Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

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

May 30, 2011 9 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To answer the last question in Cecília’s post:

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

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

Does Language Emerge?

October 20, 2010 20 comments

English (or any other language people speak) is hopelessly unsuited to serve as our internal medium of computation.

Stephen Pinker – The language instinct

People can be forgiven for overrating language. Words make noise, or sit on a page, for all to hear and see. Thoughts are trapped inside the head of the thinker. To know what someone else is thinking, or to talk to each other about the nature of thinking, we have to use – what else, words!


Does language emerge? And what exactly does that mean? Sugata Mitra defines emergence as the appearance of a property not previously observed as a functional characteristic of the system. Meddings and Thornbury (Teaching Unplugged) define emergence as “the idea that certain systems are more than the sum of their parts and that a small number of rules or laws can generate systems of surprising complexity”. All right, then. Why is it that I am writing about this? Well, Karenne Sylvester has published a blog post asking fellow bloggers to share their views regarding dogme in response to some challenges she is putting forward every Thursday. This is the bit she used as a basis to encourage us all to post an answer:

If learners are supplied with optimal conditions for language use,  and are motivated to take advantage of these opportunities, their inherent learning capacities will be activated, and language – rather than being acquired – will emerge.

I guess the more meaningful teachers make language use, the easier it will be for learners to recall it. Successful, long-lasting learning is meaningful and personal. Needless to say, I do believe that people learn in different ways – one man’s meat is another man’s poison. However, I must say I really like the sentence that Karenne wrote on her blog post, which was taken from Teaching Unplugged. I’ll even go further and say that I agree with it.


By Cliff


It’s not an easy thing for teachers to provide learners with the optimal conditions for learning – I guess it’s even difficult for anyone to define what these optimal conditions are. We may, however, give it a try. When I think of optimal conditions for language use, I think of any kind of setting that poises no threat to the learner or language user. This may come from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – basic needs, etc. But this might be too abstract for some. How about going for the affective aspect of learning?

If our learners are put in a situation in which they feel they may speak freely without the fear of being misunderstood, and if they feel the classroom is a safe environment for them to make mistakes, this classroom might be considered, as much as possible, a place that offers optimal conditions for language use. Learners have got to pass the affective feedback in order to receive cognitive feedback, as Brown has illustrated quite well.

If learners feel they’re in a place where risks can be taken, well, it’s only fair that they feel a tad more confident and motivated to speak. This motivation to utter anything, however, depends a lot on the value of the learning activity that’s going to be carried out by the teachers. At this moment, it’s paramount that the teacher knows the group he or she is teaching. It’s only by knowing your audience that you can cater for them successfully. Fortunately, there’s one thing pretty much all human beings enjoy doing – engaging in conversation. Granted, not all of them like talking about the same things, but if you find out what ticks them, they’ll become chatterboxes.

We use language to hold conversations. We only speak because we want to have a conversation, regardless of the final purpose of such a conversation might be – finding out something about the person you’re talking to, persuading your interlocutor, apologising, making excuses, learning something, etc. If there’s no need to have a conversation, we pretty much eliminate the need for language, don’t we? Well, if this is so, we’ve got to learn how to say what we want to say in a way that our interlocutor understands, and we usually “learn” first what is meaningful to us. How many teenage girls have already learned how to say, “I love you” in at least nine different languages at a certain time in their lives? Why do they do so? Because it’s meaningful for them at that specific moment.

If teachers go out with their adult learners to have a class outside the boundaries of the classroom, it is amazing how much language learners remember from such an activity. I have already witnessed that. And I would say that, in that particular moment, they were experiencing optimal conditions for language use in a meaningful setting that motivated them to talk to one another using a language they were all still learning.

I have one more anecdote to share before I finish this. This happened to my dad when he was travelling in Europe, more specifically in Germany. He had never studied German, but he could speak lots of different languages: Russian, Romenian, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, French, English, and Portuguese. When they got to Germany, a local spoke to them in German, to which he promptly answered in German. He was stratled by his reply, as he never knew he could speak German – but there it was.

Is this a fact of language emerging? Or is it just the complicated intricacies of our language generating machine that we still don’t know much about at work? Language emerges in a way that we witness a learner who’s never studied conditionals, for instance, being able to utter a correct sentence using such structure. How did it happen? He’s probably been exposed to it before, or maybe his brain simply tried out a certain structure based on previous knowledge. The fact is that there was the need for a certain sentence, and the brain simply took care of it.

Language can be taught, it can be learned, consciousness awareness is also an important aspect to be taken into account, but language also emerges. Learners will go beyond the bits and pieces that they’ve been taught and will be able to come up with something original as long as we teach them it’s OK to try. It is language interaction that fosters language learning, not exposure alone. And interaction asks for originality, it asks for more than what was taught. It asks for a certain drive to speak and manipulate the language, which subsequently emerges naturally.

Will I ever change my mind? Oh, probably! Perhaps even after some persuasive comments to this post, but so far this is what I believe in.


More posts in response to this question:

Young learners

May 20, 2010 16 comments

Just the other day, a post from Views From the White Board caught my eye. In her post, Teresa was questioning the validity of exams for young learners. I am aware that many people from the blogosphere teach young learners, so I decided to write this post to ask for some help to answer some questions I’ve always had regarding young learners (YL).

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about YL is whether we’re talking about English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign Language (EFL). If we consider the former, it does make all sense in the world to teach YL. When it comes to the latter, not so much, at least for me. Briefly speaking, in an ESL context, the child is surrounded by English speakers 24/7 (maybe not at home) and all people this child runs into are potential ‘teachers’. There’s also the survival motive (“Eu quero água” is unlikely to be understood, for instance, which forces the child to remember the “I want water” equivalent) and this means the child has got to learn the language in order to, well, survive. In an EFL environment, there’s no survival motive, and the child is only required to productively use the target language for about 2 hours a week. Is this enough? And even then, if the child resorts to his or her native language, the teacher and his or her classmates are likely not only to understand, but also to respond positively to it.

I’ve heard some people comparing the minds of children to sponges… funny, though, as it is as easy for sponges to absorb water as it is for them to have this water squeezed out. I mean, there are so many things going on around an infant, so many different learning opportunities, that they’re likely to forget most of what they learnt in a 1 hour class compared to what they learn on the other 15 hours of the day they are awake, times 7 days a week. Oh, and don’t forget most English classes for children usually last between 2 to 3 hours a week.

I’ve read some research, and there are also some thoughts in Brown’s “Principles of Language Learning and Teaching” and Ur’s “A Course in Language Teaching” that corroborate the view that children aren’t the best foreign language learners. As a matter of fact, it seems that adolescents are the best language learners, and even adults might learn better than children as they’re aware of their learning strategies – the only area that children outperform them being pronunciation.

But then comes (OK, came… last year) a neuro-surgeon on Brazilian TV saying that the brain of a 5 year-old child is ready to learn a foreign language. It may even be ready, I won’t argue with that. However, how much of what is done in English classes for YL in a foreign environment isn’t simply a reproduction of what is done in an ESL environment? This question is also extended to all sorts of language classes. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other, in my humble opinion.

Other questions that spring to mind are: how long does a child who starts studying English in a foreign country take to be able to reach C1 level according to the CEF (Common European Framework of Reference for languages)? Is it really that much sooner than someone who starts at the age of 11? Is it really cost effective for parents to pay for 5 years of a language course to gain 1 semester (if so) by the time of graduation? How can we adapt what’s best from ESL classes for YL to suit EFL classes? Are we even ready to do so? How do you cope with abstract concepts when the child isn’t cognitively prepared to understand such concepts?

As a final thought, I have to say I’m in favour of teaching a foreign language to YL if parents speak that foreign language and interact with the child using that language. And the reason I stressed ‘interact’ is just because I don’t believe mere exposure is a sufficient condition for language learning – first, second, third or whatever language. I’m also not thinking about the exceptions, but about the vast majority. I’ve seen one or two children who developed incredibly fast, but I’m thinking about the other 10 or 20 thousand children who didn’t.

I’d love to hear your say and get some answers to my questions.

Teens and tech

May 9, 2010 14 comments

It’s always inspiring and motivating to read what others have been doing with technology in their classes. It seems that the  so -called ‘digital natives’ are ready and willing to go after every single opportunity they might have to use the computer and web 2.0 to boost their learning. Most of the work that’s shared online is so good that they make my jaw drop. Students can pick and choose the tools to use and, most likely, teens are the ones who teach teachers about the tools – after all, this is their expertise. They’ve been born with a keyboard and a mouse in their hands (when will they come with touchscreen-designed fingers, I wonder?) and they spend all their time in front of the computer. This is all inspiring as I’ve been using a computer since I was 6, but it turns out to be a bit frustrating for me, I’ve got to say.

I’ve been teaching pre-teens and teens almost exclusively for the past 4 years. They range from 10 to 19 years old mainly, and the vast majority of them have more than 1 computer at home. I always start the semester by asking them to share a bit about themselves. I like listening to them and this is what will help me cater for their needs and try to make sure I can put together lessons that will be meaningful to them. Pretty much all of them tell me that they usually spend all their free time online. “Great!” I used to think to myself, but lately this hasn’t been the case. Even though they spend pretty much all of their free time online, all they do is chat with their friends on MSN and use Orkut, which is the largest social network in Brazil. Apart from that, most of them have never heard of other online tools. And this is not what I think, it is what they tell me.

Of course they all use the web to do research for school, but as long as teachers fail to adapt to the shift from encyclopaedias to the web, most students will not go beyond a quick (and very simple) Google search and “the best” invention of all: Ctrl + C and Ctrl + V. In the past students at least had to go through the trouble of copying word for word what they read. Nowadays, I’ve found myself reading compositions in which not even the hyperlinks had been removed – a clear sign to me that the person who wrote and printed out the page hadn’t even read the whole text. I still don’t get why this tech generation still insists on printing out their papers instead of using emails, wikis, blogs, Google Docs and what have you.

But wait, perhaps I do get it. The answer is fairly straightforward when I question them. “I don’t know how to use that,” is a common answer, “I have never heard of that,” is also often said, but my favourite is, “What???” Most of my 11 – 15 students dislike the idea of submitting their work online. Even after I encourage them to do so, and tell them explicitly that I’d rather receive their compositions and papers online, and give them options to choose how they’d like to do it, most still write their work by hand. I’ve already spent time with them inside and outside class talking about such tools, demonstrating their usefulness, and showing examples of successful work online. I’ve already shared with them all my enthusiasm for all that I see online – all that kids all over the world have been doing, and still, nada! Even though I won’t give up on that, I won’t give up on my beliefs as well – it’s much more important for a teacher to listen to his or her learners and adapt to suit their needs than to ask them to adapt to your likes and dislikes. Therefore, I feel it’s important to give them options, but not to push them too hard. My job is to teach them English and to educate global citizens, and tech is most definitely not the only one solution to that.

I’ve recently started a project with volunteering students on a wiki – none knew how to use it and only 1 out of 17 could relate the word to wikipedia, and, oh, none knew what a wiki was. I’m looking forward to the results of this project. However, even though they’re learning their way around a wiki, I don’t think they’ll use such tool out of free will. They use it because we chose it as the media for our project – but many would rather write something on a piece of paper and rip off the page to give to the teacher. Mind you, they’re having lots of fun with the project, but I still hold none (or very few) will make use of wikis in the future by their own accord. I truly hope I’m wrong on this one.

I’ve always been very skeptical of the idea of ‘digital natives’, ‘digital immigrants’ and etc. When I mention this to my students, they themselves laugh at this idea and most say their parents know a lot more about computers than they do. Perhaps it just happens here, but to be honest, I don’t think so (am I that unfortunate?). The games they play may change, but not the fact that they’re looking for games, fun, and talking to their friends – and we, teachers, have to struggle hard to engage and motivate them to shift that energy to learning.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic as I’m planning to write some more about it. 🙂

Teaching for the test – based on a true story

March 28, 2010 12 comments

There is a school in Brasília that seems to be interested in approaching learning from a more ‘humanistic’ and ‘holistic’ perspective than what the current Brazilian educational system forces other schools to do so. They are concerned about arts, sports, music and creative thinking (as far as I’m concerned) than the other 99% of schools are. It’s almost as if Sir Ken Robinson’s idea of how schools should be like had come to life.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all schools could actually teach for life instead of teach for the test? I mean, it seems to me that it’s common knowledge among most educators that standardized tests don’t deliver what they claim to deliver – if you do well on the test, it means you have learned the subject. (You can read a lot of great posts on that here and here, to cite just a few people who will lead you to many others)

And my answer to that question is, yes, it would be wonderful. But I recently heard a story from a student from the school I mentioned in the first paragraph above. She had been studying in that school for quite a while and was really happy with her routine. It all changed on her second to last year of high school. As kids grow older, so do their social circles (hopefully), and no longer did this particular student live with people from her school circle. To make matters worse, she had already learned of the standardised test all Brazilian learners are submitted to and which defines whether you’re going to college or not.


Read the whole comic - it's much better explained there

Reality hit hard on this student when she had a chance to compare her “knowledge” on physics, for instance, against her friends’ who were also going to compete against her for a place at university. It suddenly hit her that, if she was to succeed, she’d have to change schools and go where they actually abide by the system – they teach for the test. And so she did. Needless to say, she’s feeling miserable, but one’s got to do what one’s got to do, right?

The aim of this story is to pose a question: how can teachers be responsible for changing the system when there are no teachers in charge of thinking education? I mean, even though we may want to change the way our students learn and value their personal characteristics, we seem to be in a catch-22 situation. What I mean is, education is, ultimately, between the teacher and the learner. However, these two elements are under pressure from many different angles: schools policies, state regulations, ministry of education, and society as a whole. If teachers start this change, students will fail the big test they are forced to take in order to have better chances in life. If teachers choose not to do anything to change this situation, they’ll end up frustrated as they know what they’re doing doesn’t really help much in real life.

I’m of the opinion that we should re-think schools, and education in general. But when we’re in such a sad situation as this, I think the easy way out is a top-down change. If the ministry of education don’t change the rules for university entrance, parents will insist on enrolling their kids on schools which are well-known for their high “pass” percentages. If schools and their teachers fight the system, no matters what parents say, they’ll end up with no students – all parents want to give their kids a good chance to succeed, and if by that they need to go to a good university, they’ll take their kids to the schools that’ll better prepare their kids to get to such universities.

The situation is even worse when you learn that state schools are left to their own devices by the government and no matter how hard principals and teachers try, they can only do as much. Besides, if the salary is significantly less than what private schools pay, there isn’t much to keep good teachers in state schools.

To sum it up, it seems that our little friend will have to put up with the fact that, in order to go to university, she’ll have to be taught for the test – reality check. It doesn’t seem to matter that the kind of education she was getting before was preparing her better for life. In order to be able to “get a life”, she needs to pass the test.

How would we solve this if change doesn’t come from the top? I mean, teachers can and should do their share – pressure the government for change. But if things remain the same, the good teachers, the ones who care about teaching for life, will actually be putting their kids at a disadvantageous position. And this will be true as long as the yardstick we measure our kids against is a test.

* I first learned about Sir Ken Robinson’s video here – another nice blog!
* Read the complete comic strip here. A lot of fun stuff for those who like reading about grad school.

Speaking activity – Debating about the environment

January 27, 2010 4 comments

(Note: before you start reading the post, I think it’s important to tell you that one of the videos I used in the activity does contain some ‘inappropriate’ language to some audiences, and I recommend you use it only with adults. If you feel your learners shouldn’t be exposed to this kind of language, you may either choose a different video, use only the first video and adapt the activity, or simply dismiss the activity out of hand.)

I’ve been giving a lot of thought about what to write as the 20th post. Truth be told, I came to the conclusion that even though it might mean something to me as a personal achievement (I didn’t think I’d come this far and actually miss posting here), it’s likely to come across as yet another post that people may or may not enjoy. As I’m somehow involved with the teacher training programme and recruitment process at the moment, I’ve been sort of away, but something came to mind while listening to the radio and I decided to post an activity here so that not only can I share it with you, but I can also come back to it and remember it later – even though there (still) are no handouts or anything like that to go with it. It’s basically a lesson on the environment with two videos for students to take notes while watching, and sides in a discussion. I’d use it with upper-intermediate or advanced learners (B2+ according to CEF). Here it goes:

1. Start the class by asking them what they know about COPE 15, the Kyoto protocol and how they feel about all the heated discussion on climate change currently on display. Help them with vocabulary they might not be familiar with but focus on what they produce instead of telling them what you want them to learn – you may always contribute a word or two at a later stage.

2. Tell them they’re going to watch two videos which have opposing views on the matter, and they’re supposed to take notes while they watch the videos. The first video is a bit long (about 21 minutes), so it’d be nice if you stopped after every segment to ask some comprehension questions and let them share their notes. The second video lasts about 8 minutes, but as it’s a stand up comedy show by George Carlin, it’d also be nice if you stopped once or twice to let them share their notes. It’d also be a good idea to pre-teach any difficult vocabulary.

(N.B.: depending on the cultural background of your students, or their sense of humour, the second video might be offensive. It is also important to know that George Carlin does make use of some swear words in his speech. However, who’s better to judge how our students are going to respond to something than the teacher himself? Use it at your own discretion.)

3. Put students in two groups and tell them they’re going to take sides – one group believes there is a serious threat to the environment while the other believes this is just propaganda. Allow them a couple of minutes with their groups to organise their ideas.

4. Pair them up, with one student from each group and tell them they are to try to persuade the other person of what they believe in. Before they start discussing, it’s a nice idea to recycle with them some language for agreeing, disagreeing, expressing their opinions, giving examples and explaining.

Here are the two videos:

Video 1 – The story of stuff

Video 2 – George Carlin on Global Warming

If you liked it, go ahead and use it! If you didn’t like it, sorry for wasting your time reading the activity. If you have any contribution, please share! 🙂

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