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?

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