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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.

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