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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?

Quick reminder about teaching

February 17, 2012 10 comments

Are you sure you’re focusing on what really matters most, or are you going to focus on the smallest part and assume that’s enough?

Set your priorities right!

If you think that:

TESTING = TEACHING

Then you also think:

INFORMATION = KNOWLEDGE

Which means:

TEACHER = INFORMATION SUPPLIER = ENCYCLOPEDIAS & INTERNET SOURCES

Which will soon lead to:

COMPUTERS > TEACHER

If you think others don’t value what you do, show them how much you matter. If others don’t care, you should care. Make your teaching count a lot more than test scores do. Real teachers know that:

TEACHING > ASSESSING > TESTING

Teachers in training

February 15, 2012 9 comments

What's deep for some may be shallow for others... | Photo on Flickr by FeatheredTar

Suppose you want to start teaching English. Now, suppose you have never taught English before and that you’re looking for a way to start your new career. This is the moment you will get acquainted with acronyms and abbreviations such as TEFL, TESOL, CELTA, DELTA, TTC and a couple of others. I mean, you may come across these if you’re lucky (?); another possibility is sitting through an initial pre-service session lasting anything from simply receiving your textbooks and a quick hello from your coordinator to a longer training session to teach how to implement the magic method that is likely to – ahem – make all learners, from all sorts of backgrounds, learn English magically and miraculously. Ask any experienced professional in the field of ELT and you’ll hear that there are, until today, many language institutes that abide by rigid methods from the days of yore.

On a different note, you may have come across this post that questions whether teacher preparation courses are dangerously irrelevant or not. This is something that strikes a chord with me as I’ve been involved with teacher training and development for quite a long time, and this is likely to become my main activity in the foreseeable future. Are teachers really being prepared effectively to what they’ll face in the classroom? Are they being prepared to deal with the fact that the role of the teacher is changing faster than many of them would like it to? The question, to me, is not whether teacher preparation is irrelevant or not, but whether we’re doing it right or not.

I guess one of the most complicated things these days is that we’re in some sort of a conundrum – many teachers believe that what matters is what you’ve learnt, and not the piece of paper you’ll get afterwards. Yet, teachers themselves tend to only favour teacher training programs that will give them a piece of paper to be described in their CV’s without actually looking for learning opportunities that may also be fruitful. But instead of questioning the validity of certificates and such, I train my words at another target. I’m yet to hear from any teacher who gave informal PD a serious chance through actively participating and engaging in the world of blogs and twitter the words that I hear from many teachers who are forced to participate in sessions given by their school – it was a waste of time. Much on the contrary, actually. You don’t even need to ask, teachers who engage in PD online are the first ones to say they have learnt more in 8 months of twitter and blogs than they’d learnt in 4 years of college. Even if this is something that we can’t measure scientifically, it does say something. The message conveyed here is the one that we experience a sense of progress we don’t usually experience when we are shoved training sessions.

Could this be easily explained through motivation? We do know that motivated students tend to learn more effectively, or at least they try much harder. When we’re told what to do, do we look at it as if someone else tried to tell us what we need and, even if it’s subconsciously, sabotage any learning experience that may come from that? Is the belief that teachers should know all so ingrained in some (most?) teachers that it prevents us from opening up and making our weaknesses seen? Do we honestly believe that we know everything someone is trying to teach us? All of these could be drives for our motivation, which would then lead to lack of commitment in any kind of teacher training programme.

On the other hand, when we think of online, informal PD, we soon discover that it’s all about sharing. We’re not being taught, we’re discovering things together, exchanging ideas and opinions, but not being told, “this is right, and that is wrong”. Is the fact that we don’t need to fear being graded, or is the fact that we feel we’re not being judged or assessed so liberating that we finally open up for learning? The intriguing thought to me is that we can certainly see the benefits of sharing online, learning from so many different and interesting people, and yet fail to see that we may also learn from those next to us. How many teachers, for instance, would be dying to attend a conference with only ‘local’ teachers?

Training and development are two different things, but if we believe that teachers are not to be replaced by machines and computers, if we believe that teaching is a lot more than simply transmitting information, then we should embrace each and every opportunity that comes our way. But how do we know what is worth? This semester I’ve decided to deal with teacher training and development more as tutoring than as lecturing. Is this the right way to go? Well, at least there’s one thing I’m sure of – it’ll certainly help me spot talents and identify those who are willing to walk the extra mile and separate the wheat from the chaff. In a smaller scale, tutoring makes it harder for those who simply attend lectures and sit in classes to get away with laziness and last minute cramming.

By and large, traditional teaching is not as beautiful as we wish it were. There are many “teachers” who could care less about their work and don’t really worry about their students’ learning. And it’s a shame that many schools (at least where I live) look at education as if it were simply another business and give these “teachers” a job. this is why the best place to find like-minded educators is online and elsewhere instead of in the same teachers’ room you’re in. Isn’t it time we started changing this and accepting that the guy next doors can teach us, in the broad meaning of the word, as well as, or even better than the VIP speaker who comes and talks to an audience for a couple of minutes? But most importantly, isn’t it time we accepted that, as teachers, we should be open to learning and developing? Teacher preparation is not dangerously irrelevant, but perhaps our attitude to it is.

You’ve got to be a teacher to get it

October 19, 2011 43 comments

I’ve always heard, even from my teachers, that teachers are crazy people, especially English teachers. If we look at it carefully, we may see why. Here’s a list that you are more than welcome to add to. What is it that only English teachers do? Only English teachers…

Photo on Flickr by Denise Carbonell

  • Say COME – CAME – COME and expect to be understood.
  • Correct people when they say “It’s me” instead of “It’s I” and don’t understand why people can’t get it right.
  • Keep spelling words to people when they say they haven’t understood a word you’ve just said.
  • Constantly ask people to discuss in pairs or in groups something that needs no comments on. (“Oh, yes, Steve Jobs has passed away. Talk to your partner about it!”).
  • Ask people to use the subjunctive and expect them to really know what that is.
  • Find it annoying when people ask “Who are you looking at?” instead of using whom.
  • Watch movies and pay closer attention to the chunks and expressions used than to the plot or the action.
  • Laugh out loud in the movie theatre in the saddest part of the movie due to horrible subtitles.
  • Tell people that they are using a plosive instead of a fricative and don’t understand why they can’t get it right!
  • Tell his or her students that what matters is communication, but keep pestering them for using the simple past instead of the present perfect.
  • Find it normal to ask someone to touch their upper teeth with their lips.
  • Don’t understand why is it that people don’t know names of book authors as well as they know who soap opera stars are.
  • Find it interesting to discuss about family, the environment, relationships, celebrities, museums, and places you’ve been to every semester.
  • Watch all videos on YouTube with their lessons in mind, and not to unwind.
  • Know 458 different way to put students in pairs but end up always using the same technique.
  • Expect students to use sophisticated vocabulary and structures every time they say something. It’s obvious that you should always say “a bewildering array of options” instead of “lots of options” – anyone knows that!
  • Feel that they’re being assessed every time they open their mouth to use English.
  • Tell students that it’s OK to make mistakes, that everyone makes mistakes, but cannot sleep at night because they sent a text message that wrote “I already did that” instead of “I’ve already done that”.
  • Spend hours online trying to find the next big thing that will get your students to study English outside the classroom.
And finally, only teachers know what it’s like to…
  • leave all troubles behind you when you close the door of your classroom.
  • be able to help someone really learn something.
  • treasure each and every student for who they are and what they can accomplish, and by no other standard.
  • share someone’s happiness for passing a difficult exam.
  • make a real difference in people’s lives.
A happy belated teachers’ day to each and every one reader of this blog. This humble teacher/blogger hopes that one day we, teachers, are valued by all wonderful and crazy things that we do. :)
Categories: Fun, Teachers Tags: ,

The tipping point or missing the point?

October 12, 2011 9 comments

Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be!

Arthur C. Clarke (1980)

If we don't TEACH, we might as well be doing the same thing...

Why is it that there’s still such heated berate concerning the use of computers, tablets, smartphones and other gadgets in schools? Those who know how to use such gadgets point out dozens of advantages and benefits for enabling learning. On the other hand, those who are resistant to adopting them in the classroom seem to fear the total chaos that these gadgets may instill in our classrooms. Yet, there seems to be a trend that favors the use of technology more and more in our classes. I like to think that the only reason why we debate so much about the use or lack of use of modern technology in classes is the fact that we’re living a time of change. The way we relate to others is changing, which makes it much harder to adapt. The thing is, in the near future, what is today called modern technology will be so omnipresent in our lives that there’ll be no point in arguing anymore whether we should use it or not.

Take tablets, for example. When the day comes that owning a tablet is so common as owning a (paper) notebook, it’ll be absolutely pointless to question whether or not they should be allowed in classes. If it ever gets to the point in which it is what students use to take notes, how are we going to prohibit their use in classrooms? There was a time when teachers debated the use of calculators in math tests. Even though I’m not a math teacher, I really don’t think that this has made students less capable of thinking on their own. If the questions are right, students will use the calculator simply to do the math. The calculator cannot think and solve problems for students. Nowadays, as far as I know, students are given a calculator together with their university entrance examination. Whether or not students are as capable of adding or subtracting as their grandparents is a whole different ballgame, and something that has to be addressed from a different perspective. As long as calculators allow for questions that require a higher order of thinking, I’m in favor of them. If teachers just want to ask what 2 + 2 equals to, that’s a problem with the question, not with the tool.

Debates regarding the use of new gadgets in education will come and go. Nevertheless, talking about it these days is likely to be a lot more appealing for we have been debating about gadgets that are a lot more prevalent in our lives than gadgets in the past. Another reason might be the amount of advertisement and money that is invested by the industry behind these gadgets. It’s a lot easier for us to have access to success cases, and if we’re not willing to do the research on our own, failures may as well be hidden or attributed to any other reason than the use of the gadget in itself. Regardless of the reason, technology in education has certainly gained momentum. Have we reached the tipping point? Are we risking missing the point?

How can we gauge the effective use of computers in our classes? How do we, as teachers, make sure that the tail is not wagging the dog? How do we make sure we ourselves are not being blown away by the wowing effect that new advances have in our lives? At the risk of sounding trite, I don’t think it should be that hard. I’ve had a computer in my hands ever since I was 6 (or maybe even younger than that) and I am keen on keeping abreast with new technology. Perhaps if I weren’t a teacher, I’d be a computer analyst. Yet, I’ve passed the stage in which I let the “WOW” moments beat the “OH” moments in my lessons. I do prefer “Oh” moments to “Wow” moments. I see teaching as helping others learn. A “wow” moment is the moment in which kids are amazed by what you’ve shown them. An “Oh” moment is the moment when something finally hits you – it’s the time in which you’ve finally understood a point. Teaching is far more than transference of knowledge, and any teacher who fails to see that will end up replaced by computers. Computers wow us all the time; teachers should help students “get it”.

For anything that you use in class, there’s a simple question you may ask yourself to help you see whether you’re missing the point or not: Does my teaching highlight the tools I’m using, or do the tools I’m using highlight my teaching? Always aim for the latter. Anything you choose to use in your lessons should be used to highlight your teaching, not the other way around. If the comment you hear is that your lessons are good because you always show students cool and funny videos, or if they like your lessons because you get them to use Facebook, Twitter, blogs and what have you in class, it’s time you asked them WHAT they’ve actually learned. Technology can help teaching for learning, but if it’s misused it’ll do way more harm than good. If there are too many “wows” in your classes, make sure they are not getting in the way of the “oh, now I see” that teachers should be aiming for.

What’s your PD story?

July 31, 2011 12 comments

When I first started studying English, it was in an environment that shunned the use of L1 in the classroom and favoured native English speaking teachers (NESTs) to Non-NESTs (NNESTs). In my very first class, the teacher did not speak a word of Portuguese. To be honest, as far as I remember, the teacher couldn’t speak Portuguese – he was a NEST. There’s only one thing that I remember from that teacher in particular – when he was trying to turn on the tape-recorder but was holding the power cord in his hand. It is only this goofy moment that I can remember from that particular teacher. Later on, I remember I had only NNEST as teachers, but the same restriction held true: no L1 in class!

Some people even fool themselves by telling other they keep their eyes open for new ideas. Do you know anyone like that? / Photo by DerrickT

As this was the experience I had when I was a language learner, it was what I believed in when I started teaching. I felt that I could never be a good teacher if I were ever to use L1 in the classroom. How often do we reproduce what we’ve lived? Many people I know claim to only “learn” how to do something if someone else shows them how to do it. They them start simply repeating the processes that they’d witnessed and that’s how the cogs of the machine kept moving. Every now and them, though, someone would look at the process and come up with a different way to make things move. If it worked, they’d be regarded as very creative people who had an awesome idea to make things simpler, while a whole lot of other people would look at the proposed solution and wonder how they could have missed such a simple thing. If, however, things didn’t work, that soon to be acclaimed creative fellow would then be called a crazy man whose far-fetched ideas were to be laughed at.

I honestly think that creativity is under-rated in our schools, but I just can’t help hearing a line from Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk whenever I see people praising every different and strange idea. Creativity is not the same thing as being wrong, and it’s not the same thing as having different ideas that might, once in a blue moon, work. What I believe in is that we need to know a lot about something if we want to be able to think about it more creatively. I’m not saying that knowledge and creativity are the same, but I certainly believe that the more you know about something, the easier it is for you to find creative solutions for the problems you have.

In the first year of my teaching career, I simply refused to hear about language classes that welcomed L1 in the classroom. It was, based on my experience and the kind of training I had, wrong in just so many ways that I couldn’t even fathom the possibility. I would attend seminars just to get practical ideas that I could implement in my very next class, and, looking back right now, I thought, after being in the classroom for a very short time, that I knew all that I needed to know. I thought that learning about the history of ELT, the myriad approaches and methods, and different things that people were doing was just a waste of time. What is funny is that this is something that I usually think about anytime I talk to a teacher who hasn’t been teaching long and who is reluctant to adopting a new approach to teaching based on his or her “vast” experience after being in the classroom for 3 years or so.

It was only after I attended my first large conference in ELT that I started looking at things from a different perspective. It was then that I first heard of the terms NESTs and NNESTs. It was the first time that it hit me: what I was doing in class was simply what I thought to be right based on what my teachers did in their classes. I had no clue whatsoever to why I was doing such things. Little did I know that there were people trying to find out different ways to help learners. Never before had I heard that there could be a reasonable way for people to use L1 in the classroom. It was during this conference that I also found out how passionate I truly was about being a teacher, on a very special session to me.

The conference I’m talking about is the National Braz-TESOL, in 2000 in São Paulo. To be fair, I was also fortunate enough to have, by then, two bosses who helped me immensely in this eye-opening process I had to go through, and one that I personally think all teachers need to go through themselves. It was in 2000 that I had the chance to attend a 3-day workshop on the use of Drama in the classroom by Ken Wilson. It was the first time I realized that, yes, it was possible to teach English in many different ways. It was on the very same conference that I first heard about the IPA and that there was a way for me to work on my pronunciation without having to live abroad. This and many other workshops have totally reshaped the way I looked at ELT. It wasn’t something done simply by repeating what had been done to me in my language classes – there was a whole world outside and all I had to do was look for more opportunities. It was only then that I started valuing the texts that those two bosses I had made available to us and that were not merely about grammar.

It was only after learning more about language teaching and learning that I understood how little I knew – something we are always told in our philosophy classes at school but we never really grasp it until reality hits. It was then that I realized that I didn’t have to fear using L1 in class as long as I knew when and how to use it. It was then I realized that I could learn many more practical ideas to implement immediately in class by learning more about theory than by just reading about practical ideas. The more we learn, the easier it is for us to find creative ways to better cater for our learners. The more we know, the easier it is for us to innovate. It’s the turning point anyone who wants to walk the extra mile should look for – use the right R: REFLECT, don’t simply repeat. And never ever wait for others to do it for you. If you want it, you have to get it yourself. Teacher development is easier than ever these days with all the online possibilities. My concern, however, is that there’s a new generation of teachers simply repeating what they’ve read online without thinking about how it could help their learners. Not everyone will be a trendsetter, but not everyone has to be a blind follower either. How many teachers do you know who had been teaching for longer than 5, 6, 7 (or more) years but who still think like teachers who have jus started teaching but truly believe they’ve already learned it all? And how many teachers who have just started teaching but are aware of the fact that they have to go beyond what their first employer has taught them? And, finally, what was your real eye-opener in your career? What’s your professional development story?

The five stages of PD for teachers

July 17, 2011 8 comments

It’s unavoidable. When you first start working as an ELT teacher, you’re given some kind of training and the truth is that it’s so well delivered that you blindly follow everything you’ve been told to do. After a while, though, you realise that the things that you’ve been told to do are not as wonderful as you were originally told, or maybe you get a new job and you have a different kind of training. All is fine if you’re an open-minded person willing to experiment with different things and taking into account that you have already studied at least a tad about teaching and learning. But what if you’re talking about professional development with someone who is not willing to change, or who counters every little thing you say simply by saying, “You’re wrong! I’ve never done that and my lessons work perfectly fine,” but these people aren’t exactly listening to your point. I’ve once heard that teachers’ egos are enormous, and to a certain extent I agree with that – and teachers who are not in the ELT world have already stated the same thing. Anyway, when being told about professional development, I can’t help but wonder the stages these people go through. It might be something like the 5 stages of death, I suppose. Let’s see if I got this right, shall we?

Stage 1 – Denial

“Listen, what you’re saying is a whole bunch of non-sense” or “if this were true, I’d have heard it by now.” These are some common utterances you’ll hear from teachers who have a vast 3-month experience in the classroom and who believe they already know what it takes to be a teacher. Another characteristic of teachers in this stage is that they refuse to listen to any new idea and call it just a fad.

Stage 2 – Anger

At this stage, these teachers start realising that they’ve been mistaken and can’t help but think they’ve been fooled by those who initially trained them. It’s quite common for them to blame their practices on their trainer and say that their trainer wasn’t good enough, and sometimes ridicule them (a big no-no guys, seriously). Another possible characteristic is being angry at the fact that what they had been doing for ages will have to be changed somehow. “Why did they have to write a new edition of Headway when the old one worked so beautifully? These #&$(@ just want to make us by a new edition because of the money… and now I’ll have to redesign all my activities” is likely to be heard from these teachers.

Stage 3 – Bargaining

This is when those teachers start, well, bargaining. They might even concede there are certain things they need to improve, but they’ll expect you to acknowledge that they aren’t wrong. They will usually say, “All right, I’ll try this new thing you have told me to, but you’ll see it won’t work” or “if I try this and it doesn’t work in class, will you then let me teach in my old ways without bothering me?”

Stage 4 – Depression

This usually happens when they realise their new teaching practices are actually helping their learners and they come to terms with the fact they’ll have to start studying a bit more, and reflecting a lot more on their practices. Some of these teachers feel guilty about so many things they could have done to help their students for so many years but they didn’t. This stage might also show itself after a teacher has been made redundant by someone who actually embraces continuing PD and is keen on sharing and experimenting new ideas in the classroom. It’s now that those teachers finally see they had stopped in time and need to do something about it.

Stage 5 – Acceptance

Now your trainees are ready to receive your input. It’s now the trainer’s responsibility to make sure those who have reached this stage actually see it pays off to learn new things and that these things will help them in their professional career. If the trainer does nothing, then we might end up with a teacher simply becoming more resistant to the idea of PD.

In case you still haven’t seen the video “The 5 stages of a giraffe’s death”, it was an inspiration to this post. What I’ve been thinking is that we sometimes have got to accept that what we so deeply believe in may as well be wrong, and simply trying to adapt it might just postpone the fact that we will have to deal with the problem sooner or later. I don’t think there’s a right way for us to teach, but there may be certain things which we need to radically change in our teaching. If you don’t accept a revolution is necessary, your old practices will always get in the way.

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.
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