October 29, 2005

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good Day revisited part deux

I'm feeling a lot better now. Daily Kos: Bush Statement Thread

EdTechUK: iStanford

EdTechUK: iStanford
UK unis going online and podcasting:
Wow. Stanford is now officially on iTunes. Free and as easy to use as iTunes, there are currently 21 faculty lectures up (from Race, Class and Katrina to Why Zebras Don't get Ulcers), along with heard on campus (interviews, speeches and performances), Stanford Initiatives (multidisciplinary addresses) Sports news and interviews, Music performances by students, staff, alumni and visitors, and books & authors, interviews and commentary from Stanford's book salon.

Absolutely terrible, no good day revisited

Yesterday, I again met the classes I blogged about here. I moved them at a faster pace than on Tuesday, and I added more writing activities. I also explained each step and why we were doing it.

During one such mini-explanation, about how and why to practice in this way, casting about for an explanation they might understand, I asked them
If you wanted to ensure that your partner said the line/answered the question/spoke fluently and correctly, how would you go about it? Their answers were slow in coming at first, but at least it got them thinking. It seems they are mnore accustomed to getting the right answer, or scoring well on a test, than on actually mastering a skill. The ideas that the objective might be to do something well (not just get the right answer), and that there might be effective and ineffective ways of achieving that success, seemed unfamiliar to them.

It occurred to me that maybe they are accustomed to failing. Amongst some of the boys, especially, I hear loud guffaws when their partner answers incorrectly, or fails to understand. I asked them if they believed they were capable of learning to speak English. A few said "yes" immediately. But they were mostly quiet when I asked if they were confident they could. But perhaps that was my cultural error? Asking someone in this culture if they are confident is like asking someone in Britain if they are boastful: no-one's going to answer yes.

Before beginning a short dictation, I asked them if they were ready. Glancing towards the back, I see the kid I've spoken to twice already about messaging in class, with his head down. In a loud voice (to get his attention), I repeat, "ARE YOU READY?!?" To my astonishment, they all perked up and shouted back "YES!" ! Maybe they just need shouting at from time to time....

The Man

As I posted earlier, I feel daily the temptations of responding to student behaviour either as a Parent ("You're bad and I'm going to punish you") or as a Child ("that's the most imaginative excuse I've heard all week! Take 10 points and you may go home early.")

I wrote before about the tendency I notice in myself and some others, to characterize the "Institution" as the demon, the bad, limiting Parent who stops the Child (here the teacher may see the student as the Child) from doing what (s)he wants. It can become easy to identify with the students as innocent children to be protected from big, bad authority, with wholesale projection going on.

However, looking around, there are very good reasons for mistrusting authority these days. If authority could be trusted, then there wouldn't be a problem: decisions taken by people in authority would be in the best interests of the people in their charge. But these days, authority has squandered its credit; authority can no longer be trusted. Thus teachers may feel a need to protect students against what may seem to be the machinatins of authority; whatever authorities decide is seen with extreme suspicion as probably being entirely in the power interests of that authority itself, and not in the interests of those in its charge.

Such authority, of course, hides its true agenda behind highflown, socially acceptable rhetoric. It is not uncommon, for example, for higher educational institutions to use metaphors of flight and images of birds in their promotional literature. It sounds wonderful, and it's good PR. But it's all spin.

An Adult response might be, perhaps, to question authority, examine critically, and come to one's own conclusions after careful consideration. However, what often happens is that the baby is thrown out with the bathwater: a common reaction these days seems to be that all authority figures are no longer to be trusted in this day and age. Regrettable, but a fact of life.

However, here's the rub. A teacher in a classroom is inevitably looked upon as the authority figure, as the surrogate Parent, perhaps, or at least as the representative face of the institutional authority. This happens regardless of the teacher's own wishes in the matter. A teacher who mistrusts authority, and yet who is at the same time the de facto authority in the room, will tend, if there is insufficient self-examination and self-awareness, to mistrust his or her own authority, and may develop various strategies to deal with this contradiction (insisting on the term "facilitator" instead of "teacher" is one strategy that springs to mind).

In order to be truly "on the side of students" in the sense of nurturing their freedom, their talent, and their ability to enjoy and to learn, a teacher must exert that authority. A teacher has power, and that power can be used to nurture, or to destroy (usually a combination). To avoid using that power, because you mistrust authority and suspect a hidden agenda, is itself a political decision and has consequences which are, I suspect, almost never harmless.

Problems can arise in discusions and conversations on this topic because people may equate (often with good reason!) the use of power, the exertion of authority, with fascistic tendencies - the tendency to use power to further one's own aggrandizement at the expense of the people one has power over. Examples of such behaviour abound, unfortunately.

Strength and authority are powers that I feel should be, must be, exerted in order to protect students (children, young people, people in one's charge), not only from misguided, fascistic authority, but also from themselves - from their own aberrant, self-sabotaging behaviours, some (many?) of which behaviours may well have been developed as responses to the abuse of power against them.

Although I find fault with a lot of what Melanie Philips wrote, on this matter, which she describes as a retreat from teaching, a retreat from knowledge, the collapse...of authority, I think she has hit a nail very squarely on the head.

Siding with students

AJ commented on this post about siding with students, and I've been mulling it over ever since.

I believe a teacher should be on the side of the students in the same way that a parent is on the side of his/her children, protecting them against the forces that would harm them, limit their liberty, their right or ability to enjoy their own learning, defend their right to choose and direct their own learning, to be the authors of their own lives, at least for the time they are with you; to allow them, encourage them, to pursue their own interests, combine their interests with their learning.

Most students, tho, won't tell you what they are interested in, at least not right off the bat, particularly in a culture which values teacher/student status differences (a vertical society) and where silent acceptance is a sign of deference and politeness. So the teacher has a job to do: to find out what they interests are, their strengths, their talents. To do that takes time, and of course you need to develop a relationship with them. My colleague and I do this, partly because we are genuinely interested in our students (or most of them...), and partly in order to decide what kinds of materials (reading, listening materials, for instance) to provide (we still don't have many reading materials on sports, travel, or fashion, 3 popular topics amonst our students).

A relationship is obviousy required. And a teacher needs to be on the students' side in order to defend students against what some call "the institution", perhaps the EFLer's equivalent of "the Man", the forces that would deny students their freedom, that would tell them what to do and how to do it, what to learn. The teacher needs to play this defensive role because these forces attack the first part of the equation, the need to allow students the freedom to pursue their likes and interests.

But here's my question: what do you when students have been so brainwashed by the system that they themselves do not wish to claim their freedom? They may not want to tell you what their likes and dislikes are, and may consider questions about these to be an infringement on their privacy. They may not wish to be drawn into discussions of their likes and dislikes, of their preferences in learning. "Just teach me," they might say, "and let me decide whether I like it or not. If I do, I'll stay, if not, I'll leave." They just want to be told what to do, and hope that the teacher will make the process of taking the course as painless as possible. The teacher may wish to open the door to their cage, but they may not want to fly out. They may interfere with the teacher's efforts in this regard, because they've been so brainwashed that they automatically subvert and sabotage whatever the teacher does, even if the teacher has their freedom and best interests at heart!

One could say it is a presumption on the teacher's part to assume that students need freeing, or that the teacher's vision of freedom is necessarily one that the students will like or identify with, or the one they should have.

It's not easy to correct a friend's English, because you're their friend, not their teacher. Try correcting your spouse's language (okay, once in a while, maybe, but on a regular basis?) Becoming the students' pal, their chum, on their side against the big, bad authority figures, you limit your options; quite apart from the absolute certainty that some students will see your desire to be "on their side" as weakness, and exploit it.

It is just as undesirable as becoming their parent, a role that many young people will ascribe to the teacher anyway.

In terms of I'm OK, You're OK, I (the teacher) don't want to be locked into the role of either Parent ("Stop that! Do as you're told"), nor Child ("Ooh! That's a bad word! Want to know some more bad words?").

Today, for instance: one girl in my class is a complete bubblehead: she attends irregularly, is often late, pops in and out of the room (this in itself is perfectly acceptable and common behaviour in the class she is in) to talk on her cell phone, never does much work, never pays attention when announcements are made, like requirements for passing the class, dates of important events, etc. She came in to class late today, sat down, and 1 minute later had disappeared into the ladies'. Coming out from there she spent 5 minutes talking on her cellphone in the corridor. I engaged her in conversation and asked her what she was going to do that day, what materials or activities she wanted to use in class. By this time her friends had arrived and so they had a pow-wow about it. I left them to it. 5 minutes or so later, I was asked to explain to them how to play a board game they had selected. I explained it and they seemed to understand. Next time I look over there, bubblehead is on her way out the door, clutching her cell phone. I move to head her off, but she dives into the ladies' (again). Next time I notice her she's in the corridor chatting with two friends. I steer them towards deciding what to do in that class. Video, they decide. OK, videos are over here... While I'm showing our video corner, bubblehead wanders off, but I stay with the remaining two. Later, I accost her in the corridor again (coming out of the .... ladies'). She's working on an SRA reading card, she tells me, and indeed there's a reading card on her table. I never actually see her working on it, tho. In fact, I can't remember ever seeing her working on anything... In 90 minutes, what has she accomplished? And have I truly assisted her, or connived in her (self-)sabotage? How would you respond?

Another example: a boy looks a little aimless. I try to engage him in conversation, ask him about himself. He doesn't really answer, but produces a piece of paper and says this is what he did today. It's a piece of handwritten English, with a title "My Grandfather". "You did this today?" Yes. "What's this red ink on it? Someone's corrected it?" Yes. "Who? When?" Teacher. "Which teacher?" Don't know. My sister is a university student in *** University. "Your sister. She corrected this?" Yes. "So you didn't do it today, did you?" ..... No...

How would you respond?

To be truly on the student's side means, to me, being prepared to do what it takes to help them to succeed, and win (whatever a "win" would mean for them). It means responding to them as an Adult, avoiding the traps of responding as either Parent or Child. I'm still figuring out what that would look like...

1,000 milestone

Wow. More than 1,000 visitors to this site. Some people don't like milestones. I'm happy with this one, tho. Thanks for visiting.

October 28, 2005

Rhetoric and reality

When I started this blog about a year ago, I felt I was unable to really see what was going on in my own classroom, but I couldn't explain why this was. It felt like a veil: I was aware of my own lesson plans, and of what I expected students to do, but not aware of what they were actually doing. This was something I was often challenged on in my teacher-training days: "So you will play the tape; what will students be doing?" "Erm, listening." (Pregnant pause). "Really? How will you know? And what reasons have you given them for listening?" "Erm..." (sounds of drawing board being set up again).

After reading this, tho, I wonder if I've been influenced by the rhetoric that surrounds and pervades education? Then the rhetoric would create this veil, an illusion that I think is real, but is only really a reflection of my own beliefs, of the "script" I'm telling myself about how things are. After all, I see a classroom (four walls, a door, a blackboard, lots of tables and chairs); I see students (people, who come into the classroom and sit down at the desks, facing me).

If you say students, you automatically think people who've come here to learn. Assumptions. It makes it that much harder to see the human beings who come before you.

This unpleasant experience made me angry. And the energy provided by the anger somehow pierced the veil of the rhetoric. I suddenly refused to lie to myself.

The rhetoric can be a veil of dishonesty that I draw across actual behaviour, actual classroom practices, and that prevents me from seeing what is really going on.

Violence against students

My first response to this post by Aaron was "oh come off it!" It seemed to demean the word violence, and those who suffer it (as another reader commented). But then I read this and changed my mind. Bear in mind that the article was written by someone who has, as he writes, won awards for Best Teacher of this and that. It is worth reading. But then the question comes, what do you do about it? Pull your kids out of school? Quit your job (if you're a teacher)? Get yourself fired?

One sentence that caught my attention was this:
It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and math skills well enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on.
I wonder what this based on? How it is "calculated"?

All this isn't making me feel any better about teaching in an institution.

October 26, 2005

ESL and extensive reading, and the absolutely horrible day

A post by EFL Geek about extensive reading and a comment from Dan prompted me to not only write a comment in reply, but to review my teaching day. It was bloody awful! It made me feel that, yes, institutional education is an oxymoron, and the morons are all in the institutions! (Including me). Perhaps institutions by their nature and purpose create a certain mindset in students, and it is next to impossible to change this (as John Holt attested in his experiences in elementary school all those years ago). My experience today made me seethe with envy when I read AJ's latest, the lucky bastard.

Here's an excerpt from notes I took during class (a task I had set myself for this week is to spend more time observing what students are actually doing, rather than what I think they are doing, or what they are suPPosed to be doing):
Today, I have 9 students out of 19 registered. 2 girls and 7 boys.
I have just given them an assignment: in pairs to practice reading aloud to each other a short summary of a scene of dialogue they have mastered, until they can say it smoothly. Then one partner covers the text and simply listens and repeats after his/her partner. Then they change round. This is the 4th time we have done this kind of activity, and I have made it plain each time that the purpose is to be able to say it quickly and with a minimum of errors.

Snapshot: 2 girls are talking together in Japanese, sometimes glancing at the text. Are they talking about it?
1 boy is slumped across his desk, inert, and apparently not doing anything. His partner his looking at his paper, just reading it.
Background classical music is playing, to create a sound “screen” so that pairs can talk freely without feeling inhibited, like BGM in restaurants. But today, the music seems to only hide the deafening silence of 8 people NOT speaking English (I can hear one boy’s voice speaking the lines from the narrative.) What are the others doing? I can't tell, and when I approach them, of course, all of a sudden they are speaking English (I use the term loosely)....Someone is outside the slightly open door at the back of the room, beside the 2 girls and talking to them. I cannot see who it is. One girl looks at her partner, then at her watch, then talks to the person outside, apparently telling them how much longer there is to go.

We are now in week 4 of the semester. The previous 8 classes (two a week) I have been training them to use the materials (the dialogues and the extended drills and activities of my own devising). This training involves reminding them that the purpose of this class is to help them improve their English communication skills, which means (believe it or not) getting better at actually using the language. To improve in this regard, what do we need to do? (Deafening silence). That's right! Practice USING the language. I gave them all a test in the first week which gave me (and them) a rough idea of their level in terms of hours of practice and study they have had. I used these results to reinforce the purpose of the class: to have their speaking and listening scores improve by the end of the semester. How are you going to do that? (Deafening silence). That's right! Lots of hours of listening and speaking practice. I spent the following weeks drilling them in the use of the materials, how they are to be used, how to get the most out of them and maximize their chances of success.

So today I was lying low, trying to see what they would do without me conducting the orchestra. Obviously a premature move.

[Perhaps another reason I was lying low was I was low on energy due to spending time tidying up my room and my office, with help from this very helpful book, which is actually making the process fun and interesting. Don Aslett taught me how to make the most of spare moments of time, and Barbara Hemphill taught me a simple but effective filing system which I still use, and the software version. But neither of those made more than a dent in the disorder I live in perpetually. Dave Allen's book helped me see why.]

I suppose one can excuse those students, and me (hey! These days nothing is ever anybody's fault apparently, "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie!") by pointing to the culture of testing which is rampant in this country (as anywhere I suppose these days). A high-stakes testing culture, as Mark Chapman pointed out to me recently, has negative impact on learning strategies and motivation. Perhaps these students have been so brainwashed by all this, they see everything in terms of passing tests. I wonder what they would answer if I asked them, "If I guaranteed you will pass this class but that you won't learn anything, and learning something is absolutely not necessary for passing this course, would you be happy with that?"

Or perhaps they're just not interested in learning English and that's all there is to it. In which case, they shouldn't be here. And neither should I. Is this a koan? Master: "Is today a good day? If you answer yes I will hit you. If you answer no I will hit you! Why?" Student: "Because you're crazy. And I'm crazy for being here!"

Today was not a fun day, tho writing this has taken the edge of it. Thank you for reading. Please leave a donation as you go out.

October 24, 2005

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Teaching in an institution

AJ, JH, Aaron, have all posted recently about the restrictions and dilemmas that inevitably result (it seems) when passionate teachers, who are genuinely interested in learning and teaching, and in their students' progress work in an institution of higher learning. I've been thinking about why this should be, and while I don't have clear answers yet, I want to try and tie together some of the loose threads generated in my mind by AJ, Aaron, JH and several others.

The obvious answer (as in to the question "why this conflict?", not as in a "solution"), is that educational institutions are not geared primarily towards learning, but towards accreditation, supporting the corporatist purposes of the state by providing a labour pool for industry and commerce. In other words, they have a different agenda. If you look at the history of the development of schools since the 18th century, you see that they were essentially created (or adapted from the existing system, if that's not too big a word for what existed then) to create a labour force for the rapidly growing industries and urban centres of the Industrial Revolution.

Schools are created to be convenient to manage, and to be economically viable. Brian McVeigh takes the lid off higher education institutions in Japan, suggesting that it is a myth that these places are primarily concerned with education.
John Taylor Gatto points to the real reasons why schools were created (as if we didn't know). (Talk about someone examining their own beliefs and sacred cows, check this out: Twenty-six years ago, having nothing better to do, I tried my hand at schoolteaching. My license certifies me as an instructor of English language and literature, but that isn't what I do at all. What I teach is school, and I win awards doing it.
John Holt kept a fascinating diary while he taught maths in a private elementary school in the US. It clearly shows his frustrations with how institutions create a mindset in children which he saw as so antithetical to real learning that he eventually gave up trying to change schools, and instead focused on home schooling.

Student blog

Pay a visit to bittersweet life. Leave a message if you want.

October 23, 2005

Scientifically proven, research-based instructional practices

2 cents worth blogger David Warlick has an interesting couple of questions up. The responses are particularly interesting:

The past two entries have concerned pre-service technology training — a request from a friend by e-mail, who is preparing for an upcoming “technology in education” course. In the answers, the words innovation and inventiveness have appeared in a number of comments. I’d like to ask two more questions, and welcome comments:

1. During the past several years, we have been directed to utilize scientifically proven, research-based instructional practices in our classrooms. How does asking teachers to innovate and to become inventive in their teaching reconcile with research-based teaching?
2. If we are becoming more innovative and inventive in our teaching, who gave us permission to do that?

I was particularly interested in this comment by Jeff Utecht on internships and problem-based learning as these are 2 issues my colleague and have been discussing quite a bit recently, tho neither of us have much experience in this field.
Authentic real world audiences and Problem-Based Learning (PBL) are two scientifically proven practices that allow teacher to innovate and invent on the spot. Again and again research shows that real-world audiences inspire students to be more invested in their learning, and through a PBL approach you allow students to be creative and innovative at the same time. If you want to see this approach in action take a look at The Big Picture schools. There is also a new video out at Edutopia with an interview and video with Dennis Littky the director of The Big Picture school project

Classroom design: Classes 2005

Desert Dew

Jorge, who gave up working in the corporate world to train to be a teacher, in San Diego, blogs thusly:
Having sat through so many classes in the last few years a the university level and having likewise participated in many hours of observations at middle school, and high school – I am amazed at how bad the ergonomics and equipment facilities are in our classrooms. If you take a cursory look at what the Corporate world does for their people to insure productivity and good will – it is amazing what the schools are lacking.

If these facilities are available for knowledge workers – what about for classrooms designed to serve teachers and students where they need flexible configurations, group work and an attractive ambiance. Dreaming?

Well actually I was not disappointed to find out that there is such an animal! At least it exists – which I find encouraging….. don't you? Here are some pictures and a link in case you are interested.

Check out the pictures on Jorge's blog. He then ends wistfully:
Now how do we get these into our classrooms?


October 22, 2005

How much is your blog worth?

My blog is worth $2,822.70.
How much is your blog worth?

Don't ask me how they calculate this, coz I haven't got a clue.

October 20, 2005

An old debate

AJ, who was recently (still is?) in Japan, posted this to which I wrote a comment. AJ replied to my comment, and I am posting my response to that here. A related conversation is going on over at English 360.

A relationship with students only becomes problematic if you accept that a boss-underling model is the ideal situation...
Well maybe, but that's not what I said (wrote?). I didn't say "a relationship with students" is problematic. Of course any teacher wants/needs a relationship with students, preferably a good one (although one of the most "successful" teachers at my grammar school, successful in the sense that his biology students consistently got the highest scores in the biology O-level, was a very strict teacher who didn't seem to give a damn about any of us except that we get good grades in the exams and certainly didn't seem in the slightest bit interested in any "relationship" [ha!] with us). I quoted you saying "siding with the students". My point is, as I now know from experience, if you place being the students' friend (and this is how I interpret your "siding with students" but perhaps I'm wrong) as your top (or high) priority, you box yourself in; you limit your options; you make it more difficult (but not impossible, of course) to do certain things later, things that (later) you might want to do. And while I was admittedly thinking of my students (99% of whom are in the 19-23 age range), I think my comment remains relevant even if the ages are different. And "disciplining" was just one example I gave; I certainly don't see my students as "underlings" who are merely there for me to "discipline". But the fact is that many of them lack self-discipline and I feel I am shirking my duty if I don't set limits (see English360 and the comments (when they get thru the censors) for more on this topic). The 55- and 70-year-old students I have already have the discipline required; they can be trusted to act responsibly. Many of the others cannot. As I wrote about here, something that gave me and my colleague a big dish for thought was the fact that another colleague of ours, who is a much more "traditional" teacher, had more success with a particularly difficult student than we did with our enlightened "let's give the students what they want", unstructured approach. And I repeat what I wrote (said?) before, that I don't see this as a black and white, either-or, issue. This is something I see in some of my US colleagues: they equate (falsely and dangerously, in my opinion) being strict and setting limits with being authoritarian, autocratic, old-fashioned and boring. One of my colleagues, for instance, expressed surprise to being told by a teacher whom he had considered as out of the mainstream, that he should push and pressure students more.

Regarding needs assessments, I dont equate them with listening....Far more effective were informal conversations. Just hanging out with clients, talking to them,... not just once, but many times over a period of weeks and months. In my experience, conversations and real relationships yield a wealth of information that surveys, forms, focus groups, and the like will never tap.

Couldn't agree more. Absolutely spot on.

You mentioned an example of students being "offered an opportunity to participate in a monitoring system". Who designed this system? Did students play an active part in its creation? Or was this put to them with a "here's what we developed, why dont you do it" approach?

Ooh! spooky! How did you guess? Actually, it wasn't quite like that. It was essentially one or 2 teachers who felt the students' input and participation in their own education was a desirable thing, and this was a way that had been put in place in several other institutions around the country (some with student involvement in the pre-installing discussions, some without). Student response was almost complete apathy. To their credit, the teachers who supported the idea insisted that, however good or desirable it was, it should be shelved if it did not have student support. It didn't. It was.

Finally, I agree totally with your point about entreprenuers, though my conclusions are different. Its true, they dont endlessly worry about needs assessments and the like.. they just get in there and try things. They are extremely close to their customers. They try something, it fails, they get lots of customer feedback...

Perhaps it's semantics, but I have problems with your word "close". Being close to your customers/students: yes, of course, if it means listening to them, observing them, aware of them as unique, living individuals. But not "close" in the sense of being their pal, their chum. I don't think this works for teachers, or for parents (and again, I speak from experience). Been there, done that, failed miserably.

AS for the "bad" businesses.. I agree that they are in the majority. And I agree they are mostly built through marketing and BS. But the thing is, this is also true of most schools.

You're right .

Learner training

I'm now experimenting with learner-training (that phrase still makes me cringe! it sounds so Pavlovian). My colleague and I first began collaborating on autonomy in a sophomore class, but, as we spoke about here, we realized that developing autonomy was a longer term project than we had imagined, so we began collaborating on a freshman class as well. We created our own textbook which contains a lot of dialogues, all of which are on CDs and MDs. Our first few classes this semester (with a new bunch of students) were devoted to demonstrating how to use this material. One of our objectives is to wean them away from relying on the written text and to spend more time listening and repeating after the CD, then trying to reconstruct the dialogue with as little help from the written text as possible, except (of course) when they really can't remember or want to check or confirm something. Their reliance on the written text prevents them from developing their ear for English (they read and understand but don't really hear how it is pronounced exactly). It also makes them feel like the purpose of the exercise is to simply remember the lines, rather than actually be able to say them or understand them when they hear them, or be able to use those expressions in spoken utterances of their own.

At this conference, I attended a presentation (look for Mark Chapman), given on Language testing, motivation and learning styles. The presenter pointed out that:
  • Japan has a high-stakes testing system

  • according to the research literature, high-stakes testing systems have a negative impact on learning and motivation

  • students are test-motivated, not learning motivated

I was reminded of this, when I heard a student in my class say to another, So, we've got to learn these lines, right?. No! No! No, no, no! You're not learning these lines for a (written) test. The idea is to practice (or practise) these lines until you can say them smoothly and with confidence and with reasonably understandable pronunciation.

Today, I spent the class going from group to group reminding them of this, and encouraging them to use the audio for input rather than the textbook. See, this puts the emphasis on learning to use the language, rather than memorizing for a test. At least, that's what I hope they got. Old habits die hard, though, and I'll probably be spending the rest of the semester "reminding" them of this.

Good cop, bad cop

Yesterday, gami commented:
I thought that trying to excourage to creat their own education will not work well in our university. Many students will not study if they do not have assignments for next class. (Students have many homeworks each class. They have to do a part time jop.etc...)I thought that your idea is great, but you should make deadline and minimum requirements. If you put a lot of appropriate pressure on your students, they have to do thier work well. I think that even if you put pressure, you will be able to encourage students to creat their own education.

And I wrote that this was good advice and we would follow it. But I'd like to correct that. We do have deadlines and we do have minimum requirements. That isn't the problem. The problem is getting students to take them seriously! Even though they are physically adults, they don't have the self-discipline necessary to really do the necessary work...unles they are forced to. My colleague and I took the approach that they are adults; if they are always treated like children (told what to do, forced to do it by threats and punishments, etc) then they will not develop into adults, they will stay as children, leaving responsibility to the teacher. What I am questioning now is, whether this approach is working, and I feel that for all but a few of our students, it is not: they develop neither the self-discipline nor the language skills.

Perhaps we need to take a good cop, bad cop approach: we need to be tough on some students, some of the time.

Serendipitous collaboration

Blogging Thoughts...Again. Will Richardson, whose excellent blog I haven't visited in many months, mostly due to not having the leisure, refers me to an older post of his, what he calls his little hierarchy. Where are you on the hierarchy? Where am I? And how much deeper (higher?) can we go?

He writes
the two things that I think make Weblogs such an interesting teaching tool: an easy platform for constructivist learning and instruction, and the potential of a greatly expanded interested audience against which to test ideas and learning.

and continues

And that's what my brain keeps coming back to over and over and over again, how much MORE blogging potentially offers our students over the traditional idea-draft-revise-done model that we give our kids. I've always hated that idea that writing ENDS. It doesn't. This post, the last post, the first post are all done FOR NOW, and when you blog, the ideas and the feelings usually end up rearing their heads down the road in some new, hopefully more evolved form. They don't get put into some dust-collecting folder (or should I say folder icon) never to be heard from again. They stay alive, Google-able, and out there for people to read and respond to a week, a month, or a year from now. (It always amazes me when I get a comment on something I wrote long ago. But it usually reminds me of something important, which then becomes a new post...)

But our kids need this, almost as much (if not more) than they need to write those phony essays about abortion, gun control and lowering the drinking age (which, by the way, I have read hundreds (if not thousands) of each.) They need to be analytical and engaged in topics that mean something to them. I've seen it happen. So has Peter, and Anne and many others. That's what makes this all so cool....Peter Ford, who has been blogging in schools longer than most of us, reposts an essay from his "early" days on the effects of Weblogs in schools that is certainly must reading for any educator users. He highlights the effects of serendipitous collaboration, the evolution of online community, and the effects of audience, among many other topics.

...serendipitous collaboration. Isnt't that great? Yesterday I spent quite a long time blogging and reading blogs that I hadn't read in a long time. I went thru my bloglines blogroll and cut out a lot of things that I hadn't been reading. All of it fascinating, but I just ain't got the time for all of it. When I first set up my blogroll, I was interested in blogging technology, the theory and practice of social software, as well as computer-based learning, education and technology, grass-roots journalism, and EFL (and IT and EFL), but now my interests are focussing more on teaching, education and EFL, with a few misellaneous ones thrown in.
And it was the serendipitity and the interweaving of threads on various blogs that I really got a kick out of. It reminded me of why I blog. Professional development sounds more, well, professional, but serendipitous collaboration gets the feel of it.

October 19, 2005


Here's something interesting. A teacher uses Aristotle's "golden mean" to help him make decisions so as to avoid the extremes of under- and over-teaching. Sounds like advice I could use right now!
The article is an archived posting on a listserve called "Tomorrow's Professor", which Pedablogue mentions here.
Underteaching is characterized by making students responsible for almost all of the learning process. The teacher's investment in the learning outcomes is low and may communicate to students that the course is a "weed out" course and students are on their own.

Overteaching occurs when instructors shoulder too large a share of the teaching-learning process; that is, overteachers take on numerous responsibilities for learning that properly belong with the student. It is important for instructors to know who's responsible for what in the classroom. Depending on the context, over_teaching may take the form of a last-minute review session or providing many pre-exam questions.

October 18, 2005

Why the SRA

I was going to mention something about the SRA Reading Lab and why so many students use it. I wonder if one reason is it's easy: it doesn't require much initiative or thinking, you don't have to "figure out" how to use it, or come up with some interesting, novel way of using it. You just follow the magic footprints. It's almost reading by numbers. I don't mean the content of the reading cards, I mean the activity choice itself, as opposed to any of the other marvellous things we've got lying around. It's self-structured. And perhaps that's what some of them want: more structure, more guidance?

October 17, 2005

More soul-searching

I'm discovering that trying to encourage students to create their own education may not always work. What if, by my efforts to introduce autonomy, instead of reducing the stress and anxiety, I'm adding to it? Instead of making English more accessible and more interesting, I was making it more difficult and remote? Would I spot it? Or would I be so enamoured of my belief that learners construct their own knowledge that I would doggedly pursue my chosen course regardless? I saw a (similar?) evangelism at JALT National: people who believed strongly in the implicit value of authentic learning materials, and were puzzled by students' apparent lack of enthusiasm. So, will they continue to push their "product", or will they be willing to listen to what their learners are saying, even if that means using EFL materials instead of authentic, adopting whole-class teaching instead of group/pair work? Teacher-directed teaching instead of student-centred learning?

My next task in this week's autonomy class, will be to observe what students are actually up to. How many are goofing off? How many are actually doing any work? What about those who didn't show up? Can I find out why not? I have a sneeking suspicion that all is not going as well as I'd like to think; student dissatisfaction may be higher than I like to think.

What prompted all this soul-searching, then?

At the end of last semester, students handed in their portfolios. It was then that we discovered how they had understood what we were expecting: it was worse than we thought. The great majority (90%) had simply not done what we considered to be sufficient work. Although we had resisted (actually, I had resisted) the idea of a quota (so many song worksheets, so many video worksheets, so many reading cards, etc), we found ourselves lapsing into simply counting how many activities students had done in the first semester, based on their own records. Some students had, during the whole first semester (13 sessions of 90 minutes each) only completed six or so song worksheets. A song worksheet takes about 20 minutes to do, max. Working hard, a student could theoretically do 4 in one class, ok say 3. Three times 13 is....

Many had not kept adequate records; they had not filled out a log for each activity. Some even had kept no records at all, claiming they hadn't realized they were supposed to do so. Some lost their papers (or said they had). We have an SRA Reading Lab and many students use it (a choice I'll return to in a moment): they pick a reading card, answer the comprehension questions, then check their own answers. A few students had quite blatantly taken both reading card and answer card at the same time and copied out the answers without bothering to read the card.

At one point I caught myself making excuses for these students: they don't really like English, they pretty much have to be here but they didn't CHOOSE the English Department; they are not academically oriented; schools traditionally nurture only those who have verbal-linguistic skills and punish those who don't, so let's give these non-verbal-linguistic students a break, etc, etc.

One of the final straws for me was when I heard about a colleague's success with a notoriously "difficult" student. This student had managed to fail our class 2 years running. He would show up irregularly and always late, never had any books or papers or even a pencil. He was charming and funny and a great story teller, and he never did a stroke of work. He was also in another teacher's class. This teacher did not subscribe to our politically correct doctrines about letting students make their own choices, or set their own objectives or follow their interests; he decided everything. He made no allowances for non-academic students: he set assignments regularly and gave quizzes every class. His class was hard work (not perhaps by US or UK standards), and he did not apologize for it. His attitude was, it's tough, but no pain, no gain, and they get a sense of accomplishment at the end of it. Not only is our "enfant terrible" still in this guy's class, but he is rarely late, he does the work and he is set to pass the course. Clearly, at least as far as this student is concerned, our colleague is doing something right that we aren't. And how many other students who are merely muddling through at the moment, might do better with a more structured approach, with more guidance, with more, dare I say it, "teaching"?

I see many of my own students are confused by my attempts to make them responsible for their own learning; they don't want to and/or are incapable of setting their own (language-)learning objectives (and this may partly be a result of their low level of English ability; more advanced students DO show interest in picking up the reins, and are able to act responsibly). I had soon developed an antipathy to "learner training", a form of autonomy that developed in the US particularly, and pioneered by such as Anita Wenden et al. It smacked of teacher-control masquerading as autonomy. But I'm now moving in that direction myself, as I think the kind of freedom and choices I've offered my students have left many simply confused and bored: unable to understand what I'm on about, and having nowhere near enough either English ability or confidence or maturity to make their own choices regarding materials or even objectives, they simply putter about aimlessly, and quite a few give up and just go through the motions, hoping to convince me that they are actually working when in fact they're doing nothing of the sort. Not working (neither studying nor practising), they don't achieve anything, which feeds into a vicious cycle of apathydisrespect (towards both me and themselves) and irresponsible behaviour. I'm now experimenting with some form of training - very teacher-controlled - and I'm embarrassed and disgusted to see that it seems to be working. Damn!

October 14, 2005


I recently mentioned Melanie Phillips, and I'd like to return to the topic of her book All Must Have Prizes

I found her book infuriating: she makes a lot of points badly. But somewhere in there she makes a few good points extremely well, points that I've been pondering as I attempt to coax, wheedle, bully, tease, my students into being more autonomous learners.

The main point of her book, which is about education in the UK, is that despite the attempts by both Conservative and Labour (Blair's) governments to improve standards, and despite the creation of an official watchdog committee, Ofsted, and despite the fact that, apparently, an ever increasing number of British students are getting ever higher grades at A- level, literacy and numeracy is on the decline; academic standards are on the decline. Philips claims that this fact is so unpalatable that many refuse to accept the evidence.

Here are a few quotes to give you an idea of her crusade, and her style:
  • Many university dons are in a state of utter despair about the low levels of knowledge presented by the young people turning up to read for their degrees. p.3

  • At some point in the last few decades, the educational world came to agree that its overriding priority was to make children feel good about themselves: none of them should feel inferior to anyone else or a failure. At the same time, such people came to believe that children from relatively impoverished backgrounds, who unarguably started at a clear disadvantage, were somehow incapable of learning what other, more forward, children could learn. There was of course not a shred of evidence for such a belief. What disadvantaged children needed above all was more structured teaching, greater attention paid to those elementary rules of language or arithmetic and a heavier emphasis on order. These were all features which were second nature to those children from more favoured homes but which tended to be lacking in their own. But the educational world, heavily influenced by other profound currents of thinking which all conspired to undermine every form of external authority… decided in its wisdom that disadvantaged children simply couldn’t learn those ‘difficult’ things. p.12

  • Cambridge University simplified its maths syllabus, traditionally the most difficult in the country, because of reduced knowledge by candidates. p.13

  • The emphasis on the practical applications of maths and the obsession with presenting problems ‘in context’ – in other words, relating them to real life situations –had denigrated the primary importance of maths as a training for the mind. Schools, said the [1995 London Mathematical Society] report, had shifted from teaching core techniques to time-consuming activities such as investigations, problem-solving and data surveys….The importance attached to process failed to recognize that to gain genuine understanding it was necessary first to achieve ‘robust technical fluency’… p.14

  • As in so many subject areas, the retreat from knowledge into subjectivity had been driven along by the educationists in the universities….The educationists’ absolute horror of ‘rote learning’, repetition and memory work meant that they were fundamentally opposed to the very techniques which were essential for children to achieve mathematical fluency. p. 15

  • "There's a feeling that if you ask a kid to do something, that's enough, that practice is drudgery. There's this fear of boring the children. But that’s a challenge for the teacher." (Peter Saunders). p.16

  • "The first year university lecturer is thus confronted with a very genial anarchy. The students are pleasant enough; but they are mathematically amoral….They are reasonably intelligent, but have been deprived of the key components of the necessary mathematical (and educational) diet." (Gardiner). p.18

a very genial anarchy... that's a pretty good description of what I face.
The book is not only about maths education, by the way:
  • "But one big thing that's gone from pretty well every [examining] board is translation from English into German. The reasons given for that disappearance are spurious: that it’s not a realistic test and that pupils wouldn't be asked to this in real life. But the real reason they've dropped it is that it's the acid test. It disguises whole areas of weakness, not just in grammar but also that fact that students can get away with a minimal vocabulary." (David Horrocks, lecturer in German at Keele University). p.21

  • "In terms of their intelligence and potential, today's undergraduates are as good as anyone; but they are not being given the tool kit." (Horrocks). p 22-23

  • ..."after years of education in a foreign language, children may not have mastered even the basics: ‘The curriculum tells us to teach only in the target language to make them develop the necessary skills; they have to listen speak, read and write in that language. But you don't teach them the rudiments of the language and if you do teach them grammar at all it will be after they've been expose to these patterns…After three years, the children's performance has not improved and their competence is non-existent….they've got such little understanding of the language they will go nowhere." p. 24

  • There's actually little chance these children will understand French language patterns since they have never been taught English sentence structure either. But they're told this doesn't matter. "They've been told that learning a foreign language is simply about getting the gist. So we're teaching the children constantly to interpret the text, like look and see, interpreting the pictures on the page. It's like treating language as a puzzle. There's no structure, no boundaries; the children just pick and mix." p. 24

  • This retreat from the rules of language and arithmetic is also helping to knock the moral stuffing out of our culture. It gives children the very clear message that there is no right or wrong; instead, everything is good enough as long as it is approximate and other people can ‘get the gist’….Accuracy and correctness are not merely undervalued but now are positively disparaged as elitist. A fundamentalist egalitarianism has taken over in which rules are taboo because some people may break them. Since it is no longer permitted to have a hierarchy of right or wrong behaviour, everyone must be equally rule-less…It was to have been the educational no-pain, no-shame nirvana in which no-one would ever again be made to feel a failure. In reality, all are now failed; and those who are failed most grievously and disastrously by the collapse of educational authority are the children at the bottom of the social heap. p.28

Do you get a sense of the barely suppressed outrage, the tone of any-two-year-old-could-tell-you-this-won't-work impatience? Group-work, project-work, communicative methods and student-centred teaching, "getting the gist", are all swept aside as obvious quackery without any real arguments being proposed, and little attempt to examine the thinking supporting such approaches.

Yet despite this, I found some food for thought which led to intriguing questions:
  • Are my students on task most of the time?

  • Is the standard of work they are doing satisfactory?

  • Are we underestimating students' potential? Are we accepting lower standards of work because we have made excuses for them in our minds?

  • Are students able (or beginning to develop the ability) to choose their own materials and activities, and set their own objectives?

The book opened my eyes to the possibility that I might be so enamoured of the idea of autonomous language-learners, of autonomy as A GOOD THING, that I might be blinding myself to evidence that my attempts to lead them in that direction were not working.
More anon.

October 11, 2005

Keeping blogger English

Since Blogger was bought by Google, they've localized into 9 different languages. This means if you're browser's language settings is set to Japan (for example), the Blogger will offer you a Japanese interface. If you don't want this, you can change it here

Another major discovery: Firefox won't show all the blogger edit toolbar. Damn.

October 02, 2005

CNN.com - Testing hurdle for international students - Sep 23, 2005

Tip of the mouse to EFL geek for the link.
CNN.com - Testing hurdle for international students - Sep 23, 2005: "BOSTON, Massachusetts (AP) -- For American students, tests like the SAT, ACT and GRE mark the path to college and graduate school. But for hundreds of thousands of international students hoping to study in the United States, a major concern is proving their language skills on the TOEFL -- the Test of English as a Foreign Language.
Now that test has undergone a major makeover, aimed at better evaluating how well applicants can communicate in English. As the test debuts Saturday, some students, particularly Asians, are worried they'll be disadvantaged because of how they were taught English in school."

October 01, 2005

Inside Higher Ed :: A Poor Desk-Side Manner

Inside Higher Ed :: A Poor Desk-Side Manner:
What would YOU do? Prof. Shari Wilson describes some true anecdotes of teachers in class. How would you respond? What would you have done? Some interesting stuff. The bit about the teacher not being (and not trying to be) the students' friend hit home with me.
A brilliant art instructor at a state university opens up the class for discussion. A returning student waves her hand, is called on and starts to talk about art. Almost seamlessly, she drifts into her experience as a nurse in World War II. After four minutes, students are shifting in their seats. After nine minutes, three students leave to "go to the bathroom."