P is for Practised Control

29 05 2011

Practising control

A Swiss student who I was teaching on-line produced the following short text, in response to an invitation to introduce himself:

“I like to play piano very much. I enjoy to watch TV. I love really to eat pizza. I don’t like to drink tea at all. I like to read newpapers and magazins a lot”.

This is how I responded:

Thanks H***. – nice to hear from you, and to get an idea of your interests. What kind of music do you like playing, by the way – classical or modern?

Just note that verbs like like, love usually are followed by the -ing verb. Enjoy is always followed by the -ing verb. So: I like playing the piano (note the use of the here, too); and I enjoy watching TV etc. Speak to you soon. Scott

The next day I received the following (Task 2: Describe your computer and what you use it for):

My computer is 2 years old. He has a Pentium Processor. The harddisk is unfortunately to small. My children filled the disk always with computer games. So I have not anough free disk space for important software.I really like to work with computer. My wife enjoyes to send E-mail to her friends. Our computer is in our lumber-room,so I can work also early in the morning.

It appears that the student only then received my feedback on his first task, because he immediately re-sent the above work, self-corrected, thus:

Thanks for your e-mail!

Dear Scott

My computer is 2 years old.  It has a Pentium Processor. The harddisk is unfortunately to small. My children filled the disk always with computer games. So I have not enough free disk space for important software. I really like working  with  the computer. My wife enjoyes sending  E-mails  to her friends. Our computer is in our lumber-room, so I can work also early in the morning.

Notice how the student has picked up on the -ing errors, and self-corrected them. This would seem to be an example of what, in socio-cultural learning theory (e.g. Lantolf 2000), is called self-regulation. According to this view, learning is initially other-regulated (as in the first feedback I gave the student) and then it becomes increasingly self-regulated. (Note that in the process of regulating the -ing forms the student has noticed other minor errors in the text and corrected these, too).

Central to the notion of this transfer of control is the idea that aspects of the skill are appropriated. Appropriation has connotations of taking over the ownership of something, of ‘making something one’s own’.

This is a very different process to what is often called controlled practice. In fact, rather than talk of controlled practice, it may be more helpful to talk about practised control.

Controlled practice is repetitive practice of language items in conditions where the possibility of making mistakes is minimised. Typically this takes the form of drilling.

Practised control, on the other hand, involves demonstrating progressive control of a skill where the possibility of making mistakes is ever present, but where support is always at hand.

To use the analogy of learning to ride a bicycle, it is like being allowed to pedal freely, but with someone running along right behind, just in case. In practised control, control (or self-regulation) is the objective of the practice, whereas in controlled practice, control is simply the condition under which practice takes place.

So, through drafting and re-drafting a text in the context of a supportive feedback loop, my Swiss student is practising control of –ing forms – and a lot else besides. What other kinds of activities are consistent with the notion of practised control, I wonder?

References:

Lantolf, J. (ed.) (2000). Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Some of this post originally appeared in Thornbury, S. (2005) How to Teach Speaking. London: Pearson.

Illustrations by Quentin Blake for Success with English, by Geoffrey Broughton, Penguin Education, 1968.





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)





S is for Situation

15 05 2011

Don't even know what they're called in English!

In the wood department of a large hardware store in Barcelona this week, I needed to negotiate the purchase of five lengths of moulding whose function is to prevent rainwater from entering under the doors that open on to a terrace.

It was a situation which was partly familiar (routine service encounter script) but also partly unfamiliar, not least because of the vocabulary I needed, as well as certain unforeseen departures from the script, such as the fact that the wood comes in standard lengths so you have to buy more wood than you actually need. And, for anything in excess of five ‘saw cuts’, there is an extra charge. I got the wood, but not without some linguistic awkwardness. Could I have been better prepared for this situation?

Situation room? Dogme Symposium

What got me thinking about this is something Howard Vickers said at the Dogme Symposium at the IATEFL Conference in Brighton last month. Howard suggested that a syllabus of ‘situations’ might make a better fit with learners’ needs than a syllabus of grammar McNuggets. On his website, Howard shows how he applied this approach with respect to a specific student who “wanted to have a clearer sense of what he would be learning when”. Howard’s solution?  “I have developed a kind of syllabus that gives greater structure to the classes and yet is naturally student focused.  This syllabus is based around situations that the student may well find himself in and themes that he is interested in.”

The notion of a situational syllabus is, of course, not new. As far back as 1966, Pit Corder wrote that “one can perfectly well envisage theoretically a course which had as its starting point an inventory of situations in which the learner would have to learn to behave verbally.  These situations would be analysed into categories, some of which would be behavioural, and then, and only then, would the actual linguistic items be specified to make the situations meaningful” (p. 96).

Corder was coming from a well-established tradition in British linguistics that drew on the work of J. R. Firth, central to which was the proposition that the meaning of an utterance is dependent on its “context of situation”.  Obvious as it may seem to us now, it was Firth who was the first to claim that learning to use a language is a process of “learning to say what the other fellow expects us to say under the given circumstances” (1935/1957, p.28).  It was left to others, such as Michael Halliday, to attempt to answer the question: “How do we get from the situation to the text?” (1978, p. 142). That is to say, what is it in the situation that determines the way the text is?  Accordingly, Halliday’s project was to identify “the ecological properties of language, the features which relate it to its environment in the social system” (p. 141). The outcome of this quest is enshrined in his Introduction to Functional Grammar (1985).

While linguists were wrestling with these questions, teachers were already implementing what came to be known as Situational Language Teaching. Lionel Billows’ wonderful Techniques of Language Teaching (1961) outlines the principles that underpin this approach. (Incidentally, the much-loved English in Situations by Robert O’Neil [1970] is not part of the Situational Language Teaching tradition, since the situations are not the starting point of course design, but are devised solely to contextualise pre-specified grammar items).

In order to ‘situate’ language learning, Billows proposes a system of concentric circles, radiating out from the learner’s immediate context (e.g. the classroom) to the world as directly experienced, the world as imagined, and the world as indirectly experienced through texts. Billows argues that we should always seek to engage the outer circles by way of the inner ones.

Nowadays, of course, it is much easier, using existing technologies, to bring the outer world ‘into’ the classroom. Moreover, we are much better equipped to gather ‘thick descriptions’ of the kinds of situations our learners will need to negotiate. And, of course, the students themselves can be recruited to the task, becoming ‘ethnographers’ of their own language use. As Howard Vickers suggests, “students can prepare for a phone call or a shopping trip using a Personal Phrasebook to prepare and look up useful phrases before (or even during) the situation.  Students can then record the experience (using an MP3 player or other mobile device) and bring the recording to a subsequent class”.

Which makes me think, what else could I have done – using the available technology – to prepare myself for – and learn from – my wood-buying experience?

And, I guess the other question is: in a general English class of learners with disparate (or undefined) needs, how could a situational focus be successfully implemented?

Mission accomplished!

References:

Billows, L.F.  1961. The Techniques of Language Teaching. London: Longmans.

Corder, S.P.1966. The Visual Element in Language Teaching.  London: Longman.

Firth, J.R. 1957. Papers in Linguistics 1934-1951. London: Oxford University Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1978. Language as social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1985. Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold.

O’Neil, R. 1970. English in Situations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





C is for Conversation

8 05 2011

A core tenet of the Dogme philosophy is that classroom learning should be ‘conversation-driven’, and that, out of the language that emerges from this conversation, language learning episodes can be co-constructed.

But what do we mean by ‘conversation’?

In a recent comment on Diarmuid Fogarty’s blog, Luan Hanratty wrote:

Conversation is the word we really need to define. Jack Richards wrote that interactions fall into three basic categories: small talk, transactions and performances. For me, small talk is the most important because it constitutes a difficult social skill that is often least practised among learners. But small talk is too mundane to base a whole class around, hence the need for materials.  Dogme has the danger of becoming like the people who tweet about what they had for lunch. Pleasant but not very inspiring, especially in an learning context. Surely we can do better by giving more time to transactions and performances, i.e. speech acts rather than coffee chats.

This is a fair criticism, especially if we construe conversation as being synonymous with ‘chat’, which by definition is largely interpersonal in terms of its function, and local – even trivial – in terms of its field. If learning opportunities are based solely upon this fairly restricted register, it’s unlikely that most students will find their communicative needs are satisfied – especially if these needs include more formal registers, such as academic or technical writing. (At the same time, it’s worth noting that even written registers are becoming increasingly ‘conversationalized’, especially since the advent of digital media).

So, effectively, a classroom conversation needs to be more than chat. And it also needs to be more than the teacher-led question-answer sequences that characterised Direct Method courses, and which are so easily ridiculed: How many fingers do I have? Do I have a nose on my face? Is this your neck? etc.

Causeries avec mes élèves

Incidentally, one of the prototypical Direct Method courses was called Causeries avec mes élèves [Conversations with my students, 1874)]. Its author, Lambert Sauveur, describes the first lesson: “It is a conversation during two hours in the French language with twenty persons who know nothing of this language. After five minutes only, I am carrying on a dialogue with them, and this dialogue does not cease.”

While this dialogue might, in many ways, not have resembled natually-occuring conversation (the first five lessons of his course dealt with parts of the body), one principle that Sauveur rated highly was coherence, his intention being “to connect scrupulously the questions in such a manner that one may give rise to another”. As Howatt (1984) comments: “This principle probably explains his success in communicating with his students better than anything else. They understood what he was talking about because they were able to predict the course of the conversation” (p. 201).

Conversation is predictable, because one turn follows from the other. At the same time, because it is locally assembled, and takes place in real time, it is unpredictable. This tension between the predictable and the unpredictable makes conversation – real conversation –  an ideal medium for instruction.  As Leo van Lier (1996) argues, “learning takes place when the new is embedded in the familiar, so that risks and security are in balance… Conversational interaction naturally links the known to the new. It creates its own expectancies and its own context, and offers choices to the participants. In a conversation, we must continually make decisions on the basis of what other people mean. We therefore have to listen very carefully… and we also have to take great care in constructing our contributions so that we can be understood” (p. 171).

At the same time, for such conversations to provide a site for learning, there need to be strategic interventions on the part of the teacher – interventions that distinguish normal conversation between peers from what has been called ‘instructional conversation’ (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988):

The task of schooling can be seen as one of creating and supporting instructional conversations… The concept itself contains a paradox: “Instruction” and “conversation” appear contrary, the one implying authority and planning, the other equality and responsiveness. The task of teaching is to resolve this paradox. To most truly teach, one must converse; to truly converse is to teach” (p. 111).

The notion of instructional conversation has been further developed by scholars such as Neil Mercer (1995), who writes of the ‘long conversation’ that constitutes the dialogic curriculum, and Gordon Wells (1999), who calls it ‘dialogic enquiry’.    In fact, dialogue may be a better term than conversation, not least because it echoes Paulo Freire’s insistence on putting dialogue at the heart of pedagogy: “Whoever enters into dialogue does so with someone about something; and that something ought to constitute the new content of our proposed education” (1993, p. 46). In a similar manner, Sylvia Ashton-Warner yielded to – and exploited –  the hubbub in her infant classroom: “I harness the communication, since I can’t control it, and base my method on it” (1963, p. 104).

Individual presentations

So, really, conversation stands for all the talk, the dialogue, the communication (both spoken and written) that is generated by the people in the room, and that is shaped, scaffolded, supported and signposted by the teacher. It could take the form of formal debates, individual presentations, small group tasks, or a plenary discussion. It could be mediated by means of an online chat function, or Twitter, or SMS messages, or pieces of paper that are traded back and forth across the class. In the end it is simply the ‘stuff’ (to use Ashton-Warner’s phrase) out of which learning episodes are moulded. In its most basic, common-or-garden form it is simply conversation – the most natural form of communication we know.

Formal debate

And, as Gordon Wells concedes, “conversation may not be perfect as a means of information exchange… but when engaged in collaboratively, it can be an effective medium for learning and teaching. In any case, since there is no better alternative, we must do the best we can” (1987, p. 218).

References:

Ashton-Warner, S. (1963, 1980). Teacher. London: Virago.

Freire, P. (1993). Education for Critical Consciousness, New York: Continuum.

Howatt, A.P.R. (1984). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mercer, N. (1995). The guided construction of knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity. Harlow: Longman.

Wells, G. (1987) The Meaning Makers: Children learning language and using language to learn. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Wells, G. (1999). Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a sociocultural practice and theory of education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.






T is for Technology

1 05 2011

The ELT Journal Debate, IATEFL 2011

There was a good deal of whooping and hollering after the ELTJ debate at the IATEFL Conference in Brighton a couple of weeks ago. And, in the face of Alan Waters’ well-argued, but somewhat lacklustre critique, Nicky Hockly deservedly won a healthy round of applause for her feisty defence of educational technologies.  But many of the comments from the floor seemed to reflect a wilful misunderstanding of the nature of the debate (admittedly, the motion – Twitter is for the birds… – was not helpful). Instead of arguing about the merits of integrating technology into (language) education, it became a free-for-all about technology in general (“I wouldn’t have been here if it hadn’t been for Twitter”, “If you are unable to follow a Twitter-stream you are soft in the head…” etc). Comments like these seemed to be largely irrelevant to the matter in hand, i.e. the uses (or abuses) of technology in language education.

There are good reasons for integrating technology into language education, and there are bad reasons. But the debate never seriously addressed them. Instead, the general view seemed to be that, if technology is good for laundering clothes or photographing Mars, it must, ipso facto, be good for education. QED.

Nicky Hockly and me: poles apart?

Moreover, by framing  the issue as an either/or one (inevitable, unfortunately, for a debate), the event served only to perpetuate the division between so-called technophiles and so-called technophobes, obscuring  the wide range of possible stances in between. One of these stances is that of the technosceptic.  Technosceptics, like me, happily embrace technology in our daily lives, but are nevertheless a little suspicious of the claims made, by some enthusiasts, for its educational applications – claims that frequently border on the coercive: If you don’t use technology in your classes you are unprofessional/ irresponsible/ old-fashioned/ in denial, or even (as one blogger put it) “a tad rude”.  And, as Hal Crowther (2010) wrote recently: “Coercion is not just interpersonal but societal, and pervasive. The word ‘Luddite’ which we used to wear with defiant pride, has become an epithet like ‘Communist’ or ‘reactionary’” (p.109).

Uncritical acceptance of any innovation, whether it be interactive whiteboards or multiple intelligence theory, needs to be subjected to a dose of level-headed scrutiny. And, as far as I am concerned, until the following four problems have been satisfactorily addressed, an ounce or two of scepticism regarding ‘ed tech’ seems well advised.

The delivery model problem: Despite the enormous potential technology has both to facilitate communication and to foster creativity, a lot of educational software still seems to be predicated on a delivery model of education. I.e. the more information learners have –  and the quicker –  the better.  As a consequence, many publishers seem to be responding to the demand for language learning apps by simply re-issuing existing reference works in mobile-friendly formats, a well-known grammar self-study book being a case in point. But, to paraphrase (the sainted) Neil Postman, if learners are having problems learning to speak English, it is not through lack of information!

"Let's check out this Murphy app"

The theory vacuum problem: In a review of the film ‘The Social Network’, Zadie Smith (2010) commented to the effect that, “in France philosophy seems to come before technology; here in the Anglo-American world we race ahead with technology and hope the ideas will look after themselves”. As evidence, not a day goes by without someone tweeting to announce a blog or website that offers ’20 things to do with Wordle’, or ‘100 ways of using Twitter in the classroom’ and so on. Rarely if ever do you see ‘7 tools to help students with listening skills’ or ‘100 apps that facilitate vocabulary acquisition’. That is to say, rather than the learning purpose determining the technology, it’s the technological tail that seems to wag the pedagogical dog. What theories of learning underpin the claims being made for educational technology? We deserve to know!

The attention deficit problem: A good while back, Aldous Huxley warned against the dangers of ‘non-stop distraction’. More recently, commentators have noted that a state of ‘continuous partial attention’ characterises the kind of engagement that digitial technologies induce. As Nicholas Carr writes (2010), “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.  It is possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards” (pp. 115-16).

If you accept that a degree of higher order thinking and sustained concentration is a prerequisite for learning, then you have to be worried about these effects.  (Do those who deny that multi-tasking is  a problem also condone the use of cell phones while driving?)

The added value problem: At a recent presentation on the educational use of mobile technology, the presenters quoted a survey of teachers in which the majority said that they didn’t anticipate using mobile technology in their classrooms. The presenters glossed this as meaning “…because they don’t know how”. Was I the only member of the audience who was thinking that the more likely reason was “….because they don’t see the need”?

As long ago as 1966, Pit Corder warned that “the use of mechanical aids in the classroom is justified only if they can do something which the teacher unaided cannot do, or can do less effectively” (1966, p. 69). This would still seem to be a useful test of the value that technology adds to education, not least when one factors in the costs – not just in terms of the initial outlay, but in terms of training, maintenance, upgrades and eventual disposal. (Crowther, op. cit, notes that “Americans alone discard 100 million computers, cell phones and related devices every year, at a rate of 136,000 per day” and adds that “it takes roughly 1.8 tons of raw material… to manufacture one PC and its monitor” [p. 113]). Confronted by any new tool or application, the discerning teacher should be asking: Is it really worth it?

Coincidentally, while preparing this blog, I discovered that at least two other bloggers were addressing the same theme. Here’s how Luan Hanratty , for example, responds to the added-value problem, a good deal more eloquently than I can:

My own philosophy of teaching barely includes technology because if teachers understand the proper principles of language learning, informed by psychology and other fields, then technology is mostly superfluous. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I don’t really need it. There is more immediate stuff out there in the collective consciousness and more beneficial techniques to employ than the more-is-more approach of jumping on the latest bandwagon.

Of course, I ought to say what I think technology is good for, but this post has already exceeded the word count, so I’ll reserve that discussion for the comments.

References:

Carr, N. 2010. The Shallows: how the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember.  London: Atlantic Books.

Crowther, H. 2010. One hundred fears of solitude: The greatest generation gap. In Granta, 111.

Pit Corder, S. 1966. The Visual Element in Language Teaching. London: Longman.

Smith, Z. 2010. Generation Why? Review of The Social Network. New York Review of Books Nov 25 2010-12-09.





A is for Aims

24 04 2011

Ready, aim.... (Vital Imagery Ltd)

“Yes, but what were your aims?!

This must be one of the most frequently voiced questions in the discussion that follows an observed lesson. The trainee – with little or no idea of how language learning is managed – is pitted against the trainer, convinced that learning can be manufactured according to precise specifications, and with the reliability of a Swiss watch.  It’s all about planning, anticipating, predicting and pre-empting.  Hence, the need for aims, and hence, the kind of advice on lesson planning of which the following is typical:

“To write an effective plan the teacher needs to think carefully about what exactly the aim of the lesson is. What will the learners learn?” (Watkins, 2005). 

Yes, but what will the learners learn? Will it be someting entirely new or simply consolidation of existing knowledge – in which case, will the improvement be perceptible? Will all the learners learn the same thing, and at the same pace? And what does ‘learn’ mean here? Is this conscious or unconscious learning? Are we talking about the acquisition of inert, declarative knowledge, or is this knowledge available to be proceduralised, and, if so, how can such proceduralization be realistically achieved in the space of a 45-minute lesson? And how, in the end, do you measure it?  How do we know when someone has learned something? And so on and so on.

The concept of aims seems to be based on the fallacy that language learning is the incremental accumulation of discrete-items of linguistic knowledge. But, as Diane Larsen-Freeman (1997) reminds us, “learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either. The curve is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings” (p. 18).

Not only that, the classroom – being essentially a social organism –  is a complex dynamic system, where small effects may have unintended consequences, and where major interventions may produce only trivial results. As Dick Allwright (2005) points out “What learners get from a lesson is not predictable merely from what is taught in that lesson and certainly not just from the teaching points covered… We cannot now sensibly measure the overall success of a lesson simply in terms of the percentage of teaching points successfully learned because the learners may have learned little from the teaching points and a lot from everything else that happened in the lesson” (p 12).

Hence, it might be better to start with the assumption that learning cannot be programmed, in any deliberate sense, and that, as Leo van Lier puts it “it might be a good idea to design … lessons as if they formed a small organic culture (or an ecosystem) in themselves, where participants strive to combine the expected and the unexpected, the known and the new, the planned and the improvised, in harmonious ways” (van Lier 1996, p. 200).

What advice should we give trainee teachers, then? Allwright suggests that we should not abandon the idea of planning, but that we should replace the notion of ‘teaching points’ with that of ‘learning opportunities': “I see planning as crucial to language teaching and learning,  but planning for richness of opportunity and especially for understanding,  not planning to determine highly specific learning outcomes” (op.cit, p. 10). That is, rather than defining the aims in terms of pre-specified outcomes (typically grammar McNuggets), trainees should be encouraged to think in terms of the desired learning opportunities, or what van Lier calls ‘affordances’.

Moreover, evidence from research into expert teachers’ planning decisions suggests that effective teachers seldom start their planning processes with a clear conception of an ultimate aim. Rather, they start with a somewhat fuzzy notion of what will feel right, for this class, at this stage of their learning, at this time of day, and given such-and-such contextual factors – what I call ‘fit’.  I now tell my trainees to try and esatablish a ‘fit’ for their lesson, and work from there, while at the same time incorporating plenty of elasticity into the design. And I tell them to be prepared to adapt or even abandon their plan in light of the response of the learners.

A coursebook

Such an approach, of course, sits uncomfortably with the ‘teaching point’ culture imposed by coursebooks. But coursebooks (mercifully) consist of more than simply a syllabus of teaching points. They include topics, tasks and texts – all of which, with only a little ingenuity, can be usefully detached from the teaching point that might originally have motivated them. If trainees can be encouraged to see the ‘affordance potential’ of coursebook tasks, for example, they may be some way towards designing lessons that maximise learning opportunities, even within a coursebook-driven paradigm.

In the end, as the man said, we cannot cause learning; we can only provide the conditions in which it may occur. And maybe, therefore, we should learn not to fear unpredictability, even to celebrate it. As Stenhouse put it, a long time ago now, “Education as the induction into knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the students unpredictable” (1975, pp. 82-3).

References:

Allwright, R. 2005. From teaching points to learning opportunities and beyond. TESOL Quarterly, 39, 9-32.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 1997. Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics 18.

Stenhouse, L. 1975.  An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann.

Van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the language curriculum: awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.

Watkins, P. 2005. Learning to Teach English: A practical introduction for new teachers. Addlestone: Delta Publishing





Guest blog: H is for Homework

17 04 2011

This week’s post comes from my friend, Rob Haines in Oregon (USA). Rob is currently a curriculum designer and ESL instructor for a program serving low-income scholars and community leaders from Latin America and Haiti in Oregon.  He  has an MSc TESOL from Aston University (UK), and co-moderates the Dogme discussion list where he periodically posts descriptions of his materials-light, learner-centred classes. Rob kindly contributed the following post, where he starts by asking:  Is homework really necessary?

“As a language teacher one cannot escape the feeling that language lessons in and of themselves are not sufficient to bring language learning about and to lead to eventual proficiency” (van Lier 1996, p. 42).

If you agree, then you’re likely to supplement classroom learning with homework, that is, tasks to be completed between classes. Van Lier (and others) would maintain that “between-class-learning” should complement classroom learning, particularly if learners attend classes only a few hours a week, so that the time in between classes affords further learning opportunities. As van Lier (1996) puts it:

“If the lessons – whether they are once a week, once a day, or more frequent than that – are the only occasions on which students are engaged with the language, progress will either not occur or be exceedingly slow. The students’ minds must occupy themselves with the language between lessons as well as in lessons, if improvements are to happen” (ibid.).

What sort of tasks are best?

Assuming you are not obligated to assign specific tasks, the kind of homework you set is probably up to you. As if by default, homework often becomes the set of exercises at the end of a course book unit. Understandably, busy teachers might tend to rely on prefabricated assignments for homework. But saving time this way all too often fails to connect what happens in class with students’ lives in ‘the real world’.

Rather than reaching for a course book or a ready-made handout, a better resource might be the learners themselves. Working within the parameters of your context, while respecting learners’ attitudes towards the role of the teacher, you can facilitate, organize, and coax as necessary to involve learners in the design and execution of homework tasks.

Here are a few tips:

  • Turn homework into a peer-teaching opportunity by asking learners to read and check each other’s work
  • Discourage learners from simply copying information off the Internet by setting tasks that are highly personalized, such as preparing a presentation about their families, making a list of their favorite foods, describing the flat, house or dormitory where they live, etc.
  • Pair learners into ‘study buddies’, so that they can work on a homework task together
  • Arrange ‘scavenger hunts’ or similar tasks with an element of mystery and surprise
  • Develop personalized learning plans that allow learners to set goals as well as demonstrate and assess their progress
  • Maintain and utilize a collection box where learners can store vocabulary, grammar questions, and ideas they have gathered outside class
  • Ask learners to keep a journal
  • Have learners design quizzes

If you’d like to come up with your own tasks, Steve Darn, over at the British Council Web site http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/homework, lists a set of principles to guide teachers through the process of creating meaningful tasks beyond the classroom.

The take-home message

Considering how research underscores the need for social interaction and engagement with our immediate surroundings, homework that affords language learners opportunities to explore and investigate English (or any other target language) through meaningful tasks are likely to be most effective and enjoyable for all.

Reference:

van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy, & Authenticity. London: Harlow.








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