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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.

Motivation – or Motive for action

December 8, 2010 17 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unplugged or Dogme?

October 11, 2010 10 comments

I’ve been reading lots of excellent posts about teaching unplugged, dogme, coursebooks and others in the blogosphere recently. There are also a couple of challenges around that I’m looking forward to having the time to participate in. One of the things that called my attention was the focus that people have given to the name dogme. All right, I’ll have to admit that the very first time I heard the name it didn’t really strike me as something I’d be dying to get to know. The immediate association I made was with the word “dogma”, most specifically a religious kind of dogma. Needless to say, my initial reaction, prior to learning about the rationale behind it, the word dogme wasn’t exactly appealing. It’s also true that I hadn’t heard of the Dogma movement by Scandinavian film-makers, and if that had been the case, I’d probably have looked at it from a different perspective.

What's in a name? (photo by Andrew Fogg)

However, I don’t think we should judge a book by its cover – how about giving at least the very first chapter a chance to fend off any initial preconception? So, I did decide to give Dogme a chance to defend itself, and it was then that I decided to become an “active lurker” (is there such a thing?) in the Dogme Yahoo Groups. I must say that what I found enthralling about it was the discussions taking place regarding how to best cater for our learners need. This was what stuck me as the most interesting thing in dogme discussions – and not the current (heated) debate regarding coursebooks. I’ve already talked a bit about coursebooks in the previous post, and there are lots of great comments there in case you’d like to take a peek.

I have to confess that until a while ago I had only thought off doing away with coursebooks for private classes, or classes with very few students. You see, the thing is that I’ve always been taught by means of a coursebook. Looking back, many teachers did use the coursebook only as a resource, but it was always there as a reference for me, as the student, to feel a bit more comforted that if there was anything I couldn’t really grasp in a class with 50 other teenagers, I always had the coursebook author to enlighten me with his wisdom. It was in language classes, with fewer people in class, that I felt things were slightly different.

First of all, there’s the reason why we choose to study a foreign language. This has always been the same reason why the approaches and methods to language teaching have changed throughout the years. The minute it’s easier for people to actually travel abroad and engage in real conversation with foreigners, the more apparent the need for an approach that goes beyond reading and understanding what you’ve read. And so it’s been until we reached what’s known as CLT, and this is what still guides us in many of our principles relating the field. Where are we at right now? Well, if I had to choose anyone to quote from right now, I guess I’d go with Brown and say we’re headed towards an era of an ecclectic approach to teaching.

What’s the most important thing here? Is it the name or the set of beliefs that teachers have about language teaching and learning? I see language as a way to communicate, and I liked it when Jeremy Harmer cited both Karenne and Petra in his workshop in São Paulo (Braz-TESOL) when talking about what makes us feel that we can speak in the target language. how do we know we’re ready? When is it that we know that we’ve learned the language? I agree with the point mentioned regarding an urge to speak. This comes from within, when we’re exposed to certain situations that instigate us and makes our brain cogs rotate. This is why it is so important that classroom activities have some intrinsic communicative value. If I ask a Brazilian to talk about skiing, he might just answer it automatically using chunks from the book that will soon be forgotten once the lesson is over. On the other hand, ask pretty much any Brazilian to give their opinion about the national football squad during the World Cup and you’ll see a group of engaged people trying their best to get their message across and, why not, persuading the other people in their room of their opinions.

To be fair, I’ve said here that I like to think of myself as a dogmeist many times. This doesn’t mean I’m in favour of labels, nor does it mean I’m against technology, coursebooks and any other thing like that. I definitely don’t see Dogme as a solution to all that’s bad around the globe in the ELT world. It’s important for us to keep an open mind and a watchful eye for everything that’s taking place around us. Stephen Bax once mentioned that we should abandon CLT in favour of CBT – Context-based teaching. This makes a lot of sense, and I choose to take in whatever is good from that article and incorporate into my teaching. Nonetheless, what this shows is that we’ll always see people bashing current methodologies, pointing out flaws, and offering suggestions – and there’s no other way to evolve if this is not the case. If proper teacher training is something we should work on, then teaching teachers how to reflect upon their practices and also how to think critically about what they read should be at the top of the agenda.

Dogme, teaching unplugged, teching with technology, an ecclectic approach, CLT, the Lexical Approach, Audiolingualism, you name it. The important thing is that teachers really, I mean, really learn about these methods and are capable to keep an open eye to what’s going on in the classroom. There’s something good that can be used in any classroom at any given moments. I learned to like the word dogme, and I identify with the socio-constructivist view behind it. I also agree that language is conversation driven, and there are many different forms of conversation out there. I believe that being materials light means a lot more than coursebooks or no coursebooks. What I’ve noticed more often than not is that less is usually more when it comes to learning.

What really matters to me is that I know why I’ve chosen to do a certain activity in the lesson. And, yes, I don’t equate unplugged to unplanned. Much on the contrary. Planning means thinking about your learners needs and the lesson outcomes. The most important part of planning for me is thinking about objectives and reasons. WHAT do I expect them to learn, and WHY will I do / did I do this in class. Planning doesn’t necessarily mean having lots of handouts ready, and all activities sorted out before you actually meet the students. But carefully thinking about your learners and your learning objectives definitely help me teach unplugged and focus on emergent language a lot more easily than if I just come to the classroom completely unprepared.

Finally, I kind of learned to like the word dogme, but it’s not the label, it’s the rationale behind it that I find appealing. Has it always existed before the word was ‘coined’? To be honest, that doesn’t really matter to me. Does it have sound arguments to support its points? That’s what I care about. Is the the final answer to everything we may come across in a language classroom? I really doubt it. The real answer we should look for is for this question, “What is your personal view of language learning and teaching?” It is only upon answering this question that we can start unfolding other possibilities.

What takes it so long?

September 23, 2010 7 comments

The very first time I heard of #edchat, I thought it was the craziest idea ever. How could we possibly have a conversation trying to convey our message using only 132 (don’t forget the hashtag) characters? Well, not only did I find it possible, but I also started participating in more and more #edchat sessions. The idea of #edchat was so good and effective, that lots of other educational chats on twitter either: a) followed; or b) came to my knowledge. I don’t really know if #edchat was the precursor of all the educational tweet chats out there, and, to be honest, I couldn’t care less(sorry, but “I could care less” makes no sense, especially after watching the video below).

The latest educational chat I came across on twitter is #ELTchat. This past Wednesday, close to lunch time in Brazil, we were discussing whether or not online teaching would ever replace face to face instruction. Truth be told, I am of the opinion that we’re headed towards a blended system for many different reasons. Anyhow, the discussion went on to the idea of integrating technology in our current teaching practice. One of the many beauties of these chats is that you get to throw ideas at other educators who are willing to read and comment on your thoughts, so here’s a brief exchange of tweets I had when talking about this matter:

I truly do believe in that. If we listen to all tech gurus and experts we only hear them saying that, in the (relatively near) future, our children will find keyboards and mouses as archaic and will have a hard time conceiving such a barbaric interaction with gadgets. To my mind, this means technology will be a lot more accessible AND a lot more necessary for men. This tweet was followed by a couple of replies, and I’ll highlight here one of them, from Olaf Elch:

Granted! I might have been extremely hopeful to say that technology will soon be ubiquitous, and that it will soon be considered useless for people to discuss technology integrated with technology. “Hold on, Henrick! I don’t quite follow. What do you really mean, then?”

Well, I just mean that I do believe that technology will be everywhere, but, come to think of it:

Isn’t it funny that there are so many educators out there who believe our educational system is no longer useful to the way our society is currently organised, but still so little is done in practical terms? Why is it that when we discuss with people about the changes that should be made in education, they all agree, but they all seem to be afraid to let such change start with their own kids?

There’s a gulf between agreeing with something and actually taking steps to implement such things – and this seems to be particularly true for education. Regardless of how much our society values its teachers, it’s common knowledge that education is the most valuable resource you can give to your children. It’s also well known that knowledge opens doors and educated people have better chances to succeed in life. So why is it so difficult for people to understand that there are so many educators – serious educators – who have only our children’s best interest at heart and who are willing to take education to the next level and better prepare our kids to live their lives?

When it’s their child’s future at stake, parents seem to be the most conservative possible and not willing to take risks. Apparently, going with the unknown, the experimental, might mean jeopardising the entire future of their children – and which parent would willingly do that? I don’t think we take so lang to change education because we don’t want to. I think it’ll always take so long to reform or revolutionise education because many of the interested parts are too concerned and afraid to take the first step. Will this fear ever be gone? Unlikely, unfortunately. This is why we are likely to always see serious educators complaining about how dated the educational system is, and why schools might always be the last institutions to evolve.

Minimum requirements for (language) teachers

August 27, 2010 9 comments

How do you know if you’ve met the minimum requirements to walk into a language classroom and teach? Is there such a thing as minimum requirements, to begin with? Shouldn’t teachers be ‘lifelong learners’ themselves if they expect their students to learn new things every day? Will I be able to really help my students learn? Have I got what it takes?

I’m pretty sure most teachers have already thought about these questions – even if it was only when they first started working. As I see it, if you decide you want to do something, you must make sure you have a shot at getting it. This means you should always think about what is it that you need in order to have the chance to actually do what you want to do. Just the other day, there was a nice discussion on Twitter about language level, certification, and other related matters concerning language teachers. What are the minimum requirements language teachers should meet in order to walk into a classroom.

I’ve already written a post or two on this blog – or many – on what I believe to be essential qualities and skills teachers should develop. I still believe ‘people skills’ is one of the most important skills that language teachers (or all teachers) must always strive to improve. However, when we’re thinking of language teachers, we mustn’t forget about one crucial point – command of the language. Now, bear with me for a moment, I’m not saying here that NESTs (Native English Speakers Teachers) are better than non-NESTs. This will have to be dealt with on a different blog post – in the meantime you could have a look at this post I wrote that touches this matter.

So, for the time being, let’s stick to non-NESTs and the kind of command of the language that is necessary for one to walk into a language classroom. In 2009 I attended a lecture by professor Jack C. Richards where he addressed “what a good English teacher is”. He mentioned nine core dimensions of teacher development:

  1. Acquiring appropriate proficiency level in English
  2. Acquiring content knowledge
  3. Acquiring Contextual knowledge
  4. Acquiring a repertoire of techniques and routines
  5. Developing learner-focussed strategies
  6. Developing pedagogical reasoning skills
  7. Theorizing from practice
  8. Joining a community of practice
  9. Becoming a language teaching professional

All of these are things English language teachers should worry about if they really care about their job and about their students. Professional development is paramount! Even though these are all core dimensions of professional development, I believe the very first one is what will allow for the development of the others. I do understand that context is key, and I very much agree with what Stephen Bax said in his text entitled “The end of CLT – a Context Approach to language teaching” (you’ll need to register to read the article – it’s free). Context is indeed very important, but, the way I see it, language level also has got to do with our own personal language teaching methodology. Our approach, and consequently our theories of language and language learning (Richards & Rodgers – chapter 2) will play a big role in defining what the minimum requirement is.

What's number one on your list?

As I see it, language, especially nowadays, language is a means for communication – spoken and written. If that’s the case, shouldn’t language teachers be able to prepare students for both kinds of interaction with the target language they’re working so hard to learn? And if, again, this is the case, I want to believe that there’s a minimum requirement in terms of Language level of teachers – and if we think in CEF terms, I’d say C1 is the minimum, which would be equivalent to a CAE certificate issued by Cambridge ESOL. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of other more important skills that teachers need to develop and possess. However, language proficiency is the one thing teachers should try their best to acquire even before they start teaching. It’s the one thing that will allow for the development of all of the other skills. Language proficiency is also the yardstick against which many learners measure their teachers’ teaching skills, and this might even account for how high students hold NESTs despite their teaching skills.

The discussion on twitter was really interesting, and I had the chance to talk to one of my old school teachers right after it took place. He’s also a language teacher, but he teaches Portuguese. I asked him the very same question I ask now “What is more important for language teachers – language proficiency or teaching skills?” We seem to see eye to eye on the matter. There’s a lot more to teaching than language level. Nevertheless, it’s much harder for teacher trainers to work on language proficiency than it is for them to work on other skills. Jeremy Harmer’s “How to teach English” also deals with the topic of good teachers. One of the most important characteristics of good teachers is willingness. And this is particularly true if you think about willingness to become a better teacher. All of the nine core dimensions listed by professor Jack C. Richards are important and have got to be pursued by good (language) teachers.

Can we consider being knowledgeable as the most important factor in a teacher’s life? Some may argue that there are lots of other skills that are way more important, that knowledge these days can be found in many different sources and that teachers should aim at being facilitators of learning. However, I still truly believe that being knowledgeable is the one thing that will make all of the others easy on the way of becoming a good teacher. What do you think?

Rethinking teachers

June 10, 2010 16 comments

Today I heard something on the radio and I had a very brief conversation in the teachers’ room that got me thinking. They were quite different things, but somehow I think they’re related. The first thing I heard was a reporter who’s in South Africa for the World Cup. He was talking about the country, places to go, and opening of the event, and then he mentioned GPS’s. He stated that GPS’s were making people lazy. He argued that before such gadgets had become popular, people actually tried harder to understand the way cities were organised so they wouldn’t get lost. We had to try to remember the names or numbers of streets and try to remember where we were going through if we didn’t want to get lost. He mentioned that a co-worker was going to meet him for lunch, but when asked about where he was, he was at a loss for an answer. I heard this on the radio on my way home to have lunch.

In the afternoon, I had the chance to briefly have a chat with a couple of teachers about distance learning. Both had had experience working with it, and one of them wasn’t exactly thrilled about it. The other one was a wee bit more in favour of it. We then moved on to the reasons why distance learning is still slow to a crawl in Brazil despite some efforts made by certain universities to provide students with more options of online courses. Needless to say, lots of reasons were mentioned: lack of infrastructure in Brazil to allow for people to have stable Internet connection, lack of interest on the part of distance learners, and the fact that neither the teacher nor the learner really believed in learning something online. These are all valid reasons, but I think they do not address the most important thing.

The weird connection I made between the two stories is… the person behind the tool. When given a GPS, you can think of it as a device that will make your life easier and allow you to focus on other more important things – such as taking advantage of not having to remember petty details of the streets you’re walking about and really enjoy the sights knowing you won’t have to bother about finding your way back. An online students or a teacher can also look at it as a much more comfortable (to say the least) way to learn and teach something instead of another chance for lazy students to easily get a diploma. The problem, though, is that none have been prepared for the tools they’ve been given.

When I read about rethinking schools and education, empowering the learner, making learners responsible for their learning, I find it really great. Yet, when I talk to more people about it, I realise there’s something serious that must be taken care of: we can’t rethink schools and promote a revolution in education unless we prepare teachers for such an endeavour. We’re expecting teachers to teach with tools they haven’t been taught with when they were students, and we expect them to do that without proper training. What will result of that? Well, we end up with teachers simply trying to transfer what they have been doing for decades to a new environment that does not work well with such practices. So, how can we deal with that? This is what I’ve been thinking…

What should the current teacher know?

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

1. Teachers are no longer responsible for providing information – It’s been a while now that information is available at a fingertip. And even though some still argue that there are many who still can’t afford to have a computer connected to the Internet at home, I’ve been reading more and more about the money the government has been investing in buying computers and bringing the Internet to schools. This means students actually have got access to a lot more than teachers can possibly transmit (I’m purposefully refraining from using “teach” here) to learners.

2. Teachers do have to be knowledgeable – The fact that students can access all sort of information in the world also means they’ve got access to all sorts of wrong information that is published online as well. If on the one hand the teacher is no longer responsible for providing the information, he or she is now responsible for helping learners to filter what’s good from what isn’t. If in the past teachers had to be knowledgeable because they were the information bearers, now they have to be knowledgeable because they are to teach students to separate the wheat from the chaff.

3. Teachers should set standards – Students need to understand that it’s not all that they do that’s acceptable. Even though we’ve got to make sure we’re catering for an diverse audience, there are some standards to be met. This doesn’t equate with standardised testing. This means that teachers should set the goals and help students achieve such goals. Simply letting students to their own devices is not the same thing as making the learner responsible for their learning.

4. Teachers have to be resourceful – The fact that there’s a wide array of tools out there doesn’t mean that teachers should know how to use each and every one of them. Being resourceful means being willing to find the right tools for what’s going on in the classroom. Technology, no matter how much it advances, has to be seen as yet another tool, and not as a magic solution. If students don’t want to give a go to blogging, that’s OK. Teachers are supposed to find solutions, not to be whining about the fact that their students don’t like what they think to be the best tool in the world.

5. The roles of the student and of the teachers must be clear – Regardless of what or where you teach, the most important thing in a classroom is, and will always be, the relationship between the teacher and the learner. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve got the best or the worst kind of support in the classroom if you simply forget about the most important part of education – the teacher and the learner.

In the age of information it makes more and more sense that we pay heed to and think hard about the importance of empowering our learners. They’re the ultimate result of education. Are you ready to deliver a masterpiece to society, or are you more inclined to deliver a robot that’s just capable of reproducing what others say? Are you going to help other educators change, or are you going to take the back seat and sulk because people don’t feel the need to change what they’ve been doing for ages? Learning, these days, has got the chance to be more learner-centred than ever. Are you ready for that?

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