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?