A is for Affordance

1 01 2012

Last week I went for a walk with friends in the Swiss Alps – seven kms along a marked trail with panoramic views of mountains, lakes and mist down below in the valley. We were five people, and as we walked we talked, in different groupings and in different languages, stopping frequently, to rest, snack, and note interesting features of the landscape, such as the ripple effect in the snow from recent rain, the way the snowcap on a rooftop was slowly sliding off as it thawed, footprints of a fox (or some other animal) in an otherwise immaculate snowy field, and so on. But always talking.

It was the kind of conversation you don’t have sitting down.  Rather, it was a conversation that,  in the words of the poet,  se hace al andar – it was made walking. It was a product of its trajectory through time and space.

Which made me think: we invest a lot in the learning opportunities afforded by conversation (it’s a core tenet of the dogme approach, after all). Yet conversations in classrooms are necessarily constrained, both by the relative immobility of the participants and by the lack of the kind of stimuli you get simply by taking a walk.

In short, classroom talk (as Leo van Lier has frequently observed) is challenged in terms of contingency and affordances. By contingency, I mean a sense of connectedness – where everything that is said is connected both to what has already been said, and to the context in which it is said – taking context to mean everything from the ‘here-and-now’ to the ‘then-and-there’, i.e. the  knowledge and experience that the speakers have in common.

And by affordance, I mean (to quote An A-Z of ELT)

a particular property of the environment that is potentially useful to an organism. A leaf, for example, affords food for some creatures, shade for others, or building material for still others. It’s the same leaf, but its affordances differ, depending on how it is regarded, and by whom. The term has been borrowed from ecology to describe the language learning opportunities that exist in the learner’s linguistic ‘environment’…

And all this reminded me of something I wrote a while back about what I called ‘The Robinson Crusoe Method’ of language learning. If you recall, Crusoe meets and befriends the “savage” Friday on his island:

 I was greatly delighted with him, and made it my Business to teach him every Thing, that was proper to make him useful, handy, and helpful; but especially to make him speak, and under stand me when I spake, and he was the aptest Schollar that ever was…

Unfortunately, Defoe/Crusoe does not go into the details of what he did “to make him speak”, but it is not difficult to imagine how it evolved. As the two went about their daily business – hunting, fishing, gardening, exploring – conversations would splutter into being.    At first these conversations would tend to focus on the “here-and-now” and be mainly lexical, of the ‘Me Robinson, you Friday’ type.  But the continuous contact between “teacher” and “learner” would ensure optimal opportunities for interaction, feedback, and recycling, while the situated nature of the talk would guarantee comprehension. Repeated phrases would start to release their internal structure, and grammar would begin to emerge.  Over time – and propelled by their need to do things together  – their individual idiolects would align and merge (although the power imbalance would mean that Crusoe’s language would exert the greater attraction and, ultimately, predominate).

All in all, the Robinson Crusoe method, enriched and enlivened by the learning opportunities offered by real talk in the real world, must surely be the best language learning method ever devised.

So the question is: how can you replicate these conditions in a typical classroom? How can you turn the classroom into a hike through the snow, or a walk around the island? How can classroom talk achieve the degree of contingency that Crusoe and Friday achieved?

Is this perhaps where technology comes into its own? Can, for example, Second Life or video games offer a simulacrum of the mountain walk? Or are simulacra, by their very nature, insufficient?

Or is this  (yet another) argument for task-based learning, where the focus is on collaborative activity, with language, not as the goal, but the means?  Because, as van Lier (2002, p. 159)  notes, “when we design our lessons using activity as the focal unit, language becomes a constituent alongside movement, gesture, experiment, manipulation, focusing, planning, judging, and so on.  Language is naturally supported by and supportive of social activity”.

Or, in the end, is there no getting away from the fact that classrooms are just not good places to learn languages in?  And that, instead of flogging the present perfect continuous to death, it might not be better simply ‘to take a walk around the block’?

Reference:

van Lier, L. 2002. ‘An ecological-semiotic perspective on language and linguistics’. In Kramsch, C. (ed.) Language Acquisition and Language Socialization: Ecological Perspectives. London: Continuum.

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61 responses

1 01 2012
Gareth Knight

Hi Scott,

Thank you. An entertaining and thoughtful start to 2012. In my view the key is spontaneity, whether the location be simulacra, a classroom or a ‘walk around the block’. So the question for me becomes how do we provide the stimulus for spontaneous conversation in the absence of an alpine walk?

Cheers,

Gareth

2 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Good point, Gareth (about spontaneity). Thereby the tension: planning lessons is all about trying to pre-empt or avoid spontaneity, because it is a challenge to orderliness and even discipline. Real language use thrives on spontaneity. How do you square the circle?

16 04 2013
RadaSiva (@RadaSiva)

absolutely!! A great idea that ( taking a walk). This is where, I think, emergent language plays a vital role. Learners walk into the classroom and just talk; whatever it is and teacher gives them the right expressions to use. Again, putting together ‘accommodating’ and ‘Affordance’ together. it would help to know the L1.

1 01 2012
phil2wade

Hi Scott.

Yet another interesting post.

I’ve also come to the conclusion that the classroom is not always conducive to real conversation as students have been so accustomed to not speaking. Willy Cardosa recently mentioned doing stuff outside the class which I’ve tried to do in the UK and you end up in real situations to produce real conversation. Yes, some TBL in class may enable similar situations but they can tend to be just fake situations.

I don’t like plugging my own stuff but you can find some of my attempts to create opportunities for genuine conversation in the current BESIG Business Issues. Of course, it is far easier when you are in an English speaking country but I still have some success with projects, competitions, very open discussions and building on interests.

Maybe a new classroom layout would be useful like in primary schools with sofas, soft chairs etc.

Happy New Year.

2 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Phil – and no problem about plugging your article! I shall try and locate a copy.

Yes, taking the students out of the classroom is normally considered justifiable only in English-speaking contexts. But, like you, I do think there is some merit in ‘going for a walk’ with your students, or at least conducting a conversation in a local caff, even in an EFL setting. The ground rule must be that the ‘lingua franca’ of the group is English. And, of course, the group can’t be so big that it is unmanageable.

1 01 2012
mrdarkbloom

Good New Year to you, Scott.

I’ve been having some great lessons lately, breaking out of the classroom with my (lower-level) adult learners – not least to the pub :)

The process is simple and hopefully effective.

- Before we go out, we have a lesson collecting/shaping interesting/useful language that we may need.
- Once out, the learners have their notebooks handy, as a reference if they get stuck. (we try to keep the conversations flowing and spontaneous)
- Next lesson we are back in the classroom remembering what interesting language came up.

2 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks David – nice to see you back in form. And your comment remidns me that there was a school in the UK that was awarded the British Council Innovations (ELTON) award a few years back for doing more or less just that – creating and managing learning affordances on the street. Anyone recall what it was called?

2 01 2012
Nick Bilbrough

Yes, it was the one I mentioned below (with the bean bags) called the Camden School of English.

1 01 2012
Lata

Hi Scott,

V. interesting. Language is so central to our existance as human beings!

I think students are like ‘live wires’, and they really make the lesson happen by ‘plugging’ themselves to the immediate environment. I love experimenting in such situations. For example, once it started raining while we were busy with an activity. It all started like this-

Student 1- See, it’s raining again!
Student 2- Oh, yes..Let’s go for a picnic…
Student 3- Let’s go out and study!
Student 4- no…let’s stay in and play games…
Student 1- …let’s listen to that rainsong now…

It was a pleasure to see them communicating their wishes. I generated a lot of vocabulary from them as well. I exploited this occurance since this was not only more interesting but it was all heading towards what I had actually decided to do with them. (Routines: Simple present tense…what things do you do when it rains? … So instead of doing it the pre-planned way, I found this model easier as a launch pad ).

It will be interesting to brainstorm some strategies to ‘replicate’ such opportunities. Thinking….
Lata Lakhani

2 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Hi Lata, thanks for your comment. I love the story about the rain. (I seem to recall that Luke Meddings had a similar story, when a bee created a learning affordance in his classroom once). It’s particularly nice when an unplanned event fits neatly into your planned objectives – not always the case, of course!

(I remember when I taught in Alexandria that electricity black-outs in the evening were so frequent as to be more or less predictable – you could almost plan a lesson around the likelihood of one happening. A favorite was telling ghost stories by candle-light!)

4 01 2012
Anthony Gaughan

… I was sitting watching teaching practice a couple of months ago when a huge thunderstorm ripped in. I was due to take over from the trainee, whose lesson was being disrupted by the storm, which was grabbing the students’ attention.

So rather than do what I’d planned, in the break I dashed to my book shelf, found p. 33 “Every Sight, Every Sound”) and committed it to memory. When I got back to class, I tried it out.

Of course, my version turned out differently from Luke’s and yours, partly due to my faulty memory, but mostly, I think, because of the contingency that you mention: it was different because it had to be.

So this might be the opportune moment to thank you both for affording me an enjoyable and unexpected classroom experience!

4 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thank the storm, Anthony! (And your own initiative). :-)

4 01 2012
Lata

Hi Scott,
Looks like certain parts of the world are just more prone to such events, working as strong launchpads or ‘happening zones’ to practise a foreign language, thanks to the not-so-perfect infrastructure/settings! Electricity blackouts remind me of the monkey attacks that occurred in a language school where I taught in India. Monkeys used to barge in and students tried their best to instruct me and one another on what to do about it! A lot of language got elicited during those moments.

However, I wonder if a multilingual group of learners in the UK would react to it the same way. When i was collecting data for ‘affordances’ research, at a language school in England and another in India, it emerged that learners who shared L1 connected with environment and the peers faster than the group of learners from more diverse backgrounds. Or was it the fact that they had a non-foreigner teacher??? Thinking….

1 01 2012
Nick Bilbrough

Another point about this kind of thing is that it can be very memorable. One thing I’ve been doing recently to improve my Spanish is going on ‘Spanish walks’. There’s a two mile cycle route here in Devon, which I very regularly cycle along with my kids on the way to school. I’ve found that if I walk along this same route with a native speaker of Spanish, and discuss with him what comes up along the way in Spanish, I’m able to recall this very easily later on, in many cases even the exact words that were said. I can lie in bed at night and visualise the different points in the journey where we spoke, and better still, each time I cycle along it again, I’m reminded of what we said. It’s a way of putting a bit of Spanish into the very unspanish world I normally inhabit.

On the subject of soft classroom furnishings Phil, I visited and observed classes at this school a few years ago http://www.camdencollege.com/index.html and was blown away by the special sort of atmosphere they seemed to have created. Each classroom was set up differently – one with sofas, one with beanbags on the floor, one with a big kitchen table that everyone sits round etc, and the different groups of learners rotated between them.

Nick

1 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Nick, your reference to your ‘Spanish walks’ reminded me of the approach advocated by the 19th century educational reformer, F. Gouin, who – inspired by his young son’s account of a visit to the zoo – developed what came to be known as the Gouin ‘series’, sequences of thematically related phrases that replicate some real-life process, such as chopping wood. Richards and Rodgers (1986) comment: ‘Gouin’s emphasis on the need to present new teaching items in a context that makes their meaning clear, and the use of gestures and actions to convey the meaning of utterances, are practices that later became part of such approaches and methods as Situational Language Teaching … and Total Physical Response…’ (p. 6).

It’s interesting to think of TPR as an attempt to replicate the Swiss or Spanish walk.

2 01 2012
Nick Bilbrough

Thanks for that link Scott. I think there is also a link with another even older learning strategy, that of the Loci memory technique, which dates back to Ancient Greece. As you know, in this approach things are fixed into our memories through linking them to particular landmarks along a route that we are very familiar with. Later we can recall the item to be remembered by revisualising the route (literally ‘taking a trip down memory lane’) .

So maybe it’s really worth encouraging learners to consciously link what is being discussed to the immediate surroundings when we do this kind of thing.

7 01 2012
James Thomas

On the other hand: it may be useful to present the vocabulary of baroque architecture by taking students on an excursion to Vienna for example, where they can see the real thing, or just show them in a book or on Youtube. The assumption seems to be that they don’t know anything about the topic and for some reason are learning its language. But most of what we teach in language is not conceptually new to students. They surely have the concepts of plateau, saxophone, condom, intertwine, overdraw, indulge, refulgent, afflatus and other such common items that we teach :-). Wasn’t Gouin teaching his son about the world, not a foreign language vocabulary of something the kid already knew?

1 01 2012
Tefl Jobs

Hi Scott,

I think it’s a good point Nick made about making the experience more memorable. It’s all too easy for students to go through the motions in class as the environment becomes more and more familiar. I remember a friend who did some 1-to-1 teaching with Vaughn Systems in Spain telling me a big part of the teaching was taking the students on walks to talk and chat. Might not be so ideal if you have a class of 15 in central London though!

Regards, Jon.

2 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Jon. I too remember taking my students for a walk though the old part of Hastings when I’d just started teaching. A fruit vendor was less than pleased when I used her stall for an impromptu vocabulary lesson – and nobody bought anything!

1 01 2012
Stephanie Ashford

I occasionally teach at home (no bean bags but plenty of soft furnishings) and once managed to lock myself out of my house two minutes before a student arrived for a lesson. Fortunately, my student happens to be an avid walker with a good sense of humour, and she went along with my suggestion of learning English by ‘walk ‘n talk’. We spent a very pleasant hour, but it was not satisfactory as an English lesson. Deprived of notebooks and pens, there was no way of recording new language as it arose. My student needs to be able to see words as they are written, and normally takes several pages of notes. I suppose she could have taken along her notebook, but that would have defeated the purpose of “replicating a real-life process”. This time she went home empty handed.

Yes, traditional classroom environments do have their limitations, and this could be one reason why my one-to-one student prefers private lessons. On the other hand, classrooms can be ideal places for learning. For one thing, they allow us to ‘board’ new language as it arises (the bigger the board, the better), and this doesn’t necessarily entail ” flogging the present perfect continuous to death”!

So, a change of environment can be refreshing, but it isn’t just a matter of creating affordances. It’s what we do with them that counts.

2 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Hi Stephanie – yes, the problem of recording is a real one, although now with all the electronic aids that our students carry with them, this is probably less so. If nothing else, might it not be a useful thing to do – to take snapshots along the way (much as I did on my Swiss Alps walk) and then use them later to ‘reconstruct’ the journey, recycling the relevant language?

1 01 2012
Kathy F.

A thought-provoking post and discussion!

I was just puzzling over the question of note-taking. (A post is currently under construction — it may have to be drastically revised after this!) On the one hand, I want to encourage students to notice aspects of what’s happening communication-wise while they’re engaged in conversation. On the other hand, I try to set up situations where students are so involved in communicating for meaning that they forget about “learning” (in the sense of explicit studying of English). When I’m engrossed, I don’t notice whether I’m in a classroom or on the moon! Maybe note-taking during conversation has the potential to distract and break the spell?

This reminds me of back when I first got interested in watching birds. I’d go out with my binoculars, guide and notebook and every time I saw something special, I would take my eyes off of it to make a note or look in my guide. Meanwhile, the bird would often fly away! I eventually started leaving the books in my backpack but would pause now and then for a “note break”. I found that it actually made me pay *more* attention because I would have to remember what I saw for later note-taking. Then when I got back to watching, I’d be double-checking what I saw to see whether I got my notes down accurately.

Do you think that idea might apply in the classroom, too? That’s what I was pondering. This kind of noting might be a skill that’s useful when encountering English in the “real world” too.

The part I was puzzling over was: during conversation time, should *I* take notes? It might help everyone else to relax if they knew *someone* was wielding a pencil. But if students just depended on my note-taking, they wouldn’t necessarily start paying extra attention? What do you think?

Kathy
(Sorry for the long post, wow!)

2 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, good point, Kathy – about the problem of divided attention. It’s a fundamental one in communicative teaching generally – whether inside or outside classrooms, i.e. how do you maintain a satisfactory balance between meaning AND form? Retrospecting, using photos (see my comment to Stephanie), might be one option.

1 01 2012
Kathy F.

Re the main point of the original post (!) … I actually don’t teach in classrooms, but I have to smile because we (the librarians, the students and I) all conspire to make the meeting rooms where classes are held look as much like a classroom as possible. New Year’s Resolution: tear down those classroom walls! (Figuratively, I mean.)

1 01 2012
Stephanie Ashford

That’s interesting Kathy. I teach business undergraduates where we conspire to make the classrooms look as much as meeting rooms as possible!

Regarding your post about note-taking, I think it boils down to subtlety (not intimidating learners by strutting around with a clipboard) and transparency (ensuring that they understand why we’re taking notes). The transparency side of things wouldn’t work with birds, of course! But, yes, note-taking requires multi-tasking – and without letting the strings show.

I can definitely identify with what you say about being so engrossed that you don’t notice whether you’re in a classroom or on the moon! But the moment we forget that we’re in a classroom, are we abdicating our role as language teachers? What do others think?

1 01 2012
KathyKathy F.

HI Stephanie,

Thanks for the quick feedback! I’d like to clarify that I was describing my experience with being engrossed while taking a class, not describing my experience as a teacher.

I’m not advocating a lack of transparency either. I would like my adult students to be cognizant up front of the reasons for whatever I ask them to do, especially if I make an unconventional request such as *not* taking notes during some segments of the lesson!

Regarding whether I, too, should refrain from taking notes: I’m leaning toward going ahead with it. I would board selected new vocabulary for reference as conversation progresses, and take other notes privately. I don’t think my concern about students becoming dependent will be an issue if we only use my notes as a supplement to their own recollections.

What I’m talking about would comprise only one portion of the lesson, albeit a a significant part of it.

Thanks,
Kathy

1 01 2012
Josh Kurzweil

Hi Scott,
This post on affordance comes at an interesting time for me. I’ve recently been taking lots of walks with my Georgian father-in-law who doesn’t speak any English. My Georgian is perhaps A2, but I often found that we ended up walking in silence. I found it hard to think of things to talk about and my father-in-law seemed pretty happy just strolling along.

I’ve heard similar comments from my students who live with homestay families. That just can’t figure out what to talk about, so they spend a lot of time with people in their family, but when it’s one-on-one they will fall into silence. The other problem that arises is that when there are several proficient speakers, the student (myself included) will fall into silence unable to join the conversation and with their attention/comprehension phasing in and out.

I’m very curious about how to create affordances in these types of out of the classroom situations, so that students can take advantage of the environment they are in. It seems to me that especially in one-on-one interactions with lower level students or students that are not particularly chatty, there often needs to some kind focus or task that scaffolds the interaction a bit, and which might lead to a spin-off conversation.

Happy new year!
Josh

2 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Hi Josh – good point about the difficulty of initiating and maintaining talk for lower level students. One possibility might be to pre-teach a number of conversational strategies with which they could initiate and (even minimally) sustain the talk, once initiated.

This reminds me of an account by a Chilean immigrant in New York, who learned English simply by interacting on the streets. He describes how he did it:

“My system was simple. On the way down to the subway, I would look for older people who didn’t seem in a hurry and I would ask them how to get to an address. They tried to explain, and almost always they would ask me who I was, where I was from, and what I was doing in New York. Each time I understood a little more and I could answer a little better. At the end of each day, I’d incorporated new words into my dictionary and prepared sentences that would start a new conversation the next day, again supposedly asking for directions” (Mario Kreuzberger, ‘ Don Francisco’s six steps to better English’, in How I Leared English, National Geographic).

1 01 2012
Glennie

Apropos of going for a walk around the block, a mate of mine does exactly that for his private classes in Barcelona. They are all on the hoof as he and his pupil go for a stroll around the city and chat.

1 01 2012
Willow Vanderwoman

This is an interesting idea. I’m glad that you brought it up. I think that you’re absolutely right, walking is a great way to stimulate conversation. It gets the blood flowing which sends extra oxygen to the brain which increases creativity and problem solving.

Stephanie, I think you’re right too. It doesn’t work for everyone. In my experience with one to one students, the more athletic ones seem to respond much better to walking classes. I taught a pilates instructor and she couldn’t concentrate in her office, so I suggested walking. We walked for two hours a day, twice a week for a year! She thought better when in motion. I had another students whose level went from intermediate to a strong upper intermediate during walking lessons! Conversely, the mere suggestion of walking was greatly unsettling to my more sedentary students.

Note taking on the go: students can record notes. Most of them have the option on their mobile phone or perhaps on an mp3 player. That way they can listen to and transcribe the notes later.

When teaching in New Zealand, I periodically took my classes on “field trips”. Our school was a couple blocks from the local mall and it made for a great outing. The night before the class, I’d head to the mall and create a scavenger hunt that would require talking to people in order to solve it quickly. They’d head off in pairs and talk to everybody in an effort to win. I’d sit in the food court with a coffee and they’d come racing back to me for clarifications and to check in every 15 minutes. In the end of class discussion we talked about the problems they faced and overall, although it was difficult, they were surprised to discover how motivated they were and how much it boosted their confidence when they were able to communicate with strangers. Other outings included but were not limited to museums, ethnic festivals, and the local pool hall. In each case though, having a task to accomplish helped keep the students focused and motivated.

Although this refers to business meetings, I think that it can apply to the classroom as well.
“9 Reasons Walking Meetings Are Way Better Than Sitting in the Boardroom”

http://planetgreen.discovery.com/work-connect/walking-meetings-betterthan-boardroom.html

2 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Willow – I should have scrolled down and read your post before I made the point about using cell phones etc to take notes.

I love the idea of the scavenegr hunt – so much more resourceful than my vegetable and fruit lesson (see above)!

As for getting the blood flowing, stimulating the brain etc, when I was writing this post I tried to find references to the way the Lake poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge etc) used walking-and-talking to feed their creativity. I know they did, but I couldn’t google up an actual quote.

2 01 2012
Luke Meddings

A bracing New Year’s post Scott – and the closest I’ve got to any exercise this holiday season! I like Kathy’s idea of the ‘note break’ – and birds make an apt analogy for the vulnerable nature of the classroom buzz.

I do think part of the fun of teaching unplugged can be the perambulatory nature of conversation. Oddly enough, being able to go online can enhance this – in one recent class, we began by discussing the fact that we had all met by chance at an underground station the previous day. I asked if they believed in destiny, and a conversation ensued in which we pursued the idea of destiny and free will via religion and fortune-telling, Googled novels they had read and finally watched a YouTube video of a bit of Turkish TV in which someone claimed to be making contact with the dead. It was a wandering conversation, but it was all in the same thematic ‘landscape’. A walk of sorts?

I co-opted the phrase ‘a rolling dynamic’ from one participant in a workshop this autumn – maybe it could also be a ‘strolling dynamic’..

2 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Luke – as always your playful use of language masks some serious deep thoughts! A strolling dynamic. Ha!

And the classroom buzz – was that a disguised reference to the time a bee flew in the window (see my previous comment)? ;-)

2 01 2012
Rob

Happy new year, Scott – sounds like a lovely time in the Swiss Alps!

As I’m sure I’ve shared at least once or twice on the Dogme discussion list, some of the most popular ‘lessons’ with learners have been when we leave the classroom to learn, for example, ten new words (rock, log, sky, grass…) using a somewhat Direct Method approach with lots of repetition. We round off with everyone returning to the classroom to write down the ten new words, compare and ask questions. The vocabulary tends to stick.

I don’t think standard classrooms are necessarily the best places to learn since they resemble traditional churches meant for lecture-type sermons. A friend of mine sends his child to a school with a tree growing up through the classroom floor and lost of rocks, sticks, and other natural artifacts all around the room. So much for materials-light learning?

Could we call what you describe ‘experiential learning’?

Rob

2 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Rob – Happy New year to you (and to all my ‘followers’). It occurs to me that, in the US, there might be legal issues about taking students out of class – or is it OK if they are adults? Teachers nowadays are so constrained by rules and regulations it’s a wonder they’re able to innovate at all.

Coming back to the technology issue, though – maybe the ‘porous classoom’ (rather than the perambulating one) is a viable alternative.

2 01 2012
KathyKathy F.

Regarding whether there are difficulties taking adults out of the classroom in the US: my employer is concerned about using a car to transport students due to liability issues. Other than that, though, we’re encouraged to step outside of the classroom. I wonder, though, if there could still be problems if someone should (hope not) get injured in the course of events. Argh, frustrating to think about that!

4 01 2012
Rob

My lawyer advises me not to reply. ;-)

3 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Rob, I realise I didn’t respond to your question about ‘experiential learning’ – and, yes, a walking-and-talking pedagogy is very defintiely experiential, although it’s not exactly what the original proponents of experiential learning (e.g. John Dewey) necessarily envisaged. I’ll have more to say about that in a future blog post.

4 01 2012
Rob

I suppose that, according to humanist learning theory (cf. Carl Rogers), learners themselves would have to express an interest in walking and talking, or simply choose to do it, in order for it to fully facilitate learning. Sadly, but understandably, learners don’t really elect to come to school, but imagine if they had a say in what went on at school? I would guess you experience in the Swiss Alps wasn’t forced upon you, and neither should any learning be coercive, according to Rogers, so it appears we have a serious design flaw in the education system. I often think kids, and adults, make bold attempts – and even succeed – in forming their own schools (of thought?) by subverting the institutions that try to instruct and test them. Of course there are those who play along because they’re good at it, but a subculture always emerges, an alternate ecology of affordances, if you will, where we learn the things that interest us personally, that which we carry with us throughout our lives. School really should be just a walk in the park, after all. :-)

2 01 2012
Peter Hourdequin

Hello and Happy New Year,

Great post, and great comments. Your phrase ‘the porous classroom’ makes me think of the significant potential technology now offers for bringing the outside world in. A guest could be invited in via Skype, or hey, why not take a stroll down a google street (view). My classrooms still don’t have the Internet connections needed for things like this, but when they do, I plan to see what kind of spontaneity can arise through such explorations …

2 01 2012
Kathy F.

A great idea! Our classes are taught all over the city and we will soon have access to classroom laptops. It would be fantastic to meet up with students from other classes or a guest speaker. Thanks for the suggestion!

Kathy

2 01 2012
Almagro

Happy New Year to all Thornburians!
talking hikes, treasure hunts, Crusoe encounters in non-immersion EFL settings:

In terms of contingency, affordance, spontaneity, language emergence, code switching, etc., would it make sense to carry them out in students’ L1 -lower levels?- and use their L2 to interact with the teacher in situ, and also later in the classroom to report back to the group, discuss results, compare them, etc. ?

2 01 2012
Willow Vanderwoman

Happy new year to all. I love reading about different teachers’ ideas and creativity in and out of the classroom! This conversation has certainly brought out some lovely ideas.

About the legalities of taking students out of the classroom, I remember that in New Zealand I had discussions about insurance and such with my DoS and the solution she came up with was that the class would need to actually meet at the mall in the food court, because walking down the street with them could prove to be a legal difficulty.

Peter, you’re brilliant! Thank you! I teach entirely online and this holiday season I had to make a decision about the little ones wandering into my office and climbing onto my lap during classes. I decided to make an exception because it was perfectly authentic for kids in Spain to talk to American kids and ask each other about the three kings, Santa, traditions and presents. It hadn’t occurred to me to wander through skype like a neighbourhood! With Skype premium, you can have up to three people on video, which means that it’s possible to introduce students to other people and have a group conversation around the world. Thank you for the inspiration!

Scott, I found this lovely quotation, “Wordsworth’s composition while walking up and down on a straight gravel is an act of recollection and reflection. The physicalism of walking spontaneously induces his mind into an imaginative trip to the spots of the past scattered in his mind.” ~Oishi
Probably not exactly what you were looking for, but I fell in love with the visual of the last sentence.

For lower levels- perhaps a trip to the coffee shop? It could be pre-taught with small talk in addition to ordering.

3 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Happy New Year to you, too, Almagro!

“Would it make sense to carry them out in students’ L1 -lower levels?- and use their L2 to interact with the teacher in situ, and also later in the classroom to report back to the group, discuss results, compare them, etc. ?”

Yes, I think it makes perfect sense.

3 01 2012
Cristina Ciuleanu

Happy New Year to you all,

Very nice topic to start with…You made me wonder what is the difference between euphorically expressing one’s feeling through gestures and language within the classroom/building walls and the freedom of enacting the same mood shifts into the open air, right “on the spot”.

I guess “airing” the teaching process could be one of the basic needs for an entertaining and productive lesson, but except “organized trips”, pub/coffee gatherings and maybe on line teaching,most of the lessons are to be held within some walls.

The challenge is to make the classroom walls “an inspiring scenery” and a cozy place in the same time. Looking back to the groups I have worked with,I truly learned that one of the most important emotion triggers is having your students feel safe, homey, among people who trust and enjoy their presence, ready to talk. I noticed that fluency can be achieved mainly when the students are ready to skip the control over their actions, the control over the correct topic of the sentence, or the proper usage of the terms or structures. But they only “forget” about the rules when there is something out there greater and more challenging that anything else, those type of emotions that lead them into communicating their thoughts effervescently, focusing on the message, on bonding and less on the structure of their sentences.

I guess something similar happened to you too, walking and talking among such wonderful nature scenes actually “melted the walls” around you and let room for the real communication, a natural and effective one, not between role-established individuals (teacher/student), but between friends who share precious moments together.

The question would be: what should we make use of in order to create the proper environment for a kinesthetic approach,how should we plan the lesson that helps the students find awe-inspiring “sceneries” ready to be molded into “learning by talking” experiences- all that into the classroom?

Maybe “bring the mountain to Mohamed”…

3 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Cristina for your lovely comment – something you said in your last paragraph (actually about kinaesthetics) made me think that there might be a connection between my previous post (on visualization) and this present one – a connection I hadn’t actually noticed. Perhaps visualization is one technique for – as you so aptly put it – ‘bringing the mountain to Mohamed’.

4 01 2012
phil3wade

Sorry for the late comment Scott.

I’ve always liked the idea of the classroom/school being a place for the students and where we all create learning experiences. For instance, there’s no reason why we can’t invade the lecture room and run an event or turn the classroom onto an office or shop. You can also go round other classes or invite them to yours.My meaning is to make these events as realistic as possible. I used to always do mock sales fairs like this with groups competing to sign up people on their lists. As my classes didn’t know the others and that we invited different members of school staff, it made it quite realistic.

I also like international exchanges for this reason and now with Google circles we can do even more.

Even something as simple as making a phone call in English on your speaker phone could lead to real conversation if you let each student have a go.

4 01 2012
barryjameson

I like the idea of taking learning out of the classroom or changing the classroom environment. However, in my job, as in most, that is impossible. In a sense I try to create a different environment through telling stories from my own life and painting a picture with words. The students then relate their own experiences. It is, in a sense, using their imagination to take them out of the classroom and creating virtual landmarks.

I have found that language is often lost when reviewed, but when I refer to a story or experience that I mentioned in previous lessons, the students have almost perfect recall of the different phrases and language used.

I would love to take a walk with students in the real word and see what language emerges from it.

4 01 2012
phil3wade

Why not? Google Earth is great and you could even use the ‘in progress’ 3D version. I think Pete Sharma has covered this a bit so look for his ideas. There are also lots of other 3D sites like the Google art exhibition project where you walk round famous museums. If you want more high tech then try Second Life.

Lower tech could just be a video or even photos or music.

5 01 2012
barryjameson

Would love to do all of the above Phil, but I’m in the strict Korean Hagwon system, where even playing an unapproved music CD in class can lead to the Spanish Inquisition :-)

5 01 2012
phil3wade

I know what you mean. My old boss used to come into my class 5 minutes before to check what I was going to follow her plan/materials to the letter. She used to say things like “why are you using Powerpoint” or “you haven’t taken your copies” or “I asked one of your students if he had done English Addicts yesterday and he said no, why didn’t you do it?”

In such situations I don’t feel needed whatsoever. It’s like being in a McDonalds Franchise where I would just hand over pre-cooked and pre-packed burgers.

5 01 2012
steph

Being stuck in a classroom can be a psychological block for some students. There have been occasions with my 8am English IGCSE group when I’ve felt exhausted and uninspired and my 12 teenager students have been either flat out snoozing or plugged into I-phone. In such situations I’ve taken them out of the classroom and they all woke up and saw it as a treat. We sometimes walk to a nearby (large) cafe with an open fireplace for breakfast……the walk has that magical effect of opening even the sleepiest of students to communication. We were looking at narratives last year and I wanted to open with them telling their own stories…..we sat around with coffee and I started with a story of my own….they were intrigued and then we had all sorts of stories from them. Somehow just sitting around a fire, in a cafe, created an atmosphere where they were open and engaged. Had I done the same thing in class it wouldn’t have been the same!

The idea is to re-create the “atmosphere” of the walk or sitting around the fire in the classroom……this can be done…but it’s not easy because you have to jump right out of all kinds of roles inherent in a classroom setting.

By the way – I just finished reading the official Steve Jobs Biography – a very interesting read. Notably Steve used to do ALL of his big deals by talking the person on a long walk………walking was his way of connecting and it seems influencing some very powerful people and I do wonder if that also has something to do with being in a neutral situation where people are more “stripped” of their usual roles, props and power trips! Steve Jobs was quite the genius!

6 01 2012
Steve Kirk (@stiiiv)

For me, the notion of affordances reminds me to take context seriously. The classroom, a coffee shop or a walk by a lake are not simply empty-container-contexts for the development of accuracy and fluency. In the real world of language use, context is both a driver of language and is itself affected by language. The idea of affordances helps us to remember that language and context are co-constituting.

I think this is very powerful for learners, even in the classroom (when we can’t take a walk…), since it sits, I think, at the heart of creativity in language. When we play with context, learners can be ‘forced’ into creative use of language, since when the affordances change, so must language. Playing with context in the classroom can give learners insights into the way in which creativity is not peripheral to language use, but actually a central part of what native speakers do every day.

I drove past a sign in Newcastle this week that read ‘right turners use inside lane’. I’ve never noticed the expression ‘right turners’ written down in the history of my English experience. In this particular context, however, it is clearly the constraints of space (the sign / text size) and the need to read at speed (while driving) that forces this non-prototypical (‘non-standard’, if we’re being normative) use of English. The context is part and parcel of what and why the message is the way it is.

Twitter, of course, is another great example. Particular affordances (e.g. having only 140 characters) led to a whole system of abbreviations and shorthand, which then changed the context itself (the development of the hashtag system and url shorteners), which in turn changed the Twittergramar, and so on. I recently saw Twitter used in a 2011 published textbook by a well-known publisher and, very sadly, all of this was stripped away. All the ‘tweets’ were fully, standard, written sentences of English – something that is rarely seen in the Twitterverse. I think this is a travesty and shows what happens when context is not taken seriously (and the notion of affordances ignored…). The textbook was using context as an empty container for language work (e.g. the pre-emptively chosen grammar/vocabulary of the chapter, or as a topic for ‘conversation’), rather than looking at how context and the need/desire to express certain meanings leads to situated language use of a particular kind.

Throw out the textbook (Dogme…) and bring in the real Twitter. 140 characters forces creativity in language use. It may not be ‘Standard English’ in the normative sense, but it’s not supposed to be! There are many genres of English, and many Englishes, and raising learner awareness of how context and language co-create each other gives them a way into such variation.

Taking context seriously also reminds us that taking learners on a walk may be as uninspiring for language learning as being stuck in a classroom, unless the teacher scaffolds learners towards more than mundane conversations that only exercise ‘fluency’ in some abstract sense. We must take the affordances that a walk (or whatever) provides and use them to help stretch learners’ existing linguistic resources to fit these new contexts. This is the heart of an emergentist view of language development and change and thus, presumably, of a Dogmesque approach too.

I think the idea of ‘psychological validity’ (originally from language testing, I think) is also crucial here. Some learners may feel (e.g. culturally) that a trip outside the classroom is inappropriate, and thus justification/negotiation may be needed to establish validity (and thus learner acceptance, engagement with the experience and, hopefully, learning). Equally, pedagogical tasks in the classroom do not need always to be ‘life-like’, if learners accept them as psychologically and personally valid. Taking context seriously would imply that trying to recreate the ‘outside world’ in the classroom (a very different context) may be a flawed view of CLT anyway (back to Dogme, of course)…

In considering ‘affordances’, then, I think our challenge as teachers is twofold. Firstly, we need to work on seeing the close interrelationship between language and context (and textbooks are very rarely a place to find examples!). One great resource for beginning on such awareness is Mario Rinvolucri’s (now quite old, but still wonderful) book Challenge to Think. In one activity learners take fixed expressions, such as “it’s raining” or “the door’s open”, and explore how they mean differently when the context is changed – thereby stretching ‘old’ language to new meanings, the essence of what we do as native speakers all the time. We can thus begin to change the kind of questions we ask learners, moving away sometimes from ‘what does this mean?’ and more towards ‘how far can this mean?’.

Secondly, I think we need to remember that affect and learners’ emotional/intellectual engagement are central to student perception of and, ultimately, engagement with a learning activity (wherever it takes place). While trips outside the classroom can break the routine and get us talking, good teachers don’t need to take a walk with their students to stir the imagination…

6 01 2012
Stephanie Ashford

Thanks, Steve, for the reminder about ‘Challenge to Think’ – a brilliant book that deserves to be republished.

8 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the insightful comment, Steve. Lots that I would like to respond to here, but for the moment I’d just want to underscore your point about language and context being co-constituting (hmm, I like that term!) and that if Dogme stands for anything it represents an approach that takes the idea of ‘contingency’ seriously. I also like the idea of ‘playing with the context-language relationship’. It’s also a creative way to use some of the more mundane sentences you get in grammar exercises (of the ‘My tailor is rich’ variety): how many different contexts could you sue this in, and with what different effects?

7 01 2012
James Thomas

To pick up another thread from your ‘A’ post, what ever happened to the Robinson Crusoe method (RCM)? I had been thinking along similar lines a few years before I saw your post on the RCM topic a few years (?) ago and having only read a kids version of the novel in an earlier century, read the original for the first time. I remember that your post met with enough politically motivated aggression to make me, and presumably you till now, shrink from it. I liked your point at the time and still do. The RCM is especially suitable for people who do not live under the weight of exams and who like walking on the beach – and surely there are many such learners. Let us hope that teachers like being paid in coconuts and conch shells :-)

20 01 2012
jeremyharmer

Hmm.

On the other hand the Robinson Crusoe method was an entirely colonial master-slave kind of pedagogy. Perhaps the wrong kind of affordance?

But the idea that some of the best learning/conversation/experience comes from the kind of Swiss walk you took seems entirely convincing to me. It is in the moments of felicitous intercourse (well that’s the best way I can think of describing them!) that some of the best things are said. The question, then, is how to make them memorable (from a learning point of view); how to concentrate a learner’s attention.

Could be a talk there somewhere!

Jeremy

21 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Jeremy. Yes, I’m aware of the connotations of the Crusoe-Friday relationship – Alistair Pennycook, among others, has used this story as an analogy for ‘the discourses of colonialism’. Nevertheless, like it or not, there is a sense in which the learner has to ‘surrender’ to the new language, don’t you think? Akin to agreeing to be ‘colonised’ by it. Hence the near impossibility of teaching English to Spanish-speakers, because of their almost genetic resistance to English imperialism. Well, it’s just a thought. But it wasn’t the point of the post, which (as you noted) was all about ‘learning by doing’ or even ‘by walking’. And it may indeed be the case that the best affordances are those that are provided, not by our oppressors, but by our equals, assuming, of course, that they happen to speak a language that we want to surrender to.

6 04 2012
Richard Gresswell

Hi Scott – Great post, the whole notion of ‘affordances’ is a fascinating subject. Recently read a really good book – ‘The Discourse of Blogs and Wikis’ by Greg Myers (2010). Greg talks about affordances of digital media in this book, and I was drawn to a paragraph he wrote to explain the term. I’m just going to copy it out here for your readers, it goes like this….

“One ways to look at these technologies (blogs and wikis) is as providing affordances, aspects of the environment that we see in terms of their use. Think of coming to a door you want to go through: if there is a D-shaped curve of metal coming out from it, you pull, and if there is a metal plate, you push, even if you don’t see the words Pull or Push. If there is neither you look around, and if there is a button, you push it. On some trains in the UK, there is a button near the door, and the guards have to keep announcing on the loudspeakers that this button is an alarm. People keep pushing the button, not because they are stupid, or can’t read A-L-A-R-M, but because they expect their environment to make sense in terms of the ways they want to use it”

Thought I’d share that with you as affordances is such an important (and positive) notion that is highly relevant to education as a whole – it’s what you CAN do rather than can’t that’s significant here.

19 04 2014
How Do You Provide Affordances to The Nomad (Language) Learner? | Benjamin L. Stewart

[…] From A is for Affordance « An A-Z of ELT. the following questions were presented: […]

11 09 2014
richardosborne14

Is it too late to breathe new life into this awesome discussion?? I stumbled upon this after creating a topic on the Dogme Yahoo group about the very same thing, I’d love more people to join in and share their experiences!

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/dogme/conversations/topics/17841

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