A will or a whim?

April 25, 2015 3 comments

We are all able to learn what we want to learn and we will stay at it as long as it takes until we’ve developed our skills, or amassed as much knowledge as we want to. Regardless of lessons, if we want to learn, we will. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. We’ll manage to find the book that we need, to talk to the people we need to talk to, and eventually it will all fall into place. This doesn’t mean we will know all we want to. Learning involves effort, and the desire to be able to do something alone doesn’t necessarily entails a clear view of what is needed to develop a certain skill. For instance, one might wish to play the guitar as well as Eric Clapton, but this very one might not be willing to dedicate him or herself as many hours a day to learn how to do that. This, actually, is a good way to differentiate a will from a whim.

In days gone by, there was very little students could choose to learn from for the mere fact that there was very little available to them in terms of sheer amount of information. Students relied on what they could get from their peers, teachers, and parents. This meant that it was much harder for them to truly know what they wanted to learn. Just the same, it was very easy for teachers to decide what was important for students to learn. However, the funny thing is that teachers themselves have always had very little say in what they may choose or not to teach – in most cases, they ought to abide by a pre-established curriculum and just make sure all is dealt with. That means that it isn’t even what teachers consider important for students to learn that we bring into the classroom – it is what other people once considered relevant, be them the textbook writer or the curriculum designer. Would teachers also choose to teach their students different things if they were made to reflect upon the kind of impact and responsibility they have on the building of a citizen?

Currently, information is everywhere, and so is the possibility for learning. Schools, teachers, students, and even parents have already realised that learning takes many forms. Why is it that we still fight the need for a major shift in the way that we approach teaching, which is the one element in the teaching-learning dichotomy that we can control? Is it just fear of change and failure? Have we just reached the point in which our culture of tests and failures have made us fear necessary change?

In detriment of all the advances and the myriad possibilities in the hands of those with a mobile-Internet combo, we still choose to take the easy way out and walk into obsolescence little by little. We still choose to take the path of least resistance, the one that will cause us less trouble and inquiries from students, parents and teachers alike. We seem to wilfully ignore the fact that humans are capable to learn what they want to learn. We ignore that access to information has made it less and less relevant for us to tell people what they want to learn. We still insist on teaching what we want others to learn. And we choose to be blissfully ignorant to the fact that teachers are a lot more relevant than they might want to be in any learning scenario simply by choosing not to take advantage of all the opportunities out there to teach in a much more meaningful manner. We talk a lot about changing education – but for many this is just a whim, it’s not a will. What do you think?

Categories: Education Tags: ,

Accountability: the teacher and the learner

March 6, 2014 9 comments

On my last post, I suggested that the best way to focus on students’ learning is by focusing on teaching. The rationale behind this is that we can’t control someone else’s actions or thoughts, but we can control our own. This means that if we pay attention to what we can actually do in order to make learning more effective, we’ll end up being a lot more helpful to our learners than by trying out many different techniques and methods just because they are (or have become) mainstream. We still can’t fully understand how we learn, what really happens in our brains apart from the synapses and all the wiring in the brain. We may come to the point in which data, not guesses (even educated ones), will be the driving force behind our actions. However, until then, we might be better off by thinking and reflecting on our teaching practices and on what happens in our classrooms, with our learners, than by trying out the next big thing. The first thing teachers should learn is that what they do matters. If teachers don’t believe this, they’re in the wrong place. But just how much does it really matter? How can we measure educational success? Neil Mercer says that,

The educational success students achieve is only partly under their own control, and only partly under the control of their teachers. This is where the sociocultural concept of ‘scaffolding’ … is useful. The essence of this concept, as developed by Bruner (1986), Wood (1988) and others, is that an effective teacher provides the kind of intellectual support which enables learners to make intellectual achievements they would never accomplish alone; and one way they do so is by using dialogue to guide and support the development of understanding. (Neil Mercer – Language for teaching a language)

Scaffolding is what allows learners to grow. But each learner may need a different kind of scaffolding. Can you figure it out? | Photo on Flickr by Anthony Shemmans

Scaffolding is what allows learners to grow. But each learner may need a different kind of scaffolding. Can you figure it out? | Photo on Flickr by Anthony Shemmans

Apparently, the concept of conversation-driven lessons and scaffolding goes a long way. But who would have argued against that? It is not hard to think about our own learning experiences, the ones in which we had a good teacher by our side. This, by the way, is one of the topics that sparks teachers’ interest in training sessions – reflecting about their own learning experiences. When we think about our own learning experiences, when we have the benefit of hindsight, it’s a lot easier to see what has truly made a difference and what was only fun. How many  are able to think back of a funny teacher whose teaching didn’t really stick, or a funny teacher whose lessons are so ingrained that you find it hard to separate the person from the classes? It’s not humour that is the defining factor for successful or unsuccessful teachers. At the end of the day, what truly matters is how much effort and attention you’ve put into that lesson of yours, and how thoughtful you’d been when planning the lesson for those specific learners. What matters is how often you reflected on the activities that you tried out in classes and the effect these activities had on each one of those students sitting there in front of you – or next to you if you’re that lucky.

This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt as a teacher. Being a teacher means caring about the time and effort your students are putting in by being there in front of you. I may not be the sole responsible for their learning, but I can’t shun the responsibility of being partly responsible for their learning. When this thought dawns on new teachers, they stop asking questions such as, “but why would I do that when most students just don’t seem to care?” or “why don’t they learn it if I taught them?” We do what we do because we are aware of our role and we are to be held accountable for all the things we choose to do in a class. And if students don’t seem to learn what you’ve taught them, perhaps it’s time you started reflecting a bit more about what you could do to help them instead of asking questions you can’t possibly answer.

Being accountable for what we do also means coming to terms with our own shortcomings. This is the moment you start thinking about developing and becoming a better professional. Accountability can do many things for you – one of them is helping you decide what kind of a teacher you want to be. Are you the kind that looks for excuses elsewhere, or are you able to look into your own world and find out what’s wrong? Are you capable of teaching the same subject differently to better help each group of learners, or will you simply do things the way you’ve always done and blame students for their not learning as effectively? Being a teacher means being on the move. How far are you willing to go?

*Neil Mercer – Language for teaching a language – in English Language Teaching in its Social Context

How do you focus on your students’ learning?

February 23, 2014 5 comments

Lately, it’s become mainstream to state that we should focus on students’ learning. By saying that, we account for the obvious expected outcome of a teaching & learning environment – students’ learning. Currently, with all the debate on the impact of technology in the lives of children everywhere, it’s pretty obvious that we’re more likely to read and witness the promotion of change in education by the advent of technology. If used properly, it allows us to put students’ on the driver’s seat of their learning. We can get them to actually do things instead of just passively absorb content from the teacher or their course books.

It's very easy to lose focus of the big picture when we stand to close to what we want to prove.

Out of focus: It’s very easy to lose focus of the big picture when we stand too close to what we want to prove.

There is also the idea of multiple intelligences and how it can be applied in the classroom given that we’re able to cater for different learning styles much more easily now that we’ve got access to the wonders of the myriad gadgets that are now part and parcel of a number of students’ school materials. And let’s not forget that criticism to tests as a means of assessment abound, and the notion that tests don’t teach is widespread. The main problem with this is that it seems to make a lot of sense. But why would this be a problem?

To begin with, in education we are dealing with the brain – something we don’t really know much about. In a recent National Geographic article about the brain, Professor Lichtman of Harvard University makes clear how little we have advanced in brain research by telling us that he usually introduces his course about the brain by asking students, “if understanding everything we need to know about the brain is a mile, how far have we walked?” The answer? 3 inches. When we think about how little we know, and we take into account the idea of intuitive heuristics, whose essence is described by Daniel Kahneman in the following very short sentence:

When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution. (Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow)

It might just be that the difficult question we’re facing these days is exactly the one that Sir Ken Robinson asked in one of his TED Talks. “How do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st Century given that we can’t anticipate the economy will look like at the end of next week?” Whether you like it or not, school and its purpose has to go through some serious revision. Another highly acclaimed advocate for change in education, Professor Sugata Mitra, tells us a story of where present day schooling comes from and what its early-day purposes were. He’s got a very strong opinion when he states that schools are outdated in the world we currently live in and the urgent need for change. And I don’t think we can argue against this point – the current system of education doesn’t suit the world we live in anymore. Hence, our need for change.

This might be exactly the difficult question we have to answer: how do we change our current educational system to cater for the needs of our present day society? The truth is that there’s no simple answer, but I’d argue that a lot of it involves a better understanding of how we learn. If we are unable to proper answer this question, very little will actually change. On the bright side, many qualified people have something to say about it, and not only about where we should be headed, but also a couple of things in relation to all the changes we’ve been experiencing as a society, with connectedness all around us. However, all that glitters is not gold, and before we actually buy into this or that idea, we should investigate further. It is likely that we may be supporting something that has little evidence of being true.

If we’re going to move forward, we will have to admit that a one-size-fits-all model of education is doomed to fail the majority of students and teachers. Let’s also admit that while we have plenty of beliefs, dogma, and rhetoric about how to prepare students for the future, we have little solid information about how to do this successfully. We have no idea about whether to limit or encourage their access to social networking, computer games, television and other forms of media. In the absence of real data, teachers and administrators rely on popular books by nonscientists who generally misinterpret the little data that do exist. The bottom line is that we don’t know if these activities are hurting their cognitive and interpersonal development or better preparing them for the world ahead. (Louis Cozolino – The Social Neuroscience of Education)

Let’s have a closer look at this sentence: “In the absence of real data, teachers and administrators rely on popular books by nonscientists who generally misinterpret the little data that do exist.” The truth is that we, as human beings, have a natural tendency to rely on our intuition rather than analyze a problem and give it as much time and effort as it deserves, as Daniel Kahneman states in his book (Thinking Fast and Slow). This is why we end up going with the flow and failing to further look into a point and give it the consideration it deserves. For instance, how many teachers blindly accept the theory of multiple intelligences as being true without actually having read about it? Is it just because the way that people sell it makes sense? Is it because it helps us with the self-esteem of learners who struggle at school? How about delving into this issue by reading this article, which starts by saying that:

This article reviews evidence for multiple intelligences theory, the Mozart effect theory, and emotional intelligence theory and argues that despite their wide currency in education these theories lack adequate empirical support and should not be the basis for educational practice. Each theory is compared to theory counterparts in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuro- science that have better empirical support. The article considers possible reasons for the appeal of these 3 theories and concludes with a brief rationale for examining theories of cognition in the light of cognitive neuroscience research findings. (Lynn Waterhouse – Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review)

Or perhaps this passage from this other article (which leads you to the article shared above) might also be of interest:

It is fair to say that among academic scholars who study intelligence there is very little acceptance of Gardner’s theory due to a lack of empirical evidence for it. A critical review of the topic by Lynn Waterhouse in 2006 found no published studies at all that supported the validity of the theory. Even though Gardner first made his theory public in 1983, the first empirical study to test the theory was not published until 23 years later (Visser, et al., 2006a) and the results were not supportive. Multiple intelligences theory can hardly be described as scientifically generative. (Scott McGreal – The illusory theory of multiple intelligences)

What we should take into account in order to move forward is that all that we currently know about our practice may be proven wrong in the near future as research into how we learn develops. What we should understand as educators is that there’s no simple or single answer (at least not yet) to how we learn best. This is the reason why we must never cease to learn. This is why we should take things that might seem to make sense with a pinch of salt and consider that we might as well be trying really hard to validate an opinion. What if Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences makes sense because we strive to make better connections with our learners? This is a major factor of motivation for us, humans, and this could be what leads to improvement when we claim to make use of activities that cater for different intelligences. What if this all happens when we hold conversations with our learners and, owing to this, we’re able to boost their attention and interest, thus making learning more effective? The bottom line, though, is that it doesn’t really matter. If the theory, as the articles suggest, is not valid or only good on paper, or if it is really true and valid, makes little difference at the end of the day for practical purposes.

It is only by trying to learn more about how we learn that we can adapt our teaching and ensure that we’re able to focus on our students’ learning. We don’t focus on students’ learning by playing games with them; we play games with them because we may have learned somewhere that this fosters their learning. The same end result, but with a different starting point. It is only by focussing on our teaching that we will be able to come up with strategies that will facilitate learning. In order to focus on their students’ learning, teachers must first and foremost focus on their teaching – but do so in the right way. Focussing on your teaching means understanding that learning is the expected outcome of each and every little thing you do in class. It doesn’t matter if you do so by using summative or formative assessment. What matters is whether or not you have mastered the tools you have chosen to use so as to enable learning to take place. Tests, for example, can be effective, as this study has demonstrated, but it’s all a matter of how you deal with them. The key difference in any learning setting is the teacher, and teaching isn’t simply being able to provide information to your students.

In my view, the best way to focus on your students’ learning is coming to terms with the fact that we still know very little about how we really learn something – what we’ve learnt to do is constantly reflect on our practices and experiences. This is what truly makes the difference. We must always keep an open eye for new theories, research and practice. We should be able to critically reflect on these and reach a conclusion so that we can focus on learning. Yet, we ought to understand that we cannot control someone else’s actions and thoughts. We can only control our own actions, and this is why we have to focus on what we do if we hope to help our learners. If you want to focus on your students’ learning, how about really focussing on your teaching first? Let’s talk a bit about teachers’ accountability, shall we? Maybe a possible continuation for this post.

Working with discrete vocabulary items

February 16, 2014 6 comments

It’s a given that learning words in isolation is not particularly helpful when it comes to learning a foreign language. Words rarely appear in isolation when we communicate, and ELT has come a long way from the days in which vocabulary appeared as single words in a vocabulary box to the presentation of manageable language chunks. Nowadays, I don’t think it takes a lot of convincing to persuade teachers about the benefits of chunks, meaningfulness and personalisation of vocabulary. However, is there any occasion in which presenting language items out of a context can be helpful? Maybe yes, and this activity is likely to come in handy should you be forced to teach words in isolation, or in case you just feel like doing so from time to time.

Suppose you’d like your students to learn how to properly use a dictionary. What if you write a bunch of words on the board – connected to a topic of study if you use a course book, or simply random words to start a lesson – and ask them to work on the meaning of these words? Then, you get them to discuss their opinion with a partner and see if they agree or not. At this stage, give them some chunks of language (on slips of paper) to express their opinion, agree and disagree, and ask about someone’s opinion. After they’ve finished discussing, elicit from the pairs / small groups what their definitions were. Don’t tell them if they were right or wrong just yet. Instead, get them to open their dictionaries and check if their guesses were right.

There is just way too much information in a good learner's dictionary for students to focus only on meaning. | Source: Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

Eat humble pie – There is just way too much information in a good learner’s dictionary for students to focus only on meaning. Who’s to blame when they don’t see it? | Source: Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

Most students will probably stop at the definition of the word, which is the least import piece of information a good learner’s dictionary has. Unfortunately, most students are oblivious to the plethora of information they may obtain from their dictionaries. Teachers who fail to teach students how to properly use a dictionary are also failing in one of their most important objectives: making him or herself less and less needed for providing information. So, once you get your students to check the meaning of the words, it’s time to move onto the next stage – getting them to come up with original sentences using those words they’d just checked.

Should they be struggling with their sentences, or if they happen to fail to produce accurate sentences, point them to the examples of usage in the dictionary. Have them read the example sentences and ask them to focus on the words in bold (when applicable), or the sentences which have a brief explanation of a chunk in parentheses (also, when applicable).

After having read the examples in the dictionary, ask them to correct their sentences on their own. They will hopefully be able to notice some patterns of usage from the dictionary sentences and transfer these to their own sentences. Make sure you monitor accordingly and direct their attention to certain important collocations, such as ADJECTIVE + PREPOSITION, or VERB + PREPOSITION. Write their sentences on the board, or on paper, or on any other device you may use in your teaching context, and try to keep a record of the sentences they have come up with.

The focus of such an activity is not for them to learn the discrete vocabulary item per se, but they are likely to remember some of the words you have presented anyway. To make it more meaningful and a lot more relevant, you can choose these words from songs which are trending in your country at the moment (particularly good for teenagers), words and phrases from sitcoms, series and movies, or just using the news as a source. The possibilities are endless.

Finally, you should show your learners that this is the kind of procedure they could follow when they come across unknown words from reading passages in class. This is something they could do when reading more actively in order to study English and not “simply” reading for content. Needless to say, this kind of reading is very time consuming, so it’s important that you tell them to use this strategy only for one or two paragraphs of the text.

I do believe that by doing so you’ll be helping your learners think more about the language, noticing more, and, most importantly, even though you’re teaching them words in isolation, it’s easy to see that you’ve done a lot more than just teaching the words. This is likely to make their learning more memorable and, consequently, more effective. This is just one of the ideas that I use with my learners when dealing with words “in isolation”, or when we have a quick vocabulary challenge as a warmer. Get them to work on words from songs, for instance. You’ll be surprised how often it will dawn on them that they didn’t really understand what it was that they were singing before.

How about coming up with a twist to override the system when you’re pushed into doing something you don’t think that would be so effective, such as presenting vocabulary lists from students’ course books? I bet you’ll have a lot more fun – and they will learn a lot more.

Do conversation-driven lessons make any sense? (Part 2)

February 9, 2014 13 comments

Language is quite a complex system – one which we try to organise according rules and norms. One of the common ways for us to think about such organisation is prescriptively, the way many of us were taught a second or a foreign language. If we look at what David Crystal says about prescriptivism, we will see that it “is the view that one variety of the language has an inherently higher value than others, and this ought to be imposed on the whole of the speech community. The view is related especially in relation to grammar and vocabulary, and frequently with reference to pronunciation.” And here we have the three pillars of what we learn when we study a language. If we don’t learn vocabulary, we won’t be able to get our message across as other speakers of the target language won’t know what we’re saying. However, if we only know the vocabulary of a language and lack any understanding of what glues the pieces together, a.k.a. grammar, we’re likely to be unable to convey more complex thoughts and communicate something that may require further, more complex thinking. Finally, there is pronunciation, which is not the same as accent. Pronunciation is needed should you want to speak to other user of the language you’re learning. But why teach a language prescriptively? In a nutshell, it is much easier to teach something that has a fixed structure, and to a certain extent, there seems to be some logic in saying that it is easier to learn something that has a rigid structure.

There's no fool-proof sequence that will allow you to jump head first in the sea of conversation | Photo on Flickr by Felipe Skroski

There’s no fool-proof sequence that will allow you to jump head first in the sea of conversation | Photo on Flickr by Felipe Skroski

Perhaps we mistake learning a language for learning any repetitive process, which leads to the belief that a structural sequence will make things easier. Yet, memorising processes and formulas is actually more difficult than really thinking about them. But we don’t follow this pattern simply because we don’t want to uncover a more effective way – we constantly repeat the processes we’ve gone through in life simply because, well, it’s worked for us. How can we claim that something that has worked for (many of) us won’t work for students when we ourselves are living proof of the success of the current system? But let’s not forget that most people who managed to succeed did so because they were so interested in the subject that they’ve actually chosen it as a career. This is not true for most language students, who may not be motivated enough to go beyond the basic rules that prescriptive grammar teaches. Thus, they are unable to grasp the subtleties of everything they’ve learned and how it overlaps with new content instead of simply add to it; they have a hard time thinking about language more abstractly. I believe that motivation has a major role in learning per se. As Jeremy Harmer said, “one of the main tasks for teachers is to provoke interest and involvement in the subject even when students are not initially interested in it.” However, Harmer reminds us that motivation comes from within, and we can only hope that our actions and words will lead students to start prioritising the subject we’re trying to teach them.

How have we been teaching them? We think of the least expensive way to teach and learn something – following guidelines and rules. In language teaching, this takes us back to prescriptivism, which makes it easier for teachers to judge right from wrong and allows students to have something to hopelessly cling to when they try to make sense of something that they simply can’t for lack of the development of an ability to look at language from a more holistic perspective. Such need for rules is a double-edged sword as students, after a certain stage, will be unable to find them as neatly written as they have grown used to. At this stage, they can only stop grappling with the understanding of language if they’ve developed the ability to think about language more as an organism – one which does have its rules and regulations, but one where these rules and regulations should be a bit less prescriptive and a tad more descriptive – if even that. By thinking so hard about the language, students end up making it harder for them to acquire the fluency level they initially hope to achieve.

If we consider what Daniel Kahneman says about this, we realise the problem lies with the laziness of our brain. Kahneman tells us that there are two systems in our brains. Roughly speaking, System 1 is the intuitive response, the system that doesn’t really think about the events; it takes into account the experiences we’ve been through to respond to external stimulus. System 2 is where thought really takes place. This is the system that rationally validates our actions. We fool ourselves by thinking that we’re much more likely to use our System 2. We aren’t, and this passage should show you why he states this:

The defining features of System 2 … is that its operations are effortful, and one of its main characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary. As a consequence, the thoughts and actions that System 2 believes it has chosen are often guided by the figure of at the center of the story, System 1. However, there are vital tasks that only system 2 can perform because they require effort and acts of self-control in which the intuitions and impulses of System 1 are overcome.

By focusing on prescriptive rules, we’re getting our students to focus their attention and effort on rules that should allow them to tell right from wrong regarding their speech. What happens when you are put in a stressful situation? Instead of thinking about the rules you have learned through grammar exercises, learners tend to lose the capacity to let their monitor system, as Krashen calls it, regulate what they’re saying. Stress is an indication of a threat, so their brains will instinctively respond to this by putting their System 1 in charge. We’ll then see two kinds of students: those who don’t care about what others might think of them and will speak freely, without worrying much about proper language, and those who will simply be unable to carry out a basic conversation because they are unsure if they should use the simple present or the present continuous, or if they should use the word good or fine. I’m pretty sure most EFL teachers have had the chance to work with both kinds of learners, and my personal experience is that adults lean towards the latter.

This is where a conversation-driven lesson might help, yet again. If we encourage our students to engage in an effortful activity in class that is not simply related to answering grammar questions on a sheet of paper, we might just end up fostering their ability to allocate less energy to the daunting act of speaking through practice. As Kahneman says:

As you become more skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved. […] A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.

When we think about skills in language learning, we usually list four: reading, writing, listening and speaking. By practising speaking more frequently, you should be able to develop the three pillars of a language (grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation) for this skill in particular. This means you won’t need to make a lot of effort to both understand what happens in the process of having a conversation and trying to get your message across. You can now focus on the message, which will already require a lot from memory. As Kahneman says, “effort is required to maintain simultaneously in memory several ideas that require separate actions, or that need to be combined according to a rule.” I cannot help but think that there’s a lot more into play in an exchange of ideas between two people than grammar rules and vocabulary.

When we have a conversation with others, we need to focus on both the verbal and non-verbal cues if we are to fully understand the message. We need to be able to understand sarcasm and irony, for instance. We need to listen to what our interlocutor says and then respond. This involves a lot of effort. As teachers, we need to show our learners that they are capable of doing such things in their L1 already, and that this ability can and should be transferred to their L2 self. However, if we insist on getting them to focus on rules without actually getting them to put the rules into use, it’ll be harder for their System 2 to realise that not all that is involved in having a conversation should require so much attention and effort. By focussing on discrete items of the language, we end up teaching our learners a tendency to focus on rules instead of putting the rules into use in order to communicate. As a result, the former takes precedence over the latter and most learners freeze when they need to hold a conversation with a native speaker.

This is not the same as saying we should focus on fluency rather than accuracy. I strongly believe accuracy is paramount to the development of fluency. What I question is the way we’ve been trying to get our students to learn. It seems we’ve been repeating what has been done for the past 20 or 30 years because either because it’s easier to explain logically the steps we’re taking (first we learn this, and then we move to that, once that has been mastered, we’ll then step forward to that other topic on our list) or because this is how some highly motivated individuals have managed to learn. It may even be very logical, but who said that there’s no structure or rationale in conversation-driven lessons? And, as I said previously, there’s a huge gulf between a conversation-driven lesson and a simple conversation. If we consider the way our brains work, conversation-driven lessons might actually be a lot more logical than a structural curriculum.


Do conversation-driven lessons make any sense?

February 2, 2014 10 comments
The age of conversation | Photo on Flickr by Kris Hoet

The age of conversation | Photo on Flickr by Kris Hoet

The short answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’, and I could base my answer on experience – mine and also the one’s from lots of colleagues. However, we should all be wary of such things as “it’s worked with all my groups,” or the converse “it didn’t work with any of my groups.” These comments per se should not be the sole reason for us to jump to a conclusion as we do not really understand what’s happened in each one of these experiences. This leads us to the step of reading and trying to understand a bit more about the things we end up doing as educators. I’ve come across the following passage from Cozolino’s The Social Neuroscience of Education, and I guess this will be a good starting point for us to analyse the success of conversation-driven lessons:

The interactions we have with others directly affect the receptivity of the brain to take in new experiences and learn from them. If we are not receptive, we cannot learn. (Cozolino)

Conversation-driven lessons facilitate bonding

We all like it when we are heard. It is actually of the sentences new teachers are likely to hear a lot in training sessions: you should ask genuine questions and be actually interested in the answer. If we look at a conversation-driven lesson, these genuine questions are likely to be the very trigger we need to teach something we had established as an aim for the day. Not only will your lesson be more meaningful to your learners because they might end up talking about something that came from them, but paying close attention to the opportunities these answers give teachers in class a chance to help students socialise and learn from each other.

The human brain is a social organ of adaptation. By an organ of adaptation, I mean that the brain has evolved to interact with and learn how to navigate its environment. And by a social organ, I mean that humans have evolved to be linked to and to learn from other brains in the context of emotionally significant relationships. Therefore, the brain has evolved to learn within a naturalistic setting in the context of meaningful group and interpersonal relationships. (Cozolino)

This certainly helps me understand the importance of having a real conversation with learners in the classroom and how it helps me build rapport. By being genuinely interested in what my learners have to say, I can come up with questions and comments of my own that might lead towards the learning objectives of the lesson. This certainly helps me with scaffolding, and it builds trust. We need to understand how important trust is if we expect learners to accept what we are telling them as something that is worth their attention and effort. We need to work hard in building rapport and creating relationships. As a matter of fact, one of the most important aspects in the teaching-learning environment, in my opinion, is rapport.

Relationships are our natural habitat. From birth until death, each of us needs others to seek us out, show interest in discovering who we are, and help us to feel safe. We all yearn to be understood, recognized, and appreciated. Regardless of age, it is vital for us to feel a part of, participate in, and contribute to our “tribe.” The inabilities to connect, contribute to others, love, and be loved result in anxiety, depression, and alienation. This is just as true for principals, teachers, and school board members as it is for our students. (Cozolino)

A conversation-driven lesson is not just a conversation

I’ve also constantly heard teachers saying that they enjoy teaching advanced groups because students are able to carry out a conversation. Even though this is true, we need to understand the differences between a conversation-driven lesson and a simple conversation among friends. Students don’t come to lessons because it’s pleasant and just because they like their teacher’s company. This might be one of the results of being able to successfully connect to your learners, but it is not the primary objective of a lesson. Suppose you yourself decide to enrol for a course. What would you like to have achieved at the end of the course?

a) a better understanding of what you applied yourself into learning; or

b) a new friend – your teacher – even though you haven’t really learnt much about the course’s objectives.

The social neuroscience of education

At the end of the day, it is our ability to focus on our aims that count. An aim may or may not be achieved in one lesson or two, but not in the whole course. The fact that students who are already advanced learners of the language are able to hold conversations does not mean that they should be there just to practise what they already know. In any course you take, there should be learning. Perhaps, it is our inability to realise that there is more to learn – even for quite fluent speakers – that blinds us to the problem that the plateau of upper-intermediate learners. This might lead us to yet another conundrum: who should set the final aims of a learning activity?

If someone has decided to enrol for a language course, they do so because they expect to go past their current level of understanding and production. And this is exactly where I take issue with the claim that what matters is your ability to communicate. Learners can communicate at an A2-level in the common European Framework, and they are considered independent user of the language at the B level. Perhaps what we should do more often is asking students exactly what their objectives are and help them visualise what they need to achieve them. This is why I believe we should focus on the words driven and lesson when  we think about conversation-driven lessons.

You can demand high and still build rapport – actually, you should!

If we understand that our role as a teacher is not one of either being too much content-oriented or being too focused on the affective part of learning, we’ll understand that balance between both is not only desirable – it is a requirement. You cannot expect learners to thrive in an environment of competitiveness and stress.

Brains grow best in the context of supportive relationships, low levels of stress, and through the creative use of stories. While teachers may focus on what they are teaching, evolutionary history and current neuroscience suggest that it is who they are and the emotional environment in the classroom they are able to create that are the fundamental regulators of neuroplasticity. Secure relationships not only trigger brain growth, but also serve emotional regulation that enhances learning. […] The activation of both emotional and cognitive circuits allows executive brain systems to coordinate both right and left hemispheres in support of learning, affect regulation, and emotional intelligence. (Cozolino)

It is, then, a matter of finding the right balance between how much you should demand from your learners and how you do it. As Brown argued, the very first feedback we give our learners is the affective feedback. If we send them a negative message, they’ll simply block your cognitive feedback. However, if we do not give them any kind of cognitive feedback, they’ll fail to see that they aren’t really learning what they should be and mistakes will be fossilised.

A conversation-driven lesson might be just the key that is missing if we are to strike this balance. Instead of coming up with a whole bunch of tasks or content-oriented questions, how about developing your ability to actually listening to your learners and mastering the art of adapting your questions or being able to pinpoint elements that will be useful in your lesson’s objectives?


The Social Neuroscience of Education

Principles of Language Learning and Teaching

Eleven – A blog challenge to end 2013

December 28, 2013 3 comments
Eleven on the Sky

Eleven on the Sky (Photo credit: snopek)

There were way too many things that I went through in 2013. These way too many things – not necessarily time issues – have somehow gotten in the way of doing many things I thought I’d be doing throughout the year. Yet, there’s always something that keeps calling you back to the things you like. This time it’s a blog challenge that has drawn me back to the blog, which I’ve kept more active than it seems, but never really managed to get down to writing anything in its entirety. This will hopefully change after a short break in which I’ll try my best to put my head back where it belongs. Before I start, I give you the rules of the challenge:

1. Acknowledge the blogger(s) who’ve tagged you
2. Share 11 random facts about yourself
3. Answer the 11 questions nominating  blogger(s)
4. List 11 bloggers
5. Post 11 questions for the nominated bloggers you’ve chosen and let them know they’ve been tagged. don’t nominate bloggers who nominated you.

I’ve been tagged by Leo Selivan, Juan Uribe, and Roseli Serra. Now, I’ve had the chance to meet Roseli in person this year, and she’s just lovely! By the way, I loved the bolo de rolo, Roseli! I still haven’t had the chance to meet Leo and Juan face to face, but I do believe we’ll manage to do so any time in the future as there are yet many conferences to attend. One of the many benefits of being part of this online community is that there will always be someone you ‘know’ in any conference you decide to attend. Now, to keep it simple, allow me to get down to the challenge.

11 Random Facts About Me

  1. I am upset when people don’t follow simple rules.
  2. I like cooking – but not from a recipe.
  3. My favourite pizza topping is cheese – plain and simple.

    Triple Cheese Pizza.

    Triple Cheese Pizza. (Photo credit: lynac)

  4. My favourite desserts are chocolate mousse and cheesecake. I actually was befuddled the very first time I went to the Cheesecake factory and saw a chocolate mousse cheesecake as I couldn’t believe that was possible.
  5. I have no fashion sense whatsoever. I once wore a bright yellow shirt, red bermudas and blue sneakers to the gym and found myself laughing at how weird I looked when I got a glimpse of myself in the mirror.
  6. I have never lived nor studied abroad. I learned English in Brazil, mostly because I started teaching English. I felt that I had to learn a lot more than I had learnt in my regular English course and ended up continuing my studies by myself.
  7. I once wanted to be a history teacher and I actually started studying history at university. My favourite part of history is the Middle Ages.
  8. I used played RPG and was a storyteller for both GURPS and Vampire: The Masquerade. I actually miss having the time to play RPG.
  9. I enjoy arguing for the sake of the argument. I think it’s a good exercise for your brain.
  10. I’ve used computers from a very early age and I really like technology.
  11. I like learning about many different, unrelated things.


Leo’s questions

1. What is your favourite level to teach?

I like teaching exam classes, mainly for the CAE and the CPE exams. However, I’ve learned to enjoy teaching all levels after a certain while. I guess this happens to all teachers after a certain while, right?!

2. If you had the time to blog about something other than education / ELT what would it be?

I’ve given this a lot of thought and one of the things that I’ve been planning to do is starting a blog about education in general, but written in Portuguese. My other thought is to write about things I witness daily, which would probably lend itself properly to the word BLOG. 🙂

3. What takes you longer: writing a blog post or inserting hyperlinks into it?

I guess it takes me longer to insert the hyperlinks. My reason for blogging is mainly reflecting on what I’ve read, and it’s easy for me to get lost in my thoughts and simply forget to quote where the inspiration for that thought came from, or just adding a link for further reference. It takes me time and discipline to do so.

4. What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

I’m not exactly fond of trying exotic food. However, if you’re not Brazilian, I guess eating chicken hearts may be considered weird for some cultures.

5. A phone call or text message? Why?

Hmmm… I prefer talking to people, but as I’m constantly in the classroom, a text message might make it easier for people to reach me.

6. Cats or dogs? (No need to explain why)

Dogs! I’ve had dogs ever since I was born…

7. If you were a fruit what would you be?

What kind of question is this?! LOL…. well, in Brazil, we do have the fruit women, so this is kind of an awkward question to answer as I can’t think of a fruit without thinking of a funk song in which someone would be singing about me. I like fruit… and my favourite fruit is banana. That doesn’t mean I’d be a banana if I were a fruit, does it?!

8. What kind of jokes do you like?

The silliest the better… or the complete opposite of that. I have a … peculiar sense of humour.

9. What’s your favourite computer font?

Lately, I’ve been particularly keen on using Helvetica. I don’t really know why.

10. What present would you like to receive for your next birthday? (that is if you celebrate birthdays)

This is a tough one for me as I never really know what I’d like to get for my birthday. Perhaps having the chance to meet most of my friends would be the ideal birthday for me. So, how about attending a conference and finally meeting most people from my PLN?

11. Why do you think almost every blogger in this chain challenge has asked a question about reality TV shows?

Oh, that easy! Teachers live a life that could easily be broadcast on live TV as one of the most successful reality TV shows in history. So we all secretly believe we’re TV stars and would like to know if the other blogger follows out TV show.

Juan’s questions

1. What would you do if you were not an educator?

Hmm… I think I’d be an astronomer, an architect or a psychologist.

2. How do you relax?

I like watching sitcoms and playing mind-numbing games.

3. Do you write a diary?


4. What is love?

… and baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more! (Haddaway) It’s a 1993 song track!

5. What book are you reading now?

The Social Neuroscience of Education, by Louis Cozolino.

6. Do you have a pet?

Well, it’s complicated… I haven’t got any living with me, but the three dogs that my mum has are also mine, or at least I like to think so! 🙂

7. Do you collect anything?


Cachaça (Photo credit: Sheep”R”Us)

I used to collect keychains a long time ago. I also have a collection of beer mugs and cachaças, but it’s nothing exactly serious.

8. How do you have fun?

I like going out with my friends and chatting.

9. What can you cook?

I can cook anything that’s in the fridge! And this is literally true. I do like cooking, and I really like experimenting with different food. so I can turn aubergines and zucchinis into something I like. 🙂

10. Do you exercise much?

Well, I haven’t exercised at all these days, but I was once an athlete who practised more than 6 hours a day… One of the things I’d like to change next year is this – having the time and discipline to exercise at least 30 minutes a day.

11.How would you describe me?

Well, you strike me as someone who’s truly passionate about life in general. You also seem to be someone who enjoys a good laugh and also some silly jokes. I think you’re open to new ideas and you like taking place in discussions. Did I get any of these right?!

Roseli’s questions

1. What’s you favourite season ?

I like winter. However, I don’t think that means I like it better than the other seasons.

2. Do you like celebrating your birthday with parties full of people?

Hmmm… I like celebrating my birthday with my friends and people who actually care about me. I think we know a lot of people who are just acquaintances or colleagues but we aren’t particularly close too. As I like talking to people, I’d rather have fewer people in my birthday parties than lots of acquaintances.

3. Do you have any hobbies?

Believe it or not, writing this blog has become a hobby. One to which I hope I’ll have the strength to return to next year.

4. What’s the best place you’ve ever been to?

Gee… I really would like to go back to NY, Washington D.C., and Boston. However, if I think about the best memories I have, these tend to be created mostly by the people I’pm with than the place in itself. For instance, I really love going to Pirenópolis – but that’s where I spent my honeymoon in… 🙂

5. What’s the worst film you’ve ever watched? Why?

Gangs of New York…. I didn’t like the plot, I guess.

6. What city in Brazil would you first like visiting? Why?

Right now, I guess I’d say Recife because there are many people I’ve met online who live there. Besides, the only time I went to Recife I was very little to remember anything.

7. Are you a  good cook? What kind food do you cook best?

My friends usually say I can barbecue like no one else. I guess barbecue it is!

Photo of a Churrasco (brazilian barbecue), as ...

Photo of a Churrasco (brazilian barbecue), as prepared by cariocas. Left to right and down are Fraldinha, Picanha, Coração (chicken heart), lingüiça (sausages), garlic bread, sliced picanha with garlic and chicken legs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8. Do you have a favourite song? Why is it your favourite?

I really like music, so coming up with a favourite song is quite hard. I like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Dire Straits, Metallica, Led Zeppelin… but if I had to choose one song it’s be Mr Jones, by the Counting Crows. I guess it’s a song that makes me happy.

9. What was the best year in your school times? Why?

My senior year in high school was probably the best one. Hmmm… because we won the competition against the other groups?! 🙂 As I’ve studied in the same class from my second grade to my senior year in high school, it’s hard to say which year was the best.

10. What do you consider to be the best thing about being and educator?

In a nutshell, having the chance to help other people in their quest to finding out who they truly are and teaching them about citizenship.

11. If you had three wishes for 2014 what would they be?

Hmmm… I don’t think you’re looking for answers from beauty pageant contests, right?! Let me think about down-to-earth wishes… re-learning how to relax a bit more, finding the balance between work and personal life, and meeting more people from my PLN.

This has been a lot of fun, actually. Hopefully, it’s also been the push I needed to resume blogging… but only after a short while as I’ll be traveling to try to relax a bit after such a tough year. Way too many bloggers have been nominated and this means that it’s actually quite hard to come up with 11 bloggers who haven’t been nominated yet. Maybe I’ll be faster on the next challenge so that this task of nominating others is easier. 🙂

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