Serious

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Job description:

Harness energy
of breathless wide-eyed teens to
(shhhh!) serious ends

From Flickr cc by Kevin Dooley

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Archive: On language learning

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A cynical mood front has been gathering in my teacher brain of late. Perhaps it’s because, when I ask my friends who speak good English what their strategies were for learning, they shrug their shoulders. “Study? I guess,” they say. “I just kind of stuck at it.”

Or perhaps it’s because my dentist speaks better English from listening to BBC Radio 4 than many do after years spent in classrooms, or even living in English-speaking countries. In any case, I’m starting to lose faith in theory.

A woman learns English using everyday examples

There are many perspectives on how best to learn a language (National Geographic 1918, via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s no shortage of theoretical moths batting about the EFL flame, that’s for sure…

* It’s all about exposure to the target language without the pressure to respond: “Put the banana in the box Taro. Well done. Now put the melon on the floor, behind Shohei. Excellent! That’ll be 30 quid please.”

* It’s all about using the target language in a relaxed environment: “Take a seat in the big brown massage chair. Let’s read dialogue number 4. Oh Mavis, what lovely shoes. Are they new? … There now, wasn’t that easy? You’re very clever. That’ll be 30 quid please.”

* Negotiation of meaning should take place in pursuit of the completion of a mutually interesting task: “OK, so there are poster paper and pens at the front of the classroom, so let’s all wast-, er spend ninety minutes drawing a map of your hometown. When you’re finished, present in pairs. Make a list of the similarities and differences. I’ll be in my office. Don’t forget to pay on your way out!”

* Linguistic responses can be automaticised through a series of questions and responses that were written in 1900: “Name six things besides cigars which should be kept in a dry place… Describe all that you could procure from an ideal penny-slot machine… OK great, you can pay at the reception desk.”

* The teacher should say as little as possible, so the students are in control of the target language: “. . . . . . Teacher, what we should do now? Ah… Monkey? No… Pray? Ahhhh…?”

What’s the one unifying feature of these methods? Why, their democracy of course! Their promise to all that if they only show up each week and… What’s that? Money, you say…?

Ah yes. Money.

English language teaching is an industry, and a rather successful one. In fact EFL teachers are the UK’s sole remaining export industry. As a result, rival theories spring up all the time, selling to bright-eyed future globetrotters and world-changers and sunken-eyed hunchback EFLers alike. Siren-like, they shimmy, beckon and seduce, yet all offer hope that, at the end of that road, however long and winding it may be, all will be able to master English, to talk with poise and confidence at embassy receptions and bring up bilingual babies who will spell the end to war and discrimination forever more, ushering mankind into a new post-Babel golden age in which no Taro will be unable to effectively box a banana on receiving said instruction from his teacher.

This, in my experience, is a lie.

Successful language learners are those who care, and those who can. Motivation and aptitude. I wanted to learn, I kind of stuck at it, it sort of made sense, and now here I am.

It’s either that or Radio 4. Which gives me an idea…

From here on 21st April 2013.

Archive: The causes and effects of intelligence

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I like learning. And I like teaching. But until I taught, I never thought about what it meant to learn, and how differently we do it.

We learn differently as people, and we learn differently based on how we’ve always learned. I’ve sat through explanations that were crystal clear in the eye of the explainer, but which made me feel like such a fool. I’ve probably given a fair few too. Hazards of the profession.

But the cultural thing, that gave me a fresh surprise of late. I don’t think I’d ever really questioned the principle that you never put someone on the spot unless they are capable of doing the task, unless they know the right answer, could be a model to others. But then I read this.

A Japanese classroom

The scene of Kousuke’s triumph (possibly) – by Bobo12345 via Wikimedia Commons

The writer describes an American researcher’s shock, in a Japanese maths classroom of the late ’70s, at seeing the only kid who couldn’t get his 3D cubes straight called to the board, his mounting anxiety as the boy continued to fail, his certainty that any minute, the boy would dissolve into tears. And his astonishment when, at the end of the period, the boy got it right, concentration dissolving into a smile as the class dissolved into applause. Kousuke had got it!

For all my alleged cultural smarts, this was something I had completely failed to pick up on. But once I thought on it, I realised that this is something that I’ve encountered in Japan, just without recognizing it. And every time I’m called on to do it, I just freeze. You see, sometimes in my drumming group, I’m asked to do something, badly, in front of everyone. And every time, I, like Stigler in the article, feel so nervous I can’t possibly concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing. My palms sweat, it’s hard to grip the drumsticks… it feels like an ordeal, and I’m glad when it’s over.

Like Stigler, I feel a little bit like I’m being bullied. Like I’ve been singled out for the dunce’s cap. And I feel this despite knowing that these are not people who would do that. They’re not sadistic. They’re just trying to help me learn.

When I was growing up in the UK, it was inevitably the brightest who were called up to the board. And while it should feel like praise, it felt no less awkward than Stigler did sitting in the back of the classroom perspiring on Kousuke’s behalf. Why could that be?

The answer may lie in another idea in the article, this time courtesy of Professor Jin Li. Li has spent a decade recording the conversations of American and Taiwanese parents about their school life, and has come to the conclusion that where parents in America tend to attribute success to smartness, Taiwanese parents speak of practice, persistence and struggle.

I’m ever-wary of grand generalisations, with their tendency to gloss over individual differences and slide neatly into stereotypes. East vs West is a neat catchphrase, and has been exploited too many times by people with nefarious agendas to have any real meaning. And I’m certainly not about to suggest that Japanese classrooms are perfect.

But here’s what I do think it’s important to take from this. If smartness is a cause, is inherent, it’s fixed. You either got it or you don’t. Smartness as the result of effort is something each and every individual can control. Being singled out, in these two situations, then becomes a very different proposition: show us how smart (or not) you are so everyone can hate you and/ or laugh at you vs stick at this and you’ll get better at it. Studies have been done on just these two mindsets, and found no correlation between mindset and school success until students encounter a challenge or setback. And it’s there – the change of school, the move to university, the task you just can’t get your head around, Kousuke’s 3D cubes – where it pays to try harder, try another way, get help, and not to say “I’m just not cut out for this”.

So next time I’m put on the spot, I’ll be channeling Kousuke*, in search of my untapped potential.

* Kousuke’s real name probably isn’t Kousuke. Sorry.

From here on November 29th 2012.

Archive: Death by hobbies

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Any situation from which there’s no escape can become a kind of torture, and speaking exams are no exception. It’s probably rare enough to get an incisive answer from students speaking their own language; it’s nigh on impossible when the examiners’ job is to assess just how badly prospective students can’t do the thing they’re applying to learn how to do.

The procedure is as follows: ask the same limited set of bog-standard questions that nobody in the real world ever asks (What are your hobbies? What is your favourite place in your country? What do you want to be when you grow up? etc) until the student changes their mind and goes away. At the same time you should write down comments (such as “HA!” and “PFFFF”) to enable graders to discriminate in the case of borderline candidates, before assigning grades based on a rubric that is specifically designed to be wildly unfit for purpose, as giving teachers something to rant about between interviews has been positively correlated with a higher rate of sanity retention.

Bored souvenir seller

No no, go on… (by Adam Jones, via Wikimedia Commons)

And so you ask the same twelve questions in slightly different orders until the faces stop coming and the voices in your head fade away. After the fifth interview, the highly localized front-of-head pain sets in, the one that feels like a small but persistent imp is using the space between your eyebrows as a pin cushion. After the eighth, the nameless, unquenchable hunger. Come ten, feeling is lost in the lips and tongue. Any more than twelve and the shaking sweaty fears set in. The last teacher who did fifteen had to be stretchered out.

If left in charge of timetabling their own students, teachers will frequently start strong, rally, and end on a high, leaving those they imagine will bomb to hide in the middle and hopefully ride a wave of goodwill to glory. However for those of us that are wise to these ruses, there is only one thing that can jolt us from our cynicism: epic student failure.

I recall many a surreal placement test in which a pushy parent hovered behind their genius progeny, lauding their every achievement, top of their every advanced English class, their mastery of the art of public speaking, their rhetorical genius… while I waited patiently for an answer to the question “What is your name?” My most memorable testing moments would also have to include the elaborately beautiful gothic lady who burst in spectacular tears when asked to describe a picture story, then spent over an hour telling me, in near-perfect English, how worthless her English was.

But the best ones are where you actually, in spite of the system, conspire to learn something. For surprise value, nobody can quite top the Korean student who had a massive freak-out on learning that his speaking partner often slept with the fan on in summer. Apparently Koreans believe that this can cause ‘Fan death’, the only possible explanation for why people sometimes die alone in their beds with the fan on. I had no idea, and nearly fell off my own chair, thus creating a kind of culture shock domino rally. 

From here on November 25th 2012.

Archive: Enthusiasm makes my day

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Student sleeping on desk

Teach. Inspire.

Asked to reflect on his school days, one student ushered in a new course together by writing “I wasn’t a good student in school because I am my personality are very lazy and I miss school for 6 months. I didn’t have any favourite subject because I didn’t like study and or also teacher because I don’t didn’t like school”.

Nice to feel needed, is it not?

From here on October 14th 2010.

Archive: Notes from the cliff face

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Portrait of Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh, good at using the internet even before it was invented

Teacher: Does anyone know any older people who can use new technology?

Students (in unison): Alcohol!

Teacher: Alcohol?

Students: Yes, do you know alcohol? Alcohol is known in Vietnam, always use new technology! All Vietnam peoples are know him!

And then the penny dropped.

The moral of the story? Never underestimate Vietnamese students’ ability to turn any given conversation to Uncle Ho.

From here on October 5th 2010.