Digital pencil sharpening

Whyte, S. (in press). Digital pencil sharpening: technology integration and language learning autonomy. EL.LE Università Ca’ Foscari, Venezia.

This one has been in the works for some time; I’m glad to see it should be coming out soon.  It’s an essay on how languages are taught in school settings, and why I think some changes are in order.


It’s basically about procrastination: why teachers put off the moment when learners use the foreign language in real, live communication.  They wait until they have learned enough vocabulary, until they have covered all the grammar, until they know something about the target language culture.

I was inspired by a brilliant 2009 lecture Why students don’t learn what we think we teach by Robert Duke who has a number of pertinent answers to his own question, and who led me back to Whitehead (1917/1932) on the rhythm of education.

DigitalPencils_Venice13.001Another influence was the writing of Paul Halmos, who uses the metaphor of pencil sharpening to refer to our reluctance to get down difficult though rewarding mental endeavour (In His Own Words).

Here’s the abstract:

Language learning and the development of learner autonomy via effective integration of learning technologies in language classrooms depend heavily on the learning opportunities provided by language teachers. While contemporary language programmes for state school contexts in many European countries emphasise communicative and task-based approaches, many recent studies question the extent of the uptake of such methodologies by teachers as they integrate new tools such as the interactive whiteboard (IWB) into their teaching (Gray, 2010; Cutrim Schmid & Whyte, 2012; Favaro, 2012; Whyte, 2011). This essay presents a constructivist theory of teaching and learning based on Whitehead’s three-stage model of romantic, precision and generalisation experiences and supported by the writings of mathematics and music educators (Whitehead, 1917/1932; Halmos, 1975; Duke, 2008). This model is linked to current second language teaching methodology (Cook, 1998; Lightbown, 2000; Myles, 2002; Ellis, 2005) with particular reference to technology integration. Examples of classroom language teaching practice, including IWB-mediated learning activities, show how this approach can enhance learning opportunities and learner autonomy. Teacher resistance to communicatively oriented technology integration and the persistence of traditional methodology – dubbed “pencil sharpening” – is attributed to misapprehension of acquisitional facts and lack of models to support pedagogical transformation. The paper concludes with a number of recent teacher education initiatives (Hoven, 2007; Hubbard, 2008; Whyte et al., 2013) which point the way to a programme of pedagogical change which can allow the integration of learning technologies to fulfil their potential for promoting language learning and supporting the autonomy of learners.

DigitalPencils_Venice13_3.001I argue that in many language classrooms, teachers and learners spend too much time on the formal features of the language.  They teach and learn information about the language, leaving little time for using it to communicate meaning.

As a card-carrying idealist and irredeemable optimist, I feel things don’t have to be this way.  The article has some concrete suggestions for teaching and teacher education which offer opportunities for innovation and change.

See also the slides from my presentation at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, October 2013.