Lately, it’s become mainstream to state that we should focus on students’ learning. By saying that we account for the obvious expected outcome of a teaching / learning environment – students’ learning. Currently, with all the debate on the impact of technology in the lives of children everywhere, it’s pretty obvious that we’re more likely to read and witness the promotion of change in education by the advent of technology. If used properly, it allows us to put students’ on the driver’s seat of their learning. We can get them to actually do things instead of just passively absorb content from the teacher or their course books.
There is also the idea of multiple intelligences and how it can be applied in the classroom given that we’re able to cater for different learning styles much more easily now that we’ve got access to the wonders of the myriad gadgets that are now part and parcel of a number of students’ school materials. Finally, criticism to tests as a means of assessment abound, and the notion that tests don’t teach is widespread. The main problem with this is that it seems to make a lot of sense. But why would this be a problem?
To begin with, in education we are dealing with the brain – something we don’t really know much about. In a recent National Geographic article about the brain, Professor Lichtman of Harvard University makes clear how little we have advanced in brain research by telling us that he usually introduces his course about the brain by asking students, “if understanding everything we need to know about the brain is a mile, how far have we walked?” The answer? 3 inches. When we think about how little we know, and we take into account the idea of intuitive heuristics, whose essence is described by Daniel Kahneman in the following very short sentence:
When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution. (Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow)
It might just be that the difficult question we’re facing these days is exactly the one that Sir Ken Robinson asked in one of his TED Talks. “How do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st Century given that we can’t anticipate the economy will look like at the end of next week?” Whether you like it or not, school and its purpose has to go through some serious revision. Another highly acclaimed advocate for change in education, Professor Sugata Mitra, tells us a story of where present day schooling comes from and what its early-day purposes were. He’s got a very strong opinion when he states that schools are outdated in the world we currently live in and the urgent need for change. And I don’t think we can argue against this point – the current system of education doesn’t suit the world we live in anymore. Hence, our need for change.
This might be exactly the difficult question we have to answer: how do we change our current educational system to cater for the needs of our present day society? The truth is that there’s no simple answer, but I’d argue that a lot of it involves a better understanding of how we learn. If we are unable to proper answer this question, very little will actually change. On the bright side, many qualified people have something to say about it, and not only about where we should be headed, but also a couple of things in relation to all the changes we’ve been experiencing as a society, with connectedness all around us. However, all that glitters is not gold, and before we actually buy into this or that idea, we should investigate further. It is likely that we may be supporting something that has little evidence of being true.
If we’re going to move forward, we will have to admit that a one-size-fits-all model of education is doomed to fail the majority of students and teachers. Let’s also admit that while we have plenty of beliefs, dogma, and rhetoric about how to prepare students for the future, we have little solid information about how to do this successfully. We have no idea about whether to limit or encourage their access to social networking, computer games, television and other forms of media. In the absence of real data, teachers and administrators rely on popular books by nonscientists who generally misinterpret the little data that do exist. The bottom line is that we don’t know if these activities are hurting their cognitive and interpersonal development or better preparing them for the world ahead. (Louis Cozolino – The Social Neuroscience of Education)
Let’s have a closer look at this sentence: “In the absence of real data, teachers and administrators rely on popular books by nonscientists who generally misinterpret the little data that do exist.” The truth is that we, as human beings, have a natural tendency to rely on our intuition rather than analyze a problem and give it as much time and effort as it deserves, as Daniel Kahneman states in his book (Thinking Fast and Slow). This is why we end up going with the flow and failing to further look into a point and give it the consideration it deserves. For instance, how many teachers blindly accept the theory of multiple intelligences as being true without actually having read about it? Is it just because the way that people sell it makes sense? Is it because it helps us with the self-esteem of learners who struggle at school? How about delving into this issue by reading this article, which starts by saying that:
This article reviews evidence for multiple intelligences theory, the Mozart effect theory, and emotional intelligence theory and argues that despite their wide currency in education these theories lack adequate empirical support and should not be the basis for educational practice. Each theory is compared to theory counterparts in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuro- science that have better empirical support. The article considers possible reasons for the appeal of these 3 theories and concludes with a brief rationale for examining theories of cognition in the light of cognitive neuroscience research findings. (Lynn Waterhouse – Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review)
Or perhaps this passage from this other article (which leads you to the article shared above) might also be of interest:
It is fair to say that among academic scholars who study intelligence there is very little acceptance of Gardner’s theory due to a lack of empirical evidence for it. A critical review of the topic by Lynn Waterhouse in 2006 found no published studies at all that supported the validity of the theory. Even though Gardner first made his theory public in 1983, the first empirical study to test the theory was not published until 23 years later (Visser, et al., 2006a) and the results were not supportive. Multiple intelligences theory can hardly be described as scientifically generative. (Scott McGreal – The illusory theory of multiple intelligences)
What we should take into account in order to move forward is that all that we currently know about our practice may be proven wrong in the near future as research into how we learn develops. What we should understand as educators is that there’s no simple or single answer (at least not yet) to how we learn best. This is the reason why we must never cease to learn. This is why we should take things that might seem to make sense with a pinch of salt and consider that we might as well be trying really hard to validate an opinion. What if Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences makes sense because we strive to make better connections with our learners? This is a major factor of motivation for us, humans, and this could be what leads to improvement when we claim to make use of activities that cater for different intelligences. What if this all happens when we hold conversations with our learners and, owing to this, we’re able to boost their attention and interest, thus making learning more effective? The bottom line, though, is that it doesn’t really matter. If the theory, as the articles suggest is not valid, or only good on paper, or if it is really true and valid, makes little difference at the end of the day for practical purposes.
It is only by trying to learn more about how we learn that we can adapt our teaching and ensure that we’re able to focus on our students’ learning. We don’t focus on students’ learning by playing games with them; we play games with them because we may have learned somewhere that this fosters their learning. The same end result, but with a different starting point. It is only by focussing on our teaching that we will be able to come up with strategies that will facilitate learning. In order to focus on their students’ learning, teachers must first and foremost focus on their teaching – but do so in the right way. Focussing on your teaching means understanding that learning is the expected outcome of each and every little thing you do in class. It doesn’t matter if you do so by using summative or formative assessment. What matters is whether or not you have mastered the tools you have chosen to use so as to enable learning to take place. Tests, for example, can be effective, as this study has demonstrated, but it’s all a matter of how you deal with them. The key difference in any learning setting is the teacher, and teaching isn’t simply being able to provide information to your students.
In my view, the best way to focus on your students’ learning is coming to terms with the fact that we still know very little about how we really learn something – what we’ve learnt to do is constantly reflect on our practices and experiences. This is what truly makes the difference. We must always keep an open eye for new theories, research and practice. We should be able to critically reflect on these and reach a conclusion so that we can focus on learning. Yet, we ought to understand that we cannot control someone else’s actions and thoughts. We can only control our own actions, and this is why we have to focus on what we do if we hope to help our learners. If you want to focus on your students’ learning, how about really focussing on your teaching first? Let’s talk a bit about a teacher’s accountability, shall we? Maybe a possible continuation for this post.
It’s a given that learning words in isolation is not particularly helpful when it comes to learning a foreign language. Words rarely appear in isolation when we communicate, and ELT has come a long way from the days in which vocabulary appeared as single words in a vocabulary box to the presentation of manageable language chunks. Nowadays, I don’t think it takes a lot of convincing to persuade teachers about the benefits of chunks, meaningfulness and personalisation of vocabulary. However, is there any occasion in which presenting language items out of a context can be helpful? Maybe yes, and this activity is likely to come in handy should you be forced to teach words in isolation, or in case you just feel like doing so from time to time.
Suppose you’d like your students to learn how to properly use a dictionary. What if you write a bunch of words on the board – connected to a topic of study if you use a course book, or simply random words to start a lesson – and ask them to work on the meaning of these words? Then, you get them to discuss their opinion with a partner and see if they agree or not. At this stage, give them some chunks of language (on slips of paper) to express their opinion, agree and disagree, and ask about someone’s opinion. After they’ve finished discussing, elicit from the pairs / small groups what their definitions were. Don’t tell them if they were right or wrong just yet. Instead, get them to open their dictionaries and check if their guesses were right.
Most students will probably stop at the definition of the word, which is the least import piece of information a good learner’s dictionary has. Unfortunately, most students are oblivious to the plethora of information they may obtain from their dictionaries. Teachers who fail to teach students how to properly use a dictionary are also failing in one of their most important objectives: making him or herself less and less needed for providing information. So, once you get your students to check the meaning of the words, it’s time to move onto the next stage – getting them to come up with original sentences using those words they’d just checked.
Should they be struggling with their sentences, or if they happen to fail to produce accurate sentences, point them to the examples of usage in the dictionary. Have them read the example sentences and ask them to focus on the words in bold (when applicable), or the sentences which have a brief explanation of a chunk in parentheses (also, when applicable).
After having read the examples in the dictionary, ask them to correct their sentences on their own. They will hopefully be able to notice some patterns of usage from the dictionary sentences and transfer these to their own sentences. Make sure you monitor accordingly and direct their attention to certain important collocations, such as ADJECTIVE + PREPOSITION, or VERB + PREPOSITION. Write their sentences on the board, or on paper, or on any other device you may use in your teaching context, and try to keep a record of the sentences they have come up with.
The focus of such an activity is not for them to learn the discrete vocabulary item per se, but they are likely to remember some of the words you have presented anyway. To make it more meaningful and a lot more relevant, you can choose these words from songs which are trending in your country at the moment (particularly good for teenagers), words and phrases from sitcoms, series and movies, or just using the news as a source. The possibilities are endless.
Finally, you should show your learners that this is the kind of procedure they could follow when they come across unknown words from reading passages in class. This is something they could do when reading more actively in order to study English and not “simply” reading for content. Needless to say, this kind of reading is very time consuming, so it’s important that you tell them to use this strategy only for one or two paragraphs of the text.
I do believe that by doing so you’ll be helping your learners think more about the language, noticing more, and, most importantly, even though you’re teaching them words in isolation, it’s easy to see that you’ve done a lot more than just teaching the words. This is likely to make their learning more memorable and, consequently, more effective. This is just one of the ideas that I use with my learners when dealing with words “in isolation”, or when we have a quick vocabulary challenge as a warmer. Get them to work on words from songs, for instance. You’ll be surprised how often it will dawn on them that they didn’t really understand what it was that they were singing before.
How about coming up with a twist to override the system when you’re pushed into doing something you don’t think that would be so effective, such as presenting vocabulary lists from students’ course books? I bet you’ll have a lot more fun – and they will learn a lot more.
Language is quite a complex system – one which we try to organise according rules and norms. One of the common ways for us to think about such organisation is prescriptively, the way many of us were taught a second or a foreign language. If we look at what David Crystal says about prescriptivism, we will see that it “is the view that one variety of the language has an inherently higher value than others, and this ought to be imposed on the whole of the speech community. The view is related especially in relation to grammar and vocabulary, and frequently with reference to pronunciation.” And here we have the three pillars of what we learn when we study a language. If we don’t learn vocabulary, we won’t be able to get our message across as other speakers of the target language won’t know what we’re saying. However, if we only know the vocabulary of a language and lack any understanding of what glues the pieces together, a.k.a. grammar, we’re likely to be unable to convey more complex thoughts and communicate something that may require further, more complex thinking. Finally, there is pronunciation, which is not the same as accent. Pronunciation is needed should you want to speak to other user of the language you’re learning. But why teach a language prescriptively? In a nutshell, it is much easier to teach something that has a fixed structure, and to a certain extent, there seems to be some logic in saying that it is easier to learn something that has a rigid structure.
Perhaps we mistake learning a language for learning any repetitive process, which leads to the belief that a structural sequence will make things easier. Yet, memorising processes and formulas is actually more difficult than really thinking about them. But we don’t follow this pattern simply because we don’t want to uncover a more effective way – we constantly repeat the processes we’ve gone through in life simply because, well, it’s worked for us. How can we claim that something that has worked for (many of) us won’t work for students when we ourselves are living proof of the success of the current system? But let’s not forget that most people who managed to succeed did so because they were so interested in the subject that they’ve actually chosen it as a career. This is not true for most language students, who may not be motivated enough to go beyond the basic rules that prescriptive grammar teaches. Thus, they are unable to grasp the subtleties of everything they’ve learned and how it overlaps with new content instead of simply add to it; they have a hard time thinking about language more abstractly. I believe that motivation has a major role in learning per se. As Jeremy Harmer said, “one of the main tasks for teachers is to provoke interest and involvement in the subject even when students are not initially interested in it.” However, Harmer reminds us that motivation comes from within, and we can only hope that our actions and words will lead students to start prioritising the subject we’re trying to teach them.
How have we been teaching them? We think of the least expensive way to teach and learn something – following guidelines and rules. In language teaching, this takes us back to prescriptivism, which makes it easier for teachers to judge right from wrong and allows students to have something to hopelessly cling to when they try to make sense of something that they simply can’t for lack of the development of an ability to look at language from a more holistic perspective. Such need for rules is a double-edged sword as students, after a certain stage, will be unable to find them as neatly written as they have grown used to. At this stage, they can only stop grappling with the understanding of language if they’ve developed the ability to think about language more as an organism – one which does have its rules and regulations, but one where these rules and regulations should be a bit less prescriptive and a tad more descriptive – if even that. By thinking so hard about the language, students end up making it harder for them to acquire the fluency level they initially hope to achieve.
If we consider what Daniel Kahneman says about this, we realise the problem lies with the laziness of our brain. Kahneman tells us that there are two systems in our brains. Roughly speaking, System 1 is the intuitive response, the system that doesn’t really think about the events; it takes into account the experiences we’ve been through to respond to external stimulus. System 2 is where thought really takes place. This is the system that rationally validates our actions. We fool ourselves by thinking that we’re much more likely to use our System 2. We aren’t, and this passage should show you why he states this:
The defining features of System 2 … is that its operations are effortful, and one of its main characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary. As a consequence, the thoughts and actions that System 2 believes it has chosen are often guided by the figure of at the center of the story, System 1. However, there are vital tasks that only system 2 can perform because they require effort and acts of self-control in which the intuitions and impulses of System 1 are overcome.
By focusing on prescriptive rules, we’re getting our students to focus their attention and effort on rules that should allow them to tell right from wrong regarding their speech. What happens when you are put in a stressful situation? Instead of thinking about the rules you have learned through grammar exercises, learners tend to lose the capacity to let their monitor system, as Krashen calls it, regulate what they’re saying. Stress is an indication of a threat, so their brains will instinctively respond to this by putting their System 1 in charge. We’ll then see two kinds of students: those who don’t care about what others might think of them and will speak freely, without worrying much about proper language, and those who will simply be unable to carry out a basic conversation because they are unsure if they should use the simple present or the present continuous, or if they should use the word good or fine. I’m pretty sure most EFL teachers have had the chance to work with both kinds of learners, and my personal experience is that adults lean towards the latter.
This is where a conversation-driven lesson might help, yet again. If we encourage our students to engage in an effortful activity in class that is not simply related to answering grammar questions on a sheet of paper, we might just end up fostering their ability to allocate less energy to the daunting act of speaking through practice. As Kahneman says:
As you become more skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved. [...] A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.
When we think about skills in language learning, we usually list four: reading, writing, listening and speaking. By practising speaking more frequently, you should be able to develop the three pillars of a language (grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation) for this skill in particular. This means you won’t need to make a lot of effort to both understand what happens in the process of having a conversation and trying to get your message across. You can now focus on the message, which will already require a lot from memory. As Kahneman says, “effort is required to maintain simultaneously in memory several ideas that require separate actions, or that need to be combined according to a rule.” I cannot help but think that there’s a lot more into play in an exchange of ideas between two people than grammar rules and vocabulary.
When we have a conversation with others, we need to focus on both the verbal and non-verbal cues if we are to fully understand the message. We need to be able to understand sarcasm and irony, for instance. We need to listen to what our interlocutor says and then respond. This involves a lot of effort. As teachers, we need to show our learners that they are capable of doing such things in their L1 already, and that this ability can and should be transferred to their L2 self. However, if we insist on getting them to focus on rules without actually getting them to put the rules into use, it’ll be harder for their System 2 to realise that not all that is involved in having a conversation should require so much attention and effort. By focussing on discrete items of the language, we end up teaching our learners a tendency to focus on rules instead of putting the rules into use in order to communicate. As a result, the former takes precedence over the latter and most learners freeze when they need to hold a conversation with a native speaker.
This is not the same as saying we should focus on fluency rather than accuracy. I strongly believe accuracy is paramount to the development of fluency. What I question is the way we’ve been trying to get our students to learn. It seems we’ve been repeating what has been done for the past 20 or 30 years because either because it’s easier to explain logically the steps we’re taking (first we learn this, and then we move to that, once that has been mastered, we’ll then step forward to that other topic on our list) or because this is how some highly motivated individuals have managed to learn. It may even be very logical, but who said that there’s no structure or rationale in conversation-driven lessons? And, as I said previously, there’s a huge gulf between a conversation-driven lesson and a simple conversation. If we consider the way our brains work, conversation-driven lessons might actually be a lot more logical than a structural curriculum.
The short answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’, and I could base my answer on experience – mine and also the one’s from lots of colleagues. However, we should all be wary of such things as “it’s worked with all my groups,” or the converse “it didn’t work with any of my groups.” These comments per se should not be the sole reason for us to jump to a conclusion as we do not really understand what’s happened in each one of these experiences. This leads us to the step of reading and trying to understand a bit more about the things we end up doing as educators. I’ve come across the following passage from Cozolino’s The Social Neuroscience of Education, and I guess this will be a good starting point for us to analyse the success of conversation-driven lessons:
The interactions we have with others directly affect the receptivity of the brain to take in new experiences and learn from them. If we are not receptive, we cannot learn. (Cozolino)
Conversation-driven lessons facilitate bonding
We all like it when we are heard. It is actually of the sentences new teachers are likely to hear a lot in training sessions: you should ask genuine questions and be actually interested in the answer. If we look at a conversation-driven lesson, these genuine questions are likely to be the very trigger we need to teach something we had established as an aim for the day. Not only will your lesson be more meaningful to your learners because they might end up talking about something that came from them, but paying close attention to the opportunities these answers give teachers in class a chance to help students socialise and learn from each other.
The human brain is a social organ of adaptation. By an organ of adaptation, I mean that the brain has evolved to interact with and learn how to navigate its environment. And by a social organ, I mean that humans have evolved to be linked to and to learn from other brains in the context of emotionally significant relationships. Therefore, the brain has evolved to learn within a naturalistic setting in the context of meaningful group and interpersonal relationships. (Cozolino)
This certainly helps me understand the importance of having a real conversation with learners in the classroom and how it helps me build rapport. By being genuinely interested in what my learners have to say, I can come up with questions and comments of my own that might lead towards the learning objectives of the lesson. This certainly helps me with scaffolding, and it builds trust. We need to understand how important trust is if we expect learners to accept what we are telling them as something that is worth their attention and effort. We need to work hard in building rapport and creating relationships. As a matter of fact, one of the most important aspects in the teaching-learning environment, in my opinion, is rapport.
Relationships are our natural habitat. From birth until death, each of us needs others to seek us out, show interest in discovering who we are, and help us to feel safe. We all yearn to be understood, recognized, and appreciated. Regardless of age, it is vital for us to feel a part of, participate in, and contribute to our “tribe.” The inabilities to connect, contribute to others, love, and be loved result in anxiety, depression, and alienation. This is just as true for principals, teachers, and school board members as it is for our students. (Cozolino)
A conversation-driven lesson is not just a conversation
I’ve also constantly heard teachers saying that they enjoy teaching advanced groups because students are able to carry out a conversation. Even though this is true, we need to understand the differences between a conversation-driven lesson and a simple conversation among friends. Students don’t come to lessons because it’s pleasant and just because they like their teacher’s company. This might be one of the results of being able to successfully connect to your learners, but it is not the primary objective of a lesson. Suppose you yourself decide to enrol for a course. What would you like to have achieved at the end of the course?
a) a better understanding of what you applied yourself into learning; or
b) a new friend – your teacher – even though you haven’t really learnt much about the course’s objectives.
At the end of the day, it is our ability to focus on our aims that count. An aim may or may not be achieved in one lesson or two, but not in the whole course. The fact that students who are already advanced learners of the language are able to hold conversations does not mean that they should be there just to practise what they already know. In any course you take, there should be learning. Perhaps, it is our inability to realise that there is more to learn – even for quite fluent speakers – that blinds us to the problem that the plateau of upper-intermediate learners. This might lead us to yet another conundrum: who should set the final aims of a learning activity?
If someone has decided to enrol for a language course, they do so because they expect to go past their current level of understanding and production. And this is exactly where I take issue with the claim that what matters is your ability to communicate. Learners can communicate at an A2-level in the common European Framework, and they are considered independent user of the language at the B level. Perhaps what we should do more often is asking students exactly what their objectives are and help them visualise what they need to achieve them. This is why I believe we should focus on the words driven and lesson when we think about conversation-driven lessons.
You can demand high and still build rapport – actually, you should!
If we understand that our role as a teacher is not one of either being too much content-oriented or being too focused on the affective part of learning, we’ll understand that balance between both is not only desirable – it is a requirement. You cannot expect learners to thrive in an environment of competitiveness and stress.
Brains grow best in the context of supportive relationships, low levels of stress, and through the creative use of stories. While teachers may focus on what they are teaching, evolutionary history and current neuroscience suggest that it is who they are and the emotional environment in the classroom they are able to create that are the fundamental regulators of neuroplasticity. Secure relationships not only trigger brain growth, but also serve emotional regulation that enhances learning. [...] The activation of both emotional and cognitive circuits allows executive brain systems to coordinate both right and left hemispheres in support of learning, affect regulation, and emotional intelligence. (Cozolino)
It is, then, a matter of finding the right balance between how much you should demand from your learners and how you do it. As Brown argued, the very first feedback we give our learners is the affective feedback. If we send them a negative message, they’ll simply block your cognitive feedback. However, if we do not give them any kind of cognitive feedback, they’ll fail to see that they aren’t really learning what they should be and mistakes will be fossilised.
A conversation-driven lesson might be just the key that is missing if we are to strike this balance. Instead of coming up with a whole bunch of tasks or content-oriented questions, how about developing your ability to actually listening to your learners and mastering the art of adapting your questions or being able to pinpoint elements that will be useful in your lesson’s objectives?
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.
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?
This post is slightly different from my usual posts. What if we were to think of grammar for a while? More specifically, I’d like to write about verbs in English and how to teach them. Now, if you’re not into grammar, I hope I’ll see you around for my next posts. If you’re curious about one of the things I may ponder grammar-wise, I hope you find this enjoyable and worthy of your time.
There are only two verb tenses in English
Now this is an issue that you may have a different opinion on. As a matter of fact, a quick look at two different books might give you a different perspective on the matter. Huddleston and Pullum (1) will tell you that you have two primary tenses – present and preterite – and two secondary tenses – perfect and non-perfect (p. 116). However, if we look at Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (2), they are very objective in saying that there are only two tenses in English – present and past (p. 109). In order to clear things up, a look at a third book. Biber (3) agrees that, “from a structural point of view, English verbs are inflected for only two tenses: present and past” (p. 453). Once I started to look at language teaching as a career, I’ve taken a keen interest on learning about the subtleties of the language, which I believe to be important for teachers. Mind you, I don’t think it’s necessary for students to learn grammar – or as much grammar – as teachers, but teachers should not simply choose to over-simplify something believing such over-simplification will end up helping students. I’ve found out that making what a tense is clear might be helpful, but only if we deal with the second point, which is…
The tense and aspect system
If students are exposed to this concept, in particular older students who are able to grasp abstract concepts more easily, it is my experience that things end up being a lot clearer. This opinion is also stated in Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (2) when they assert that:
Over the years, the important distinction between tense and aspect has become blurred. Instead, English has been said to have “12 tenses”. [...] We feel that if the natural division between tense, which relates to time, and aspect, which has to do with the internal structure of the action occurring at any time, are dealt with separately at first, the system that results from their subsequent combination is much easier to see and, therefore, easier to learn. (p. 110)
The point is that we spend years and years talking to students about the form of the verbs in English, and we may even contrast them at times, but we don’t really get to the point with them. What I’ve learnt is that we don’t have to dumb things down for students and simply assume they won’t be able to do the math on their own. What if we tried to find ways to teach them about the core meaning of each one of the different aspects of English verb? Once they understand the meaning of each one of the aspects, it’s quite easy for them to understand the use of the verb forms when they match tense and aspect on their own.
Putting it all together
This kind of teaching, in my view, should be done from as early as possible. Not only will you be treating your students fairly by not dumbing things down, but you’ll be giving them a chance to realize that they are able to understand, for instance, the continuous forms – present, past and future – pretty much at the same time. When we don’t do this, I’m under the impression that they struggle a lot trying to understand each one of the forms in isolation as they feel they are learning something from scratch. This is exactly where the problem lies. By being introduced to the core meaning of each one of the aspects, and being aware of the idea of time (I honestly can’t see people having problems with this), students may find it quite easy to put the sentences together on their own.
One nagging point
This might be an issue for me only, but I really dislike seeing exercises where students are asked to “fill in the blanks with the present perfect tense”, or “fill in the gaps with the appropriate verb tense”, but what students actually have to do is use a combination of tense and aspect, i.e., a verb form. The question that I ask myself is whether the teacher who’s created such exercise: a) doesn’t share the view of the whole tense x aspect explanation above; b) doesn’t know that there is such a thing; or c) knows about it, agrees with it, but doesn’t believe that students are capable of understanding the matter.
If the answer to my question above is a), I’m actually fine with it. I mean, if you just don’t agree with this or that, and as long as you are able to demonstrate that you’re right, then I’m fine with it. What you shouldn’t do is, on the grounds of “my students don’t need to know this”, justify your lack of knowledge.
Why bother, anyway?
“But why exactly would anyone spend his days thinking about such matters when all that matters is communication?” some might be asking right now. I believe that grammar is a point to be taught in any language teaching environment. This doesn’t mean
that grammar should be the goal of teaching, nor that a focus on form alone is sufficient. The goal of the communicative movement – communicative competence – embraces more than just grammar, and implies a focus on meaning as well. It may be that communicative competence is best achieved through communicating, through making meanings, and that grammar is a way of tidying these meanings up. If so, the teacher’s energies should be directed mainly at providing opportunities for authentic language use, employing grammar as a resource rather than an end in itself. As Leibniz is supposed to have said: ‘A language is acquired through practice; it is merely perfected through grammar.’ (Thornbury, S. How to teach Grammar, Longman, 1999 – p. 25)
If we care about meaning, why do we resist teaching our students about the meaning of the one things they seem to struggle so much with in learning English? We do we find it so hard to look at grammar not as a multitude of rules, but as something that will end up fostering communication and not hindering it? The key is knowing how to address it, I suppose. So, what is your view on the matter?
1. Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G. K., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, CUP, 2002.
2. Celce-Murcia, M. and Larsen-Freeman, D., The Grammar Book, Second Edition, Heinle & Heinle, 1999,
3. Biber, D. et al, Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Pearson Longman, 1999.
4. Thornbury, S., How to teach grammar, Longman, 1999.