The first post of this series has led to a response by Gregory Thompson (whom I also ‘met’ through Twitter on #edchat). I’ve read it and enjoyed all the points he made regarding what I wrote on the first post. I feel like replying to it. I believe the conversation will evolve if I continue with the series as I originally intended to, adding a couple of things his post made me think about.
I finished the post by mentioning rater-reliability. If you remember the scenario that I depicted, you’ll have to bear with me that it’s not possible for anyone to do what is expected of teachers in that condition. It’s not about giving up, or abandoning principles because it’s all a lost battle. Teachers are teachers because they believe they can make a difference. Teachers have been students and know students look up to their teachers. Good teachers know a lot is at stake when they walk into a classroom and this is why they do not give up.
Reliability is how we can assess whether a test is ‘consistent and dependable’ (Brown). Thus, a test is reliable when the results are similar if you give the test on two different occasions to the same student. However, there are some factors that come into play and may affect reliability of a test. In the scenario I mentioned, I believe the most influential factor are the mental and physical conditions of the teacher, i.e. rater-reliability. Ask anyone to read and analyse 50 texts on the same topic and provide feedback for each one of them. This is feasible, OK. However, tell this person that he or she will have 4 hours to do that. Even if the first texts are carefully corrected, some issues, such as fatigue, will heavily influence the results of the tests and the feedback given. When I mentioned I can’t blame teachers who have to assess 800 students for not doing it using an alternative to tests, this is what I meant. It’s not the teacher’s fault, it’s just not possible because of the way these schools, inserted in these educational systems, are organised.
Rater-reliability is not the only issue that may affect the results of a test. Student-related reliability also has to be taken into account, and so does test-administration reliability. However, I guess the second most important reliability issue is test-reliability. Tests which are too long, timed or with ambiguous items are likely to be unreliable. As we’ve discussed on #edchat, and as we can easily see daily, it’s not uncommon for students who know everything they should know to perform poorly on a test. This is why tests must be constantly revised and re-written. It is possible for teachers to design good tests (I’m not talking about assessment just yet) as long as they take enough time to prepare, grade, and then evaluate their own tests and each item individually. It’s hard work, but that is teaching.
Overall, standardised tests tend to score high on practicality and reliability, but they score low on authenticity (remember I’m an English Language teacher when you read the term “authenticity”) and washback. The point is not that we should make sure assessment is not reduced to testing. However, we’ve got to understand the context each one of us is inserted in order to come up with alternatives that truly work. Asking someone who teaches more than 500 students to analyse each student’s progress, provide effective and meaningful feedback and still be able to teach properly is just insane. It’s the same as saying to a CEO of a company that he should have teams as large as 500 people with only one supervisor per team. If you can keep track of 500 people and make sure you’re not lacking in rigour, please let me know how you do it.
Saying that we should change the way we assess our learners is a bit like preaching to the choir. The true challenge is to provide effective alternatives that can be implemented. This means we should understand the context in which we are inserted before we say something is right or wrong. We can’t simply point fingers at people because of their way of doing things until we’ve been in their shoes.
Assessment needs change? Yes. Assessment needs to be seen as not only testing. Assessment is broader than testing. However, teaching is more than assessing. Of all roles teachers play, the role of the assessor is just one of them. If we lose track of what our reality is, we might be tempted to see things from a simplistic point of view. What is true for A may not be true for B, and the only way we can help is by listening and understanding the seriousness of the situation, getting the big picture, prior to making suggestions.
The ultimate purpose of assessment is to enable for ongoing progress. This is the one thing we can’t forget when discussing assessment. And this can be accomplished through both formative and summative assessment. A reflective piece of writing which is marked only with “excellent” or “very good” will be just as useless as a end of unit test that just has an “A” or a “10” on it. It’s not exactly about changing it immediately, but learning how to make use of the tools we have at hand now more effectively. Once this is done, a change will take place smoothly.
Back to you!
I’d been thinking for a while about my first post to the blog. There are so many things to discuss in the field of ELT, and a lot of it is already discussed by many bloggers in a way that I’m not sure I’d be able to do. However, after a very interesting evening with my friends, something in particular caught my attention and I decided to blog about it. The question that this evening’s situation made me wonder about is: how often do teachers really observe their learners and take them and their needs into account when planning their lessons?
I’ve seen many teachers discussing what they did in their classroom, some of them even like to boast about the wonderful activities they came up with and used in their last lesson. More often than not, I’ve seen teachers (not only in my work situation) worrying a lot about what to do in the classroom without really caring about what their learners might really profit from that lesson. And these teachers are more than aware of the fact that learners don’t necessarily learn what you teach. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they just did? But we’ve got to face reality and deal with the fact that our lessons are not always successful. But then, what can we do about it?
I remember that when I started teaching, I’d always follow the coursebook and the teachers’ manual was holy to me. Fortunately (or at least I like to think so), time has changed my perception of what we should do in a classroom. To put it in a nutshell, teachers are in a classroom with learners. Teachers and learners are people. Hence, teachers should be able to develop their people skills if they want to enhance their chances of successfully achieving their goal – that their learners learn. After reading one of Adrian Underhill’s texts from Scott Thornbury’s collection of texts – his old website – I guess I also feel my life as a teacher has had a similar progression.
I’m not here to say that Dogme has changed my life and that I abide by it and believe it’s the one and only solution to teaching. As a matter of fact, if I correctly grasped the principles of Dogme, I’d simply be going against what it really is about. I’m much more in favour of an enlightened approach, or an eclectic approach to teaching and learning, as Brown, Richards and others have put it. In my opinion, we’ve certainly (supposed to have) reached a post-method era. No one method can be considered to be the right method, and the more knowledgeable the teacher, the better he’ll be in terms of deciding what is appropriate to their learners at any given moment.
However, how could we do it if we have everything already figured out before we meet the most important “part” of the lesson – our learners. This in now way means that planning a lesson is a waste of time. Much on the contrary, as I think that by planning a lesson and carefully thinking about each stage of your lesson, the teacher can make informed decisions about what to change during a class. However, we must always bear in mind that our learners are people, and should be treated as such.
What I mean is that it doesn’t really matter if you have planned a fantastic activity if your students are feeling low, or if they are lively engaged in a discussion about something that happened 15 minutes before the lesson started. Teachers have to observe their learners in order to better respond to them. I guess one of the most important things in a class for me is having a good rapport with my learners. This means they can trust me enough so as to let me be part of their world, and tend to respect me and listen to my opinions and, most importantly, listen to my teaching much more willingly.
What has that got to do with what happened to me today? Well, think about your friends. Think about the many moments you have shared together. You may know a person for a long time, but still not be able to predict someone’s reaction to something you may consider insignificant. Why does that happen? We’re dealing with people, that’s why. And we have to respect what they think and believe in. We may even disagree with what our friends think, but we can’t assume they’re 100% wrong and we’re 100% right. We have to learn to see all shades of grey on life.
Coming back to our learners, it’s important to me, as a teacher, to try to understand what my students are possibly going through. I can’t simply expect to teach them unreal past conditionals if they’re much more concerned with a work meeting or a physics test in the next morning. Actually, I always try to listen to what they have to say prior to trying to teach them anything. First of all, there’s a good chance I can actually take advantage of what they are going to tell me to create a link with the topic of the lesson. Second, well, if they’re not ready to learn, I need to try to get them in the mood. I still haven’t been informed of a magic switch to turn on and off a person’s feelings and worries. If anyone has learned how to do so, please let me know.
We sometimes don’t notice that what we do or say may have a negative effect on our learners. Sometimes I’m under the impression that teachers only worry about the cognitive feedback they give their learners, and totally forget about the affective feedback. How can I expect a student to speak or write if he or she doesn’t like my reaction to what is said in the classroom? Whenever I put myself in the shoes of a learner dealing with a teacher who doesn’t think I may react to things differently, I always have the same thought, “if that happened to me, I’d never stay in this classroom”.
As a teacher, I’ve trained myself to use a lot what my learners bring to class. I like working with language that emerges in a class. I like it when we work together to change learning into something that’s meaningful to them even if that means I won’t be able to cover everything I had planned for that lesson. As a matter of fact, I have already changed my lesson plans many times and the results have always been wonderful. I’ve read it from a couple of different sources that sometimes the lessons which do not go according to plan somehow feel like they’re the best lessons we’ve taught. And sometimes, when we do everything we had planned for that lesson, we leave the classroom with the feeling that the lesson could have been better.
The bottom line is, teachers should never forget they’re dealing with a whole human being, not simply a machine who’s attending a lesson to learn a new skill. And if teachers learn how to really listen to their students, they can definitely change their lessons into memorable moments of sharing, growth, and learning.
Reading what I wrote, I believe I digressed a little. However, I really had to vent my feelings about certain things. This is why I decided to post it anyway. It’s only the first post, and I’ll try not to stray from the point as much in the other posts, I swear!
Anyway, how do you feel about the text?