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Where’s the change?

December 19, 2012 3 comments

We’ve moved yet one more year into the 21st century. Yet one more year towards the future. ‘Tis not a future with flying cars or the Jetson’s robot maid Rose cleaning your house; no, we haven’t gone that far. However, there’s seems to be no denial we’re in the middle of a very important revolution. Or are we? The fact that there’s a lot of change taking place due to the role that technology has been playing in our lives is undeniable. It’s been ages – especially when years account for a lot more than they did in the past – that educators have been advertising the benefits of technology in education, the end of an era, and that technology has the power to transform everything we do.

"Would you exchange, a walk on part in the war..." | Photo on Flickr by love2dreamfish

“Would you exchange, a walk on part in the war…” | Photo on Flickr by love2dreamfish

Needless to say, a tad after that, other educators decided to shed some light into the matter. It’s not tech that will revolutionise education nor will it change the world as we see it. The “digital natives” should be seen as individuals, not as a label, and this has certainly helped us move yet one step forward. A while after the buzz that new tech caused and all that it’s stirred in the lives of tech aficionados, it was clear that anything new that we could bring to the equation had to be seen for what it truly was – a tool. Just like any tool, it requires a skillful educator to use it effectively to actually help, and not hinder, learning.

Apps and sites bombarded us with myriad choices – we could pick and choose from thousands of different tools that always offered to be THE one solution to make teaching effective. Some teachers were able to take things as they were supposed to be taken instantly (cautiously and carefully), others needed more time to realise that it’s not about using lots of different things – ’tis all about making the right choice for each one of your learners, and helping them realise you’ve been very careful with your choice and aren’t simply tossing things at them bringing a new gadget every day.

Nonetheless, I wonder whether we’re even close to tackle the problem of changing the face of education as we see it. I wonder whether we’re prepared for that, or even if we actually have any kind of control of how things will evolve. We talk about teacher-centred and learner-centred education, but all that we do is simply repeating what we’ve been doing time and again. In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson went on stage to talk about schools killing creativity and the urge for change. Sugata Mitra showed the results of his “a hole in the wall” experiment on a later talk, the Khan academy initiated some sort of revolution that seems to be a possible way forward for some subjects.

Despite all that, the vast majority of teachers I know is still oblivious to all that’s been written above, which is a lot worse than being against it. Many teachers and administrators simply don’t care about new things and are absolutely OK with doing the same thing that their teachers had done to them 50 years ago, and each one of them – teachers and admins – has his or her reasons for doing so. Some might even read about success stories from different schools and educational systems around the world, but it all sounds too far-fetched for them and it is understood as something that “would never work in [add your city/country here]“. It’s a lot easier to keep doing things the same old way and going with the flow, isn’t it?!

How much of a change has there really been? Our kids still are educated in a classroom where there’s one person who tells them what they need to learn. One person standing in front of them and leading the way and, even when there’s a certain amount of flexibility given to students, such flexibility can only go as far – we do have a syllabus to follow, after all. It’s imposed on us, teachers, and we’re expected to teach it as students will be tested on such syllabus in the years to come. Where’s all the empowerment we hear so much of, yet do so little about? Have we really been able to teach children how to think critically about matters when they haven’t even been taught to criticise whatever it is that the one person standing in front of them says? Are most teachers even prepared to be questioned like that?

If we simply talk about a learning model for teaching instead of a teach-learn model, but we don’t walk the walk, it’ll be years before we can attest its efficacy or lack of efficacy. Few have really taken the plunge, and out of these few, we hear even fewer stories, and most of these are from the ones who happened to have succeeded. It is hard for us to publicly acknowledge defeat, though we praise those who are sufficiently self-assured to do so. We all make mistakes, we should all learn from our mistakes, but apparently we’re afraid of what others will think of us if we show our weaknesses, particularly when we’re so vulnerable for judgement in this new world of social media where many truly believe to be the upholder of the truth. How silly is that, huh?!

Where’s the real change? To be honest with you all, whenever I wonder if we can drive such change, I’m 100% positive that we can. I also know this won’t happen overnight. There’s no such thing as the right answer for the problems we’re facing in the world of education and the challenges that lie ahead. This I’m pretty sure of. And, finally, when I ponder what big change I’d like to see in most of our schools, I guess my answer doesn’t seem to be any different from the answer of many who have been involved in education for quite a while. What shocks me is that we’ve been struggling hard to implement simple things and we are rushing to the-next-big-thing without pausing and reflecting, analysing and criticising whether or not this or that should be the way forward. Isn’t this kind of reflection we’d like our kids to do?

Real change will take place when students no longer see their teachers as the one on stage and the one whose words they should copy and abide by. This may sound simple, but if you bear with me and look at things more carefully, you’ll see it’s not exactly happening. The more resources learners have available to check their facts, the lazier they’re getting. I’d like to see students able to analyse their own opinions and thoughts critically. I’d like to see teachers feeling confident enough about what they’re doing so that they won’t be afraid of being questioned, hence the importance of being knowledgeable.

I think we’re amidst a revolution. I think things are indeed changing. I don’t think we’ve been able to make sure most of us realise the importance of keeping abreast with this change and the necessity of taking risks to actively control what’s to come instead of passively waiting for it. Things will change whether we want it or not. We should have been prepared to lead such change consciously, but apparently we’re still a couple of people short. But I do see that, little by little, things are a-changing. I just wish that, for the year to come, we were able to move the spin of change faster, that we could get more people onboard – not virtually, but mainly those who work right next door, within the same school borders. This seems to be the way forward to me. We can’t expect change to happen if we’re scattered all over the globe. Getting teachers to think critically about their actions and learning how to work collaboratively so that we may, in the near future, feel comfortable with leading our students towards the same path. How can we teach, inspire or simply engage people when we ourselves seem to lack what it takes to get things going?

Then again, this might all change in my head tomorrow. It’s been a hell of a busy year, but I think it’s important to remind myself that it’s OK to have your thoughts, to write about them, to have others agree, disagree or simply not mind them. It’s all OK as long as we’re trying to move forward.

Against the prejudice – How far can adverts go?

May 22, 2012 45 comments

UPDATE: Below my post, you can read Vinícius Nobre’s letter (he’s the president of Braz-TESOL) and, now, the reply that Open English has written. We did it! :)

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I must say I’m not particularly offended when I’m called a NNEST (Non-Native English Speaking Teacher). Perhaps I’m just being naïve, but I don’t believe there’s harm in the terminology when it’s used by someone just to make things clear. It’s just as if you say I’m tall, or blond, or even white. It’s not that I don’t acknowledge we have to pay attention to the rules of political correctness and avoid misinterpretation as much as we can, but I just choose to believe that people, when they do that, they’re not simply trying to offend me. The same is true for the NNEST thing. I was born in Brazil and I’ve never studied nor lived abroad, and the English I know is the English I learnt in Brazil. Therefore, if you call me a NNEST, I simply understand that you are stating a fact.

However, it’s also very easy to notice when someone is being rude, offensive, or just tongue-in-cheek. For instance, if you’re among friends and one of them just happens to say something that could be interpreted as rude by others who haven’t got a clue of how well you know one another, you don’t take it that seriously. You’re probably well aware of the fact that this friend of yours is just pulling your leg, yanking your chain, or making fun of you. You know this is not exactly what he feels or thinks. I remember when I was 12 or 13 and played basketball. If I remember correctly, that was the very first time I heard someone complaining about the kind of language I used with a very good friend of mine. You see, we were very good friends, and there was absolutely no harm meant, but as this friend was black, I used to call him according to his skin colour. I can honestly relate to that and assure there was no cruelty or racism of any kind involved, just as I’m sure he didn’t mean any when he called me “German” or “Whitey” or “Honky”. I’m now aware of the fact that these are offensive words, but I have never felt offended when these words were used by my friends.

Just the same, it’s also very easy to notice people are being rude or judging you as inferior – and they can use exactly the same words. You see, it’s not only a matter of being politically correct, it’s a matter of how you say what you’re saying. The body language, the context, and all that goes with verbal communication are the things that make the difference between a simple joke among friends and offensive and unacceptable language. The reason why I’m writing this is not because we should be teaching this to our students, or teaching them which words in English are not supposed to be said, which are the politically correct ones and which should never be uttered. What’s caused me to write this post was the complete and absolute lack of common sense of people who happened to have put together a TV advert of an online language school that, as far as I know, is quite new in Brazil. The school is OpenEnglish.com, and the advert (I’ll translate it to my fellow NESTs below) is this:

This is what the advert says (my comments are in brackets).

“These two want to speak English. One of them goes to a traditional school, the other one studies at OpenEnglish. One of them studies with the same textbook his mother studied with (as if textbooks hadn’t changed at all), the other one studies online with multimedia lessons (one size fits all, anyone?). One has classes with Joana (a Brazilian name for the teacher who keeps dancing and making a fool of herself dancing to herself singing “the book is on the table”), the other one has classes with Jenny. “How about you? What is your choice?” (Jenny’s sentence in Portuguese).”

On one of the other ads, they’ve even added that Joana, the Brazilian teacher, had learnt English in Buenos Aires… well, I’m so sorry, but this is the kind of NNEST that IS, indeed, derogatory. This is why there’s a cause running on Facebook through the causes site, which you can find by clicking here. You see, there are a whole bunch of things that could be said to highlight the benefits of studying online – I’d be OK with that. However, I can’t possibly stand someone going as far as taking advantage of the little knowledge of people when it comes to learning a foreign language and their desire to learn it fast (because everything has to be done fast these days) to sell a product. In addition to this, Brazil is currently on a campaign to teach their population English no matter what on account of the world cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. How many people will be lured by an advert that is on national TV and waste their time and money on something that is unlikely to work?

As I said in the beginning, I’m a NNEST and that’s it. I don’t have to be proud or feel inferior because of that. The most important letter in the abbreviation is the last one – T. I’m a teacher first and foremost, and as such I’m constantly looking for ways to better teach my students. It honestly doesn’t matter where you’re from. If you also find the campaign offensive, I kindly ask you to join the cause. If you think this is not important, that’s also OK. If you think I’m wrong, just leave your comment and we can definitely talk about it.

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UPDATES: Isabela Villas Boas has also written a fantastic piece on the add, expanding on what I have written here: Click here to read her post.

Vinícius Nobre is the current president of Braz-TESOL, and this is what he wrote on the matter:

“As the president of the largest association of English teachers in Brazil, I feel I have to take a stand and express my outrage and disappointment with regards to the TV commercial that has been broadcast on national television promoting an online English course.
I am NOT a native speaker of the English language, I do not have long blonde hair, I do not live in California and I do not wear a tight T-shirt to teach my students. In fact, I NEVER had a native speaker of English as a teacher. I never even lived in a foreign country. I simply studied the English language in my own developing country, and then four years of linguistics, literature, second language acquisition, morphology, pronunciation, syntax, education, pedagogy, methods and approaches. I have only dedicated 16 years of my life to the personal and professional growth of thousands of students. I have not bragged about my passport or my birthplace because I was too busy trying to understand my students’ linguistic and affective needs. I am NOT a native speaker of the language; hence – according to this TV commercial – I do not qualify to teach. I probably qualify as an irresponsible and grotesque mockery of a teacher.
Like me, thousands of hard-working, gifted, committed, passionate and under-valued educators (from Brazil or ANY other non-English speaking country) are depicted in 30 seconds of a despicable and desperate attempt to seduce students. I have met outstanding teachers regardless of their nationality and many of which who were native English speakers. The best English speaking educators I have met, however, were always dignified enough to acknowledge the qualities of a non-native speaker colleague.
Foreign language education has developed tremendously so as to guarantee the fairness and respect that all serious language professionals deserve (native speakers or not). At least among ourselves. If students still insist that a native speaker is better, we should at least rest assured that in our own profession we can find the respect and the recognition that a committed and qualified professional needs to have. It is sad, however, to be ridiculed by another (so-called) educational centre.
As the president of BRAZ-TESOL, as a non-native speaker of the English language, as an admirer of teachers regardless of their nationality, I resent such an irresponsible joke. But then again, who am I to even think about saying anything about the learning and the teaching of English? I am not Jenny from California – the utmost example of a foreign language educator.”

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Open English’s CEO reply to the letter above – in English and in Portuguese:

My name is Andres Moreno and I’m the founder and CEO of Open English.
A recent advertisement we’ve been running on TV has upset some groups of people, including an important Brazilian teacher’s association, for what they perceive to be an offensive portrayal. Let me start by saying that anyone whose mission in life is teaching English has earned our admiration and respect. If we have offended this group, or any other, we sincerely apologize. As a company Founded by a Latin American entrepreneur and currently employing people from multiple countries across the region (including Brazil), we value diversity of opinions and welcome feedback as part of our desire to connect with students and advertise responsibly.
We happen to believe that online teaching from native English speakers is the right model for certain lifestyles, so it’s the one we’ve chosen for OUR business. However, this in no way diminishes the efforts and achievements of other teaching professionals.
Again, our intent was never to offend. Due to the feedback we have received and because of our great respect for our colleagues in the English teaching community, we are immediately pulling the ad from our website, social media platforms and television airwaves as soon as possible.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Meu nome é Andres Moreno, fundador e CEO da Open English.

Uma campanha publicitária veiculada por nós na TV foi considerada ofensiva por algumas pessoas, incluindo uma importante associação brasileira de professores. Quero começar dizendo que qualquer pessoa que tenha como missão na vida o ensino do inglês merece nossa admiração e nosso respeito. Se nós, involuntariamente, ofendemos essas pessoas, ou quaisquer outras, sinceramente pedimos desculpas. Como uma empresa fundada por um empreendedor latino-americano que emprega profissionais de diversos países (incluindo o Brasil), valorizamos a diversidade de opiniões e recebemos eventuais críticas como uma forma de nos ajudar a aprimorar nossa conexão com os estudantes e a anunciar de forma responsável.

Acreditamos que o ensino online com professores nativos de inglês é o melhor modelo para determinadas pessoas com determinados estilos de vida e é esse o modelo que escolhemos para o nosso negócio. Isso, de forma nenhuma, desvaloriza os esforços ou diminui a importância de outros profissionais de ensino.

Nossa intenção nunca foi ofender ninguém. Em razão das críticas que recebemos e do profundo respeito que temos por nossos colegas da comunidade de ensino do inglês, determinamos a interrupção imediata da exibição dos filmes publicitários da campanha em nosso website, em nossos canais nas mídias sociais e na televisão.

Atenciosamente,

Andres Moreno
Fundador e CEO da Open English

Headed for a Catch-22 situation?

June 3, 2011 7 comments

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." Robert Frost in The Road not Taken / Photo by Mark Smallwood

It’s a commonly held belief (at least where I live) that in order to fully be able to speak a foreign language, one has to live abroad. It is only through immersion that you’ll finally be able to understand the subtleties of the language you want to learn. This is also widely spread on TV by some ‘experts’ and, needless to say, many people buy into this idea without giving it any kind of serious thought or consideration. As a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, I’d be unemployed if this were true. Actually, I would never have been able to become an English teacher, or even to speak the language as I’ve never lived nor studied abroad. But this is as personal as I’m going to get on this post. What’s been making me think for a while is exactly the difference between learning a language in an immersion situation, or learning it in the formal environment of the classroom.

One can easily see why it’s so easy to be led into the argument in favour of living abroad as the only possible solution for really learning how to speak a language. “Learn a second language as naturally as you’ve learned your first language,” says one advert. “I’ve studied English in [insert a non-English speaking country here] for more than 6 years, but it was only when I went to [insert an English speaking country here] that I realised I had not learned how to speak the language,” reads a testimonial next to the picture of a girl in her ‘I love London’ T-shirt who has just returned from a month of studies in, well, London. Add to that the fact that we all know a friend of a friend who’s been through this very same situation, and also the fact that, when it comes to education, everyone is an expert, and voi-lá – you’ve got yourself the perfect scenario. How can you persuade someone that, yes, even though it does help, it’s not a sine qua non condition for language learning?

The problem is aggravated when a neuroscientist is invited for an interview on TV about the best age and method for you to learn a foreign language. Why would they invite a linguist, after all, huh? As if that were not enough, people are constantly bombarded by adverts from an ever-growing number of language schools in the country that claim that learning English is easy. Easy? Seriously? I’m fine with learning English is enjoyable, pleasant, fun, but not easy, sorry. Learning, not only languages, requires dedication, motivation, work, and effort. “Ok, but what’s your angle, Henrick?” one might wonder. My angle is this:

Whenever we have to learn something new, we need to be motivated to do so. We’re going to, even if it’s subconsciously, analyse the amount of work and effort involved and the pleasure we’ll derive from mastering A or B and then decide whether it’s worth or not going through the trouble of learning it. We’ll also use others, usually our friends, as the yardstick against which our success or failure will be measured. We don’t want to lose face in front of others either, so it’s much easier to go with the flow and fail as long as everyone else is failing too than go against the mainstream and fail when all around you succeed. For example, if you need to lose weight and you decide to start on a weight-loss programme that will take a while to complete, but all your friends tell you of that miraculous new crash diet that will help you shed 20 pounds a month that they’re all going through, you end up giving in. Even when we know deep down that there’s no such a thing, it seems we’re somehow afraid that this might be the very first time it’s going to work. The same is true of business opportunities – we know success depends on hard work, but every now and then it’s easy to be lured by that new business opportunities that just seems too good to be true. Guess what? It is.

Learning languages is no different than that. Depending on how proficient a speaker of the language you want/have to be, you will have to invest a certain amount of time, effort, and hard work to reach your objectives. But it’s easy to be misled by an advert that portrays a TV star telling you how easy it is, and we end up falling into a vicious circle. Let me see if I can get this into writing…

People are constantly on the lookout for the soft path – generally speaking. Therefore, if I find a place that will ‘teach’ me English without requiring too much work from me, that’d be perfect. If, on the other hand, there’s a lot of homework, teachers nagging you in class all the time, serious assessment criteria and possibility of failing, people are likely to be more serious when choosing this kind of course. But then, and here’s where it hits the fan, when people are bombarded with adverts that state that you can only possibly learn a language effectively by living abroad, your expectations towards any kind of serious course are lowered – why would you go through all the trouble serious courses and teachers would put you through when you won’t be able to reach native-like fluency?

In Brazil, language courses fall under the category of any kind of course and are not regulated at all. Hence, it’s common for you to see people who have got no knowledge of the language whatsoever start a language course. It’s just business like a bakery, only instead of selling bread, it sells education. Obviously, these money-oriented people are way more concerned with making money than actually teaching anything, and if this kind of mentality becomes the norm rather than the exception, we have a problem. These people start selling what people want: a course which will teach them a foreign language fast and with very little effort from them. Suddenly, a whole bunch of people just flock their way. Other schools, who are also in need of students so they can pay their bills, see what’s happening and decide to follow suit. From this point on, schools do whatever it is possible to make sure students get what they think they want (not studying hard and still learn) at the expense of what they really expect to get at the end of the course (becoming at least independent users of the language).

The entry level in most schools has dropped straight to A1 even when you’re dealing with students who are well capable of being challenged a tad beyond that. When students start their course, they love it and say it’s all easy and they can learn the language without having to bend over backwards to find the time to study and do all the exercises. It’s all too beautiful until time passes and then, two years after studying, they experience very little progress. That’s when they finally admit that the only way for you to learn a language is by studying or living abroad. Aren’t many language schools headed for a Catch-22 situation in the near future? We need to make sure students realise they can learn a foreign language by taking a course and committing to their studies, but this requires them to push their students harder than most other schools do, which means many students will choose to study in an “easier” course. Consequently, in order to have students studying and paying for their bills, especially after the school has grown to a certain size in which it needs to have a minimum number of students just to exist, they end up having to lowering their standards. When they lower the standards, the arguments in favour of taking a course abroad become much more apparent, and these language schools, in the near future, may end up losing their students.

In other words: are certain language schools laying the ground for their own failure by lowering their standards so that they can compete with schools who are not seriously committed to education? What’s worse, isn’t this going to make it even harder for people to believe they can learn a language by taking a course, as I and so many other friends of mine have done? Are teachers, by lowering their standards, starting to make themselves redundant?

* This post is based on a talk I had with a friend who is currently taking an English course and, after two years of studies, has realised not much learning has taken place. This person also works in the field of education, which made our talk even more profitable.

** It all made perfect sense in my mind. In case there are things which were not clear, just ask! :)

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.

True Education is Timelessness (or “Beware of Fads”)

April 7, 2011 11 comments

I’ve recently had the chance to read and analyse a text with some of my college students that got me thinking. Actually, ever since I heard about the idea of digital-natives and all that  goes with the idea of digital-literacy and the changes in education, I’ve been thinking about this topic (you can see what I think about it on this post). The text is called “The Saber-tooth curriculum“, it was written in 1939, but just as the title of this post (which was taken from the text), it remains, in some ways, timelessness.

What's the point in learning how to fight saber-tooth tigers? / Image by burgundavia on Flickr.

It is the story of an educator and the very first school curriculum there was. It all started with the idea of creating schools, and teaching children some skills tha were necessary in the lives of adults at that time. There were only three subjects, and I guess we can allude to Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind and its utilitarianism upon a first glance at the text. If you allow me to do some analogy here, the eternal question, “Why do children go to school?” has always been answered by, “To learn the things they’ll need to know in order have a successful life in the society they’re inserted in.” Maybe you don’t even agree with this answer, and I myself have some reservations, but I consider it quite a satisfactory answer to why schools have been created and why they are organised the way they are these days.

What I’ve been pondering, though, is whether we’re going in the right direction with all the pressure towards digital-literacy and the way it’s being done. Most of the things that are quite popular these days have just yet been invented; many of the things that didn’t exist in Y2K have already been created, used, and dropped ever since. We’re witnessing a time of change that is as swift as it’s ever been. Is it really our goal to teach our students how to use so many tools we find useful for our lives today? I don’t know about you, but I really don’t think what we have at our disposition these days is what will be around in the next couple of years.

It is my opinion that technology will soon be ubiquitous. It will simply be, and most computer companies are working as hard as they can to make sure computers are as user-friendly as possible. I remember I had to learn how to use Basic in order to create my own software when I was really young (10, 20, 30… who remembers the command lines?), and later DOS (what was it that we had to type, anyway? Cd/? Dir /p?). Then we had windows, and life was a lot easier with the pointing with a mouse and clicking. Even those who didn’t think too much of computers started using it. Let’s face it, the computer industry had their way. As an industry, they wanted to sell more and more computers. As long as computers were complicated to use, not many people would be willing to learn how to use them.

Changes have been happening at an ever-faster pace – just think about how long it took you to go from a touchpad to a multi-touch screen device. If we try to teach our learners how to use whatever it is they have at hand, we’re just trying to catch up with something that will always be ahead of us, and when children finally finish school, they’re likely to have to learn new things over and over again.

This is exactly what makes me wonder whether we can only prepare children for the future if we teach them how to use tech, or if we have technology available in our classrooms. I honestly don’t think it’s a matter of “only if”, but a matter of “regardless of”. Children have got to be prepared to face a world that is entirely different from the world we once knew and that was presented to us when we were children. This is the main challenge teachers ought to face.

More and more often I hear teachers and employers complaining about the fact the new generation of students and workers do not go beyond what they are taught. They can be trained, but they seriously lack any kind of autonomy and independence to face even the slightest challenging of the tasks. A lot is said about fostering autonomy and independence in education, that this is the ultimate goal of education. Are we running the risk of creating another generation of educators who, similarly to many English language teachers, are nothing but repeating a mantra without actually knowing how to do as they say? I’ve had the chance to interview my share of English teachers who seem to parrot, “I use the communicative approach in my classes, obviously!” However, upon being questioned what the communicative approach is, their answers vary (as they have) from merely talking to students to focussing on grammar (??).

We sure need to foster autonomy, and learners have got to be prepared to face the many different things they’ll have to deal with in life. If we think that by teaching them how to use today’s technology is going to help them, we’d better think twice. They’ll use technology because it’s getting easier and easier. It’s soon to be ubiquitous, as I said before. But I’m pretty much sure that the technology they’ll have to use in 5-10 years’ time is going to be far different from anything we may be able to teach them today. We go back to the fundamental question that teachers should always ask themselves before each and every class: Why am I doing what I’m doing in class today?

Learners will be trained in their future jobs, and they will have to know how to learn. This, in my opinion, is what we should be doing. We should be teaching our students how to learn, not teaching them how to use technology because it allows them to communicate with the whole world and gives them a real audience. Speaking to the world is a natural consequence, something that is unavoidable; we need to teach them how to collaborate and work together with their peers, those people who are sitting next to them in the same classroom. What we need to do is teach them the basic skills that will allow them to function in any other setting they may be inserted into. Autonomy is also taught little by little, and we’re only truly autonomous after we’ve achieved a certain level of mastery in whatever it is we’re learning.

Why do we have schools? Why do we teach? We teach because we want to see our children able to thrive in life, regardless of what they face. It doesn’t matter how skilled students are. If they do not learn how to talk to people, how to make and take criticism, how to read, understand, and draw conclusions from what they’re reading, they’ll not succeed. These are the fundamental skills that will trigger the whole system into motion. In a way, it’s a bit like going back to the “bare essentials”. Instead of trying to embrace the world, focus harder on the little things – the big things will take care of themselves.

What’s your take on that?

Bottom up, top down, or upside down?

November 27, 2010 15 comments

Given the proper conditions, all may blossom.

How can we expect to change education when the people in charge don’t really feel like doing much about it? Besides doing something to ease the criticism, and maybe to appease the harsher critics, why would the government want to make things really work in education? It’s a known fact that the less educated you are, the easier it is for you to be manipulated. Sure, your brain may also play tricks on us when we are educated, and some might even be stubborn and refuse to change their minds. Nevertheless, we’ve got to admit that education is the only one thing that can open doors. It is the only one thing that can’t be taken away from you. Cliché?! It’s been said so often, that, yes, this might come across as cliché. But isn’t it true?

Real change in education, or in any other industry, has got to come from the ideas of those who are involved in it. Yet, most people in charge of public education are not teachers. This goes way beyond principals, I’m talking about those who are responsible for letting principals and teachers work. Politicians who should be working to make it happen, are actually getting in the way of change. In Brazil, to be more specific, in Brasília, the capital of Brazil, there’s always news about public schools that are about to be shut down simply because the building can’t welcome students any longer. Whenever you turn on the TV, there are stories of schools whose windows don’t open nor close – the ones which are open can’t be closed when it rains, and the ones that are closed can’t be opened when it’s hot. Not to mention worse problems yet – bathrooms that don’t work, schools with no food to serve to the kids, no water in the water fountains… and to think that those who went to public schools in Brazil 40 years ago (yes, a very long time ago), say that public education was actually better than the kind of education you could get in private schools.

Nowadays, if you’d like to give your children a chance in an educational system that puts kids through gruelling exams in order to have a chance to study at university, you’re likely to do whatever it takes to send your student to private schools. One would think kids would be treated differently there. I once had the opportunity to meet a principal from a school in Australia when he came to talk at our language institute. When we were talking about how schools were in Brasília, he was shocked to hear that most private schools put about 50 students in a class. When he said that most of his teachers would refuse to teach if there were more than 20 students in a class, I was aghast at such thought. Having studied and taught in a school with 50 students per class myself, I couldn’t believe it when I heard that teachers could have such a reaction. But it only makes sense.

Even though there might be fewer students per group in some public schools, teachers sometimes haven’t got chalk to write on the board, and kids haven’t been given a copy of the coursebook to work with in class. To make matters worse, there’s absolutely no security in most of such schools, which leads to plenty of other problems such as drug trafficking, bullying, fights and others. When a principal finally gets the money to buy the computers and create a computer lab, more often than not the computers are stolen within a month. Now, how could we change such a chaotic situation?

I believe real change will only happen when teachers are really heard about their needs. They are the ones who are really there. They know the real deal. They know what it takes to start making changes, but… how would we expect anyone to really hear their complaints if those who are responsible for funding, and who should be working for the people, are oblivious to such a reality. What sickens me the most is seeing an interview on TV when they say that they’re going to create a commission to investigate what needs to be done and that people shouldn’t worry, that next year every thing is going to be fixed. And we all know, I guess, how the story ends. Year after year schools are shut down, and politicians say they’ll build new ones. And that they do, but at what cost? The money that should be used to maintain schools goes straight to their pockets, and they make even more money when building new ones. They aren’t concerned about education, they’re concerned about the construction of more and more schools, as it’s much easier to embezzle when they have these public constructions.

But then again, why would they want to promote any real change? Most of them send their kids to the best private schools in the country, and some even send their kids abroad. Of course they’re going to say that everything is just fine in public schools. They don’t depend on it. So, change that should be bottom up can’t happen because those at the top don’t know and refuse to see that lots of things have to be done. And change that could be top down also doesn’t happen because… well, because they really don’t want it to happen for many different reasons.

Isaac Asimov created the three rules for robots. Perhaps we should come up with three rules for politicians as well. I have a suggestion for such rules:

1. All politicians must have a university degree – Let’s face it, there are pre-requirements for anything we want to do in life. You want to be a doctor, you’ve got to go through med school. You want to be a lawyer, law school it is. If you want to be an accountant, well, you have to study for that too. However, at least in Brazil, you can be a politician just by not being illiterate. I concede that having a degree isn’t a guarantee of anything in terms of integrity and morals, but let’s look at it from the following perspective: a legislator’s job is to create laws, and laws can’t be written or read and interpreted and then voted on if you can’t really read AND understand what you’ve read.

2. All politicians must have their bank accounts public – If you’ve chosen to work in politics, you’re supposed to have made this choice because you want to make things work for your country. You’re paid by the people and you work for the people, and as a citizen I’d love to know exactly how much money I’m paying you.

3. All politicians must use public services – Schools, hospitals, and even public transport. Being a politician in charge of public education and sending your students to private schools is just like being the owner of a restaurant but never having your meals there. It’s like being the owner of a school, but sending your kids to study in a different school. Well, if you don’t trust your school enough to send your kids there, why would I send mine? Yet, this is what happens. It’s only when politicians are forced to send their kids and family to public schools, to use public hospitals and to use public transport that they might start thinking about making real changes. Other than that, they’ll just close their eyes to all problems.

If you ask me, I’d say that it’s not bottom up nor top down. The whole system is upside down.

Categories: Education Tags: , , ,

Some challenges in education (part 2) – Assessment

November 9, 2010 6 comments

If you’ve missed challenges 1 and 2, and what got me into writing this series, you can read that here.

Challenge 3 – How do we shift our current educational system from a summative-based to a formative-based system? Is it possible to make such shift?

Who is really failing? Photo by Hans Gerwitz

Tests are everywhere, not only in school. Tests, obviously, come in different forms. One may be assessed based on his performance, on how fast a task is completed, or on how well one relates with one’s co-workers. We’ve all seen, or at least heard of, performance assessment sheets. I was listening to a successful businessman talking on the radio about what is it that guarantees people’s jobs. He didn’t worry about painting a beautiful setting, his answer was a rather dry “RESULTS”. He even added that you can write many different books on what is important in the business world, or what you may have to do in order to keep your job, but it all boils down to the results you get.

In school, we’ve learned to equate results with grades. This isn’t necessarily so, and there are many examples of people who have, successfully, abandoned grading from their curriculum, as you can read here. Now, I’ve been reading Joe’s blog for quite a while now even though I don’t think we ever went past few tweets to one another once. I also think that the ultimate goal of education should be the learning of something, and that learning is not measured by grades. There are a lot of other ways for us to assess whether or not learners have grasped the necessary concepts in order to be able to understand more complex thoughts – if you’re thinking about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, you got what I meant.

The key problem, as I see it, at least so far, is that we’ve come to a time where testing is the only form of assessment known by most teachers and schools. Testing is just a tiny bit part of assessment, and there are many other forms of noticing learning, but none is as practical as testing. Testing may not be, on its vast majority, authentic, and they may lack validity and reliability, but it also depends a lot on who is preparing the test and how careful this person is. I don’t think the problem with testing lies entirely with testing, but mainly with those who are preparing the tests.

Teachers move on to standardized tests that fail to correctly assess learners for a couple of reasons, and one of these reasons may be time. I once had 15 groups of 48 students each. This meant I had 720 students to assess. In addition to that, these students were going to go through an entrance examination for university in which they’d be in fierce competition against thousands of other students for one spot at university. Their whole educational setting is based on preparing students to pass these tests. Now, they had to constantly be given feedback on how well they were progressing, and they also had to have an idea of the kind of test they’d face at the end of the year. Most students were looking for tips in order to do the exam faster, as they’d have to sit such exam for 4 hours and a half, and answer about 180 questions from all different subjects – English, Portuguese, Match, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography, Arts, Literature, Composition, and probably something else I may not remember right now.

Testing is definitely not the best way to assess learners, especially if it’s done alone, but it was definitely the only way that most teachers here have to have the time prepare their lessons, correct students’ work, prepare exams required by the school, and deal with problems that may come up in the classroom. Oh, and, obviously, teachers have to try to keep their lessons close to students’ reality if they want at least this bit of their job to be engaging, which means they’ve also got to keep abreast with what’s going on in the world. I have already asked this question before, and I was given lots of things to think about, but I still can’t figure out how a teacher with 720+ students can use only formative assessment throughout the year. What makes it even a bigger problem is when the school doesn’t buy into the idea and teachers are kept on a tight leash and have very little room for changing anything.

On the other hand, I don’t think the problem would be solved if teachers could abandon grades either. I don’t want to be that the-glass-is-half-empty guy, but there are, unfortunately, teachers out there who wouldn’t even read their students’ work. I’ve had teachers like that, even at university. Teachers who care only about their teaching and going to the classroom and vomiting the content. It doesn’t matter if students learned or not, what matters is that they’ve taught what they were supposed to do. These are teachers who see their job as finished when they finish lecturing. Just as there are teachers who prepare tests on the go without worrying about reliability, validity and authenticity, there are teachers who simply don’t care about what their students have learned.

The challenges with education, as I see them right now, can only be overcome if we start attracting the right people to do the job. If people who want to be teachers get plucked off the classroom because they want to start a family and can’t make enough money to pay their bills, and if schools accept people who see education just as something they do in-between jobs, it will never be taken seriously. I do believe there are lots and lots of people who have become teachers because they believe they can make a difference. This is the reason why I became a teacher in the first place and I know I’m not alone in this. However, for each true educator out there, I seem to meet 5 people who don’t believe in what they’re doing and can’t see how powerful they can be in transforming lives, pushing students to their limits, showing people what they are capable of doing and helping they live their full potential. Are true educators outnumbered? Even if we are, we’re not giving up, but it surely makes it a lot more difficult to get things done.

What should be done, then? Teachers were once respected by society, and this has got to happen again. Being a teacher should be something difficult, in the good sense of the word. Teachers need to be better prepared, they need to be given opportunities to keep learning, they need to be given freedom to innovate. Teachers are on the front line of any other profession out there, yet they are seen as unimportant in the long run. This means people themselves, despite saying education is the most important asset in a person’s life, don’t really believe in it. If education is indeed so important to everyone, why is it that teachers aren’t paid as much as doctors, lawyers, engineers, diplomats and politicians? If people truly believed their words when they say that education is the most important thing in a person’s life, they’d give a lot more on importance, value, and respect to those involved in education, and they’d demand better and better teachers. Is it a matter of changing, reforming, or even revolutionising education alone? Are we missing the big picture?

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