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.