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Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

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?

Where’s the change?

December 19, 2012 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A tale for a change

August 22, 2011 13 comments

This post has been cooking for a while now – a long while, to be honest – as I haven’t exactly had the proper state of mind to write recently. However, as I’ve just finished reading Brad’s post on the matter, I decided to finally revisit my thoughts and give it a go. Perhaps something good will come out of it, or maybe it’ll turn out to be good for me to get back in shape. I’m well aware it’s different from my other posts, but I do hope you’ll enjoy it! :)

Can puppets choose what to do? | Photo on Flickr by János Szüdi

Once upon a time, there was this puppeteer who had a show with two puppets – Lenny and Teri. The story he told was something like this… Lenny and Teri, as the story goes, have always been close to one another. Lenny had always seen in Teri someone who would always be there for him, giving him proper feedback, support, guidance and pushing Lenny to his full potential. Teri cared about Lenny, and wanted him to thrive. However, it seems that, after a long standing relationship, these two old friends started to fall apart. In the beginning, Teri saw herself as being more important than Lenny – she believed to be a lot more mature than Lenny. Teri was responsible for telling Lenny what to do and where to go. Lenny, however, grew up and decided it was hight time he started walking on his own feet. To make matters worse, Teri got sick and tired of her position as the sole provider of knowledge and experiences for Lenny, as if it were pouring liquid in an empty vessel, and of getting very little recognition for doing so. Needless to say, the relationship went sour and a gulf of differences quickly presented itself between these two ol’ pals. Could there ever be a happy ending to these two in the future?

Along came a third puppet, Beth, and Lenny quickly started flirting with her. Beth was a lot brisker than Teri had grown into and she presented to Lenny myriad possibilities for self-improvement – Beth wouldn’t dare telling Lenny what to do, she told him that he’d have to find it out on his own. Not surprisingly, Lenny found out there were many things he could do by himself. Teri, for a while, tried hard to fight back and prevent Beth from ever stepping into the classroom – it was a moment for Teri and Lenny alone. Teri still had, rooted deep down, the hope to win Lenny’s heart back again – Beth was just a fling. Little did Teri know of the power and influence that Beth had over Lenny. Beth was not only looking for a place in the classroom to sit next to Lenny, she was looking for a place next to Lenny – period! Beth couldn’t understand Teri’s hatred towards her. “One day, Teri will see that I’m not trying to take over her place, just help her with Lenny.”

Thus was so for a while. On ever fewer occasions, Teri still managed to have her moments with Lenny in ways that Beth could only dream of – it was bonding at its best. Teri was learning to listen to Lenny, and Lenny once again felt as if he mattered to Teri, and that he could contribute more than simply memorizing whatever it was that Teri forced down his throat. Ah, but Beth was not going to give up, and decided that the best way to help Lenny was by spending some time with Teri outside the classroom. Little by little, they became friends and Teri started wondering whether her decision of not allowing Beth in the classroom was right. Up until then, Teri saw Beth as a threat, a menace to be avoided at all costs – it was something that would interfere in the long-standing relationship between Teri and Lenny.

Beth, however, played her hand beautifully. She finally managed to show Teri that she was not trying to take her place; Beth was simply trying to help Teri win Lenny’s heart back. Teri, however, took so long to finally see it, that now that they’ve all come to terms with each other Teri is having a hard time trying to let go of old habits. From time to time, Teri still has her moments of rampant rage and kicks Beth out of the classroom when Lenny starts paying more attention to Beth than to her. Beth has also come a long way and has now understood what was happening when she came on stage. It’s now time for our three friends, Beth, Teri, and Lenny, or should I say, Tech, Teaching, and Learning, to learn that they can be together if they learn how to work together towards the same aim. And so let’s hope for the best, Let’s hope that Technology (Beth) is able to help in the relationship between Teaching (Teri) and Learning (Lenny). The good part of the story is that it’s all up to us, the puppeteers, to learn when we should bring those three onstage at the same time, and when one of them ought to leave the scene and let the others shine. Are we capable of making this choice?

In a world in which we are spoilt for choice, we’ve got to learn how to think on our feet if we want to become successful puppeteers. The difference, however, is that our puppets have a life of their own – we can merely choose what we’re going to give them to play with and hope for the best. If we want them to have a happy ending, we can only choose the props, and never forget they write the plot on their own.

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

April 7, 2011 11 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your take on that?

The power of two

September 27, 2010 11 comments

There are two different kinds of PLNs, as I see it. First, there’s the virtual PLN, the one you create through your visits to other educators’ blogs and engaging conversations on Twitter, blogs, or Skype to name but a few. This is a PLN which is filled with teachers who are willing to share, grow, learn, and keep an open mind to all that’s new and everything that might enhance your students’ learning. It’s an active space, and it’s open 24/7. The second kind of PLN is your real one, made of teachers who work with you in your school. The good side of this PLN is that it shows you you that, sometimes, the world you live in is still not ready for all those changes that so many educators worldwide have been talking about. They understand your context, and they face exactly the same difficulties you have to face. That could even be called the ‘keeping-it-real PLN’.

However, one thing that usually strikes me as odd is how often I hear people from my virtual PLN complain about the lack of interest and willingness to change from those present in their real PLN. I’ve already heard a couple of times that it would be wonderful to have all of those people from your virtual PLN working together in the same school, aiming at providing their learners nothing but the very best. This would be a place where people wouldn’t fear making mistakes, and mistakes might as well happen. However, no mistake would be made owing to lack of action. Things would always be going forward.

If this ideal school existed, perhaps change in education would come at a much faster rate. If there are people who are also as committed as you are working with you, it’s always easier to make things happen. If, on the other hand, there is no one interested in joining you and helping you in your physical surroundings, things get much tougher. Fortunately, the distance between the virtual and the real PLN is getting smaller by the day. Thanks to technology, it’s now possible to get your students to interact with students whose teachers aren’t that afraid of attempting to get things done. Sometimes it’s easier to get two classes from two different continents to collaborate than to get two neighbouring classes to do so.

That’s one of the things that most people realise once they join the world of blogs and twitter, to begin with. They learn that there are other people who are also interested in bringing about change. There are other educators who are 100% sure they’ve still got a lot to learn, and they find other educators who think just the same way. Working alone is pretty hard, but the power of two has something magical about it. If you’re working together with people who also share your principles and, despite being snowed under with work, still manage to make time for sharing and learning, you know that’s the right place to be in.

Nevertheless, sometimes our co-workers and members of the keeping-it-real PLN need a little push. They’ve all got it inside themselves – this ideal towards learning and helping students thrive. It may have been forgotten somewhere because of the treatment that’s been dispensed to educators for many, many years, but it’s there. If we all work together and give this little push, we’ll find out we’re not alone anymore. The power of two will make it a lot easier for you to do what you want to do. Mind you, this doesn’t mean you all have got to agree on everything; it only means there are at least two people willing to shift gears and get things evolving at a faster pace.

What takes it so long?

September 23, 2010 7 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital natives

September 8, 2010 31 comments

I’ve never been a big fan of the term “Digital Natives” that had been coined by Marc Prensky (as far as I know). Truth be told, I had never even been drawn to reading his stuff as it had absolutely no appeal to me. However, there comes a time in which you’ve got to read what everyone has been reading, even if it’s just to disagree, but now you wouldn’t only disagree because ‘you don’t like it’, but maybe you’ll have lots of other reasons for not liking it – I’ve even given Twilight a chance after so many of my students talked so passionately about it. If it’s of any interest, I didn’t like it. I guess I’m much more of a fan of Anne Rice and her Vampire Chronicles, but I can understand why so many of my teenage students were so into it.

Yet, lots of other students actually couldn’t stand it. And even those who liked Twilight couldn’t exactly agree on certain things – there’s something called ‘team Edwards’ and ‘team Jacobs’, and I guess it’s very important that you pick sides. Just the same, lots of my teenage and pre-teen students are into computer and Internet. This seems to be their favourite past time. But hold on, they know very little about anything that’s not Orkut (way more popular than Facebook in Brazil) and MSN. Yet, not all of them are into computers that much. I’ve talked to students who said they literally loathe computers and all that’s related to them. Funny, huh?!

Photo by Peter Hardy

When I think back about my own childhood, I remember I was always interested in technology. I’ve had access to my first computer in the house a lot sooner than most of my friends. It was a TK-2000, and it was basically a more elaborate typewriter. After that, I remember we had an Apple Master Plus in the house. Boy, was that fun! I even remember I started learning how to programme on Basic. This lasted until the first IBM-PC arrived. And with it, lots of games – I clearly remember when I played Prince of Persia for the very first time. Along came ‘The secret of Monkey Island’, ‘The day of the tentacle’, ‘Doom’, ‘Quake’, ‘Civilization’ and many others. I was also one of the first students in my class (should I say my school?) to have an email account – 1994. And who still remember those BBSs? Finally, I still remember using ‘Webcrawler’ instead of ‘Google’ to browse the web. I guess I can say for sure I grew up surrounded by technology.

OK, the big question is: so what? Apart from growing old without fearing computers, I don’t think it’s changed me a lot. I’ll admit that it’s come in handy more often than not, and even though I’m no expert, I can usually find my way around a computer and the Internet easily. And I find it really surprising when I talk to my students about very simple things on the Internet and many reply that their parents know a lot more than they do about computers. Perhaps it’s just because many of the gadgets still aren’t exactly affordable in Brazil – an iPhone 4 32GB would cost something close to U$ 1700,00 (at Mercado Livre, a Brazilian eBay) and an iPad 64 Gb with 3G and Wi-fi costs U$ 1650,00 on the same site. However, most, if not all, of my students have got at least one computer at home, and lots of them have got their own laptops. How come they haven’t been teaching me lots of new tricks? However, this is not even the point of this post.

Even though there are teenagers and pre-teens who spend their free-time online, there are lots of others who’d rather go outside and play football with their friends. Others would rather read a book, and others are much happier in front of the TV instead of in front of a computer screen. A lot has been discussed also in terms of learners differences and how to best cater for each one of these learners so that we bring out the best in them. Why should we value just one skill? Why should we simply categorise an entire generation as the digital natives and forget that these are people who come in all sizes, shapes and, yes, interests. If we simply put them all in the same category, how different is that from what we’ve been doing for decades in our current educational system? Sir Ken Robinson once said that our educational system aims at raising individuals bearing in mind only their intellectual value, and increasingly to one side only. We are trying to create more and more scholars, and if our kids are not cut out for it, they’ll even be given medicine to see whether or not they’ll be able to fit it. And all this is done by those who claim to have their children’s best interest at heart.

No matter how much I believe that technology has got to offer to education – and I do think it’s a very powerful tool in education – I just can’t label students, or people, according to the age they’ve been born and assume one size fits all. Digital natives, digital immigrants… the fact that we live in a world which is a lot more digital than the world of yore doesn’t mean we should label our children and ourselves. Everyone is capable of learning new tools as long as they give it a try, and once you get it going, it only gets easier – how many grown ups of your PLN have only recently started using the Internet and are already literate in anything related to it? And the more they learn, the faster and easier it is for them to navigate in this new, digital world.

Labels are made for clothes, not for people. I can’t say all my students like Twilight, I can’t say they all enjoy playing football, and I can’t say they all like Justin Bieber, so why should I label them all digital natives or even conceive of them as tech savvy? Besides, there are still a whole bunch of people who haven’t even seen a computer in their lives. What of them? Should they just be cast aside? Shouldn’t education be inclusive? Oh, but this is for another post… I’ll leave it here. Hope you got till the end of the post! :)

PS: Perhaps it would also be nice to have a look at this book, even if you don’t agree with its content. :)

Coursebooks and technology

August 17, 2010 5 comments

If you ask me, nothing good can come out of too much or too little of anything. If we go to extremes, we’re bound to miss out on one or two (at least) good things from the other side of the argument. I’ve been thinking about this because of a couple of things I’ve been reading and reflecting about. I guess we should always try to live life to the fullest, but we can never forget or simply let go of our obligations. If as people we understand this, this is also something we, as teachers, should try to pass on to our learners. I don’t think any of this is news to anyone, but I’d like to add my two cents on this specific topic.

One of the first things people usually say upon hearing that I like the principles of Dogme is, “How come? You love all of these new tech things, and you do use a coursebook with your students.” Well, to be fair, most people I have the chance to talk to in person either have never heard anything about Dogme or know too little about it and never cared to actually find out the truth by themselves. Dogme celebrated its 10th anniversary, and yet there wasn’t a single presentation about it in the last National Conference I attended. Had I known I’d be attending, I guess I’d certainly submit a proposal on the matter. But I digress…

We can’t simply put things on a good / bad table and either swear by them or shun their use. I honestly believe that, even behind the “evil purpose” of publishers of making money, they hire authors who are committed with  learning. Coursebooks which are written based on Corpus research, which have got activities that have been thought of in terms of rational and principles that keep the learners’ best interests at heart do exist. The problem, though, lies in teachers using the coursebook as if it were the Holy Bible. Coursebooks are flawed as well, especially if they’ve been designed to be used all around the world. It is up to teachers (and teacher trainers/developers) to understand that not everything that’s written there has got to be done in class. Teachers should know when there’s a lack of something that needs to be supplemented by means of extra materials or activities, or when something is just useless for his or her learners. It’s not the coursebook that’s good or bad, it’s the use you’ll make of it that will turn it into good or bad.

The same thing is true for use of technology. We can’t expect teachers to be forced to use technology simply because it’s there. Technology is a tool, not and end in itself. If we understand that people learn differently and that teachers should try as hard as they can to cater for the different learning styles in the classroom, we must come to terms with the fact that this will hardly ever be achieved by the use of one tool only. Slips of paper, debates, pictures, social media, books, magazines, Internet… these are all examples of tools available for teachers to use. I’m in favour of using all of them – but using them wisely. What I don’t agree with is teachers using the same PPT over and over again with different groups, with different backgrounds and all the other differences that come with each group of ours. This, if you ask me, is laziness. Do you really think you can have one magic PPT that will suit all of your learners, no adaptation or change needed? Just like the use of coursebooks, technology should also be used conscientiously.

Finding balance is essential in any part of life, and it certainly shouldn’t be any different when it comes to teaching. Being able to hold a conversation and truly listen to your learners and identify needs is paramount when dealing with people.

I still remember…

May 16, 2010 16 comments

It’s always nice to reminisce, isn’t it? I’ve recently had the chance to meet lots of my high school friends. Our class had been together from second grade on, and, obviously, there are always good laughs as we remember what we went through during our school years. We eventually get to talk about things we did in class, parties, teachers, and all that involves the lives of any teenager. Those were good days, for sure. We speak fondly of some teachers; we speak ill of others. We remember what they did in class and how they used to behave, things they’d say (some teachers say the same thing year after year), and all that is involved in any of these talks.

That also makes me think about how we used to be. We enjoyed it when teachers valued our opinions. We had a blast when sometimes a teacher of ours decided to come to one of the parties we’d throw. We loved listening to their stories and we’d revel in their listening to some our own. However, we also valued our privacy a lot. There were things we didn’t want our teachers to hear, just like there were things we didn’t want our parents to hear. Certain things belong to us only – we shared our secret stories on the phone. We spent a long time locked up in our bedrooms and we’d hate it if mum and dad (rightfully) said that our bedroom wasn’t really our own and that we’d only have our own bedroom when we had our own house.

This week, there was a piece of news on TV exactly about that. Some teenagers in Brazil want to spend more and more time alone in their bedrooms. Family life is pretty much nonexistent. A psychologist was invited to analyse the situation and noticed that teens are not the only ones to blame – some parents make sure they have their own computer in their bedroom, a TV set, their stereo system, their phone, a bathroom… apart from a microwave oven and a mini-bar, most well-off teens have all in their bedrooms. A parent was complaining that his daughter would spend about 7 hours straight locked up in her bedroom.

But then again, if we, as teenagers, had as many things in our bedrooms, if it were just as easy for us to connect with those who are part of our groups, perhaps we’d do exactly the same thing. Teens have a need to belong, they succumb to peer pressure, and have an innate will to rebel. We can blame it on hormones and all that comes with this shift from childhood to adulthood. But truth be told, most teens value the opinion of their friends more than that of their parents and teachers. Teachers do inspire, parents are respected, but there is a certain period of our lives in which we believe parents and teachers know nothing. And this isn’t something new. My parents have an old French poster with sayings from someone at different ages of his or her life. At the age of 6, “dad knows it all,” at the age of 15, “we know as much as dad,” at the age of 60, “oh, if we still could ask dad…” It’s cyclical, and it’s always been like that.

What do children think of their parents?

What’s the point I’m trying to make? Well, the thing that’s got me thinking is, when push come to shove, how far can or should we go? Having a learner-centred lesson is important and I believe it truly makes a difference. Breaking into these safety circles in which teens share their lives with their friends might be just a little too much. Aren’t we trying a bit too hard to do something we ourselves wouldn’t like our teachers to have done to us? Yesterday’s phone calls are today’s facebook and MSN. As teenagers, my friends and I always enjoyed it when teachers valued our our opinions in class. However, there was a fine line between listening to us and paying heed to what we said and being intrusive and trying to get too personal. Aren’t some teachers just trying a bit too hard and treading on dangerous ground?

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