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An introduction to systemic functional grammar – By Phil Chappell

February 7, 2013 12 comments

Right after I published a post on grammar and the verbs in English, Joanne Pettis asked for a text on Systemic Functional Grammar. I was fortunate enough to receive the following tweet:

Phil kindly agreed to write a guest blog post on SFG. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and also that you find it useful and helpful!

An introduction to systemic functional grammar

By Phil Chappell

There is a lot of misunderstanding among the ELT community about functional grammar. I won’t go through these ideas in any detail here; the main thing I want to do in this post is to show its usefulness for language teachers, no matter what kind of program you are teaching in, no matter what level your learners are, and no matter what methodology you subscribe to. So, what is functional grammar?

Defining Functional Grammar

Put simply, Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) is a grammar based on the view that language is a system for making meaning. Systemic refers to the fact that when we use language, we make choices from sets of available options. This is contrary to the traditional view of grammar as sets of rules. Functional assumes that every time we make a choice from the available options, we are doing so in order to fulfill a communicative purpose. And Grammar simply refers to the fact that there is an overall organisation to all of these possible options.

History of SFG in Language Teaching

Now by itself, this brief explanation may not be revealing anything especially new for teachers who teach both form and function of language. Indeed, those who do may not know that these terms originated in the work of Michael Halliday, the founder of SFG, and whose work was pivotal for the early moves to Communicative Language Teaching. Michael Halliday’s work in linguistics was highly influential around the time that language teaching was starting to shift its emphasis on mastery of language structures to mastery of communicative competence. Halliday himself developed his interest in linguistics and grammar through language teaching, first by teaching Chinese to English speakers, and later on teaching English and Russian to Chinese speakers. Indeed, Halliday’s functional grammar and theory of systemic functional linguistics has been a foundation for communicative language teaching; it also underpins the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for languages.

The theory behind SFG

But it’s not all just form and function to express meanings. SFG helps teachers and their learners work with whole stretches of language in order to develop their potential to communicate in the target language. This is made possible by the linguistic theory underpinning SFG, known as Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). Different cultural and social contexts lead speakers and writers to choose differently from the repertoire of language that they have at their disposal. SFG is an extremely useful tool to help teachers make sense of how language works in different social and cultural contexts, and thus be better equipped to help their learners understand these differences. This can refer to spoken or written texts (as SFG is based on the notion of text), and can range from everyday casual talk, through to a formal interview, a short email message, or an academic paper. In a nutshell, SFG helps us describe how language is used between people, which contrasts with traditional grammar that prescribes rules for using language.

Text and Context

By using systemic functional grammar (SFG), the teacher has a powerful tool with which to mediate her/his explanations of language, and thus mediate the learner’s understandings of how to use the language they are in the process of learning. This tool is the bridge between context and text – between the sociocultural setting in which the speaker is conducting her/his activity and the language that is a part of that activity. The tool is called Register, and gives the teacher the ability to pick away at the context of language use and identify:

  • the field: what is going on in the activity
  • the tenor: who is taking part in the activity
  • the mode: the part language plays in the activity.

So, each time you present a text to your learners, you can start with establishing the context, as above, and then proceed to highlight whatever grammar is important in each of the three areas.

An integrated grammar

Looked at individually, it is possible to, for example, identify the kinds of vocabulary that is relevant to the field, the kinds of interpersonal language that is appropriate for the tenor, and the kinds of textual features (say, cohesive devices) that are going to help the spoken or written text along. The Field might be a group of friends talking about the Australian Open tennis tournament, and therefore the vocabulary is mostly related to tennis things, people and actions. The Tenor is close friends who see each other regularly and thus have a lot of common understandings. The interpersonal language will be informal, without much language of power or authority, and possibly banter and joking. The Mode is likely face to face spoken language with speakers able to give each other immediate feedback.

Taken together, SFG provides a rubric for language teachers to plan their teaching around (be they spur of the moment explanations, or whole lessons) and for language learners to sort out in their own minds where, when and how language can be used to successfully communicate across social and cultural settings.

To come: putting SFG to work in language lessons. Some practical applications.

In the meantime, see my colleague, Annabelle Lukin’s video introducing SFG.

———————-

Phil Chappell

About the author

Phil Chappell is a Lecturer in Macquarie University’s Linguistics department where he convenes the Postgraduate Certificate in TESOL. His current research interests are in dialogic approaches to classroom learning and teaching, the role of linguistics in TESOL preparation programs, and novice teacher cognition. He taught English for many years in Asia and Australia before entering the wild world of academia.

Guest post – Teacher Luiz Eduardo (Dudu)

August 4, 2012 6 comments

Hello everyone! I know I’ve been quiet on the blog for a couple of months now, I do have some (good) reasons for that. First and foremost, this blogger got married in June, which meant a lot of hard work with planning everything, and a bit of partying afterwards. I’ve also attended and participated in the 13th National Braz-TESOL convention in Rio de Janeiro. I was really honoured for having been invited to be the MC for the convention (and I hope those who attended it thought it was a decent job), and I also presented a Pecha Kucha in the very first PK night in the history of Braz-TESOL. Most importantly, it was a great pleasure to have the chance to attend the convention with other staff members. One of these has actually written a guest post and has kindly accepted to be published here. Without further ado, here comes the first text of this new semester in Doing Some Thinking, a guest post written by teacher Luiz Eduardo, or, simply put, Teacher Dudu. I hope you enjoy what’s to come!

 

The teacher must have a heart

After attending a week of professional development, such as the 13th BRAZ-TESOL National Convention, teachers normally go back to their schools full of new ideas. They heard Christine Coombe talking about the 10 characteristic of a highly effective teacher; Kathi Bailey speaking about the bridges to link what students can say to what they want to say; Ben Goldstein and the metaphors in English; Jim Scrivener developing the interaction between teaching and learning; David Nunan mentioning the proto-language and real language; Luke Meddings giving ideas to teach unplugged; Herbert Puchta showing thoughtful aspects about Neurolinguistics; Nicky Hocky and the digital literacies; Jeremy Harmer elucidating the myth of multi-tasking; and Lindsay Clandfield talking about critical thinking, among other speakers. And I’m not even mentioning what teachers have certainly learned from all the workshops and talks they have attended in addition to the plenary sessions.

Photo on Flickr by riekhavok

Although they have probably enjoyed learning and remembering so many things, they now have a big problem in their minds, which is how to apply all those things in their classroom. Is everything suitable to their reality? Should they try to do everything they have heard from these highly-respected professionals in ELT? But… how???????

This is exactly my point in this reflection. Though teachers should always try to keep up to date, they are the ones who know their students, classroom, school, city and country. They are the ones who must feel when to use certain activity. They should know how adapt activities to different contexts. They have to make students embrace the activities and the ideas they’ve been presented with. They are in charge of the responsibility to teach their students. Finally, they are the ones who have to cope with such diverse teaching situations.

Thousands of activities without feeling aren’t worth it, just as feeling without any activity is equally worthless.

It’s possible to say that the teacher should have this balance: to keep up to date, but always remembering that they need a reality filter. As Christine Coombe ranked ’the calling to the profession’ as the number one characteristic of a good teacher, I think I can say that the teacher’s heart is this reality filter I’m talking about.

I fortunately work in a school which encourages teachers to try new ideas, and to be always pursuing self and professional development. I am, most definitely, looking forward to putting to use the new ideas I had during this fantastic brainstorming week.


@teacherdudu

I am a teacher at Atlantic Idiomas in Brasília, Brazil. I was born and I’ve grown up here in Brasília, the city which has the most beautiful sky in the world. I have a BA degree and teacher’s course in History from Brasilia’s Federal University (UnB). I am finishing my undergraduation Language course, majoring in English, this year; also at Brasilia’s Federal University (UnB). I’ve been teaching English since 2004 and I really love what I do. From now on, I want to participate more actively in the online teaching world.

Postman knocked twice and Through the Stained Glass Window – Guest post by Fiona – Parts 2.1 and 2.2

May 24, 2011 16 comments

If you haven’t read the first guest post written by Fiona, you definitely should – click here. It’s always been my idea to have this blog as a space that would help me reflect on teaching, learning, and education in general. I’m really thankful to Fiona, as she’s certainly helped me do some thinking, and I’m sure this will be the same reaction that many of you will have. My opinion may even be biased, as her words strike a chord with my views, but even if that’s not the case, there’s good food for thought below. ;)

Postman knocked twice

Remember the film? Originally The Postman Always Rings Twice, but a sliver of poetic licence is not a crime, and has a double purpose here. First of all, there’s the dogme connection: one has to admit That Scene is an admirable example of making good use of what’s in the room.

But more to the point, Postman. At the recent ISTEK conference, Scott Thornbury named New Yorker Neil Postman as another of the major influences on his career and professional ‘take’ on ELT. (see Holes-in-the-Wall for more on when and where). Scott showed his audience a video of Postman ostensibly poo-pooing the use of technology, and great hoo-ha ensued, with Twitter alight seconds after the Postman segment of the talk. Tweets slyly winked at Scott for praising Sugata Mitra for his experiment using computers AND a man whose entire ethos was against technology. ‘Hmm’ I thought. Again, either it was me, or the reactions were too quick, the pouncing too keen, and there was obviously more to all this….surely?

Then, not long after, came the second knocking when another wave of attacks surged forth on blogs, facebook and elsewhere. So who was this Postman chap capable of provoking the audible clashing of virtual swords? Could his ideas really be that off-target AND influence someone who, let’s face it, is pretty major in our field?

In this post, I'm talking about one of the above; is it a), b) or c)? / Photos by a) José Camba b) cliff1066 c) unknown Many thanks to Brad Patterson as montage-meister.

Neil Postman was an American media theorist – one of the pioneers in the field – author and educator well-known for his attacks on the role of television and technology in (US) society. As a humanist, he was concerned that modern life was about machines rather than people, information rather than ideas, and he felt that television was taking over from school as the main source of information. He wrote around 18 books including Amusing ourselves to death and Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and he was particularly active between the 1960s and the late(ish) 1990s. Right now, on blogs and elsewhere, there is a significant amount of debate on Mr P (Prof. P, in fact) so it would be superfluous of me to duplicate that, but I found that, in the last week or so, while reading and pondering and reading some more and writing and rewriting, this post had started to head towards slightly different conclusions from the ones I had anticipated SO, as well as a brief look at his ideas and a medium-length chewing over of their validity, you’ll find my own little conclusions at the end, but I hope they’re of interest. :-)

Postman’s ideas: an overview

Postman’s main concern was the capacity to interact with information and what he saw as “the conflict between independent thinking and the entrancing power of new technologies” (quote from an obituary by Angela Penny in Flak Magazine). Initially, this meant television, which he felt spoon-fed society – and especially children – information, without them questioning it. Information had become entertainment, in his view, and laterally he also proposed that the information overload on children led to indifference in the face of violence, death etc.

Re. education, he suggested that TV had become the main syllabus provider, rather than school, and he also said that schools were not teaching children to think, merely to act as fact sponges.

By the 90s, Postman’s Huxleyan view of our Brave New World was really taking the ‘worst-possible-scenario’ line. He saw humanity as becoming ‘slaves’ to machines, and thought the world would be full of doers rather than makers, producers rather than creators, information rather than ideas.

Famously, speaking against technology and modern society’s unquestioning acceptance of it, he gave the example of buying a car, saying that when offered electric windows, he would ask the salesman what problem they solved, rather than buying the model with the electric windows ‘just because’.  He also pointed at information and technology as culprits behind a modern loss of childhood, as children post-1950 were increasingly exposed to adult information, dressed as adults, played ‘adult’ sports etc, and he claimed that this was the main factor behind a modern child’s ever-lessening respect for his elders, as the boundaries between generations were now unclear.

Of course no thinker or author, however great, only has great ideas. And when ‘influenced’ by a person, we may in fact only be influenced by one idea or one work. Lars von Trier may have been the inspiration Scott Thornbury drew on when choosing the name for his unplugged teaching approach (Dogme) but who would assume by extension that he, ST, also sympathises with a certain moustachioed German dictator? So rather than look at ‘the validity of Postman’, let’s consider his ideas. This is how I see them (though if this is coals to Newcastle, you could skip to Through the stained glass window below):

Hit or miss?

Off the mark:

The main ‘problem’ with Postman’s ideas is history; they remind me of fashions or films, some ageless, timeless, like classier, more elegant items, true masterpieces, and others like – well – New Romantic clothes or Madonna’s films – totally dated. He seemed particularly caught up by that pre-Millennium paranoia which had computers and machines taking over the world. As I read his Technopolis arguments, such as this:

When I hear people talk about the information super highway, it will become possible to shop at home, and bank at home, and get your texts at home, and get your entertainment at home, so I often wonder if this doesn’t signify the end of any community life (from an interview in 1995)

I was reminded of a film I called Denise calls up, about a group of friends whose only contact with each other is via computers and phones. They have reached the point at which they are all afraid of face to face contact, as it is ‘outside their comfort zone’. A father even attends the birth of his child by phone (ie he attends by phone, the baby isn’t born by phone!). It’s quite a bleak film, but does have an optimistic (albeit small) note at the end. When I checked IMDB, I discovered the film came out in 1995, the same year as Postman made the statement above AND coincidentally the same year as the Dogme 95 film movement was born. PURE coincidence? I think not. I also feel that Postman made his predictions assuming that time and progress are linear, but of course they are not, and the birth of interactive internet, also around 1995, knocked progress from that path of doom. The clips Scott recommended were dated 1998. The word ‘blog’ first entered our lives in 1999.

While Postman was ‘wrong’ in this sense, he was just a man of his times. How many folk hit the panic button in 1999? Not a few. As a person who gave birth in December 1999, I still remember being treated as a moron by many members of staff, particularly the US contingent, who were far more tech-savvy than the gently skeptical Brits, for not having stock-piled nappies (or even daipers) for the New Year calamity. Ahem. Yes, well. We made it through, somehow.

Sorry. I’m descending into anecdotes.

Also, it is true that kids aren’t as kid-like now as when we (or at least some of us ;-)) were kids. But  it goes way beyond TV and marketing, and to even attempt to analyse that is not what this post is about.

On the mark:

Education is depersonalised in many contexts (always has been), and information and elbows-on-the-table study is prevalent. Transmission rules, ok? In ELT, CLIL is taking the place of imaginative compositions and personalisation (though only where it is NOT used alongside EFL) and children, including my own offspring, can recite monarchs, the parts of a plant and the Periodic table in two or three languages, but have never written a poem or a story. Postman advocated an inquiring mode of education based on the questions students asked and wanted the answers to, rather than the type that answers questions nobody has asked (though this was not exactly a new idea, he may have brought it to new people), and he championed ideas over information. It would be hard to label that as a passing fad. He saw education as a community activity with minimal teacher intrusion, encouraging critical thinking, rather than an individual, isolated activity. His idea was that if you teach a man to work out how to fish and to ask where the fish are, rather than teach him to fish or give him a fish, you’re not just providing him with food for a lifetime, but with a skill that can be applied to other areas. Surely this has relevance in ELT? Learner autonomy. Learner-centred classes. Learner-negotiated syllabus. Support for learners to be able to ask questions right from the start. Dialogue rather than teacher-monologue. A ‘try again’ attitude, rather than a ‘right/wrong’ attitude. Teacher as facilitator rather than  transmitter. Peer teaching and a similar line in co-constructed knowledge to Sugata Mitra’s experiment. And to Scott’s Little Idea.

He also favoured interaction with information, in order to help form opinions and reduce the chance of people accepting things at face value. Can we dispute the validity of that argument?

Young Spanish people interacting with information and expressing an opinion, May 2011.

As for Postman’s car/electric windows analogy….well, it depends, doesn’t it. When I bought my car, I was offered air-con. I said no thanks. I lived in the Canaries at the time, where opening the (electric) windows is enough to keep cool. In that context, air-con was surplus to my needs. It was an expensive extra and I was more interested in having a decent radio. (A radio may be an extra in many people’s eyes, but not in mine.) However, my car and I then moved to Seville. Need I continue this paragraph??

It's too darn hot. / Photo by bredgur from Flickr.

Suffice it to say, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying no to something you’re being sold if you can’t see a justifiable reason for it – but justifiable reasons will often depend on context and  person, so generic statements like You (Do Not) Need Air-Con are totally misleading. This is a way of hooping-looping back to the dogme & technology debate…you can use technology if it’s totally justified as being the best way to do something, if it’s appropriate and desirable in the context (ditto for dogme itself, of course), but otherwise why swallow the sales?

End of part 2.1…

Read on if you dare… :-)

Through the stained glass window.

Having read a considerable amount on the subject of Postman over the last week or so, I have come to some conclusions of my own, other than those above (Postman knocked twice). This is the more ‘floaty’, philosophical stuff that pops into my head while at the steering-wheel or in the shower. Read on if you dare… :-)

A stained glass window with its myriad of colours was the image that came to mind, as I chewed over what on earth I thought of Postman…..he seems to provoke such extreme reactions, hero or anathema. And I do like to question and inquire. I’ll admit, he doesn’t inspire me radically in either direction, as his ideas remind me of many others – the questioning mode goes back to the Ancient Greeks – but he did make me think a lot about the following:

Inquiring

Inevitably, I’ve already mentioned some conclusions regarding the type of education Postman was advocating, but just in case, it boils down to the need to be aware and beware of spoon-feeding – and of course this is in total agreement with the conclusions from Sugata Mitra’s experiments, not in conflict with them at all. Both S. Mitra and N. Postman show/argued that the role of the teacher in the transmissive model was inappropriate or even undesirable. While Postman was discussing this in New York, Mitra was proving it in the Indian subcontinent, so it really isn’t a case of ‘oh yes, well, in the West….’. Context is vital in some senses, but people learn basically in the same manner, although their cultural baggage and expectations may be different.

Dogma (as opposed to Dogme), thrive from the passive, spood-fed type of education, so, if we as teachers wish to impose limited vision dogma on our students (or simply an imposed inflexible syllabus), we teach them; if, on the other hand, we would rather they discovered, thought, questioned, processed, created, engaged etc, we should help them learn. The difference is tremendous. As Willy Cardoso (@WillyCard) tweeted the other day ‘All teaching is by definition teacher-centred’ to which my reply was ‘And all learning is by definition learner-centred’. And answering that question they haven’t asked…. that doesn’t sit too well with me. The imposed syllabus in general. I write materials fully expecting teachers to modify them to suit their students, to be selective. But following a syllabus, a syllabus the students have had no say in, with little or no regard for the students as individuals or as a specific group, as some people do? Hmm. Could it be that Postman and Freire shared an opinion here? A similar point of view? So perhaps Postman, Freire and Sugata Mitra come together on this one? No contradictions here. Here we have… coherence. And personally, I not only think we should encourage our students to think, to question and to process while working as a community, but we should help them imagine, dream, express themselves, create and feel confident, hearing an inner voice saying ‘I can do this, I have something to say, I have something to share with this community’.

But that’s just me.

Context

Another thing that came to mind, while reading all this information (henceforth a swearword – I have definitely suffered from information overload while working on this!) on Postman, is the importance of context.

  • The context in which those tweets were sent.
  • Historical context (pre Millennium bug, pre ‘social’ internet)
  • Context defining needs, not generic needs.

Maybe Postman would have been chuffed, but I found myself questioning the critical tweets, those gut reactions, and looking to find what it was that seemed to jar. Of course, it was the fact that the context of the reference to Postman was a talk entitled Six Big Ideas and One Little One. NOT Six Great People and One Little One. So we should have been focussing on the ideas, not whatever it was that Postman himself inspired in us. People are far more complex than their individual ideas, and none of us are mono-dimensional, fortunately. Nietzsche stated something to the effect that truth is the sum of all possible perspectives, which I tend to agree with but Nietzsche also said a lot of other stuff that…. well….

Historical context. We are all the children of our times, and as such, we dogme types need to consider technology as an option, and I think most (all?) of us do, simply because it’s part of where we are in history, it’s ‘here and now. However, we should all – whether dogmer, techy or other – consider the timeless elements too. NOT using technology is far more timeless than using it, as any electronic device will soon be replaced by a newer version. Somehow a flipchart doesn’t date as fast as a laptop; the newer model iDevice will always have more applications or abilities, while dialogue, despite the wealth of possible topics, is always essentially a conversation wherein some speak and some listen (also true of internal dialogue which I feel should also be encouraged, whether inquiring, imagining, rehearsing…). This is 2011: there isn’t a technology-or-not debate, or shouldn’t be one. And just how much technology depends partly on teaching context, partly on the validity of using it. (And what is the validity of using reams of photocopies that will end up in the bin, in our world of concerns for the environment and recycling? For example.)

What year was the photo taken? Five years from now, this will be a photo of antiques... / Photo by Graham Stanley, from #eltpics

Context defining needs. Just as my move from the Canaries to Andalucía affected my need for air conditioning (I still don’t have any, so I’m acutely aware of this need) so our teaching context or rather our learners’ learning context will affect needs. For technology or for anything else – though perhaps not for electric windows. ‘Ah, Postman was a Luddite!’, well, he wasn’t, so the literature says, he was just cautious in his use of Things, not subscribing to them just because they seemed cool. He needed to see a purpose, a justification, and I don’t think this is worthy of criticism. Some folks are just like that, particularly those who don’t buy into consumerism. In a teaching context, of course, we need to consider our learners more than ourselves, but the needs of the class should be the driving force behind what goes on during a lesson, and that will depend on context more than on what the teacher considers cool. ‘Things should solve a problem’ says Postman. ‘Things needn’t solve a problem, they can be for entertainment etc’ say the blogs. Well…. context. If you’re in Palestine or a Brazilian favela, a classroom in Shanghai, or an academy in Zurich your students’ needs are going to be different. Feeling you’re in a safe, stable environment or learning how to do a powerpoint in English? One size does NOT fit all, and you don’t need youtube to make music. Hierarchy of needs, and all that. I’m in Europe. Many of my teens need someone to listen to them, someone to allow them to speak, to ask questions, to believe in them, to motivate them. They rarely NEED technology….. though on occasion, well hey, they do. Context.

Teacher people

And this is the last stop on this long and winding road. The Postman’s route, I suppose. It’s about people. Teachers, in fact, rather than learners. But teachers as people and as … humans.

It strikes me there are three basic types, although, as with the terms visual, auditory and kinaesthetic, if you imagine the typical Venn diagram, that would be closer. The three basic types, in my mind’s eye, are the To be, the To do and the To have types. We seem to define ourselves and our values according to these verbs, albeit subconsciously: humanists, existentialist or consumerists/collectors. Prof Postman was presumably not a To have type. I don’t think it’s coincidence that these are the auxiliary verbs in English, or that we have two or three verbs for ‘do’ concepts (make, carry out…) while other languages may have two or more verbs for ‘be‘ or for ‘have‘. The bottom line is, they’re what life is about. Here’s how I look at the types (brush strokes, but you should get the idea), and NOTE, I’m smiling as I write……..

Context is vital – and is he a be, a do or a have person? Hmm. / Photo by Victoria Boobyer from #eltpics

Be folk: ‘I am what I am‘ (or ‘I think therefore I am‘), ‘Less is more‘. These are the ‘who I am as teacher, who my students are as learners and people‘ folk; they’re interested in learner styles, teacher aura, visualisation, sensory stimuli, inner dialogue/voice, mind’s eye/ear …They read and possibly own Stevick, Rinvolucri, Underhill, Arnold, Skehan, Gardner and Teaching Unplugged ;-)   Keyword: Who

Do folk: ‘To do is to be‘ ‘So much to do, so little time‘. These are the ‘how to teach, how should I do this activity? And how many different ways can I do this so my learners don’t get bored‘ people. They’re interested  in methods, the lexical approach, class dynamics, TPR, grammar games, pairwork v groupwork, adapting lessons for 1-2-1, hands-on learning etc. They read and possibly own Harmer, Lewis, Ellises, Krashen, Ur, Hancock and the Cambridge or OUP teachers handbooks.   Keyword: How

Have folk: ‘To have and to hold‘ (or To Have and Have Not). ‘You need one of these‘ These are the ‘what I need in terms of materials to use in order to reach/engage students‘ folk. They’re interested in materials and technology. They read blogs by Peachey, Stanley, Hockly et al and resource books  (on a Kindle or similar). They own a wealth of gadgets, applications, flashcards, board games….  Keyword: What         ;-D

Obviously, these definitions are slightly tongue-in-cheek (though many a true word …), and we’re all a combination of all three, so, like a combination of the three primary colours, we each have a personal palette, but I’m sure that in life we give priority to one ‘colour’ or another according to our character. Brad Patterson, who has helped me with bits and bobs in this post, says of himself “I’m a do kinda guy 4 sure, but with lots of be activity”. As for me, I’m a be-do-be-do-be-do sort….. so I love music… no, but that explains my whole lifestyle as well as my preferred teaching style and reluctance to adorn my lessons with large amounts of material or technology. I’d far rather be digging and planting in my garden than out shopping, too. Il faut cultiver and all that.

But rather than just considering different learners, auditory, visual and kinaesthetic, maybe we should be more tolerant of different teacher types too, be, do and have, and look at our profession through multi-coloured, stained glass windows – after all, it’s a great, vibrant, living, breathing view.

Photo by creativity and Tim Hamilton on Flickr

Post-data: Two mini challenges for you.

a) Are you a be, a do or a have person? Or a combination of which two, predominantly?

b) Scott named 6 Big Ideas that have influenced him, none of which are from the world of ELT. Can you do the same? How about 3 Big Ideas or Great Names? Who, what and why?

Guido (@europeaantje) is a teacher, but is he a hedonist (be), a swimmer (do) or the owner of the pool (have)? And you? / Photo by @europeaantje from #eltpics

I live in Cáceres in Spain, a beautiful and inspiring sort of place to live, and I’m a teacher, trainer, writer. mother and life-enjoyer. Although I originally trained as a translator and interpreter, I’ve been in ELT since the late 80s and, as a person who trained when Headway was just out, I now tend to teach dogme and am co-moderator of the Dogme web group. I’m big into visualisation, sensory stimuli for the imagination, motivating even the ‘grottiest’ of teens, learner-generated materials and a heap of other things, many of which are not related to teaching, but I give workshops on the ones that are ELT related. I’ve also written coursebooks and other ELT materials.

Many thanks for both guest posts, Fiona! Absolutely loved reading them!! :)

It’s also made me revisit some (very??) old posts of mine, in case you’re interested:

La Pasión Turca – Guest post by Fiona Mauchline

I don’t think I’ll ever cease to be blown away by twitter and what all the connections we can make there. Even though I can’t put my finger on the exact moment I met Fiona Mauchline on twitter, I certainly remember the moment her thoughts called my attention. If I’m not mistaken, after one or two innocent tweets with another tweep, the discussion got momentum and, as it usually happens on twitter, a whole bunch of tweeps came onboard to join the discussion, and Fiona was one of these. At that very moment, I knew it would be a great chance for me to have a guest post here, as she was certainly making me do some thinking. She’s also the author of two blogs, macappella and blood, sweat, and gazpacho. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her post, and I do hope you all enjoy it too – oh, and Fiona, I’ll definitely have you back for part 2!! It was definitely worth the while! Now, without further ado, here it comes!!

La Pasión Turca

or

Holes in the Wall and Postman knocked twice.

At the recent ISTEK conference, Scott Thornbury gave a plenary session listing the six most significant influences on or sources of inspiration for his own professional development and direction. As is becoming the norm for these events, Twitter was a-flutter with tweets during the plenary, and while many merely passed on the birdsong, some chirped in less dulcit, more sceptical tones.

Of course, a good plenary will always provoke anti as well as pro opinions – the worst thing that can happen to you in a talk is to provoke no opinions whatsoever – but as I read the tweets, I couldn’t help but feel that some people were either simplifying to the extreme or slightly missing the point, in relation to two of the ‘influences’. Since then, I have found myself pondering those tweets and what it was that made me feel uneasy, sense that those tweeting weren’t looking closely enough. I have found myself pulling over into lay-bys to take notes and chewing my pen in coffee bars. This post is the result of those ponderings and, as such, is totally non-empirical, but if you don’t mind that and a couple of spoilers, read on.

Part I: Holes in the Wall (of dissent)

First there was The Wall; then the Hole-in-the-Wall... / Photo by TofflerAnn on flickr

In 1999, Professor Sugata Mitra, now of Newcastle University in the UK, carried out the first of a series of experiments he called the Hole in the Wall (HIW) experiments whereby he literally made a hole in a wall in a rundown urban district in New Delhi, India, and installed a kiosk containing a computer. He also installed hidden cameras nearby and waited and watched what happened. Local children crowded round to teach themselves to use the computer and the internet, with no external ‘bothering’ by teachers. Mitra called this Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). With the success of this initial experiment, other hole-in-the-wall computers were installed in India and, latterly, in Cambodia, and the results were similar. As a by-note, these experiments were also the original inspiration for the scriptwriter of Slumdog Millionaire… However… What Scott said he had drawn from these experiments was the fact that children – or learners – do actually have an innate desire to learn and will both absorb information and be motivated to learn if the circumstances are right. These experiments also favour learner-centred learning and put a huge question mark over the role of Teacher as generally perceived by The Establishment. In fact, they show that a teacher – or at least an adult Teacher is not always necessary.

But the tweets went out ‘Ah but they worked because it was all about technology’ ‘It was using computers that made the experiments work’ ‘How curious that S Thornbury should be inspired by experiments showing that computers help education’. And this is where I beg to differ.

Professor Sugata Mitra works in Educational Technology, yes. That is his current field and he was using those experiments to find out if using computers and the internet is something that kids can learn for themselves. Rather like Chomsky might try to find out of we have grammar hard-wired into our brains. That was his ‘agenda’, if we can overlook the negative connotations of that phrase.

However, Sugata Mitra is not a Mr, he’s not a research students or a Microsoft employee, he’s a Professor, and a polymath at that. He has also worked in other scientific fields, and what brought about his interest in computer networks was his work on neural networks and cognitive science. By the time he carried out his HIW experiment, he had also being studying learning styles as well as learning devices for years. So it’s fair to say that he probably based his experiments on rather more than a desire to find out/show how cool computers are in their ability to teach children to, um, use computers (NB not to teach them languages). And personally I think the  conclusions that can be drawn from the experiments are multiple. The following are my own.

In terms of showing the virtues of technology per se, the bottom line is that the HIW experiments proved that use of computers and the internet is easily self-taught (backed up by the fact that even I’ve managed it) or semi-peer taught (peer-teaching was also highly influential in the children’s success), which, in turn, suggests that overt teacher-led teaching of internet/computer use in schools is a waste of time as, given the right environment, kids will teach it to themselves. This should ideally result in an effect on school time-tabling… It also means that we can get on with our jobs as language teachers and have little responsibility, moral or otherwise, for teaching IT, which in turn means that doing IT (pun intended) or not doesn’t much matter, as you aren’t intrinsically smarter, more professional etc. either way. It simply indicates different teaching styles, different choices, different preferences, underlying characteristics of being human.

It also means that, despite what many of us ‘older’ (ie more aged) language teaching types may think, technology will only add a WOW factor to our teaching in areas where access to computer/internet use is rare; in other areas, children will be self-taught from an early age and furthermore will simply ‘do IT’ without much thought. Technology will not make a class memorable just because. We should only use technology in class where it’s fully justified (and sometimes it is), not because we think it’s ‘gonna be cool’. T’ain’t what you use, it’s the way that you use it, to paraphrase an old jazz number. Common sense to many, unfathomable to a few.

However, on the other hand and nevertheless…

to my mind, Sugata Mitra’s experiments showed a lot more than a couple of characteristics of technology. What the children were actually doing rather than what they were using is more significant in terms of implications to language learning. Without any reference to Mitra’s conclusions, here are mine (largely drawn up while sitting in the car) with some implications as I see them.

You too can smell the Kingdom of the Gnomes!

The HIW experiments were about kinaesthetic-visual learning. Much teacher-fronted teaching is aimed at ears, which is pointless in a society where children find listening harder and harder. In many cases we actually need to sharpen students’ listening skills before we can start. The HIW experiments were based on, essentially, hitting keys in a trial & error way, reading instructions on the screen and then clicking on the appropriate thing, watching other children using the computers, and working together. Children learn to use video consoles in the same way, so perhaps it’s not news in the area of children-using-technology, but the kinaesthetic-visual combination is also behind the huge success of the scratch & sniff Geronimo Stilton books which have seen many 8-10 year-olds start reading for pleasure, expanding vocabulary and improving literacy. Not just black words on a white page, these books incorporate words written in a way that makes their meaning clear, and include scratch & sniff pages to appeal to/revolt the senses. The books are fun, and they work. So perhaps language teaching should pay even more attention to this combination, using more mechanical, visual, and sensory stimuli to enhance learning, and making the teacher’s voice/presence less intrusive, more of another resource or back-up system on hand for support. Personally, I have worked a lot with this idea, particularly with under 8s and over 13s, with wonderful results, and others I know who have also worked with it say the same.

We also succumbed...

Secondly, what children in the HIW experiments were doing was a type of puzzle-solving, an activity which is intrinsically motivating (think of the popularity of Sudokus, crosswords, illusionists etc) and forms the basis of much of our learning in life. I noticed last December at our town’s Christmas Market that the stall you could hardly get near was one selling wooden puzzles. In particular, boys and men would stand mesmerised trying to rebuild a town, release a bottle or fit all the pieces back together. At this ‘hands on’ stall, the concentration was total, the sense of satisfaction great and, I suspect, the sales figures impressive. So if problem-solving has such a pull, whether in middle-class Spain or less salubrious areas of New Delhi, why not incorporate more into language teaching? Yes, many ELT materials nowadays do (although the grammar box still refuses to relinquish its grip) and some teachers do, but there is still too little of it and too much spoon-feeding. Yes, educational software is good for problem-solving, but it is not unique.

Thirdly, as well as learning from the screen and from trial and error, the children learnt from each other. Peers replaced adult teachers. This has always been the case, for example when kids get together to kick a ball around or to build a kite/tree-house/den/go-cart. The implications here are clear – group/team work, peer-teaching/correction. Again, the teacher’s role in the language classroom should be reviewed and this idea of group constructed knowledge embedded in teacher training not only for us CELTA/DELTA types but across the board.

Finally, the HIW experiments strike me as being somewhat rooted in behaviourism – as much of human learning is – in a ‘get it wrong, it doesn’t work; get it right, yippee’ sort of way. So my final implication is that children should be allowed to get it wrong and not be penalised during the learning process, simply encouraged to try again until they get it right (‘right’ meaning ‘get their message across, achieve communication’ at early stages – polishing can come as they develop and become used to reworking, to trying again, rather than to being demotivated by red pen and numbers). Rewards should be as significant if not more so than penalties. A sense of ‘you’ve won the key to the next stage’ would replicate the computer experiment observations and what keeps kids on those pesky video games for hours ;-) This, of course, means reviewing how we deal with errors and feedback.

Now I’ve far outstayed my welcome, but there was another ‘big idea’ that got a volley of tweets and, indeed, is still causing ripples and waves, so I shall leave Part II of La Pasión Turca (dangerously called Postman (always) knocked twice) for another day…. if Henrick will have me back!

The author of this post!

I live in Cáceres in Spain, a beautiful and inspiring sort of place to live, and I’m a teacher, trainer, writer. mother and life-enjoyer. Although I originally trained as a translator and interpreter, I’ve been in ELT since the late 80s and, as a person who trained when Headway was just out, I now tend to teach dogme and am co-moderator of the Dogme web group. I’m big into visualisation, sensory stimuli for the imagination, motivating even the ‘grottiest’ of teens, learner-generated materials and a heap of other things, many of which are not related to teaching, but I give workshops on the ones that are ELT related. I’ve also written coursebooks and other ELT materials.

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