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Teaching for Learning – Why Helping Learners Earn their Learning Matters

March 21, 2013 8 comments

A while ago I wrote a text about teaching, and even though teaching is one of the key elements in lessons, learning is, obviously, part and parcel of the process that takes place in lessons – it’s the actual aim of lessons. If teaching is a lot more than transmitting information, learning is more than simply receiving information. What does learning imply, then?

Learning implies being able to transform information into knowledge, first and foremost. For one reason, information is widely available to anyone who’s got access to the World Wide Web, but the only thing this has done is leveling the play field for those who have access to the wealth of information the Internet provides. Those who live in areas where Internet access is nothing but an idea inspired by a sci-fi book should, therefore, fear that the gap is only going to increase between those who have access to the Internet and those who are still oblivious to this world. But who said information is the same thing as knowledge?

Being knowledgeable means you’re able to purposefully and intentionally use information to tackle the myriad challenges you face in life. If all you are able to do is retrieve an event from memory and repeat the same steps, you haven’t necessarily learnt anything. If, on the other hand, you’re able to use information from a past experience, assess what could work for the situation at hand, you can probably say you’ve been able to transform that piece of information into knowledge. This may help in the creation of possible solutions to future endeavours.

What I mean to say here is that knowledge – on most occasions – precedes creativity. It’s a lot easier for us to come up with creative solutions for problems once we’ve been able to transform the information into something a lot more relevant than a simple memory of something to be reproduced. When we’re able to come up with our own solutions for a problem, learning has taken place. It goes far beyond simply being able to apply the information we’ve received to another situation, though that is part of the process.

Learning implies a willingness to go further, which demands a good deal of effort. Learning does not take place if there’s no effort involved. It is the degree of effort involved in the learning process that will make the difference between being informed and being knowledgeable. It’s the fine line that divides learning from just remembering for a short period of time. If you want to learn something, you’ve got to earn it. If you’ve earned it, you’ve learned it.

We’ve all been told that education is the one thing no one can take away from us. This is so because education is not something that is bestowed upon us; it is something we need to work hard to achieve. Fortunately, until we reach the point of autonomy, the tipping point at which it’s a lot easier for us to develop on our own, teaching makes the difference.

Teaching, however, is only effective when it instigates learners to think. At the end of the day, teaching doesn’t have to be fun to be effective, though it’s easy to see that we tend to dedicate ourselves a lot harder to learn something that is fun. Teaching can, obviously, benefit from engagement on the part of the learner, but to get down to what really matters: teaching, in order to be effective, must ultimately be thought-provoking. Effective teaching is the kind of teaching that leads learners to make an effort to use their reason and make sense of things. It is paramount that learners be required to think and pay attention in order to learn.

Needless to say, learning, just like teaching, is a complicated concept to define and to contextualise. Yet, it’s clear to me that for learning to take place learners need to be challenged to the point of making an effort to want to go further. Learning as a process doesn’t benefit from always having someone making things easier and easier, or a lot more fun. Learning precedes fun because it is, in itself, motivating and engaging as long as real learning is happening.

The relationship you build with your students does matter a lot more than you may want to believe when you think of their success. | Photo by Vandy CFT on Flickr

The relationship you build with your students does matter a lot more than you may want to believe when you think of their success. | Photo by Vandy CFT on Flickr

This is why learning should be seen as a dialogic process, co-constructed between the teacher and the learner. It is why the Socratic method of questioning still awes and works when applied effectively. At the risk of sounding trite, learning is not about providing the right answers, but it is all about asking the right questions. Questions are the fuel for continuous learning. And in order to ask the right questions, teachers must learn to listen and react to what their learners are saying. Learning won’t occur simply because someone has told you that you have to learn A or B, but it may work if you yourself are somehow forced into finding the answers for A or B.

Ultimately, learning doesn’t depend on formal teaching, but any kind of teaching may foster or hinder learning. What kind of teaching fosters learning? What can teachers do in the classroom to make effective learning take place? The answer lies in the kind of relationship the learner and the teacher establish. It doesn’t take anything else than a teacher and a learner for learning to take place, and it also takes nothing but the relationship between the teacher and the learner to ruin learning. Is it somehow clear how important it is for you to earn the right to teach if you say your teaching is focussed on learning? Do you help your learners to earn their learning? And if all you want is a catchy ending, does your teaching put the EARN in LEARN?

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.

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:

A class, two chats, and an interview

May 15, 2011 10 comments

Honestly, I hadn’t really planned to write a follow up to my previous post. However, things just seem to happen in a certain way and you have to do your best to adapt and make use of them to your advantage. I’m a strong proponent of meaningful and interesting conversation used to promote professional development. If you keep yourself open to learning possibilities, you’ll certainly see that people everywhere are dropping hints on how you can improve your game if you listen carefully. I had mentioned Jason’s participation in my class on my previous post, and students told me they enjoyed it so much that I could actually get a second guest teacher in that class. this time, it was Cecília Coelho, and we had a marvellous talk about assessment. Time was, again, an issue. Unlike Jason, who is in Australia, Cecília and I share the same timezone. Yet, our teaching schedules make it somehow hard for us to connect. I thoroughly appreciate Cecília’s effort dashing home to join the class – and I also thank the students for staying a bit longer than usual. It was definitely worth the while! :)

In addition to all of these wonderful co-teaching moments in my class, I’m also really happy with our #breltchat. In case you’re an English teacher in Brazil and you still haven’t heard of it, then you should pay a visit to our blog and join the conversation. #breltchat is the younger brother of #eltchat, a chat for English language teachers eager to discuss some issues we have to face on a daily basis in our profession. #eltchat takes place every Wednesday – twice! Currently, the first chat starts at 8:00 a.m. and the second one at 5:00 p.m. Brazilian time. This is a very successful chat on twitter, and 5 Brazilian English Language Teachers decided it would be a great chance for us to help Brazilian teachers develop and think about the particularities of our educational system. Bruno, Raquel, Valéria, Cecília and the one who writes you gave it a go and, fortunately, a wealth of Brazilian English teachers bought the idea and have made it a success. We hope it keeps growing from now on, and I’m sure the teachers who started participating in it won’t drop the ball now! :)

Anyway, our last chat was about Dogme and we decided we were going to try and interview some of the Dogmeists out there so that they could explain the concept better to teachers who still don’t know much about it. We also asked them about a couple of possibilities and suggestions that could possibly work in Brazil. Apart from Willy (interview coming up soon, hopefully) I don’t think they actually knew much about our educational system in Brazil, but they still agreed to help us think about some matters. You’ll soon be able to watch all 5 interviews: Fiona Mauchline, Luke Meddings, Scott Thornbury, Shelly Terrell, and Willy Cardoso.

Learning from a conversation? Well, I guess then these interviews are going to give you a lot to think about. On behalf of the #breltchat team of moderators, I hope you enjoy this interview with Scott Thornbury. Oh, and I hope you can get past my initial nervousness… trust me, it gets a lot better after the first answer! :)

http://vimeo.com/23712883

I’d like to, once more, thank Scott for his participation (and apologise for my poor introduction). I’m sure this interview will be helpful to many teachers out there. :)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this one. All 5 interviews will soon be available at #breltchat. In the meantime…

  • Watch Bruno’s brilliant interview with Shelly here.

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?

Journal entry – HMUN and some thoughts on pronunciation

February 7, 2011 11 comments

It is customary for Brazilians to say that the year only truly starts in Brazil after our world famous Carnaval. This is a tongue in cheek remark, obviously, but I may just be getting the feeling that my 2011 is still about to begin. I’ve just returned from the US with a group of students who went there to participate in Harvard Model U.N., or, simply put, HMUN. The trip was amazing, and even though it was a lot of hard work, it was also an opportunity to take a break from the day by day routine. The feeling that I get about 2011 still being about to begin refers to my posts on this blog, though. There were just so many things to take care of before the trip, and then while we were there, it was pretty much impossible to keep up with everything that was going on both on the blogosphere and on Twitterville. I noticed I missed some #ELTChats I’d love to have participated in – if you know me you know I’m talking about the one on pronunciation.

Can I transfer my MA to MIT? :)

 

I have to confess that I have only read a couple of blog posts ever since I came back as I brought with me an undesirable companion – the flu. Still, I’d like to add a word or two on the matter, if you will bear with me for a moment. I had the chance to visit three different cities with 25 high school students, and they can all communicate effectively in English. Most of them have already finished their English language courses as EFL learners, or are about to finish it. Our first stop was Washington D.C., and our very first meal was, guess where, at McDonald’s. That was just the beginning of the junk food route, which included lots of pizza places, Subway, Flammers’, and what have you. Language-wise, what caught the eye was how hard it was to speak to an American instead of a Latino. Anyway, after D.C., we went to New York and sent a little more time there. Students were given some freedom to go around Macy’s and Times Square to do some shopping, and I won’t even mention the Outlets. That was not a problem at all, and they could all, I repeat that, communicate effectively in all these places. They were able to buy things, meet new people and hold conversations without a problem. Their command of the language is pretty good for that. They had very little problems with accents and they all told me they could understand, if not all, pretty close to that. These are students who study in the same high school, but take their English lessons in many different language institutes, which means their teachers, coursebooks, and contact with the language was also diverse. Yet, they could all communicate.

Then came Boston, and with it, the HMUN. Now this is a situation that is a lot more challenging for English language learners as a foreign language mainly. Not only did they have to communicate, but they also had to play the role of delegates in the U.N. They had to remember to use formal language, they had to have good negotiation skills for all the unmoderated caucus that took place, and they also needed to be able to speak in public fairly well. Every time I think of speaking in public, I remember Jerry Seinfeld’s bit about it where he says that speaking in public is the number 1 fear in America. Guess how it must have felt for EFL learners to stand up and deliver a speech that had to be one-minute long in front of more than 200 teenagers from all over the world.

One of the things that struck me was that these students who had just had living proof that they could communicate quite well and even handle problems in English, suddenly were a bit self-conscious about their command of the language – vocabulary and pronunciation, mainly. I wonder what the reasons for that might have been, but it was clear that they were a bit self-conscious about their pronunciation and vocabulary, and also about their accent. Now I don’t think that the accent is a problem – having an accent is actually the norm rather than the exception, isn’t it? However, what shocked at least some of them the most and even prevented them fro asking for the floor and speaking on the mic wasn’t accent, it was pronunciation, and I’d say mainly supra-segmental features, or just connected speech. This was the first shock, for sure. And I can certainly put myself in their shoes because I once felt like that when I was learning English, and sometimes even after I had become a teacher. Looking back, I can clearly see that pronunciation was overlooked when I was studying English. It took me a long while to overcome the commonly held view that you can only become fluent in a language if you live in a country where the language is spoken. Honestly, I don’t think so, and I have many friends and fellow teachers that can easily prove me right. Just like me, they have never lived or studied abroad, and yet one of the first questions they hear is “Where did you live abroad?”

I have serious issues with taking the teaching of pronunciation lightly and thinking that students will simply pick it up. Just the same, I think that some teachers of advanced levels (B2+) sometimes see their students’ fluency in the language as a sign that students should come to class just to practise conversation skills. It is a class, let’s not forget that. Learners at higher levels can contribute a lot more to it with input and the amount of language that emerges, but they are there to learn more. Being able to communicate is enough when you are going shopping, sightseeing, or casually meeting someone. However, we can’t forget that we don’t know what our learners will be using the language they are learning for. I really don’t think it’s nice to see learners finishing their English courses and still feeling unprepared to deal with situations they might be required to face in their future. It’s been such a long time since, skipping Willis for a while, Michael Lewis published “The Lexical Approach” and talked about the plateau that learners reach after reaching an intermediate level. Yet, it seems to me that there are many teachers who still fail to push students beyond the plateau and show them there’s a lot more they need to learn. Perhaps this is why it’s getting harder and harder for us to see coursebooks being written for C1 level students. I can’t say I have seen it with my own eyes, but I have already heard of times in which students were required to pass their FCE exams before moving on to the advanced levels of certain language courses. These days seem to be gone. Nowadays it’s actually becoming rare for us to see students being able to take a prep course for CAE after they finish their English courses. Isn’t it time we raised the standards again?

*** If you’d like to see some of the pictures from this trip of mine, feel free to do so clicking here.

Motivation – or Motive for action

December 8, 2010 17 comments

Some people spend hours playing with a Rubik's cube. Personally, it's never appealed to me. Photo by Gabriel Rocha

What drives our actions? What are our true reasons for trying to accomplish certain deeds – from the simplest ones to the most complicated ones? And why is it that we sometimes quit when things get too complicated? What is it motivation and how does it affect our learning experiences?

Brown, in his Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, classifies 3 different perspectives of motivation: behaviouristic, cognitive, and constructivist – if you have the fourth edition, you can find this on pages 160 – 166. Is there a right way to look at motivation or we, as complex beings, are under the influence of all of them depending on the experience we’re being subjected to. For example, if we think of a classroom activities in which students know they’re going to be rewarded, does this mean their reason to carry out the activity is the anticipation of reward (a behaviouristic perspective)? Or do they all start doing things because everyone else in the classroom expects them to do so. As Brown (p. 161) puts it,

Each person is motivated differently, and will therefore act on his or her environment in ways that are unique. But these unique acts are always carried out within a cultural and social milieu and cannot be completely separated from that context.

If we take that perspective (constructivist) into account, that means that people depend a lot on the others and the environment to be motivated to do things. Well, looking at it from this point of view, it means that it is indeed very important to observe our students closely and pay attention to their behaviour. It’s amazing what a positive influence may do to a group, and it’s devastating the effect a negative remark may have. We’ve all seen it happening. If I remember one of my favourite movies of all times, Dead Poets Society, the effect that Mr. Keating had on his students (and the effect each motivated student had on the others) is just stunning. Another example we can see is in a completely different kind of movie, but still dealing with the same matter of motivation – Braveheart. When the Scots were to fight their very first battle against the English, a negative remark from one of them nearly made them all give up on the battle. However, when they see William Wallace talking to them about what they should do, with all that passion, they realise that there are certain expectations to be met. Those who aren’t certain of what to do just follow suit. It’s pretty much as if they needed reassurance from the group.

I’ve seen things happening in the classroom that both made it or killed it for an activity. When most students start enjoying the activity, it cascades and it’s bound to be successful. If, on the other hand, most students feel the activity is boring, others tend to follow suit. What does this mean? Can’t people really think for themselves? Is peer pressure so strong? Thinking about these questions at this very moment, I’m inclined to say that this happens more often than we may want to believe. Each classroom has its leader, and it’s key that the teacher identifies this leader sooner than later. Of course this doesn’t mean get to this one person and that’s it. I am of the opinion that all count equally in the classroom, and if you’ve been reading this blog you’ll know that. But things might be a bit easier if you know that you can count on A or B to get the rest going. Transcendentalist R. W. Emerson had it when he said that,

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

But what about the cognitive perspective of motivation? This is when we see internal forces at play, and we all have this kind of drive. This is innate to human beings, and we can easily see it when we are given any kind of object to play with. Show someone a Rubik’s cube for the first time and this person will instantly start playing with it. It is the need for exploration, the seeking of knowledge, and the need for ego enhancement among others. But, ah, if only we didn’t think that much… just as we feel like playing around with new object or learning about new things, we also think about the degree of effort needed to master a skill, for instance. And this is when it gets boring, as most students say it. For instance, suppose you want to learn how to play the guitar. You want to do so because you think it’s a nice instrument or because you feel other will think best of you if you know how to play the guitar. In the beginning, you learn how to play a couple of songs and you start practising day and night those very songs. However, there comes a time when you realise that it will take you a lot of effort to get to the next level. You then analyse whether or not going through such an ordeal is profitable or not. If you think it is, you carry on. Otherwise…

This is, in my opinion, what happens to a couple of language learners. They feel that learning a second language might be a good thing, or they’re made to believe so by their social context. They do learn a couple of things at first, which motivates them. Let’s face it. Learning and, most importantly, being able to do things is motivating. Once we start being able to do things, these things magically become fun to us – in all areas. If you’re playing a video game and you suddenly realise you can do it well, you’ll have fun playing it. If you can’t play it well, you’re likely to label it as boring and move on to the next thing. If you succeed at learning a foreign language, you’re likely to enjoy attending classes and studying it. If you aren’t that successful, and if you notice that you’ll have to study extra hard to learn it, and if you can’t see any benefits in doing so, you’ll probably say it’s boring, or that you can’t learn it. And, if you bear with me for a moment, you’ll all agree that we’ve had in our classes students who had told us they’d never been able to learn the language, or that they find it boring, but then a change of behaviour is clear once they can understand bits and pieces of films, songs, or just a casual conversation at school.

What motives us into action, what drives us, is tricky. There are, as Ur said in her A course in language teaching, some factors of extrinsic motivation that are affected by the teacher. We can’t do much about intrinsic motivation, but we’ve got to worry about making sure those students who are intrinsically motivated remain motivated. As teachers, we can always look at, as Brown says it, orientations: instrumental or integrative. All this helps us decide how to best engage and motivate our learners. I guess I’ll end this post with what Harmer says in How to teach English,

One of the main tasks for teachers is to provoke interest and involvement in the subject even when students are not initially interested in it. it is by their choice of topic, activity and linguistic content that they may be able to turn a class around. It is by their attitude to class participation, their conscientiousness, their humour and their seriousness that they may influence their students. It is by their own behaviour and enthusiasm that they may inspire.

Teachers are not, however, ultimately responsible for their students’ motivation. They can only encourage by word and deed. Real motivation comes from within each individual.

And in case you haven’t seen it, here goes a video by Daniel Pink on Motivation:

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