Archive

Archive for the ‘General thoughts’ Category

And let 2013 begin!!

January 7, 2013 12 comments

In hindsight, 2012 was quite a… different year for many different reasons. For one thing, I got married in 2012, which was the big highlight of the year for me, but there were other a whole bunch of things which weren’t, well, that good. But let bygones be bygones and let’s start a new, fresh 2013. Today is actually my very first day at work after a well-deserved 2-week break – and I really mean it when I say I needed that break.

mappa_blog

mappa_blog (Photo credit: francescopozzi)

One of the things that got me thinking was how often I visited the blogosphere in 2012, and mainly in the second semester of the year. It all started when I read a blog challenge and I thought to myself that I give it a try, but then, as usual, time and work got in the way. In addition to that, it made me realise how much time I’d spent blogging and around blogs in 2012… very little!

No, I honestly don’t think that was a serious issue or anything like that. However, the few times I blogged last year I could certainly feel how good it was to put into words what I was reflecting upon, and how things simply piled up when I stopped doing that. Well, I guess I could say blogging does the same for my mind that going to the gym does for the body and the mind – and I haven’t done much of either last year.

So, it’s now time to resume the activities, and the very first thing to do is coming up with a regular schedule for posts. Even though I’ve never really thought this to be mandatory, I guess it would be good to get my weekly dose of medication for the mind (or monthly, or daily… I honestly still haven’t decided on that yet). But what I’ve decided is that I want to resume blogging even though there are some rumours on Facebook that ELT blogging is something of the past. Is it really? Well, fortunately, I don’t really care much about trends, fashions or fads. If it’s good and it feels right for you, do it, I say. Isn’t that right?

This also means fixing a couple of things on the blog, checking the blogroll, updating Google Reader, posting more comments and… that’s pretty much all I need to do really. Oh, and, obviously, reconnect with a whole bunch of people I had to leave aside for a while. And if there’s nothing to write about, I can always use Leo’s tips for new bloggers, which, well, was a response to the blog challenge I couldn’t take up! When do you stop being new at blogging, by the way?!

And if after all this time being inactive you’re still following this blog, HAPPY 2013!! I hope you enjoy what I have to say, and I certainly do hope to be able to write much more this year! Perhaps I’ll have enough posts to join Adam’s 13 of 13 blog challenge! See you around!!!

Where’s the change?

December 19, 2012 3 comments

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.

"Would you exchange, a walk on part in the war..." | Photo on Flickr by love2dreamfish

“Would you exchange, a walk on part in the war…” | Photo on Flickr by love2dreamfish

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.

Differentiation

September 5, 2012 6 comments

We’re all capable of learning, unlearning and relearning. We’re all capable of adapting to changes. We’re all capable of evolving and improving, just as we’re capable of acting stubbornly and simply refusing to do things differently. As people who are – supposedly – rational, we should be able to reason, assess, and make the necessary decisions to keep moving forward. Some of us do, others simply don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Where does differentiation lie? What happens that makes us so equal and yet, so different in so many different levels. Most importantly, are we in charge of anything? Can we, as teachers, really make the difference?

When I think about some of the differences that are visible among students who attend the same school, who sit through the same classes and who listen to the same lectures, I wonder why is it that each one of them is able to grasp more or less than others. As a disclaimer note, I need to reinforce, especially for those who are new to this blog, that I don’t believe in the one size fits all model of education, and that, yes, each and every one of us learns differently. We all have our pace and a teacher’s style might cater more to student A than to student B. However, is this all there is to it?

I feel we’ve been looking at the space of the school as the only place where such differentiation is made. What if most of what defines how we think and our capability of learning, relearning and unlearning were looked into from a more holistic perspective indeed? At the risk of sounding trite, how often do we look at the learner from a holistic perspective when we, ahem, say this is what we have to do as educators? The point is, if intelligence is diverse, are we ever going to be able, as teachers to ensure that learners will be equipped with the tools they are likely to need to thrive?

Oh, the brain… | Photo on Flickr by TZA

What if we looked at learning beyond cognitive abilities? This is, actually, what we’ve been hearing more and more of these days. Yet, we end up seeing parents and teachers shoving their kids into courses at an ever younger age. “We want to make sure they have the best chances to succeed when they grow up,” says a worried parent. The teacher replies, “The younger, the better! It’s never to soon to learn,” and, boom… here we go into the same old trap again.

We don’t learn from school exclusively, and this should have already become crystal clear with the revolution that technology is likely to bring about in learning. We learn best from one another. We learn when we’re challenged and when we are stimulate to think differently, to find viewpoints to support our opinions. This will rarely come from a group of people who have grown up exposed to the same old ideas. If we confine a group of people into one single space, with access to the same sources of information, these people are likely to end up having a lot more things in common in their way of looking at the world than we may think.

What is it, then, that makes each one of the learners in our classrooms unique? Should we be looking inwards for the answer and racking our brains for different ways to teach them, or should we come to terms with the fact that, in the long run, its not only cognitive skills and abilities that will be responsible for a person’s so-called intelligence. I’m not referring here to people who are book smart in opposition to those who are street wise. I’m also trying to look at intelligence from a more diverse perspective. And also at our ability to be creative and to come up with creative solutions for problems.

What we need is to help the brain create and strengthen connections, and these connections are to be formed in different parts of the brain. This happens when we learn how to walk and we need to make sure the right message is sent to the right limb at the right time. When we challenge ourselves to learn how to play a musical instrument that might require a very complicated twist of the hand, or when we simply want to dazzle our friends by climbing a tall tree. These connections are created when we bond with other people and suddenly find ourselves lost amidst an intricate coterie where we all think alike, and then we’re suddenly cast into an environment where we’ve got to learn how to hear different opinions.

Connections, connections, connections… if we understand little about the importance of neural connections, how can we ever expect to understand reasons for two people who have been raised in the very same educational setting end up being so different. No, it’s obviously not only a matter of stimulus and response, but it’s also not only some work of mysterious forces, or our genes alone. We have to believe that we’re all capable of learning, relearning and unlearning if we believe that teachers do make a difference. How far does the extension of our powers to change it all go, that’s the point we should bear in mind.

A child ends up spending a lot more time with friends as they grow old, and not surprisingly, they end up liking the same kind of music, enjoying doing the same things whenever they have free time, and, yes, thinking very much alike. We enjoy this kind of self-assurance as human beings, and we do tend to seek those who think alike. It is reassuring. We end up looking a lot more for validation than for real answers. It’s easier to be in our comfort zone than leaving it.

But then again, what if we accept that we seek the company of like-minded people, and that people who read the same books and do the same things end up thinking alike? What is it that makes each one of us stand out? What makes us stand out in the crowd, what makes us unique, can only partially be found within the realms of the classroom. This is why our role os to make ourselves less and less needed as teachers. But that would probably require a whole lot of learning, unlearning and relearning from… teachers. Perhaps a price lot higher than most of those who end up in the trade are willing to pay. Teachers will always make the difference, but the way to make the difference is not by assuming we ought to do it all and that we are solely responsible for our students’ success or failure. Things should be clearer now than they’ve ever been to past generations… either that, or we’re just inebriated by all that’s been made available to us at this day and time, and in the end it will all be the same.

How do you make a difference? Most importantly, how do you make room for others to make a difference?

Against the prejudice – How far can adverts go?

May 22, 2012 45 comments

UPDATE: Below my post, you can read Vinícius Nobre’s letter (he’s the president of Braz-TESOL) and, now, the reply that Open English has written. We did it! :)

—————————————-

I must say I’m not particularly offended when I’m called a NNEST (Non-Native English Speaking Teacher). Perhaps I’m just being naïve, but I don’t believe there’s harm in the terminology when it’s used by someone just to make things clear. It’s just as if you say I’m tall, or blond, or even white. It’s not that I don’t acknowledge we have to pay attention to the rules of political correctness and avoid misinterpretation as much as we can, but I just choose to believe that people, when they do that, they’re not simply trying to offend me. The same is true for the NNEST thing. I was born in Brazil and I’ve never studied nor lived abroad, and the English I know is the English I learnt in Brazil. Therefore, if you call me a NNEST, I simply understand that you are stating a fact.

However, it’s also very easy to notice when someone is being rude, offensive, or just tongue-in-cheek. For instance, if you’re among friends and one of them just happens to say something that could be interpreted as rude by others who haven’t got a clue of how well you know one another, you don’t take it that seriously. You’re probably well aware of the fact that this friend of yours is just pulling your leg, yanking your chain, or making fun of you. You know this is not exactly what he feels or thinks. I remember when I was 12 or 13 and played basketball. If I remember correctly, that was the very first time I heard someone complaining about the kind of language I used with a very good friend of mine. You see, we were very good friends, and there was absolutely no harm meant, but as this friend was black, I used to call him according to his skin colour. I can honestly relate to that and assure there was no cruelty or racism of any kind involved, just as I’m sure he didn’t mean any when he called me “German” or “Whitey” or “Honky”. I’m now aware of the fact that these are offensive words, but I have never felt offended when these words were used by my friends.

Just the same, it’s also very easy to notice people are being rude or judging you as inferior – and they can use exactly the same words. You see, it’s not only a matter of being politically correct, it’s a matter of how you say what you’re saying. The body language, the context, and all that goes with verbal communication are the things that make the difference between a simple joke among friends and offensive and unacceptable language. The reason why I’m writing this is not because we should be teaching this to our students, or teaching them which words in English are not supposed to be said, which are the politically correct ones and which should never be uttered. What’s caused me to write this post was the complete and absolute lack of common sense of people who happened to have put together a TV advert of an online language school that, as far as I know, is quite new in Brazil. The school is OpenEnglish.com, and the advert (I’ll translate it to my fellow NESTs below) is this:

This is what the advert says (my comments are in brackets).

“These two want to speak English. One of them goes to a traditional school, the other one studies at OpenEnglish. One of them studies with the same textbook his mother studied with (as if textbooks hadn’t changed at all), the other one studies online with multimedia lessons (one size fits all, anyone?). One has classes with Joana (a Brazilian name for the teacher who keeps dancing and making a fool of herself dancing to herself singing “the book is on the table”), the other one has classes with Jenny. “How about you? What is your choice?” (Jenny’s sentence in Portuguese).”

On one of the other ads, they’ve even added that Joana, the Brazilian teacher, had learnt English in Buenos Aires… well, I’m so sorry, but this is the kind of NNEST that IS, indeed, derogatory. This is why there’s a cause running on Facebook through the causes site, which you can find by clicking here. You see, there are a whole bunch of things that could be said to highlight the benefits of studying online – I’d be OK with that. However, I can’t possibly stand someone going as far as taking advantage of the little knowledge of people when it comes to learning a foreign language and their desire to learn it fast (because everything has to be done fast these days) to sell a product. In addition to this, Brazil is currently on a campaign to teach their population English no matter what on account of the world cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. How many people will be lured by an advert that is on national TV and waste their time and money on something that is unlikely to work?

As I said in the beginning, I’m a NNEST and that’s it. I don’t have to be proud or feel inferior because of that. The most important letter in the abbreviation is the last one – T. I’m a teacher first and foremost, and as such I’m constantly looking for ways to better teach my students. It honestly doesn’t matter where you’re from. If you also find the campaign offensive, I kindly ask you to join the cause. If you think this is not important, that’s also OK. If you think I’m wrong, just leave your comment and we can definitely talk about it.

————————————–

UPDATES: Isabela Villas Boas has also written a fantastic piece on the add, expanding on what I have written here: Click here to read her post.

Vinícius Nobre is the current president of Braz-TESOL, and this is what he wrote on the matter:

“As the president of the largest association of English teachers in Brazil, I feel I have to take a stand and express my outrage and disappointment with regards to the TV commercial that has been broadcast on national television promoting an online English course.
I am NOT a native speaker of the English language, I do not have long blonde hair, I do not live in California and I do not wear a tight T-shirt to teach my students. In fact, I NEVER had a native speaker of English as a teacher. I never even lived in a foreign country. I simply studied the English language in my own developing country, and then four years of linguistics, literature, second language acquisition, morphology, pronunciation, syntax, education, pedagogy, methods and approaches. I have only dedicated 16 years of my life to the personal and professional growth of thousands of students. I have not bragged about my passport or my birthplace because I was too busy trying to understand my students’ linguistic and affective needs. I am NOT a native speaker of the language; hence – according to this TV commercial – I do not qualify to teach. I probably qualify as an irresponsible and grotesque mockery of a teacher.
Like me, thousands of hard-working, gifted, committed, passionate and under-valued educators (from Brazil or ANY other non-English speaking country) are depicted in 30 seconds of a despicable and desperate attempt to seduce students. I have met outstanding teachers regardless of their nationality and many of which who were native English speakers. The best English speaking educators I have met, however, were always dignified enough to acknowledge the qualities of a non-native speaker colleague.
Foreign language education has developed tremendously so as to guarantee the fairness and respect that all serious language professionals deserve (native speakers or not). At least among ourselves. If students still insist that a native speaker is better, we should at least rest assured that in our own profession we can find the respect and the recognition that a committed and qualified professional needs to have. It is sad, however, to be ridiculed by another (so-called) educational centre.
As the president of BRAZ-TESOL, as a non-native speaker of the English language, as an admirer of teachers regardless of their nationality, I resent such an irresponsible joke. But then again, who am I to even think about saying anything about the learning and the teaching of English? I am not Jenny from California – the utmost example of a foreign language educator.”

————————————————

Open English’s CEO reply to the letter above – in English and in Portuguese:

My name is Andres Moreno and I’m the founder and CEO of Open English.
A recent advertisement we’ve been running on TV has upset some groups of people, including an important Brazilian teacher’s association, for what they perceive to be an offensive portrayal. Let me start by saying that anyone whose mission in life is teaching English has earned our admiration and respect. If we have offended this group, or any other, we sincerely apologize. As a company Founded by a Latin American entrepreneur and currently employing people from multiple countries across the region (including Brazil), we value diversity of opinions and welcome feedback as part of our desire to connect with students and advertise responsibly.
We happen to believe that online teaching from native English speakers is the right model for certain lifestyles, so it’s the one we’ve chosen for OUR business. However, this in no way diminishes the efforts and achievements of other teaching professionals.
Again, our intent was never to offend. Due to the feedback we have received and because of our great respect for our colleagues in the English teaching community, we are immediately pulling the ad from our website, social media platforms and television airwaves as soon as possible.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Meu nome é Andres Moreno, fundador e CEO da Open English.

Uma campanha publicitária veiculada por nós na TV foi considerada ofensiva por algumas pessoas, incluindo uma importante associação brasileira de professores. Quero começar dizendo que qualquer pessoa que tenha como missão na vida o ensino do inglês merece nossa admiração e nosso respeito. Se nós, involuntariamente, ofendemos essas pessoas, ou quaisquer outras, sinceramente pedimos desculpas. Como uma empresa fundada por um empreendedor latino-americano que emprega profissionais de diversos países (incluindo o Brasil), valorizamos a diversidade de opiniões e recebemos eventuais críticas como uma forma de nos ajudar a aprimorar nossa conexão com os estudantes e a anunciar de forma responsável.

Acreditamos que o ensino online com professores nativos de inglês é o melhor modelo para determinadas pessoas com determinados estilos de vida e é esse o modelo que escolhemos para o nosso negócio. Isso, de forma nenhuma, desvaloriza os esforços ou diminui a importância de outros profissionais de ensino.

Nossa intenção nunca foi ofender ninguém. Em razão das críticas que recebemos e do profundo respeito que temos por nossos colegas da comunidade de ensino do inglês, determinamos a interrupção imediata da exibição dos filmes publicitários da campanha em nosso website, em nossos canais nas mídias sociais e na televisão.

Atenciosamente,

Andres Moreno
Fundador e CEO da Open English

Consumers, reproducers and producers

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.

Are we doing what it takes to help students being more comfortable with a position on the other side of the room, in front of these chairs? | Photo on Flickr by sholeh!!

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?

Dear teacher

December 12, 2011 22 comments

Dear teacher… | Photo on Flickr by spaceamoeba

” Dear teacher,

You once meant the world to me. Among all the people who were there to teach me something, I believe you were the one who had it all figured out. You enticed me with your love for the new, you lured me into a world of learning, but yet, I now feel I’ve failed to learn what you were trying to teach me. And I believe that I should apologize for not being able to learn things so well… or should I? I’ve been thinking it over, and my reasons for doubting my need to apologize go far beyond your need to constantly say that if I didn’t learn it, it’s because you haven’t done a good job.

Dear teacher, do you truly mean what you say when you publicly claim that your students failure are your own? Are you such an almighty being that no one can fail on their own accord and that your ability to teach or not is what makes it or breaks it in my education? Perhaps, if you really meant what you say, this would be true. I must confess I’m slightly disappointed in you, though. And I’ll now explain why.

You once believed you could teach me by being friends with me. You’ve probably read somewhere that affection makes a difference in learning. You’ve also probably read, somewhere else, that laughter lubricates learning, and you tried to make your lessons funny. And then you may have heard from a friend that learning should be student-centred. How perfect was that, huh, dear teacher? All you had to do was come to class and chat with your students, let them discover new things on their own. This is probably something else you claim to have read – students ought to become autonomous learners.

To make things even better, you found arguments to support the use of things you so much enjoy using in your daily life in our lessons. You’ve read somewhere that I’m a digital native, and that technology would make learning a lot easier to me. You’ve enticed me to follow you through a path of discovery of things you were supposed to be teaching me, but that I’d eventually find out on my own by using the gadgets that are so common to those of my generation. To be fair with you, you could even mention the names of the people you’ve supposedly read, and even name theories.

How much longer do you think you could have gone? You’ve read somewhere that there are teachers using technology and whose students are succeeding, and you’ve also read somewhere else that there are teachers who simply talk to their students and they miraculously learn. Oh, dear teacher, you have as one of your favorite quotes the one that says that you’re not preparing students – you’re helping them become life-long learners. Isn’t it a tad contradictory that you haven’t been doing what you’ve been preaching?

You expect me to accept that mistakes are part of the learning process. However, you cannot conceive of having done me wrong in your attempts to educate me. Wouldn’t it be much easier to help me if you took your own advice and said, just for a change, that you may not know exactly what you’re doing? How much longer will you cling to book titles, halves of first chapters, headlines and superficial talks to base your principles? How much longer, dear teacher, till you start taking responsibility for the choices you’ve made for my education to your hands instead of blaming it on what others have been doing?

Isn’t it time you started reading beyond the headline? Isn’t it time you started accepting that there are people who know more than you and that you can learn from them? Is it that heard to keep an open mind to different thoughts and ideas? Why is it, then, that you keep asking me to keep mine open?

Dear teacher, how often have you said that grades don’t represent learning, and yet it was the final yardstick against which you measured my success or failure? When will you stop paying lip service to what others say regarding education and start walking with your own feet? When will you be able to accept responsibility for what you have done in your classes because you believed that was best for me, not because a PhD somewhere said this is what had to be done? What if you yourself bought into the idea of being a life-long learner and were willing to truly lead me to discovering what I should discover? Instead, your option has been to say to me things you don’t actually mean. You say one thing, but you do something else.

Dear teacher, it’s time you stopped mentioning the names of John Dewey or Paulo Freire if all you know about what they’ve done is what someone else has told you. It’s time you stopped using flashy gadgets and technology in class simply because you’ve been told I love that and this is how I learn best. I want to remember you for what I’ve learnt from you, not for the jokes you told me when you were supposed to have taught me something.

Dear teacher, you have no idea how much I’ll idolize you for having taught me something. Please, understand that my education is not a popularity contest among all those who walk into my classroom to talk to me. This is serious stuff, and I may be just a bit too young to realize how serious a business it is. I depend on you to show me what I can do. You’ve often said you’d like to be responsible for my learning – I put myself in your hands. As much of a cliché this may be, I’m placing all my dreams and hopes for the future in your hands. Will you truly help me live up to my potential? Have you been constantly trying to improve for that to happen?

Dear teacher, all I ask of you is that you mean what you say. Don’t take the soft way out by placing all the responsibility of my learning in my hands. Learn what learner centered education truly is before you say your lessons are learner centered. Learn how to effectively integrate technology into your teaching before you say that all those videos and Internet use are actually teaching. Criticise me! We only set high standards for those we believe to be able to get there. Don’t settle for anything less than what I can do. You see, I believe all you say about my learning, so if you say I’m ready to move on to the next step, I will be happy to do so – I’ll only be mature enough to realize I wasn’t ready when it’s too late. It’s your call, my dearest teacher.

It’s your call… are you going to face the challenge of educating me, or are you going to really leave me to my own fortune? Are you prepared to challenge me, to tell me I’m wrong, to tell me my work is not good enough, and to put up with my tantrum, or will you take the easy way out? If you choose the easy way out, if you’re not prepared to mean your words and to act accordingly, please, step out of the way. The world is tough enough as it is. I most certainly don’t need you holding me back.

You say my failure is your failure, dear teacher. As long as you believe that success is the same thing as moving on to the next grade or level, you’ve failed me for sure. If you’re going to treat me as a human being, you’d better understand sooner than later that education is a complex issue, and there’s no way you’re going to be able to help me without hard work from me and you. I’m in your hands, dear teacher, make sure you know what you’re doing.

Yours faithfully,

A student”

Doing Some Thinking turns 2 years old!!

November 3, 2011 15 comments

Has it really been two years?? | Photo on Flickr by Davide Restivo

On November 3rd 2009, I posted my very first blog post. When I first started blogging, I honestly didn’t know where it’d take me. I’d tried creating blogs on topics completely unrelated to education, but now, when I look back, I believe the reasons and the drive were not right. Or at least they were not right for me. You see, when I thought of creating blogs on many different topics I was a lot more interested in being able to write a blog that’d have thousands of visitors after the first post. That’d never work for me, or at least it wouldn’t work currently. The thing is I suck at advertising, especially when it comes to self-advertising, which is something I’ve learned about the hard way after (no puns intended) doing some thinking about a lot of things I’ve been through.

I must say that creating a blog on ELT had never been a goal – I usually feel like I’m preaching to the choir when writing or when presenting a workshop or lecture to teachers on ELT. I mean, what usually springs to mind is that if I know it, pretty much everyone else must know it as well. But I do have a passion for teaching and learning, this is something I can’t deny. I can easily spend hours of my free time discussing education – ELT has always been the starting point, but education in general is a point of interest. It was only after I started following a couple of blogs on ELT that I found out how good it was to have, in blogs, a space to share my views. It all started with the comments. A blog was still not in mind.

To be honest, having found myself amidst conversations with loads of teachers who also shared a passion for education was enough. That’s when I saw it even more clearly that writing helps me organise my thoughts. And then some comments felt like they were just way too big to clutter somebody’s post. I never had a problem with how big the comments are, but I read somewhere it’s good practice not to do so. In case you’re wondering, I do love thoughtful comments, regardless of how many words they may have. Fortunately, the reason why I started blogging was to have a place to share my thoughts. I write what I believe in, and I don’t really have a problem with changing my mind later on.

It was through the blog (and twitter, I must say) that I was able to “meet” lots of other interesting teachers who have helped me do some MORE thinking. I never thought I’d be able to keep writing for 2 years, and sometimes I did feel like not writing here any longer. I still hope I’ll one day be able to meet you all in person. This is what I’ve gained from blogging. If nothing else, it’s been nice to hear praises, compliments, criticism and exchange ideas with all readers who paid Doing Some Thinking a visit. If you look on the side, this blog hasn’t received any kind badges for awards, nominations or anything like that, but I can guarantee that what I have gained from keeping it going for these two years is worth a lot more than any kind of award. It’s already been mentioned by people I respect and admire, and what’s better than having the recognition of those you look up to?

I guess finding your true passion does make a difference, and to me, the passion is being able to interact with all of you who read the blog. There are just way too many fantastic blogs on ELT in the blogosphere, and the fact that some of you do take a little of your time to read what I’ve got to say means a lot. I only wish I could have already met most of you. If only I’d been to one of the many conferences in Europe, I’m sure I’d have even more reasons to be thankful for all that Doing Some Thinking has done to me.

Now, two years on, I’d like to ask you two things:

  1. How many posts do you think there have been in these 2 years?
  2. If you may, is there any old post you particularly enjoyed reading? One of the challenges I participated was about finding the gems in the blogosphere. I’d love to hear which blog posts I’ve written were somehow interesting to you.

And one last time, I’d just like to thank you for your time to read the posts, for sharing your thoughts, and for helping me grow professionally. I’m sure I wouldn’t have made it this far if it weren’t for all the feedback I’ve received. You’ve certainly helped me keep it up!

Here’s to some more time doing some thinking together. :)

Anyone up for a celebration? Thanks for reading! :)

 

Why should we take it so personally (or not?)

May 30, 2011 9 comments

On her last blog post, my dear friend Cecília posed a question that may intrigue many teachers out there. Are we indeed that humble so as to concede all merits for learning for the students, and yet be as worried as one can be when a group is not doing so well? Why is it that we tend to praise our students’ accomplishments so much more than our own? If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I do believe we should worry a lot more about students’ learning than with our teaching, but this doesn’t mean I think teaching should be underestimated. It’s more a matter of a change in our mindset and understanding of teaching than anything else. If only I were able to be succinct, I could probably sum it up in a sentence or two. As I can’t do it, I may still guide you to a previous post of mine: about teaching. Moving on to my answer to Cecília’s post, why should teachers take it personally?

In her post, Cecília asks a couple of questions, such as this:

Why do we see our students’ failure as our fault, and on the other hand their success as something they’ve achieved all on their own rather than something we’ve helped them achieve?

Share the load, shall we? / Photo by Vijay Chennupati on Flickr

If only I could say I had an answer for that question, but I can venture a guess. I’m pretty sure many teachers have already been asked why they have chosen to be teachers. There’s a big difference between being a teacher and being someone who goes into a classroom to teach a certain subject while still looking for a job. I’ve even had a skype chat with Cecília herself in which we briefly talked about why people choose to be teachers when we know for a fact we’re going to have a hard time making a living (at least in Brazil). Truth is, I don’t think we choose to become teachers – we simply are. There’s something altruistic about being a teacher, and our biggest rewards is our students’ mastery of whatever it is we’re trying to teach them. Teachers, in my humble opinion, enjoy seeing their students thrive, and as we see some struggle while others succeed, it might be only natural for us to believe that we play a very small role in their learning experience.

We couldn’t possible make a bigger mistake. Whenever I’m asked about a language course by any of my friends, my answer is always the same. And this is true for any kind of course. It doesn’t matter what you’ll find in this or that course; what truly matters is who you’ll find. After having been through a series of learning experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing replaces the teacher when it comes to learning – and it’s the teacher’s job to make him or herself unnecessary as time goes by. Contradictory? I’m sure most readers of this blog will agree with me. Teachers expect their learners to be able to walk on their own feet, to be able to discover new things and thread uncharted territories on their own. One of the best graduation speeches I heard was one in which the teacher said, “You’re now ready to learn the language.” We give them the tools, we teach them how to use them, and we are sure they’ll be able to use them effectively when the time comes and we’re not there.

Perhaps it’s because we care so much that it’s easy for us to concede all credits to students when they succeed, and it’s only because we care so much that we think we’re the ones failing when they seem to be struggling to learn something. If we didn’t care that much, we’d perhaps think differently, but, let’s face it, if we didn’t care as much, we wouldn’t be real teachers, would we?

To answer the last question in Cecília’s post:

When it comes to your students’ learning – or lack of – who’s responsible?

If we’re ever capable to analyse the situation from a more rational perspective when things happen to us, we’ll come to terms with the fact that we’re teachers and there’s only as much that we can do. There’s absolutely no way we can please everyone. We can only do our best to foster an environment conducive to learning, we can try to motivate learners, get to know them better so that our classes are more interesting. In the end, though, it’s paramount we understand we are not ultimately responsible for their learning – there’s a part of the process that depends on them and them alone. Teachers can make a huge difference, but they cannot be solely responsible for learning or lack of it. However, there’s one thing I’m sure of: good teachers can certainly help good learners to live up to their full potential and help learners with difficulties succeed. If a student has got a lot of potential but his or her teacher isn’t capable to challenge and push, it’ll all go to waste. That’s our responsibility – to make a difference. Theirs is to be the difference.

These four walls…

There's a whole world outside. Trust me, you're not trapped! / Photo by Tim Pearce on flickr

This might come across as cliché to those of you who read this blog. I mean, one of the best things about blogs and twitter is that we are able to find people who are willing to share. This is the main advantage I can see in this “new” media. Many teachers do tell me that they can’t see why they should be on twitter, or that there’s no time to waste with it. I can even understand the time issue – I myself have been struggling with time this semester – and I do try my best to listen to and understand the reasons why people think this world of twitter and blogs is nothing but a fad and a waste of time. However, there’s one thing I cannot put up with – people who can’t listen to what others have to say. And it gets worse than that… but this is not a rant; a praise it is supposed to be. A praise to twitter, blogs and what it has got to offer to teachers.

This week, as I was teaching a lesson on approaches and methods in ELT to a group of post-graduation students, we finally got to the point of discussing The Lexical Approach and Dogme. This is the second time I teach this course, but it somehow feels different. A couple of years ago, when I first taught it, I wasn’t that involved with twitter and blogs, and the fact that I’ve joined this group has made a difference in the discussions I hold with the students. Someone said that these two tools have leveled the play field in the world of ELT. It certainly helped me to go beyond the world of academics and authors that I used to read before. Thornbury, Harmer, Puchta, Nunan, Ur, Meddings, and Brown (to name but a few) are still required reading, if you ask me. However, there are just so many other great people out there who can now be heard regardless of a publishing contract that it’s made our lives a lot easier. We can now read what Karenne Sylvester, Jason Renshaw, Shelly Terrell, Cecília Coelho, Willy Cardoso, Mike Harrison, David Warr, Dave Dodgson, Sabrina de Vita, Richard Whiteside, Sara Hannam, and many other people that know what they’re saying and whose posts are consistently good, have got to say. Maybe they were already part of your readings, but I only started reading these people after joining twitterville. Those were the days when publishers and editors chose who we had to read. But it’s done a lot more than merely allowing content to be spread and commented on.

On April 26, while I was talking to my students about Dogme and teaching unplugged, I couldn’t help but remember some of the activities that had been shared online by some of the bloggers I read. Among these activities, I briefly demonstrated Jason’s The Wandrous Whiteboard Challenge. Obviously, it generated some discussion in class and we started coming to some conclusions. “Oh, if only I could get Jason to participate in this class…” did cross my mind. However, as this was something that had sprung up out of a class discussion and I hadn’t really planned to have such a long discussion about these activities. A whole bunch of coincidences happened at this point. First, I had already talked to my students about both #eltchat and #breltchat. Second, it was a student’s birthday, and her friend had asked me if we could have a short break as she had bought a cake. During this short break, some of the students asked me again about twitter, and when I opened my tweetdeck, I saw that Jason had just tweeted something. I immediately tweeted him back, telling him that we were discussing one of his activities. Jason asked which activity we were discussing and this is what followed:

We ended up having a fantastic skype session, as Jason was really kind to make an impromptu appearance in our class. This was absolutely amazing, as students had the chance to ask questions to the person who actually had written the text. If I could get Luke and Scott to skype while we were discussing about Dogme, Richards and Rodgers to talk about approaches and methods, and Harmer to discuss CLT, my job would pretty much be to bring the computer to class and call them on skype. :)

The four walls of any classroom have been brought down. Those were the days when the teacher was supposed to be the only one who knew everything in class. We can now share the load – it’s much easier to do what we preach. Get students to learn, not memorise. Get them to discuss points, to reflect. Invite other people to enrich the discussion. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to invite the person whose activity I was discussing at that very moment, and one whose knowledge I learned to respect. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The four walls around us no longer exist, but only as long as you don’t want them to exist. If your co-workers are not willing to discuss ELT issues in a way that fosters growth, never mind. Twitter has become the largest staffroom ever. Oh, and everyone there is willing to share, learn, and discuss. I’m sure you can learn how to use it effectively, and, once you do, you won’t regret it.

Categories: General thoughts, PLN, Teachers

True Education is Timelessness (or “Beware of Fads”)

April 7, 2011 11 comments

I’ve recently had the chance to read and analyse a text with some of my college students that got me thinking. Actually, ever since I heard about the idea of digital-natives and all that  goes with the idea of digital-literacy and the changes in education, I’ve been thinking about this topic (you can see what I think about it on this post). The text is called “The Saber-tooth curriculum“, it was written in 1939, but just as the title of this post (which was taken from the text), it remains, in some ways, timelessness.

What's the point in learning how to fight saber-tooth tigers? / Image by burgundavia on Flickr.

It is the story of an educator and the very first school curriculum there was. It all started with the idea of creating schools, and teaching children some skills tha were necessary in the lives of adults at that time. There were only three subjects, and I guess we can allude to Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind and its utilitarianism upon a first glance at the text. If you allow me to do some analogy here, the eternal question, “Why do children go to school?” has always been answered by, “To learn the things they’ll need to know in order have a successful life in the society they’re inserted in.” Maybe you don’t even agree with this answer, and I myself have some reservations, but I consider it quite a satisfactory answer to why schools have been created and why they are organised the way they are these days.

What I’ve been pondering, though, is whether we’re going in the right direction with all the pressure towards digital-literacy and the way it’s being done. Most of the things that are quite popular these days have just yet been invented; many of the things that didn’t exist in Y2K have already been created, used, and dropped ever since. We’re witnessing a time of change that is as swift as it’s ever been. Is it really our goal to teach our students how to use so many tools we find useful for our lives today? I don’t know about you, but I really don’t think what we have at our disposition these days is what will be around in the next couple of years.

It is my opinion that technology will soon be ubiquitous. It will simply be, and most computer companies are working as hard as they can to make sure computers are as user-friendly as possible. I remember I had to learn how to use Basic in order to create my own software when I was really young (10, 20, 30… who remembers the command lines?), and later DOS (what was it that we had to type, anyway? Cd/? Dir /p?). Then we had windows, and life was a lot easier with the pointing with a mouse and clicking. Even those who didn’t think too much of computers started using it. Let’s face it, the computer industry had their way. As an industry, they wanted to sell more and more computers. As long as computers were complicated to use, not many people would be willing to learn how to use them.

Changes have been happening at an ever-faster pace – just think about how long it took you to go from a touchpad to a multi-touch screen device. If we try to teach our learners how to use whatever it is they have at hand, we’re just trying to catch up with something that will always be ahead of us, and when children finally finish school, they’re likely to have to learn new things over and over again.

This is exactly what makes me wonder whether we can only prepare children for the future if we teach them how to use tech, or if we have technology available in our classrooms. I honestly don’t think it’s a matter of “only if”, but a matter of “regardless of”. Children have got to be prepared to face a world that is entirely different from the world we once knew and that was presented to us when we were children. This is the main challenge teachers ought to face.

More and more often I hear teachers and employers complaining about the fact the new generation of students and workers do not go beyond what they are taught. They can be trained, but they seriously lack any kind of autonomy and independence to face even the slightest challenging of the tasks. A lot is said about fostering autonomy and independence in education, that this is the ultimate goal of education. Are we running the risk of creating another generation of educators who, similarly to many English language teachers, are nothing but repeating a mantra without actually knowing how to do as they say? I’ve had the chance to interview my share of English teachers who seem to parrot, “I use the communicative approach in my classes, obviously!” However, upon being questioned what the communicative approach is, their answers vary (as they have) from merely talking to students to focussing on grammar (??).

We sure need to foster autonomy, and learners have got to be prepared to face the many different things they’ll have to deal with in life. If we think that by teaching them how to use today’s technology is going to help them, we’d better think twice. They’ll use technology because it’s getting easier and easier. It’s soon to be ubiquitous, as I said before. But I’m pretty much sure that the technology they’ll have to use in 5-10 years’ time is going to be far different from anything we may be able to teach them today. We go back to the fundamental question that teachers should always ask themselves before each and every class: Why am I doing what I’m doing in class today?

Learners will be trained in their future jobs, and they will have to know how to learn. This, in my opinion, is what we should be doing. We should be teaching our students how to learn, not teaching them how to use technology because it allows them to communicate with the whole world and gives them a real audience. Speaking to the world is a natural consequence, something that is unavoidable; we need to teach them how to collaborate and work together with their peers, those people who are sitting next to them in the same classroom. What we need to do is teach them the basic skills that will allow them to function in any other setting they may be inserted into. Autonomy is also taught little by little, and we’re only truly autonomous after we’ve achieved a certain level of mastery in whatever it is we’re learning.

Why do we have schools? Why do we teach? We teach because we want to see our children able to thrive in life, regardless of what they face. It doesn’t matter how skilled students are. If they do not learn how to talk to people, how to make and take criticism, how to read, understand, and draw conclusions from what they’re reading, they’ll not succeed. These are the fundamental skills that will trigger the whole system into motion. In a way, it’s a bit like going back to the “bare essentials”. Instead of trying to embrace the world, focus harder on the little things – the big things will take care of themselves.

What’s your take on that?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,440 other followers

%d bloggers like this: