July 08, 2005

Intercultural communication

Being always on top of my mail, I have just got around to reading the April 2005 issue of the ELT Journal (Vol. 59 #2) :-(
Two articles of interest. I'll deal with the second one in a separate posting
1) Intercultural communication in English language teacher education:
In recent years, discussions on culture have expanded ... to encompass the cultural appropriateness of various language teaching methodologies... especially as they were exported across contexts....This...was probably fuelled by data emerging from classrooms across the world, where the teacher's/school's chosen methodology showed a lack of 'fit' with the students' and teacher's cultural norms, and their expectations of what 'good' language teaching needs to involve. Indeed, classroom research has revealed how 'behavior in language classrooms is set within taken-for-granted frameworks of expectations, attitudes, values, and beliefs about what constitutes good learning, about how to teach or learn, whether and how to ask questions, what textbooks are for, and how language teaching relates to broader issues of the nature and purpose of education.' (Cortazzi and Jin 1996:169). These 'cultures of learning' (ibid.) into which children are socialized, are outcomes of the educational and cultural transitions of a community or society. Scholars have pointed out how a lack of consideration of variations in cultures of learning can lead to frustration and subsequent failure in language classrooms (Li 1998, Holliday 1994). As a result, teachers ... are now asked (Coleman 1996, Holliday 1994, McKay 2002) to take the learners' sociocultural backgrounds into consideration in choosing materials and pedagogical approaches for particular context of teaching because ignoring the students' norms and expectations - that is, what students bring to the classroom - is denying the learners' experiences.

The author, Seran Dogancay-Aktuna, points out that some argue against taking such considerations because they
can further the 'othering' of non-western cultures, and reinforce stereotypes...
I agree with this:
we cannot ignore that problems can and do occur as we export methodologies across contexts.
Dogancay-Aktuna provides many examples of such problems.
We have...witnessed...a large body of research reporting on problems arising in the process of exporting methodologies in an attempt to make language classrooms more interactive and communicative. For example, Hu (2002) reports that communicative language teaching (CLT) has failed to have the expected impact on ELT in China because assumptions underlying CLT conflict with the Chinese culture of learning....others...have shown how Chinese teachers and students view explicit grammar analysis as crucial to foreign language learning, and believe that the teacher should dominate the classroom. A teacher who does not ... risks being seen as lazay or incompetent. Chinese students, on other hand, have problems in accepting group work, debates, and other interactive activities as meaningful or relevant to their learning. Instead, they value mastery through memorization because they perceive it as knowledge that will bring them confidence and a feeling of success (Cortazzi and Jin 1996)....in Indonesia some educators and administrators viewed communicative language teaching as 'socially polllutive' because its tenets countered the traditional norms of school culture (Tomlinson 1990). In Japan, the most popular activity for students was the whole class working with the teacher. Japanese classrooms did not emphasize interaction, and the mother tongue was used heavily in the lssons (LoCastro 1996). In Korea teachers preferred discrete-point grammar tests to communicative language teaching, and lacked confidence in their own English, while their students showed resistance to classroom participation (Li 1998).

I'm thinking about this because
a) my colleague and I are frequently discussing the cultural elements of what we are trying to do and of students' behaviour in class, and
b) because of my previous posting

July 07, 2005

Attendance revisited

A couple of English teachers kindly posted commments to my students' responses to the question "Why take attendance?"

JH posted, "In my classes I take attendance. The reason is that we do a lot of learning activities and group work in my classes. If students do not come to class, they cannot do the activities."

Michael posted a similar approach: "my classes often do group work and the class would not work well if lots of students were absent".

My colleague asks, what is the connection between "attendance" and "taking attendance"? Does this mean that if the teacher does not take attendance, the students won't show up? And is that then the reason for taking attendance?

My reason for asking the original question was to try and bring to light some of the multiple (and often unconscious) assumptions that are associated with this simple action of taking attendance. It seems to me students (and perhaps teachers also) give a lot of importance to attendance, especially to the quantity of attendance. This is attested to by the large number of students who approach me towards the end of term and anxiously ask how many times they have been absent.

They seem to be very highly extrinsically motivated, and very poorly intrinsically motivated. In fact, it's almost as if they have given up trying to learn anything at all, and instead are now completely focussed on jumping through whatever hoops the teacher sets. And that is the better motivated students! The less motivated either stop trying to jump through the hoops, or stop coming to class altogether.

To return to the 2 comments above, obviously students need to be present to do the activities, but, from the students' point of view, why should they do the activities? Why do they think they are doing the activities? Are they even thinking about this? Or are they merely jumping through hoops?

My purpose is to help students develop some skill or ability: I want them to be able to communicate by the end of the course, even if to a very basic standard. And I require them to give me a practical demonstration of their understanding and competence. Surely this is the reason they need to show up for class and participate in the activities? And if they can demonstrate the ability to a satisfactory standard, then surely they can pass the course? And if that is so, then where does taking attendance enter into it?

However, I see very few signs that developing a competence or understanding is anywhere on my students' radars; all I see is their preoccupation with jumping through hoops. "How many hoops did I jump through? Did I jump through enough to pass?" I doubt that their attitude is very different in their other classes.

Perhaps they have cracked the code: they've figured out that that's what "education" is all about. I'm not saying that they don't need the graduation certificate in order to get jobs, or that they are wrong to want this. But all the same, it strikes me as weird that obtaining the certificate should be considered a matter of how many classes they attended, rather than what they actually learned or whether or not they learned anything. Isn't that a waste of energy and potential?

Why not have students' demonstrated competence as the yardstick? As I mentioned before,
if someone can do all 10 tasks satisfactorily at the first try (in the first class of the year), they pass! Altho this hasn't happened (yet) and the issue has not been raised, I suspect that many students would feel this is "unfair": why should someone who spent 30 minutes on it get the same (or better) grade than someone who worked hard for all 90 minutes of each of the 28 classes in the semester?

At one university I know of, teachers have been warned to take care not to finish class early. Other teachers and school officials are watching!

So what is the standard here? How much time is spent in a classroom? Or some demonstrated level of competence? If the latter, why should it matter how often students show up, or even if they show up at all? The value attached to attendance and its recording strongly suggests that something other than a demonstrated level of competence is demanded.

July 02, 2005

Is Your Child Learning What He/She Needs to Know? :: AO

Recently I posted about the stifling of critical and analytical thinking skills in Japanese education, and the possibility that students raised in such a system could nevertheless develop these skills once they were taken out of that environment. Aaron commented that perhaps blogging (or Internet-based Education) might be able to provide a different environment of the right kind. I agree it has strong possibilities.
Well, today, I just read this, and while I haven't yet read the whole thing, this part of it caught my eye:
incremental reform at the margins [of education] isn't enough: what is necessary is complete systemic overhaul.
And that's NOT the disintermediation of the teacher through technology. Rather, it's the liberation of the teacher from lecturing, grading, and paperwork to enable him/her to interact on a 1:1 basis with a student to promote learning at the student's own pace.

It's our belief that eLearning transforms the teacher into a Socratic tutor, who can help propel students to mastery of whatever the teacher and society deems is the appropriate curriculum.

There is something there, although I'm a little doubtful about "whatever the...society deems is the appropriate curriculum". This smacks of the same-old, same-old; the top-down, "we know what's good for you" approach, whereas one of the characteristics of the new social-networking softwares is that it gives consumers a voice.

As Aaron, pointed out, giving "consumers" (students) a voice is not easy; often they refuse to use it. However, that could be indicative of how ingrained their voicelessness really is. As Augusto Boal has pointed out, there are forms of oppression which are brutal and overt, and there are other forms which are less obvious, more insidious; in the former, the oppressed have no difficulty identifying their oppressors; in the latter, the oppressed may even deny that they are oppressed (this led Boal to a theater-therapy technique he called Cops in the Head)