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."