April 22, 2005

Assessing learner autonomy

A sudden spurt of activity on the AUTO-L list, on the subject of assessing learner autonomy (a subject dear to many hearts, I know):
I can imagine some groups being more autonomous than others, taking more control of their learning than other groups do.

One approach to assessing autonomy would be a portfolio system that included learning journals, self-assessment, and self-evaluation. For more on this, see The Learning Record Online

The Learning Record Online is an online version of, erm, something called the Learning Record (who'da guessed, eh?), but I couldn't get the links to that original one to work, perhaps you have to be a member or something? The page did have this interesting quote form the Prez of the University of Californye-ay:
The President of the University of California has recently criticized standardized testing as a destructive force in education and has sought to end the use of the SAT test in UC college admissions (NY Times, Feb. 17, 2001, page 1). He argues that standardized tests are "not compatible with the American view on how merit should be defined and opportunities distributed." After observing classrooms where 12-year-olds were being drilled on analogies in preparation for the SAT's, he wrote, "The time involved was not aimed at developing the students' reading and writing abilities but rather their test-taking skills. What I saw was disturbing and prompted me to spend time taking sample SAT tests and reviewing the literature. I concluded what many others have concluded—that America's overemphasis on the SAT is compromisng our educational system." He recommended that the university move away from admission processes that use quantitative formulas and instead adopt evaluative procedures that look at applicants in a comprehensive, holistic way.

We applaud President Atkinson's leadership in taking this bold initiative.

Hmmm. Wonder what my colleague will make of that? He's often lamented the Japanese emphasis on knowledge tests and compared them unfavourably with his native country's SATs, because they (supposedly) test aptitude and he feels that is what universities should be testing: not what students know but whether they are likely to be good students.

A second AUTO-L-er had this to say on the subject of assessment:
I think the area of self-assessment has an affinity with learner autonomy. Learners could be required to develop an assessment program in an abstract or concrete way, for themselves or others, and if all they propose is the taking of a standardized test, we give them a low score.

We give them a high score if it appears they are thinking about their own development as a language learner. And a higher score for originality or if they do a good job of describing their own learning.

Of course, there will be students who bluff their way through this exercise without really thinking about their own language learning.

I don't know what attitude to take to those students.
In any case, I think it is easier to draw on one's own experience than do the research need to fool the instructor.

Debriefing is another time where self-assessment comes naturally.

In my writing class with reluctant readers, I get them to rate each others' essays, and if the average grade they give to an essay matches the grade I give that essay, I give their group an extra classwork point.

This touches on a touchy subject where my colleague and I often disagree (and we often change our positions on this matter, too), namely to what extent to pander (or yield) to students' desire (or ingrained habit) for passing grades and good scores on tests over actually learning anything. What we have done, because it has proven so difficult to wean students away from what I call "the game of school", is to compromise by giving students a list of activities they can do, each activity has a score next to it, the number of points they can get if they do the activity, with the overall condition that to pass the class they must accumulate 60 points or more. Now I don't really like this: it seems to completely compromise our intention, which is to develop autonomous students, students who can take charge of their own learning, and how can they do that if they are still extrinsically motivated by grades and scores and points? We need to be helping them (I feel) develop instrinsic motivation, and this giving them the "list of points" seems to me to completley undermine that.

One solution, perhaps, might be suggested by a third contributor to the AUTO-L discussion who contributed this contribution (great style, eh?):
I haven't been following the discussion well, but wonder if a distinction is useful between 'assessing' learner autonomy (i.e., giving it a grade in an institutional setting) and 'evaluating' (i.e. investigating) its development as interested teachers/researchers? Sorry if the same point's been made before here. Personally, I find the first notion of 'assessing' autonomy (as defined above) slightly ominous . . .

An earlier AUTO-L posting a contributor wrote of:
the ironic contradiction between "forcing" students to do something, such as focussing on autonomy, and the philosophy of autonomy.

I would say there are all sorts of human beings, those who like and need structure and order (including language learners who feel terrified with loose acquisition approaches and cleave to their patterns and rules and vocab lists) through to those who wing it, go with the flow, let their subconscious do the walking. Also, people can be very good at some aspects of language learning, slower at others. And people are people, they get tired, they feel lazy, they have personalities, they are not motivated by the same materials or story or whatever that someone else finds a real buzz. Some students are so obsessed with the marks, results, GPA, that all else is subsumed to that. Talking of the personal and intercultural benefits of language learning gets a glazed eye reaction. "Ho hum, can we get on with what will get me the highest mark possible and look good on my CV?" The massive diversity of students is matched by the massive diversity of their teachers, too.

So, I would say whatever "solution" you come up with, it will work with some, not so well with others. We need solutions plural, and we need to be constantly adapting them. And part of the mission of any institute of higher learning is not just to accept the kind of learning that could go on out there on the streets. We are supposed to value add, by teaching and stimulating deeper thinking, analysis and understanding, including of oursleves as students and teachers of languages. I don't think we need be ashamed of demanding certain tasks be addressed, of setting standards of performance and saying: "Look, I sympathise with your struggles and will support you all I can. And here are the targets we are trying to reach. And part of my duty is to assess your progress, including your learning skills, which include autonomous effort."

The way you treat/relate to/assist any one particular student may be quite different to another, depending on their needs and styles. Uniformity of standards and assessment techniques may be fair; uniformity of course experience makes as much sense as uniformity of life experience.

He ended with this gem of a quote from the Monty Python movie "The Life of Brian":
Brian: You're all individuals.
Crowd (altogether): We're all individuals!
Lone tiny voice: I'm not.

April 20, 2005

Playing it safe

In the first few classes, I've developed a habit of writing down a few key words, or new words (or what I think might be new words) on the blackboard as the class progresses, and as vocab items come up. Yesterday, I had a bad case of hay fever, and I went in with my mask on. As the week before, I'd taught them "How do you .... in English/Japanese?", I wrote on the board "hay fever" and "handout" and asked "How do you say "kafun-sho" in English?" No-one volunteered to answer so I picked on a few students. No-one answered. A few down by the front whispered urgently to each other and pointed at the board, but didn't give me the answer. "How do you say 'purinto' in English?" Same routine. One after they other, they shook their heads and said "I don't know." The first students I asked had been the ones near the front, and they hesitated long, but after that lot, each student I asked said "I don't know" sooner and sooner after I called on them. It was like they had found the "right" answer and were all repeating each other rather than actually answering the question. It was like the time when we asked them, "Why are you here?" After the first few had answered "To study English", all the others repeated it, unthinkingly it seemed to me.
I guess the "school" lesson to be learned here is, "Don't answer a teacher's question if you're not sure. Better to say you don't know than make a fool of yourself, or look like a showoff." And the lesson for me is, "Don't ask questions, the answers to which you don't know if they really care about."
I didn't give them the answers, by the way, or give any hint that what I'd written on the board had anything to do with my questions. Was I right not to? Was I wrong to ask them those questions? Next time they get the lecture about "This isn't high school: I'm not going to force you to learn. This is an opportunity (who knows what that is?)." Perhaps I'll mention what I learned from practising Aikido: that the (Japanese martial arts) teacher doesn't divulge the secrets of his art: the students have to steal them from him.

No dreams?

In class on Monday, I had students make an autobiography cube out of B4 paper. They write or draw on the 6 sides of the cube any graphic or number or name or word that is important to them, that says something about them. Most set to quickly, but some had trouble: what should they put? I went around asking questions to encourage the ones that had little or nothing on their paper. To one student, I suggested he write or draw a graphic to represent his dream, his wish for the future. The boy sitting opposite him commented, "Japanese students don't really have dreams or wishes for the future!" I said, "Is that so? That's kinda sad." hoping he would say more, but he didn't elaborate. I wonder if this is true? If so, (and this would be more evidence for it), then lack of motivation in English class could be part of a deeper,larger malaise.

And speaking of motivation, I was interested to see Getting There has started blogging again, with a vengeance!

April 09, 2005

Corporations as psychopath

Robert Paterson blogs something I’ve read before, about the Corporaton as Psychopath which he titles “Schools - The gateway to corporate life?” (permalink doesn’t appear to be working. It’s the April 6th, 2005 entry). It's a review of a book called The Corporation which suggests it’s time for humans to move on, evolve beyond this institution. But it was the comment by Brian Alger on Paterson’s posting that made the link for me beween the psychopathic corporation and education:

By feeding students to a pathological entity under the banner of preparing for the workforce, are we not being at least somewaht hypocritical? 

Woah! Let's not examine that! Turn on the TV! Let’s play with our appliances!!

This does not come as a surprise, of course, especially if you've read anything recent by John Taylor Gatto, who points out that schools were never designed to "elevate the masses" or prepare humans for self-fulfilment, but were factories to create workers for the factories that sprang up after the Industrial Revolution.

Paterson's posting follows from his previous one, in which he examines problems of discipline in schools and how schools are failing young people. This is a long posting and there's lots of passion in it. A coupla snippets that caught my eye:
Many of our children are disengaged. As a result they are on a track to becoming unemployable and unable to parent. ...
I believe that the deeper malaise of our schools is not their academic issues but that they inadvertently act to produce large amounts of socially dysfunctional graduates...
Why these behavioral problems? The issue is attachment and identity. Increasingly many of our kids are disengaged from their parents, from their schools and from their community....
Why do our kids not care? Please have a look at the social structure at our schools...Many of our schools have between 500 and 1,000 pupils who exist as an undifferentiated mass. It is not possible to belong to any organization that exceeds 150. (The link explains the science behind this claim)
He has a couple of solutions. One is the bus, another is the one-room schoolhouse.

This was food for thought for me after reading about a woman who, as a girl, was obliged by her mother to take a part-time job in a nursing home rather than in the snack shop at the beach club. How callous!
When I was 15, my mother got me a job at the local nursing home. I wanted to work at the snack shop at the beach club -- roast hot dogs, flirt with lifeguards -- but she insisted I take the sad job in the sad place where so many people were baffled and afraid, and where it smelled like pee. I asked her years later why she made me do it, and she said, "To teach you compassion."

In Dianetics, Hubbard writes about the 4 spheres (I think; don't have the book to hand) - me, my family, my community, my world. He wrote about helping people to see that instead of there being a constant conflict between these, there could be a synergy.
I'm not clear about it yet, but I'm starting to sense a connection between Hubbard's idea and the girl who learned compassion in the nursing home.

My partner in crime and I have been thinking about goals, about what our students' goals might be, whether they have any, whether they've lost heart somewhere along the line and if so how to encourage them to dream again and try and realize those dreams.

Blinger has blogged about teaching students how to set goals. And he recommends this book Strategies for Success: A Practical Guide to Learning English, by H. Douglas Brown.

My friend Ann mentioned a book about learning strategies by Brown. I wonder if it was the same one?

There's also a link (to me at least) between Paterson's disengaged kids and this story about telling stories to help a seriously disoriented woman find her bearings again. Today, Ann mentioned to me, "Perhaps we need to spend more time just getting to know our students." Yes, it's easy to skimp on that.

I don't know much about ADD, not enough certainly to diagnose any of my students, but I did notice that some of the least cooperative students I had last year changed remarkably when I gave them some personal attention. Several times last year I had them all working in small groups on mini-projects of their own choosing. Whenever we did these, however, there were always a few students slumped over their desks, or staring out into space. Did they not understand the instructions and so were tuning out? Waiting to be told what to do? Were they rebelling? Refusing to work? Was the kind of work I was offering them too biassed towards certain skills (verbal-lingistic for instance) that they were poor in, and that turned them off? I still don't know, but I discovered that when I went up and talked to them to a) try and find out what was going on, and b) try to twist their arms a bit, they more often than not perked up and seemed delighted to have my personal attention. Some undoubtedly just preferred talking to me than "working", but I found that after a few minutes of conversation (mostly in their native language, not mine) they seemed to recover their spirits and decided on something to do.

I want to continue that strategy this year, too. The problem is how to make time for them? It seems necessary to have some kind of activity for the class to do undirected. Another strategy, which I'm also going to use more of this year, is to co-teach, and have a colleague in the same room. One teaches, the other wanders around observing and chatting to students.

My colleague and I have also considered spending some time telling our own stories, about how we came to this country, why, stories from our travels, our attempts to learn a foreign language, etc. Why do we think this might help to catch students who are "disengaged", tuning out? Because of the attention we saw them give to our visiting speakers when they spoke about their real-life struggles with a foreign language and/or in a foreign place.

Not only telling stories to students (real stories or invented ones, tho for my purpose I think real ones might be best), but also listening to the students' "stories", I think will help us getting to know them. It seems that just listening can be very therapeutic. When Ann mentioned spending more time just getting to know her students, I remembered a young medical student I met recently who has been persuaded to work informally as a counsellor at a junior high school in the city. It's a very tough school, and there are many students from broken and/or violent homes. He says his counselling consists almost entirely of listening to them; many of them seem to have no-one who will listen, and that in itself seems to excacerbate, if not cause, some of their emotiona problems. Listening seems to ease their pain.

Hubbard refers to the four dynamics (in Dianetics)
Dynamic one is the urge toward ultimate survival on the part of the individual and for himself....
Dynamic two is the urge of the individual toward ultimate survival via the sex act, the creation of and the rearing of children. It includes their symbiotes, the extension of culture for them and their future provision.
Dynamic three is the urge of the individual toward ultimate survival for the group...
Dynamic four includes the urge of the individual toward ultimate survival for all mankind. It includes the symbiotes of manking and the extension of its culture...
a problem has been well resolved which portends the maximum good for the maximum number of dynamics.

April 07, 2005

Game of school part troix

Chris Lotte comments:
I would like to see people elevate their teaching past just the direct subject and into the realm of a) helping foster inquisitiveness and support students in becoming motivated, curious learners and b) embedding the acts in the classroom into the larger community of practice in even this often small and most introductory of ways...

Absolutely! Hear, hear. (And reading Chris' post below also helped me understand where he's coming from). The question I'm battling with is how to help foster inquisitiveness and independence and curiosity without depriving them of that very curiosity and autonomy I'm trying to foster? If my students have had a shool-lifetime of being told what to do and how to do it, what happens? How to combat that? It seems that patience is called for! The ability to wait, and also fortitude, not to get sucked back into the old "game": "OK, YOU want us to study, YOU set up the class and the institution, YOU say we have to be here, OK, so TEACH us! And we might cooperate if it's not too boring or too much trouble or requires us to get up too early (like for 9 o'clock class)".

I also liked this post by Chris:
needing to integrate social software into the curriculum from end-to-end

Wow! Now that's a goal! Go read Chris Lotte's blog. I love the random quotes that appear at the top. How does he do that? And whose quotes are they?

Update: Bud Gibson left a comment on Chris' post:
For universities, the change often comes from customer (student) demand.
Hm. I wonder if that is also true for Japanese unis?

Bud Gibson's complete comment is well worth reading. I especially liked these bits:
What about control? The traditional classroom is really quite top-down. Most faculty are not prepared for a change to bottom-up. Administrators will be the last on this train.
You need to find a way of innovating that goes around this obstacle. I suspect it is an externally hosted service that offers education as one part of the life cycle. Alternatively, I see a new type of academic institution that starts from scratch with low administrative overhead.

Hm... a new type of academic institution. Who says that academic institutions are the best places for learning to happen? Maybe academic institutions are essentially elitist, anti-democratic institutions? There is obviously a case for subjects that require large amounts of expensive equipment (science, engineering, medecine), but for learning a foreign language I'm starting to feel that a class of 25-30 Japanese young people who mostly do not know each other is one the least conducive environments.

The game of school (contd)

I was thrilled to get this comment from Barbara Ganley, whose enthusiasm for blogging and reflections on teaching and learning are always a pleasure to read. Barbara commented: how do I help students who want to keep blogging bring their blogs into other classrooms or other learning experiences or out into the world?

I would ask, do they need the help? It's really a fine line between "helping" and "maintaining dependency (and authority, with concomitant apathy on the part of receivers)". I don't know enough about Barbara's situation to comment. This is just a question I ask myself almost daily in my interactions with students. Here, my colleague and I are dealing with lowly (or non-!) motivated students. Why are they so lacking in motivation? And what should we (teachers) do about it? It could be they need inspiration and guidance (a la School of Rock, which has inspired my partner in crime to write a paper on the subject of "sticking it to the man!"); but it could also be that they have had too much guidance, prescription. Getting into university is a powerful motivator for many Japanese highschoolers. Once they get in, the motivation to study disappears. They now discover they need to find their own motivation. Perhaps they are at the cusp of "extrinsic" versus "instrinsic".
I'm talking about the students' intrinsic motivation, not bureaucratic or administrative obstacles, where obviously a teacher's help can be invaluable.

Little by little something is shifting. We have to be a little patient with our students who've been trained all their lives how to play the game when suddenly we say it's not only okay to color outside the lines, it's essential to do so.

Barbara's comment reminded me of this book which my partner in crime here read recently (and very kindly sent me his typed notes on the book so I didn't have to read it! What a friend, eh?)

And, yes, it's essential for students to color outside the lines, but my concern is essential for who? From whose point of view? I ask, because I know that in my situation, urging students to do creative and "outside the lines" kind of stuff tends to be met with apathy and frank incomprehension. Not always, but often.

April 03, 2005

The game of school

A post, and a familiar whine, over at the always excellent and thought-provoking weblogg-ed news
So one of the frustrations I've felt with my own practice with student Weblogs and the like is the veritable dearth of students who continue to blog after the class is over.

This got me thinking again about the "game of school". I would put the question the other way around: why SHOULD students continue blogging after class? After all, as EVERYONE KNOWS, the whole POINT of school is to get credits and good scores, so why would anyone want to continue working on something after school, after hours? I'm not arguing against learning, I'm just trying to see it from students' point of view.

About 6 months ago, I had a conversation with a student about the quizzes I give in class. I had made worksheets for a listening class. I had told the class, both in writing and orally, my basic beliefs about language learning: that it requires a lot of input, practice and study, in that order, and that we were going to listen to a variety of different materials in order to try to satisfy the first requirement. THe worksheets' purpose was to give them something to focus on, to make the listening a more active, erm, activity. I didn't say I was going to mark or grade or correct the worksheets, tho I did collect them. But this student told me how it appeared to the students: some students had dropped out of class because they were able to fill in less than half of the blanks on the worksheets and therefore assumed that they would fail the class. "Yes, I know you told us about the importance of input and all that, and that you weren't concerned about scores, but there's this image of school, isn't there?" he said when I tried to point out that was never my intention. Worksheet = quiz = getting as many right as you can = pass/fail. Doesn't matter what the teacher actually SAYS, or writes on the board. What matters is the image students have of school, classes, worksheets.
One of the first things I'm going to do when classes start in a few days, is give students a quiz, collect the papers in, get the big trashcan from out in the corridor and ceremoniously dump all their papers in it. If they don't pay attention to what I SAY, maybe that will grab their attention.