, you’ve got to earn it. If you’ve earned it, you’ve learned it.
We’ve all been told that education is the one thing no one can take away from us. This is so because education is not something that is bestowed upon us; it is something we need to work hard to achieve. Fortunately, until we reach the point of autonomy, the tipping point at which it’s a lot easier for us to develop on our own, teaching makes the difference.
Teaching, however, is only effective when it instigates learners to think. At the end of the day, teaching doesn’t have to be fun to be effective, though it’s easy to see that we tend to dedicate ourselves a lot harder to learn something that is fun. Teaching can, obviously, benefit from engagement on the part of the learner, but to get down to what really matters: teaching, in order to be effective, must ultimately be thought-provoking. Effective teaching is the kind of teaching that leads learners to make an effort to use their reason and make sense of things. It is paramount that learners be required to think and pay attention in order to learn.
Needless to say, learning, just like teaching, is a complicated concept to define and to contextualise. Yet, it’s clear to me that for learning to take place learners need to be challenged to the point of making an effort to want to go further. Learning as a process doesn’t benefit from always having someone making things easier and easier, or a lot more fun. Learning precedes fun because it is, in itself, motivating and engaging as long as real learning is happening.
This is why learning should be seen as a dialogic process, co-constructed between the teacher and the learner. It is why the Socratic method of questioning still awes and works when applied effectively. At the risk of sounding trite, learning is not about providing the right answers, but it is all about asking the right questions. Questions are the fuel for continuous learning. And in order to ask the right questions, teachers must learn to listen and react to what their learners are saying. Learning won’t occur simply because someone has told you that you have to learn A or B, but it may work if you yourself are somehow forced into finding the answers for A or B.
Ultimately, learning doesn’t depend on formal teaching, but any kind of teaching may foster or hinder learning. What kind of teaching fosters learning? What can teachers do in the classroom to make effective learning take place? The answer lies in the kind of relationship the learner and the teacher establish. It doesn’t take anything else than a teacher and a learner for learning to take place, and it also takes nothing but the relationship between the teacher and the learner to ruin learning. Is it somehow clear how important it is for you to earn the right to teach if you say your teaching is focussed on learning? Do you help your learners to earn their learning? And if all you want is a catchy ending, does your teaching put the EARN in LEARN?
How long, then, before automatic simultaneous translation becomes the norm, and all those tedious language lessons at school are declared redundant?
The very first thing that sprung to mind was how old the writer was. The second question was where exactly he went to school. The reason for the very first question is to find out whether he (I don’t know why I decided to call the writer a he, though) learned foreign languages through Grammar Translation or the Audio-lingual method and if all his language classes were a mixture of drills and meaningless translations. It’s been quite a while since I had my language lessons, and although I did find them boring in school where we did have to “learn” through GT, I can’t say the same about my language classes in language institutes.
It was still pretty much a structural perspective, granted. Yet, there was something else beyond the language. It was actually fun to go to a class where we were allowed to talk and to communicate. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I can say the reason for that was only clear to me after I became a teacher, and it may very well be the very reason I fell in love with teaching languages when it was supposed to be simply a way for me to try my hand at teaching before becoming a History teacher.
But the question remains dangling there. If we are ever able to devise a machine that will allow us to communicate with other people from all over the world, will the job of the language teacher be made redundant? As many professions before ours have already seen their end with the advent of technology, could this ever be the end of language teaching, or at least most of it? If we think about it, many who study English do so because they want to communicate. Well, if that truly is the case, then why would these people keep studying a foreign language when they would already be able to communicate?
Fortunately, learning a language gives you a lot more benefits than simply allowing you to communicate with others. It’s a sure fire way to keep your brain sharp, and according to some researchers, it might even lead to a different way of seeing the world. Some have already said that learning a new language is like acquiring a new soul, but that might be considered simply as too mysterious for some people out there who are just trying to communicate.
Don’t we also know that learning to play chess is also a fantastic way to exercise the brain and that it also allows you to see the world from a different perspective? Don’t we know that reading is also a much better way to exercise your imagination and creativity? I also remember reading somewhere that Sudoku may prevent Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, I don’t see that many people playing chess or learning how to play it, or people choosing books instead of TV, and apart from very few people I know, not that many people doing their Sudoku puzzles unless they’re waiting in a queue and don’t have a smartphone on them. I’m sure you understand that I’m talking about the average joe out there, and not some high-brow scholar.
Are people really that lazy and they will eventually end up choosing the easy way out? I most certainly know quite a few people who are quite happy with working very little and simply doing nothing, and I mean, nothing for the rest of the time. I’m talking about working as little as 6 hours a day or even less, and then simply doing nothing. And it’s not just for a month or so…
A series of announcements over the past few months from sources as varied as mighty Microsoft and string-and-sealing-wax private inventors suggest that workable, if not yet perfect, simultaneous-translation devices are now close at hand.
The question we may ask then, is just how close at hand they actually mean. But before spending too much grey matter on the topic, I guess we could go back to something all teachers who are a tiny bit into edtech already know – technology will not replace teachers, but teachers who can’t use technology will be replaced by those who can. This will only be proven right or wrong in a couple more years. What if more teachers were able to do as some Harvard and Stanford teachers have done when they taught more that thousands of students at once? Would there be enough students for so many teachers?
But this is all too gloomy, isn’t it? The challenges of computerised simultaneous translation are still far too great for it too happen as fast as the article might get us thinking in its very first lines. A bit further down, it states:
In the real world, people talk over one another, use slang or chat on noisy streets, all of which can foil even the best translation system.
This doesn’t mean we won’t be able to get there one day or another, but it might be as far-fetched in reality as flying cars were for those living in the 60s. Sometimes science-fiction eludes us and makes us wonder if things are as close as we’d like them to be.
Teaching a language is a lot more than simply teaching the words and grammar of the language. Learning a language, especially on this day and age in certain parts of the world, is, indeed, opening up to a world of possibilities. The language classroom might as well be the one place people are encouraged to speak their mind and have the chance to learn how to participate in a debate. Being in a language classroom where language is conversation-driven helps even the shyer students to work on their social skills and realise that they’re also entitled to an opinion. There’s just a lot more that a language classroom can provide to learns than the mere capacity to communicate. This is, as a matter of fact, why I do believe we need to make sure that learners are always pushed in our classes – it’s about a lot more than simply being able to get a message across.
The one thing that technology is able to do as of now is meet language learners with exercise drills and grammar explanations with automated correction and explanation. If all your teaching can be summed up into new grammar items and vocabulary, it’s very likely you’ll be replaced by a computer quite soon. Language teaching is education, and any challenge language teachers will face in the near future are no different from the challenges teachers of other subjects are likely to face.
If you’ve already bought the idea of life-long learning and you are able to adapt to changes and you embrace them instead of fearing them, then there’s no need to worry about what’s yet to come. Besides, it seems that the news trying to be more and more worried about coming up with stories that seem to come out of a crystal ball than to do what it’s supposed to do: inform readers and get them to reach their own conclusions.
But that might just be the proof we need to truly see that the way we’ve been teaching no longer suits this day and age. If those who get through school are more inclined to follow what’s linked to our emotions rather than to reason and make sense of things, question, analyse and critically think about whatever is presented to them, then we seriously need to rethink our practices. If all you’ve been doing in language teaching is teaching the language superficially, if the coursebook is your master and you do all it asks of you, if you’re compelled to distribute tons of handouts to your students and if you think that time well spent in class is the time when students do exercises individually and quietly, you’ve been doing your share to automatising teaching and then I do hope you’ll soon be replaced by a computer.
If, on the other hand, you’ve already understood that times they are a-changing and there’s the need to be constantly learning in order to teach, how about sharing this concept with the teacher next door? Oh, and the automated translation star-trek gadget… Just leave it be and worry about what truly matters in your profession. Teaching, my dear friends, has finally been evolving. It’s up to us to make it a swift and smooth transition into what it’s to become, or simply wait for all the bumps and moan in the corners about what it should be. Which road do you want to take?
We’ve moved yet one more year into the 21st century. Yet one more year towards the future. ‘Tis not a future with flying cars or the Jetson’s robot maid Rose cleaning your house; no, we haven’t gone that far. However, there’s seems to be no denial we’re in the middle of a very important revolution. Or are we? The fact that there’s a lot of change taking place due to the role that technology has been playing in our lives is undeniable. It’s been ages – especially when years account for a lot more than they did in the past – that educators have been advertising the benefits of technology in education, the end of an era, and that technology has the power to transform everything we do.
Needless to say, a tad after that, other educators decided to shed some light into the matter. It’s not tech that will revolutionise education nor will it change the world as we see it. The “digital natives” should be seen as individuals, not as a label, and this has certainly helped us move yet one step forward. A while after the buzz that new tech caused and all that it’s stirred in the lives of tech aficionados, it was clear that anything new that we could bring to the equation had to be seen for what it truly was – a tool. Just like any tool, it requires a skillful educator to use it effectively to actually help, and not hinder, learning.
Apps and sites bombarded us with myriad choices – we could pick and choose from thousands of different tools that always offered to be THE one solution to make teaching effective. Some teachers were able to take things as they were supposed to be taken instantly (cautiously and carefully), others needed more time to realise that it’s not about using lots of different things – ’tis all about making the right choice for each one of your learners, and helping them realise you’ve been very careful with your choice and aren’t simply tossing things at them bringing a new gadget every day.
Nonetheless, I wonder whether we’re even close to tackle the problem of changing the face of education as we see it. I wonder whether we’re prepared for that, or even if we actually have any kind of control of how things will evolve. We talk about teacher-centred and learner-centred education, but all that we do is simply repeating what we’ve been doing time and again. In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson went on stage to talk about schools killing creativity and the urge for change. Sugata Mitra showed the results of his “a hole in the wall” experiment on a later talk, the Khan academy initiated some sort of revolution that seems to be a possible way forward for some subjects.
Despite all that, the vast majority of teachers I know is still oblivious to all that’s been written above, which is a lot worse than being against it. Many teachers and administrators simply don’t care about new things and are absolutely OK with doing the same thing that their teachers had done to them 50 years ago, and each one of them – teachers and admins – has his or her reasons for doing so. Some might even read about success stories from different schools and educational systems around the world, but it all sounds too far-fetched for them and it is understood as something that “would never work in [add your city/country here]“. It’s a lot easier to keep doing things the same old way and going with the flow, isn’t it?!
How much of a change has there really been? Our kids still are educated in a classroom where there’s one person who tells them what they need to learn. One person standing in front of them and leading the way and, even when there’s a certain amount of flexibility given to students, such flexibility can only go as far – we do have a syllabus to follow, after all. It’s imposed on us, teachers, and we’re expected to teach it as students will be tested on such syllabus in the years to come. Where’s all the empowerment we hear so much of, yet do so little about? Have we really been able to teach children how to think critically about matters when they haven’t even been taught to criticise whatever it is that the one person standing in front of them says? Are most teachers even prepared to be questioned like that?
If we simply talk about a learning model for teaching instead of a teach-learn model, but we don’t walk the walk, it’ll be years before we can attest its efficacy or lack of efficacy. Few have really taken the plunge, and out of these few, we hear even fewer stories, and most of these are from the ones who happened to have succeeded. It is hard for us to publicly acknowledge defeat, though we praise those who are sufficiently self-assured to do so. We all make mistakes, we should all learn from our mistakes, but apparently we’re afraid of what others will think of us if we show our weaknesses, particularly when we’re so vulnerable for judgement in this new world of social media where many truly believe to be the upholder of the truth. How silly is that, huh?!
Where’s the real change? To be honest with you all, whenever I wonder if we can drive such change, I’m 100% positive that we can. I also know this won’t happen overnight. There’s no such thing as the right answer for the problems we’re facing in the world of education and the challenges that lie ahead. This I’m pretty sure of. And, finally, when I ponder what big change I’d like to see in most of our schools, I guess my answer doesn’t seem to be any different from the answer of many who have been involved in education for quite a while. What shocks me is that we’ve been struggling hard to implement simple things and we are rushing to the-next-big-thing without pausing and reflecting, analysing and criticising whether or not this or that should be the way forward. Isn’t this kind of reflection we’d like our kids to do?
Real change will take place when students no longer see their teachers as the one on stage and the one whose words they should copy and abide by. This may sound simple, but if you bear with me and look at things more carefully, you’ll see it’s not exactly happening. The more resources learners have available to check their facts, the lazier they’re getting. I’d like to see students able to analyse their own opinions and thoughts critically. I’d like to see teachers feeling confident enough about what they’re doing so that they won’t be afraid of being questioned, hence the importance of being knowledgeable.
I think we’re amidst a revolution. I think things are indeed changing. I don’t think we’ve been able to make sure most of us realise the importance of keeping abreast with this change and the necessity of taking risks to actively control what’s to come instead of passively waiting for it. Things will change whether we want it or not. We should have been prepared to lead such change consciously, but apparently we’re still a couple of people short. But I do see that, little by little, things are a-changing. I just wish that, for the year to come, we were able to move the spin of change faster, that we could get more people onboard – not virtually, but mainly those who work right next door, within the same school borders. This seems to be the way forward to me. We can’t expect change to happen if we’re scattered all over the globe. Getting teachers to think critically about their actions and learning how to work collaboratively so that we may, in the near future, feel comfortable with leading our students towards the same path. How can we teach, inspire or simply engage people when we ourselves seem to lack what it takes to get things going?
Then again, this might all change in my head tomorrow. It’s been a hell of a busy year, but I think it’s important to remind myself that it’s OK to have your thoughts, to write about them, to have others agree, disagree or simply not mind them. It’s all OK as long as we’re trying to move forward.
If there’s one thing that has changed in education with the advent of new technologies and, chiefly, the web 2.0, this has got to be how easy it is now for us to shift from consumers of information to producers of data. There’s absolutely nothing new in this statement, and any report or information sheet from the early days of the web 2.0 will tell you this. One of the main benefits of the web 2.0 was the fact that it made it easier for people to actually produce content rather than simply receiving it. Simply put, it’s only logical to assume that schools and teachers everywhere would quickly leap at the opportunity for their learners to stop being so passive in their learning roles. Right?!
Unfortunately, I don’t think the answer to this question is affirmative. As a matter of fact, if there’s one thing that has been going on is that the easy access to information has only allowed for teachers themselves to embrace a kind of teaching that prevents them from, well, teaching. I don’t mean to say that all teachers have been doing that – a quick look at the blogosphere will certainly give you an idea of the numerous movers and shakers who are trying hard to change the rules of the game. I just wonder if this will be enough. Why?
Well, it seems to me that whenever people who are online share the benefits for being online and sharing with their PLN, they tend to say that this was way out from the kind of sluggish attitude towards change that they see in their co-workers. I’ve constantly wondered what it’d be like to have all like-minded educators who actively share and disseminate knowledge online working together in the same school. Would it work? I honestly believe such a school would either be a fantastic place for learning to take place, or it’d be absolutely chaotic. However, there would certainly be enough of the mere reproducing of data we demand of most learners everywhere.
We may call it learner-centered, or learning-centered education, but simply saying that learners are free to choose what and how to learn doesn’t make you an educator. More often than not we are at a loss for what exactly it is that we’d like to do, and we only find out what we’re truly passionate about after having had the chance to experiment with different things – this means, in my opinion, that even living vicariously counts. The point is understanding that a learner-centered approach doesn’t mean total and complete freedom, at least not until a certain point when we’ve already learned how to learn, unlearn, and critically think about our beliefs and ideas.
Despite the large number of schools and teachers doing an amazing job, and the fact that those who do it do it so passionately that they simply couldn’t care less about what others think, there’s strength in numbers. If one teacher alone is trying to make a change, there’s something in our own nature that will prevent students from giving it a go. They usually change their mind once they’ve been able to start it, but getting there may be the problem. Living in a test-centric educational world, learners have absorbed the concept that what matters is how much information you can amass in your brain for that upcoming physics test. It is also deeply ingrained in them the idea that certain subjects count more than others. And this is widespread even by teachers, when they say that students shouldn’t worry so much about studying English, and that mathematics is far more important than biology, for instance. This is a lesson our students quickly learn, and they learn it from the ones they’ve also learned not to question.
We do have a chance to change the game by giving them more responsibility when it comes to their learning, but this implies that we ourselves, teachers, ought to come to terms with our new role. We should do this at the risk of jeopardising yet another generation of learners. In order to do this, we ourselves need to become producers of data instead of reproducers, and we should encourage our learners to become producers themselves instead of mere consumers of whatever is thrown at them. Most importantly, we should be teaching them to be critical of anything they hear, even if that is told by, well, their teachers. We’re all fallible, and this is the very first lesson that we should learn in order to pass it on to our learners.
How about teaching learners how to assess the validity and reliability of a source before regurgitating what this single source has made public? How about asking them to go being memorising, and starting that by teaching them how to summarise information found by three different sources, and then commenting and reflecting on each other’s work? Ah, but nothing of this is news to anyone who’s been concerned about change and who may actually be reading this post. We, and I dare include myself in this crowd, are not the ones who are doing wrong. The problem is how do we get to the ones who simply refuse to recycle their knowledge of and about teaching? What can we do to instill this need of change in those who work with us, who are right next doors teaching the same kids we’re teaching?
I say that after I had the chance to talk to a group of students who are between 12 and 14 years old. When I asked them whether they feel that they learn more by doing rather than listening, their answer was an obvious yes. However, what surprised me was that when they were offered the chance to actually do something different in class, when they were told they would have to work harder to learn, their quickly said they felt it’d be too much work. After a very quick chat it easy to spot something that has been discussed for a while, but very little is actually done to prevent it from happening – we were the ones who educated them out of their creative selves. Having grown up in a school system where the sage is always on the stage, and where the teacher is always right, they’ve simply been playing by the rules for as long as they can remember. They got used to being spoon-fed, and it certainly is a lot easier to simply sit still and wait for someone to tell you everything you will need to learn. At this age, it is hard for learners to realise that it is exactly because they’ve only been through lectures in their whole school life that many of them can’t succeed. It’ll take them a while to understand that things would have been much easier for them if their teachers had made them actively take learning to their hands. It’d be a lot easier if teachers actually taught.
But here’s the catch: if we try to change, we’re opening ourselves to questions, and we haven’t been trained for that. We were educated as reproducers ourselves, and this has somehow always made sense in the eyes of the vast majority. We’ve learned that we aren’t capable of producing high-quality material and being subjected to criticism on what we’re saying or on what we think. We fail to see growth in differences and this is simply reproduced in our classes. Thus, the cycle continues and we’re raising yet another generation of consumers and reproducers, and these will be constantly wondering why it is that there are a couple of few who actually become very successful by producing what they could have produced. By and large, we’re not raising people who are comfortable with exposing their ideas, these people are raising themselves in spite of what we’ve been doing to them.
Question: how do we change this? How do we stop preaching to the choir and start getting those who are unwilling to change to actually do something that will matter?
Autonomy has become a trending topic in the world of education. To be honest, the way I hear some people talking about it makes me wonder whether this hasn’t always been the case, really. “Oh, I know it! How about trying to make ourselves, teachers, less needed as students progress in their education?” I mean, seriously? Hasn’t this been the objective of the game from the very beginning? Why do many still look at this as if it were the next big thing in education when it has actually never ceased to be the big thing about it. It’s just like teaching learners how to learn instead of teaching them what we feel they should learn. Yet, one thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is exactly what the role of the teacher is – and how we should play it – in this game of autonomy so we can do more good than harm. If you bear with me for a moment, I’d like to share a couple of things that are still percolating.
If we could think of what we’ve been learning as building blocks, and that as we amass information we add one block on top of another, we could have many different layers of information that need to be retrieved and available for use. As teachers, we have two different choices (OK, we have many choices, but I’ll narrow it down to two for practicality issues): we can put the blocks ourselves where we see fit, or we can help learners find out where to better position their blocks on top of previous knowledge. This is where we start facing the very first problem in the differences between teaching by lecturing and learning. Some may believe that information goes beautifully on top of previously stored information. This represents the linearity view of teaching.
Instead, we could look at the learning structure as dependent on each one of the blocks, which have to be placed by the individual when he or she is able to spot the right place for it. However, teachers may and should help. The very first thing that we should bear in mind is that teachers do make the difference, but only as long as they are aware of what they are doing. Let’s imagine teachers understand that one block goes on top of the other, but not in a linear way. What may the problem with this view be? Well, if the teacher believes he or she can simply show his learners what the steps are, he’ll end up with a flight of stairs, but with no kind of of support under it. This could be represented as the picture below:
This is usually what happens when teachers simply demonstrate how to do something by showing rather than guiding. By doing things yourself you’ll eventually take your students all the way up to the 4th stage, but, as they haven’t learned how to do it themselves, they’re likely to end up going back to square one. This time, however, with all sorts of debris on the floor to make putting the blocks back together a more daunting and confusing task.
Equally as harmful is not being patient enough and not being able to allow for learning to sink in and lay the foundations properly for the following step. If we don’t understand that people learn at different paces, we might end up giving up on waiting for them to ‘get it’ and move on too soon. This may also be the case of teachers who fail to carefully listen to their learners and understand what they have already grasped. These teachers end up with learners whose blocks are built somewhat like this:
Here, it is clear that the teacher has showed some concern in helping the learner with the basics before moving on to more complex issues. What this extremely simple picture fails to represent is the fact that all blocks are interconnected, and it’s not only a matter of having learnt 1, and then 2, and only then 3. In order to get to 3, we need to make sure that all connections made between 1 and 3 are solid, and that the third row depends as much on the first one as it depends on the second. One thing is still apparent in the picture above, though – learning is taking place from outside to inside. It’s not up to the learner to progress from one point to another, but it’s up to what is imposed onto him by what is dictated by external forces.
Instead, we should try and look at it from a perspective in which the learner is capable of being aware of what his or her next step forward should be. The problem is that we cannot see what someone else is capable of accomplishing. We can’t assess competence; we can only assess performance. And this is the part that’s got me thinking. If we can only see performance, how about focussing on helping learners work on the width of their pyramid of learning so they know when and where to place the other blocks? If we work on constantly recycling, and if we truly try to scaffold learning, we’re likely to work on features we can observe, not on features we would like to observe. By having a wider base at the bottom, it’s easier to add blocks at the top.
How do we get there?
If you ask me, one of the central tenets of teaching and learning is that one doesn’t take place without the other. Yes, we should focus on learning, and all teaching should only be measured by how much learning it entails. But the key is finding out how to get there. Again, if all we can see is performance, what better way to help learners progress than by focussing on language they produce in order to help them improve what they already know? This is what we are doing when we carefully and actively listen to our learners and make sure we are having a class instead of just a conversation. This is what we do by focussing on emergent language – we make our students aware of what they’re saying and work on meaningful and personal samples of language.
If we are constantly recycling and expanding on previous knowledge, we’re likely to help learners build upon their own knowledge independently. How do we become good at something? How do we develop a skill? Only rarely will you see someone being able to excel at something they’ve never practiced and rehearsed before. Before you can run, you have to learn how to walk. Before you can play a Bach’s piece, you need to learn the musical scale and know how to play each one of the notes. Before you learn complex issues, you need to learn – and practice – the basics. If you practise and recycle enough, you’re likely to progress much faster as having the knowledge of the most basic things will help you understand how to get to the complex parts.
Perhaps we’d be doing more by focussing more on the individual and the process than focussing on the product. I’m sure most teachers are aware of that. Unfortunately, I myself know many who can only talk the talk, but not walk the walk. How about you?
Are you sure you’re focusing on what really matters most, or are you going to focus on the smallest part and assume that’s enough?
If you think that:
TESTING = TEACHING
Then you also think:
INFORMATION = KNOWLEDGE
TEACHER = INFORMATION SUPPLIER = ENCYCLOPEDIAS & INTERNET SOURCES
Which will soon lead to:
COMPUTERS > TEACHER
If you think others don’t value what you do, show them how much you matter. If others don’t care, you should care. Make your teaching count a lot more than test scores do. Real teachers know that:
TEACHING > ASSESSING > TESTING