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Translating machines and (Language) Teaching

January 9, 2013 10 comments

On January 5, 2013, the magazine The Economist published an article on simultaneous translation by computers and one of the first questions it asks readers is

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.

Just because we can't clearly see the final destination, we shouldn't fear getting there. | Photo on Flickr by sudeep1106

Even though we can’t clearly see the final destination, we shouldn’t fear getting there. | Photo on Flickr by sudeep1106

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?

Differentiation

September 5, 2012 6 comments

We’re all capable of learning, unlearning and relearning. We’re all capable of adapting to changes. We’re all capable of evolving and improving, just as we’re capable of acting stubbornly and simply refusing to do things differently. As people who are – supposedly – rational, we should be able to reason, assess, and make the necessary decisions to keep moving forward. Some of us do, others simply don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Where does differentiation lie? What happens that makes us so equal and yet, so different in so many different levels. Most importantly, are we in charge of anything? Can we, as teachers, really make the difference?

When I think about some of the differences that are visible among students who attend the same school, who sit through the same classes and who listen to the same lectures, I wonder why is it that each one of them is able to grasp more or less than others. As a disclaimer note, I need to reinforce, especially for those who are new to this blog, that I don’t believe in the one size fits all model of education, and that, yes, each and every one of us learns differently. We all have our pace and a teacher’s style might cater more to student A than to student B. However, is this all there is to it?

I feel we’ve been looking at the space of the school as the only place where such differentiation is made. What if most of what defines how we think and our capability of learning, relearning and unlearning were looked into from a more holistic perspective indeed? At the risk of sounding trite, how often do we look at the learner from a holistic perspective when we, ahem, say this is what we have to do as educators? The point is, if intelligence is diverse, are we ever going to be able, as teachers to ensure that learners will be equipped with the tools they are likely to need to thrive?

Oh, the brain… | Photo on Flickr by TZA

What if we looked at learning beyond cognitive abilities? This is, actually, what we’ve been hearing more and more of these days. Yet, we end up seeing parents and teachers shoving their kids into courses at an ever younger age. “We want to make sure they have the best chances to succeed when they grow up,” says a worried parent. The teacher replies, “The younger, the better! It’s never to soon to learn,” and, boom… here we go into the same old trap again.

We don’t learn from school exclusively, and this should have already become crystal clear with the revolution that technology is likely to bring about in learning. We learn best from one another. We learn when we’re challenged and when we are stimulate to think differently, to find viewpoints to support our opinions. This will rarely come from a group of people who have grown up exposed to the same old ideas. If we confine a group of people into one single space, with access to the same sources of information, these people are likely to end up having a lot more things in common in their way of looking at the world than we may think.

What is it, then, that makes each one of the learners in our classrooms unique? Should we be looking inwards for the answer and racking our brains for different ways to teach them, or should we come to terms with the fact that, in the long run, its not only cognitive skills and abilities that will be responsible for a person’s so-called intelligence. I’m not referring here to people who are book smart in opposition to those who are street wise. I’m also trying to look at intelligence from a more diverse perspective. And also at our ability to be creative and to come up with creative solutions for problems.

What we need is to help the brain create and strengthen connections, and these connections are to be formed in different parts of the brain. This happens when we learn how to walk and we need to make sure the right message is sent to the right limb at the right time. When we challenge ourselves to learn how to play a musical instrument that might require a very complicated twist of the hand, or when we simply want to dazzle our friends by climbing a tall tree. These connections are created when we bond with other people and suddenly find ourselves lost amidst an intricate coterie where we all think alike, and then we’re suddenly cast into an environment where we’ve got to learn how to hear different opinions.

Connections, connections, connections… if we understand little about the importance of neural connections, how can we ever expect to understand reasons for two people who have been raised in the very same educational setting end up being so different. No, it’s obviously not only a matter of stimulus and response, but it’s also not only some work of mysterious forces, or our genes alone. We have to believe that we’re all capable of learning, relearning and unlearning if we believe that teachers do make a difference. How far does the extension of our powers to change it all go, that’s the point we should bear in mind.

A child ends up spending a lot more time with friends as they grow old, and not surprisingly, they end up liking the same kind of music, enjoying doing the same things whenever they have free time, and, yes, thinking very much alike. We enjoy this kind of self-assurance as human beings, and we do tend to seek those who think alike. It is reassuring. We end up looking a lot more for validation than for real answers. It’s easier to be in our comfort zone than leaving it.

But then again, what if we accept that we seek the company of like-minded people, and that people who read the same books and do the same things end up thinking alike? What is it that makes each one of us stand out? What makes us stand out in the crowd, what makes us unique, can only partially be found within the realms of the classroom. This is why our role os to make ourselves less and less needed as teachers. But that would probably require a whole lot of learning, unlearning and relearning from… teachers. Perhaps a price lot higher than most of those who end up in the trade are willing to pay. Teachers will always make the difference, but the way to make the difference is not by assuming we ought to do it all and that we are solely responsible for our students’ success or failure. Things should be clearer now than they’ve ever been to past generations… either that, or we’re just inebriated by all that’s been made available to us at this day and time, and in the end it will all be the same.

How do you make a difference? Most importantly, how do you make room for others to make a difference?

Guest post – Teacher Luiz Eduardo (Dudu)

August 4, 2012 6 comments

Hello everyone! I know I’ve been quiet on the blog for a couple of months now, I do have some (good) reasons for that. First and foremost, this blogger got married in June, which meant a lot of hard work with planning everything, and a bit of partying afterwards. I’ve also attended and participated in the 13th National Braz-TESOL convention in Rio de Janeiro. I was really honoured for having been invited to be the MC for the convention (and I hope those who attended it thought it was a decent job), and I also presented a Pecha Kucha in the very first PK night in the history of Braz-TESOL. Most importantly, it was a great pleasure to have the chance to attend the convention with other staff members. One of these has actually written a guest post and has kindly accepted to be published here. Without further ado, here comes the first text of this new semester in Doing Some Thinking, a guest post written by teacher Luiz Eduardo, or, simply put, Teacher Dudu. I hope you enjoy what’s to come!

 

The teacher must have a heart

After attending a week of professional development, such as the 13th BRAZ-TESOL National Convention, teachers normally go back to their schools full of new ideas. They heard Christine Coombe talking about the 10 characteristic of a highly effective teacher; Kathi Bailey speaking about the bridges to link what students can say to what they want to say; Ben Goldstein and the metaphors in English; Jim Scrivener developing the interaction between teaching and learning; David Nunan mentioning the proto-language and real language; Luke Meddings giving ideas to teach unplugged; Herbert Puchta showing thoughtful aspects about Neurolinguistics; Nicky Hocky and the digital literacies; Jeremy Harmer elucidating the myth of multi-tasking; and Lindsay Clandfield talking about critical thinking, among other speakers. And I’m not even mentioning what teachers have certainly learned from all the workshops and talks they have attended in addition to the plenary sessions.

Photo on Flickr by riekhavok

Although they have probably enjoyed learning and remembering so many things, they now have a big problem in their minds, which is how to apply all those things in their classroom. Is everything suitable to their reality? Should they try to do everything they have heard from these highly-respected professionals in ELT? But… how???????

This is exactly my point in this reflection. Though teachers should always try to keep up to date, they are the ones who know their students, classroom, school, city and country. They are the ones who must feel when to use certain activity. They should know how adapt activities to different contexts. They have to make students embrace the activities and the ideas they’ve been presented with. They are in charge of the responsibility to teach their students. Finally, they are the ones who have to cope with such diverse teaching situations.

Thousands of activities without feeling aren’t worth it, just as feeling without any activity is equally worthless.

It’s possible to say that the teacher should have this balance: to keep up to date, but always remembering that they need a reality filter. As Christine Coombe ranked ’the calling to the profession’ as the number one characteristic of a good teacher, I think I can say that the teacher’s heart is this reality filter I’m talking about.

I fortunately work in a school which encourages teachers to try new ideas, and to be always pursuing self and professional development. I am, most definitely, looking forward to putting to use the new ideas I had during this fantastic brainstorming week.


@teacherdudu

I am a teacher at Atlantic Idiomas in Brasília, Brazil. I was born and I’ve grown up here in Brasília, the city which has the most beautiful sky in the world. I have a BA degree and teacher’s course in History from Brasilia’s Federal University (UnB). I am finishing my undergraduation Language course, majoring in English, this year; also at Brasilia’s Federal University (UnB). I’ve been teaching English since 2004 and I really love what I do. From now on, I want to participate more actively in the online teaching world.

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

You’ve got to be a teacher to get it

October 19, 2011 43 comments

I’ve always heard, even from my teachers, that teachers are crazy people, especially English teachers. If we look at it carefully, we may see why. Here’s a list that you are more than welcome to add to. What is it that only English teachers do? Only English teachers…

Photo on Flickr by Denise Carbonell

  • Say COME – CAME – COME and expect to be understood.
  • Correct people when they say “It’s me” instead of “It’s I” and don’t understand why people can’t get it right.
  • Keep spelling words to people when they say they haven’t understood a word you’ve just said.
  • Constantly ask people to discuss in pairs or in groups something that needs no comments on. (“Oh, yes, Steve Jobs has passed away. Talk to your partner about it!”).
  • Ask people to use the subjunctive and expect them to really know what that is.
  • Find it annoying when people ask “Who are you looking at?” instead of using whom.
  • Watch movies and pay closer attention to the chunks and expressions used than to the plot or the action.
  • Laugh out loud in the movie theatre in the saddest part of the movie due to horrible subtitles.
  • Tell people that they are using a plosive instead of a fricative and don’t understand why they can’t get it right!
  • Tell his or her students that what matters is communication, but keep pestering them for using the simple past instead of the present perfect.
  • Find it normal to ask someone to touch their upper teeth with their lips.
  • Don’t understand why is it that people don’t know names of book authors as well as they know who soap opera stars are.
  • Find it interesting to discuss about family, the environment, relationships, celebrities, museums, and places you’ve been to every semester.
  • Watch all videos on YouTube with their lessons in mind, and not to unwind.
  • Know 458 different way to put students in pairs but end up always using the same technique.
  • Expect students to use sophisticated vocabulary and structures every time they say something. It’s obvious that you should always say “a bewildering array of options” instead of “lots of options” – anyone knows that!
  • Feel that they’re being assessed every time they open their mouth to use English.
  • Tell students that it’s OK to make mistakes, that everyone makes mistakes, but cannot sleep at night because they sent a text message that wrote “I already did that” instead of “I’ve already done that”.
  • Spend hours online trying to find the next big thing that will get your students to study English outside the classroom.
And finally, only teachers know what it’s like to…
  • leave all troubles behind you when you close the door of your classroom.
  • be able to help someone really learn something.
  • treasure each and every student for who they are and what they can accomplish, and by no other standard.
  • share someone’s happiness for passing a difficult exam.
  • make a real difference in people’s lives.
A happy belated teachers’ day to each and every one reader of this blog. This humble teacher/blogger hopes that one day we, teachers, are valued by all wonderful and crazy things that we do. :)
Categories: Fun, Teachers Tags: ,

The tipping point or missing the point?

October 12, 2011 9 comments

Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be!

Arthur C. Clarke (1980)

If we don't TEACH, we might as well be doing the same thing...

Why is it that there’s still such heated berate concerning the use of computers, tablets, smartphones and other gadgets in schools? Those who know how to use such gadgets point out dozens of advantages and benefits for enabling learning. On the other hand, those who are resistant to adopting them in the classroom seem to fear the total chaos that these gadgets may instill in our classrooms. Yet, there seems to be a trend that favors the use of technology more and more in our classes. I like to think that the only reason why we debate so much about the use or lack of use of modern technology in classes is the fact that we’re living a time of change. The way we relate to others is changing, which makes it much harder to adapt. The thing is, in the near future, what is today called modern technology will be so omnipresent in our lives that there’ll be no point in arguing anymore whether we should use it or not.

Take tablets, for example. When the day comes that owning a tablet is so common as owning a (paper) notebook, it’ll be absolutely pointless to question whether or not they should be allowed in classes. If it ever gets to the point in which it is what students use to take notes, how are we going to prohibit their use in classrooms? There was a time when teachers debated the use of calculators in math tests. Even though I’m not a math teacher, I really don’t think that this has made students less capable of thinking on their own. If the questions are right, students will use the calculator simply to do the math. The calculator cannot think and solve problems for students. Nowadays, as far as I know, students are given a calculator together with their university entrance examination. Whether or not students are as capable of adding or subtracting as their grandparents is a whole different ballgame, and something that has to be addressed from a different perspective. As long as calculators allow for questions that require a higher order of thinking, I’m in favor of them. If teachers just want to ask what 2 + 2 equals to, that’s a problem with the question, not with the tool.

Debates regarding the use of new gadgets in education will come and go. Nevertheless, talking about it these days is likely to be a lot more appealing for we have been debating about gadgets that are a lot more prevalent in our lives than gadgets in the past. Another reason might be the amount of advertisement and money that is invested by the industry behind these gadgets. It’s a lot easier for us to have access to success cases, and if we’re not willing to do the research on our own, failures may as well be hidden or attributed to any other reason than the use of the gadget in itself. Regardless of the reason, technology in education has certainly gained momentum. Have we reached the tipping point? Are we risking missing the point?

How can we gauge the effective use of computers in our classes? How do we, as teachers, make sure that the tail is not wagging the dog? How do we make sure we ourselves are not being blown away by the wowing effect that new advances have in our lives? At the risk of sounding trite, I don’t think it should be that hard. I’ve had a computer in my hands ever since I was 6 (or maybe even younger than that) and I am keen on keeping abreast with new technology. Perhaps if I weren’t a teacher, I’d be a computer analyst. Yet, I’ve passed the stage in which I let the “WOW” moments beat the “OH” moments in my lessons. I do prefer “Oh” moments to “Wow” moments. I see teaching as helping others learn. A “wow” moment is the moment in which kids are amazed by what you’ve shown them. An “Oh” moment is the moment when something finally hits you – it’s the time in which you’ve finally understood a point. Teaching is far more than transference of knowledge, and any teacher who fails to see that will end up replaced by computers. Computers wow us all the time; teachers should help students “get it”.

For anything that you use in class, there’s a simple question you may ask yourself to help you see whether you’re missing the point or not: Does my teaching highlight the tools I’m using, or do the tools I’m using highlight my teaching? Always aim for the latter. Anything you choose to use in your lessons should be used to highlight your teaching, not the other way around. If the comment you hear is that your lessons are good because you always show students cool and funny videos, or if they like your lessons because you get them to use Facebook, Twitter, blogs and what have you in class, it’s time you asked them WHAT they’ve actually learned. Technology can help teaching for learning, but if it’s misused it’ll do way more harm than good. If there are too many “wows” in your classes, make sure they are not getting in the way of the “oh, now I see” that teachers should be aiming for.

The five stages of PD for teachers

July 17, 2011 8 comments

It’s unavoidable. When you first start working as an ELT teacher, you’re given some kind of training and the truth is that it’s so well delivered that you blindly follow everything you’ve been told to do. After a while, though, you realise that the things that you’ve been told to do are not as wonderful as you were originally told, or maybe you get a new job and you have a different kind of training. All is fine if you’re an open-minded person willing to experiment with different things and taking into account that you have already studied at least a tad about teaching and learning. But what if you’re talking about professional development with someone who is not willing to change, or who counters every little thing you say simply by saying, “You’re wrong! I’ve never done that and my lessons work perfectly fine,” but these people aren’t exactly listening to your point. I’ve once heard that teachers’ egos are enormous, and to a certain extent I agree with that – and teachers who are not in the ELT world have already stated the same thing. Anyway, when being told about professional development, I can’t help but wonder the stages these people go through. It might be something like the 5 stages of death, I suppose. Let’s see if I got this right, shall we?

Stage 1 – Denial

“Listen, what you’re saying is a whole bunch of non-sense” or “if this were true, I’d have heard it by now.” These are some common utterances you’ll hear from teachers who have a vast 3-month experience in the classroom and who believe they already know what it takes to be a teacher. Another characteristic of teachers in this stage is that they refuse to listen to any new idea and call it just a fad.

Stage 2 – Anger

At this stage, these teachers start realising that they’ve been mistaken and can’t help but think they’ve been fooled by those who initially trained them. It’s quite common for them to blame their practices on their trainer and say that their trainer wasn’t good enough, and sometimes ridicule them (a big no-no guys, seriously). Another possible characteristic is being angry at the fact that what they had been doing for ages will have to be changed somehow. “Why did they have to write a new edition of Headway when the old one worked so beautifully? These #&$(@ just want to make us by a new edition because of the money… and now I’ll have to redesign all my activities” is likely to be heard from these teachers.

Stage 3 – Bargaining

This is when those teachers start, well, bargaining. They might even concede there are certain things they need to improve, but they’ll expect you to acknowledge that they aren’t wrong. They will usually say, “All right, I’ll try this new thing you have told me to, but you’ll see it won’t work” or “if I try this and it doesn’t work in class, will you then let me teach in my old ways without bothering me?”

Stage 4 – Depression

This usually happens when they realise their new teaching practices are actually helping their learners and they come to terms with the fact they’ll have to start studying a bit more, and reflecting a lot more on their practices. Some of these teachers feel guilty about so many things they could have done to help their students for so many years but they didn’t. This stage might also show itself after a teacher has been made redundant by someone who actually embraces continuing PD and is keen on sharing and experimenting new ideas in the classroom. It’s now that those teachers finally see they had stopped in time and need to do something about it.

Stage 5 – Acceptance

Now your trainees are ready to receive your input. It’s now the trainer’s responsibility to make sure those who have reached this stage actually see it pays off to learn new things and that these things will help them in their professional career. If the trainer does nothing, then we might end up with a teacher simply becoming more resistant to the idea of PD.

In case you still haven’t seen the video “The 5 stages of a giraffe’s death”, it was an inspiration to this post. What I’ve been thinking is that we sometimes have got to accept that what we so deeply believe in may as well be wrong, and simply trying to adapt it might just postpone the fact that we will have to deal with the problem sooner or later. I don’t think there’s a right way for us to teach, but there may be certain things which we need to radically change in our teaching. If you don’t accept a revolution is necessary, your old practices will always get in the way.

Why should we take it so personally (or not?)

May 30, 2011 9 comments

On her last blog post, my dear friend Cecília posed a question that may intrigue many teachers out there. Are we indeed that humble so as to concede all merits for learning for the students, and yet be as worried as one can be when a group is not doing so well? Why is it that we tend to praise our students’ accomplishments so much more than our own? If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I do believe we should worry a lot more about students’ learning than with our teaching, but this doesn’t mean I think teaching should be underestimated. It’s more a matter of a change in our mindset and understanding of teaching than anything else. If only I were able to be succinct, I could probably sum it up in a sentence or two. As I can’t do it, I may still guide you to a previous post of mine: about teaching. Moving on to my answer to Cecília’s post, why should teachers take it personally?

In her post, Cecília asks a couple of questions, such as this:

Why do we see our students’ failure as our fault, and on the other hand their success as something they’ve achieved all on their own rather than something we’ve helped them achieve?

Share the load, shall we? / Photo by Vijay Chennupati on Flickr

If only I could say I had an answer for that question, but I can venture a guess. I’m pretty sure many teachers have already been asked why they have chosen to be teachers. There’s a big difference between being a teacher and being someone who goes into a classroom to teach a certain subject while still looking for a job. I’ve even had a skype chat with Cecília herself in which we briefly talked about why people choose to be teachers when we know for a fact we’re going to have a hard time making a living (at least in Brazil). Truth is, I don’t think we choose to become teachers – we simply are. There’s something altruistic about being a teacher, and our biggest rewards is our students’ mastery of whatever it is we’re trying to teach them. Teachers, in my humble opinion, enjoy seeing their students thrive, and as we see some struggle while others succeed, it might be only natural for us to believe that we play a very small role in their learning experience.

We couldn’t possible make a bigger mistake. Whenever I’m asked about a language course by any of my friends, my answer is always the same. And this is true for any kind of course. It doesn’t matter what you’ll find in this or that course; what truly matters is who you’ll find. After having been through a series of learning experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing replaces the teacher when it comes to learning – and it’s the teacher’s job to make him or herself unnecessary as time goes by. Contradictory? I’m sure most readers of this blog will agree with me. Teachers expect their learners to be able to walk on their own feet, to be able to discover new things and thread uncharted territories on their own. One of the best graduation speeches I heard was one in which the teacher said, “You’re now ready to learn the language.” We give them the tools, we teach them how to use them, and we are sure they’ll be able to use them effectively when the time comes and we’re not there.

Perhaps it’s because we care so much that it’s easy for us to concede all credits to students when they succeed, and it’s only because we care so much that we think we’re the ones failing when they seem to be struggling to learn something. If we didn’t care that much, we’d perhaps think differently, but, let’s face it, if we didn’t care as much, we wouldn’t be real teachers, would we?

To answer the last question in Cecília’s post:

When it comes to your students’ learning – or lack of – who’s responsible?

If we’re ever capable to analyse the situation from a more rational perspective when things happen to us, we’ll come to terms with the fact that we’re teachers and there’s only as much that we can do. There’s absolutely no way we can please everyone. We can only do our best to foster an environment conducive to learning, we can try to motivate learners, get to know them better so that our classes are more interesting. In the end, though, it’s paramount we understand we are not ultimately responsible for their learning – there’s a part of the process that depends on them and them alone. Teachers can make a huge difference, but they cannot be solely responsible for learning or lack of it. However, there’s one thing I’m sure of: good teachers can certainly help good learners to live up to their full potential and help learners with difficulties succeed. If a student has got a lot of potential but his or her teacher isn’t capable to challenge and push, it’ll all go to waste. That’s our responsibility – to make a difference. Theirs is to be the difference.

Postman knocked twice and Through the Stained Glass Window – Guest post by Fiona – Parts 2.1 and 2.2

May 24, 2011 16 comments

If you haven’t read the first guest post written by Fiona, you definitely should – click here. It’s always been my idea to have this blog as a space that would help me reflect on teaching, learning, and education in general. I’m really thankful to Fiona, as she’s certainly helped me do some thinking, and I’m sure this will be the same reaction that many of you will have. My opinion may even be biased, as her words strike a chord with my views, but even if that’s not the case, there’s good food for thought below. ;)

Postman knocked twice

Remember the film? Originally The Postman Always Rings Twice, but a sliver of poetic licence is not a crime, and has a double purpose here. First of all, there’s the dogme connection: one has to admit That Scene is an admirable example of making good use of what’s in the room.

But more to the point, Postman. At the recent ISTEK conference, Scott Thornbury named New Yorker Neil Postman as another of the major influences on his career and professional ‘take’ on ELT. (see Holes-in-the-Wall for more on when and where). Scott showed his audience a video of Postman ostensibly poo-pooing the use of technology, and great hoo-ha ensued, with Twitter alight seconds after the Postman segment of the talk. Tweets slyly winked at Scott for praising Sugata Mitra for his experiment using computers AND a man whose entire ethos was against technology. ‘Hmm’ I thought. Again, either it was me, or the reactions were too quick, the pouncing too keen, and there was obviously more to all this….surely?

Then, not long after, came the second knocking when another wave of attacks surged forth on blogs, facebook and elsewhere. So who was this Postman chap capable of provoking the audible clashing of virtual swords? Could his ideas really be that off-target AND influence someone who, let’s face it, is pretty major in our field?

In this post, I'm talking about one of the above; is it a), b) or c)? / Photos by a) José Camba b) cliff1066 c) unknown Many thanks to Brad Patterson as montage-meister.

Neil Postman was an American media theorist – one of the pioneers in the field – author and educator well-known for his attacks on the role of television and technology in (US) society. As a humanist, he was concerned that modern life was about machines rather than people, information rather than ideas, and he felt that television was taking over from school as the main source of information. He wrote around 18 books including Amusing ourselves to death and Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and he was particularly active between the 1960s and the late(ish) 1990s. Right now, on blogs and elsewhere, there is a significant amount of debate on Mr P (Prof. P, in fact) so it would be superfluous of me to duplicate that, but I found that, in the last week or so, while reading and pondering and reading some more and writing and rewriting, this post had started to head towards slightly different conclusions from the ones I had anticipated SO, as well as a brief look at his ideas and a medium-length chewing over of their validity, you’ll find my own little conclusions at the end, but I hope they’re of interest. :-)

Postman’s ideas: an overview

Postman’s main concern was the capacity to interact with information and what he saw as “the conflict between independent thinking and the entrancing power of new technologies” (quote from an obituary by Angela Penny in Flak Magazine). Initially, this meant television, which he felt spoon-fed society – and especially children – information, without them questioning it. Information had become entertainment, in his view, and laterally he also proposed that the information overload on children led to indifference in the face of violence, death etc.

Re. education, he suggested that TV had become the main syllabus provider, rather than school, and he also said that schools were not teaching children to think, merely to act as fact sponges.

By the 90s, Postman’s Huxleyan view of our Brave New World was really taking the ‘worst-possible-scenario’ line. He saw humanity as becoming ‘slaves’ to machines, and thought the world would be full of doers rather than makers, producers rather than creators, information rather than ideas.

Famously, speaking against technology and modern society’s unquestioning acceptance of it, he gave the example of buying a car, saying that when offered electric windows, he would ask the salesman what problem they solved, rather than buying the model with the electric windows ‘just because’.  He also pointed at information and technology as culprits behind a modern loss of childhood, as children post-1950 were increasingly exposed to adult information, dressed as adults, played ‘adult’ sports etc, and he claimed that this was the main factor behind a modern child’s ever-lessening respect for his elders, as the boundaries between generations were now unclear.

Of course no thinker or author, however great, only has great ideas. And when ‘influenced’ by a person, we may in fact only be influenced by one idea or one work. Lars von Trier may have been the inspiration Scott Thornbury drew on when choosing the name for his unplugged teaching approach (Dogme) but who would assume by extension that he, ST, also sympathises with a certain moustachioed German dictator? So rather than look at ‘the validity of Postman’, let’s consider his ideas. This is how I see them (though if this is coals to Newcastle, you could skip to Through the stained glass window below):

Hit or miss?

Off the mark:

The main ‘problem’ with Postman’s ideas is history; they remind me of fashions or films, some ageless, timeless, like classier, more elegant items, true masterpieces, and others like – well – New Romantic clothes or Madonna’s films – totally dated. He seemed particularly caught up by that pre-Millennium paranoia which had computers and machines taking over the world. As I read his Technopolis arguments, such as this:

When I hear people talk about the information super highway, it will become possible to shop at home, and bank at home, and get your texts at home, and get your entertainment at home, so I often wonder if this doesn’t signify the end of any community life (from an interview in 1995)

I was reminded of a film I called Denise calls up, about a group of friends whose only contact with each other is via computers and phones. They have reached the point at which they are all afraid of face to face contact, as it is ‘outside their comfort zone’. A father even attends the birth of his child by phone (ie he attends by phone, the baby isn’t born by phone!). It’s quite a bleak film, but does have an optimistic (albeit small) note at the end. When I checked IMDB, I discovered the film came out in 1995, the same year as Postman made the statement above AND coincidentally the same year as the Dogme 95 film movement was born. PURE coincidence? I think not. I also feel that Postman made his predictions assuming that time and progress are linear, but of course they are not, and the birth of interactive internet, also around 1995, knocked progress from that path of doom. The clips Scott recommended were dated 1998. The word ‘blog’ first entered our lives in 1999.

While Postman was ‘wrong’ in this sense, he was just a man of his times. How many folk hit the panic button in 1999? Not a few. As a person who gave birth in December 1999, I still remember being treated as a moron by many members of staff, particularly the US contingent, who were far more tech-savvy than the gently skeptical Brits, for not having stock-piled nappies (or even daipers) for the New Year calamity. Ahem. Yes, well. We made it through, somehow.

Sorry. I’m descending into anecdotes.

Also, it is true that kids aren’t as kid-like now as when we (or at least some of us ;-)) were kids. But  it goes way beyond TV and marketing, and to even attempt to analyse that is not what this post is about.

On the mark:

Education is depersonalised in many contexts (always has been), and information and elbows-on-the-table study is prevalent. Transmission rules, ok? In ELT, CLIL is taking the place of imaginative compositions and personalisation (though only where it is NOT used alongside EFL) and children, including my own offspring, can recite monarchs, the parts of a plant and the Periodic table in two or three languages, but have never written a poem or a story. Postman advocated an inquiring mode of education based on the questions students asked and wanted the answers to, rather than the type that answers questions nobody has asked (though this was not exactly a new idea, he may have brought it to new people), and he championed ideas over information. It would be hard to label that as a passing fad. He saw education as a community activity with minimal teacher intrusion, encouraging critical thinking, rather than an individual, isolated activity. His idea was that if you teach a man to work out how to fish and to ask where the fish are, rather than teach him to fish or give him a fish, you’re not just providing him with food for a lifetime, but with a skill that can be applied to other areas. Surely this has relevance in ELT? Learner autonomy. Learner-centred classes. Learner-negotiated syllabus. Support for learners to be able to ask questions right from the start. Dialogue rather than teacher-monologue. A ‘try again’ attitude, rather than a ‘right/wrong’ attitude. Teacher as facilitator rather than  transmitter. Peer teaching and a similar line in co-constructed knowledge to Sugata Mitra’s experiment. And to Scott’s Little Idea.

He also favoured interaction with information, in order to help form opinions and reduce the chance of people accepting things at face value. Can we dispute the validity of that argument?

Young Spanish people interacting with information and expressing an opinion, May 2011.

As for Postman’s car/electric windows analogy….well, it depends, doesn’t it. When I bought my car, I was offered air-con. I said no thanks. I lived in the Canaries at the time, where opening the (electric) windows is enough to keep cool. In that context, air-con was surplus to my needs. It was an expensive extra and I was more interested in having a decent radio. (A radio may be an extra in many people’s eyes, but not in mine.) However, my car and I then moved to Seville. Need I continue this paragraph??

It's too darn hot. / Photo by bredgur from Flickr.

Suffice it to say, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying no to something you’re being sold if you can’t see a justifiable reason for it – but justifiable reasons will often depend on context and  person, so generic statements like You (Do Not) Need Air-Con are totally misleading. This is a way of hooping-looping back to the dogme & technology debate…you can use technology if it’s totally justified as being the best way to do something, if it’s appropriate and desirable in the context (ditto for dogme itself, of course), but otherwise why swallow the sales?

End of part 2.1…

Read on if you dare… :-)

Through the stained glass window.

Having read a considerable amount on the subject of Postman over the last week or so, I have come to some conclusions of my own, other than those above (Postman knocked twice). This is the more ‘floaty’, philosophical stuff that pops into my head while at the steering-wheel or in the shower. Read on if you dare… :-)

A stained glass window with its myriad of colours was the image that came to mind, as I chewed over what on earth I thought of Postman…..he seems to provoke such extreme reactions, hero or anathema. And I do like to question and inquire. I’ll admit, he doesn’t inspire me radically in either direction, as his ideas remind me of many others – the questioning mode goes back to the Ancient Greeks – but he did make me think a lot about the following:

Inquiring

Inevitably, I’ve already mentioned some conclusions regarding the type of education Postman was advocating, but just in case, it boils down to the need to be aware and beware of spoon-feeding – and of course this is in total agreement with the conclusions from Sugata Mitra’s experiments, not in conflict with them at all. Both S. Mitra and N. Postman show/argued that the role of the teacher in the transmissive model was inappropriate or even undesirable. While Postman was discussing this in New York, Mitra was proving it in the Indian subcontinent, so it really isn’t a case of ‘oh yes, well, in the West….’. Context is vital in some senses, but people learn basically in the same manner, although their cultural baggage and expectations may be different.

Dogma (as opposed to Dogme), thrive from the passive, spood-fed type of education, so, if we as teachers wish to impose limited vision dogma on our students (or simply an imposed inflexible syllabus), we teach them; if, on the other hand, we would rather they discovered, thought, questioned, processed, created, engaged etc, we should help them learn. The difference is tremendous. As Willy Cardoso (@WillyCard) tweeted the other day ‘All teaching is by definition teacher-centred’ to which my reply was ‘And all learning is by definition learner-centred’. And answering that question they haven’t asked…. that doesn’t sit too well with me. The imposed syllabus in general. I write materials fully expecting teachers to modify them to suit their students, to be selective. But following a syllabus, a syllabus the students have had no say in, with little or no regard for the students as individuals or as a specific group, as some people do? Hmm. Could it be that Postman and Freire shared an opinion here? A similar point of view? So perhaps Postman, Freire and Sugata Mitra come together on this one? No contradictions here. Here we have… coherence. And personally, I not only think we should encourage our students to think, to question and to process while working as a community, but we should help them imagine, dream, express themselves, create and feel confident, hearing an inner voice saying ‘I can do this, I have something to say, I have something to share with this community’.

But that’s just me.

Context

Another thing that came to mind, while reading all this information (henceforth a swearword – I have definitely suffered from information overload while working on this!) on Postman, is the importance of context.

  • The context in which those tweets were sent.
  • Historical context (pre Millennium bug, pre ‘social’ internet)
  • Context defining needs, not generic needs.

Maybe Postman would have been chuffed, but I found myself questioning the critical tweets, those gut reactions, and looking to find what it was that seemed to jar. Of course, it was the fact that the context of the reference to Postman was a talk entitled Six Big Ideas and One Little One. NOT Six Great People and One Little One. So we should have been focussing on the ideas, not whatever it was that Postman himself inspired in us. People are far more complex than their individual ideas, and none of us are mono-dimensional, fortunately. Nietzsche stated something to the effect that truth is the sum of all possible perspectives, which I tend to agree with but Nietzsche also said a lot of other stuff that…. well….

Historical context. We are all the children of our times, and as such, we dogme types need to consider technology as an option, and I think most (all?) of us do, simply because it’s part of where we are in history, it’s ‘here and now. However, we should all – whether dogmer, techy or other – consider the timeless elements too. NOT using technology is far more timeless than using it, as any electronic device will soon be replaced by a newer version. Somehow a flipchart doesn’t date as fast as a laptop; the newer model iDevice will always have more applications or abilities, while dialogue, despite the wealth of possible topics, is always essentially a conversation wherein some speak and some listen (also true of internal dialogue which I feel should also be encouraged, whether inquiring, imagining, rehearsing…). This is 2011: there isn’t a technology-or-not debate, or shouldn’t be one. And just how much technology depends partly on teaching context, partly on the validity of using it. (And what is the validity of using reams of photocopies that will end up in the bin, in our world of concerns for the environment and recycling? For example.)

What year was the photo taken? Five years from now, this will be a photo of antiques... / Photo by Graham Stanley, from #eltpics

Context defining needs. Just as my move from the Canaries to Andalucía affected my need for air conditioning (I still don’t have any, so I’m acutely aware of this need) so our teaching context or rather our learners’ learning context will affect needs. For technology or for anything else – though perhaps not for electric windows. ‘Ah, Postman was a Luddite!’, well, he wasn’t, so the literature says, he was just cautious in his use of Things, not subscribing to them just because they seemed cool. He needed to see a purpose, a justification, and I don’t think this is worthy of criticism. Some folks are just like that, particularly those who don’t buy into consumerism. In a teaching context, of course, we need to consider our learners more than ourselves, but the needs of the class should be the driving force behind what goes on during a lesson, and that will depend on context more than on what the teacher considers cool. ‘Things should solve a problem’ says Postman. ‘Things needn’t solve a problem, they can be for entertainment etc’ say the blogs. Well…. context. If you’re in Palestine or a Brazilian favela, a classroom in Shanghai, or an academy in Zurich your students’ needs are going to be different. Feeling you’re in a safe, stable environment or learning how to do a powerpoint in English? One size does NOT fit all, and you don’t need youtube to make music. Hierarchy of needs, and all that. I’m in Europe. Many of my teens need someone to listen to them, someone to allow them to speak, to ask questions, to believe in them, to motivate them. They rarely NEED technology….. though on occasion, well hey, they do. Context.

Teacher people

And this is the last stop on this long and winding road. The Postman’s route, I suppose. It’s about people. Teachers, in fact, rather than learners. But teachers as people and as … humans.

It strikes me there are three basic types, although, as with the terms visual, auditory and kinaesthetic, if you imagine the typical Venn diagram, that would be closer. The three basic types, in my mind’s eye, are the To be, the To do and the To have types. We seem to define ourselves and our values according to these verbs, albeit subconsciously: humanists, existentialist or consumerists/collectors. Prof Postman was presumably not a To have type. I don’t think it’s coincidence that these are the auxiliary verbs in English, or that we have two or three verbs for ‘do’ concepts (make, carry out…) while other languages may have two or more verbs for ‘be‘ or for ‘have‘. The bottom line is, they’re what life is about. Here’s how I look at the types (brush strokes, but you should get the idea), and NOTE, I’m smiling as I write……..

Context is vital – and is he a be, a do or a have person? Hmm. / Photo by Victoria Boobyer from #eltpics

Be folk: ‘I am what I am‘ (or ‘I think therefore I am‘), ‘Less is more‘. These are the ‘who I am as teacher, who my students are as learners and people‘ folk; they’re interested in learner styles, teacher aura, visualisation, sensory stimuli, inner dialogue/voice, mind’s eye/ear …They read and possibly own Stevick, Rinvolucri, Underhill, Arnold, Skehan, Gardner and Teaching Unplugged ;-)   Keyword: Who

Do folk: ‘To do is to be‘ ‘So much to do, so little time‘. These are the ‘how to teach, how should I do this activity? And how many different ways can I do this so my learners don’t get bored‘ people. They’re interested  in methods, the lexical approach, class dynamics, TPR, grammar games, pairwork v groupwork, adapting lessons for 1-2-1, hands-on learning etc. They read and possibly own Harmer, Lewis, Ellises, Krashen, Ur, Hancock and the Cambridge or OUP teachers handbooks.   Keyword: How

Have folk: ‘To have and to hold‘ (or To Have and Have Not). ‘You need one of these‘ These are the ‘what I need in terms of materials to use in order to reach/engage students‘ folk. They’re interested in materials and technology. They read blogs by Peachey, Stanley, Hockly et al and resource books  (on a Kindle or similar). They own a wealth of gadgets, applications, flashcards, board games….  Keyword: What         ;-D

Obviously, these definitions are slightly tongue-in-cheek (though many a true word …), and we’re all a combination of all three, so, like a combination of the three primary colours, we each have a personal palette, but I’m sure that in life we give priority to one ‘colour’ or another according to our character. Brad Patterson, who has helped me with bits and bobs in this post, says of himself “I’m a do kinda guy 4 sure, but with lots of be activity”. As for me, I’m a be-do-be-do-be-do sort….. so I love music… no, but that explains my whole lifestyle as well as my preferred teaching style and reluctance to adorn my lessons with large amounts of material or technology. I’d far rather be digging and planting in my garden than out shopping, too. Il faut cultiver and all that.

But rather than just considering different learners, auditory, visual and kinaesthetic, maybe we should be more tolerant of different teacher types too, be, do and have, and look at our profession through multi-coloured, stained glass windows – after all, it’s a great, vibrant, living, breathing view.

Photo by creativity and Tim Hamilton on Flickr

Post-data: Two mini challenges for you.

a) Are you a be, a do or a have person? Or a combination of which two, predominantly?

b) Scott named 6 Big Ideas that have influenced him, none of which are from the world of ELT. Can you do the same? How about 3 Big Ideas or Great Names? Who, what and why?

Guido (@europeaantje) is a teacher, but is he a hedonist (be), a swimmer (do) or the owner of the pool (have)? And you? / Photo by @europeaantje from #eltpics

I live in Cáceres in Spain, a beautiful and inspiring sort of place to live, and I’m a teacher, trainer, writer. mother and life-enjoyer. Although I originally trained as a translator and interpreter, I’ve been in ELT since the late 80s and, as a person who trained when Headway was just out, I now tend to teach dogme and am co-moderator of the Dogme web group. I’m big into visualisation, sensory stimuli for the imagination, motivating even the ‘grottiest’ of teens, learner-generated materials and a heap of other things, many of which are not related to teaching, but I give workshops on the ones that are ELT related. I’ve also written coursebooks and other ELT materials.

Many thanks for both guest posts, Fiona! Absolutely loved reading them!! :)

It’s also made me revisit some (very??) old posts of mine, in case you’re interested:

A class, two chats, and an interview

May 15, 2011 10 comments

Honestly, I hadn’t really planned to write a follow up to my previous post. However, things just seem to happen in a certain way and you have to do your best to adapt and make use of them to your advantage. I’m a strong proponent of meaningful and interesting conversation used to promote professional development. If you keep yourself open to learning possibilities, you’ll certainly see that people everywhere are dropping hints on how you can improve your game if you listen carefully. I had mentioned Jason’s participation in my class on my previous post, and students told me they enjoyed it so much that I could actually get a second guest teacher in that class. this time, it was Cecília Coelho, and we had a marvellous talk about assessment. Time was, again, an issue. Unlike Jason, who is in Australia, Cecília and I share the same timezone. Yet, our teaching schedules make it somehow hard for us to connect. I thoroughly appreciate Cecília’s effort dashing home to join the class – and I also thank the students for staying a bit longer than usual. It was definitely worth the while! :)

In addition to all of these wonderful co-teaching moments in my class, I’m also really happy with our #breltchat. In case you’re an English teacher in Brazil and you still haven’t heard of it, then you should pay a visit to our blog and join the conversation. #breltchat is the younger brother of #eltchat, a chat for English language teachers eager to discuss some issues we have to face on a daily basis in our profession. #eltchat takes place every Wednesday – twice! Currently, the first chat starts at 8:00 a.m. and the second one at 5:00 p.m. Brazilian time. This is a very successful chat on twitter, and 5 Brazilian English Language Teachers decided it would be a great chance for us to help Brazilian teachers develop and think about the particularities of our educational system. Bruno, Raquel, Valéria, Cecília and the one who writes you gave it a go and, fortunately, a wealth of Brazilian English teachers bought the idea and have made it a success. We hope it keeps growing from now on, and I’m sure the teachers who started participating in it won’t drop the ball now! :)

Anyway, our last chat was about Dogme and we decided we were going to try and interview some of the Dogmeists out there so that they could explain the concept better to teachers who still don’t know much about it. We also asked them about a couple of possibilities and suggestions that could possibly work in Brazil. Apart from Willy (interview coming up soon, hopefully) I don’t think they actually knew much about our educational system in Brazil, but they still agreed to help us think about some matters. You’ll soon be able to watch all 5 interviews: Fiona Mauchline, Luke Meddings, Scott Thornbury, Shelly Terrell, and Willy Cardoso.

Learning from a conversation? Well, I guess then these interviews are going to give you a lot to think about. On behalf of the #breltchat team of moderators, I hope you enjoy this interview with Scott Thornbury. Oh, and I hope you can get past my initial nervousness… trust me, it gets a lot better after the first answer! :)

http://vimeo.com/23712883

I’d like to, once more, thank Scott for his participation (and apologise for my poor introduction). I’m sure this interview will be helpful to many teachers out there. :)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this one. All 5 interviews will soon be available at #breltchat. In the meantime…

  • Watch Bruno’s brilliant interview with Shelly here.
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