October 21, 2007

Facing The Future

Facing The Future
Originally uploaded by duncmc

[Update: Comments have been closed.]

So, where to, now?

I tried direct instruction. It "worked" in that,
* students meekly did what they were told
* it gave students a feeling that they were in a "proper" class, taught by a teacher "in charge"
* it was easy to sort the sheep from the goats.

It didn't work, in that,
* students were still not producing anything approaching higher order thinking (that's a lot of -ings in one sentence!)
* they did as they were told, but there were few if no signs that they were joining the dots, making discoveries
* students were no more enthusiastic than in previous semesters
* there was little or no time for talking to students one-to-one, something that I found increased motivation and discouraged dropping out
* students made little or no use of the great array of resources that were available to them
* students remained in the "group" mode, i.e. restrained/suppressed individuality in favour of the group
* I still didn't feel like I was making the best use of my skills, knowledge and experience.

This wasn't what I wanted to be doing, at least not with these students.

My original problem was to identify and understand the various forces at work on my students and myself in the classroom: what determined our behaviour? Not the minutae, but the general attitudes and tendencies? And then, what to do about them?

I learned about educating the disenfranchised, how language and education are used by ruling elites to perpetuate the status quo. That seems to be the case, however, it did not find this explanation sufficient, nor did it provide me with enough tools to come up with practical "chalk-face" solutions (altho An Unquiet Pedagogy was very interesting and helpful).

I also investigated cultural and linguistic imperialism and critical pedagogies. Again, interesting, and made me aware of some important issues, but I felt there was more going on, and did not wish to take the time required to work out an entire critical pedagogical approach, which in terms of cultural imperialism was just as problematic (if not more so) than teaching autonomous language learning.

A further difficulty was that many of the above approaches required extensive dialogu and negotiations with students, all of which would have to be done in Japanese, which would require a great deal of work on my part. I do not have that kind of time for something which I was not sure would yield the kinds of results I was looking for.

Gatto wrote, "You teach who you are", and in searching for ways to "beat the system", he had gone back into his own childnood and found there gems that gave him valuable clues as to what to do.

Perhaps influenced by that, I stopped seeing my own private, personal life as distinct and separate from my work: a cross-fertilization began to take place. What was going on in my life, my career, my family, was perhaps similar to what was going on in my work.

One of the things going on at work was an increase in surveillance cameras. Another was a private initiative which I had started (a bookcase of second-hand English books) had been taken away without my permission, and I was told it was unacceptable to have unattended "rubbish" (that's what my boss called it) in the hallways.

In a talk to the parents, a school administrator spoke of the rise in the number of students with low energy, little enthusiasm, lack of self-expression. Did he not pause to consider how actions, policies and organization by the institutions that these children have grown up in, might be contributing factors in this equation? What was even more ironic was that he himself was in poor health, probably a result of stress (he said) from his work. If his work does that to him, what does it do to the students? Apparently, this was not a question that anyone raised.

Generally, there has been a trend towards a less democratic work environment. Autonomy, anyone?

More recently, I've been reading and thinking about individualism and collectivism. I had thought of these as two cultural variables, two different ways of dealing with how humans can get along to create what they need to survive and thrive: different but equal. However, I no longer take such a benignly cultural-relative view, not since reading Hayek and watching The Fountainhead.

Their anti-collectivist philosophy seems to match Gatto's: Gatto and Hayek warn that centrally planned, compulsory systems lead inevitably to a severe curtailment of personal freedom and that will lead to a nation of slaves, of uncritical, obedient automata (Hayek's famous booklet is called The Road to Serfdom). Gatto adds that not only is liberty curtailed under compulsory education, but also the minds of children (and of everyone in the system) are dumbed down.

How is all this relevant to me in my classrooms? I am employed by an institution, and it behooves me to remember that that institution, like others, is intended to maintain the status quo and the elites who run the country and its systems. I should know that status quo and the systems, understand what they look like and how they operate, because I am, witting or unwitting, a tool of those systems.

Not only am I looking for a suitable, relevant approach, I will also need to be aware of what I my own values are, what I really want to do as a teacher, and then I will need to stop doing things which are harmful or contrary to what I really believe, things which I might have taken for granted or never thought about, like taking attendance, for instance.

"Rubbish! What could be the harm in taking attendance?"

Well, what is its purpose? To make sure students are where they are supposed to be. It's part of the tracking mechanism of schools. It has become so ingrained in this society that a large majority of people equate attending a class with education, with learning (or perhaps, even more cynically, they equate "education" not with learning but with simply spending time in a classroom! It would not be easy to argue against such a position, given the reality in many schools); such that many will expect a passing grade simply on the basis that they have a good attendance record. Is this the kind of philosophy you are happy to promote? Because that is what you are doing when you take attendance.

Many (most?) schools in Japan will balk at allowing students to test out of a class, i.e. award them the credits on the basis of a proficiency test without requiring them to attend all the sessions of that class (a case where this would be merited might be, for instance, a returnee who is required to take Basic English but who can already speak English with a high degree of fluency). Chinese students at my university, for instance, have, since 2 years ago, been forbidden to register for Chinese language classes. There is a fundamental reluctance to allow someone to obtain credits or to graduate merely on the basis of merit, unless "merit" includes spending a minimum amount of time with your bum on the classroom seat. (I have written elsewhere about teachers being conned into playing the role of the cop in the classroom; at least at university level, I don't think this is appropriate, unless the role of the university teacher is to make sure students are in class, in their seats, for the required number of hours.)

Students are given not only a minimum amount of credits they must take in a year, but also a maximum. At my university, the minimum is 48 credits per year, the maximum is 52! That tells you all you need to know: it ensures that no student can graduate in less than 4 years.

I started this entry with a question: Where to, now? I don't have a definite answer yet, although I think I see the glimmer of a light ahead (the photo at the top of this entry expresses my feelings well). One thing I am investigating is the power of imagination. (As an example, click on the photo at the top of this entry to see a larger version; what do you feel, think, remember, as you look at this photo? Draw a sketch, write something, anything, that expresses what you feel. You just created something entirely new, and you did it autonomously; in fact, you could not have done it otherwise.)

Anyway, if I decide to write about it, it will be on a new blog. It looks like it will be fun, whatever I do. And this blog entry has gone on quite long enough.

Good night, and good luck.

Looking back (5)

Where To Now?
Originally uploaded by Katelyn Gibson

Gatto and Holt made the most convincing arguments, and provided the most practical help.

Holt pointed out that children (people) learn most from what they themselves actually do, rather than from what teachers do (or don't do): "Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners." (from Holt's Wikipedia entry).

Both Gatto and Holt seemed to have come, independently, to the same conclusion (here in Holt's words, though they could easily have been written by Gatto): "Education... now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the modern slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers, consumers, spectators, and 'fans,' driven more and more, in all parts of their lives, by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve 'education' but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves." (from Holt's Wikipedia entry).

When I first read Holt, I found it hard to accept his bitter anti-school conclusions. I had a similar reaction to reading Gatto at first. If Gatto is right (and he's not the only one to have pointed out the roots and motivations of compulsory, state-sponsored educational systems, by any means), then I am part of that social engineering: I've gone through it, and am now implementing it. How can that be, when schools are so full of good, nice, sometimes even inspiring, passionate people? Like me, for instance! I'm not a bad person; my teachers weren't bad people.

I had to admit, tho, that some things rang true:
* my students certainly behave like people who know that they are being asked (and will inevitably be asked) to do essentially meaningless things in school. That's what happens in school: you do meaningless things. Hence the lethargy, the lack of enthusiasm, the boredom;
* they do seem to be being trained to move at certain times, to be grouped together with other people they don't know and haven't chosen to be with, according to criteria they have no say in; they accept this as "normal";
* school (here I mean the universities where I work) seems to be more a matter of keeping people managed than actually educating them - hence the memos warning teachers of dire consequences for letting the students out early.

Although I could feel anger and outrage while reading Gatto, I could not sustain it. I didn't hate the system as much as he did. And without that sustained fury, I was unable to invent my own strategies. The ones that Gatto described (and he describes only in broad outlines for the most part; there are no easy-to-follow instructions in his books) required a great deal of courage, determination and crazy inventiveness, more than I had.

I still could not see clearly what the roles, systems, schedules, mentality of school were doing to my students, although I was beginning to; I was unable, equally, to see what they had done to me. But I did not look in that direction until later.

Reading Gatto forced me to ask myself some difficult, disturbing questions:
1) What do I really know of freedom?
2) What kind of freedom or autonomy do I have?
3) Am I really free? Or do I assume I am because of certain symbols I've been accustomed to associate with freedom?
4) Do I have real autonomy? Or is it merely an appearance, like being in a spacious and comfortable cage?
5) Am I a slave unwittingly perpetuating an enslaving system?
6) If I'm not really free, how can I "teach" autonomy? Talk about the blind leading the blind.

Where to, now?

Looking back (4)

facing the wall
Originally uploaded by NEINmeister
I began to question my own values and assumptions:
* was it necessarily A Good Thing to offer more choices, more autonomy?
* what if my cultural values and those of my students were different, like Lisa Delpit describes? If that were true here, too, then I might not be doing them the favour I thought I was;
* what if all this, the "freedom, autonomy, choice, fun, reflection" schtick, were a monumental waste of time? Actually making learning more difficult for them, and less likely?

For a while, discouraged by student response including written feedback that suggested many were confused about what they were supposed to do, at a loss when faced with choices, and not impressed with the general lack of direction, I went "back" to direct instruction:
* much more lock-step work;
* more lecturing with students taking notes;
* a final exam.

Students (mostly) did the work, although attendance was no better (or worse) than before. However, enthusiasm, real learning, curiosity, initiative, signs that people were joining dots on their own, coming to conclusions of their own, seeing patterns in the language that they had not seen before and that no-one had pointed out to them - none of these made their appearance.

And I wasn't having much fun, either.

So, all in all, not a very satisfying semester, although it did seem more in line with what students (and other faculty staff) expected.

Looking back (3)

Look Back
Originally uploaded by InTheSunStudio

The next stage (tho it wasn't actually so neatly chronological) was reading stuff about empowerment, about language as power, about power differentials, about the classroom as a stage where power plays are enacted.

That seemed to make some sense:
* were my students perhaps behaving in ways similar to disenfranchised groups like those Paulo Freire talked about?
* Even tho they are not a discriminated minority but children of the overwhelming majority?
* If so, in what ways are they disenfranchised?
* How does this work?

I also explored the politics and psychologies behind various approaches:
* what values underlie the "project method"?
* how might the white, liberal values I held be different from those of my students?
* how might those differences play out with my students?
* what are the arguments for and against "traditional" instruction?
* how valid are those arguments?

I read E.D. Hirsch,
James Herndon,
Neil Postman,
Maxine Greene,
Lisa Delpit,
William Perry,
Jacques Barzun,
Robert Leamson,
Dennis Littky,
Theodore Sizer,
several books by Henry Giroux.
I re-read John Holt.
I read Melanie Philips.
I read and re-read and re-read John Taylor Gatto.

(To be continued).

Looking back (2)

the look back.
Originally uploaded by theshanghaieye

What was going on? And what should I/could I do about it?

My razor-sharp mind soon (after a few years) noticed a few things:
1. students need to be told what to do
2. they try to blend in with the group, try not to stand out
3. they are afraid of making mistakes.
4. they seem bored of school (even if they just got here)
5. many of them shuffle along, like prisoners shuffling between their cell and the exercise yard.

At first, I searched for socio-cultural explanations:
* this is Japan
* in Japan, the group rules
* people are shy (afraid of the retribution of the group, what they call "the eyes of others" hito no me ひとの目)
* high school education focuses on passing entrance exams, not teaching communicative English.

One strategy:
* break up the group into pairs, threesomes, quartets
* tell them exactly what to do and make them all do it together (no-one stands out, then, no-one's in the spotlight)
* focus on communicative English
* get them out of their desks and moving around

I used a dramatic story written by some friends of mine. That seemed to work more successfully than other textbooks or approaches, tho it was not perfect.
* students enjoyed learning real (as opposed to "exam") English
* they gradually relaxed and became more spontaneous (their movements opened up, speeded up, became less inhibited).

I used this in some classes, but I also taught other subjects with many of the same students. So I developed another strategy, together with a colleague:

* provide a variety of materials and activities (this includes demonstrating them)
* let students choose materials and/or activities
* make the goal the creation of a portfolio of work which students must present at the end of the semester
* include materials that contain communicative English
* provide self-study materials, i.e. materials that are self-explanatory, that include the answers, e.g. listening cloze exercises that with the answers in a separate file, an SRA reading kit
* provide materials that are fun to use, that don't seem like highschool study, e.g. games (Cluedo, Scrabble, Crazy Eights, Pictionary), movies on DVD (so they can switch between English and Japanese subtitles), popular songs, etc

This worked OK with some students: about a third. The rest didn't understand it:
* what am I supposed to do?
* why do I have to make all these choices?
* it looks like the teachers are just goofing off
* then I'll goof off, too
* no-one seems to care
* no-one's watching me or standing over me making me do stuff? Then I'll just go to sleep or maybe sneak out when no-one's watching...

How did I know?
* by observing students in class
* by talking to some students in class (one muttered under his breath "Why's he bugging me with all these questions?")
* through written feedback (tho this was hard to come by; students did not understand why I needed their feedback, "This dude seems real insecure about his teaching...")
* by the number of nearly empty portfolios at semester's end

(To be continued)

October 20, 2007

Looking back

looking back
Originally uploaded by jennypenny26

I started this blog as a doodling-pad - a place to write in order to more clearly see what I want to say - as I blundered along attempting to "teach" autonomous language-learning at a private Japanese institution of higher education. I hoped also to attract comments and observations, because I was not/am not getting enough of that where I work.

Basically, I was trying to understand what was going on in my classroom, what was going on in my students, and what was going on in me. Why did we behave as we do? Especially as some of that behaviour is
a) counter-productive,
b) illogical,
c) downright weird, given the circumstances.
(Oh, and what exactly are the circs? That question did not occur to me until much later.)

Teaching a foreign language, one might think, should be pretty straightforward: you offer a class, people sign up, you teach the class, people follow your directions, they practise, they learn, they improve. Voila. In the words of Pappas (Point Break), "How hard can it be?"

Well, it was a lot harder than that.

People signed up (or were signed up automatically), but then didn't show up for weeks, sometimes never.
Of the ones that DID show up, some
never brought any paper, dictionary or writing implements;
some collapsed across the desk, hid behind their bag and did not resurface until the class was over;
some brought the requisite tools, but refused to open their mouths;
some stalked non-stop, only not in English;
almost all, without exception, never did homework - they did not refuse or object, they just never did it;
the majority, even the ones that seemed genuinely interested went right along with everyone else in subverting the practical purpose of the activities.

What was going on?

Chats and comments in the staff room suggested that this was a normal state of affairs. Although I did not want to, I came around to believing them.
(To be continued).

October 15, 2007

Bad Cop

Bad Cop
Originally uploaded by snuggle up & read
About a year ago, I noticed I had a number of students who were showing up to class but then goofing off or sleeping and not actually doing much work.

My solution had two prongs to it: a pitchfork (slightly heated).

No, what I did was: a) assigned work in class which either I assessed in class (e.g. student interviews or speeches) or which I collected at the end of the class (e.g. quizzes, written exercises, etc);

b) where possible, refined my course objectives so as to create more performance-based objectives. My reasoning was, if the objectives involve demonstrating competence, then what do I care if they sleep or goof off? They just need to be able to it to a satisfactory level on the day of the test.

Doing b) was preferable, but not always possible (I don't write all my own course objectives). Doing a) turned out to be a royal pain in the (choose your body part). First, I had to MARK the quizzes (a 20-item quiz for up to 40 students per class takes a long time to mark). Then I got smart and had STUDENTS mark each other's quizzes, but when I reviewed their papers, I saw that about half were incorrectly marked and some weren't even bothering (they just marked everything correct! That's what friends are for, right?). Then there was the problem of how to mark assignments that were only half done, or where there were several assignments in one class, and some students had done all, some had done none, some had done one or two, etc. Give a point for each PART of the assignment completed?

I eventually asked myself the question I SHOULD have asked myself before I started down this road: am I a teacher or a cop? Do I really have to be spending my valuable time just checking up on whether they're doing the work or not? It was a rhetorical question by that time: my (body part) had got so sore that I just wanted to drop this "checking" game.

I don't think it's my job as a teacher to check up on whether they're doing the work or not, except in an informal way (i.e. walking around during class, observing and talking). I think that's a part of the teacher's job that involves exerting control over other people, usually by fear. That's an aspect that goes contrary to my stated goal of increasing or helping students to increase their own autonomy. At some stage or other, we teachers buy into exerting control over other people as part of our job description: unthinkingly, we are conned into taking on cop duties.

I refuse to do this any longer.

In one class today, there was a boy right in front doing some other (non-English) work. I made sure he knew I had noticed him, but I said nothing. I collected all the papers at the end of the class (not to MARK, just to quickly scan). I don't know when he had done it, but he had done everything he was supposed to, and had made almost no mistakes, putting him in the top percentile of the class for that day.

In another class, a boy who's in the Sumo club dozed for the first half of the class. He came awake during part 2 when I assigned conversation practice and they had to perform a conversation for me in pairs. He did fine.


October 10, 2007

"All men are equal but..."

All websites are universally accessible, but....

some websites are more universally acceptable than others.

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October 03, 2007

If God wanted us to vote...

A propos of nothing, except I just read it,

If God wanted us to vote, he would have given us candidates.

If voting could change this system it would be against the law.

[Attributed to Idaho Blackie, in the liner notes to Utah Phillips' We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years.]

September 28, 2007

A parting of the ways

Five Paces
Originally uploaded by Charlotte Augusta
I'm shutting up shop. My blog and I are parting ways. My primary intererest has shifted away from autonomous language-learning and teaching. I am still interested in teaching and learning, but not within the field of autonomy.

Rather than adapt the blog, I'll leave it here (for posterity, ya know), and create a new one.

Before that, I'll take the opportunity to put my thoughts in order, and summarize as briefly as possible why I originally started this blog, and where I am now and why I want to change directions. This will be an exercise in mental self-discipline, best illustrated by the quote:
I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have time.
(I thought this was Mark Twain, but Wikipedia tells me it is by Blaise Pascal,
Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte,
although Wikipedia adds (rather unhelpfully)
This quote has been also attributed to Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Cicero, and others besides.

One thing I've learned from blogging here: I'm a lone ranger. I don't blog in order to create community. I know it's not politically correct to say so, but I couldn't care less about community, frankly, tho I do care about the individuals who've dropped by here and taken the trouble to leave a comment. Thank you. I've learned a lot and enjoyed the company.

I write, selfishly, primarily for myself, to marshal my thoughts, and gain insight into what I really mean. As E.M. Forster wrote, "How can I know what I think till I see what I say?"

September 21, 2007

Pink revenge

What do you do if you see a 9th-grader being bullied for wearing pink at school?

Read what two brave 12th-graders at Central Kings Rural High School in Nova Scotia did.

(Mouse-tip to Aventures d'organisation for the link)

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September 14, 2007

Making time

After tracking the amount of time I was spending online just reading posts in my Google Reader (even just scanning them), I decided to throw them all out, and give myself an extra hour per day. They're fascinating, and most of them are still in my blogroll (sidebar). But I really need the extra time as classes start in 2 weeks' time.

(Photo credit: mdpNY on Flickr

September 11, 2007


Apparently even Monsanto shies away from Monsanto products.

First Starbucks, then Safeway announced they would no longer use milk that contains rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), primarily made by Monsanto.

Then I read that Monsanto goes GMO-free... in its cafetaria!

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September 09, 2007

Do schools today kill creativity? part deux

I should have waited a bit before blogging my earlier entry, until I'd seen this TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson (a fellow Brit I'd never heard of). Makes a similar point to Michael Rosen but with a lot more power and in less than half the time (20 minutes). (See Ken's Wikipedia entry and his official website.)

September 08, 2007

The end of school as we know it? Or will it be just more of the same?

This caught my eye:
Knowsley Council in Merseyside, has abolished the use of the word school to describe secondary education in the borough. It is taking the dramatic step of closing all of its eleven existing secondary schools by 2009. As part of a £150m government-backed rebuilding programme, they will reopen as seven state-of-the-art, round-the-clock, learning centres.
Originally in the British newspaper, the Independent, I found it on the Wales-Wide Web.
Go read Graham Attwell's blog entry, especially the comments and the links in them.

Here's one:
When you read the material supporting the 'Knowsley Experiment', it really is the proverbial Curate’s Egg. There’s some progressive educational theories, spin, Blairite ‘newspeak’, consultants’ verbal diarrhoea, paying homage to Microsoft and the downright dangerous.
and it's downhill from there, and well-argued (and not very complimentary to American education, either).

Of course, if the testing and "benchmarks" (there, that shows how with-it I am, doesn't it?) are all still in place and unquestioned, then...

If you watch the beginning of this 45-minute video I blogged about previously, you'll hear Cambridge University lecturer, Dominic Wyse, tell how
since 1988 and the National Curriculum, politicians have exerted greater and greater control.

Will this tendency suddenly change or lessen? What do you think, boys and girls?

September 07, 2007

Phonics or... creativity?

I just re-discovered teachers.tv, a British website (and actual TV programme?) that hosts a host of information about teachers and teaching in British schools. Obviously most of the content is going to be of more interest to people who actually live and teach in Britain, than to people who don't (like me), but I enjoyed this 45-minute video by children's author Michael Rosen from the programme School Matters on the subject of phonics and the teaching of reading. Apparently, phonics is now the British government's official teaching-to-read method. Michael Rosen, though, is in the "whole word" camp. He visits a number of schools and interviews different people, teachers and researchers and people in government. It's a very well made video. Rosen's purpose is to examine whether phonics and testing stifles children's (and teacher's) creativity.

I don't think the whole-word argument is convincingly made in this video, and certainly the question of whether it really is an either-or argument goes begging through the entire 45 minutes. Equally unasked is the question of why the government needs to decide on a single approach at all, and then mandate that for the whole country.

Here's the video blurb:

Author Michael Rosen questions whether the current political enthusiasm for synthetic phonics, designated literacy hours, and league tables is turning off young readers.

Rosen examines the evidence for claims that these devices have led to higher literacy standards, and finds it wanting. Unlike many critics, he suggests ways of encouraging reading, and he's not afraid of advocating poetry, often one of the most difficult and frightening tasks facing both teachers and their classes.

In his journey to discovering ways of improving literacy Rosen hears from heads, literacy experts, teachers and academics and even Jim Rose; the man whom he holds principally responsible for the imposition of synthetic phonics throughout the land.

September 03, 2007

September 02, 2007

Lost in translation

Here's a good example of how your words may not always convey what you intend them to convey:

The video clip's actually in French, but that's not the cause of the "mis-translation".

The secret of Brokebank Mountain.

August 28, 2007

Freedom: what is it?

Doug "Borderland" has another thoughtful and thought-provoking post, this time on start-of-the-year "class management" problems, also called emergence...

To be brutal, I didn't understand much of it, but I enjoyed the T-shirt, I mean the comments, especially Stephen Downes', where he discussed the meaning of freedom.

  1. I recently read The Road to Serfdom by Austrian economist F.A. Hayek, originally written in 1944. The Amazon reviews give a good gist of the book (the statement that Hayek influenced Reagan and Thatcher should neither put off the inquisitive reader nor pre-dispose her to agree or disagree). Freedom is only one of several themes in this book, but it presented ideas I had not come across before, in particular the warning that the ideals of socialism (fairness, spreading the wealth, etc) often blind believers to the strong possibility that centralized government control will lead to totalitarianism. At the time, Britain had long adopted many of the laws and concepts of centralised government and a planned economy; Hayek indicated that Nazi Germany was merely a decade or two further along the same road. Very short book, worth a read.

  2. Jon Rappoport's work somewhat supports Hayek's thesis that centrally planned and organized government is ripe for abuse by what he terms "cartels", which aim to gain ever increasing amounts of control over an ever increasing number of areas of human activity, consequently limiting the personal and creative freedom of those humans. The solution, or antithesis, he proposes is for individuals to make full use of their power to desire, to imagine and to realize (make real) what they imagine and desire - the creative force, if you will. He sees cartels as being essentially groups of psychopathic individuals who are in fact unwittingly trying to alienate individuals from their creative power, their freedom, because individuals who have been so alienated are easier to manipulate and control. Freedom, therefore, is something we create for ourselves, using our power to imagine and create what we most deeply desire. It is the antithesis of the desire to control others and demonstrates itself as a refusal to be controlled by others. I connect the desire and power to control, in ever increasing degrees, to centralisation (something Rappoport hints at if I remember, but perhaps I'm projecting). Centralisation - the transfer of power from the many to the few - allows cartels to accelerate their grab for power and control, and is therefore antithetical to true freedom. (Click here for an interview with Rappoport: tho it's ostensibly about his plans for an arts centre, he essentially lays out his philosophy concerning creative power and freedom).

Hayek also connects centralised planning with the homogenization of thought (leading to suppression of individual thought and dissent), e.g. this quote from E.H. Carr:
It is significant that the nationalisation of thought has proceeded everywhere pari passu with the nationalisation of industry.

Disclaimer: I'm not advocating here the ideas of either Hayek or Rappoport. They are merely two writers whose work has prompted in me a re-think of my understanding of freedom. Click the links and read at your own risk, etc, etc.

Marzano - a comment

After coming across Dr Marzano on the Excelsior Gradebook website, I did a little search (never afraid of hard work, me), and found this inspiring review of one of Marzano's books, Classroom Assessment & Grading That Work.

Another Marzano book What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action has the blurb
Any school in the United States can operate at advanced levels of
effectiveness-if it is willing to implement what is known about
effective schooling. "If we follow the guidance offered from 35 years
of research," says author Robert J. Marzano, "we can enter an era of
unprecedented effectiveness for the public practice of education."
That's all we need to do? Follow the guidance from a staggering 35 years of research? You mean that hasn't been tried before? What a genius! I foresee an era of unprecedented effectiveness for the public practice of education! He's right! Waddaya mean, look at the track record? History is dead!

Still, I'm intrigued. I ordered some of his books (not the ones mentioned here, unfortunately, couldn't find those) via inter-library loan and we shall see what we shall see, boys and girls.

Online photo editor

I just bought a new computer (Windows Vista) which comes with some very basic photo editing software (I'm also playing with Picasa to see if that will do the resizing and cropping that I want), the rather clunky Windows photo gallery (at least that's what it's called in Japanese), so when I read Larry Ferlazzo's blog entry about FotoFlexer, an online photo-editing app, I quickly clicked on it.

I just played with the demo, and it does all the basic stuff I want to do - resizing, cropping and some simple effects. I'm too cheap to spring for Photoshop which will come with a ton of features I'll never use.

August 27, 2007

Online grading

Last month, after making one too many errors typing in my grades into Excel, I decided to try an online grading system: I'm using MyGradeBook.com's 1-month trial, and so far have been pleased.

Today, I also found Engrade Online Gradebook but did not sign up for the free account after the guided tour balked at the first fence. I also found Excelsior's Gradebook which is not an online app but a program you download (also free). I clicked around on Excelsior's site and read a bit about Marzano. Anyone know of him or read his stuff? He's photogenic, that's for sure. His products must be good, then, eh?

Do you use online gradebooks? If so, which one? Any recommendations?

Funny ads

Via Google (click on "add more content" to your iGoogle page), I discovered Funny Ads. I've had it on my iGoogle page for a few days, but didn't watch any of them until today. A number are in languages other than English (some of those have English subtitles), and a number are "silent", where the pictures tell the whole story.

Humour is an element common to all those I saw at a quick glance, and I think they would be great for teaching English, e.g. as prompts for a writing assignment (write the story you saw, create your own ad), or a speaking task (tell your partner what you saw; what is the ad for? Do you think it's an effective ad? Why/why not?), or a multimedia project (create your own ad, video it, upload to Internet).

My favourite is the Deutsche Postbank one.

August 26, 2007

Japanese Wikipedia resources

As I'm at present teaching a class on World News, and as I found some of the info on Wikiepedia and bias and the Neutral Point of View page to be of possible value to those World News students, I tried to find the equivalent pages in the Japanese version of Wikipedia. Here's what I found after just 10 minutes searching; if you find better, more relevant ones, please post them in the comments -
  1. Wikipedia:ウイキぺディアへようこそ a general introductory page to the concept and purpose of Wikipedia, including guidelines for contributors, and containing links to more specific pages on point of view, checking sources, copyright, etc.

  2. Wikipedia:記事を執筆する (kiji wo shippitsu suru) guidelines for contributors, including a brief mention (with links) to the neutral point of view (chuuritsu na kanten 中立的な観点)
    and to using reliable sources (shinrai dekiru jouhougen 信頼できる情報源)

  3. Wikipedia:五本の柱 (go-hon no hashira - the 5 pillars or key principles of Wikipedia)

  4. Wikipedia:基本方針とガイドライン (kihon houshin to gaidorainu - basic policies and guidelines), a long and detailed page which my students may not have the patience or motivation to read, nor me!

  5. Wikipedia:信頼できる情報源 (shinrai dekiru jouhougen - reliable sources of information), referred to above. This looks very promising as it alone of the pages I've seen and referred to above is bilingual, with the English on the left and the Japanese on the right.
    In particular, I think I'll use the some definitions (fact, opinion, primary source, etc), and
    beware false authority.

Roundup August 26th, 2007

From a comment Larry left, I discovered his blog, and from there this page of resources for students. An impressive list, although there are lots more resources than student-produced pages.

One of the links was to Dandelife "a social biography network".

One of the stories I clicked on at random referred to sleep apnea and a successful treatment this guy found called Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, which I wasn't particularly interested in until I read this: The examples and perspective in this article or section may not represent a worldwide view of the subject.

The Wikipedia article on this topic and a related one on the Neutral Point of View, are both fascinating, revealing a global awareness and how this affects point of view, bias and accuracy in writing, something I blogged about a few months ago: blogging to broaden your perspective. If you're writing on the Internet, you can assume you'll get readers from all over the world, and you can't assume, as so many writers do, that your readers are like you, or have the same point of view.

On the Wikipedia page on countering systemic bias, I found these points to be particularly interesting:
  • The origins of bias
    The average Wikipedian on English Wikipedia is (1) male, (2) technically inclined, (3) formally educated, (4) a native or non-native English-speaker, (5) white, (6) aged 15–49, (7) from a nominally Christian country, (8) from an industrialized nation, (9) from the Northern Hemisphere, and (10) likely to be employed in intellectual rather than practical or physical jobs (see Wikipedia:User survey and Wikipedia:University of Würzburg survey, 2005).

  • Why [bias] matters and what to do
    Many editors contribute to Wikipedia because they see Wikipedia as progressing towards, though never reaching, an ideal state as a repository of human knowledge. The more idealistic may see Wikipedia as a vast discussion on what is true and what is not from a "neutral point of view" or "God's Eye View". The idea of a systemic bias is thus far more troubling than even widespread intentional vandalism. Vandalism can be readily identified and corrected. The existence of systemic bias means that not only are large segments of the world not participating in the discussion, but that there is a deep-rooted problem in the relationship of Wikipedia, its contributors and the world at large.

    The systemic bias of the English Wikipedia is permanent. As long as the demographic of English speaking Wikipedians is not exactly identical to the world demographic, the vision of the world presented on the English Wikipedia will always be askew. Thus the only way systemic bias would disappear would be if the population of the world all spoke English at the same level of fluency and had equal access and inclination to use the English Wikipedia. However, the effects of systemic bias may be mitigated through conscious effort. This is the goal of the Countering systemic bias project.

    There are many things you may do, listed roughly from least to most intensive:
    * See if there are web pages on a particular subject which were written by people from other countries or cultures. It may provide you other places to look or other points of view to consider.
    * Be more conscious of your own biases in the course of normal editing. Look at the articles you work on usually and think about whether they are written from an international perspective. If not, you might be able to learn a lot about a subject you thought you knew by adding content with a different perspective.
    * Occasionally edit a subject that is systemically biased against the pages of your natural interests. The net effect of consciously changing one out of every twenty of your edits to something outside your "comfort zone" would be substantial.

August 21, 2007


Here's a roundup of some of my Google Reader content this morning:
  1. The Wow Factor - from NextGenTeachers by Justin Medved - introduces Animoto, an online app that creates presentations that look very cool and apparently easy to produce in a short time. The free version limits you to 30-second presentations. Here's one of random Japan images.
    . (Check out the YouTube trailer to an upcoming comedy called Balls of Fury).
  2. Jimbo's English Teaching in Japan Blog has an interesting self-reflective entry about a recent frustrating teaching experience that I can certainly relate to and I'm sure many other teachers can, too.
  3. And speaking of self-reflective, Ebele, a brassy, sassy British blogger, posts on one of her blogs, Can We Pay U? a link to another blogger taking a hard, honest look at himself and his blog, Robert Scoble: I was reading Darren Rowse's blog the other day - about a guy called Robert Scoble. Robert wrote a very self-reflective blog questioning whether he was still doing what excited him. Carrying a new-born baby in his arms brought that and other questions to the fore. And it did make me think. So I made a list. Robert Scoble has decided to take a break from his prolific blogging to reconsider how he can best add value, and spend more time with his family (in this case, I don't think that's a euphemism)
  4. Catherine Austin Fitts blogs a short list of recent financial or related news articles. Catherine's website www.solari.com is a rich (pun intended) source of information about money and financial matters, including historical background, and includes some fascinating audio seminars (some for free, but most you need to buy). Catherine was a Wall Street banker for many years, then worked in Bush 41's administation in the Department of Housing, her main aim was to understand how money works. If you read Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad or any of that series and are interested in furthering your own financial education, then you might find Solari.com of interest (I'm aware of some of the criticism and controversy surrounding Kiyosaki, and it's worth bearing in mind). Some of Catherine's historical background articles are from her own experience, and they are just as gripping as the best whodunit. If you enjoyed Gatto's Underground History of American Education, then you might enjoy Catherine's articles because they take an alternative, insider's look at how money really works. Catherine's Solari concept is SRI (Socially Responsible Investment) but turbo-charged.

August 03, 2007

Video day

David St Lawrence lives in Floyd County and writes about a festival held there. There I found a link to Spiral Hoop Dancer Vivian.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OieV55-MoPc Spiral & Earth Dance Festival
I could watch this for hours. She is having such fun, and she apparently did not know she was being videoed. Plus it doesn't hurt that she's very sexy. (This vid is work- and family-safe).

Dan Meyer, math-teacher extraordinaire and a dab hand at making and using online videos lists some of his resources, amongst which was Ticklebooth, a repository for all kinds of intriguing stuff, one of which is Homeless, a non-verbal CG short with beautiful colours and music, about a bag-lady.

Are you gullible? Let this video be a lesson to you. (Warning: if you have religious beliefs, you might find parts of this offensive).

Floods in the UK

Doctor Foster went to Gloucester
In a shower of rain.
He fell in a puddle
Right up to his middle
And never went there again.

But remember, kids: global warming's just something Al Gore made up coz he was sore at losing the election.

August 02, 2007

Way out of boredom and despair

For all of us working in educational institutions, there is hope: a way has been found out of boredom and despair.

Since the prison's physical fitness programme was redesigned Crisanto and his fellow inmates have become musical stars.

Some of the 1500 inmates at Cebu now perform mass choreographed dance moves to the strains of Michael Jackson's Thriller, Queen's Radio Gaga and a number from the hit film Sister Act among others.

Byron Garcia, a security consultant at the prison, says the thinking behind the move was

Click to read more.

The bit that really caught my attention tho was this sentence about halfway through: Vince Rosales, a city engineer, was drafted in by the prison as a choreographer a year ago...

A what? Was drafted by whom? As a what?!? I mean, when you need a choreographer, that's the first place you go, right? The Engineering Department! The article is curiously silent about this most curious of facts.

(Hat-tip to James of Recent Reflections for the link).

August 01, 2007

Interesting game site for young keyboard users

Just found this plug for online game and web designer, Ferry Halim, on the NextGen Teachers blog, and wanted to promote it here. I haven't tried all the games yet, but they look like fun. I'll be introducing my youngest daughter to them soon.

July 29, 2007

Cool tool: Flickrdown

My computer died and took all my photos with it. Some are still alive, tho, on a couple of Flickr accounts I have. Downloading them 1 by 1 is such a pain, tho, that I looked around for an easier way, and found Flickrdown by Gregg Man. I could not access Gregg's homepage, but was able to download a copy from SourceForge.net.

July 28, 2007

Objectives, importance of, in teaching

(Photo credit: skydive_upload12 by MikeyDotCom on Flickr)

Borderland has an interesting post up called Ground Rush. Great story! Skydiving for school credit, wow! Wish I could have done that.

His WordPress spam police fried my comment, and as this could be crucial to the future of education on this planet, I'm posting it here.

Turning the main point of his entry, about planning for classes, I was reminded of the following:
1) "Plan the class AFTER the class" (Caleb Gattegno, inventor of The Silent Way of language teaching)

2) An anti-objectives anti-objectives point of view from educationalist heterodox, James Atherton (slightly less subjectively here here ; but see also here for a more thorough treatment of the subject.)

3) And this blog entry (Atherton again, sorry!): I got a course outline (two sides of A4) which specified a "syllabus" with "aims" and "content" but no "objectives".... He had a white-board, on which he wrote basic propositions, about three times. There were no handouts. There were no transparencies. There was no PowerPoint. It was brilliant.
(Admittedly, he's writing about teaching teaching adults, not children).

4) I also recalled this PDF from NALD, which refers to Pratt's model of Direction and Support (thanks to Harold Jarche for the link).

I realize now that I relate objectives closely to direction and support for students. I think my students require greater direction from me than I have realized, and working on providing clearer instructional objectives has been my way to provide greater direction.

McAfee's Phishing quiz

Chris Craft at Crucial Thought posted a link to McAfee's Phishing quiz. Ten questions that test how good you are at spotting fake (phishing) websites and emails.

This kind of skill or knowledge is, unfortunately, necessary these days. A neat tool to use in class with students.

Bonus question: how can you tell if the McAfee site itself is genuine or not?

(I got 10/10. How did you do?)

July 25, 2007

Floods in the UK

OK, nothing to do with autonomous EFL learning, but I just loved the photo that was on the BBC website.

July 17, 2007

Cultural difference

Teaching English in a foreign country is a whole different game. I read a few teachers blogs, teachers in the US, UK, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Canada. Almost all are teaching in their own native language, and teaching students who mostly have the same native language as the teacher. When you're teaching students who do not share not only your native language but also your cultural values, it seriously warps the playing field.

A couple of days ago, I had a final, last-day-before-the-summer-vacation class. As we had already had our exams and tests, I brought in a couple of English games: Clue and Scrabble. We played Clue(do) first.

This is a board game with cards for all the suspects, the murder weapons and the rooms in the mansion. By a process of elimination, players figure out who dunnit using what weapon and where: a player enters a room and makes a guess; if the player to her left has any one of the cards (suspect, weapon, room) named in the guess, that player must show the card.

It was amusing to watch my students play. They did not seem to know the concept of elimination. They all seemed to be most pre-occupied with finding out what cards the other players held, not by elimination but by pure guesswork. Whenever a player, in response to another player's guess, showed that player a card, some would shout "Oh, I know! I know" (often, this was mere theatre), while others shouted, "Wait! Just hang on a minute!!" while they perused their own cards and stared with fierce concentration at the board.

Very soon after the game began, at least two of the 6 players abandoned their checklist saying it was no help or it confused them! The other players sometimes used their checklists and sometimes not. It seemed that, rather than using a process of elimination, they were trying to intuit which cards were in the envelope (the crime cards). Some students actually encouraged each other, or claimed to, "read the air" literally (空気を読む kuuki wo yomu).

I was strongly reminded of John Holt's elementary school pupils who seemed to avoid using their knowledge and powers of reasoning, and, instead, using guesswork and intuition to try and divine the "right answer".

If I were teaching people from my own or a similar (say, European) culture, I would have no hesitation in labelling these efforts as misguided, ineffective and "wrong". But I'm a stranger in a strange land. For all I know, this way of "thinking" may be just as effective as my Western rationalism. I have come across some examples of intuition in this culture which I would flatly have refused to believe if I had heard about them at second-hand and not experienced them myself.

Students seem to use a similar approach when learning English: rather than recognizing patterns or thinking things through using their knowledge of English syntax or spelling patterns, they try to intuit (pronunciation, meanings of words or phrases) - they are hoping to hit the jackpot with an inspired guess.

A slightly different tactic, but which to my mind springs from the same mindset, is to try and memorize everything: when practicing conversations, I fondly imagine I am giving them the lexical and syntactical "building blocks", which they must then put together to create something new. But often they reproach me saying they are not ready, they haven't memorized the examples yet!

Despite my tendency towards cultural relativism (not to be confused with moral relativism), I still strongly suspect that my students are trying to take a short-cut where there isn't one.

So, which is it? Are these students culture-bound, using an approach to learning which is familiar to them, but unfamiliar to me, and which I should therefore tread lightly around before criticizing? Or are they exhibiting a tendency fostered by schools? A tendency that John Holt described as a strategy* designed to fool their teacher into thinking they know what they really don't know?

*The anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don't know.

Cultural difference
Originally uploaded by passionfly

July 10, 2007

Using English to process meaning (revisited)

Doug's recent comment reminded me of one reason I enjoy keeping this blog: getting comments from people who work in EFL as well as from those who work in other fields.

Yes, meta-language in textbooks is one of the (many) banes of a teacher's working life, but I'm not sure this is the whole problem in my case. I keep coming back to what Steve wrote about using English to process meaning. The students in the class I wrote about are ranked as "high level"; they regularly get 80% or more on the weekly vocab quizzes I give (correctly spelling items like "relaxation technique", "coping with stress" - do you think they'll pick up the hints I'm dropping for them?!?). Yesterday's class (Touchstone 2, Unit 3) had short written interviews with 6 people on what they are doing to stay healthy. The activity was to circle the ones that had a healthy lifestyle and note why. We read the interviews together, then I explained the activity (it's written in the textbook as well) and let them get to work. Except they didn't. Blank looks. Much fidgeting with pens, sighing, the laying down of the head on the hands, unblemished sheets of looseleaf paper. Perhaps it's "end of term blues"? I go around the class, asking individual students "Which ones have a healthy lifestyle?". After a while I come to a student who tells me he doesn't understand what "which ones" means.

Afterwards, a colleague suggested the students can't process language, they can't decode. They can understand and recognize discrete items, but not figure out what those items mean when strung together in a written (or spoken) sentence; in short, he said, they can't read.

July 09, 2007

In case I sounded xenophobic...

To redress the balance a bit... I attended 7 presentations. Two were very good.

One was the account of the new software to teach large Accounting classes, which I wrote about before. His presentation came right after an awful one which was so full of jargon that no-one else understood it, either. He started out slowly, taking time to relate his subject to knowledge we already knew*, situating it in context. His slides were simple, had (relatively) less text, and were more focussed - having one key point (mostly). He kept good eye contact, and generally gave the impression he knew that he was talking to real, live people. He used some humour. He seemed relaxed and not in a big hurry (most of the others were just so obviously in a race against the clock).

The other good presenter started off in the same way: nice and slow with lots of background. All the presentations were limited to just under 20 minutes, with a bell sounding after 5, then after 10, etc. I remember being surprised, and a little anxious on behalf of the two "good" presenters, when the 5-minute bell rang and they were just coming to the close of their introduction, yet neither of them seemed perturbed or concerned: all was obviously going to plan.

So, lots of background and in the process, giving the audience time to relate what was being said to their own knowledge and experience. The second presenter also used self-deprecating humour, which showed maturity and confidence. The second presenter did not use powerpoint (tho I can't be sure): they didn't look like Powerpoint slides, but more like simple screenshots of his own website (which was the subject of the presentation). Each slide was focussed and contained just the info the speaker wanted to illustrate, and no more. There were graphics, sparingly and tastefully used and always to illustrate (sorry!) the point being made, never to "jazz up" the presentation. Colour was used, in the same way. The colours and images helped reduce the domination of text, which, as a non-native speaker of Japanese, I greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately, there was a blemish: this second presenter, along with just about everyone else, had the "kids these days" habit. The main point of the presentation was handouts and using a website as a resource for students and as a tool of professional development (giving yourself a web profile). The presenter pointed out how handouts had evolved over the years, and that "kids these days" could not tolerate text-only handouts, or only paper handouts: they needed stuff in colour, they needed graphics, they needed digital content (and, yes, I'm afraid he threw in the old chestnut about diminishing attention spans).

It wasn't his fault, of course, but his timing was terrible: I'd just read Atherton on handouts, you see, so I was an expert (I actually had Atherton in my bag at the time: he was very good and did not utter a peep, you'll be glad to know):
The Internet and Virtual Learning Environment may or may not radically change teaching, but the technology which has probably made most difference in the past fifty years has been cheap, on-site, duplicating copying and printing. Among other things, it has radically changed student expectations — and the more conversant teachers become with computers and printing, the higher the expectations get.
So, nyah: students' demands and expectations might be about more than the inherent mental and physical shortcomings of today's "yoof".

*"the most important determinant of learning is what the learner already knows" (David Ausubel, quoted in Atherton [ATHERTON J S (2005) Teaching and Learning: Advance Organisers [On-line] UK: Available: http://www.learningandteaching.info/teaching/advance_organisers.htm Accessed: 9 July 2007]

July 08, 2007

Not seeing the wood for the trees, and other complaints

Today I attended an "IT in Education" conference in Tokyo.

I've been reading James Atherton's site, and came across these pages on technology (in education) in general and handouts in particular. A couple of points:
  1. technology is not neutral, and
  2. Do you want students to take notes? Would it help them to understand the material for themselves? Then don't use handouts.
I was reminded of these 2 points in today's presentations. Everyone talked about using technology to do things we already do, only more efficiently. No-one talked about how the technology impacts the process of learning. Only one gentleman touched on this briefly. In a presentation on an Excel application used to teach large classes Accounting, the presenter pointed out the advantage: previously calculations were written out by laboriously by hand on the blackboard and this took a lot of time. Now it can all be done much more quickly using this software and a large projector and screen. In the Q&A time, a member of the audience pointed out that, while writing on the blackboard may take time, it also allowed students time to take notes. Now with these Excel spreadsheets on screen and the caculations being entered automatically before your very eyes, there's no time.

So "saving time" is an advantage purely from the teacher's point of view; the point of view of class management, of delivery of content.

This is a point also made by Atherton (altho he is writing about handouts):
Copying from the board is no longer necessary, and even note-taking from verbal presentations diminishes in importance. ... To a certain extent, the teacher's position is restored. But the handout tends to be used less for the individual teacher's distinctive angle on the material, as to pare (or even dumb) down the material simply to what you need to know for the purposes of this particular course.
It's perhaps worth mentioning here that all the presentations referred to the present situation of university teaching in Japan, which means a continual moaning about the falling academic standards of entering students, so perhaps dumbing down is a quite deliberate attempt by teaching staff, to desperately reach those students that regular teaching cannot reach. Back to Atherton.
After all, what is being done with the time which is being saved? Students no longer have to copy from the board, or even take notes....this is not merely about the teacher transmitting knowledge: it is also about ownership of it. (my emphasis)

Another complaint I had was one I frequently feel when attending Japanese academic conferences: the heavy focus on unique, specific case studies or examples, with little or no attempt to draw general conclusions which might apply elsewhere (and so be of some value to the audience).

One example: one presenter described an attempt in a computing class to improve students' understanding and motivation by requiring them to create quiz items on the subject of the day's lecture (in fact, 4-item, multiple-choice quiz problems). The presenter made no attempt to draw some general conclusions or principles from his success. He might have mentioned the old adage that the best way to learn something is to teach it. He might also have mentioned the *Socratic Method. So, to replicate this success we would need to.... assign 4-item, multiple-choice quiz problems on computer networks? Or come up with activities that require students to reformulate in some manner what they have just heard/read/seen, or perhaps to compare and contrast or apply their knowledge to solve a problem?

This presenter was typical.

And while I'm at it, I lost count of the number of times a presenter said "Erm, sorry, the text is a little small..." None of them have read Seth Godin, or Guy Kawasaki. Text, all text, WHICH THEY THEN READ. At breakneck speed because they only had 13 minutes!!

The smarter ones highlighted the key text on each slide in red. The other used laser pointers, so if you blinked, you missed where the key part was. And when they did use graphics, it was something like the plan for Buckingham Palace on 1 slide. To fit, everything had to be kinda small.... When they actually brought these images up, it became obvious that they would be hard to see by the people further back than the front 5 rows.... AARRRGGGHGG!!

*The first schools in Western cultural tradition were those of classical and early post classical Greece. Those schools were not for the purpose of benefiting students--and even to promulgate a particular "school of thought" was secondary. Their main purpose was to provide quality audiences to whom the leading thinkers and perceivers could describe their perceptions, in order to develop further those perceptions. Some of the "nicer guys" among these, the Sophists especially and Socrates in particular, would return the favor and draw out their listeners in turn. Their doing so, and the various ways they did so, became known as "Socratic Method."(Win Wenger)

(Photo credit: dnel83 on Flickr)

Using English (grammar) to process meaning

Steve Herder at Japan Action Research in EFL wrote recently about his joy at hitting on an activity that allowed students to use the grammar they have learned to process meaning. I started to leave a comment, but pretty soon found that it was turning into an essay, so....

Here's the essay:
lack of experience actually USING GRAMMAR they’ve learned in order to PROCESS MEANING.

I've been thinking about this since I read it here. I had the reverse experience the other day, when I discovered that a "high level" class (they scored well on the proficiency test at the beginning of the year, they regularly get high scores in the weekly vocab quizzes I give) were quite unable to a) read an understand the comprehension questions (in English) on a short piece of written English. The questions were simply asking them to identify certain key concepts and topics in the text, but many seemed unable to understand what they were supposed to do.

The problem seemed to be the meta language of the instructions; yet the language does not seem particularly difficult to me: Look at the article again. Find these things. Then compare with a partner. 1) an interesting topic of conversation 2) an example of an information question 3) a question to show you're interested in the other person... (The text is Touchstone 2, CUP).

It was then I realized I usually explain textbook tasks in Japanese. That day, I did not. Why do I usually explain in Japanese? Because I sense that they will not be able to suss out the instructions on their own, perhaps?

In some classes, students express a desire to talk to me. In many classes, students seem to expect that this is what the class is for: it will give them an opportunity to interact personally (one-to-one) with me, the "furner". When I first started teaching in Japa, I did this a lot, but not so much recently. It got old: students may (or may not, it varies) actually want to talk to you, but what became clear was that many of them were quite incapable of making themselves understood even in broken English; of those that could, fewer actually had something to say.

"First, you prepare something to say. When you're ready, come back." I did that for a while, but although a few in most classes are ready and willing, most need more practice first, so I slowly abandoned the "conversation class" and spent more time drilling (in fun ways) and generally having students practice using the language.

Perhaps a further couple of reasons I abandoned the "conversation corner", the "fireside chats with the foreigner" (do you get the feeling I'm a little uneasy with this?) are:
  1. my growing awareness of a belief among Japanese students of English that they can somehow learn English ONLY by being in the presence of an English-speaking foreigner - "English by osmosis" - and that practice (alone or with a Japanese partner), drills (both oral and written), learning vocab, are either irrelevant or can somehow be bypassed when you have a real, live, English-speaking (and preferably blond(e) and blue-eyed because we all know that those are the only real foreigners) "gaijin" to yourself, if even for a few minutes;
  2. a growing awareness of a patronising attitude (in some cases, open disdain) on the part of colleagues towards the "conversation" teachers: glancing references like "students are not going to progress much if they're just repeating 'hellomynameis' every day" (so that's what they think we're doing).
But what if students' desire to "talk to the foreigner" was actually (at least in part) a desire to use (English) language to create meaning?
Something I should realize by now that has probably been sadly lacking in their experience of English language education.

July 04, 2007

Personal Construct Psychology

I (think I) first came across the ideas of Kelly and his Personal Construct Pscyhology in a paper or two or three, written by in-Japan-teacher Gregory Hadley.

Well, I've just spent a happy hour lost in the maze of James Atherton's Doceo site, and came across this page on Kelly and Personal Construct Psychology.

Atherton also included a link to Phil Race's website, in particular to this Powerpoint presentation on a further theory of learning, Ripples.

(Atherton teaches (taught?) teachers for many years. His writings are aimed at college teachers, but some of the theory of learning stuff would apply to learners of many (all?) ages.

July 01, 2007

Learning styles? Rubbish!

Harold Jarche shares his scepticism of the learning-styles theory, and I must say I tend to agree. Simple logistics is one objection I have. It sounds great, benevolent and taking into account students' individual differences and needs, but read this and see if you still agree with it.

The list he offers, tho, has much in common with the principles of instruction espoused by many who subscribe to Multiple Intelligence Theory.

Use Cast's Universal Design Principles:

* Multiple means of representation, to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge,
* Multiple means of expression, to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know,
* Multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation.

Here, for example, is an extract from an article by Thomas Armstrong, a long-time proponent of MI in education and the author of a number of books on the subject:

One of the most remarkable features of the theory of multiple intelligences is how it provides eight different potential pathways to learning. If a teacher is having difficulty reaching a student in the more traditional linguistic or logical ways of instruction, the theory of multiple intelligences suggests several other ways in which the material might be presented to facilitate effective learning. Whether you are a kindergarten teacher, a graduate school instructor, or an adult learner seeking better ways of pursuing self-study on any subject of interest, the same basic guidelines apply. Whatever you are teaching or learning, see how you might connect it with
  • words (linguistic intelligence)
  • numbers or logic (logical-mathematical intelligence)
  • pictures (spatial intelligence)
  • music (musical intelligence)
  • self-reflection (intrapersonal intelligence)
  • a physical experience (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence)
  • a social experience (interpersonal intelligence), and/or
  • an experience in the natural world. (naturalist intelligence)

For example, if you’re teaching or learning about the law of supply and demand in economics, you might read about it (linguistic), study mathematical formulas that express it (logical-mathematical), examine a graphic chart that illustrates the principle (spatial), observe the law in the natural world (naturalist) or in the human world of commerce (interpersonal); examine the law in terms of your own body [e.g. when you supply your body with lots of food, the hunger demand goes down; when there's very little supply, your stomach's demand for food goes way up and you get hungry] (bodily-kinesthetic and intrapersonal); and/or write a song (or find an existing song) that demonstrates the law (perhaps Dylan's "Too Much of Nothing?").

You don’t have to teach or learn something in all eight ways, just see what the possibilities are, and then decide which particular pathways interest you the most, or seem to be the most effective teaching or learning tools.

Here are a couple of old but fun-to-read critical articles of the learning styles theory: Learning styles don't matter (the whole heterodox site is worth investigating), and Do learner profiles enhance learning?

June 30, 2007

Blogging with students (4)

Because the task I described at the end of my previous post, proved a little too challenging for my students, I re-cast it (see below). I'm trying to lead them to an understanding of web 2.0

What is good blogging?
  1. Visit this blog, then this one. Which is better (more interesting, more useful) do you think? Why is it better?

  2. Now visit this blog, then this one. Which is better do you think? Why is it better?

  3. Now visit this blog, then this one. Which is better do you think? Why?

  4. Now go back to the blog you chose in question 1. Write the answers to these questions on your blog.

    1. Who is the blog author?

    2. What is his/her name?

    3. Which country and town do they live in?

    4. Do you want to write a comment on their blog?

    5. Why (or why not) write a comment?

    6. Is it easy to write a comment?

    7. If you write a comment, can the blog author reply to your comment?

    8. Can the blog author contact you?

    9. How?
I followed this up with a quick look at the BBC websites which invite readers to post their photos and videos.
Here are some news photos for you to see from the BBC: 1, 2, 3.
Who took these pictures?
The BBC lets readers send in their photos (see here). What do you think about this idea?

I feel like I'm re-inventing the wheel here. Thousands of people have probably already put together a list of instructions and tasks for EFL students beginning blogging, and they're no doubt all much better than my attempt. But I couldn't find any suitable ones in an hour's worth of Googling. If you know some, or want to collaborate, please drop me a line.

(Credit: a very warm thanks to Aaron and Sean for lending me their students' blogs.)