W is for Wondering

21 04 2013

Liverpool programme coverThree excellent presentations at IATEFL this year, each of which referenced Dogme, got me wondering.

The first, Conversation-driven or dialogic methodology? ELT Classroom talk, was given by Dr Phil Chappell, from Macquarie University in NSW. Phil started out by asking the question: ‘If Dogme ELT is driven by conversation, yet natural conversation is not usually possible in the classroom, what kind of talk could best support its aims?’

Based on an extensive database of classroom interaction that he has amassed over time, Phil has identified five kinds of instructional classroom talk, two of which seem to approximate closely to the notion of conversation: discussion (defined as ‘the exchange of ideas with a view to sharing information and solving problems’), and inquiry dialogue. Inquiry dialogue is less about the exchange of ideas than the joint construction of ideas. It shares features with what Barnes (1976) called ‘exploratory talk’, which Mercer (1995: 104) describes as talk ‘in which partners engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas… In exploratory talk knowledge is made more accountable and reasoning is more visible in the talk‘ (emphasis in original).

In comparing the two conversational modes, discussion and inquiry dialogue, Phil found that the former tends to be transmissive in style, involving the mere exchange of tokens of information or experience, with little in the way of follow-up, and which, in the interests of task completion, inclines towards early closure.  As Phil put it: ‘The students are seated in groups, but they are not always working in groups.’

Inquiry dialogue, on the other hand, tends to be more open-ended, more tentative, and displays greater contingency, successive turns building on each other in a process of jointly-constructed ‘thinking aloud’. Because this talk revolves around playing with, and exploring, possibilities, it has been labelled wondering by some researchers (e.g. Lindfors 1999).  Due to its collaborative and contingent nature, and because of the ongoing struggle to fit words to meanings in which the learners are heavily invested, this joint ‘wondering’ is, arguably, a prime site for language learning affordances, and hence a fertile source of ‘raw material’ in the Dogme classroom.

ken lackman

Ken in action

The second presentation that had me wondering was by Ken Lackman: CAT: A framework for Dogme. CAT stands for Conversation Activated Teaching and hence is consistent with the Dogme precept that teaching should be conversation-driven.

What Ken has devised (and what he engagingly demonstrated using his audience as pretend students) is a framework for constructing lessons that meet Dogme principles, but that at the same time provides novice (or nervous) teachers with a tight structure on which to map emergent language processing.

The demo lesson consisted of cycles of pairwork conversations (on a topic that had been selected by a class brainstorm and vote) alternating with similar conversations between the teacher and a selected student. As the teacher reformulated the guinea-pig student’s responses, and the observing students took notes, these ‘public’ conversations provided the ‘input’ for the subsequent closed pairwork stage. Key expressions were written on the board and their mechanics highlighted, in a way that replicates the language focus stage of Counselling Language Learning (CLL). The cycle of performed conversations, language focus and pairs practice can be repeated as often as time permits, allowing for optimal practice at ‘output + 1’.

In the light of Phil Chappell’s earlier presentation, however, my wondering took the form: ‘Could the same procedure be adapted for less transactional, and more exploratory talk? That is to say, could the goal of the conversations be less about exchanging travel experiences, say, and more about trying to explain why travel matters?’ My feeling is that it can, but I’d like to see this demonstrated.

Finally, Andrew Walkley’s talk, Language-focused teacher development, challenged the assumption (again, central to Dogme) that good teachers are well-equipped to deal with emergent language issues in ways that are non-trivial and challenging.

Andrew neatly demonstrated that many of our intuitions regarding the frequency of a word, or its most typical collocations, are flawed, to say the least. More importantly, he argued that teachers are ‘primed’ by traditional coursebook grammar syllabuses to see only (verb phrase) trees and no (lexical) wood. Hence, when it comes to reformulating learner utterances, we/they seldom provide the kind of productive co-textual data that a corpus search or even a well-written coursebook (like one of Andrew’s, presumably) might deliver. Using the example of the word ‘efficient’, he showed that a Google search for ‘efficient’ throws up many texts of the type ‘X [service, product etc] was very efficient. I had a problem but X sorted it out’. Andrew argued that the reactive teacher would be unlikely to link ‘efficient’ with the phrase ‘sorted it out’ in an off-the-cuff reformulation in the context of, say, one of Ken Lackman’s performed conversations.

Not Venice. Liverpool.

Not Venice. Liverpool.

I have to agree, although I think that the ability to think ‘outside the grammar box’ can be trained, by, for example, repeatedly unpacking texts for the constructions that they house (see C is for Construction for an example). The deft use of reference tools, such as learner dictionaries or online corpora, can also be developed. And, of course, teachers who (luckily?) have never used a coursebook are perhaps less prone to see everything through the prism of pedagogical grammar anyway. In the end, though, teachers will get better at reformulating effectively only if they realise that the success of their teaching depends on it. (And this, surely, is a skill that should be developed in all teachers-in-training, whether Dogme-inclined or not).

So, in the light of these three presentations, what (I wonder) might a more rigorous model of Dogme look like? Perhaps it would have the tight, reiterative methodology of Lackman’s CAT framework, but adapted to the wondering conversations favoured by Chappell, while – following Walkley’s example – the reformulation stage would gather in, not just sentence grammar features, but lexical, co-textual and generic ones as well.

Why not just use a coursebook? There are so many ways I could answer that question, but space doesn’t allow. Suffice it to quote the very quotable John Holt (1967: 124):

It can’t be said too often: we get better at using words, whether hearing, speaking, reading, or writing, under one condition and only one—when we use those words to say something we want to say, to people we want to say it to, for purposes that are our own.

References:

Barnes, D. (1976) From Communication to Curriculum, London: Penguin.

Holt, J. (1967) How Children Learn, London: Penguin.

Lindfors, J.W. (1999) Children’s Inquiry: Using language to make sense of the world, New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Mercer, N. (1995) The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.





S is for Student-centredness

17 02 2013




C is for Critical Pedagogy

3 06 2012

Does a coursebook text about global warming, plus a few discussion questions, constitute ‘a critical approach’?

Not a bit of it, Alistair Pennycook (1999: 340) would argue. ‘Taking a critical approach to TESOL does not entail introducing a “critical element” into a classroom, but rather involves an attitude, a way of thinking and teaching’.

So, a critical teacher teaches with attitude.

But what does this attitude, and this way of thinking and teaching, consist of? Perhaps a definition is in order:

Advocates of critical approaches to second language teaching are interested in relationships between language learning and social change. From this perspective, language is not simply a means of expression or communication; rather, it is a practice that constructs, and is constructed by, the ways language learners understand themselves, their social surroundings, their histories, and their possibilities for the future. (Norton and Toohey, 2004:1)

The key words here, I think, are ‘social change’: a critical pedagogy has a transformative agenda, seeking social justice by challenging inequalities based on gender, ethnicity, religion, class, sexual orientation, language and so on. An important tool for identifying and exposing the power structures that sustain, and are sustained by, these inequalities is critical discourse analysis (CDA). CDA lifts the lid off texts and teases out the ideological subtexts buried therein.

All very well, but the picture is complicated by the fact that we ourselves may well be complicit in these oppressive discourses, perpetuating them even as we unmask them.  As Auerbach (1995:9) reminds us, ‘Pedagogical choices about curriculum development, content, materials, classroom processes, and language use, although appearing to be informed by apolitical professional considerations, are, in fact, inherently ideological in nature, with significant implications for learners’ socioeconomic roles.  Put simply, our choices as educators play a role in shaping students’ choices’.

Our choices include, of course, our choice of coursebook. And since the coursebook – in many institutions — is the most material instantiation of the curriculum, its ideological baggage is not to be sneezed at.  What does its choice of topics, of texts, of images assume about our students and their (projected) use of English? What assumptions are implicit about the role of English in the world? To what extent – if at all – does it validate the learners’ own culture, language, and ethnicity?  Not to mention class, gender, sexual orientation, or religion?

I’m asking these questions because I’ve been asked to write a piece on ELT materials writing and critical pedagogy. At first sight, this would seem to be a contradiction in terms. How can the inevitable pressures of marketing and consumption sit comfortably with a pedagogy that aims to challenge existing power relations?  Isn’t it a bit like expecting MacDonald’s to offer healthy, eco-friendly food, prepared and served by well-paid, unionized workers?

So, what then is the materials writer to do? One option is to introduce topics and texts that have some ‘transformative potential’, and which might be used to leverage learners’ awareness about issues of social justice. Benesch (2010: 115), for example, argues that ‘critical pedagogies [should] introduce material that has generally been ignored because of its political nature, and push inquiry beyond the safe and comfortable terrain of abstract ideas, definitions and testable fact(oids)’.

As demonstration of this approach, Benesch recounts her use of the military recruitment texts that were distributed to students on her college campus in the US during that country’s occupation of Iraq. The texts were not mined simply for the superficial linguistic features that they embedded, but, through debate and written responses, became vehicles for social awareness-raising – ‘an exploratory dialogue of unknown outcomes’ (op. cit.: 123).

But Pennycook (1999: 338) is sceptical: ‘A critical approach to TESOL is more than arranging the chairs in a circle and discussing social issues’.  Likewise, Kumaravadivelu (1999: 479)  believes that the text is less important than the processes of engaging with the text: ‘In the context of the ESL classroom, as in any other educational context, what makes a text critical has less to do with the way its content is constructed by the author (though it surely matters) than the way it is deconstructed by the teacher and the learner’. To this end, learners may need to be taught how to interrogate a text, how to engage in ‘critical reading’ (Wallace, 1992), and how to problematize both the overt and the covert cultural, political and gendered messages of the text. At the same time, as Canagarajah (1999: 194) warns, it is not simply a matter of attempting to instil a critical mind-set: ‘It is condescending to think that students have to be led by the noses to express opposition’. And he adds that ‘activities prescribed in ESL textbooks as ways of encouraging critical thinking are modelled on Eurocentric thought processes’ (op.cit.: 190).

An alternative strategy might be to devolve on to the learners themselves some responsibility in the choice of texts, and some agency in the way that these texts are processed, exploited and responded to. Access to the internet has made such an approach feasible in many contexts, as have text processing tools that allow collaborative editing, text simplification, hypertexting, multi-modality, and, ultimately, publication.

At the same time, a ‘critical turn’ requires that the processes of text selection and adaptation will need to be situated in some larger social process, and one to which the learners feel committed. This may operate at a very local level, such as militating for some improvement in the institutional context. Or it may have a more extensive reach, as when the learners join voices – and texts – with a global community in the cause of some particular issue of social justice and equality.

This is a far remove from the coursebook reading text on global warming. Is there a way – I wonder – of realistically connecting the two?

References:

Auerbach, E. (1995) ‘The politics of the ESL classroom: Issues of power in pedagogical choices’, in Tollefson, J. (ed.) Power and Equality in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Benesch, S. (2010) ‘Critical praxis as materials development: Responding to military recruitment on a US campus’, in Harwood, N.(ed.) English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Canagarajah, A.S. (1999) Resisting linguistic imperialism in language teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Kumaravadivelu, B. (1999) ‘Critical classroom discourse analysis’, TESOL Quarterly, 33, 3.

Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (2004) ‘Critical pedagogies and language learning: An introduction’, in Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds), Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pennycook, A.(1999) ‘Introduction: Critical approaches to TESOL’, TESOL Quarterly, 33, 3.

Wallace, C. (1992) ‘Critical literacy awareness in the EFL classroom’, in Fairclough, N. (ed.) Critical Language Awareness, London: Longman.

Sections of this post appear in my article “What is the materials writer’s role in a critical pedagogy?” in the July 2012 TESOL Materials Writers Interest Section Newsletter.





T is for Teacher development

27 05 2012

This is a summary of the keynote talk I gave yesterday at the IATEFL Learning Technologies and Teacher Development Joint SIG Conference, titled With or Without Technology, held at Yeditepe University, Istanbul this weekend.

Why Dogme is good for you.

Because the conference theme focuses on teacher development (TD), in both its ‘plugged’ and ‘unplugged’ manifestations, it’s perhaps timely to review the case for ‘teaching unplugged’, otherwise known as Dogme ELT (hereafter just Dogme), and try to situate it in relation to teacher development generally.

In its relatively long life (12 years and still counting) Dogme has generated a fair amount of heat – more, indeed, than its co-founders bargained for, and indicative, perhaps, of how surprisingly subversive it is. Formerly, this heat was confined mainly to the Dogme discussion list itself, but it has now migrated into the blogosphere at large, where, far from having been diffused, it seems to be burning more fiercely than ever. (I’m not the first to point out that you can increase the traffic to your blog exponentially by cocking a snook at Dogme!)

Among the criticisms that have been levelled at it these are some of the most frequent:

  • it doesn’t work for beginners
  • it doesn’t work with large groups
  • it doesn’t work with young learners
  • it doesn’t work with non-native speaker teachers
  • it’s not new
  • it doesn’t work because there’s no input
  • it doesn’t work because there’s no syllabus
  • it doesn’t work because there’s no attention to form
  • it doesn’t work in [insert name of the country where you work]
  • it doesn’t work with [insert any nationality] learners
  • it just doesn’t work, period.

Yeditepe University

Far from attempting to refute any of these claims, I would argue that they are in fact irrefutable. Method comparison, as a science, is dead in the water. There’s no controlling for all the variables, and sample sizes are usually too small to generalise from. And so on. So, for argument’s sake, I will simply accept that for some teachers these claims are plausible (just as for others the claims made for Dogme are equally plausible), and I will move on. (At the same time, whether or not the above claims are true, I don’t think Dogme has done anyone any harm. It’s not like HIV-denial or the anti-vaccine lobby. I don’t know of many students who have died because their teachers didn’t use coursebooks. But I may be wrong).

There is, however, one thing to be said about Dogme which is incontrovertibly true. And that is that – for a great number of teachers – Dogme has provided a framework for highly productive self-directed teacher development, involving cycles of experimentation and reflection, essential components for any developmental program. It has done this principally because it invites teachers to question some of the received wisdoms about language teaching, such as

  • that language learning is an incremental and linear process
  • that language learning is a purely cognitive process
  • that a grammar syllabus represents the best ‘route’ for language learning
  • that imported materials are better than learner-generated ones
  • that lessons have to be meticulously planned
  • that accuracy is a pre-condition for fluency
  • that teaching is better with technology

Dogme is by no means the first platform from which these claims have been challenged, but for reasons I still don’t entirely fathom, it seems to have been very successful at articulating its critique and broadcasting it to practising teachers. (The concurrent boom in online communication may have had something to do with it – an irony not lost on Dogme’s critics).

A glance through the quantity of postings on the list demonstrates the fact that many teachers have used one or more of the tenets of Dogme, either to initiate change in their own teaching, or to explain changes that they had already initiated – and often with spectacularly positive results, as this early post suggests:

…I’m buzzing at the moment ‘cos I’ve been lucky enough to hit on a couple of new groups who seem to have invented dogme themselves, and the things we’re coming up with together are stunning me into a state of ‘I’ve never loved teaching so much before – but is this really teaching?!’.

Well, it certainly seems to be learning – enthusiastically and really joyfully – for all of us.

And thanks to everyone in the group for helping me better appreciate what’s happening!

Some of the dogme blogs

Like the Dogme critics, the Dogme enthusiasts have also turned to blogging to get their teacher development message across. One notable instance of grassroots, collaborative Dogme-inspired teacher development was the ‘teach off’ that Chia Suan Chong initiated last month. Whatever doubts you might have about its scientific rigour, the buzz that it generated was truly remarkable.

Finally, and in advance of the conference, I did a little exercise in crowdsourcing, by tweeting the following question: ‘How has Dogme helped you develop as a teacher?’ Here is a small selection of the many replies I got:

@michaelegriffin: #Dogme helped me c that I wasn’t crazy to think that books weren’t a curriculum and that the people in the room are the key

@AnthonyGaughan: it encourages confidence in exploring my teaching self #DogmeTD

@dalecoulter: playing with variables in the lesson and reflecting on the results #DogmeTD

@kevchanwow: watching lively exchange within Dogme community makes me more comfortable trying new approaches in my own way & own classes

@kenwilsonlondon: #DogmeELT I couldn’t understand why my best lessons were when the class more/less forced me to abandon the plan. Now I know!

@esolamin; Haven’t followed Dogme as such, but ‘unplugged’/improvised activities produced more ss participation & interest, I found.

@englishraven It marked my progression into actually being a teacher- the whole deal, real thing. Not an instructional attendant #DogmeELT

@sx200i how has Dogme helped me. Pure enjoyment in my lessons. Confidence. Never bored! #DogmeTD





H is for Holistic

20 05 2012

I took delivery of two books last week, both of which make liberal use of the term holistic. One (Samuda and Bygate, 2008) is about task-based learning, and its first chapter is titled ‘Language use, holistic activity and second language learning’. The other (Goh and Burns, 2012) is called Teaching Speaking and has the strap-line: A Holistic Approach.  But now I’m wondering if the term hasn’t become a little overused, to the point of becoming meaningless. What, for example, do the following have in common: holistic approaches, holistic learners, and holistic testing – not to mention whole-language learning, and whole-person learning?

According to Wikipedia, ‘The term holism was coined in 1926 by Jan Smuts, a South African statesman [and, somewhat ironically, an advocate of racial segregation], in his book, Holism and Evolution. Smuts defined holism as “The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution”‘.

Holism seems to have been co-opted into psychology (particularly Gestalt psychology), and thence into education, where a holistic approach can mean one of two things: either “an approach to language teaching which seeks to focus on language in its entirety rather than breaking it down into separate components” (Richards and Schmidt, 1985:240), or – very differently – an approach that engages the whole learner: intellectually, emotionally, and even physically.  Thus, Legutke and Thomas (1991: 159), for instance, talk about “the holistic and multisensory nature of learning which involves head, heart and hands”.

In this latter sense, holistic learning is virtually synonymous with whole-person learning, and often used to characterize such humanistic learning methods as the Silent Way, Total Physical Response (TPR) and Community Language Learning (CLL) . Thus, according to Richards and Rodgers (1986: 117) “CLL advocates a holistic approach to language learning, since ‘true’ human learning is both cognitive and affective. This is termed whole-person learning. Such learning takes place in a communicative situation where teachers and learners are involved in ‘an interaction… in which both experience a sense of their own wholeness’ (Curran 1972:90)”.

Whole-language learning, on the other hand, is the preferred term (in the US at least) for those approaches that are holistic in the first of the senses I outlined above, i.e. that ‘learning proceeds from whole to part’ (Freeman and Freeman 1998: xvii), and that, by experiencing whole language – e.g. as whole texts or as communicative tasks – you internalize the parts. It’s a ‘deep-end’, experiential approach. Thus, you learn speaking by speaking, reading by reading, and so on. This is why Samuda and Bygate (2008: 7) align task-based learning with holism: ‘One way of engaging language use is through holistic activity. Tasks are one kind of holistic activity’.

Goh and Burns (2012: 4), too, label their approach to speaking instruction as holistic, but only in the sense, it seems, that it “addresses language learners’ cognitive, affective (or emotional), and social needs, as they work towards acquiring good speaking competence”. In terms of a methodology, however, they reject a ‘learn-to-speak-by-speaking’ approach, arguing that “both part-practice activities and whole tasks are necessary to facilitate the automatization of various components of the complex skill of speaking” (op. cit. p. 148), adding that “speaking lessons should include opportunities to focus on grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation at appropriate stages of the learning sequence” (ibid.).

This is consistent with what Cazden calls ‘whole language plus’, where the primary focus is on task performance, but where there is recognition of the need for ‘temporary instructional detours’  in which the learner’s attention is directed to lower level features ‘at the point of need’.  Moreover, such a two-pronged approach is more likely to accommodate the learning style preferences of both analytic and holistic learners, where the latter are defined as learners who “like socially interactive, communicative events in which they can emphasise the main idea and avoid analysis of grammatical minutiae” (Oxford, 2001:361).

More recently, complexity theory and an ecological perspective have deepened our understanding of what ‘whole-ness’ entails.  As Ellis and Larsen-Freeman (2009: 91) put it: ‘Cognition, consciousness, experience, embodiment, brain, self, human interaction, society, culture, and history – in other words, phenomena at different levels of scale and time – are all inextricably intertwined in rich, complex, and dynamic ways in language, its use and its learning’.

Maybe this more elaborated and multi-layered view will serve to conflate the two senses of holistic as applied to approach. Could a focus both on whole-language and on the whole-learner help blur the distinction between learning and using, and between learner and language, forming one complex system, such that (to borrow Yeats’s image) we cannot ‘tell the dancer from the dance’?

I’ll let Leo van Lier (2004: 223-224) have the last word:

An ecological approach sees the learner as a whole person, not a grammar production unit.  It involves having meaningful things to do and say, being taken seriously, being given responsibility, and being encouraged to tackle challenging projects, to think critically, and to take control of one’s own learning.  The teacher provides assistance, but only just enough and just in time (in the form of pedagogical scaffolding), taking the learners’ developing skills and interests as the true driving force of the curriculum.

(Don’t know about you, but it sounds oddly familiar to me!)

References:

Cazden, C. (1992) Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ, New York: Teachers College Press.

Ellis, N., and Larsen-Freeman, D. (2009) ‘Constructing a second language: analyses and computational simulations of the emergence of linguistic constructions from usage’, in Ellis, N., and Larsen-Freeman, D. (eds.) Language as a Complex Adaptive system, Special issue of Language Learning, 59.

Freeman, Y.S. and Freeman, D.E. (1998) ESL/EFL Teaching: Principles for Success, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goh, C, and Burns, A. (2012) Teaching Speaking. A Holistic Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Legutke, M., and Thomas, H. (1991) Process and Experience in the Language Classroom, Harlow: Longman.

Oxford, R. (2001) ‘Language learning styles and strategies’, in Celce-Murcia, M. (ed.) Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (3rd edition), Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning.

Richards, J.C. and Rodgers, T.S. (1986) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (eds.) (2002) Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd edn.), Harlow: Longman.

Samuda. V. and Bygate, M. (2008) Tasks in Second Language Learning, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

van Lier, L. (2004) The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning: A Sociocultural perspective, Norwell MA: Kluwer.

 Illustrations from Goldschmidt, T. 1923. English by Intuition and Pictures. Leipzig: Hirt & Sohn.





P is for Postmodern method

13 05 2012

This comes from the teacher’s guide to a  well-known coursebook series: “By the end of Level 1, students will have learnt to express themselves simply but correctly in the present, past and future…”

And pigs will fly.

By the end of Level 1, any of the following might have happened: every Monday two or three new students of varying abilities will have been incorporated into the already diverse class; at least two students will have requested – and been refused – a level change; one student will transpire to be dyslexic and another will have hearing difficulties; three students will have dropped out;  eight students will have regularly used Google Translate to do their homework; two students will refuse to do pairwork together; one student (male) will always be the first to answer the teacher’s display questions; two of the students will have embarked on a torrid affair in which English is the lingua franca; one student will have memorised a 2000-item word list; another student will have attempted to read an abridged version of Sense and Sensibility; two students will be working illegally as kitchen staff where, again, the only common language is English; the teacher will have substituted several of the texts in the coursebook with photocopies of authentic material; one student will sit and pass her driving test in English; the teacher will have corrected the same errors a hundred times while completely ignoring others; during a flu epidemic a substitute teacher will teach the class nothing but phrasal verbs for a week…. And so on. You get the picture.

In short, whatever they have achieved, it will not be the ability “to express themselves simply but correctly in the present, past and future…”. Nor will the coursebook have had much to do with it.

Language learning, whether classroom-based or naturalistic, whether in an EFL or an ESL context, is capricious, opportunistic, idiosyncratic and seldom amenable to external manipulation.

Yet advocates of coursebooks and of syllabuses share a touching faith in their capacity to impose order on chaos, uniformity on complexity.  Predicated on a unitary view of language and of learning, the coursebook/syllabus is enlisted with the task of bulldozing a path through the diversity, spontaneity, unpredictability and general messiness of the classroom jungle.  In so doing, it will ride rough-shod over the delicate eco-systems that inhabit that jungle. It’s a bit like shooting an arrow into a flock of starlings. You’ll get one or two, but that’s all. And, in the end, there’ll be no noticeable effect on the flock as a whole.

In this sense the coursebook/syllabus is very much a modernist phenomenon. Just to remind you, the ‘modernist project’ holds that knowledge is unitary, stable, objective and disinterested, and that, by extension, learning  is ‘a one-way road from ignorance to knowledge’ (Felman, 1987, cited by Mann 1999: 38). As a tool designed to leverage uniform ‘improvement’ on systems that are inherently unstable, the coursebook/syllabus embodies a ‘grand narrative’ mentality, in which ‘development takes place through linear progression and contributes to the greater good, which is emancipatory in nature, and passed on from one generation to the next’ (Mann 1999:37 – 38).  You only have to look at the portentous titles in the publishers’ catalogues, with their promise of ultimate consummation, to see how the current paradigm is framed in ‘grand narrative’ terms: Headway, Success, Horizons, Solutions, Outcomes, Open Doors, Way Ahead, Achieve, and so on.

An alternative approach – one that aims at exploiting diversity rather than taming it – is proposed by Michael Breen (1999), in a paper which pre-dates Dogme, but which might well have inspired it.

In order to cope with the inherent diversity and particularity of classroom life, Breen argues that “the classroom group needs to be a dynamic self-organising learning community”.  He adds that “a postmodern pedagogy locates experience as a core starting point and constant focus of attention.  Classroom work builds directly upon learner and teacher experiences.  The focus is on doing things, upon action, and interpreting the experience of, and outcomes from action” (p.54).

Language, in this pluralistic, multi-vocal context, emerges out of communal activity, shaped by the need to render experience into words.  (In an earlier paper, Breen [1985] had written: “‘The language I learn in the classroom is a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process”.)  Whereas, from a modernist perspective, education is all about the reproduction of existing practices (witness the supremacy of native speaker models), in a postmodern pedagogy, “a major objective for learners would be to acquire new voices and new ways of articulating experiences and ideas.  The culture of the classroom group would need to place high value on such diversity and multi-vocality and to assert it as a key attribute of the language class” (p.60. emphasis in original).

Way ahead of his time, Breen argues the case for the ‘porous classroom’, in which the boundaries between the classroom, the school, the society, and the world are weak and permeable: “In such a context, access to what counts as knowledge and its construction and reconstruction is likely to be rendered almost infinite because of the availability of technology.  The language classroom ceases to be the place where knowledge of language is made available by teacher and materials for learners and becomes the place from which knowledge of language and its use is sought by teacher and learners together; the classroom walls become its windows” (p.55).

Rather than being a transmitter of knowledge, either directly, or knowledge as commodified in the pages of the coursebook, the teacher is re-construed as a ‘cultural worker’, not only forming and maintaining the classroom culture, but also facilitating a research process “resembling that of linguistic and cultural anthropology” (p.57). Through engagement in language-based activity, the learners become researchers of the language themselves, propelled by their diverse (but not necessarily divergent) needs and interests, “and this process occurs largely independently of the intervention of explicit teaching, not least because different learners move at a different pace and have different preferences in how they go about the task. The essential ingredients, however, appear to be an input-rich environment, enthusiastic persistence, and the learner’s search for understanding and the wish to share more and more complex meanings with supportive others” (p. 60).

Teaching, in this paradigm, is less about navigating the container-ship of the class through the narrow canal of the coursebook/syllabus than about shepherding a motley flotilla of little boats, in all weathers, across the open sea, in whatever direction and at whatever speed they have elected to go.

References:

Breen, M. (1985) ‘The social context for language learning – a neglected situation?’ Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7.

Breen, M.P. (1999) ‘Teaching language in the postmodern classroom’, in Ribé, R. (ed.) Developng Learner Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning, Barcelona: University of Barcelona Press.

Mann, S. J. (1999) ‘A postmodern perspective on autonomy’, in Ribé, R. (ed.) Developng Learner Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning, Barcelona: University of Barcelona Press.

Illustrations from Hemming, J., and Gatenby, E.V. (1958) Absorbing English Book 1, London: Longman.





M is for Mind

22 04 2012

Words come out of the mouth and go into the ear. But they’re stored in the mind. And retrieved from the mind. And understood in the mind. They’re also learned in the mind.

That, at least, is the conventional wisdom – especially from the point of view of cognitive psychology. ‘Language is instantiated in the minds and therefore the brains of language users, so that linguistics is to be regarded as a branch of psychology’. Thus argues Ray Jackendoff (2002: xiv). Chomsky, of course, took this view to an extreme: the observable messiness of language in use (or performance) ‘surely cannot constitute the actual subject matter of linguistics’ (1965: 4). Rather, ‘linguistic theory is mentalistic, since it is concerned with discovering a mental reality [or competence] underlying such behaviour’ (ibid.).

Theories of second language acquisition follow suit: ‘Second language acquisition is first and foremost a mental process – one that occurs in a behavioural and social context, to be sure, but fundamentally a matter of acquiring a new knowledge system.  Cognition and cognitive factors, therefore, are central to any account of how and why SLA works’ (Long & Richards 2001, p.vii) . Anything else, such as the social contexts in which language is used, or the physical stuff of the brain itself, or even the body in which the mind/brain is housed, are considered marginal, messy, uninteresting – mere noise.

The earliest example I could find of a computer in a coursebook: Headway Intermediate (1986)

Not only is language a mental phenomenon, according to this view, but the ‘mind’ of which it is a product is construed as a kind of computer (or as Pinker [1997: 92] charmingly puts it ‘the on-board computer of a robot made of tissue’). Hence, ‘mental life can be explained in terms of a computational process’ (Johnson-Laird, 1988: 26). Or, put another way, cognition – and, by extension, learning – is basically information-processing.  Furthermore, because of the limitations on the amount of attention that humans can allocate to any particular cognitive task at any one time, this processing is necessarily controlled before it is automatic. In short, humans are ‘limited capacity processors of information’.

This applies equally to language learning, both first and other. As McLaughlin (1987: 133) puts it:

Within this framework, second-language learning is viewed as the acquisition of complex cognitive skill.  To learn a second language is to learn a skill, because various aspects of the task must be practised and integrated into fluent performance.  This requires the automatization of component sub-skills.  Learning is a cognitive process, because it is thought to involve internal representations that regulate and guide performance.

Because learning is a cognitive process, this ‘information processing’ view of learning is known as a cognitivist one, and the metaphor that best captures it is MIND IS COMPUTER.  Associated with this model, therefore, we find a host of information-processing terms like input, intake, output, feedback, automatization, filters, as well as the term processing itself. And, because cognition is implicated, we find a further set of terms like noticing, attention, consciousness-raising, and restructuring.

from Reward (1994)

How does this actually impact on current methodology?  On the one hand, you could argue that all these various models of mind and language operate at a level far removed from actual classroom practice, and that teachers carry on doing what they’ve always done – that is, teaching effectively.  On the other hand, you could also argue that the ‘mind is a computer’ metaphor has percolated down (or up?) and underpins many of our methodological practices and materials, including the idea that language learning is systematic, linear, incremental, enclosed, uniform, dependent on input and practice, independent of its social context, de-humanized, disembodied,  … and so on.

It is a model of language learning that, arguably, turns the learner into an automaton –  ‘a robot made of tissue’.  As David Block (2003: 97) notes, ‘in the ideal world of cognitive scientists, the human mind is still conceived of as dependent on external stimuli to which it responds…The adoption of the computer metaphor of input-output does not disguise the fact that there is still a view of mental behaviour as systematic and mechanistic’.

Is there an alternative model – an alternative metaphor, even?

Block (2003: 93) goes on to argue that there are ‘a growing number of scholars who subscribe to the view that mental processes are as social as they are individual and external as they are internal’. (Some of these approaches I’ve referenced in previous posts, such as E is for Ecology, A is for Affordance and B is for Body). Contrasting cognitive with what they loosely call sociocultural approaches, Foster and Ohta (2005:  403) note that, for the latter

Language development is essentially a social process.  These approaches view mind as distributed and learning as something inter-mental, embedded in social interaction.  This means that individuals and environments mutually constitute one another and persons are not considered to be separable from the environments and interactions through which language development occurs.  In this view, knowledge is not owned solely by the learner, but is also a property of social settings and the interface between person and social context.

Elementary Matters (1997)

The distributed nature of mind is a core tenet of theories of ‘situated cognition’, neatly captured here by Clark (2011: 70):

Extended systems theorists… reject the image of mind as a kind of input-output sandwich with cognition as the filling….  Instead, we confront an image of the local mechanisms of human cognition quite literally bleeding out into body and world.

What, I wonder, would be the characteristics of a methodology that subscribed to this distributed, ‘leaky’, and co-adaptive view of mind? And, specifically, what are the correlates of input and of noticing, in this alternative to a computational, information-processing model of language learning?

References:

Block, D.  (2003) The Social Turn In Second Language Acquisition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Clark, A. (2011) Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.

Foster, P. and Ohta, A. (2005) ‘Negotiation for meaning and peer assistance in second language classrooms’, Applied Linguistics, 26, 3,

Jackendoff, R. (2002) Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson-Laird, P.  N.  (1988) The Computer and the Mind: An Introduction to Cognitive Science, Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Long, M. and Richards, J. (2001) ‘Series editors’ preface’, in Robinson, P.  (Ed.)  Cognition and Second Language Instruction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLaughlin, B. (1987) Theories of Second-and Language Learning, London: Edward Arnold.

Pinker, S. (1997) How The Mind Works, London: Penguin.





F is for Facts

19 02 2012

With all the hoo-ha surrounding the bicentenary of his birth, it’s worth recalling how comically, but also how ferociously, Charles Dickens ridiculed Victorian educational practices. Think of the irascible Wackford Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby, and his penchant for inflicting corporal punishment. And Mrs Pipchin, in Dombey and Son, whose approach to education was “not to encourage a child’s mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster.”

More extreme still is the unspeakable Thomas Gradgrind, the schoolmaster in Hard Times:

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

Gradgrind’s obsession with facts and rationality is what might nowadays be called the culture of positivism.

Gradgrind "murdering the innocents"

Positivism (also known as logical positivism) is the philosophical viewpoint  by which “knowledge becomes identified with scientific methodology, and its orientation towards self-subsistent facts whose law-like connections can be grasped descriptively” (Giroux 1997 p. 11). According to the positivist view  “knowledge … becomes not only countable and measurable, it also becomes impersonal. Teaching in this pedagogical paradigm is usually discipline based and treats subject matter in a compartmentalized and atomized fashion.” (p. 21).

According to its critics, an educational system based on positivist principles, such as the “new conservatism” presently operating on both sides of the Atlantic, works to “promote passivity and rule following rather than critical engagement on the part of teachers and students” (p. 89).

New conservatives have seized the initiative and argued that the current crisis in public education is due to loss of authority… For the new conservatives, learning approximates a practice mediated by strong teacher authority and a student willingness to learn the basics… (p. 95)

Not only to learn the basics, but to be regularly tested on them.

But what, you may be asking, has this got to do with ELT?

Coincidentally, this week I took delivery of the latest catalogue of a major ELT publisher. I couldn’t help noticing the number of books listed in the catalogue whose blurbs suggest an allegiance to a view of language as “self-subsistent facts whose law-like connections can be grasped descriptively” (to use Giroux’s wording). For example:

  •  “It uses a step-by-step approach to help students build a clear knowledge of grammar and a solid vocabulary base”
  • “…a step-by-step approach with concise explanations and plenty of  practice of each grammar point”
  • “…step-by-step grammar presentations and carefully graded practice ensure steady progress”

Wackford Squeers

Contrast this view of language learning with a statement made by two researchers:

Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the past 30 years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a  time … bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those items. As Rutherford (1988) noted, SLA is a not a process of accumulating entities.” (Long, M. and Robinson, P. 1998, p. 16)

If this is the case, then a positivist approach to language teaching rests on somewhat shaky foundations. While such an approach may be appropriate to the teaching of maths, say, it does not seem to fit comfortably with language.  Atomistic rules may be enlisted to (partially) describe language, but they cannot, it seems, cause its acquisition.

So why has such a view persisted for so long?  Possibly because it lends itself to the ideological formation that embraces standards, order, control and the maintenance of the status quo – a viewpoint that asserts the authority of the teacher, and, by means of constant testing, maintains the learner in a subservient, even colonised, position.  According to Giroux (op cit):

There is little in the positivist pedagogical model that encourages students to generate their own meanings, to capitalize on their own cultural capital, or to participate in evaluating their own classroom experiences. The principles of order, control, and certainty in positivist pedagogy appear inherently opposed to such an approach  (p. 25).

Mrs Pipchin

Back to Dickens: “Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over… With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic”.

And if there’s one thing that language ain’t, it’s arithmetic.

References:

Giroux, H. (1997). Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope: Theory, Culture and Schooling. Oxford: Westview Press.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. (1998). Focus on form: Theory, research and practice. In Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.

(Parts of this article first appeared as ‘Reading, Writing as Arithmetic’ in Modern English Teacher 9/4, October 2000).





P is for Personalization

12 02 2012

Childhood tragedy?

In his novel, The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst (1994) recounts how the protagonist, a young Englishman recently arrived in a Belgian town, sets himself up as a private English tutor. One of his pupils suffers from asthma, and our hero idly asks him if he knows how he got it.

“I didn’t quite make the story out at first, I was chivvying him and making him repeat words without knowing I was taking him back, like some kinder and wiser analyst, to the scene of a childhood tragedy” (p. 20)

Inadvertently uncovering childhood tragedies is one of the risks of what has come to be known as personalization: “When you personalise language you use it to talk about your knowledge, experience and feelings” (An A-Z of ELT). Personalization has connotations of self-disclosure, even confession. But it hasn’t always been so.

Long ago...

When I first encountered personalization it was of the type: “Write 5 or more true sentences about yourself, friends or relations, using the word ago“.

This is taken verbatim from Kernel Lessons (O’Neill et al. 1971), one of the first coursebooks I taught from. The fact that the sentences had to be ‘true’ was regularly ignored or overlooked by both teacher and students. The point was not to be ‘truthful’ but creative. Creative and accurate.

This little personalization task invariably came at the tail end of a sequence of activities whose rationale was the learning and practice of a pre-selected item of grammar. The personalization was really just a pretext for a little bit of creative practice, as well as serving as a first, tentative step towards translating the language of the classroom into the language of ‘real life’. I don’t recall ever having used these carefully contrived sentences as a conversation starter, and certainly never uncovered any childhood tragedies (that I was aware of). In fact, in Kernel Lessons this ‘transfer exercise’ was relegated to the Homework section of the book, thereby obviating any potentially awkward moments in the classroom.

But very soon personalization was re-invented, not as a form of language practice, but as the context and stimulus for language learning.  Within the humanist paradigm, where the ultimate aim of education is self-actualization, teachers were urged to ground their lessons in the lives, experiences, and feelings of their learners:

In foreign language teaching, we customarily begin with the lives of others, with whom students may not easily identify, and then expect students to transfer the material to their own lives.  However, transfer to the textbook is easier when the content starts with the student himself and then leads into the materials to be learned… Let the students first discover what they can generate on the subject from their own personal thoughts and feelings.  By drawing on their own experiences and reactions, the transfer to the textbook will be more relevant and more apparent.

(Moscowitz, 1978, p. 197)

Personalization, as we have seen, is not without its risks, and it’s arguable whether assuming the role of analyst – wittingly or unwittingly –  isn’t exceeding one’s brief as language instructor.  Yet there is a general acceptance in the profession that these risks are worth taking, and even teachers who don’t susbcribe one hundred percent to a humanist philosophy tend to think that personalization is ‘a good thing’. And, of course, basing the content of the lesson on the experiences, interests, desires and even fears of the people in the room also happens to be a core principle of the Dogme approach.

But, irrespective of whether we think it’s good for them, do learners actually like it? Do they like being quizzed about what they or their relatives were doing 10 days/months/years ago? Do they expect it? Do they see the value of it?

...and far away.

All the more reason, therefore, to ask whether or not the theoretical underpinnings for personalization are well grounded. Hence, I’ve been looking outside the (arguably too narrowly focused) domain of humanistic pedagogy for other sources of validation. Recently, research into the way second language learners are ‘socialized’ into communities of practice has shed new light on the notion of personalization, even if it’s not named as such. Bonny Norton (2000, p. 142), for instance, concluded her study of immigrant women in Canada thus:

Whether or not the identities of the learner are recognised as part of the formal language curriculum, the pedagogy that the teacher adopts in the classroom will nevertheless engage the identities of learners in diverse and sometimes contradictory ways.  It is only by understanding the histories and lived experiences of language learners that the language teacher can create conditions that will facilitate social interaction both in the classroom and in the wider community, and help learners claim the right to speak.

From a related but more ecological perspective, Dwight Atkinson (2010) argues that language learning is a process of adapting to a social-cultural-linguistic environment, in which meaning is distributed throughout the system rather than being locked into individual minds, and that what learners pay attention to – what they notice – is that which is potentially important to their integration and survival:  “What really matters to a person – what is adaptive – is what gets attended” (p. 35). Arguably, by foregrounding ‘what really matters to a person’, personalization both motivates and scaffolds these adaptive processes.

So, how do we accommodate the need for personalization into our classes? And – more importantly – how do we deal with learner resistance to it?

References:

Atkinson, D. (2010) Sociocognition: what it can mean for second language acquisition. In Batstone, R. (ed.) Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hollinghurst, A. (1994). The Folding Star. London: Chatto & Windus.

Moskowitz, G. (1978). Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and Language Learning: gender, ethnicity and educational change.  London: Longman.

O’Neill, R., Kingsbury, R., & Yeadon, T. (1971). Kernel Lessons Intermediate. London: Longman.





E is for eCoursebook

29 01 2012

Technology then

Apple’s plan, announced last week, to launch electronic publishing of school textbooks set social networks a-twitter, triggering flurries of excitement and apprehension in equal measure.  To expedite this initiative, Apple have launched an app, called iBooks Author, which allows wannabe textbook authors to create interactive ebooks and self-publish them (of course, only on an iPad, and with Apple taking a nice little chunk of the profits).

The enthusiasts have been talking up the way this technology will open up textbook writing to anyone with an iPad, while allowing material to be customized for very specific markets. Moreover, by shortcutting the laborious production processes of print publishing, plus the huge costs incurred, e-textbooks will be cheaper, as well as more eco-friendly, and less a burden on kids’ tender spines.

Detractors point to the ‘walled garden’ mentality of Apple, arguing that this is a cynical attempt to monopolise a ginormous market, further entrenching Apple products into schools, while raising the spectre of Apple as the world’s number one provider – and gatekeeper – of educational content.

Why does all this chattering leave me – if not cold – at least bemused?

Because, dear reader, you don’t actually need textbooks – of any description. Not for language learning, at least. Maths, history, economics – maybe. But ESOL? No way.

What do you need?

You need data, and you need incentives and tools to mine the data in order to make form-meaning connections, and to extract generative patterns and exemplars. You need scaffolded opportunities to put these ‘mappings’, patterns and exemplars to repeated communicative and creative use, and you need feedback on the results. Above all you need a social context (either real or envisioned), and the desire to belong to it, in order to activate and energise the whole process.

You don’t need textbooks to provide any of this, really. In fact, textbooks can’t provide most of it.  So, whether McNuggets Publishing produces textbooks or whether Apple does, it won’t actually impact on the way languages are learned. Not least because, thanks to the internet, all the means and tools are already in place to do the job a lot more effectively – and more cheaply.

Here’s a possible scenario, based on existing technology, or on technology that must surely be just round the corner, and assuming a ‘smart classroom’, i.e. an internet connection and a data projector:

  1. A topic arises naturally out of the initial classroom chat. The teacher searches for a YouTube video on that topic and screens it. The usual checks of understanding ensue, along with further discussion.
  2. A transcript of the video, or part of it, is generated using some kind of voice recognition software; alternatively, the learners work on a transcription together, and this is projected on to the interactive whiteboard, which is simply a whiteboard powered by an eBeam.
  3. A cloze test is automatically generated, which students complete.
  4. A word-list (and possibly a list of frequently occurring clusters) is generated from the text, using text processing tools such as those available at The Compleat Lexical Tutor. A keyword list is generated from the word list. Learners use the keywords to reconstruct the text – using pen and paper, or tablet computers.
  5.  On the basis of the preceding task, problematic patterns or phrases are identified and further examples are retrieved using a phrase search tool.
  6.  The target phrases are individually ‘personalised’ by the learners and then shared, by being projected on to the board and anonymised, the task being to guess who said what, leading to further discussion. Alternatively, the phrases are turned into questions to form the basis of a class survey, conducted as a milling activity, then collated and summarised, again on to the board.
  7. In small groups students blog a summary of the lesson.
  8. At the same time, the teacher uses online software to generate a quiz of some of the vocabulary that came up in the lesson, to finish off with.

Remember vinyl? (Click to enlarge)

Similar processes, whereby language study and practice opportunities are generated from self-selected online texts, are within reach of individual learners, working on their own, too. There are now search engines that will select texts on the basis of their ease or difficulty of readability. Hopefully someone is already working on an algorithm that will find a text in seconds according to your choice of level, topic, length, genre, and recency. And there are tools to create a hypertext link from every word in the text to an online dictionary. Programs exist that allow review and recycling of vocabulary items in a randomised order.

Predictive collocation tools allow students to create their own texts, selecting from high-frequency lexical and grammatical choices. Grammar and spell checks are increasingly more sophisticated. Online dictionaries and thesauri offer ready-made semantic networks. Free online video and audio tools mean that learners can record themselves doing a task and send it to other students or an instructor by email. Skype allows free video and/or audio interaction with other speakers, while the conversations thus generated can be audio-recorded for later transcription.

In short, anything (e)textbooks can do, the internet can do better. (This does not mean, of course, that I am advocating the exclusive use of online tools, or that the internet is the only alternative to coursebooks. But it is a viable one).