December 30, 2006

UK woman treks alone to South Pole in 39 days

Another amazing story about a solo voyager. (BBC video here). And this trip is not the only one she has done, nor the last:
Miss McKeand has just under a month before her next adventure: sailing from Tasmania to the South Magnetic Pole, off Antarctica, in her 20-metre yacht Blizzard, accompanied by her partner David Pryce, a master mariner.

December 29, 2006

Lots of solitude and responsibility

Gatto writes about the days before compulsory education, and how, to our modern minds incredibly young children were doing amazing things, and how that would not be possible in this day and age when kids have to go to school:
Our official assumptions about the nature of modern childhood are dead wrong. Children allowed to take responsibility and given a serious part in the larger world are always superior to those merely permitted to play and be passive. At the age of twelve, Admiral Farragut got his first command. I was in fifth grade when I learned of this. Had Farragut gone to my school he would have been in seventh. (Gatto)
Well here's a story that proves him not exactly right:
He is not old enough drive a car or buy a drink in a pub. It will be two years before he can get married and four before he can vote. Michael Perham, however, is on the verge of making history: at 14, he is within days of becoming the youngest person to sail across the Atlantic single handed.

Will they also teach for me?

December 22, 2006

Birth in 1940s Britain

The National Childbirth Trust, Europe's largest parents' charity, has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and in recognition the BBC has created a short but interesting slide show of a couple in their 80s reminiscing about the experience of giving birth in hospital in Britain in the 1940s.


While on the subject of schooling, I came across this article (a speech?) by Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael. Ishmael is a quirky, thought-provoking book about culture and civilization, as viewed from an unusual perspective (a gorilla's, in fact). Hm, back to Animals again.

December 21, 2006

Animal school - school or homeschool?

From TeachingHacks comes a link to a short movie called Animal School. What do you make of it?

It certainly gives food for thought. It tugs at the heart-strings, sure enough, and the music and pictures are beautiful, and perhaps that's what makes me a little suspicious in these suspicious, paranoiac times. It seems to be giving a message that's all too loud and clear. Like an ad for some fancy new technology. In my present state of mind (after reading Gatto, and then this), the only message I take away is take your children out of school and home-school them.

As author Quentin D’Souza mentions, there's an email collection form at the end of the movie.

The movie was made by Raising Small Souls and they've got some feedback which is worth reading.

If you live in Japan, you might be interested in this website which gives info in English about homeschooling in this country.

December 13, 2006

The Japanese Renaissance

The (London) Times Online has a special section today on The Japanese Renaissance, with an interesting collection of articles.

December 10, 2006

Pandora Internet Radio

A friend turned me onto this today. It uses tag technology but not in the usual way where users add tags. It's not social software. You type in a song or artist name, and it searches its database for "other songs and artists that have musical qualities similar to ..." (in my case, to test it, I used John McLaughlin) "because it features jazz fusion elements, a tenor sax solo, an acoustic guitar solo, electric bass playing and electric guitar accompaniment" in other words, elements similar to what they found in their database for John McLaughlin.


But... it only accepts users who can provide a US zip code. Damn.

December 08, 2006

Liberating myself from the how-to-manual mentality

In the foreword to An Unquiet Pedagogy, Paulo Freire wrote:
The beautifully written chapters of An Unquiet Pedagogy demonstrate a profound understanding that practises and experiences can be neither imported nor exported. In essence, Kutz and Roskelly have liberated themselves from the North American culture of how-to manuals.
The minute I read those words, I knew I needed to read this book, and I also suspected that I have not yet liberated myself from the how-to-manual mentality. I read lots of books. I usually have two (at least) in my bag to read on the way to and from work. While I am sick with a cold, I have become more acutely aware of how damn heavy my bag is. What the heck have I got in here? Why do I always need to keep a book or two in there?

I'm not knocking reading, by any means. I'm addicted to learning! I'm stuck in the "I still need more information" mode. The eternal student.

December 04, 2006

Measuring. Don't know what, but I'm measuring

I'm sick with a cold, so I'm not in the best of moods, but I'm coming up, yet again, against a frequent frustration. Normally (when I'm not sick), I can ride over this kind of speed bump and barely notice it, but in my heightened awareness produced by the cold, I cannot let it pass. I've got to COMPLAIN!

In my previous entry, I quoted two students' writing. Both are in the same class, and both were written in response to the same two 20-minute segments of video. They were part of in-class work and I had all students hand them in.

Why did I have them hand them in? Because I've noticed that a few students sleep through most (or part) of the class, and I've felt that's unacceptable so I require them to hand in all work done, so that they will feel there is some consequence.

It's a sad statement, but how much would they do if I didn't require it to be handed in? And it really ticks me off that I have to play this silly little policeman game.

Back to the two samples of writing: what should I do with them? Give the same grade to both? If not, how do I scale them? Do I count the number of sentences (or words?!?) and make that the score? Or do I just check if they've done it or not, so that someone who has written one sentence would get the same "score" as someone who wrote 5 pages of A4? All I really want to do with this is check whether they've done it or not.

I feel they get some benefit from trying to express themselves in English. How much they do is up to them, I'm not prepared to go to whatever lengths might be required to force them to produce a certain amount (I did actually specify a minimum of 5 sentences, but apparently that wasn't clear to the majority).

A further irk is the vocabulary quizzes I give weekly. I do this in the first 10 minutes of class. They mark each others' and write the number of correct answers. It all sounds foolproof, right? But I've noticed some hand in papers which are completely, suspiciously, correct and which have not been marked by anyone else. I suspect such cases are students who came in slightly late (say a few minutes after the test was over). I don't collect the quiz papers straight away, because there is always some classwork writing to be done, and I would prefer everything they do to be on ONE sheet of paper, not 2 (or more).

So, another convolution: to avoid the "problem" of students handing in fake-perfect quizzes, I should collect all the papers right after the quiz? Will that fix the problem?

Obviously, the way to "fix" it, is to collect and mark all the papers myself. And that's what I'm going to do. Honest. It is.

Sheesh! This is driving me nuts! I hate this keeping track of all the bloody work they've done, just for the sake of keeping track of all the bloody work they've done, so that I can justify a numerical score at the end of the term that will give some measure of the quantity (and less hopefully, the quality) they have done.

What is learning and how do you measure it?

Schools are in the business of measuring learning. But what if learning cannot be readily measured in any meaningful way? Obviously, institutions are not likely to let a little thing like that get in their way. Once an institution has been set up, its primary goal, someone wrote, is its own survival and growth, not the mission it was originally set.

Here are two examples of student writing. One was copied down from the board, the other was unscripted writing cued only by watching a segment from the movie Home Alone. Can you tell which is which?

1) "Eye" rhymes with "my". "Eye" and "my" rhyme.

2) Kevin go to shopping. Then he get home on the way, two men pursue after kevin. Two men is thieves. When the night. two men come slyly kevin's house. and his family is bound to be paris, but the home held a party. so the thieves turned back the night.
"so the thieves turned back the night." Poetic, isn't it?

OK, the comparison is not a fair one, but it made me think that there are ways of tricking students into writing well. And that's fine until you ask them to simply produce an unscripted piece of writing. Then you find out what they really can (and can't) do.

After reading nearly 100 pieces like the latter example, I found myself wishing I had not allowed them to write freely, and had instead dictated what they should write. They wouldn't have learned much, but it would have been much easier for me to read! I wonder to what extent (if any) such subconscious longings affect teachers' procedures?

How much of what I ask students to do is genuinely meaningful and most likely to lead to some kind of learning? If I'm feeling bored and cynical after reading this stuff, maybe they felt the same while writing it?

I don't want them to write meaningless stuff. I don't want to assign meaningless assignments. I don't want to read meaningless assignments. Perhaps it is because it is I who assigns the assignments, without consultation? What do you think? Will consultation help create meaningful writing assignments? I suspect if I ask them for their input, I'll get variations on the theme of "You decide: you're the teacher, that's your job. (Our job is just to do what you say.")

I wonder if the following is a signal of cynicism?
The boy stoled a teethbrash.
The boy goes sleeping alone.
This is all he could write after watching two 20-minute segments. The first sentence is supposed to "summarize" the first segment, the second sentence, the second. That's all we get? Two sentences? Ah, but what if he hadn't been feeling so generous?

But I can't really blame him: I didn't ask him if he wanted to watch that (or any) movie; I didn't involve him in the decision in any way. I forced him to watch, then forced him to write about it. Perhaps I should feel lucky I got those two, completely civil, sentences and not a rude finger gesture or a clean pair of heels.

Google Reader popularity booming

First me, then Borderland, then Stephen Downes, then Alan Levine (not directly in that order). Alan Levine's and Borderland's posts tell me stuff about Google Reader I haven't tried yet.

I'm more of a consumer than a producer at the moment, so it takes me a while to understand the benefit of being able to bind feeds together into new ones.

(Thanks to TeachingHacks for the link to Downes, and the post on the A-list blogger image at

December 03, 2006

Freire = Postman + Weingartner?

Came across this definition of literacy, by Stanley Aronowitz in Henry
Giroux's foreword to Literacy by Paulo Freire and Don Macedo. What do you think? Is this the same as Postman and Weingartner's "bullshit
spotter" ability
"Stanley Aronowitz suggests a view of illiteracy as a form of cultural
The real issue for the "functionally" literate is whether they can decode the messages of media culture, counter official interpretations of social, economic, and political reality; whether they feel capable of critically evaluating events, or, indeed, of intervening in them. If we understand literacy as the ability of individuals and groups to locate themselves in history, to see themselves as social actors able to debate their collective futures, then the key obstacle to literacy is the sweeping privatization and pessimism that has come to pervade public life."

I'm trying to re-think my teaching goals: what are the problems, exactly, as I see them? Because my teaching goals are starting to become aimed at the problems that I see, rather than on specific linguistic abilities:
a) because I feel that learning is natural, and therefore if it isn't happening it may well be because of artificial blocks created (basically, what Holt said in How Children Fail, that children learn the game of school is not so much to learn but to get the right answer);
b) therefore my job should be mostly focussed on removing the blocks, rather than "teaching" (in the sense of transmitting information or training skills)
c) because, especially learning a language, a lot of the learning is noticing things (patterns of grammar, of lexis, of pronunciation, e.g. "student" is like "studio" in pronunciation; "blue" rhymes with "too" even tho they're spelled differently; "if 'carol' means a Christmas song, then 'caroling' which looks like a verb must mean..."), and the noticing happens on an personal level. Just because the teacher points something out doesn't mean that students will 'notice' it or learn from it. (SLA professionals who are familiar with Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal Development" theory did some interesting work on error-correction in Foreign Language Learning, and discovered from listening to recordings of students talking to each other while working on a problem, that even if one person points something out to the other, if the thing being pointed out is outside that person's "ZPD", it just doesn't register, either in the sense that the other makes some kind of acknowledgement or in the sense that it affects the other's actual language production. So there!).

What are the problems that you see?
What are your teaching goals (both for yourself and for your students)?

Problems that I see:
- lack of self-confidence in themselves as learners

- lack of a "voice" in their own learning ("check your personal history and feelings and knowledge at the door of the classroom; you don't know nothing and what you DO know isn't worth anything in here; only the "official" (teacher's/textbook's) knowledge has validity; THAT is what must be ingested and 'learned'")

- the positivist attitude towards classroom knowledge (see above: if "learning" means absorbing / memorizing/ remembering the "official knowledge", then obviously there's no need for students to debate, discuss, question or otherwise interact with the knowledge, just learn it) ("Positivism is the most evolved stage of society in anthropological Evolutionism, the point where science and rational explanation for scientific phenomena develops. Marxism and predictive dialectics is a highly positivist system of theory. However Marxism rejects positivism and views it as subjective idealism, because it limits itself only to facts and does not examine the underlying causes of things." - from Wikipedia)

- the lack of initiative (see above and above that: if there is no need for students to interact with knowledge (which belief is based on ignorance of the fact that only thru interaction/dialogue can real, deep, meaningful learning take place) then there is also no need for students to think for themselves; in fact, it's dangerous. Just as official knowledge requires no questioning, then neither does the actions of the teacher, and the teacher must therefore not only transmit the knowledge but also explicitly tell students what they must do with it. Hence, after receiving their handouts, students will just sit there, waiting to be told what to do with this (the Chinese students are different, tho; they don't wait: they see a worksheet with blanks, they start filling them out!))

- lack of communication/feedback: lack of initiative means also lack of response (there's no need for it; all they have to do is listen and learn/remember), which makes a Western (someone from an individualist country) teacher's job problematic: a Socratic approach becomes almost impossible. This lack of response (a 1995 JALT article was entitled "Answer! Please answer!") pressures the teacher into a "sage on the stage" approach, even if she/he doesn't want to and doesn't believe in that;

- little or no sense of their peers as people they can learn from, or of themselves as people who have something to teach others (that's not possible; remember, they're in school to learn the OFFICIAL KNOWLEDGE as purveyed by the OFFICIAL TRANSMITTER)

- lack of good study skills (pretty much summed up by the above): they might include many of the ones listed in Mosaic of Thought as the habits of effective readers.

If my perception is accurate (a big "if", which I need to bear in mind), even partially, then it's unlikely that much meaningful learning will take place in the classroom, however well prepared the teacher is, and however "good" the material is.

Trying to "teach" without addressing the above issues seems to me to promise nothing but boredom and frustration, for both teachers and students.

Looking back over my list, I notice the word "lack" appears several times: I need to be careful that I don't fall into the trap of the "deficit" model of learning, i.e. students "lack" all these things, therefore my job as teacher is to FILL UP this deficit. That's just falling into the same old trap: teacher knows best, and it's the teacher's job to teach; the student is a tabula rasa on which the teacher writes (cf Freire's "banking" concept of education)

(related resources:
- Disempowerment, Bullying, and School Non-Attendance: A Hypothesis

by Yoneyama Shaoko

- Education, Apathy and Post-Meritocracy

by Brian McVeigh

- nnotated A Bibliography of Books on Education in Japan

- Korst, T. (1997). Answer, please answer! A perspective on Japanese university students' silent response to questions. The JALT Journal, 19, 279-91.

Daily Kos diarists on World AIDS Day

Just found this today, a couple of days late, but better than never.