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

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?"