December 14, 2004

More problems, or questions about classroom dynamics

Here's another scenario: to change the pace, and help motivate students by providing role models (English-speaking Japanese natives who are not working in education), my colleague and I have invited a small number of speakers from outside the university. None of them (so far) are professional speakers, just interesting people who happen to speak English.

The latest one gave a talk that was more successful than most. She was young (and pretty) and spoke about hardships and her experiences travelling and trying to learn English. She also asked several questions to her audience and instead of accepting the usual silence, she picked people out individually and urged them to respond (nice trick). There were fewer people sleeping in this lecture, fewer people talking amongst themselves and ignoring the speaker than before, which was a good sign. One of the questions she asked was, 'do you have a dream? What is it?' (OK, that's 2 questions, so sue me).

Nevertheless, I was surprised to see a) the inertia she had to fight against, as in when she asked questions and no-one responded; and b)the large number of people who seemed to have no dreams or ambitions of any kind.

OK, perhaps they were just being "shy". But who can tell? Maybe the real reason why so many of them said they had no goal or dream was because.... they don't have a goal or dream!

This event gave me food for thought: a) what if this were true? What if there are, in fact, as we have long suspected in fact, a large number of students who seem to have simply ended up here by accident? Who have no particular desire to be here at university and no particular interest in English, indeed no particular desire of any kind! How depressing! but it certainly would explain their behaviour in class and their sluggish "cold oil on a freezing morning" inertia and apparent apathy.

b) if this is true, and if the psychologists are right that action and thought are based on emotion, then these students are not ready to learn anything: they have other, more pressing, issues that need to be dealt with, like self-confidence, setting goals, a sense of achievement, self-esteem, etc.

c) if b) is true, then gimmicks like making English "fun" may not have any real or long-lasting effect. Perhaps these students need stimulation, something that relates to their lives. And English won't cut it, because it doesn't relate closely enough, and they have neither the imagination nor the experience to see how it might or does relate to them.

Maybe these students need psycho-therapy! Can "English class" provide them with what they need? What DO they need, anyway?

This speaker and our previous one both pointed out how learning to USE English is a different kind of learning from school-learning, from studying (that's my word, not theirs). Both pointed out how you start (or need to start) from curiosity, the desire to know something: 'what does that word mean that I keep hearing in this song? What did that English-speaking foreigner say? I couldn't recognize the word.' It doesn't matter what it is, what matters is that it is something YOU want to find out.

That's all for now: I have to go to my psychiatry class.

Problems with "real learning"

OK, here's the scene, picture it to yourself: the instructor has decided to try and spice things up a little by introducing some choices to students. Perhaps they can choose an activity, or choose between 2 or more texts or materials. The rationale for this is that somehow this helps "bring students on board" by making them part of decisions that affect them; it helps alleviate alienation or disenfranchisement. You get the idea. To make sure they understand, the instructor has prepared a simple verbal explanation (in the students' native language of course! No way they're going to understand this in ENGLISH, ha-ha, even though they are majoring in English), AND a typed handout. What thoughtfulness!
Problem: students are asleep. They're not listening when the instructor explains the choices. They're not reading the handout where this is explained, either. They are out to lunch. The instructor DOESN'T HAVE THEIR ATTENTION!

Back to the drawing board, Einstein.

December 02, 2004

Real learning, not just autonomy

I think what I'm aiming for, my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, is genuine learning, rather than "autonomy". Trying to teach autonomy has made me question my aims, think about what students are really doing in class, and helped to make me more aware of "the central place of the learner in the learning process", as Holec put it.

This has opened a Pandora's box of different issues: leaving students to their own devices, giving them choices and letting them take responsibility for them, brings up the issue of motivation, because once the teacher stops telling students what to do and directing their actions in the classroom, students tend to flounder. So what is the motivating force? Curiosity? Interest? A desire to learn? If students have these, then they can start to become autonomous.

But if they don't? If their motivation is simply to pass the course, get the credits? Then, once the teacher stops telling them what to do and leaves them free to choose, they are in a quandary: how to pass the course while doing the minimum work? It's far easier if the teacher does not try and foster real learning, but just sets hoops for students to jump through: "Do the activity on page 38. Memorize this dialogue and act it out. Learn these vocab items for a test next week." etc, etc.

But when the teacher says, "Here are some materials. You can choose what you do, and work at your own pace," the hoop-jumpers are in trouble; they flounder. They sit at their desks, slumped over, eyes wandering; they look around, play with their cell phones, perhaps do homework for another teacher's class, chat with friends, look over a newspaper or magazine. Waiting. Waiting to be told what to do.

The ones that want to learn soon pick up the reins: they call me over, ask me questions like how to pronounce a word, how a word is used, or ask me to explain in more detail what the options are - can they do this? What about that?

In one class, which has a majority of real learners, I've been able to go around and talk to the "slumpers", the "waiters", the "tell-me-what-to-do" crowd. I ask them questions about their interests, their part-time jobs, and from what they tell me I suggest topics they can write about or talk about. For the most part this has worked.

In another class, which has only a small number of real learners and a majority of hoop-jumpers, I feel I've run into the sand. I gave them the same amount of choices and freedoms, but it didn't work. Too much freedom? Too soon?

I'm reminded of A.S.Neill's Summerhill school: Neill got a lot of delinquents; classes were of the regular kind, but none were compulsory; all students got counselling by Neill, himself a qualified psychologist. I feel like some of my students have been so "schooled" that they've had their curiosity and desire to learn kicked out of them. They need freedom to run around and do what they want for a while. They're not ready for real learning.

Or do I give up, and just make those hoops for them to jump through? Is worksheet wonderland the answer? "OK, do 50 of these and you pass."

November 28, 2004

Classroom Dynamics

At JALT 2004 I attended the Learning Development Forum, and spent most of the time talking to Yoko Morimoto of Meiji University who had done some research into group dynamics. I didn't understand a lot of what she said but it sounded interesting. A couple of days later, Dornyei and Murphey's book "Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom" arrived in my mailbox. Very interesting and timely. Here's a quote from the chapter on the Teacher as Group Leader: the authors briefly describe Lewin's outline of 3 distinctive leadership style - autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire.
Nevertheless, Shaw's (1981) claim that it is much easier to be a good autocratic leader than to be a good democratic leader is noteworthy.

I also briefly attended Curtis Kelly's presentation on "a specialized pedagogy for adults" called andragogy. I immediately recognized many of the concepts, and it seems there is a lot of overlap with autonomy in language learning. The idea was first developed by Malcolm Knowles in the 1970s.

More updates to my booklist

Updated.
This is basically my shopping list.

November 23, 2004

JALT 2004

It was fun experiencing a JALT national conference from the side of the organizers. Not that I did any organizing, just helping out on 2 of the 3 days.

Subversive literature list

Just updated my list of books on autonomy and generally subversive pedagogy

On the hop Posted by Hello

International Food Fair Posted by Hello

Sunset, Friday night Posted by Hello

Former JALT Prez Alan Mackenzie and Tim Murphey. Posted by Hello

Multi-talented Keith Adams Posted by Hello

Band #1 Posted by Hello

Band #2, keeping the cafetaria rockin till closin time. Posted by Hello

The winner! Posted by Hello

And the winner of the trip for 2 to Hawaii is.... Posted by Hello

Rodney Dunham, liaison between JALT and hosting institution Tezukayama University, taking a well-earned break with friends. Posted by Hello

Volunteers from Osaka Shoin Women's university, with Mika-san who supervised them. Posted by Hello

Two volunteers from Tezukayama Uni Posted by Hello

Saturday Sponsored party Posted by Hello

November 15, 2004


The video corner  this is obviously set up for a "teacher" to use to "teach" a "class" who are all lined up facing the teacher and the blackboard: the power-center of the room.Posted by Hello

Major problem

Continuation of a previous post.

I asked a quiet studious student (who always used the SRA reading cards) if the music bothered her. She didn't understand what I said (I spoke in English; I figured, well, this IS an English class). She got out her pocket electronic dictionary and waited for me to repeat it. The problem was "bother". She typed in "boarder". "No, bo, bo, short sound". She tried again "board". It took a couple of minutes before she hit on "bo". "Good, now, bother, th, the, the, the. How do you write that sound?" Again, more puzzlement. "Z? D?" Even tho I said no, she still insisted on these two sounds. This was what she was hearing. I pointed to my mouth and made sure she was watching my face when I spoke. Still the penny did not drop. Was it possible she just didn't know? At length, getting bored, I pointed to a big "the" written in the text of the SRA card she was using. "Aha!" OK. She typed the word correctly, read its meaning, and, finally, some 5 minutes after I'd asked the question, gave me her answer: "No."

Maybe we need to go back to phonics?

This player can play MP3 CDs Posted by Hello

November 14, 2004


The video materials. The red file contains worksheets for all the videos. Making the videos and the worksheets takes time, more time than we can afford during term-time. Posted by Hello

The video corner. The video player is below the counter in an AV "rack". This is kept locked and the key is stored in the office. Only teachers have access to the keys. The whole setup, of course, makes many assumptions about the who controls access to the materials in an "ordinary" class, who controls the pace (who holds the remote?) etc.  Posted by Hello

Using the SRA reading cards. This is from kit 2a (a very old version that is no longer supported). Posted by Hello

Signing in (with refreshment) Posted by Hello

The Crazy 8 card game. Posted by Hello

Looking for a suitable song from the alphabetical title list. Posted by Hello

All the songs are on 10-minute cassettes and on 4 MDs Posted by Hello

The audio section: 2 casstte/CD/MD players, each connected to a headphone amp with 6 jacks. Two files with longs listed alphabetically by title and worksheets for each song. Posted by Hello

Some pix

Blogger now allows users to add photos. I'm going to try this.

More notes on November 12th autonomy class

A continuation of the previous post.

One of our purposes in this class (indeed, in all our classes) is to make learning fun, to create an atmosphere that will remind students that learning can be fun, and that fun is an important part of learning. So many Japanese classes (and I've observed quite a few at my children's various schools) are unbelievably boring. It's as if Japanese teachers (ALL of them!) believed solely in the transmission model of teaching/learning, and have never heard of (let alone studied) HOW to teach: the focus is entirely on the tranmission of information; just open up those craniums and pour the knowledge in. Simple! What is there to learn about teaching?! Just teach! In particular, it seems to me, that many teachers do not distinguish between language-teaching and the teaching of other subjects: English is taught as knowledge/information, not as a skill. Not only that, but there seems to be no debate about the matter! The result is incredibly boring classes, all taught the same way.

My colleague are I see our job as partly to break this habit of thinking, namely that learning English is boring and difficult and involves 100% studying (which is boring and difficult!). Many of our students tell us this: English is difficult; learning English is difficult, learning English means studying it (it is only recently that my colleague and I have been pointing out that there is a difference between the studying and learning).

This class is a second-year class (and above); it is not open to freshmen. As my colleague and I have both taught freshmen classes for the last 3 years, and between us have covered all the sections, and as this class is now a compulsory class for sophomores, between us we know all the students in our classes.

Amongst this year's cohort of 2nd-years, there is a small number of "difficult" students, students who seemed particularly unsuited to university, and that was clear from last year. There is 1 boy, for instance, who never comes to class on time and who never brings anything with him: no paper, pencil, textbook, dictionary; nothing. He has to borrow everything, which a) annoys the teacher, b) gives him a chance to chat and fool around with classmates, and c) gives him plenty of opportunities for creative manipulation of the truth, all 3 of which he excels at. Another boy was part of a group of 3 who, when they heard in the first class of last year that my time-limit for full attendance was 20 minutes after the start of class (later than that and they are marked as "late" and 2 "lates" = 1 absence), hung around outside the classroom until 19 minutes were up, then loudly all came in together. This boy, unlike his two mates, seemed genuinely interested in English and was actually quite good (relatively speaking); he likes English pop songs and can sing quite a few, and would do so, usually under his breath whenever I approached him, trying to get my attention. In my class last year, this group of 3 did their best to fail the class, but I made them work and they passed (just). I genuinely like all 3 of them, they have interesting, creative personalities and are not afraid of being different. In this year's class we have 2 of the three (the third is in another colleague's class who is not part of the autonomy experiment), and they show up irregularly. My colleague has spent some time talking to this boy, trying to make a connection with him and stimulate his interest in learning generally and in English in particular, trying to cure him of his disaffection.

One of our requirements (and this needs review) is to write a short report about what they do in each class, why they did it, and what they got out of it. Last week, this boy had some questions about the report: he wasn't clear what he was supposed to write (we provide a bilingual form). After listening to my explanation he sighed and said "English is difficult". He had written his answers in English, and told me how hard he found it just to put together an English sentence. I forgot to mention to him that, as the evaluation of the material and his self-reflection sections were the two most difficult ones, writing them in Japanese was acceptable.

A rather different kind of student caught my attention today: a quiet girl who always works alone and always uses the SRA kit. In order to create a relaxed atmosphere, I play background music, usually something British, either pop or classical. Today I was playing Paul Gilbert (also here; and here's how he learns Japanese). And I asked her if the music bothered her. Major problem.

November 13, 2004

The autonomy class

This class has 34 students signed up. Today 26 signed in, tho when I did a head count, only 12 were actually in my room (some were nextdoor in my colleague's classroom). Where were the others? Some borrowed a video and went somewhere to watch it, but that still leaves a few unaccounted for. Should we be concerned about these? Should we know where they are?

Several students (7 altogether) were preparing for an English vocabulary test the next period. I spent some time with some of them, asking them questions about the test, how they are tested, etc: do you need to know how these words are pronounced? Do you need to know how to write them or just recognize them? Do you need to recognize and understand these words when you hear them? Do you need to know how to use these words in a sentence?

I'm not sure how I feel about these students working on another teacher's materials; I tell myself that they are studying English, so.... Would it be possible, or even worthwhile, to find out if they would LIKE to study in this way, even if they didn't have a test next period. Does this signify some students might prefer to be given vocabulary items to learn and then tested on them later?

There is one group of students who usually hang out together: about 7-8 girls, who revolve around one who acts as the leader. She is competent and confident in speaking English, and I've nicknamed her "the sensei". Today she organized her group and they decided to use flashcards (I don't know how they came to this decision: it would be interesting and useful to find out) for about the first 40 minutes of the class. They then tried a board game that my colleague has made. Usually my colleague explains how to play this game orally (his explanation is done orally, not the game, well the game includes a lot of speaking, too), but as students in this class are working individually or in small groups, he prepared a page of instructions in English.

Just before class began, I was talking to my colleague about the fact that some of the materials we provide for the students are obviously language-learning materials (like the SRA reading lab); others are less obviously language-learning materials - they are more like prompts or stimuli - like the reproductions of graphic art, or the Crazy 8 card game. Do they require explanations? A written manual? How about an explanation on audio? Or a video? Perhaps a video made by students themselves? One of the reasons we are thinking about such questions is that we are thinking of going shopping for more materials and equipment, including materials and equipment to MAKE more materials for this class. With all this in mind, when class began and the young lady I dub "the sensei" came in (right on time, as always), I asked her opinion about this. True to Japanese form, she gave a "no comment" comment ("dou deshou ne!"), but I'm hoping I'll get a response at some future time.

Would having instructions be helpful? And what KIND of instructions, seeing as one of the factors we are taking into consideration is learning style and intelligence (as in Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory, see here, here, here and here)? I think both my colleague and I would prefer to let students "play" with the materials and come up with their own ways of using them; we feel that part of their lack of motivation/interest is a general lack of motivation/interest in studying/learning generally (not just in English), and we also feel that one of the reasons for that might well be the years of information-transfer teaching that they've received since childhood. While we may feel we are just being "helpful" and giving them a helping hand, we might come across (to some of the students at least, especially the more disaffected ones) as "oh, here it comes again - the teacher telling me what to do".

I spent the whole class walking around asking people what they were doing, or just observing. I took some pictures too. Two girls were using the crazy 8 card game. I watched for a while. They soon figured out the game is like one called Uno, which a lot of Japanese know. They were laying down the cards slowly, reading the name on each and figuring out what it meant or what the Japanese name was. Later, I saw that they had listed words that they had learned and added the Japanese translation. As Japanese students think that "learning a word" means simply knowing its Japanese translation, I asked the girls to say some of the words, and was pleasantly surprised to see that they had either figured out or looked up the pronunciation.

Two boys were preparing for a (different) teacher's vocab test. I asked them which teacher, and what kind of test it was (what do you need to be able to do?). I was unable to resist playing "teacher" and pointing out that knowing a word doesn't have to mean just knowing its Japanese translation. I got a glazed look for my trouble. That'll teach me!

Four boys were listening to songs on the MD player. They said the 2 MD/cassette players were usually very popular, but today the boys had come early and as there was no-one using them yet, they took the opportunity. One of them is a rugby player who recently had an operation on his shoulder and is still undergoing physical therapy.

A few more boys were wandering rather listlessly around looking for something to do, or something interesting. They were looking at the picture books Come Look With Me also here, and I Spy, also here. I was interested to see what they would do with them. I talked to them about how they might use the pictures, but a few moments later I saw the boys had gone.

There was also a group of students who were sitting chatting. Some of them had some SRA reading cards. One was asleep. One was playing with her mobile phone. Two were writing something. I went over to see. The girl playing with her phone suddenly stopped, looked at me, then glanced at her neighbour. They all looked at me with a deer-in-the-headlights look. The SRA reading lab box has color-coded, numbered reading cards which include a text and some comprehension questions; it also includes answer cards for the questions. Three of the kids had cards with the answer cards, and were clearly busy just copying the answers. Another was doing the same thing with a song.

Well, at least today I managed to get around and talk to almost all of the students who were in the classroom. And I felt that was a step forward!

November 02, 2004

Learning histories in an adult autonomous group

I recently was invited to a meeting of an autonomous English-learning group in my neighbourhood. The members are all middle-aged women who for various reasons are interested in English, and don't want to pay the fees of a language school. The founder also said another reason was that, while many language schools employ native English-speakers as teachers, the "teachers" are sometimes just people who happen to speak English fluently, and are not necessarily intellectually stimulating or knowledgeable. I introduced myself as someone interested in autonomous language-learning, and asked them to introduce themselves and briefly say why or how they became interested in learning English. Here's a summary of the notes I took.
The first lady said she had been interested in English since Junior high school, though she could not say exactly why. She enjoys trying to think in English, rather than thinking in Japanese and then translating into English.
The second said she learned English in rebellion against her parents who wanted her to go to pharmaceutical college! The harder her parents tried to get her to improve her grades in maths and sciences, the harder she studied English!
The third said she had a wonderful JHS English teacher who not only taught English but also the culture behind the language, and she found that fascinating. She now teaches JHS students at her home, and also tries to instil in them an interest in more than just knowledge to pass exams.
The fourth said her children were studying for the STEP (Eiken) test and she decided to take it as well in order to help them, or to at least know what they were going through. Now her children have grown up but she maintained her interest in English, and now is trying to understand English news programs on TV.
The fifth said she was interested in English in high school, but failed to enter the English Department of the Foreign Languages University she had hoped for, so she entered the Russian Department instead! She had thought that she would have some time (and some classes) to study English, but unfortunately she did not. However, she did not give up, and went back to learning English after graduating from university. She now teaches English in a kindergarten.
A sixth said she had loved English in JHS but got a rude shock in SHS: everything was so much harder and less interesting. She has never been abroad, yet has taught herself to speak quite fluently. She learns English mainly for fun, to meet people from other countries, and as a preventative measure against senile dementia (this last was said half in jest, but I've heard it said many times, and I think it's become a kind of urban legend).
Another lady was impressed by an interpreter she saw on TV when she was about 10 years old. The (female) interpreter was translating for a visiting sports star (I think), and the girl was amazed to see how this woman understood the strange sounds coming out from the foreigner's mouth and turned them all into perfectly understandable Japanese! She was also inspired by a JHS English teacher who lived nearby.
The last story was of a woman who hated English in JHS and SHS, and did not study it at university. It was not until she married, and her husband was posted to England and took his wife with him (their two children were born in the UK) that she had any interest in English, and at first it was only out of necessity. However, she discovered that learning, and trying to speak it, was fun! And she has continued to learn it since her return 4 years ago. She now is aiming to get a qualification as a tour guide.

Trying autonomy in a class with a textbook

Here are some notes I took of one of my classes from a couple of weeks ago. This class is called Oral Communication for freshmen. The class is divided into 2 groups according to their results on an English test, the G-TELP. The top third are streamed into a separate class. I have not tried much autonomy with the "lower" group. Here's what I tried in the other class. (This class came before this one).

Q1: What did we do last week?
A1: Some role-play (actually we what DiPietro called Strategic Interaction).
Q2: Does anyone have any (new) role-play suggestions?
A2: Yes! Guest who has booked a room shows up the hotel only to be told that they no reservation was made.
The previous class, we had done the role-play as 2 teams. Each team chose a "player" to do the talking; the player could call time-out any time for consultation with their team. This time, as an experiment, I made them do it in pairs. This is how they usually work with the textbook, so they are used to it. After a few pairs had "finished" I had them change partners and do the same role-play, with a new partner.
After a few changes (most pairs seemed to either "solve" the problem or run out of steam pretty soon), I suggested a different situation, and again had them do it several times, changing partners each time.
I then distributed a list of 25 different situations, and asked them (still in their pairs) to choose 6. I noted down their selections, then had them choose 1 from the 6 they chose and do it.
When they were done, we came back into 1 big circle and discussed it. How was it? Which was better, the "team" version or working in pairs? Some said the team was better (the team role-play seemed to grab their interest more, and it went on for a lot longer than the pair ones). One girl suggested it wasn't so much a question of "team" or "pairs" as that of the situation of the role-play. The "team" role-play situation had been a "tough" one, whereas the ones we'd done in pairs were easy, or less confrontational.
The discussion petered out, and rather than push it, I took the reins again and said I'd brought some movies (actually, I'd brought them at the request of the previous class). They didn't know the movies.
Do you want to choose one from the cover of the DVD, or watch the first 5 minutes of each? They chose one from the cover. Actually, there were 2 opinions: some wanted 1 movie, but the student with the strongest personality (who also happens to be the ablest in English) adamantly refused, so we chose another one.
Do you want subtitles? Yes! English or Japanese? English! They watched attentively, but for the most part in silence, the first 20 minutes of the movie ("About a Boy"), when class ended. I wasn't sure what the silence meant: did they not find the comedy funny? Did they not understand it? Were they awake?? Or perhaps it was because the movie wasn't really their choice?

November 01, 2004

Reflections on a class observation

Last Tuesday I had the chance to observe a class. Not an autonomy class, but it gave me plenty of food for thought, like why and how I implement autonomy. The teacher of that class has students keep diaries in which they record what they did each class and their comments. Some students wrote that they wanted to speak to me, or hear me talk about my native country, or teach them something, and the teacher forwarded their comments. I wrote him a reply:

"It might be interesting to find out (e.g. the one that wanted to hear about England), why didn't they ask me? As I'm sure you know, in Japan/Japanese, such a question is usually a rebuke in disguise, so they may not realize you are ACTUALLY EXPECTING AN ANSWER!! We might learn something about some of the "representations" (as Holec calls them) that get in the way of these students being autonomous.

I don't share your somewhat gloomy expectations of your students' abilities, either in English or in autonomy, and I felt there is a lot of potential for autonomy in that class, and many things you could easily do (without requiring a new room or major equipment). Someone once wrote that they would like to see less theory and more practical suggestions or descriptions of autonomy. As someone once said "there is nothing so practical as a good theory".

1) Autonomy is the ability to self-direct one's own learning. Holec talked about mental representations, concepts, habits, that get in the way of this ability, and which need to be addressed and if possible replaced with more accurate and useful ones. This applies to teachers as well, of course. One big one is that it's the teacher's job to make all the choices. What other representations do you and your students have that might be getting in the way of developing autonomy?

2) Autonomy is not just freedom of choice, but REASONED choice. The aim is for learners to be making choices and to be able to say WHY they are making these choices. In other words, they need to develop criteria for setting objectives, selecting materials and methods. For instance, if learners don't know the difference between "studying" English and "learning to use" English, how are they to choose between a reading text and a listening exercise? Can they even recognize that one of them IS a listening exercise? Do they know what the PURPOSE of a listening exercise is? Do they realize WHY listening exercises are provided? Do they know what listening IS? (What IS "listening"?) (Hint: it's not translation!) (Left to their own devices, most Japanese students will revert to translating everything in sight. Don't take my word for it, try it!)

3) Learners need a little bit of the expert knowledge of the teacher; those bits of knowledge about language and about language learning that the teacher uses when making decisions and choices about texts, activities, learning objectives. If the teacher makes all the choices, obviously learners don't need to know this, but if the aim is to help learners make the choices.... And without this information, learners will not be able to make decisions; they won't be able to self-direct. My colleague and I have seen this with our "autonomy class" students: many of them gravitate to the reading cards, probably because that is closest to what they have habitually done. I'm sure that they would translate these if comprehension questions were not provided. So, what kind of knowledge and information do YOU use, that the learners might need in order to become more autonomous?"

October 31, 2004

A blog reader responds

This reader (yes! people do read this blog! And I don't know why they don't use the comment option!) attended the presentation mentioned here. The presenter had told about his technique for combating student passivity, reliance on the teacher, and reluctance to speak out or really use the language: it was a card with some of the main strategies (or behaviours) that he wanted them to exhibit, listed. Each time they showed one of these behaviours, they got a point, which was marked on the card.

So the reason why I didn't like the point-awarding card activity was because it merely serves as an extrinsic motivator. It rewards 'good' behavior and in the long run does not help them become responsible for their own learning and treats the students like children (though I am against using extrinstic rewards with kids as well). Maybe this type of activity can help the students get used to speaking English with their teacher and peers and build speaking confidence but it does very little to encourage internal motivation. If anything, it has an adverse effect on motivation and learning.

Read your latest blog. Question: When the students are answering 'yes'
is this a consensus? and how is it reached? Did they all want to watch the movie? No dissenters?

Giving the students some choices allows them a sense of responsibility for their own learning which in turn should lead them to more choices and put the responsibility more squarely on their shoulders. But what if they don't want this responsibility? It's easy to dictate and follow; difficult to be free and responsible. With more freedom comes more responsibility...or anarchy. Is this getting political?


And this was my reply:
Re your question "When the students are answering 'yes'
is this a consensus? and how is it reached? Did they all want to watch the movie? No dissenters?"

Of course this is not true autonomy, because the group dynamics come into play: the stronger personalities will win out and the others will yield to them for the sake of "wa". This is a very tightly-knit group and it's hard to break them up: they gang up on me! I figured asking them questions was just better than me making all the decisions. Also, asking them questions helps (I think, I hope) develop their criteria for making choices. Asking questions alone won't do it, of course, but it's a step: let's say, instead of me deciding when enough repetition (drilling) of the dialogue is enough, how about asking them? "Is that enough repetition? Or are you hungry for more?" They have to refer to something inside themselves in order to answer (at least, the ones that answer first), even if it's only "Am I bored of this already?" Anyway, it's a step on the road. Or am I deluding myself here? Maybe this is a distraction?
Also, I think this is a way of "teaching" autonomy in a class/group setting, when you don't have a bunch of options for them to work with. To be doing autonomy "properly" I would have needed to have options available for those who did not want to watch the movie (e.g. a number of portable DVD players so they could watch other movies, and other materials for those who did not want to watch ANY movie, etc., etc.)

You asked: "But what if they don't want this responsibility? It's easy to dictate and follow; difficult to be free and responsible. With more freedom comes more responsibility...or anarchy. Is this getting political?"

I hope so! "What if they don't want this responsibility?" That's a big one. My response is, if they don't want it, am I willing to go back to the teacher-led class? Technically I could, it's easy to do, right? But I've grown so much through trying to teach autonomy that I don't think I would accept this.

And why wouldn't they want it? Surely because they're still brainwashed? I really think you struck gold when you mentioned your daughter's decreased curiosity/initiative due to schooling. (The daughter loves to read in English, but does not exhibit the same enthusiasm for reading in Japanese; when her mother asked, why not? the daughter answered that the schoolteachers were always pushing them to read books and use the library, and that seemed to take all the fun out of it!).
A reason they may not want the responsibility is because they're not really interested in learning much: "just jolly us along, give us something anodyne, not too hard, not too complex, not too boring, some easy hoops to jump thru so we can get the credits and graduate." You've seen the Emperor has no clothes, but the crowd want you to play long, keep it under your hat, pretend you don't know. Are you OK with that?

I mentioned John Holt, and how he eventually gave up on school: real learning cannot happen in school. It wasn't till on the journey home that I realized what I'd said: what if that were true for learning English at Japanese universities, too? What if the class and credit systems (grades, etc) are insuperable obstacles to real learning taking place? I was talking about John Holt and the Summerhill school with my colleague the other day. Many years ago I told him an anecdote from Holt: it made a deep impression on him: it's the story of when Holt brought a pair of scales into school one day, left them at the back of the classroom before school then went off to get ready, drink coffee, check his mail, etc. When he came back, the kids were playing with the scales and many had figured out how it worked, i.e. figured out the "maths" of this instrument. This gave him a lot of food for thought: here the kids had learnt something without being taught! Was there a lesson there for him? He figured there was!

In 4 corners, I think what I'm aiming for is something like "the scales at the back of the room": some interesting materials that intrinsically contain English, which invite students to "play" with them, and in the playing they will pick up some English and something about how English works. I guess what I'm talking about is, I'm searching for real learning! The materials exist (videos, music CDs, maybe even some board games in English, computer software, the Internet).

But then I had to face the question: how would I grade kids, then?

To tell or to ask?

My colleague with whom I teach an autonomy class, recently expressed his concern that students were not making as much use of the different materials available as he would have liked: they seemed unimaginative. That was his analysis, and so his solution was to "teach" them different ways in which they might use the SAME material, e.g. a short video clip. I was half-convinced, but a part of me thought the analysis wasn't complete. There might be other reasons why they don't show much "imagination" in their use of materials, reasons that might have nothing to do with imagination but more to do with motivation, with their ideas of what "learning" is, with their particular objectives (get thru the class with the mimimum of hassle and yet still get the credits, for example), but I wasn't able to identify them at the time, and I was swayed by the reasoning that exposing students to different activities, or ways of using a particular medium, was important training, training that would help give them ideas about how they could learn. After all, this is one of my objectives in the freshmen classes I have.
[Does it make a difference if one calls them "students" or "learners"? Does it make a difference to the way I think about these people in the classroom?]
So my colleague prepared a video clip from "Titanic". I still would not agree to just "teaching" them: I thought that was against the principles of autonomy that we subscribe to. So I suggested that, instead of us demonstrating different ways of using this video, or instead of having them work through different activities based on the video, we could show them the video clip and have them brainstorm different ways it might be used. As clues, we put a box of possible reasons at the bottom of the handout: for listening, for pronunciation practice, for reading, for vocabulary, etc. We also intended to give a short talk at the beginning about the difference between studying English and learning to use English. For this purpose my colleague brought a tennis racket, and proceeded to demonstrate "studying" the tennis racket, and then using it. We then showed the video clip, with the sound off, then let them fill out the handout with 10 different ways of using it, while he and I wandered around asking questions and making comments.
A couple of students simply copied "for reading, for listening" etc, 1 onto each line, and within a minute or so had "finished" the activity. On seeing this, my colleague was moved to say a few words.
More effective, though, was us walking around and asking questions: HOW would you use the video for pronunciation practice? This seemed a difficult question, so I simplified it by asking, "OK, you put the video into the cassette deck, push "PLAY"... and... ?" My colleague had thought this whole thing would take 10 minutes. We were still at it 75 minutes later! We weren't able to talk to all the students: a few (right at the front!) were sprawled across their desks, fast asleep. We let these dogs lie. However, the conversations we had were quite productive. It was clear to me that it was only by sitting down and talking things through with them individually or in small groups that we were able to get them to understand what we were driving at.
Whether this will have any effect remains to be seen. Watch this space.

October 30, 2004

Does autonomy look like this?

To be autonomous, Holec says, students need not only the ability of autonomy, but also an opportunity and/or environment to direct their own learning. In the absence of self-access materials, what can a teacher do? Well, here's what I tried today: offer choices, and ask questions. Is this "teaching autonomy"?
First I asked students what they wanted to do: they said "role-play" as that was the last thing we did last class, and their homework assignment was to think of a new role-play situation. The one they came up with was: husband returns from business trip unexpectedly early and finds wife in a compromising position. Take it from there! OK.
Q2: Do you want to work on this in pairs (like we did last time), or as two teams?
A2: Teams!
Q3: Do you want preparation time?
A3: Yes!
Q4: Who's the first player for each team?
Q5 (much later): Are you done?
A5: Yes!
Q6: Now what? We can do
Q7: another role play?
A7: No!
Q8: Use the textbook?
A8: No!
Q9: Watch a movie?
A9: Yes!
Q10: OK, I've brought the movie we watched a bit of last time (About a Boy). Do you want to watch the movie, or read some of the transcript?
A10: Read the transcript!
So, we read thru a couple of pages of the transcript, of the part of the movie that just follows where we left off last time. (The transcript, published by Screenplay, includes a Japanese translation with explanatory lexical notes). We then watch that part. I stop the movie at the end of the transcript, and ask
Q11: Do you want to watch more?
A11: No!
Q12: Do you want to use the textbook? Watch another movie? (Pregnant silence). Go home?
A12: Yes! (It was 10 minutes early).
Q13: OK, but first let's decide what we're going to do next time.
A13: Watch the Llama movie! (The Emperor's New Groove)
Q14: Do you want a transcript? Actually I don't have one, but there are the English subtitles. I.... could make a.... fill-in-the-blanks exercise, tho it would be a REAL bother....
A14: Yes! Fill-in-the-blanks!

October 23, 2004

Follow-up to "students study but don't learn English"

Here is a response to my earlier post:
> 1) Take no responsibility for their own learning
- Expect to "be taught" by sitting in a room with a native speaker teacher - in the same way they expect to get a sun tan by lying in the sun. Don't realize that only THEY can learn - teacher can't make them (only help them). Dick Allright, my former MA tutor wrote the following rhetorical question as the title of an article a few years ago: "Why don't students learn what teachers teach?"

> 2) Don't use TL for communication
> 3) Use Japanese for all "real" communication.
- Thanks to the bad example of many (not all) Japanese teachers of English. Tim Murphy, when he was at Nanzan Uni, got his trainee teachers to experiment with using more English in their classrooms. They wrote largely positive reports about the results and Tim published them as a booklet call "The Medium is the Message" In other words, you have to teach by example, not by telling students one thing and contradicting yourself by your actions.

> 4) Don't ask questions, you'll look like a fool or a show-off
- And don't answer questions voluntarily for the same reason

> 5) Study English as knowledge for exam.
... instead of trying to develop skills for self-expression / communication
- Are afraid to make mistakes - instead of accepting them as a natural part of learning (if there are no mistakes, it's too easy - they already know it), and trying to devise strategies for eradicating them

- Waste time & effort and subject themselves to unnecessary mental stress by comparing themselves with others / decrying the "poor English"
, instead of just focusing on improving on their own (previous) performance. Should "think positive - not negative". Should realize that stress (trying too hard, feeling self-conscious, trying to be hinders or learning. Relaxing (without nodding off!) aids learning. [I didn't mention this one but should have].

- Don't realize that they can learn a lot from each other - sometimes a more effective strategy than learning from the teacher. Again, Tim Murphy recommends the use of "near peer role modeling" The teacher isn't a good role model - especially if a gaijin - because (s)he is like a god in terms of English proficiency compared with students, but other students who are learning successfully demonstrate that learning this confounded language is really possible.

- Don't realize that learning through communicating in English - using a few standard phrases habitually time and again every lesson (see the short list on the card (English for classroom communication) is a brilliant way to combine use (real communication) with study or practice
(asking about the language, practising it). They need never waste time in silence during a lesson, because they don't know what to say / how to say it / don't understand what someone said. All they have to do is say they don't know / don't understand and then ask a question. But they're trained not to take this elementary step.

I couldn't agree more with your comments below. My favourite explanation of the ridiculous mismatch between university "teaching" content and stuent capability is to allow the prof to preen and show off his superior "knowledge" - useless though it may be....

I think (never done any research to prove it though) I spend about half my time working on this knotty problem - trying to break down the counter-productive sub-culture. I also teach a couple of seminars where this is the main focus of the course (how to learn - or teach - a FL). The biggest difficulty is that one's colleagues tend to persist in reinforcing the very habits one is trying to break. So unless one can get through to a significant number of them and make them allies, most of the students will never be able to break free - though some do each year. Fortunately I do have some open-minded colleagues who themselves are interested in fostering educational reform, so I haven't allowed myself to get discouraged so far.

Maybe we can start lobbying group for this?

October 22, 2004

Friday Oct 15th

Down with the flu at the moment, I have some time to update this blog.

First period. The 1 truly "autonomous" class I have, with autonomy as a stated goal from the beginning of the course. A colleague and I developed this class together, and we each teach a section of it, at the same time, next door to each other. Students sign in in the classroom of the teacher they're signed up with (up to 9.30, after that the sign-up sheets are removed), but after that are free to go to either room, or even to another part of the university. We have many different materials available: about 15 videos with worksheets (mostly authentic materials); English songs on cassettes and MDs and 2 players, each with a headphone amp with 5 headphones each, and worksheets for each song; a file of role-plays and short skits for acting out; an SRA reading lab with reading cards and answer cards; a couple of packs of flash-cards; a "crazy eights" card game; some simplified readers (a sample of the 100 or so we have in the library); some picture books, some with simple questions; and a real live native speaker to have conversations with!
Students are required to keep a record of what they do each week, filling out a simple form (this has been revised for the second semester), including the title, type of material, how they used it and a comment on its usefulness as a language-learning tool.
In today's class, I decided my job would be to go around and talk to students about what they were doing and why. At the end of the first semester, I attended a 5-day seminar on autonomy led by Henri Holec, and came back with lots of ideas. In particular, I realized that we had done pretty much what Holec had done initially: opened up the materials to the students and say "go to it!". However, autonomy had not happened: students did not know how to choose, and so chose purely on whims, whatever looked more interesting (packaging), or whatever seemed easiest and meant the least work. Holec pointed out that autonomy does not mean "freedom of choice" in the sense that students can do whatever they like, but rather reasoned choice, in that they should be able to give a reason for what they are doing. Being able to give a reason shows that they have understood something about their own objectives and what they need to reach their goal.
Borrowing from Richard Smith's experiences in Tokyo Gaidai, I decided to be more "interventionist" this semester.
However, I did not get very far with this! I soon discovered that students were not able (or willing) to say why they had chosen particular materials. Some said, because they had not used this particular material before, or because they just wanted to do something different from last week. Some were quite unable to give any reason at all. One young man was obviously irritated by my questions: why all these questions? he muttered under his breath? Leave us alone to get on with it!
I therefore reduced my questions and just observed what groups were doing. One group was using the Crazy Eights card game, but not as a game, but as flashcards: 1 girl would pick up a card and the others would read the word on it (it's a children's version of crazy eights with colours and categories such as sports, vehicles, insects, animals, etc). Sometimes they did not know what the word meant, or how to pronounce it properly. Then they asked me.
Another group used flashcards. One girl held the card up to the group and the others had to guess the sentence that is written on the back by looking at the picture. Some of them were easy, but some were more problematic. I pointed out that within the pack there were several categories, such as "adjectives". In any case, they seemed content merely with single-word answers, rather than sentence-level answers. Also, they assumed that the "aim" was to say the sentence on the back of the card. It did not occur to them to use the picture as a prompt for, say, conversation, or discussion. The aim is to get the "right" answer. Once you've "got" the answer, you're done! Another example of the "studying, not learning English" syndrome, I think.
One group are doing a reading card together. This is the first time I've seen this. This group is always together, and they are a pretty highly motivated group. They had chosen the same reading card and were each answering it individually. I heard no discussions at all.
One group of 4 boys was listening to a song, and checking the answers. They spent a long time listening to one song over and over, and even asked me to listen to one bit where they thought the answer sheet was not correct (they were right, which delighted them!). I asked them if they would listen to the same song again next week, or at some future date, and see if they could "listen" better? Would that be useful? They seemed to think so, but maybe they were just being polite?

Japanese students study English; they don't learn it

Last Sunday, I attended a presentation in which the speaker pointed out, Japanese students study English, but don't learn it.
I listed the bad habits I could remember:
1) Take no responsibility for their own learning
2) Don't use TL for communication
3) Use Japanese for all "real" communication.
4) Don't ask questions, you'll look like a fool or a show-off
5) Study English as knowledge for exam.

I asked a class recently to list all the "ingredients" they think they need in order to learn English. "Study" was one, and I was able to get on my hobby-horse about that! "Teacher" was another and it got quite interesting when I asked WHY you need a teacher? "To teach". "What is 'to teach'?" "Oshieru". "And what does that mean?" "To teach". After going around that merry-go-round for a while, I eventually suggested what I thought he (they) meant: to teach means to explain. The student who had proposed "teacher" seemed to agree that that's what it meant.

Of course, this makes sense: if English is always a difficult subject then the teacher will always be needed to "explain": like the priest who must act as (self-appointed) intermediary between God and human beings. My son, now first-year of senior high school, showed me his English textbook: full of complex sentences that even HE has trouble with, like this one: "Will it cause a big change in our understanding of human history, or will it be nothing but "smoke"?" which they must translate into Japanese. There are teachers who choose deliberately difficult texts at university (for instance) because they want to challenge the students intellectually (they say); another reason might simply be this habit of teaching/learning; a further (more cynical) reason might be to justify their position as "sensei". University entrance exams are another example, I think, of this mentality: the entrance exams usually include texts which are far too difficult for the students. No matter. While no-one has ever given me a clear answer as to why, I sense that part of it is the validity, the "look" of the exam: it has to look hard, difficult. If it were easy (i.e. using texts of a level of difficulty commensurate with the language ability of the students taking it) people would look badly on the school: "is that the level of the English professors at that school? Don't think much of that!"

What I'm working on now is challenging and changing this habit of study which is "hard" and which necessitates an intermediary expert. At the same time I want to stop them handing over responsibility for their learning to me. Simply pointing out the study/learn disctinction will help, but they'll still be left with their 6-year-long habit of handing over all responsibility for their learning to the expert. What I'm doing now is exposing students to English using different texts and media of a level of difficult that is well below the entrance exams and more like what they can handle with little or no help, then giving them different activities to do with these materials, followed by a "self-reflection" report in which they include "what did I learn?" I don't explain things (unless asked) nor do I set comprehension questions. Another thing I do is ask students what they want to do, but most of them are unable to answer this question yet, for a number of reasons. Eventually, I would like to be simply the provider of (or pointer to) sources of English (EFL or authentic), and let students get on with interacting with it.

October 15, 2004

Today's classes

This morning I hung back from trying to negotiate with students: I just went in and told them what to do. Why? Low energy this morning (a bad night's sleep). Why does it take more energy to do something different?

In the first class, I had students write down as many words/phrases as they could remember. But what I really wanted them to do, was think about how they could remember words or things they had learned; is it useful to be forced to recall them? Would it be more effective if they did this themselves? Or cooperated with a partner? These are some of the kinds of cognitive tools I think would be useful for them, tools they need in order to take charge of their own learning. These are the kinds of things that normally they don't have to think about because the teacher does it for them.

It is partly a problem of language: they cannot understand what I mean if I just explain the above in English, and I did not have the Japanese ready.

In Tuesday's class, I had given them a number of conversations about Japan (copied from a textbook that is now completely out of date and out of print, but which I have found quite useful over the 20 years or so since I first came across it (tho there is an updated version now available): 新・文化比較の英会話
I gave them a choice about which conversation they used for learning English. I then asked them to create a kind of quiz or game using the English in this conversation. (We had previously created some vocab cards using blank business card sheets and pictures of vegetables; they then used these cards to play a game like the Japanese "karuta"). They had not been able to do this, because they did not understand what I meant by a "quiz" or "activity" (at least, that was my explanation of their blank-faced looks and lack of movement). So I had given them 2 suggestions: cut out the lines of the dialogue, shuffle them up and give them to the group next door to re-arrange/re-create the conversation. Another suggestion was to cut some words out, then give the cloze to the group next door, or to cut all the words out and have another group re-construct the dialogue.

This time I had them use the conversations in a different, more obvious way: say it with a partner, memorize it, then record yourselves saying the conversation. (Unfortunately, my Walkman MD recorder ran out of batteries about 2 seconds into the first pair's performance!). Instead of recording them, I just went to them and listened to them saying it. Several groups asked why I wasn't recording them. Did I notice some disappointment? One of the reasons for having them record themselves was to introduce the possibility of using a recording of yourself as a way or step towards evaluating your speaking ability. However, I was unable to present that possibility, or that question, to them today.

I then suggested they make some changes to the conversation they had just performed: change the names and places to personalize it.

Another activity we did was to brainstorm Japanese autumn dishes, then (making use of the vegetable vocab cards we'd made the previous class) to list their ingredients. They then used the cards in pairs, each taking it in turns to pick up a card and ask their partner a question using the vegetable on the card. As they had seemed stumped by the vagueness of "make a question USING the vegetable on the card", I had elicited some staple sentences and written them on the board, e.g.: "What dish can you make with/using ....?"

Finally, I had asked them to make a record for today, by listing what activities they had with what materials, and to include a comment about the usefulness of what they had done, seen in the light of their goal of improving their ability to speak in English about things Japanese.

I also set them a homework question: "What do you need to learn English?" As they wrote this down on their record sheets, I did not collect the record sheets, so have not yet read their comments.

Until now the quality of the comments/self-reflections, call them what I will, have been pretty useless: "I want to be able to speak better in English", that kind of thing. I think it is partly the way I ask the question, or my explanation of what "self-reflection" can include. I translated "self-reflection" as "hansei" in Japanese, and I noticed that what I get are a lot of pretty negative, or rather self-deprecatory or even self-flagellative, comments! Is this what is expected from a Japanese "hansei"? Like the self-reflections that were "expected" from people in China during the Cultural Revolution?

It was only this afternoon that I finally got the kinds of self-reflections I have been looking for, and the reason for that was that I finally took the time and trouble to be a great deal more explicit about what I was looking for:
"I want you to think about the activities you are doing", I said (in Japanese). "I have introduced you, in these classes, to different kinds of activities and different materials. We have used the video/movie (Chicken Run) in a number of ways: watching only; watching and making notes on the story; summarising the story in English; reading the transcript; matching the lines to the characters that say them; transcribing the Japanese subtitles (not translating); repeating the lines after the DVD and recording our repetitions onto a tape; listening to that tape. In the light of your goal, of your English learning, what do you think of these various activities? How useful (or not useful) are they? Which ones do you like?"

After a class in which we had done most of the above (this week I had given them a 1-page transcription of about 10 lines from the Chicken Run movie which we are watching, with a blank column on the left where they are to write in the name of the character that says those lines, and a blank line underneath each line of dialogue where they transcribe the Japanese subtitles; I had also had them listen, read and repeat each line of dialogue, recording their voices onto tape, then listening to themselves), I asked them to email me their "self-reflections". I have read them, and will translate a few here later.

October 13, 2004

Tuesday's classes

So, with all that reading, how's it actually going in class? One conclusion I've come to is that a negotiated syllabus, or perhaps more inclusively, a participatory approach (see Adult Esl/Literacy from the Community to the Community: A Guidebook for Participatory Literacy Training), is vital when it comes to trying to develop or support autonomy in Japan. This is the same conclusion reached by Richard Smith (see Learner Autonomy Across Cultures)

A participatory approach is proving more difficult than I thought. First, it involves changing my 20 years of teaching habits: faced with a classroom full of quiet students who don't want to speak up, and who ask nothing better than to be told what to do, it's easier to make them jump through hoops rather than face the silence. I once observed a Japanese colleague's class (he's a teacher of education, not English): the thing that struck me the most in his class was that he was prepared to wait. He told me he's prepared to wait several months if necessary, in order for them to make up their minds and say something, contribute to the class.

Another difficulty is mechanical or procedural: how to invite students' participation? Especially when they're not used to being asked? In the one "autonomy" class I have, I noticed students coming in, and asking, "What are we doing today, sensei?" It should be ME asking THEM! So in another class later that day, when I was feeling particularly tired, I started the class by asking them, what shall we do? Students slowly began making various suggestions, none of them to do with English. Eventually I got impatient and returned to the textbook we usually use. The following week, I asked the same class the same question, but this time added the condition that it must have something to do with English. One girl suggested "playing house" in English, but seemed to get no support from her classmates, so she abandoned it. Again, as there seemed to be no other suggestions, I played "teacher" and made one: strategic interaction, a role-play with conflict. They went at it like hammer and tongs, like a competition! There were 8 students. They made 2 groups, and each group chose 1 "player" to play the role. I set the rules: each player could call "time out" at any time to get help from their team, or even to change players. They kept at it long after I'd lost interest and was wishing they'd just call a truce, make a compromise! They kept at it for an hour.

September 24, 2004

Autonomy, critical pedagogy, collaborative development and more

I'm now reading in a number of different fields: autonomy and language-learning, critical pedagogy, participatory approach, collaborative development. There are a number of common elements in these different fields. One of them is the importance of dialogue. A vital element in autonomy training is self-evaluation/assessment and self-reflection, i.e. having students think about what they are doing, as without this they are unable to make future decisions about what to do, which materials to use or how to use them. The teacher's role is to act more like a counsellor, asking questions rather than telling, and helping students get clearer about their aims and purposes.

Dialogue is also important for teachers. Tim Murphey in the AYA book suggests that teachers who regularly discuss matters of education, teaching, learning, SLA, etc., with colleagues, including questioning their own motives and beliefs, tend to provide a higher quality of teaching for their students.

Critical pedagogy involves being willing to question sacred cows and absolute givens. The critical attitude is difficult to maintain alone, and seems to be helped by dialogue with others. The same seems to be true of collaborative development, which involves consciously creating dialogue and agreeing to a certain strategy which seems to be very similar to that of the counsellor as mentioned above. (CD then could be a good way to help develop teachers' listening and counselling skills for autonomy training).

In MI, Tom Hoerr, principal of an MI school, stresses the vital importance of collegiality. Without it, he says, attempts to introduce MI in a school are more or less doomed to failure.

Collegiality, which I think is another way of describing the kind of dialogue between teachers I mentioned above, perhaps a synonym for collaborative development, is also stressed in a plenary speech given by Mary Rane at Dublin's IATEFL Dublin conference in 2000 on the topic of curriculum change or development. Rane sees curriculum development as being impossible without pretty intense discussions and dialogues between colleagues on basic matters such as educational philosophy or vision. She insists teachers have to make an effort to enter into such discussions, even with colleagues they do not personally like or get on with, if meaningful curriculum change is to occur.

There is a section in the Chaos Theory book that my colleague quotes in a forthcoming paper(Briggs & Peat 1999: 74 ff), which deals with group discussions and the work of committees. This is the link I was talking about between Chaos Theory and what my colleague and I are up to. I see all these elements as being interconnected: the discussions that my colleague and I have about teaching, learning, autonomy, critical pedagogy, etc, and the actual class that we collaborate on; our attempts to introduce curriculum change in our department; collegiality and collaborative development (or lack of it) in our department. I think that it is not a coincidence that we are trying to introduce autonomy in our classes and that we have an ongoing dialogue about autonomy, teaching, learning, etc. It is also no coincidence that our dialogues involve a questioning of sacred cows; it is important that we do so because autonomy (at least the most interesting version of autonomy, the "radical" one) requires this from our students. Not much chance of us getting them to do this, if we're not doing it already, eh?

September 23, 2004

Participatory approaches in ESL

I happened on an interesting article on the web while searching for references to Auerbach, an author referred to frequently by Alastair Pennycook, for instance: "The students were given semiscripted dialgoues into which they were supposed to interject different details. The topic was calling plumbers and electricians to get things fixed. Again, nice contextual work, but I would have liked them to be more conflictual. When I call a plumber, they don't say, "Yes certainly, I'll be there at 6.00."....So they need tougher dialogues. A number of people have developed materials based on a more difficult world than the insipid vision of collaborative ESL texts (see Auerbach and Wallerstein, 1987; Goldstein, 1994)." ( Critical Moments in a TESOL praxicum p 339, in Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Norton & Toohey, CUP, 2004) (more info here )

A Google search brought up this: Transforming the Cultural Studies Curriculum in Partnership with Students, by Cheiron McMahill.
This was very interesting, but left me thirsty for more details on HOW: what procedures did McMahill use, how to introduce the topics, the approach, etc., etc. So I looked up some of McMahill's references, beginning with Auerbach because the TESOL Quarterly is in the uni library.

One of the Auerbach references is to Putting the P back into Participatory in TESOL Quarterly, 27, 543-548. In it I found this: "On the one hand it is heartening to see that participatory approaches are coming to be accepted as cutting edge rather than fringe views and that the field may even be on the verge of a paradigm shift. On the other hand, I am uncomfortable when the term participatory is used loosely to describe any approach that claims to involve learners in the shaping of curriculum goals or classroom processes. Often, the terms participatory and learner-centered are equated despite the fact that they have potentially different ideological implications, the former focusing on social transformation and the latter on self-realization. Although participatory pedagogy is rooted in a social change perspective, its inherently political nature is often obsured. As Edelsky (1991) says, "Buzzwords and movements not only can promote change; they can prevent it" (p. 161); my fear is that this may be the fate of participatory ESL."

This is an interesting forerunner to Edith Esch's comment (previously referred to); although she is writing about autonomy, the sentiment is the same: "Over the past thirty years, the radicalism of the concept of learner autonomy as promoted by Bertrand Schwartz, Yves Chalon and Henri Holec (1981, 1988), seems to have been gradually emptied of its substance. Practitioners appear to be unable to avoid the 'fossilization' (Little, 1991: p.1) of the concept in attempting to implement it in insitutional contexts. The debate about the aims of developing learner autonomy has been forgotten, to give way to shorter-term targets, and problems of management and the implementation of organizational principles, like self-access and other techniques, have been brought to the fore instead....Meanwhile, the concept of learner training, which has been closely associated with learner autonomy (Holec, 1980; Ellis and Sinclair, 1989; Dickinson, 1992) seems to have been merged into that of study skills." (Learner Training for autonomous language learning in Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning, Benson & Voller, Longman 1997).

Leaving aside for the moment the question of why it's important to hang onto the radical element of learner autonomy, I want to look more closely at participatory approaches in ESL. A google search on "participatory approaches" ESL brought up an overview of the subject: Freirean/Participatory Approaches.
"Among adult educators in the United States, Freire's ideas have been adapted to fit diverse learners and educational contexts. The primary revision is the notion of "emergent curriculum" (Auerbach, 1992), where learners identify their own problems and issues and seek their own solutions. Teachers, freed from doing extensive research to identify problems for learners, become facilitators of class discussions and activities, and learn along with the class."

Auerbach's article in the TESOL Quarterly 27 suggests that this approach may not be suitable for students in Japan: "The key tenet of participatory education, based on the work of Freire (1970), is that marginalized people (such as immigrants and refugees in adult ESL classes, who often have the worst jobs, if any, and the poorest housing conditions) will only be able to effect change in their lives through critical reflection and collective action....Thus changes in teacher-student roles are not an end in themselves but a rehearsal for changing power relations outside class."

September 21, 2004

Links between Critical Pedagogy, CD and Autonomy

To tie up the threads from the last post:
I think there are connections and similarities between CD (Collaborative Development), Critical Pedagogy and Autonomy in language learning.

First, there is the fact that the AYA writers chose to collaborate on their anthology, and some are actively engaged in CD (and mention it in their articles). Some of the contributors also included excerpts from their dialogues/emails with their collaborator(s) in the body of their articles, and some even brought this exchange to the forefront.

Tim Murphey suggests in the AYA book that teachers who have an ongoing dialogue with colleagues about teaching, learning, language-learning, etc., tend to be better teachers. Without looking at the evidence, my experience and instinct would support that. The AYA book is an excellent example of teachers doing just that.

The kind of dialogues that Tim Murphey means, and which is so well exemplified in the AYA book is not just an exchange of information, but a dialogue that involves a constant questioning of assumptions, givens and attitudes. Collaborative partners, dialogue partners question and help uncover hidden assumptions and points of view in each other. This attitude on the part of the "teacher" seems crucial to critical pedagogy (see Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning referred to previously, especially the final chapter, the one by Alastair Pennycook).

Autonomy, as I mentioned in the previous post, has several radical elements, or perhaps I can say that there is a radical version of autonomy, and various non- or lesser radical versions (see Edith Esch's chapter in Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning by Phil Benson and Peter Voller (Longman 1996)).

And it seems to me that this radical element is connected with, supported by, the questioning, critical form of dialogues entered into by the contributors to the AYA book.

September 19, 2004

Losing the radical element

Edith Esch, in a chapter in Benson and Voller's 1997 book on autonomous language learning, suggests that some practitioners of automous language learning (ALL let's call it, eh?) are losing sight of the radical element in autonomy, whether by accident or design.

I was reminded of this when I read Nunan'a article in the same volume, and again when I read Steve Brown's article in AYA! (2003) on stereotypical views of language learners and of autonomy (ALL). Steve's article seemed to me to touch on something important, but I felt he hadn't quite got to the nub of it. Dick Allwright's comment on the article re-inforced this impression, especially his doubt about the effectiveness of Steve's questionnaire.

This prompted me to reflect further on what the radical element of autonomy is (or was). I begin to see several radical elements, basing myself on Holec's 1981 definition of autonomy as the ability to self-direct one's own learning:
1) it challenges the accepted notion of learning, namely that it is the product of teaching
2) it challenges the accepted notion of a teacher, namely someone who knows (an expert) transmitting information to someone who doesn't know
3) it challenges the accepted role of teacher as a transmitter of information and/or knowledge
4) it challenges the accepted role of teacher as central to the learning process
5) it challenges the accepted notion of learner as someone who is incapable of learning without a teacher, who is not central to the learning process

These challenges came about as the result of a number of crucial discoveries of theories in the field of learning, psychology and in particular SLA (for details see Holec 1988).

An important aspect for me in developing my understanding of autonomy has been having the opportunity to exchange ideas, bounce ideas off of other people, especially people who are equally interested and ideally more experienced than me in ALL. The first major opportunity came when a new colleague joined Tezukayama University. He was the first full-time colleague (and I include the Japanese staff in that) I could really talk to about teaching, learning and EFL (as well as a whole bunch of other things like music and love).

The second major opportunity was the Les Brunets seminar on autonomy, led by Henri Holec himself, and hosted by Turid Trebbi of the University of Bergen, Norway, in July 2004. This led me to read a lot more about autonomy, including re-reading things I'd read 4-5 years previously, and to discuss them with my colleague.

A third opportunity was less directly, through reading the AYA book, JALT's Learner Development SIG's collaborative effort. This introduced me to the idea of Collaborative Development.

It is this idea which I now think is central to the radical-ness of autonomy.

One major lesson I learned from the Les Brunets seminar was the power of negotiation: the teacher's role in developing autonomy is more like a psychologist/counsellor, helping the "patient" find their own solution to their own problem. This process includes discovering (with the patient's help and participation) how the patient sees the problem. This is what is important; not the expert psychologist's view. The psychologist's role (I'm referring here to what I know of Gestalt psychology) is to help the patient re-frame the problem. Sometimes that's all it takes.

In a similar way, the teacher's role in helping students develop autonomy is to ask them questions, to find out how they perceive their needs and wants, how they think those needs/wants can be fulfilled, what materials or methods they think are necessary or helpful.

A story to illustrate. Turid told of a boy she was talking to about what he wanted to do in English class. He said, listen to songs. She then asked him what exactly he would do. He said, translate the songs into his native language. Turid doubted the value of this; it sounded like an activity the boy came up with because of his past experience of foreign language classes, i.e. an outdated method based on now superceded understandings of SLA. But she said nothing, allowing the boy to find his own way. Some time later she met him again and looked at what he had done. He had pasted the song lyrics on 1 side of the page, and on the other written his own translation. But then he had gone further, and marked arrows here and there on both pages. Looking closely, Turid noticed the arrows pointed to grammatical elements, and illustrated discoveries the boy had made about English word order and syntax. Turid had learned a valuable lesson: her decision to override her initial instinct to dissuade the boy from his chosen course of action had been a good one.

The point I'm trying to make here (I think!) is that there are teachers who have reached a stage of humility, a stage where they realize that although they know a lot, it is the learner who needs to discover rather than be told, and so the teacher's role becomes one of a counsellor asking questions that seem pertinent but in the spirit of exploration rather than teaching or guiding.

It is this spirit I feel is absent in the writings of Nunan and some others. It is this spirit I feel is present in the writings of Holec, Esch and others such as John Holt.

This spirit of humility, this decision to "teach" by exploring together with students, not as a clever technique but because the teacher has come to the understanding and realization that this is in fact a better way to teach; the understanding that the teacher's knowledge cannot be most effectively transferred directly, but instead can be put to best use by helping the learner to learn, to discover, is key, I think.

It is similar to the position of some people in the field of critical pedagogy. It is highly illuminating, for instance, to compare some articles in AYA (e.g. Andy Barfield's) with, for instance, Alastair Pennycook's chapter in "Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning" (Norton & Toohey, 2004). There is the same questioning, the same "skeptical self-direction" (Barfield, 2003: 53).

The questioning approach is supported, I think, by the collaboration between people, both in the projects and action researches, and in the writing process, and later in the post-writing (the critical comments inserted after each article in the AYA book). This collaboration seems to me a natural extension, or rather a counterpart, to the back-and forth exchanges between teacher and learners in, what are to my mind the most interesting and impressive, examples of language advising or autonomy "guidance".

The above perhaps also explains my instinctive suspicions of the various "learner training" ideas, including those of Joan Rubin, Wenden, Chamot, Uhl, Robbins and the CALLA gang. The idea of "learner training" immediately suggests a trainer or leader or teacher who knows. How different this is to the attitudes of Holec, Esch, Benson, Barfield, Pennycook: they know they don't know and that they need to discover. We don't know how language is acquired, so we need to discover the process. Perhaps the process is unique to every learner, in which case we need to discover it, or help each individual discover it, on an individual basis.

Not long ago, my colleague commented on something he'd read in Robert Kiyosak's book "Rich Kid, Smart Kid". Kiyosaki wrote that he had learned to be humble when teaching or giving seminars: "If I think I know more than the students, then I know I'm in for trouble" (or words to that effect). My colleague's comment was, if he doesn't know more than his students, what's he doing leading the seminar? I think I can now answer the question: Kiyosaki may know more about finance and about money, but he doesn't know more than his students how to learn about this. I think this is what Kiyosaki was talking about.

Many years ago, I practiced Aikido, and did some research on the founder of modern Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. One of the things that struck me about him was how he was always discovering amazing things. He did not seem to be a man who set out to master supernatural powers, they just seemed to come to him. Those who knew him, at least towards the end of his life, seem to agree that he was a humble man who maintained a sense of wonder and of discovery. A master swordsman once challenged him to a duel (Ueshiba was always getting such challenges). Finally, Ueshiba assented. They were both in the dojo. The swordmaster was ready, but Ueshiba took up no defensive stance, and did not even pay much attention to the other. He pottered around his dojo, watering some plants, re-arranging things, humming to himself. The swordsman was completely nonplussed and found himself quite unable to raise the necessary agression - how could he attack this old man who wasn't even looking at him? Instead of being angry that Ueshiba wasn't giving him a proper challenge, he recognized the superiority of the other, and asked Ueshiba to accept him as a student.

"Don't look into the eyes of the other; don't be influenced by the intention of others. I don't look into the eyes of others. I simply put them all into my belly. Then agressors fall all by themselves. That's the best way." He also said, "We should leave everything in the hands of God."

I'm still not completely clear why I have put in here these quotes and anecdotes of Ueshiba, but I feel they are relevant in some way.

Perhaps it comes down to the old adage: the fools think they know, whereas the wise know they don't know and try to learn more. We (SLA researchers, EFL teachers) simply don't know enough yet about how language is acquired to be able to lay down the law to learners. Lots of practice is obviously necessary, but what kind of practice depends on many variables that the teacher does not know: the purposes of the learner, the past experiences that have moulded the learner's attitudes, motivations and beliefs.

Perhaps it is time to jettison the word "autonomy". I'm beginning to feel it is getting in the way.