P is for Problematizing (2)

11 06 2017

Neil portrait.jpgNeil Forrest, teacher trainer at IH Barcelona for over 30 years, retired this week.  I worked with Neil for at least 10 of those years, mainly on the DTEFLA, now DELTA, courses. Working so closely with someone for so long, not to mention sharing a house in the country, had a profound effect on my ‘practical theory’ of language teaching. We were also lucky in that we were pretty much free to design and administer our courses the way we wanted.

One insight I gained from Neil was his comment that, if he observed a lesson in which there were no problems – where everything went smoothly and according to the plan, then there was probably no learning. By problems, he meant those moments when the unexpected happens – when, for example, a teacher’s question elicits a response that is not the intended one, or when a student asks a random grammar question, or when a student utterance contains an inexplicable error, or when a student misinterprets a sentence in a text. Arguably, it’s by engaging with – and attempting to resolve – these unforeseen problems that opportunities for learning are optimized. By contrast, a lesson that runs along its tracks smoothly and effortlessly, with the punctuality of a Swiss train, is probably a lesson in which the learners are under-challenged. And without challenge – or ‘push’, to use Merrill Swain’s term (see P is for Push) – there is no momentum, no learning. Just stasis.

The notion of ‘problematizing’ learning has antecedents in the ‘down the garden path’ treatment which is designed to purposefully induce – and then correct – errors of overgeneralization. For example, Tomasello and Herron (1988) conducted an experiment in which learners were taught – among other things – past tense verb endings for a set of regular verbs, and then were given an exercise that asked them to make sentences about the past with a new set of verbs, some of which were irregular. Having been led ‘down the garden path’, the learners inevitably made overgeneralization errors (e.g. she taked…I runned…) and were then corrected. Compared to a control group, where errors were not forced in this way, learning was found to be more effective.

 

Neil and me cropped

Problematizing at International House, Barcelona – late 80s?

I adapted this principle to produce what VanPatten (2015) calls ‘sentence interpretation tasks’, designed to induce learners to make subtle choices and thereby notice grammar features that might otherwise fly below their radar. An example might be having to choose the pictures  – without any prior instruction – that match each sentence of such pairs as The ship sank/The ship was sunk; The door opened/The door was opened, etc.

 

It is the feedback that learners get on their errors – whether forced or not – that drives learning, argues John Hattie, summarizing the results of literally thousands of research studies, and concluding: ‘We need classes that develop the courage to err’ (Hattie 2009, p. 178).

It may also be the case that the most effective type of feedback on error is the feedback that learners get when their message is not understood or when it is misinterpreted. Thus, the learner who says I am leaving here, meaning I am living here, and gets the response Bye, then! may pay greater attention to avoiding this pronunciation error when it next comes up. This is a case for sometimes ‘acting dumb’ when learners make errors, in order to demonstrate the potential effect of such errors outside the classroom.

If not being understood acts as an incentive to pay closer attention to form, so too might not understanding. In contradistinction to Krashen’s argument that comprehension is a necessary, and even sufficient, condition for learning, Lydia White (1987) has argued that it may be the failure to understand that leads to learning, in that it may force the learner to pay closer attention to grammatical form. As she puts it, ‘the driving force for grammar change is that input is incomprehensible, rather than comprehensible’ (p. 95, emphasis added). Similarly, Lynch (1996, p. 86) argues:

From the longer term perspective, comprehension problems are vital opportunities for learning. If learners encountered no difficulties of understanding, they would not need to go beyond their current level. It is by having to cope with the problem – either in understanding someone else or in expressing themselves – that they may notice the gap and may learn the missing item.

Coping with problems is basic to John Hattie’s view of good teaching as being cycles of trial, error and feedback. But, in a follow-up to his 2009 book, he makes the point that ‘if there is no challenge, the feedback is probably of little or any value: if students already know the material or find it too easy, then seeking or providing feedback will have little effect’ (Hattie 2012, p.131). Of course, providing challenge is not without its risks: ‘When we experience challenge, we often encounter dissonance, disequilibrium, and doubt’ (op. cit. p. 58). But Hattie argues that these tensions can be productive: ‘This positive creation of tension underlines the importance of teachers in encouraging and welcoming error, and then helping the students to see the value of this error to move forward; this is the essence of great teaching’ (ibid.).

Sant Cebrià.jpg

Can Ferran, Sant Cebrià

 

My initial training as a language teacher encouraged me to pre-empt errors at all costs, and to ensure that any texts that learners were exposed to were well within their level of comprehension. It wasn’t until I started working with Neil that I realized the value of forced errors and of only partly comprehensible texts – the value, in other words, of problems.

References

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible learning for teachers: maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

Lynch, T. (1996) Communication in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.85.

Tomasello, M., & Herron, C. (1989). ‘Feedback for language transfer errors: The garden path technique’. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 11, 385-395.

VanPatten, B. (2015) ‘Input processing in adult SLA’ in VanPatten, B. & Williams, J. (eds) Theories in second language acquisition: An introduction (2nd edition). London: Routledge.

White, L. (1987) ‘Against comprehensible input: the input hypothesis and the development of second language competence’. Applied Linguistics, 8, 95-110.

 

 

 


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24 responses

11 06 2017
Kate Leigh

Lovely tribute to Neil and a great post.

13 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Kate… Neil’s retirement was a good excuse to bang on about providing challenge in the classroom, a criterion of effective teaching that was never in the evaluation rubric of the DTEFLA, such that lessons that went without a hitch were rated more highly than those that did.

11 06 2017
Nick Bedford

Thanks Scott for reminding me just how much Neil always pushed students – including trainees – to think for ourselves.

13 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Nick – I have a pic of that first Diploma class (1986) with you in centre field – but I can’t seem to upload it into the comments panel. I’ll save it for another post!

11 06 2017
Justin Willoughby

‘A study by Bone (1988) of native speakers showed that people often listen at 25% of their potential and ignore, forget, distort or misunderstand the other 75%’ (White 1998). This advocates the use of ‘only partly comprehensible texts’ as it is what actually happens in real life in the L1. Why should we expect 100% comprehension in L2?

With regards to ‘problems’ at least in the context of comprehension, John Field strongly believes in figuring out with the students what went wrong: ‘The teacher’s function is no longer to arbitrate between right and wrong but to train the learners adequately beforehand and to check during the session that they are employing processes and strategies that are appropriate and effective.’ (Field 2009). An example of ’employing processes’ would be something like assigning word forms to citation forms. This can be very problematic in a classroom when students don’t understand a text because of features of connected speech including assimilation and elision.

As a teacher, when things go south in the classroom and communication breaks down completely, it is an opportunity to actually teach something, so I definitely agree with your views, Scott, and hence Neil’s on the value of ‘problems’. Mind you, it’s not always easy to pinpoint what exactly went wrong in real time and/or know what to do about it. It’s very easy for the teacher to mess up.

White, G. 1998. Listening. OUP
Field, J. 2008. Listening in the Language Classroom. CUP

13 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Justin. One technique that Neil and I encouraged in class was what someone called ‘scratch listening’, when you identify the part of a listening text that is causing comprehension issues – at most a whole utterance but more often a single phrase – and you repeatedly play it, eliciting the word-by-word, even phoneme-by-phoneme, transcription on to the board. In those days we used cassette players of course, and the model that we used allowed you to do this simply by hitting ‘rewind’ for a second or two, so you could do rapid and repeated listenings of the targeted chunk effortlessly. I’m not sure that it’s so easy with digital recordings.

13 06 2017
Justin Willoughby

Thanks Scott. I do actually use the same activity with youtube videos. The arrow buttons on the keyboard and space bar allow you to go back and forward and pause very easily. Michael Rost recognizes ‘sloppy’ articulation (allophonic variation) as a feature in natural speech which is caused by the L1 speaker using a bare minimum of effort in production (production efficiency). This make it really hard then for L2 listeners to recognize words in the speech stream. John Field says that the solution is for students to get used to this by transcribing utterances from authentic materials. May I ask if ‘scratch listening’ in an observed DELTA class would be a pass or better?

13 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Richard Caudwell calls these difficult-to-decode natural speech segments ‘hot spots’. See http://www.speechinaction.org/
His approach to working with these won an ELTONS Innovation award so I see no problem with incorporating the technique into a an observed DELTA class!

11 06 2017
jmackay

And his home-grown rocket isn’t bad either. I count myself lucky to have been trained by the Forrest/Thornbury tag team in the 90s. I have many fond memories of Neil (channeling his inner Bill Murray in the second picture?!): his references to ‘little people’ (his kids), his gardening, his fervent advocacy of thermal undies. But most of all his ability to challenge and provoke. I still have essays with his copious notes and feedback, just as relevant today as they were then!
Here’s to a long and happy retirement Neil!

13 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jessica. Yes, ‘challenge and provoke’ captures Mr Forrest quite well!

11 06 2017
geoffjordan

Delightful Sunday reading, framed by great photos. The suggestion that we can speed up classroom-based L2 learning by getting students to confront problems is very deftly explored. Vintage Thornbury!

13 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, Geoff. A propos of vintages, 1986 was indeed a good year.

11 06 2017
Luan

“This [the creation & resolution of tension] is the essence of great teaching.”

Absolutely agree and creating problems or tension is surely the main function of any kind of teacher. The language classroom should serve as a microcosm of the real world. As such, these are my four principles for achieving this.

1. Hold people up as a model to the rest of the class. Let students teach their peers and demonstrate their skills to the class without embarrassment or humility.

2. Don’t hold people back from authentic sources. Even if the language is beyond their full grasp, let them tackle it anyway.

3. Talk to students without too much moderation. Realise that it’s not a bad thing if 10% of the language you use is lost on them — it challenges them and makes them stronger listeners.

4. Be open regarding expectations and criteria. Don’t give false praise but don’t be sparing with encouragement — both specific and general. Remind them of realities but give them the belief that these are achievable.

13 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Great teaching maxims, Luan. Your last point reminds me of one of Earl Stevick’s expectations of an effective teaching environment:

‘One of the first things I notice is whether the teacher seems relaxed and matter-of-fact in voice and manner, giving information about the appropriateness or correctness of what the students do, rather than criticising or praising them’. (From Memory, Meaning & Method, 1976, p.160.)

11 06 2017
macappella

Do please give Neil my regards, warmest wishes and a huge hug. I hope he has a peaceful, productive, happy retirement. Fiona

13 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks you, Fiona. My sources tell me that he has been quietly browsing this post, so will have registered your warmest wishes!

21 06 2017
macappella

🙂 I’d better add ‘Mauchline’, then. I still remember his sessions very clearly – and his shoelaces!! Happy retirement, Neil.

12 06 2017
osnacantab

I am just a tad surprised at this focus on “correctness”. But do I take it that correct form is still for most or many learners and their instructors a priority? Dennis

13 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment, Dennis – and you are right: the notion of ‘correctness’ itself needs to be problematized – you’ve given me the germ of a forthcoming post!

12 06 2017
Rod Hinn

As Leo van Lier used to always say, it is not the text that dictates the difficulty or level, but the task that the learners have to do… depending on the type of tasks you design for the learners, you can focus their attention on different aspects of language and perhaps have them notice different “problems.”

On the other hand, using a simple text with a complex task can also shift the learners focus on different sort of problems that they have to solve.

13 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Well noted, Rod. And a complex task based on a simple text might – for example – be to reconstruct it from memory, working individually at first and then collaboratively. The principle of the dictogloss, in other words.

12 06 2017
Olga

I absolutely agree that students have to be challenged and, personally, I always try to add a new dimension to what we are studying – an additional nuance of the target grammar rule or extra vocabulary items. But I have two points to make. First, I do a lot of off-the-cuff teaching – a problem arises, I tackle it, we figure out what is wrong and how we can fix it. I have to admit these are the moments in my lessons when students get particularly excited and eager to learn. Yet, spontaneous teaching does not result in solid, systematic knowledge. What I mean is addressing questions on an on-off basis does not always lead to retention. Another thing is a sense of being successful. It is vital that students feel that they are being successful as language learners. If we make it a point to encourage errors, how will it affect students’ morale? I also think that challenge should not necessarily take on the form of an error made by students. Don’t get me wrong – overall I agree with the idea that lessons should not ‘run with the punctuality of a Swiss train’ but I suppose we have to approach the use of errors in teaching\learning with care.

13 06 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment, Olga – and your timely caveats. Of course, when you say that ‘addressing questions on an on-off basis does not always lead to retention’, the same might equally be said about teaching pre-selected items from the grammar syllabus. I like to think (but I can’t quote any research findings) that ‘just-in-time’ interventions are more pedagogically effective than pre-emptive attacks on the learner’s evolving interlanguage system.

13 06 2017
Olga

Frankly, in my experience, you never know – sometimes a question that arises during the lesson leads to a student getting the hang of some language point and sometimes a series of lessons specifically tailored to practicing a grammar structure do not result in any substantial improvement. I have drifted towards focussing more on vocabulary and speaking. Cannot say it is 100% Michael Lewis’s lexical approach but very close to it and grammar is now more something that we deal with on an on-off basis though I am doing a lot of work on lexis but more with practical goals in mind.

Thank you for your blog! It has been of great help because it encourages me to reflect on what I am doing.

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