October 21, 2007
[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.
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?
* 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.
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,
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).
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.
* 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
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
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
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
October 03, 2007
A propos of nothing, except I just read it,
[Attributed to Idaho Blackie, in the liner notes to Utah Phillips' We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years.]
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.]