On my last post, I suggested that the best way to focus on students’ learning is by focusing on teaching. The rationale behind this is that we can’t control someone else’s actions or thoughts, but we can control our own. This means that if we pay attention to what we can actually do in order to make learning more effective, we’ll end up being a lot more helpful to our learners than by trying out many different techniques and methods just because they are (or have become) mainstream. We still can’t fully understand how we learn, what really happens in our brains apart from the synapses and all the wiring in the brain. We may come to the point in which data, not guesses (even educated ones), will be the driving force behind our actions. However, until then, we might be better off by thinking and reflecting on our teaching practices and on what happens in our classrooms, with our learners, than by trying out the next big thing. The first thing teachers should learn is that what they do matters. If teachers don’t believe this, they’re in the wrong place. But just how much does it really matter? How can we measure educational success? Neil Mercer says that,
The educational success students achieve is only partly under their own control, and only partly under the control of their teachers. This is where the sociocultural concept of ‘scaffolding’ … is useful. The essence of this concept, as developed by Bruner (1986), Wood (1988) and others, is that an effective teacher provides the kind of intellectual support which enables learners to make intellectual achievements they would never accomplish alone; and one way they do so is by using dialogue to guide and support the development of understanding. (Neil Mercer – Language for teaching a language)
Apparently, the concept of conversation-driven lessons and scaffolding goes a long way. But who would have argued against that? It is not hard to think about our own learning experiences, the ones in which we had a good teacher by our side. This, by the way, is one of the topics that sparks teachers’ interest in training sessions – reflecting about their own learning experiences. When we think about our own learning experiences, when we have the benefit of hindsight, it’s a lot easier to see what has truly made a difference and what was only fun. How many are able to think back of a funny teacher whose teaching didn’t really stick, or a funny teacher whose lessons are so ingrained that you find it hard to separate the person from the classes? It’s not humour that is the defining factor for successful or unsuccessful teachers. At the end of the day, what truly matters is how much effort and attention you’ve put into that lesson of yours, and how thoughtful you’d been when planning the lesson for those specific learners. What matters is how often you reflected on the activities that you tried out in classes and the effect these activities had on each one of those students sitting there in front of you – or next to you if you’re that lucky.
This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt as a teacher. Being a teacher means caring about the time and effort your students are putting in by being there in front of you. I may not be the sole responsible for their learning, but I can’t shun the responsibility of being partly responsible for their learning. When this thought dawns on new teachers, they stop asking questions such as, “but why would I do that when most students just don’t seem to care?” or “why don’t they learn it if I taught them?” We do what we do because we are aware of our role and we are to be held accountable for all the things we choose to do in a class. And if students don’t seem to learn what you’ve taught them, perhaps it’s time you started reflecting a bit more about what you could do to help them instead of asking questions you can’t possibly answer.
Being accountable for what we do also means coming to terms with our own shortcomings. This is the moment you start thinking about developing and becoming a better professional. Accountability can do many things for you – one of them is helping you decide what kind of a teacher you want to be. Are you the kind that looks for excuses elsewhere, or are you able to look into your own world and find out what’s wrong? Are you capable of teaching the same subject differently to better help each group of learners, or will you simply do things the way you’ve always done and blame students for their not learning as effectively? Being a teacher means being on the move. How far are you willing to go?
*Neil Mercer – Language for teaching a language – in English Language Teaching in its Social Context
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?
How long, then, before automatic simultaneous translation becomes the norm, and all those tedious language lessons at school are declared redundant?
The very first thing that sprung to mind was how old the writer was. The second question was where exactly he went to school. The reason for the very first question is to find out whether he (I don’t know why I decided to call the writer a he, though) learned foreign languages through Grammar Translation or the Audio-lingual method and if all his language classes were a mixture of drills and meaningless translations. It’s been quite a while since I had my language lessons, and although I did find them boring in school where we did have to “learn” through GT, I can’t say the same about my language classes in language institutes.
It was still pretty much a structural perspective, granted. Yet, there was something else beyond the language. It was actually fun to go to a class where we were allowed to talk and to communicate. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I can say the reason for that was only clear to me after I became a teacher, and it may very well be the very reason I fell in love with teaching languages when it was supposed to be simply a way for me to try my hand at teaching before becoming a History teacher.
But the question remains dangling there. If we are ever able to devise a machine that will allow us to communicate with other people from all over the world, will the job of the language teacher be made redundant? As many professions before ours have already seen their end with the advent of technology, could this ever be the end of language teaching, or at least most of it? If we think about it, many who study English do so because they want to communicate. Well, if that truly is the case, then why would these people keep studying a foreign language when they would already be able to communicate?
Fortunately, learning a language gives you a lot more benefits than simply allowing you to communicate with others. It’s a sure fire way to keep your brain sharp, and according to some researchers, it might even lead to a different way of seeing the world. Some have already said that learning a new language is like acquiring a new soul, but that might be considered simply as too mysterious for some people out there who are just trying to communicate.
Don’t we also know that learning to play chess is also a fantastic way to exercise the brain and that it also allows you to see the world from a different perspective? Don’t we know that reading is also a much better way to exercise your imagination and creativity? I also remember reading somewhere that Sudoku may prevent Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, I don’t see that many people playing chess or learning how to play it, or people choosing books instead of TV, and apart from very few people I know, not that many people doing their Sudoku puzzles unless they’re waiting in a queue and don’t have a smartphone on them. I’m sure you understand that I’m talking about the average joe out there, and not some high-brow scholar.
Are people really that lazy and they will eventually end up choosing the easy way out? I most certainly know quite a few people who are quite happy with working very little and simply doing nothing, and I mean, nothing for the rest of the time. I’m talking about working as little as 6 hours a day or even less, and then simply doing nothing. And it’s not just for a month or so…
A series of announcements over the past few months from sources as varied as mighty Microsoft and string-and-sealing-wax private inventors suggest that workable, if not yet perfect, simultaneous-translation devices are now close at hand.
The question we may ask then, is just how close at hand they actually mean. But before spending too much grey matter on the topic, I guess we could go back to something all teachers who are a tiny bit into edtech already know – technology will not replace teachers, but teachers who can’t use technology will be replaced by those who can. This will only be proven right or wrong in a couple more years. What if more teachers were able to do as some Harvard and Stanford teachers have done when they taught more that thousands of students at once? Would there be enough students for so many teachers?
But this is all too gloomy, isn’t it? The challenges of computerised simultaneous translation are still far too great for it too happen as fast as the article might get us thinking in its very first lines. A bit further down, it states:
In the real world, people talk over one another, use slang or chat on noisy streets, all of which can foil even the best translation system.
This doesn’t mean we won’t be able to get there one day or another, but it might be as far-fetched in reality as flying cars were for those living in the 60s. Sometimes science-fiction eludes us and makes us wonder if things are as close as we’d like them to be.
Teaching a language is a lot more than simply teaching the words and grammar of the language. Learning a language, especially on this day and age in certain parts of the world, is, indeed, opening up to a world of possibilities. The language classroom might as well be the one place people are encouraged to speak their mind and have the chance to learn how to participate in a debate. Being in a language classroom where language is conversation-driven helps even the shyer students to work on their social skills and realise that they’re also entitled to an opinion. There’s just a lot more that a language classroom can provide to learns than the mere capacity to communicate. This is, as a matter of fact, why I do believe we need to make sure that learners are always pushed in our classes – it’s about a lot more than simply being able to get a message across.
The one thing that technology is able to do as of now is meet language learners with exercise drills and grammar explanations with automated correction and explanation. If all your teaching can be summed up into new grammar items and vocabulary, it’s very likely you’ll be replaced by a computer quite soon. Language teaching is education, and any challenge language teachers will face in the near future are no different from the challenges teachers of other subjects are likely to face.
If you’ve already bought the idea of life-long learning and you are able to adapt to changes and you embrace them instead of fearing them, then there’s no need to worry about what’s yet to come. Besides, it seems that the news trying to be more and more worried about coming up with stories that seem to come out of a crystal ball than to do what it’s supposed to do: inform readers and get them to reach their own conclusions.
But that might just be the proof we need to truly see that the way we’ve been teaching no longer suits this day and age. If those who get through school are more inclined to follow what’s linked to our emotions rather than to reason and make sense of things, question, analyse and critically think about whatever is presented to them, then we seriously need to rethink our practices. If all you’ve been doing in language teaching is teaching the language superficially, if the coursebook is your master and you do all it asks of you, if you’re compelled to distribute tons of handouts to your students and if you think that time well spent in class is the time when students do exercises individually and quietly, you’ve been doing your share to automatising teaching and then I do hope you’ll soon be replaced by a computer.
If, on the other hand, you’ve already understood that times they are a-changing and there’s the need to be constantly learning in order to teach, how about sharing this concept with the teacher next door? Oh, and the automated translation star-trek gadget… Just leave it be and worry about what truly matters in your profession. Teaching, my dear friends, has finally been evolving. It’s up to us to make it a swift and smooth transition into what it’s to become, or simply wait for all the bumps and moan in the corners about what it should be. Which road do you want to take?
Autonomy has become a trending topic in the world of education. To be honest, the way I hear some people talking about it makes me wonder whether this hasn’t always been the case, really. “Oh, I know it! How about trying to make ourselves, teachers, less needed as students progress in their education?” I mean, seriously? Hasn’t this been the objective of the game from the very beginning? Why do many still look at this as if it were the next big thing in education when it has actually never ceased to be the big thing about it. It’s just like teaching learners how to learn instead of teaching them what we feel they should learn. Yet, one thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is exactly what the role of the teacher is – and how we should play it – in this game of autonomy so we can do more good than harm. If you bear with me for a moment, I’d like to share a couple of things that are still percolating.
If we could think of what we’ve been learning as building blocks, and that as we amass information we add one block on top of another, we could have many different layers of information that need to be retrieved and available for use. As teachers, we have two different choices (OK, we have many choices, but I’ll narrow it down to two for practicality issues): we can put the blocks ourselves where we see fit, or we can help learners find out where to better position their blocks on top of previous knowledge. This is where we start facing the very first problem in the differences between teaching by lecturing and learning. Some may believe that information goes beautifully on top of previously stored information. This represents the linearity view of teaching.
Instead, we could look at the learning structure as dependent on each one of the blocks, which have to be placed by the individual when he or she is able to spot the right place for it. However, teachers may and should help. The very first thing that we should bear in mind is that teachers do make the difference, but only as long as they are aware of what they are doing. Let’s imagine teachers understand that one block goes on top of the other, but not in a linear way. What may the problem with this view be? Well, if the teacher believes he or she can simply show his learners what the steps are, he’ll end up with a flight of stairs, but with no kind of of support under it. This could be represented as the picture below:
This is usually what happens when teachers simply demonstrate how to do something by showing rather than guiding. By doing things yourself you’ll eventually take your students all the way up to the 4th stage, but, as they haven’t learned how to do it themselves, they’re likely to end up going back to square one. This time, however, with all sorts of debris on the floor to make putting the blocks back together a more daunting and confusing task.
Equally as harmful is not being patient enough and not being able to allow for learning to sink in and lay the foundations properly for the following step. If we don’t understand that people learn at different paces, we might end up giving up on waiting for them to ‘get it’ and move on too soon. This may also be the case of teachers who fail to carefully listen to their learners and understand what they have already grasped. These teachers end up with learners whose blocks are built somewhat like this:
Here, it is clear that the teacher has showed some concern in helping the learner with the basics before moving on to more complex issues. What this extremely simple picture fails to represent is the fact that all blocks are interconnected, and it’s not only a matter of having learnt 1, and then 2, and only then 3. In order to get to 3, we need to make sure that all connections made between 1 and 3 are solid, and that the third row depends as much on the first one as it depends on the second. One thing is still apparent in the picture above, though – learning is taking place from outside to inside. It’s not up to the learner to progress from one point to another, but it’s up to what is imposed onto him by what is dictated by external forces.
Instead, we should try and look at it from a perspective in which the learner is capable of being aware of what his or her next step forward should be. The problem is that we cannot see what someone else is capable of accomplishing. We can’t assess competence; we can only assess performance. And this is the part that’s got me thinking. If we can only see performance, how about focussing on helping learners work on the width of their pyramid of learning so they know when and where to place the other blocks? If we work on constantly recycling, and if we truly try to scaffold learning, we’re likely to work on features we can observe, not on features we would like to observe. By having a wider base at the bottom, it’s easier to add blocks at the top.
How do we get there?
If you ask me, one of the central tenets of teaching and learning is that one doesn’t take place without the other. Yes, we should focus on learning, and all teaching should only be measured by how much learning it entails. But the key is finding out how to get there. Again, if all we can see is performance, what better way to help learners progress than by focussing on language they produce in order to help them improve what they already know? This is what we are doing when we carefully and actively listen to our learners and make sure we are having a class instead of just a conversation. This is what we do by focussing on emergent language – we make our students aware of what they’re saying and work on meaningful and personal samples of language.
If we are constantly recycling and expanding on previous knowledge, we’re likely to help learners build upon their own knowledge independently. How do we become good at something? How do we develop a skill? Only rarely will you see someone being able to excel at something they’ve never practiced and rehearsed before. Before you can run, you have to learn how to walk. Before you can play a Bach’s piece, you need to learn the musical scale and know how to play each one of the notes. Before you learn complex issues, you need to learn – and practice – the basics. If you practise and recycle enough, you’re likely to progress much faster as having the knowledge of the most basic things will help you understand how to get to the complex parts.
Perhaps we’d be doing more by focussing more on the individual and the process than focussing on the product. I’m sure most teachers are aware of that. Unfortunately, I myself know many who can only talk the talk, but not walk the walk. How about you?
Language teachers are constantly on the lookout for mistakes that may or may not impede communication. Nowadays, it’s common for us to read and hear that what matters most is communication, and that learners of a foreign language should not strive for perfection or flawless language production. What, however, is communication? And does this work for all levels? For instance, do we classify successful communication at the same standard for people who are applying for a position in a multi-national company to work as a spokesperson and for someone whose aim at learning a foreign language is travelling to a foreign country and be understood when ordering food? Most importantly, should we, teachers, be the ones to judge how accurate and, narrowing it further, how appropriate our learners will need to be in their language use?
This week’s blog posts at the iTDi blog are on error correction, and you may read what Scott, Barb, Chuck, Cecilia, Yitzha and Steven have to say on the matter. In addition to that, there will be a live webinar on March 3rd that will deal with the matter of error correction, and I highly encourage all those who can participate to do so. Therefore, I won’t spend much time discussing error correction in this post. Instead, I’d like to shift the focus to one of the things I felt, as a language learner, that teachers did not spend much time on, and one thing that I still feel teachers tend to overlook – in addition to pronunciation. If we’re talking about communication, the first thing we should do is look at language from a broader perspective, not forgetting that language should be seen from a discourse perspective. I’d like to reflect on something more closely related to language in use, namely the pragmatic features of discourse and the importance of explicitly teaching it to our learners.
Certain aspects of language in use are commonly referred to as the pragmatic features of discourse. Pragmatics is a branch of study related to, but separate from, linguistics, because it purports to explain aspects of language and communication that have not been – or cannot be – explained by linguistic studies. [...] When we learn a language, we gradually learn to recognize and name a set of discourse events that are common in the social circles we move in. [...] Part of our socialization is gaining familiarity with a range of discourse types or genres. Some of these we may acquire through exposure and others have to be taught.
(Bloor, M. & Bloor, T., 2007 in The Practice of Discourse Analysis – An Introduction, Hodder Arnold, p. 19)
Whenever we attend seminars, a lot of attention is given to vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation through the four skills, but rarely will you see someone speaking about the pragmatic use of the language at length. Is this less important than the other features? Or is this far too complicated for most teachers to touch as it is far more complex and there are not that many prescriptive rules? We do deal with communication, and many teachers nowadays claim to abide by the rules of the Communicative Approach. If that is the case, shouldn’t we also turn our attention to the interaction that takes place between the listener and the speaker? How easy is it for teachers to assume that what they have said is what their learners actually understood? Even worse, how easy is it for us to let learners get away with something they said that does not sound right to our ears? Are we able to understand the exact meaning that learners are trying to convey simply because, well, as language teachers we are trying as hard as we can to fully understand what our learners are trying to say?
A speaker may utter a sentence which is, for example, a positive, active statement, expressing a particular content. The listener may, however, interpret the sentence as a threat, or warning, as advice or contradiction. These interpretations are pragmatic meanings. In addition to the content expressed, the listener interprets the speaker’s purpose in uttering the sentence.
(Lewis, M., 2002, in The Lexical Approach, Thomson Heinle, p. 82)
The problem becomes even more apparent when learners reach an advanced level, and mainly in interactions between native and non-native speakers of language. The point is, if we don’t teach and, from time to time, make sure our learners are capable of going beyond basic language use, we may actually be doing more harm than good. What happens is that we need to make our learners aware of how they say things, not only what they say. Vocabulary does take up a lot of our teaching when we reach advanced levels, say B2+ onwards, but vocabulary expansion by itself will do very little to help learners, as the passage below supports.
However, in situations of contact between native and non-native speakers of a language, pragmatic errors are insidious in that they often lead proficient speakers of a language to misjudge the intentions of less proficient speakers. Particularly if the speakers are fluent and accurate, listeners do not realize that a pragmatic error has been committed, instead misconstruing what was intended by the speaker and sometimes judging the speaker harshly as a result.
(Larsen-Freeman, D., 2003, in Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring, Thomson Heinle, p. 37)
But is it even possible to make our learners aware of pragmatic mistakes, or misuses of the language? I’ve always believed so, and, to be honest, once I was able to understand how serious this may be, I’ve always wondered why we don’t do this more often. Instead of writing on the matter with my own words, and as this has been a post filled with quotes and extracts from books, I’ll add one more extract.
For a long time, it was assumed that second language classrooms could not provide appropriate input for learning how to realize many speech acts. This was particularly the case with structure-based approaches to teaching and in particular, in teacher-fronted classrooms where the dominant interaction pattern was ‘teacher initiation – learner response – teacher feedback’. In communicative, content-based, and task-based approaches to second language instruction, there are more opportunities not only for a greater variety of input but also for learners to engage in different roles and participant organization structures (for example, pair and group work). This enables learners to produce and respond to a wider range of communicative functions. Furthermore, research on the teaching of pragmatics has demonstrated that pragmatic features can be successfully learned in classroom settings and that explicit rather than implicit instructions is most effective (Kasper and Rose 2002). This is particularly good news for foreign language learners who do not have extensive exposure to conversational interaction outside the classroom. Thus, the question is no longer whether second language pragmatics should be taught but rather how it can be best integrated into classroom instruction.
(Spada, N., and Lightbown, P.M., 2006, in How Languages are Learned, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, p. 103-104)
Next time you’re walking around the classroom, or if you’re collecting samples of students’ language, make sure you focus on something that goes beyond form. Go further. It simply makes sense, to me, to focus on emergent language and on a conversation-driven approach to language teaching – as long as you’re doing it right. The problem lies in trying to do something before you really know how to do it.