A while ago I wrote a text about teaching, and even though teaching is one of the key elements in lessons, learning is, obviously, part and parcel of the process that takes place in lessons – it’s the actual aim of lessons. If teaching is a lot more than transmitting information, learning is more than simply receiving information. What does learning imply, then?
Learning implies being able to transform information into knowledge, first and foremost. For one reason, information is widely available to anyone who’s got access to the World Wide Web, but the only thing this has done is leveling the play field for those who have access to the wealth of information the Internet provides. Those who live in areas where Internet access is nothing but an idea inspired by a sci-fi book should, therefore, fear that the gap is only going to increase between those who have access to the Internet and those who are still oblivious to this world. But who said information is the same thing as knowledge?
Being knowledgeable means you’re able to purposefully and intentionally use information to tackle the myriad challenges you face in life. If all you are able to do is retrieve an event from memory and repeat the same steps, you haven’t necessarily learnt anything. If, on the other hand, you’re able to use information from a past experience, assess what could work for the situation at hand, you can probably say you’ve been able to transform that piece of information into knowledge. This may help in the creation of possible solutions to future endeavours.
What I mean to say here is that knowledge – on most occasions – precedes creativity. It’s a lot easier for us to come up with creative solutions for problems once we’ve been able to transform the information into something a lot more relevant than a simple memory of something to be reproduced. When we’re able to come up with our own solutions for a problem, learning has taken place. It goes far beyond simply being able to apply the information we’ve received to another situation, though that is part of the process.
Learning implies a willingness to go further, which demands a good deal of effort. Learning does not take place if there’s no effort involved. It is the degree of effort involved in the learning process that will make the difference between being informed and being knowledgeable. It’s the fine line that divides learning from just remembering for a short period of time. If you want to learn something, you’ve got to earn it. If you’ve earned it, you’ve learned it.
We’ve all been told that education is the one thing no one can take away from us. This is so because education is not something that is bestowed upon us; it is something we need to work hard to achieve. Fortunately, until we reach the point of autonomy, the tipping point at which it’s a lot easier for us to develop on our own, teaching makes the difference.
Teaching, however, is only effective when it instigates learners to think. At the end of the day, teaching doesn’t have to be fun to be effective, though it’s easy to see that we tend to dedicate ourselves a lot harder to learn something that is fun. Teaching can, obviously, benefit from engagement on the part of the learner, but to get down to what really matters: teaching, in order to be effective, must ultimately be thought-provoking. Effective teaching is the kind of teaching that leads learners to make an effort to use their reason and make sense of things. It is paramount that learners be required to think and pay attention in order to learn.
Needless to say, learning, just like teaching, is a complicated concept to define and to contextualise. Yet, it’s clear to me that for learning to take place learners need to be challenged to the point of making an effort to want to go further. Learning as a process doesn’t benefit from always having someone making things easier and easier, or a lot more fun. Learning precedes fun because it is, in itself, motivating and engaging as long as real learning is happening.
This is why learning should be seen as a dialogic process, co-constructed between the teacher and the learner. It is why the Socratic method of questioning still awes and works when applied effectively. At the risk of sounding trite, learning is not about providing the right answers, but it is all about asking the right questions. Questions are the fuel for continuous learning. And in order to ask the right questions, teachers must learn to listen and react to what their learners are saying. Learning won’t occur simply because someone has told you that you have to learn A or B, but it may work if you yourself are somehow forced into finding the answers for A or B.
Ultimately, learning doesn’t depend on formal teaching, but any kind of teaching may foster or hinder learning. What kind of teaching fosters learning? What can teachers do in the classroom to make effective learning take place? The answer lies in the kind of relationship the learner and the teacher establish. It doesn’t take anything else than a teacher and a learner for learning to take place, and it also takes nothing but the relationship between the teacher and the learner to ruin learning. Is it somehow clear how important it is for you to earn the right to teach if you say your teaching is focussed on learning? Do you help your learners to earn their learning? And if all you want is a catchy ending, does your teaching put the EARN in LEARN?
— Phil Chappell (@TESOLatMQ) January 16, 2013
Phil kindly agreed to write a guest blog post on SFG. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and also that you find it useful and helpful!
An introduction to systemic functional grammar
By Phil Chappell
There is a lot of misunderstanding among the ELT community about functional grammar. I won’t go through these ideas in any detail here; the main thing I want to do in this post is to show its usefulness for language teachers, no matter what kind of program you are teaching in, no matter what level your learners are, and no matter what methodology you subscribe to. So, what is functional grammar?
Defining Functional Grammar
Put simply, Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) is a grammar based on the view that language is a system for making meaning. Systemic refers to the fact that when we use language, we make choices from sets of available options. This is contrary to the traditional view of grammar as sets of rules. Functional assumes that every time we make a choice from the available options, we are doing so in order to fulfill a communicative purpose. And Grammar simply refers to the fact that there is an overall organisation to all of these possible options.
History of SFG in Language Teaching
Now by itself, this brief explanation may not be revealing anything especially new for teachers who teach both form and function of language. Indeed, those who do may not know that these terms originated in the work of Michael Halliday, the founder of SFG, and whose work was pivotal for the early moves to Communicative Language Teaching. Michael Halliday’s work in linguistics was highly influential around the time that language teaching was starting to shift its emphasis on mastery of language structures to mastery of communicative competence. Halliday himself developed his interest in linguistics and grammar through language teaching, first by teaching Chinese to English speakers, and later on teaching English and Russian to Chinese speakers. Indeed, Halliday’s functional grammar and theory of systemic functional linguistics has been a foundation for communicative language teaching; it also underpins the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for languages.
The theory behind SFG
But it’s not all just form and function to express meanings. SFG helps teachers and their learners work with whole stretches of language in order to develop their potential to communicate in the target language. This is made possible by the linguistic theory underpinning SFG, known as Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). Different cultural and social contexts lead speakers and writers to choose differently from the repertoire of language that they have at their disposal. SFG is an extremely useful tool to help teachers make sense of how language works in different social and cultural contexts, and thus be better equipped to help their learners understand these differences. This can refer to spoken or written texts (as SFG is based on the notion of text), and can range from everyday casual talk, through to a formal interview, a short email message, or an academic paper. In a nutshell, SFG helps us describe how language is used between people, which contrasts with traditional grammar that prescribes rules for using language.
Text and Context
By using systemic functional grammar (SFG), the teacher has a powerful tool with which to mediate her/his explanations of language, and thus mediate the learner’s understandings of how to use the language they are in the process of learning. This tool is the bridge between context and text – between the sociocultural setting in which the speaker is conducting her/his activity and the language that is a part of that activity. The tool is called Register, and gives the teacher the ability to pick away at the context of language use and identify:
- the field: what is going on in the activity
- the tenor: who is taking part in the activity
- the mode: the part language plays in the activity.
So, each time you present a text to your learners, you can start with establishing the context, as above, and then proceed to highlight whatever grammar is important in each of the three areas.
An integrated grammar
Looked at individually, it is possible to, for example, identify the kinds of vocabulary that is relevant to the field, the kinds of interpersonal language that is appropriate for the tenor, and the kinds of textual features (say, cohesive devices) that are going to help the spoken or written text along. The Field might be a group of friends talking about the Australian Open tennis tournament, and therefore the vocabulary is mostly related to tennis things, people and actions. The Tenor is close friends who see each other regularly and thus have a lot of common understandings. The interpersonal language will be informal, without much language of power or authority, and possibly banter and joking. The Mode is likely face to face spoken language with speakers able to give each other immediate feedback.
Taken together, SFG provides a rubric for language teachers to plan their teaching around (be they spur of the moment explanations, or whole lessons) and for language learners to sort out in their own minds where, when and how language can be used to successfully communicate across social and cultural settings.
To come: putting SFG to work in language lessons. Some practical applications.
In the meantime, see my colleague, Annabelle Lukin’s video introducing SFG.
About the author
Phil Chappell is a Lecturer in Macquarie University’s Linguistics department where he convenes the Postgraduate Certificate in TESOL. His current research interests are in dialogic approaches to classroom learning and teaching, the role of linguistics in TESOL preparation programs, and novice teacher cognition. He taught English for many years in Asia and Australia before entering the wild world of academia.
This post is slightly different from my usual posts. What if we were to think of grammar for a while? More specifically, I’d like to write about verbs in English and how to teach them. Now, if you’re not into grammar, I hope I’ll see you around for my next posts. If you’re curious about one of the things I may ponder grammar-wise, I hope you find this enjoyable and worthy of your time.
There are only two verb tenses in English
Now this is an issue that you may have a different opinion on. As a matter of fact, a quick look at two different books might give you a different perspective on the matter. Huddleston and Pullum (1) will tell you that you have two primary tenses – present and preterite – and two secondary tenses – perfect and non-perfect (p. 116). However, if we look at Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (2), they are very objective in saying that there are only two tenses in English – present and past (p. 109). In order to clear things up, a look at a third book. Biber (3) agrees that, “from a structural point of view, English verbs are inflected for only two tenses: present and past” (p. 453). Once I started to look at language teaching as a career, I’ve taken a keen interest on learning about the subtleties of the language, which I believe to be important for teachers. Mind you, I don’t think it’s necessary for students to learn grammar – or as much grammar – as teachers, but teachers should not simply choose to over-simplify something believing such over-simplification will end up helping students. I’ve found out that making what a tense is clear might be helpful, but only if we deal with the second point, which is…
The tense and aspect system
If students are exposed to this concept, in particular older students who are able to grasp abstract concepts more easily, it is my experience that things end up being a lot clearer. This opinion is also stated in Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (2) when they assert that:
Over the years, the important distinction between tense and aspect has become blurred. Instead, English has been said to have “12 tenses”. [...] We feel that if the natural division between tense, which relates to time, and aspect, which has to do with the internal structure of the action occurring at any time, are dealt with separately at first, the system that results from their subsequent combination is much easier to see and, therefore, easier to learn. (p. 110)
The point is that we spend years and years talking to students about the form of the verbs in English, and we may even contrast them at times, but we don’t really get to the point with them. What I’ve learnt is that we don’t have to dumb things down for students and simply assume they won’t be able to do the math on their own. What if we tried to find ways to teach them about the core meaning of each one of the different aspects of English verb? Once they understand the meaning of each one of the aspects, it’s quite easy for them to understand the use of the verb forms when they match tense and aspect on their own.
Putting it all together
This kind of teaching, in my view, should be done from as early as possible. Not only will you be treating your students fairly by not dumbing things down, but you’ll be giving them a chance to realize that they are able to understand, for instance, the continuous forms – present, past and future – pretty much at the same time. When we don’t do this, I’m under the impression that they struggle a lot trying to understand each one of the forms in isolation as they feel they are learning something from scratch. This is exactly where the problem lies. By being introduced to the core meaning of each one of the aspects, and being aware of the idea of time (I honestly can’t see people having problems with this), students may find it quite easy to put the sentences together on their own.
One nagging point
This might be an issue for me only, but I really dislike seeing exercises where students are asked to “fill in the blanks with the present perfect tense”, or “fill in the gaps with the appropriate verb tense”, but what students actually have to do is use a combination of tense and aspect, i.e., a verb form. The question that I ask myself is whether the teacher who’s created such exercise: a) doesn’t share the view of the whole tense x aspect explanation above; b) doesn’t know that there is such a thing; or c) knows about it, agrees with it, but doesn’t believe that students are capable of understanding the matter.
If the answer to my question above is a), I’m actually fine with it. I mean, if you just don’t agree with this or that, and as long as you are able to demonstrate that you’re right, then I’m fine with it. What you shouldn’t do is, on the grounds of “my students don’t need to know this”, justify your lack of knowledge.
Why bother, anyway?
“But why exactly would anyone spend his days thinking about such matters when all that matters is communication?” some might be asking right now. I believe that grammar is a point to be taught in any language teaching environment. This doesn’t mean
that grammar should be the goal of teaching, nor that a focus on form alone is sufficient. The goal of the communicative movement – communicative competence – embraces more than just grammar, and implies a focus on meaning as well. It may be that communicative competence is best achieved through communicating, through making meanings, and that grammar is a way of tidying these meanings up. If so, the teacher’s energies should be directed mainly at providing opportunities for authentic language use, employing grammar as a resource rather than an end in itself. As Leibniz is supposed to have said: ‘A language is acquired through practice; it is merely perfected through grammar.’ (Thornbury, S. How to teach Grammar, Longman, 1999 – p. 25)
If we care about meaning, why do we resist teaching our students about the meaning of the one things they seem to struggle so much with in learning English? We do we find it so hard to look at grammar not as a multitude of rules, but as something that will end up fostering communication and not hindering it? The key is knowing how to address it, I suppose. So, what is your view on the matter?
1. Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G. K., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, CUP, 2002.
2. Celce-Murcia, M. and Larsen-Freeman, D., The Grammar Book, Second Edition, Heinle & Heinle, 1999,
3. Biber, D. et al, Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Pearson Longman, 1999.
4. Thornbury, S., How to teach grammar, Longman, 1999.
How long, then, before automatic simultaneous translation becomes the norm, and all those tedious language lessons at school are declared redundant?
The very first thing that sprung to mind was how old the writer was. The second question was where exactly he went to school. The reason for the very first question is to find out whether he (I don’t know why I decided to call the writer a he, though) learned foreign languages through Grammar Translation or the Audio-lingual method and if all his language classes were a mixture of drills and meaningless translations. It’s been quite a while since I had my language lessons, and although I did find them boring in school where we did have to “learn” through GT, I can’t say the same about my language classes in language institutes.
It was still pretty much a structural perspective, granted. Yet, there was something else beyond the language. It was actually fun to go to a class where we were allowed to talk and to communicate. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I can say the reason for that was only clear to me after I became a teacher, and it may very well be the very reason I fell in love with teaching languages when it was supposed to be simply a way for me to try my hand at teaching before becoming a History teacher.
But the question remains dangling there. If we are ever able to devise a machine that will allow us to communicate with other people from all over the world, will the job of the language teacher be made redundant? As many professions before ours have already seen their end with the advent of technology, could this ever be the end of language teaching, or at least most of it? If we think about it, many who study English do so because they want to communicate. Well, if that truly is the case, then why would these people keep studying a foreign language when they would already be able to communicate?
Fortunately, learning a language gives you a lot more benefits than simply allowing you to communicate with others. It’s a sure fire way to keep your brain sharp, and according to some researchers, it might even lead to a different way of seeing the world. Some have already said that learning a new language is like acquiring a new soul, but that might be considered simply as too mysterious for some people out there who are just trying to communicate.
Don’t we also know that learning to play chess is also a fantastic way to exercise the brain and that it also allows you to see the world from a different perspective? Don’t we know that reading is also a much better way to exercise your imagination and creativity? I also remember reading somewhere that Sudoku may prevent Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, I don’t see that many people playing chess or learning how to play it, or people choosing books instead of TV, and apart from very few people I know, not that many people doing their Sudoku puzzles unless they’re waiting in a queue and don’t have a smartphone on them. I’m sure you understand that I’m talking about the average joe out there, and not some high-brow scholar.
Are people really that lazy and they will eventually end up choosing the easy way out? I most certainly know quite a few people who are quite happy with working very little and simply doing nothing, and I mean, nothing for the rest of the time. I’m talking about working as little as 6 hours a day or even less, and then simply doing nothing. And it’s not just for a month or so…
A series of announcements over the past few months from sources as varied as mighty Microsoft and string-and-sealing-wax private inventors suggest that workable, if not yet perfect, simultaneous-translation devices are now close at hand.
The question we may ask then, is just how close at hand they actually mean. But before spending too much grey matter on the topic, I guess we could go back to something all teachers who are a tiny bit into edtech already know – technology will not replace teachers, but teachers who can’t use technology will be replaced by those who can. This will only be proven right or wrong in a couple more years. What if more teachers were able to do as some Harvard and Stanford teachers have done when they taught more that thousands of students at once? Would there be enough students for so many teachers?
But this is all too gloomy, isn’t it? The challenges of computerised simultaneous translation are still far too great for it too happen as fast as the article might get us thinking in its very first lines. A bit further down, it states:
In the real world, people talk over one another, use slang or chat on noisy streets, all of which can foil even the best translation system.
This doesn’t mean we won’t be able to get there one day or another, but it might be as far-fetched in reality as flying cars were for those living in the 60s. Sometimes science-fiction eludes us and makes us wonder if things are as close as we’d like them to be.
Teaching a language is a lot more than simply teaching the words and grammar of the language. Learning a language, especially on this day and age in certain parts of the world, is, indeed, opening up to a world of possibilities. The language classroom might as well be the one place people are encouraged to speak their mind and have the chance to learn how to participate in a debate. Being in a language classroom where language is conversation-driven helps even the shyer students to work on their social skills and realise that they’re also entitled to an opinion. There’s just a lot more that a language classroom can provide to learns than the mere capacity to communicate. This is, as a matter of fact, why I do believe we need to make sure that learners are always pushed in our classes – it’s about a lot more than simply being able to get a message across.
The one thing that technology is able to do as of now is meet language learners with exercise drills and grammar explanations with automated correction and explanation. If all your teaching can be summed up into new grammar items and vocabulary, it’s very likely you’ll be replaced by a computer quite soon. Language teaching is education, and any challenge language teachers will face in the near future are no different from the challenges teachers of other subjects are likely to face.
If you’ve already bought the idea of life-long learning and you are able to adapt to changes and you embrace them instead of fearing them, then there’s no need to worry about what’s yet to come. Besides, it seems that the news trying to be more and more worried about coming up with stories that seem to come out of a crystal ball than to do what it’s supposed to do: inform readers and get them to reach their own conclusions.
But that might just be the proof we need to truly see that the way we’ve been teaching no longer suits this day and age. If those who get through school are more inclined to follow what’s linked to our emotions rather than to reason and make sense of things, question, analyse and critically think about whatever is presented to them, then we seriously need to rethink our practices. If all you’ve been doing in language teaching is teaching the language superficially, if the coursebook is your master and you do all it asks of you, if you’re compelled to distribute tons of handouts to your students and if you think that time well spent in class is the time when students do exercises individually and quietly, you’ve been doing your share to automatising teaching and then I do hope you’ll soon be replaced by a computer.
If, on the other hand, you’ve already understood that times they are a-changing and there’s the need to be constantly learning in order to teach, how about sharing this concept with the teacher next door? Oh, and the automated translation star-trek gadget… Just leave it be and worry about what truly matters in your profession. Teaching, my dear friends, has finally been evolving. It’s up to us to make it a swift and smooth transition into what it’s to become, or simply wait for all the bumps and moan in the corners about what it should be. Which road do you want to take?
If there’s one thing that has changed in education with the advent of new technologies and, chiefly, the web 2.0, this has got to be how easy it is now for us to shift from consumers of information to producers of data. There’s absolutely nothing new in this statement, and any report or information sheet from the early days of the web 2.0 will tell you this. One of the main benefits of the web 2.0 was the fact that it made it easier for people to actually produce content rather than simply receiving it. Simply put, it’s only logical to assume that schools and teachers everywhere would quickly leap at the opportunity for their learners to stop being so passive in their learning roles. Right?!
Unfortunately, I don’t think the answer to this question is affirmative. As a matter of fact, if there’s one thing that has been going on is that the easy access to information has only allowed for teachers themselves to embrace a kind of teaching that prevents them from, well, teaching. I don’t mean to say that all teachers have been doing that – a quick look at the blogosphere will certainly give you an idea of the numerous movers and shakers who are trying hard to change the rules of the game. I just wonder if this will be enough. Why?
Well, it seems to me that whenever people who are online share the benefits for being online and sharing with their PLN, they tend to say that this was way out from the kind of sluggish attitude towards change that they see in their co-workers. I’ve constantly wondered what it’d be like to have all like-minded educators who actively share and disseminate knowledge online working together in the same school. Would it work? I honestly believe such a school would either be a fantastic place for learning to take place, or it’d be absolutely chaotic. However, there would certainly be enough of the mere reproducing of data we demand of most learners everywhere.
We may call it learner-centered, or learning-centered education, but simply saying that learners are free to choose what and how to learn doesn’t make you an educator. More often than not we are at a loss for what exactly it is that we’d like to do, and we only find out what we’re truly passionate about after having had the chance to experiment with different things – this means, in my opinion, that even living vicariously counts. The point is understanding that a learner-centered approach doesn’t mean total and complete freedom, at least not until a certain point when we’ve already learned how to learn, unlearn, and critically think about our beliefs and ideas.
Despite the large number of schools and teachers doing an amazing job, and the fact that those who do it do it so passionately that they simply couldn’t care less about what others think, there’s strength in numbers. If one teacher alone is trying to make a change, there’s something in our own nature that will prevent students from giving it a go. They usually change their mind once they’ve been able to start it, but getting there may be the problem. Living in a test-centric educational world, learners have absorbed the concept that what matters is how much information you can amass in your brain for that upcoming physics test. It is also deeply ingrained in them the idea that certain subjects count more than others. And this is widespread even by teachers, when they say that students shouldn’t worry so much about studying English, and that mathematics is far more important than biology, for instance. This is a lesson our students quickly learn, and they learn it from the ones they’ve also learned not to question.
We do have a chance to change the game by giving them more responsibility when it comes to their learning, but this implies that we ourselves, teachers, ought to come to terms with our new role. We should do this at the risk of jeopardising yet another generation of learners. In order to do this, we ourselves need to become producers of data instead of reproducers, and we should encourage our learners to become producers themselves instead of mere consumers of whatever is thrown at them. Most importantly, we should be teaching them to be critical of anything they hear, even if that is told by, well, their teachers. We’re all fallible, and this is the very first lesson that we should learn in order to pass it on to our learners.
How about teaching learners how to assess the validity and reliability of a source before regurgitating what this single source has made public? How about asking them to go being memorising, and starting that by teaching them how to summarise information found by three different sources, and then commenting and reflecting on each other’s work? Ah, but nothing of this is news to anyone who’s been concerned about change and who may actually be reading this post. We, and I dare include myself in this crowd, are not the ones who are doing wrong. The problem is how do we get to the ones who simply refuse to recycle their knowledge of and about teaching? What can we do to instill this need of change in those who work with us, who are right next doors teaching the same kids we’re teaching?
I say that after I had the chance to talk to a group of students who are between 12 and 14 years old. When I asked them whether they feel that they learn more by doing rather than listening, their answer was an obvious yes. However, what surprised me was that when they were offered the chance to actually do something different in class, when they were told they would have to work harder to learn, their quickly said they felt it’d be too much work. After a very quick chat it easy to spot something that has been discussed for a while, but very little is actually done to prevent it from happening – we were the ones who educated them out of their creative selves. Having grown up in a school system where the sage is always on the stage, and where the teacher is always right, they’ve simply been playing by the rules for as long as they can remember. They got used to being spoon-fed, and it certainly is a lot easier to simply sit still and wait for someone to tell you everything you will need to learn. At this age, it is hard for learners to realise that it is exactly because they’ve only been through lectures in their whole school life that many of them can’t succeed. It’ll take them a while to understand that things would have been much easier for them if their teachers had made them actively take learning to their hands. It’d be a lot easier if teachers actually taught.
But here’s the catch: if we try to change, we’re opening ourselves to questions, and we haven’t been trained for that. We were educated as reproducers ourselves, and this has somehow always made sense in the eyes of the vast majority. We’ve learned that we aren’t capable of producing high-quality material and being subjected to criticism on what we’re saying or on what we think. We fail to see growth in differences and this is simply reproduced in our classes. Thus, the cycle continues and we’re raising yet another generation of consumers and reproducers, and these will be constantly wondering why it is that there are a couple of few who actually become very successful by producing what they could have produced. By and large, we’re not raising people who are comfortable with exposing their ideas, these people are raising themselves in spite of what we’ve been doing to them.
Question: how do we change this? How do we stop preaching to the choir and start getting those who are unwilling to change to actually do something that will matter?
Autonomy has become a trending topic in the world of education. To be honest, the way I hear some people talking about it makes me wonder whether this hasn’t always been the case, really. “Oh, I know it! How about trying to make ourselves, teachers, less needed as students progress in their education?” I mean, seriously? Hasn’t this been the objective of the game from the very beginning? Why do many still look at this as if it were the next big thing in education when it has actually never ceased to be the big thing about it. It’s just like teaching learners how to learn instead of teaching them what we feel they should learn. Yet, one thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is exactly what the role of the teacher is – and how we should play it – in this game of autonomy so we can do more good than harm. If you bear with me for a moment, I’d like to share a couple of things that are still percolating.
If we could think of what we’ve been learning as building blocks, and that as we amass information we add one block on top of another, we could have many different layers of information that need to be retrieved and available for use. As teachers, we have two different choices (OK, we have many choices, but I’ll narrow it down to two for practicality issues): we can put the blocks ourselves where we see fit, or we can help learners find out where to better position their blocks on top of previous knowledge. This is where we start facing the very first problem in the differences between teaching by lecturing and learning. Some may believe that information goes beautifully on top of previously stored information. This represents the linearity view of teaching.
Instead, we could look at the learning structure as dependent on each one of the blocks, which have to be placed by the individual when he or she is able to spot the right place for it. However, teachers may and should help. The very first thing that we should bear in mind is that teachers do make the difference, but only as long as they are aware of what they are doing. Let’s imagine teachers understand that one block goes on top of the other, but not in a linear way. What may the problem with this view be? Well, if the teacher believes he or she can simply show his learners what the steps are, he’ll end up with a flight of stairs, but with no kind of of support under it. This could be represented as the picture below:
This is usually what happens when teachers simply demonstrate how to do something by showing rather than guiding. By doing things yourself you’ll eventually take your students all the way up to the 4th stage, but, as they haven’t learned how to do it themselves, they’re likely to end up going back to square one. This time, however, with all sorts of debris on the floor to make putting the blocks back together a more daunting and confusing task.
Equally as harmful is not being patient enough and not being able to allow for learning to sink in and lay the foundations properly for the following step. If we don’t understand that people learn at different paces, we might end up giving up on waiting for them to ‘get it’ and move on too soon. This may also be the case of teachers who fail to carefully listen to their learners and understand what they have already grasped. These teachers end up with learners whose blocks are built somewhat like this:
Here, it is clear that the teacher has showed some concern in helping the learner with the basics before moving on to more complex issues. What this extremely simple picture fails to represent is the fact that all blocks are interconnected, and it’s not only a matter of having learnt 1, and then 2, and only then 3. In order to get to 3, we need to make sure that all connections made between 1 and 3 are solid, and that the third row depends as much on the first one as it depends on the second. One thing is still apparent in the picture above, though – learning is taking place from outside to inside. It’s not up to the learner to progress from one point to another, but it’s up to what is imposed onto him by what is dictated by external forces.
Instead, we should try and look at it from a perspective in which the learner is capable of being aware of what his or her next step forward should be. The problem is that we cannot see what someone else is capable of accomplishing. We can’t assess competence; we can only assess performance. And this is the part that’s got me thinking. If we can only see performance, how about focussing on helping learners work on the width of their pyramid of learning so they know when and where to place the other blocks? If we work on constantly recycling, and if we truly try to scaffold learning, we’re likely to work on features we can observe, not on features we would like to observe. By having a wider base at the bottom, it’s easier to add blocks at the top.
How do we get there?
If you ask me, one of the central tenets of teaching and learning is that one doesn’t take place without the other. Yes, we should focus on learning, and all teaching should only be measured by how much learning it entails. But the key is finding out how to get there. Again, if all we can see is performance, what better way to help learners progress than by focussing on language they produce in order to help them improve what they already know? This is what we are doing when we carefully and actively listen to our learners and make sure we are having a class instead of just a conversation. This is what we do by focussing on emergent language – we make our students aware of what they’re saying and work on meaningful and personal samples of language.
If we are constantly recycling and expanding on previous knowledge, we’re likely to help learners build upon their own knowledge independently. How do we become good at something? How do we develop a skill? Only rarely will you see someone being able to excel at something they’ve never practiced and rehearsed before. Before you can run, you have to learn how to walk. Before you can play a Bach’s piece, you need to learn the musical scale and know how to play each one of the notes. Before you learn complex issues, you need to learn – and practice – the basics. If you practise and recycle enough, you’re likely to progress much faster as having the knowledge of the most basic things will help you understand how to get to the complex parts.
Perhaps we’d be doing more by focussing more on the individual and the process than focussing on the product. I’m sure most teachers are aware of that. Unfortunately, I myself know many who can only talk the talk, but not walk the walk. How about you?
Language teachers are constantly on the lookout for mistakes that may or may not impede communication. Nowadays, it’s common for us to read and hear that what matters most is communication, and that learners of a foreign language should not strive for perfection or flawless language production. What, however, is communication? And does this work for all levels? For instance, do we classify successful communication at the same standard for people who are applying for a position in a multi-national company to work as a spokesperson and for someone whose aim at learning a foreign language is travelling to a foreign country and be understood when ordering food? Most importantly, should we, teachers, be the ones to judge how accurate and, narrowing it further, how appropriate our learners will need to be in their language use?
This week’s blog posts at the iTDi blog are on error correction, and you may read what Scott, Barb, Chuck, Cecilia, Yitzha and Steven have to say on the matter. In addition to that, there will be a live webinar on March 3rd that will deal with the matter of error correction, and I highly encourage all those who can participate to do so. Therefore, I won’t spend much time discussing error correction in this post. Instead, I’d like to shift the focus to one of the things I felt, as a language learner, that teachers did not spend much time on, and one thing that I still feel teachers tend to overlook – in addition to pronunciation. If we’re talking about communication, the first thing we should do is look at language from a broader perspective, not forgetting that language should be seen from a discourse perspective. I’d like to reflect on something more closely related to language in use, namely the pragmatic features of discourse and the importance of explicitly teaching it to our learners.
Certain aspects of language in use are commonly referred to as the pragmatic features of discourse. Pragmatics is a branch of study related to, but separate from, linguistics, because it purports to explain aspects of language and communication that have not been – or cannot be – explained by linguistic studies. [...] When we learn a language, we gradually learn to recognize and name a set of discourse events that are common in the social circles we move in. [...] Part of our socialization is gaining familiarity with a range of discourse types or genres. Some of these we may acquire through exposure and others have to be taught.
(Bloor, M. & Bloor, T., 2007 in The Practice of Discourse Analysis – An Introduction, Hodder Arnold, p. 19)
Whenever we attend seminars, a lot of attention is given to vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation through the four skills, but rarely will you see someone speaking about the pragmatic use of the language at length. Is this less important than the other features? Or is this far too complicated for most teachers to touch as it is far more complex and there are not that many prescriptive rules? We do deal with communication, and many teachers nowadays claim to abide by the rules of the Communicative Approach. If that is the case, shouldn’t we also turn our attention to the interaction that takes place between the listener and the speaker? How easy is it for teachers to assume that what they have said is what their learners actually understood? Even worse, how easy is it for us to let learners get away with something they said that does not sound right to our ears? Are we able to understand the exact meaning that learners are trying to convey simply because, well, as language teachers we are trying as hard as we can to fully understand what our learners are trying to say?
A speaker may utter a sentence which is, for example, a positive, active statement, expressing a particular content. The listener may, however, interpret the sentence as a threat, or warning, as advice or contradiction. These interpretations are pragmatic meanings. In addition to the content expressed, the listener interprets the speaker’s purpose in uttering the sentence.
(Lewis, M., 2002, in The Lexical Approach, Thomson Heinle, p. 82)
The problem becomes even more apparent when learners reach an advanced level, and mainly in interactions between native and non-native speakers of language. The point is, if we don’t teach and, from time to time, make sure our learners are capable of going beyond basic language use, we may actually be doing more harm than good. What happens is that we need to make our learners aware of how they say things, not only what they say. Vocabulary does take up a lot of our teaching when we reach advanced levels, say B2+ onwards, but vocabulary expansion by itself will do very little to help learners, as the passage below supports.
However, in situations of contact between native and non-native speakers of a language, pragmatic errors are insidious in that they often lead proficient speakers of a language to misjudge the intentions of less proficient speakers. Particularly if the speakers are fluent and accurate, listeners do not realize that a pragmatic error has been committed, instead misconstruing what was intended by the speaker and sometimes judging the speaker harshly as a result.
(Larsen-Freeman, D., 2003, in Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring, Thomson Heinle, p. 37)
But is it even possible to make our learners aware of pragmatic mistakes, or misuses of the language? I’ve always believed so, and, to be honest, once I was able to understand how serious this may be, I’ve always wondered why we don’t do this more often. Instead of writing on the matter with my own words, and as this has been a post filled with quotes and extracts from books, I’ll add one more extract.
For a long time, it was assumed that second language classrooms could not provide appropriate input for learning how to realize many speech acts. This was particularly the case with structure-based approaches to teaching and in particular, in teacher-fronted classrooms where the dominant interaction pattern was ‘teacher initiation – learner response – teacher feedback’. In communicative, content-based, and task-based approaches to second language instruction, there are more opportunities not only for a greater variety of input but also for learners to engage in different roles and participant organization structures (for example, pair and group work). This enables learners to produce and respond to a wider range of communicative functions. Furthermore, research on the teaching of pragmatics has demonstrated that pragmatic features can be successfully learned in classroom settings and that explicit rather than implicit instructions is most effective (Kasper and Rose 2002). This is particularly good news for foreign language learners who do not have extensive exposure to conversational interaction outside the classroom. Thus, the question is no longer whether second language pragmatics should be taught but rather how it can be best integrated into classroom instruction.
(Spada, N., and Lightbown, P.M., 2006, in How Languages are Learned, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, p. 103-104)
Next time you’re walking around the classroom, or if you’re collecting samples of students’ language, make sure you focus on something that goes beyond form. Go further. It simply makes sense, to me, to focus on emergent language and on a conversation-driven approach to language teaching – as long as you’re doing it right. The problem lies in trying to do something before you really know how to do it.
Are you sure you’re focusing on what really matters most, or are you going to focus on the smallest part and assume that’s enough?
If you think that:
TESTING = TEACHING
Then you also think:
INFORMATION = KNOWLEDGE
TEACHER = INFORMATION SUPPLIER = ENCYCLOPEDIAS & INTERNET SOURCES
Which will soon lead to:
COMPUTERS > TEACHER
If you think others don’t value what you do, show them how much you matter. If others don’t care, you should care. Make your teaching count a lot more than test scores do. Real teachers know that:
TEACHING > ASSESSING > TESTING
Suppose you want to start teaching English. Now, suppose you have never taught English before and that you’re looking for a way to start your new career. This is the moment you will get acquainted with acronyms and abbreviations such as TEFL, TESOL, CELTA, DELTA, TTC and a couple of others. I mean, you may come across these if you’re lucky (?); another possibility is sitting through an initial pre-service session lasting anything from simply receiving your textbooks and a quick hello from your coordinator to a longer training session to teach how to implement the magic method that is likely to – ahem – make all learners, from all sorts of backgrounds, learn English magically and miraculously. Ask any experienced professional in the field of ELT and you’ll hear that there are, until today, many language institutes that abide by rigid methods from the days of yore.
On a different note, you may have come across this post that questions whether teacher preparation courses are dangerously irrelevant or not. This is something that strikes a chord with me as I’ve been involved with teacher training and development for quite a long time, and this is likely to become my main activity in the foreseeable future. Are teachers really being prepared effectively to what they’ll face in the classroom? Are they being prepared to deal with the fact that the role of the teacher is changing faster than many of them would like it to? The question, to me, is not whether teacher preparation is irrelevant or not, but whether we’re doing it right or not.
I guess one of the most complicated things these days is that we’re in some sort of a conundrum – many teachers believe that what matters is what you’ve learnt, and not the piece of paper you’ll get afterwards. Yet, teachers themselves tend to only favour teacher training programs that will give them a piece of paper to be described in their CV’s without actually looking for learning opportunities that may also be fruitful. But instead of questioning the validity of certificates and such, I train my words at another target. I’m yet to hear from any teacher who gave informal PD a serious chance through actively participating and engaging in the world of blogs and twitter the words that I hear from many teachers who are forced to participate in sessions given by their school – it was a waste of time. Much on the contrary, actually. You don’t even need to ask, teachers who engage in PD online are the first ones to say they have learnt more in 8 months of twitter and blogs than they’d learnt in 4 years of college. Even if this is something that we can’t measure scientifically, it does say something. The message conveyed here is the one that we experience a sense of progress we don’t usually experience when we are shoved training sessions.
Could this be easily explained through motivation? We do know that motivated students tend to learn more effectively, or at least they try much harder. When we’re told what to do, do we look at it as if someone else tried to tell us what we need and, even if it’s subconsciously, sabotage any learning experience that may come from that? Is the belief that teachers should know all so ingrained in some (most?) teachers that it prevents us from opening up and making our weaknesses seen? Do we honestly believe that we know everything someone is trying to teach us? All of these could be drives for our motivation, which would then lead to lack of commitment in any kind of teacher training programme.
On the other hand, when we think of online, informal PD, we soon discover that it’s all about sharing. We’re not being taught, we’re discovering things together, exchanging ideas and opinions, but not being told, “this is right, and that is wrong”. Is the fact that we don’t need to fear being graded, or is the fact that we feel we’re not being judged or assessed so liberating that we finally open up for learning? The intriguing thought to me is that we can certainly see the benefits of sharing online, learning from so many different and interesting people, and yet fail to see that we may also learn from those next to us. How many teachers, for instance, would be dying to attend a conference with only ‘local’ teachers?
Training and development are two different things, but if we believe that teachers are not to be replaced by machines and computers, if we believe that teaching is a lot more than simply transmitting information, then we should embrace each and every opportunity that comes our way. But how do we know what is worth? This semester I’ve decided to deal with teacher training and development more as tutoring than as lecturing. Is this the right way to go? Well, at least there’s one thing I’m sure of – it’ll certainly help me spot talents and identify those who are willing to walk the extra mile and separate the wheat from the chaff. In a smaller scale, tutoring makes it harder for those who simply attend lectures and sit in classes to get away with laziness and last minute cramming.
By and large, traditional teaching is not as beautiful as we wish it were. There are many “teachers” who could care less about their work and don’t really worry about their students’ learning. And it’s a shame that many schools (at least where I live) look at education as if it were simply another business and give these “teachers” a job. this is why the best place to find like-minded educators is online and elsewhere instead of in the same teachers’ room you’re in. Isn’t it time we started changing this and accepting that the guy next doors can teach us, in the broad meaning of the word, as well as, or even better than the VIP speaker who comes and talks to an audience for a couple of minutes? But most importantly, isn’t it time we accepted that, as teachers, we should be open to learning and developing? Teacher preparation is not dangerously irrelevant, but perhaps our attitude to it is.
” Dear teacher,
You once meant the world to me. Among all the people who were there to teach me something, I believe you were the one who had it all figure out. You enticed me with your love for the new, you lured me into a world of learning, but yet, I now feel I’ve failed to learn what you were trying to teach me. And I believe that I should apologize for not being able to learn things so well… or should I? I’ve been thinking it over, and my reasons for doubting my need to apologize go far beyond your need to constantly say that if I didn’t learn it, it’s because you haven’t done a good job.
Dear teacher, do you truly mean what you say when you publicly claim that your students failure are your own? Are you such an almighty being that no one can fail on their own accord and that your ability to teach or not is what makes it or breaks it in my education? Perhaps, if you really meant what you say, this would be true. I must confess I’m slightly disappointed in you, though. And I’ll now explain why.
You once believed you could teach me by being friends with me. You’ve probably read somewhere that affection makes a difference in learning. You’ve also probably read, somewhere else, that laughter lubricates learning, and you tried to make your lessons funny. And then you may have heard from a friend that learning should be student-centred. How perfect was that, huh, dear teacher? All you had to do was come to class and chat with your students, let them discover new things on their own. This is probably something else you claim to have read – students ought to become autonomous learners.
To make things even better, you found arguments to support the use of things you so much enjoy using in your daily life in our lessons. You’ve read somewhere that I’m a digital native, and that technology would make learning a lot easier to me. You’ve enticed me to follow you through a path of discovery of things you were supposed to be teaching me, but that I’d eventually find out on my own by using the gadgets that are so common to those of my generation. To be fair with you, you could even mention the names of the people you’ve supposedly read, and even name theories.
How much longer do you think you could have gone? You’ve read somewhere that there are teachers using technology and whose students are succeeding, and you’ve also read somewhere else that there are teachers who simply talk to their students and they miraculously learn. Oh, dear teacher, you have as one of your favorite quotes the one that says that you’re not preparing students – you’re helping them become life-long learners. Isn’t it a tad contradictory that you haven’t been doing what you’ve been preaching?
You expect me to accept that mistakes are part of the learning process. However, you cannot conceive of having done me wrong in your attempts to educate me. Wouldn’t it be much easier to help me if you took your own advice and said, just for a change, that you may not know exactly what you’re doing? How much longer will you cling to book titles, halves of first chapters, headlines and superficial talks to base your principles? How much longer, dear teacher, till you start taking responsibility for the choices you’ve made for my education to your hands instead of blaming it on what others have been doing?
Isn’t it time you started reading beyond the headline? Isn’t it time you started accepting that there are people who know more than you and that you can learn from them? Is it that heard to keep an open mind to different thoughts and ideas? Why is it, then, that you keep asking me to keep mine open?
Dear teacher, how often have you said that grades don’t represent learning, and yet it was the final yardstick against which you measured my success or failure? When will you stop paying lip service to what others say regarding education and start walking with your own feet? When will you be able to accept responsibility for what you have done in your classes because you believed that was best for me, not because a PhD somewhere said this is what had to be done? What if you yourself bought into the idea of being a life-long learner and were willing to truly lead me to discovering what I should discover? Instead, your option has been to say to me things you don’t actually mean. You say one thing, but you do something else.
Dear teacher, it’s time you stopped mentioning the names of John Dewey or Paulo Freire if all you know about what they’ve done is what someone else has told you. It’s time you stopped using flashy gadgets and technology in class simply because you’ve been told I love that and this is how I learn best. I want to remember you for what I’ve learnt from you, not for the jokes you told me when you were supposed to have taught me something.
Dear teacher, you have no idea how much I’ll idolize you for having taught me something. Please, understand that my education is not a popularity contest among all those who walk into my classroom to talk to me. This is serious stuff, and I may be just a bit too young to realize how serious a business it is. I depend on you to show me what I can do. You’ve often said you’d like to be responsible for my learning – I put myself in your hands. As much of a cliché this may be, I’m placing all my dreams and hopes for the future in your hands. Will you truly help me live up to my potential? Have you been constantly trying to improve for that to happen?
Dear teacher, all I ask of you is that you mean what you say. Don’t take the soft way out by placing all the responsibility of my learning in my hands. Learn what learner centered education truly is before you say your lessons are learner centered. Learn how to effectively integrate technology into your teaching before you say that all those videos and Internet use are actually teaching. Criticise me! We only set high standards for those we believe to be able to get there. Don’t settle for anything less than what I can do. You see, I believe all you say about my learning, so if you say I’m ready to move on to the next step, I will be happy to do so – I’ll only be mature enough to realize I wasn’t ready when it’s too late. It’s your call, my dearest teacher.
It’s your call… are you going to face the challenge of educating me, or are you going to really leave me to my own fortune? Are you prepared to challenge me, to tell me I’m wrong, to tell me my work is not good enough, and to put up with my tantrum, or will you take the easy way out? If you choose the easy way out, if you’re not prepared to mean your words and to act accordingly, please, step out of the way. The world is tough enough as it is. I most certainly don’t need you holding me back.
You say my failure is your failure, dear teacher. As long as you believe that success is the same thing as moving on to the next grade or level, you’ve failed me for sure. If you’re going to treat me as a human being, you’d better understand sooner than later that education is a complex issue, and there’s no way you’re going to be able to help me without hard work from me and you. I’m in your hands, dear teacher, make sure you know what you’re doing.