June 09, 2005

Schools not places for learning

Aaron has this to say about learning and evaluation:
I like this approach Marco, for I agree that there should be some kind of minimal level of competency that should be demonstrated should a student be deemed to have successfully learned something. For me the problem is the fact that the institution of education isn't set up to accomodate learning very well. Like all natural processes, learning comes and goes in different times and intensities, and expresses itself it different ways. It is really elusive and impossible to capture through a numeric evaluation.

Furthermore, how does one measure linguistic competency unless it is through testing, thereby reinforcing the goal oriented mentality that our students are so heavily conditioned by!

To me, the answer lies close to the idea of doing away with grades and curriculum altogether, akin to an open school. Students have to achieve a certain level of proficiency in a certain number of classes in order to graduate. They go at their own pace and choose classes that they want to be in. I guess this is not going to be a reality anytime soon, so perhaps the idea of teachers offering two modes of study in a course is a way of compromising in the current system?

Well, I agree. That's where I'm "at" at the moment. There is a very real problem, tho, here, of course, of how you fight against "institutionalised learning" while remaining in the institution? As Aaron writes,
how does one measure linguistic competency unless it is through testing, thereby reinforcing the goal oriented mentality that our students are so heavily conditioned by!


One possibility is to simply not take attendance. But, as I suggested in my previous post, this will run up against some fundamental beliefs about university education in this country, beliefs held by teaching staff, administrators and students themselves. Therefore, it would seem to make sense to spend some time explaining the rationale for this; perhaps not directly, perhaps not by talking about attendance per se but by focussing on the the fact that the teacher a) genuinely believes that the learners CAN learn (as opposed to merely memorizing and passing tests), and that b) understands that there is a difference between learning (i.e. acquiring knowledge and understanding) and the "learning for tests" that students have experienced up to now. This is a distinction that could profitably be brought into students' awareness, I feel.

Another possibility is, as Pinky and I are doing in some of our classes, by setting genuinely communicative tasks as the "test". Yes, even tho this kind of feeds into the students' "goal oriented" mentality (I would say "test oriented" because it is not "goal" in the sense of some practical application or performance or behavioural goal), it is still different enough from the "test for the sake of testing, filtering and sorting"; it is (I hope) easier for students to see that this is something that might be of practical benefit for them, either immediately or some time in the future. But at least this is different from another brick in the wall, just another thing they have to do to be part of the system.

What I feel about the "testing" educational culture in this country is that it a system that students are forced through, and, for all the rhetoric, if is clearly not for students' personal benefit (other than the materialistic and rather far-off ones of getting a job), nor for their personal development; and they must feel that. They must get a sense (even if unconsciously) that this (their education) is something they have to endure as part of being good children, good citizens, that it is not about them and never will be.

Well, on a slightly different, but related, note, I have 2 speaking classes, and in these classes I use a dramatic story in 20 scenes of dialogue. The aim of the class is to give students input in terms of conversational English of a practical nature, both as reading and as listening. They then rehearse the scenes until they can perform them with actions, without the text. To pass the course and get the credits they must perform a certain number of these scenes with good pronunciation, good gestures and smooth delivery. I guess it was this that gave me the idea for the 10 tasks I mentioned before.

Anyway, I have not had to really preach or give any kind of rationalization or explanation for this. I simply stated the requirements, and in the first few classes taught students how to use the book and what I expected. They have now pretty much developed a degree of independence: each class I start with a quiz on the previous scene. At first, I gave the quiz (a dictation quiz based on lines of dialogue), but once they got the hang of it, I then let them create their own (similar) quizzes: they choose 10 items (single words, expressions, whole lines) from the previous scene that they would like to learn, and write them out (or write out the 'cue' for that response); they then hand the paper to their partner and have the partner quiz them.

The next stage is to work on the next scene. Here, too, they have developed some autonomy. After a choral read-through of the scene, they then work with a partner or in groups of 3, (the stage directions are in the English text and in the Japanese translation at the back of the book). I walk around, giving hints and tips, mostly on pronunciation. When they feel they are ready, they call me and we go to an adjoining empty classroom and I observe their performance and either say "OK!" or "once more" or "go back and practice some more, then come back."

In these classes there are a few students who have a large number of absences for various reasons. To those who show up, I merely point out that they need to be able to perform all the scenes that everyone else has done, at some stage between now and the end of the semester. They can take their time, and do the necessary performances at their own pace (I suggest doing an extra scene each week, or in cases where they have been absent a large number of times, each class [we meet twice a week]).

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