O is for Open Space

22 05 2011

The 8th “vow of Dogme ELT chastity” proclaims:

Grading of students into different levels is disallowed: students should be free to join the class that they feel most comfortable in, whether for social reasons, or for reasons of mutual intelligibility, or both. As in other forms of human social interaction, diversity should be accommodated, even welcomed, but not proscribed.

(Thornbury, 2001)

An open space: venue for the Teaching Unplugged demo lesson at the TD SIG event

The thinking that motivated this idea is that, by adopting students’ “levels” as their basic organising principle, schools sideline the learners’ needs, interests and desires, for the sake of conformity to an externally imposed and spuriously quantifiable standard, typically the grammar McNugget standard. (A teacher reported to me that she once overheard a colleague rejecting a student’s request to go up a level with the words: “No, Mohamed. Your present perfect sucks!”).

Such a mentality ignores the socially constructed nature of learning and the socially directed purposes for which language is used.  It also denies the learner access to an important means of controlling their own learning trajectory, with possible negative consequences for their sense of agency.  Apart from anything else, the freedom to find, and adapt to, one’s ecological niche in the institutional ecosystem is surely an important contributor to motivation, as well as being a useful skill in coping with the real world of ungraded language use . Finally, a ‘levels-based curriculum’ compels teachers to adopt the role of level vigilante, constantly fretting about “mixed ability”. The mean-spiritedness of such an approach is well captured in this piece of teachers’ book advice:

Don’t let the false beginners dominate the real beginners or pull you along too quickly… Encourage them to concentrate on areas where they can improve (e.g. pronunciation) and don’t let them think they know it all!

An alternative way of reconfiguring the curriculum along less hierarchical lines might be to co-opt some of the practices of Open Space Technology, a humanistic approach to problem-solving in organisations, developed by an American writer, Harrison Owen.

Open Space is a group dynamics methodology designed to maximise the benefits of bringing people together to address a shared issue or concern. Inspired by Owen’s personal experience of finding the coffee break to provide the most fruitful learning opportunities at conferences, Open Space Technology rejects delivery-mode instruction and promotes genuine interaction, peer-teaching and self-discovery.

Organisers agree a general theme for a session, but there is no agenda in Open Space. Participants meet in the round and are invited to post sessions under more specific headings.

People posting a session are responsible for initiating the discussion and for reporting back later. Participants sign up for different sessions and within a given time-frame people can attend one only, or go from session to session, or do nothing at all. The basic principles are that whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, and that the people who turn up for a given session are the right people. As Owen (1998) puts it :”If any situation is not learning rich, it is incumbent upon the individual participant to make it so.”

A group reports on its discussion

This weekend’s Teaching Unplugged conference in Barcelona (sponsored by the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG) adopted an Open Space format for the afternoon session. Participants posted topics that they felt might be of general interest. Topics included ‘Syllabusing and lesson planning for Teaching Unplugged'; ‘Integrating technology into Teaching Unplugged'; ‘Researching Teaching Unplugged'; and ‘Implementing Teaching Unplugged in an institutional context’. Volunteers offered to ‘chair’ one from a short-list of these topics. After 90 minutes or so of group discussions – in which participants were free to come and go – the whole group re-assembled for the report back stage. The sense that the conference participants had some ‘ownership’ of the conference agenda was palpable.

How might this kind of structure translate to a language learning context? At one extreme, it suggests an end to level tests and a permanently fluid learning environment – as suggested by the dogme vow quoted above. But it could also be implemented more modestly – as a kind of Friday afternoon option, for example.

Of course, in choosing their class, learners would need to take account of their (self-assessed) ability to cope with the language: it would be foolhardy, perhaps, for a novice to embark on, say, Academic Writing 101, but they should at least be given that choice. If we accept that language learning is both an emergent and a complex phenomenon, any attempt to regiment and control it from the outside is foredoomed.

References:

Owen, H. (1998). Emerging order in Open Space. http://www.openspaceworld.org

Thornbury, S. (2001) Teaching Unplugged: That’s Dogme with an E. It’s for Teachers, Feb 2001. (A copy can be found here)

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85 responses

22 05 2011
Dennis Newson

Wow, Scott. Congratulations This posting is so quick off the mark it is virtually a tweet. Your message flips me back to the discussions that used to take place over 40 years ago about whether learners should be put into sets for subjects like Maths and Latin. I must say, as player of a couple of musical instruments, to chose another kind of learning as an example away from learning languages in the hope that it might provide a useful point of comparison, I am jolly glad most of my lessons over the years have been one-to-one. I can see how I could have got something from learning with players of roughly the same standard, but being taught in multi-level groups, I think, would have been frustrating for those that were decidedly better and those that were decidedly worse. I follow the powerful social and ideological reasons you advance for mixed-ability language learning, but doesn’t it remain a fact that, in terms of efficiency, for many learners, some kind of grouping for learners is to be recommended? Dennis

23 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

…doesn’t it remain a fact that, in terms of efficiency, for many learners, some kind of grouping for learners is to be recommended?

You may be right, Dennis. I guess the two points I wanted to make were (a) that the grouping should not be based – as it often is – on narrow grammatical criteria and (b) that the learners should be given some say in how – and with whom – they are grouped.

23 05 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Oh course, the other point (or question) is: efficient for whom? School management, naturally, but alternatives such as Montessori or Steiner (correct me if I am wrong here), where groupings are often cross-agegroup rather than competence based, seems not to reduce the overall natural efficiency of learning (at least for children). So proficiency banding does not necessarily lead to “efficiency”.

Which also raises the question: what exactly would a definition of ‘efficiency’ be in terms of education or language learning? In which terms would it be expressed (presumably a supply chain industrial model/metaphor – but is this applicable or desirable?

Which reminds me of something Alan Maley said at the symposium “Art and Artistry in ELT” IATEFL 2009 (paraphrasing here but the punchline is definitely verbatim!):

“Why this obsession with ‘efficiency’? One doesn’t seek to do truly worthwhile things ‘efficiently’. One doesn’t seek to make love ‘efficiently’…”

22 05 2011
Anna

What a brilliant article, Scott, thank you!
I would like to contribute by making a point of Outdoor Education, a pedagogical option in which Open Space methodology can be very effectively implemented.
Learning a foreign language through orienteering or a city game or … (fill in the gap as you see fit): 1) puts people’s heads together over a series of tasks that require thinking out of the box; 2) is diverse enough to offer everybody a chance to contribute; 3) puts the teacher – at least temporarily – out of the picture; 4) offers very important – even if nounce only – reasons to learn the language (if you don’t, you’re out of the game).
I’ve done English outdoors, and I love it: http://www.hltmag.co.uk/jan07/less03.htm
I also encouraged my student trainees to use OE: http://www.hltmag.co.uk/feb11/stud.htm
Sorry for being a bit of a brag, but I think Outdoor Education (as well as your own students ;-)) can never be too popular ;-)
Anna

23 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Anna, for introducing me to that. It makes perfect sense, and the kinds of tasks you describe would seem to be perfectly achievable by groups of ‘mixed level’ learners working collaboratively.

22 05 2011
kylieliz

This is a very interesting post. I cannot help but wonder, though, that this will only work for a certain type of learner. If you do not have self-motivated learners, I don’t see how this approach would be successful. Even for myself – I was a very motivated learner, but I don’t think I would have pushed the teacher to give me more, I would have just let myself slide to the back and take in what was there. I can envision some classes that this approach would be really popular and beneficial with, but I can also see some classes where this would completely flop and everyone would end up losing in the end. Thanks for sharing! I’ve definitely been wanting to find out more about dogme!!

23 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, that’s a fair point about motivation. My ‘thesis’, if you like, is that motivation will increase when learners are given more control of, and responsibility for, their own learning – including ‘ownership’ of decisions about grouping. Maybe that’s overly idealistic?

23 05 2011
Anthony Gaughan

I don’t think so, Scott, as management and leadership studies tend to support empowering workers and involving them in decision making which impacts on them – indeed, this is precisely why OST is increasingly being employed by companies going through change or crisis.

And anyway (just to be provocative for a moment…), is a learner who is not likely to thrive in an OST environment due to a lack of self-starting motivation actually going to thrive in terms of language learning under any circumstances?

22 05 2011
Luan

Surely the big pitfall of the Open Space approach and indeed of Dogme, is that without careful structure and constant teacher intervention it easily leads to marginalisation of lower level, lower ability and less outgoing students, who may well make up the majority.

I have nothing against tearing up level distinctions but if you do so I think you have to do it actively, under a microscope so that stronger students are challenged by being purposely placed as surrogate teachers and example setters while the weaker are given obligatory speaking opportunities that stride the fine line between stretching their skills and leaving them utterly lost and embarrassed.

23 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

In the marvellous film Être et avoir, about the life of a small school in rural France, the teacher copes perfectly well with his one class of mixed levels, abilities and ages – by the strategic use of a combination of whole group and small group activities. He seems to know, intuitively, what activities will be achievable by the whole group, where, for example, the older learners become surrogate teachers, and what activities require a same age, same level composition. Consistent with Anna’s comment above, the outdoor activities tend to be whole-group ones.

23 05 2011
Anthony Gaughan

What’s interesting about OST is that this “big pitfall” tends not to occur. Its refusal to impose a structure (in terms of an agenda or defined roles) and its refusal to provide a “leader” (facilitators are literally just resource-deliverers or remind people when coffee breaks are due). In the literature on it (including naturally lots of self report from OST practitioners who can be expected to be biased positively, but also also client reports, who could be expected to be less partial) there is a remarkable lack of dissatisfaction caused by the issue you are worried about.

Of course, none of this is to say that OST as a model for learning a language is appropriate, but Scott’s point about the French rural model is also germane :-)

22 05 2011
Nicky Hockly

Interesting post Scott- thanks. I wonder how the ZPD would work for the higher level more fluent sts working with weaker sts. Personally as a language learner, interacting with better speakers than myself has always been a major source of noticing and learning.

23 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

Agreed, Nicky. And ‘teaching’ someone who is weaker is also a valuable learning experience. The ‘reading recovery’ program often involves better readers ‘scaffolding’ the emerging reading skills of their weaker classmates through reading aloud tasks.

22 05 2011
Lorna Liebeck

I can see how Open Space might work in a teachers’ event such as the very interesting Teaching Unplugged conference that you describe here, Scott. But I’m not sure whether this approach could be applied in a language learning situation.

Often, when students give their feedback to teachers after a course, some will write: ‘A pity the levels were not close; I felt that this slowed things down and I could have worked more’.

There may be others who will write: ‘The level was not right for me, I struggled to keep up, and other students seemed so much better that I didn’t keep the motivation’.

When we read such comments we think, oops, there was a ‘spiky profile’ in this group that the teacher failed to deal with successfully. But then, how would the Open Space advocate respond to such feedback?

23 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

How would the Open Space advocate respond to such feedback?

I guess that in a truly Open Space environment the students wouldn’t wait until the end of the course to complain, but would ‘vote with their feet’ and move to a class where they felt more comfortable.

23 05 2011
Anthony Gaughan

I think this is also fed by the expectation (indeed, the promise by institutions) of homogeneity.

22 05 2011
Rob

I have taught in schools (ESL contexts) that use level tests based on the coursebooks we were required to use in class. At one, we had three different tests for each level so as to avoid a student who’d failed the first test taking the same test on his/her second try, ie, we rotated the tests each term. More than one student failed all three tests at least twice. One of these poor souls was a very jolly fellow who knew a few pat phrases like How are you? All he really wanted to talk about was fishing. He had a lucrative business in town and depended on his children to take care of anything that required English use. His story is just one among many such cases, and, in retrospect, I’d say this student and others like him would have thrived in an Open Space environment. Whether it would’ve enabled them to move on to a ‘higher level’ or not, I can’t say.

In my present setting, I often teach a ‘mixed ability’ group of 20 students. Sometimes the group is monolingual (Spanish), and other times there are three speakers of Haitian Creole and French who, while in the minority, are typically more fluent and accurate than the rest of the group so that they are usually quite confident and outspoken. Some of this is surely a cultural trait, I’m sure, knowing a bit about society and education in Haiti.

In these classes, I often do what Luan suggests by placing ‘stronger’ (more fluent and accurate) students with ‘weaker’ ones. This move can’t be too overt lest the impression of teacher favoritism and an unhealthy power dynamic emerge. Regarding Nicky’s point about the ZPD, I find it challenging in the first few days to do any sort of plenary work with a Haitian student nodding and responding to everything I say while seven others are not following – concept checking would only embarrass them.

Needless to say, group tasks are the order of the day, and an Open Space environment can work if a teacher is on her toes enough to monitor and scaffold L2 use because L1 will be the language of choice for many.

In the end, I think levels are usually designed, however unwittingly, to serve the needs and interests of institutions, but also to serve teachers since Open Space, in my experience, is a lot of work when language competence is mixed. Maybe I’m making it too hard?

I should add though that experience as a language teacher and learner has taught me how a group dynamic can affect language learning. I’ve seen students who are dissatisfied with their group suffer in terms of motivation and learning. Meanwhile, students in favorable groups do well – no surprises there. The fact that language and human relationships are inextricably linked speaks for Open Space Technology. But many schools continue to see language as another subject to be learned. For teachers in these contexts, in addition to advocating for something more progressive, understanding and managing group dynamics is the best we can do, isn’t it?

23 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that thoughtful comment – in which you raise many of the points that I’ve been addressing in my response to the earlier comments. It makes me think that an Open Space school would need to incorporate a methodology that caters for a wider range of abilities than a narrowly focused, predominantly grammar-driven one. A task-based methodology, where learners of different levels can successfully contribute to the completion of the task would seem to be the way to go.

As Stuart McNaughton argues, in Meeting of Minds (2002): “Narrow curricula reduce teachers’ capability to teach for diversity…a curriculum that promotes only segmented, isolated, and elemental learning tasks reduces the student’s degree of learning (including incidental learning) and also their preparedness for future learning”. A ‘wide-band’ curriculum. on the other hand, in which the activities are more ‘elastic’, allows a greater degree of participation for a wider range of learners. Moreover, as McNaughton adds, “the advantage of highly versatile activities is that they can be made focused and constrained [e.g. when it might be appropriate to look at a selected item of grammar or lexis]. The reverse does not apply – activities of limited versatility cannot be other than limited. That is what they are”.

22 05 2011
Gordon Scruton

Thanks for another very interesting post Scott. I’m a fan of dogme and I’m trying to make my classes more emergent-language-centred but I must admit this particular tenant of dogme passed me by.

Your comment about “No Mohamed, your present perfect sucks!” is all too familiar as I’m sure I’ve heard myself saying that verbatim. However this is where I would tend to disagree with an abandonment of levels in structuring the class, which I notice you describe near the end as ‘an extreme’. I would agree with that and I’ll explain why.

a) Some learners, and let’s make our student ‘Mohamed’ one of them, are totally obsessed with level. They are not learning English as a tool for communication but as a qualification on paper or, less than that, a hoop to jump through to get to an English-speaking university or college.

‘Mohamed’ would probably both love and hate your suggestions here because in the short term he could move up into another class regardless of his mastery or lack of mastery of certain grammar. He’d then realize that there was no ‘up’ and that would probably take him out of his comfort zone with regard to what he understands as a school. The higher levels of education have almost always been ability-based and those abilities measured by an external examiner and for a lot of learners it is that very system which motivates them.

b) We’ve all had students who really do think they are better than they are. There are a variety of reasons for this; a cultural difference in the understanding of what Intermediate or Advanced mean, a lack of understanding or care about difficult areas of English that they have simply chosen to skip or ignore, or simply an inflated ego and need to be top-dog. Regardless, I think it’s very possible that you could have some students who would choose to find the class with the best students as they perceive it and proceed to understand very little, contribute very little and through their lack of abilities would end up demotivating other, more capable learners in the class.

c) With regard to Open Space, a lot of learners I encounter do have ‘a shared issue or concern’ but that is the taking an passing of a test, usually a Cambridge test. These motivations depress me on occasion and can drive me up the wall as well but this is the subject for another post. :-)

My point here is if the learners’ issue or concern is a level-based one, can a non-level-based approach work? For students who are in class to prepare for Cambridge exams or university preparation, I think we have to be far more ‘level vigilant’.

d) For schools with rolling enrolment, a level-based division of students seems to be the fairest and most efficient way to get the learners into classrooms where they will be immediately be challenged and not lost. You mention being given the chance to join an Academic Writing class, yet I can only think about how disruptive it would be for learners in that class to have these ‘triers’ coming and going.

And I’ll bring ‘Mohamed’ back here, who desperately wants to go to an English-speaking university yet only has an A2 (B1 at best) ability in English at the moment. Giving him access to this Academic Writing class would be exactly what he wants but I’d imagine that he’ll soon be quite lost because he lacks the underlying knowledge of English to benefit from what that class is focussing on.

I agree with Kylie that the Open Space methodology would seem to apply to only a specific, mature, actively reflective sort of learner and that this approach could too simply become a way for learners to get into the classes they want/need without having enough English to cope with the subject matter; basically without having done the leg-work to earn it. Even if they did move out, I think it would be disruptive for the learners and added stress for the teachers. However a lot of the time you would have learners who, once in their, would be highly resistant to coming out.

Sorry for the length of the email. Much longer than I expected.

23 05 2011
darridge

“…multi-level groups, I think, would have been frustrating for those that were decidedly better and those that were decidedly worse.”
“Some learners, and let’s make our student ‘Mohamed’ one of them, are totally obsessed with level.”

These ideas would seem to me to be more of a reason to do away with levels altogether. People can only obsess about them if they exist, and them existing only allows people to compare themselves to others. I mean it is something that is completely un-comparable. People can have good bad or worse English, but all that matters is how good it is for their needs – can I pass the test is important, can the person next to me is not. Especially as they only happen to be sitting next to me because they paid for the same course. Levels cause this problem, not solve it.

For me, given that in any ‘level’ I have ever taught there is such a vast difference between individuals anyway, what is the point in maintaining such artificial barriers? It seems to me to be the deficit approach to language, what you don’t as opposed to do know. Levels presuppose material that needs to be taught, as opposed to needs to be catered for.

As levels only exist for the sake of administration and the sale of courses, why not break students up into more useful divisions in the first place? Promise students they will have a teacher, that the teacher will listen to them and teach them the English that they need using a variety of techniques and materials. Like Duncan says below, if classes are open and teachers sensitive, students will naturally gravitate to the situation that makes most sense to them.

22 05 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Thanks Scott.

Following on from some of the comments. I have to say:

(1) there is no reason why dogme principles cannot in principle be appropriate for every teacher and every learner (with minor modifications to suit circumstances)

(2) young learners can tell as easily as adults when the challenge is too much

(3) most teachers say they want to foster learner autonomy, but in truth they are intimidated by it

(4) each of us are living in the shadows of the (usually restrictive) education system we were brought up with – we don’t always realize the possibilties and it’s hard to think out of the box

(5) We must never assume that learners should de facto be motivated to learn what we are teaching. If learners are not motivated, we have to understand all the reasons why this may be and be honest about it

(6) nothing in your post implies that we have to start with extremes, but we do need to accept the goal is to (eventually) take these practices to the extreme wherever possible. If we agree the extreme position is valid pedagogically, it is our duty, not our whim, to work up to it
:)

22 05 2011
Rob

Thanks, Scott, for generating another stimulating discussion that is relevant to our professional and personal lives. I’ve happened upon this short video (Sir Ken Robinson), which, I believe, relates directly to the issues that have been raised here.

Thank you to everyone so far for the interesting contributions to this thread.

Rob

23 05 2011
duncan

the key point here is autonomy. If you give learners the opportunity to choose their level they are more likely to form homogenous groups, not less likely as many of these posts seem to fear. They are also likely to be more motivated to succeed. Roger Hunt made this point at the Unplugged conference. Learners know their level better than teachers. If we learn to let go and stop trying to micromanage learners we will free ourselves up to focus on helping them improve.

23 05 2011
steph

I agree with this Duncan. (thanks so much for hosting this event btw)

Another point is, if learners choose their own level that also entails taking responsibility for that choice which means the learner can move to another level if they feel it necessary rather than waiting to be directed by the teacher. Of course, there might be some learners who are unhappy wherever they go, in whichever level in such cases teacher intervention would be necessary!

(Apologies if this has already been said, have just skimmed through the posts)

23 05 2011
Anthony Gaughan

Would just like to second Steph’s thanks for hosting this wonderful event, Duncan. Glad you mentioned Roger Hunt’s point about learner skill in banding themselves. Over on Dairmuid Fogarty’s blog there is a slightly related discussion going on: http://managementspique.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/the-empire-writes-back/

23 05 2011
steph

In terms of language learning and classroom activities I imagine the Open Space set up would work well with TBL. Of course TBL addresses many of the concerns people might have with mixed ability groups/large groups etc.

23 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Steph, I think we might both have been writing about TBL at the same time (see above)! Synchronicity at work again. :-)

23 05 2011
Gareth Knight

Hi Scott, I like space whether open or structured. I was trained by Julian Edge to think a lot about space – my space, your space, our space. Too few teachers think of giving space to their learners. However, my training has led to many years observing how aggressively humans will take space and how little they will give it if allowed. Yes, students can vote with their feet, but without structure, can we ensure ALL students get the space they need?

24 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

...without structure, can we ensure ALL students get the space they need?

Good question, Gareth. I guess the structure – given a shared purpose and sufficient will on the part of the participants – can emerge as part of the process. Just as when kids are playing a game, they create the rules as they go along.

Or you have a few ground rules. The group-centred approach to conflict resolution, called Theme-Centred Interaction (as devised by the psycho-therapist Ruth Cohn) has these rules, which provide the ‘structure’ within which anything can happen.

a.”Let us give to this group and get from this group whatever each of you and I want to give and get” – i.e. notion of personal responsibility

b.”Be the chairman of yourself” – i.e. monitor your own agenda and participation

c.Only one person can speak at a time.

d.”Disturbances take precedence” – resistance, anger etc must be dealt with as a “sub-theme”

e.”State yourself” – avoid using “we”, “one” etc

f.Statements are usually preferable to questions.

g.Say what you want, not what you feel you ought. Also, notion of “selective authenticity”: “whatever I say shall be authentic, but not everything that is authentic shall be said”.

h.”Postpone interpretations of others as long as possible; give your personal reactions instead”

i.”Postpone generalisations”.

j.Be aware of “messages from your body”

I wonder if a similar set of ‘rules’ could be devised for a dogme class ;-)

24 05 2011
Rob

Scott, Gareth, the program I work with more or less uses these ‘ground rules’ and the same goes for our English class although I usually just ask everyone to do two things:

1) Show mutual respect;
2) Pay attention.

Perhaps a bit simplistic, but, at the beginning of the term anyway, they are two simple ‘rules’ to remember. To me, theme-centered interaction falls neatly under these two guidelines.

Rob

23 05 2011
steph

Hi Scott – my mind is still in Barcelona so that explains things! Hoping it will make the flight over and catch up with me in Switzerland later today!

23 05 2011
Philip Kerr

Scott, your critique of levels-based systems is all very well, but the archetype of such a system is the private language school (or something similar). It may be the case that students in these contexts feel that their needs, interests and desires are sidelined, but that is questionable. In the vast majority of language learning contexts (primary and secondary), level grading is almost unthinkable. Most often, learners are sorted according to age, not ability, so teachers do not fret about ‘mixed ability’. Along with low pay and discipline problems, it’s a given.

This all situates the Dogme vow to disallow level grading very much in the discourse of private language schools. In primary and secondary, it would be more interesting to consider the disallowing of age segregation – an experiment which has been tried in various places with mixed success. The situation in Etre et Avoir will be very familiar to many primary teachers. Perhaps language schools could mix up their adults’ and kids’ classes, and see how it goes.

When you then talk about alternative configurations (e.g. based around Open Space), it seems you are also referring to the private language school situation. But you talk about reconfiguring the ‘curriculum’ and this is not a word I associate with the typical private language school context. Private language schools don’t normally have a curriculum, do they? It’s something more readily associated with primary and secondary schools.

An occasional Friday afternoon option where students can choose what they attend is an interesting idea, but would it work? If students are not compelled to attend, my guess is that many would choose to do something else, especially if the weather is good. If they are compelled to attend (and where’s the diminution in hierarchy there?) but are free to choose their option, most will probably choose to go where their friends are going. Schools, even language schools, are not so very different from ELT conferences.

23 05 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Like Anthony said earlier, in many (humanistic/progressive) schools across the world learners are not necessarily grouped together by age, but more by their personal curiosity and perceived learning needs.

Yes, these schools are typically private ones, but we really, really need this system in state schools.

In my opinion typical high school at the very least needs to be transformed into something like this:

(1) learners get to choose what their main focus of study will be (teachers and parents can be included in this process, if they insist).

(2) there is a trial period of say 6 weeks for every course. Learners can change their courses after this period if they wish.

(3) courses should be as fluid as possible. Not so much separated in subjects, rather disciplines (as in Ken Robinson’s idea).

(4) teachers have regular one-to-one/group consultations with learners to provide support and encourage positive learning strategies.

(5) minimal standardized testing. Learners can opt out of class tests and can be encouraged to devise their own.

24 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Philip. Yes, the ‘open space’ model perhaps fits better with a private academy-type context. Or a small, progressive school, along Summerhill lines – which in fact followed principles not dissimilar to Open Space ones: “At Summerhill classes are optional. You can attend or you can stay away. If you attend, you are expected to know the work, and to do the work, for there are no examinations. The theory is: you attend; therefore you want to learn” (Snitzer, H. 1963, 1964. Living at Summerhill, p. 5).

But I’m not sure how the kids at Summerhill are placed in the classes that they DO attend. Probably age. Anyone know?

24 05 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Just to pick up a few things…

But I’m not sure how the kids at Summerhill are placed in the classes that they DO attend. Probably age. Anyone know?

It’s a good question, Scott and I’ve just sent an email to ask them. Hopefully get a response soon.
:)

Is this [dogme] a labeling approach you still find beneficial or do you see the need for progression there too ?

I’ve occasionally wondered this myself, Brad. I recall Jason Renshaw wrote something on his blog as to why he much prefers the label Teaching Unplugged to that of Dogme (or Dogma, as I sometimes hear people say).

We may ask ourselves ‘what’s in a name?’, but of course sometimes it can make a difference to people’s perceptions and feed our prejudices somewhat.

Scott and Luke actually called their book Teaching Unplugged.. with the name Dogme reserved for the subtitle, which does seem to be the better option, but I can’t help thinking that unless people take the time to actually understand this attitude to teaching/learning and appreciate it’s virtues, it makes very little difference what it’s called in the end.

Anthony Gaughan has been writing some very good posts on his blog lately addressing the issue of rigorously spreading the word, as it were, about TU. Communication and positive interaction are really the key here.

If this seems to be a bit too much like evangelizing (to follow your nod to religious practice), so be it. Good ideas should never be kept secret. I believe we all benefit from meaningful dialogue – whichever stance we are taking in it.
:)

24 05 2011
Brad Patterson

Hi Scott and all-

What a pack of comments. Glad to see this is raising such a discussion. I’ve just come from Nick Robinson’s post about the Barcelona conference and I must say I take back my “dont want to invest in anything beyond virtual conferences” thought after IATEFL. Even if they’re expensive, it seems having such unique experiences as Nick described seems worthwhile… few coins in the piggy bank daily.

Scott, I’ve gone back and forth between folks talking about, promoting and even making fun of Dogme. I’ve seen a progression from “DOGME” to “teaching unplugged” because of the associations with the words, and how “teaching unplugged” might better encompass and give a nicer connotation to the methodology. In this vein of thought, I was wondering what you think about lines like this: “The 8th “vow of Dogme ELT chastity” proclaims”, and how the associations with religion and “not doing something”. I see where you’re coming from and it sounds like a “backstage” joke, that can easily be made fun of on front stage. Is this a labeling approach you still find beneficial or do you see the need for progression there too ?

Cheers, Brad

24 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment, Brad. Yes, you missed a humdinger of a conference, I have to admit. (Full marks to Duncan Foord and his team!).

As to the ’10 dogme vows of chastity’, these of course were modelled on the Dogme 1995 film-makers’ vows, and attempted to mimic the rhetoric of those vows, but with a large piece of tongue in cheek. Needless to say, the irony has eluded many commentators, but I no longer try to hedge the vows (by adding, for example, ‘…as I light-heartedly/flippantly/cheekily etc phrased it….’) because it seems to me that, for those who huff-and-puff about the vows and take them literally, the joke is really on them (he said light-heartedly/flippantly/cheekily etc). ;-)

24 05 2011
Brad Patterson

Gotchya. I’ve seen comments that take the jokes seriously before, which prompted my comment. One of these days I’m going to have to make an unplugged conference, or at least a get-together of “unplugged-thinking” teachers around a table. Cheers, b

24 05 2011
Ian

I find myself working as the teacher of a “conversation class” with levels ranging from A2 – C1 (CUF categories) and we’ve just finished some feedback on the course (filled in anonymously by the students).

After doing the feedback, I was expecting a deluge of comments about the mixed level interfering with learning but I was surprised about how happy the students were with the course, and there was only one negative comment (admittedly about having too many levels in the same class).

Some proof, perhaps, that pre-intermediates and advanced students can happily share the same learning space?
-Ian

24 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the very affirming comment, Ian.

As a footnote, I often use the analogy of a dinner party to refute the notion of strict ‘levelling’ of students, especially in conversation classes, or in a conversation-driven pedagogy. I’ve been to lots of dinner parties here in Spain where the people sitting round the table occupy every point on the spectrum from complete beginner to native speaker (of Spanish). Is the conversation any worse off for that? Imagine if dinner parties were graded, like classrooms! “We’re having a B2 dinner-and-drinks party for my graduation. Bring a friend – assuming they’re also B2!”

24 05 2011
Ian

I totally agree. It’s in our nature as teachers to unfairly categorise learners like that – perhaps because we think our job will be easier if we only have learners with similar “abilities” (according to some kind of test) sharing the classroom space. I know that my opinion on the matter is changing and I’m much more inclined to think that learners are more flexible on this matter than many teachers or managers.

24 05 2011
Candy

I always come into these so late when most of the contentious (read “risky”) stuff has already been thrashed out and put to bed, or left until further reserves can be mustered! I just want to add my thrupenny bit.
I teach in what has been called on this thread a “private language school”. It is an exclusively Business English language school and the notion of “levels” is laughable. These people are dealing every day with people who speak better or worse English than they do. They HAVE to be well-skilled at adapting their speech, negotiating meaning, finding other ways of explaining themselves. Working and learning in a “mixed ability” environment is authentic and real and necessary for their success in communicating clearly. Having said that, we need groups and some sort of structure because our clients are not here for long, they pay enormous amounts of money and their expectations are for hard work and even some sort of direction (a lot of them say they love being here because “I don’t have to make any decisions about where to be when”!) But we do group according to needs – not linguistic, but business needs. We would separate a student only in extreme cases – for example a false beginner in a group of Advanced students. At some point during the day they might land up be in a class together a workshop or writing class, but not for every class every day.

Works for us and for the students……so far :)
Wish wish wish I could have been at the OST to contribute and learn more about unpluggage!

24 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Candy – ‘grading according to needs': that makes so much sense. It behoves us, therefore, to establish what these needs are, and to monitor the way that they evolve. Which leads me to ask: when is needs analysis ever dealt with in teacher training, apart from as a sub-topic of ESP? (Hmm, I feel a blog post coming on!)

24 05 2011
Scott C

Testing, level ups, student interviews with the same student question: can I to upper class? My worst nightmare! The idea of students choosing their own level has been ticking in my head for a while. Especially for those here (in Australia) to study GE and just experience life in an English speaking country, as opposed to those doing a test. Why do we need to ensure ‘they’ve done past modals’ before they can move up? I don’t think I’ve ever taught an area of grammar which most students haven’t seen before at school or somewhere at home (except the real beginners). My FCE and Pre Int classes often have the same difficulties with grammar. The real difference in ability is vocabulary knowledge.

24 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

The real difference in ability is vocabulary knowledge.

Well noted, Scott. So, if we’re going to set placement tests, maybe these should be based around lexical knowledge (relatively easy to test – see the post V is for Vocabulary Size) rather than grammatical accuracy.

24 05 2011
Luan

Just because students have seen and understand a grammar point before, doesn’t mean they can use it with automaticity. Levels are not just about vocabulary comprehension; they are about fluency and that means the ability to chunk lexis. Vocabulary is the easiest thing to learn, but again, having a passive knowledge of vocabulary doesn’t mean you can use it, nor does it mean that you can communicate anything when called upon to do so.

24 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Luan. But there is a fairly high correlation between vocabulary knowledge and other aspects of language use, such as reading comprehension and fluency. As Keith Folse (2004) writes, “While correlation does not necessarily imply causality, the fact is that empirical studies have shown that good L2 readers, writers, speakers, and listeners have a more extensive vocabulary under their control” (Vocabulary Myths, p. 25).

If level testing HAS to be done, vocabulary size might provide a more useful benchmark than grammar knowledge.

24 05 2011
Luan

I think for the purpose of any private language school a quick speaking test should suffice to place people. Within this, the five skills of grammar, vocab, pronunciation, listening and fluency can vary widely depending on the individual so I don’t think it serves anyone to make hard rules about the importance of vocab when fluency has such preeminence in a communicative context.

24 05 2011
Dennis Newson

Can I just articulate a point that is surely obvious to everyone reading this multifaceted discussion? As always we must be clear that the context is all. Social but autonomously regulated learning in an open space is going to suit some situations perfectly and could well serve as an aspirational model for others. But across the range from young children, through teenagers to adults in classes with a shared mother tongue and culture to small/medium/ large/ groups of learners with varied cultural backgrounds and mother tongues to private schools, or state schools or international universities or technical institutions there are surely likely to be various degrees of fit. If a teacher wished to run his or her classes along the lines suggest here in a German state school, for example, well. I doubt that it would be possible. The headmaster and the parents, perhaps even the pupils would protest that the syllabus was not being covered. Or have I got it wrong? Dennis

24 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

No, Dennis, you have not got it wrong. Like many discussions – on this blog and on the Dogme list, to name but two – proponents of educational change can tend to get a bit starry-eyed. But if you can’t imagine at least some context where change is possible, then we are forever condemned to gazing, not at the stars, but into the gutter!

24 05 2011
Rob

“I think for the purpose of any private language school a quick speaking test should suffice to place people. Within this, the five skills of grammar, vocab, pronunciation, listening and fluency can vary widely depending on the individual so I don’t think it serves anyone to make hard rules about the importance of vocab when fluency has such preeminence in a communicative context.”

Luan, I agree that a short ‘interview’ (test) can tell an experienced teacher enough about a learner’s fluency to place that learner in an appropriate conversation class if that is our aim. I wouldn’t, however, call fluency, pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary ‘skills’. To me, the grammatico-lexical system is just that, a system. Pronunciation, to me, is also a language (sound) system. Students usually come to us equipped with what are typically referred to as productive and receptive skills (speaking, reading, etc.) That makes the distinction between skills and systems important, and it relates to what I think Scott is saying: language learners struggle to recognize and internalize the patterns of these systems. That, I believe, it what makes memorizing vocab (content words like nouns and adjectives) relatively simple – given the right conditions, motivation, etc – compared to the much larger task of learning how to pick up on and manipulate all those ‘tiny’ function words, ie the grammary stuff (eg, is, a, you). At Scott’s dinner party, one can fluently string Spanish nouns together to make oneself understood, but that is not the level of sophistication necessary to write well or impress during the school’s placement interview, is it?

So Open Space could help learners ‘stretch’ themselves beyond simple utterances to more complex language if motivation (I want to go to the party) and ecology (I like the food and drink (input?) and conversation at this party) are optimal.

Rob

24 05 2011
Luan

I disagree Rob. I think they are more defined skills than the vague and general four receptive areas. They are skills because people demonstrate clear and differing procedural abilities in each of them and this is honed through repeated practice.

I don’t oppose skills with systems. I oppose skills with declarative knowledge and the ability to recall a facts such someone’s birthday. Vocabulary knowledge comes closest to declarative learning and on its own is not a good indicator of language proficiency. Pronunciation is not so much a system as phonology is a system. One may well know all the vocal positions and IPA characters but without repeated practice, the ability to pronounce language in real time will be lacking.

24 05 2011
Rob

Luan, agreed on phonology (not pronunciation) as a sound system – my mistake. We also agree that vocab knowledge, and I would include grammar knowledge, does not in and of itself guarantee ‘proficiency’.

“I think they are more defined skills than the vague and general four receptive areas. They are skills because people demonstrate clear and differing procedural abilities in each of them and this is honed through repeated practice.”

Four receptive skills? Generally, only two are considered receptive. Anyway, let’s not quibble over jargon. I’ll think about your notion of fluency, grammar, and vocab as skills. Must go to work now.

Rob

24 05 2011
Scott C

As Homer Simpson said: ‘Let’s not get bogged down in semantics’.

I think vocab, grammar and fluency can be thought of as ‘skills’ as in the real world where real language is used (outside of a textbook), vocab, for example, always comes along for the ride when someone opens their mouths. Reading without vocab is just a blank page. So you could argue, that the sub-skills of speaking include ‘use of appropriate/accurate vocab’ rather than separating it as exam criteria often do. 10 mins ago, I was skeptical about this however wouldn’t that way of thinking strengthen the connection between systems and skills and maybe even lead to a more integrated approach from students and teachers? In Australia, most of our students have difficulty with just that. I struggled with ‘discourse’ on my DELTA so a different view might suit. Sorry, nothing to do with Open Space.

25 05 2011
Rob

Scott, Luan, integration does seem to make more sense than slicing and dicing skills, systems and whatnot. I can see where Luan’s coming from now although I don’t think these skills are more ‘defined’ in popular ELT thinking, but they could use more definition. Maybe I just need to brush up on my ELT academic reading. It took me a while to get my head around ‘procedural abilities’, and maybe I’m still not there yet. Slow learner. :-)

Open Space seems well suited to integration of skills and systems – a more realistic environment for learning?

25 05 2011
Luan

It’s a side point really. Like I said, I think it’s good to mix up the levels but there are times when you certainly need clear groupings. I have just had to pull four people out of a new class of twenty because they were slowing everyone down badly, speaking far too much L1 and becoming a negative influence on the whole group. Whichever way I look at it, they really don’t belong in such a big pre-intermediate group. They are a lot older than the others and have immense difficulty with greetings and repeating four-word sentences written on the board. Sad but I’ve nipped it in the bud early on, so none of them has lost too much face.

25 05 2011
Scott C

Open space seem to really work better the higher the level. A false beginner in an Elementary class at chapter 5 is every teachers nightmare. However, an Int student with strong communication skills really can work well with UI or even Adv. Perhaps communication skills are what makes Open Space successful or not.

25 05 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Luan,

That’s a thought-provoking post. I have a few questions.

When you say the learners you pulled out of the group were slowing the group down:

(1) aren’t you implying that every learner should learn at the same speed?

(2) why is using L1 is class a problem? You say it was too much, but how do you know this?

(3) could it be the activities and material you are using for the classes is to rigid?

Thanks :)

PS: Hope I didn’t get too starry-eyed in the message (re: Scott’s fair comment)

25 05 2011
Luan

Hi Mr Darkbloom,

1. These four are in their late fifties and have very had very little formal education. People do learn at different rates depending on aggregate study, frequency of study, aptitude and motivation. But this is a different issue. These four need to be taught separately, starting with the very basics and I can’t devote my time to that in a class with 16 pre-intermediates wanting to get on.

2. L1 in the classroom is a massive problem. It just holds learners back so much. I see it time and time again. The students who constantly switch to their L1 always make slower progress. They forget the translations, they speak less English, they don’t think in English, they don’t see the point in it. It’s a real crutch. I have written reams on this and the point is that I’m not a complete pedant but these threshold learners are completely ignoring the proscription and in the process they are missing the point of language learning, they are falling behind and then they get distracted – which I wouldn’t mind if they got distracted in English. This is an issue where the academics like Guy Cook are plain wrong, empirically and theoretically.

3. I’m using the most the most light-hearted, game-based and basic stuff. It’s just vocab building with role plays, circling questions and such. You should see this bunch really. It’s in a hotel: good laugh but hard work. . . :)

25 05 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Luan,

Thanks for your response.

L1 in the classroom is a massive problem. It just holds learners back so much. I see it time and time again. The students who constantly switch to their L1 always make slower progress. They forget the translations, they speak less English, they don’t think in English, they don’t see the point in it.

So, for the particular four learners you are talking about, what would change if they were relegated to a beginner’s group? I suppose they would still be inclined to use L1, so how would you get them using more L2?

And, to get to the bottom of it, why do you think these learners want to use L1 in the classroom?

This is an issue where the academics like Guy Cook are plain wrong, empirically and theoretically.

I have limited knowledge on this issue, but at the moment, I’m inclined to agree with Leo Van Lier that maybe L1 use isn’t something to be stigmatized:

We often hear that second or foreign language students should be forced to use the second or foreign language, rather than being allowed to ‘fall back’ on their native language. In this way, they will get more practice, and they will also gradually team to ‘think in’ the target language, and this is seen by many parents, teachers and students as one of the keys to becoming proficient or ‘native-like.’ It is in fact rather surprising to find that the research on this issue actually finds that the opposite is true. Under certain conditions, such as meaningful and interesting project work, use of the native language actually helps in the development of the target language, diminishing naturally as second language proficiency increases (Brooks, Donato & McGlone, 1997; Swain & Lapkin, 2000).

– Leo van Lier. The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning: A Sociocultural Perspective

25 05 2011
Luan

I’m going to a reply with an ad hominen, and that is, have these academics done much teaching before, or recently? It would seem not. Now, this might sound like a harsh angle to take but I think if they had a closer classroom experience they would be a bit more forthright in their opinions.

I have a view which accommodates translation for thresholds under certain circumstances which are not communicative in nature and I would prefer to pursue that with these four learners. But if I allow them to pollute the learning environment with continual L1 use, it wrecks my methods and pulls everyone down. I’m not going to say it’s laziness, but it is an unwillingness to commit.

25 05 2011
Mr Darkbloom

have these academics done much teaching before, or recently?

This is a complaint which I think a lot of academics these days are taking very seriously – particularly those coming from an ecological perspective like Van Lier, who are very committed to local, pragmatic (action) research.

In the case of Van Lier, yes, he indeed has a vast classroom teaching experience. (He gives some anecdotes in the book i quoted).

I have a view which accommodates translation for thresholds under certain circumstances which are not communicative in nature

Considering that every learner has no choice other than to translate in the learning/using process anyway, I fail to see how it isn't a communicative practice and why it isn't a useful skill to develop. Perhaps you could elaborate on this. And also please would you be so kind as to answer my previous question directly as I think it's vital here:

Why do you think these learners want to use L1 in the classroom?

26 05 2011
Luan

With all due respect, a few anecdotes in a book by some research wonk is not going to convince me. I like to see solid convictions borne by experience: the mother of wisdom.

Re my method for thresholds, it’s not communicative because it revolves around extensive drilling of the students’ own L1 phrases. This gives them a leg up onto the language before they can be thrown into the interaction end of the pool. I have elaborated on the concept here: http://www.teflideas.com/2011/01/03/the-semantic-translation-method

“every learner has no choice other than to translate in the learning/using process anyway “

This is not true at all when you get beyond a beginner level. In communicative situations the students should be trying not to openly translate, but to convey meaning in the L2 with a degree of automaticity. That’s what fluency is and translation or excessive monitoring spoils this and detracts from communicative purpose. Translation is just too easy to do, words have no context to stick to and it means the students are not taking off their arm bands and they make much slower progress as a result.

I did answer your question Mr Darkbloom, you just didn’t notice it: unwillingness to commit. The Cultural Revolution didn’t help much in this respect of course . . .

25 05 2011
Lorna

I don’t think that anyone should be ‘forced’ to use the language that is being taught, rather there should be agreement at the start of the course as to how to proceed. I guess use of L1 in class may be a problem with a monolingual group, but in the kind of multilingual classroom that I’m used to it is less so, as learners recognize the value of communicating with each other in English.

25 05 2011
Dennis Newson

I feel out of solidarity I must write I agree with Luan’s stand on “English only” . I have rehearsed the arguments far too often to repeat them here, but I remain totally convinced that, apart from situations where commonsense demands that the mother tongue is used (if there is just one and if the teacher knows it) sticking to the target language is – what’s the permitted word? – the most effective procedure. Dennis

25 05 2011
ian

On the question of the use of L1, this is the best (or only) way for many learners to express themselves. I think banning L1 would be like banning social interaction for many students who lack the lexis to make themselves understood in English.

It’s another issue if the students themselves complain about the use of L1 – but I think it’s usually teachers (not the students) who get upset about L1, isn’t it?

If the teacher can speak the learners’ L1, what’s the problem with boarding l what the student wanted to say in English?

25 05 2011
Dennis Newson

Ian writes:

“f the teacher can speak the learners’ L1, what’s the problem with boarding l what the student wanted to say in English?”

1. In many classrooms there just is not a single mother tongue. (“Context is all” * ).
2. The procedure you suggest:
2.1 Encourage learners to keep on thinking in the MT and translating or having translated into the TL instead of trying to think in the TL.
2.2 Use of the MT breaks the spell – the spell of operating in the TL.

* In my own career there were examples of learners complaining to the authorities that the mother tongue, German, was being used instead of instructors adhering to English.

25 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

It’s interesting that this ‘old favourite’ has re-surfaced in a discussion that is purportedly about doing away with (knowledge-based) ‘levelling’ of students. This makes me wonder if – in an ‘open space’-style school – this is not something that the students themselves couldn’t negotiate – either by choosing NOT to go to any available bi-lingual classes – or by debating the issue in some kind of ‘parliament’.

Certainly, in my not-so-hypothetical dinner-party analogy (mentioned in a comment a while back) the success of the conversation would probably owe in part to a degree of cross-linguistic interpreting and code-switching. Would anyone – in that situation – mind terribly?

26 05 2011
Rob

The answer to your question, Scott, depends – in my case – on how much I had had to drink and/or whether the conversation was stimulating. Given it’s a dinner party and not a cocktail party, I’d suppose the latter would be more relevant.

In the final analysis, I find no one really knows how we learn languages – despite book title to that effect – and all we can hope to do is make general statements based on experience and knowledge. What’s good for one might not be good for the other. Open Space seems to embrace variables and unknowns, making room for the unexpected to arise. That sort of room for creativity appeals to me.

26 05 2011
Scott C

Very well said Rob.

In terms of level, a large focus seems to be placed on ‘what happens if a student in the class is at a lower level than others’? However, what is there to be said of the reverse? What are people’s thoughts? Should students be ‘pushed up’?

26 05 2011
steph

Regarding using L1 in the class. If it’s without purpose, then probably it’s not going to help. But if there’s a purpose then why not?

Situations where L1 would be beneficial

1) In a class of beginners – someone arrives late, the other students are on task. One member of class can quickly and clearly explain what the task is in L1 so the late-comer is quickly integrated

2) In a class of any level (mixed or higher) the teacher would like to work with emergent language (which they will later perhaps practice in a controlled way) but first the class need to find an interesting, relevant topic. In a mono-lingual group – they can use a free newspaper (in their language) to select and initially discuss an interesting story, once they’re “in” the discussion, teacher asks for English only. By which time the interest in content has been sparked.

3) One to one. A student with a good receptive knowledge but absolutely no confidence in speaking. This works with a teacher who understands their L1. The student starts talking about something in their L1 which they’re really interested in….slowly the teacher coaxes the student to try to express these things in English. This happened with a 15 year old German girl who started our school 2 years ago. She is a keen writer and VERY bright. She was describing her latest book in German/English – I scribbled down English phrases she was missing and then at the end boarded them up. I have never seen anyone so eager to scribble down the phrases as they were directly relevant to what she was trying to say. At the end of 60 mins we both left with the most satisfactory feeling that some real communication had taken place – in English and German true, but she’d said what was meaningful for her.

By the way – this year she sat her IGCSE’s in English, Geography, Biology and History (all in English)

26 05 2011
Mr Darkbloom

Thanks, Steph.

I would also add that in many cases allowing or encouraging L1 use sends a message to the learners that their home culture and language are valid, not just the L2. Well-managed L1 use can surely be a very positive and even liberating thing that pedagogically aids the L2 mastery.

If anyone should be deciding how much L1 to use in the classroom, it shouldn’t solely be the teacher – it should always be negotiated with and ultimately the decision of the learners. I fail to see how any experienced teacher should feel it incumbent on themselves to decide this on their own without the learners having a say.

Like I said in an earlier post: most teachers say they want to foster learner autonomy, but in truth they are intimidated by it.
:)

Luan,

I’m impressed with the work you’ve done on your Semantic Translation Method. On the face of it, it seems well-thought out and carefully learner-centered.

And though I could certainly disagree with your assumptions on what should count as ‘interaction’ and when it should take place:
This gives them a leg up onto the language before they can be thrown into the interaction end of the pool. I must first of all ask; why have you put together a method?

By nature it seems, ‘teaching methods’ generalise, knock learners into a teacher’s fixed ideas of learning conformity and are often used (perhaps rigidly) with every learner because they are thought to work.

Rather than applying methods (with all their baggage), why can’t we shift the focus to the teacher/learner’s attitude and style or even philosophy and look into detail there?

After all, I thought we were in a post-method era…
:)

26 05 2011
Dennis Newson

Mr. Darkbloom, Sir. Is it obsessive of me to be unable to shut up on this issue?

You write:

“I would also add that in many cases allowing or encouraging L1 use sends a message to the learners that their home culture and language are valid, not just the L2.”

I not only disagree, I find that point of view misplaced. (I am not advocating forbidding anything, let me stress). I sincerely do not believe discussions about respect for the MT are present or relevant here. We are talking about a technique, if you like, a technique that demonstrably works.

“If anyone should be deciding how much L1 to use in the classroom, it shouldn’t solely be the teacher – it should always be negotiated with and ultimately the decision of the learners. I fail to see how any experienced teacher should feel it incumbent on themselves to decide this on their own without the learners having a say.”

Again, I feel this argument is misplaced in this context. Are you suggesting a teacher has no expertise and is not permitted to proceed in the light of it?. Learners can sometimes think they know what they want, and their opinions should most certainly be taken with grave seriousness. But the task of the teacher can sometimes be to persuade learners that although they think they want X, Y may suit them better.

In the course of my career I always explained exactly why it was going to be a case of: “English Only”. There was never, ever a protest – the procedure was always approved of and enjoyed.

Dennis

26 05 2011
Anthony Gaughan

There are a lot of empirical claims flying about here, and as Luan said earlier:

“With all due respect, a few anecdotes in a book by some research wonk is not going to convince me…”

Research wonk or teaching wonk, if we make empirical claims and then avoid providing empirical evidence, then that’s plain wonky!

When it comes to the claim that use of L1 hinders L2 acquisition/learning, please, give me something to get my teeth into. I am prepared to accept the position, but please: show me the evidence!

26 05 2011
Mr Darkbloom

When it comes to the claim that use of L1 hinders L2 acquisition/learning, please, give me something to get my teeth into. I am prepared to accept the position, but please: show me the evidence!

Me too, Anthony. I am perfectly prepared to adopt an ‘English only’ stance in the classroom if those who advocate it can provide a bit more than anecdotal evidence.

In fact, I’ll throw the gauntlet down right now, and damnright ask to be enlightened on this subject by the people who undoutedly have more experience than I do. Particularly anyone who claims an English-only policy. I really want to know if I’m on the right path here with L1!
:)

27 05 2011
Scott C

I think we all have to go back to Rob’s last comment.

Can anyone who has posted here and who has studied a foreign language state they have never translated back to their L1 or written down an L2 to L1 translation? Why is there so much fuss about ‘speaking’ in the L1 when we all know that in their minds and on paper students use their L1 a lot? Will we ban all thought in L1 too?!

The school I work at has a strict English Only policy. From a behavioural point of view, it’s a fantastic way of encouraging more interaction between nationalities (I’m in Australia). At my previous school, there were far more linguistic ghettos in the common room. As a result, there seems to be more practice and a more open and friendly learning environment. However useful L1 might be at times in class, when used appropriately, it just can’t be used.

But to return to my previous point, students write notes in their L1 at times and even write things down occasionally in their L1 for each other when someone struggles. Doesn’t this reflect real-world communication? Travelling with a friend who doesn’t speak much of the host country’s lang’, meeting a new girlfriend’s foreign parents, going to a party with a group of students… In all these cases, L1 and L2 interacting.

Where does this leave us?

27 05 2011
darridge

In my humble…

If class is going well, and there is a good group dynamic, then students will not see the need to use L1 – unless they have a need for it.

It is just inevitable there will be time when the students talk to each other in L1 for some reason (confirming, clarifying, asiding, asking for help from a classmate) and times when attention is focussed on the group task and everyone speaks in the common L2.
In my experience, often it is after you have established a great group dynamic, with committed learners when you see an increase in L1 use. This certainly happening in one class at the moment. People feel comfortable and the class takes on more of a dinner table vibe, where people weave in and out of the conversation as they see fit. Often that’s a coming back to it with a “oh that reminds me” etc, all of which builds up conversational competence. There is plenty of English, and its at levels everyone can understand (often as a result of L1 clarification).

I also think you can not underestimate the importance of showing people that “their home culture and language are valid” as Mr Darkbloom put it.

There are times when it is bad – when it is exclusionary, and when clearly inappropriate things are being said. However, that’s not a language problem. L1 is usually the symptom of a larger group dynamic/personality problem, not the cause in my experience. This is where classroom management is needed.

In any case the fascism, and plain disruption of constantly having to yell out “English please!” just puts me off these days. If my students aren’t speaking it, they usually have a good reason, and often the reason is that I haven’t provided them the need/want/space/confidence in the environment to use English. It’s my problem not theirs.

27 05 2011
Mr Darkbloom

the fascism, and plain disruption of constantly having to yell out “English please!” just puts me off these days. If my students aren’t speaking it, they usually have a good reason, and often the reason is that I haven’t provided them the need/want/space/confidence in the environment to use English. It’s my problem not theirs.

Fantastic comment, Darridge.
:)

27 05 2011
Dennis Newson

Mr. Darkbloom, you remind me and other most usefully (something we all really know) that teaching circumstances vary considerably. I honestly think that teaching German university students and adults elsewhere I never had to yell: “English please!” I guess on reflection I was fortunate enough to have learners who gladly went along with “English only” as one of the productive rules of the game. (Towards the start of my career in Doha, Qatar, it was different. Whenever I visited the souk, the local market, small boys from all corners yelled out: “Will you stop talking and sit down!” They may not have learned much else, but they had that off pat, faithfully copying my stress and intonation.)

Of course learners will continue to think in the MT, speak to each other in the MT, make notes in the MT. Who could possibly imagine that would be otherwise? Of course there will be occasions when use of the MT or MTs is necessary (though I reckon a pedagogy that requires this is questionable). My advocacy of TL only is akin to recommending to newbie violin players that they keep their right wrist down by lowering their right elbow. Bowing simply works better that way.
The idea that using TL only in the interests of the learners achieving their aim (to learn the TL) the notion that it is anti-MT strikes me as – well, I’ll settle for “bizarre.” By extension of that argument learning any foreign language is an act of disloyalty to the MT. Crazy. But I rest my case. Honestly. I promise. For the rest of this particular discussion I will be come a reader lurker. Dennis

27 05 2011
Lorna

I’m pretty sure it’s the case that those who have the opportunity to learn a language in the country where it is spoken (total immersion) make more satisfactory progress. There are probably many reasons for this, but one of them must surely be lack of L1 interference.

27 05 2011
Scott C

…and exposure/opportunities to practise!

27 05 2011
J.J. Sunset

Even in total immersion L2 learning environments, L1 interference will always shape things, color things, co-construct things…

Go ahead and ask your brain to get rid of the tremendous success the wiring of its mother tongue has proven to be, all in the name of Krashenites, Chomkyans, Selinkerians, Unpluggers, Communicators, Lexis Lovers, Open Spacers, or savvy English Courses marketers.

Brains love their babies.

27 05 2011
Rob

I’ve come to prefer the concept of L2 ‘influence’, a term that strikes me as less dogmatic and more dogmetic. All the more reason, I believe, to see the mother tongue as relevant, significant, and necessary to understanding and helping language learners.

As for empirical evidence in ELT, I find a one-size fits all approach too simplistic. Isn’t the best we can do to share our observations and ideas then interpret and apply them within our local context?

27 05 2011
Scott C

…I blame marketing. Works 50% of the time. The other 50% is reserved for agents :-)

27 05 2011
mrdarkbloom

Of course there will be occasions when use of the MT or MTs is necessary (though I reckon a pedagogy that requires this is questionable).

Well, then we largely agree, though I was hoping you would be able to back up your supposition that MT helping TL learning is (across the board) questionable with some research evidence.

If anyone else has some, don’t be shy!

Scott pretty much stated that in Open Space-style lessons, learners could be able to choose (by Parliament perhaps) how much translation they think is helpful to do. Sure, some will want to rely on it more than others and we can have meaningful discussions with the learners about the differences here. We need to understand, with each case, why.

This apparent ‘unwillingness to commit’ by some learners may be a sympton of fear and unconfidence which can and should be addressed. Of course, as teachers we can’t take responsibility for everything that happens, but generally perhaps we should think, like Darridge:

I haven’t provided them the need/want/space/confidence in the environment to use English. It’s my problem not theirs.

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