The task of teaching

I was at the American University of Paris yesterday on a beautiful day in a beautiful part of the city.

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I was invited to talk about pedagogical innovation by integrating technology in the language class; AUP is a liberal arts college with an international study body and students learn French as the host language and academic English for their studies.

I ran a workshop in French taking an OER perspective on task-based language teaching with technologies, with activities focusing on both specific teaching ideas and particular digital tools.

More interesting for me were subsequent discussions with AUP and visiting faculty on more general issues concerning pedagogy and the changing roles of teachers and students in university teaching. Two themes emerged for me: motivation for learning, and general objectives for teaching.

Delayed gratification?

Who is responsible for student motivation and learning?

Some faculty feel quite strongly that it is up to students to find a way into the course content that is presented to them. The consensus among those discussing this yesterday was that instructors have some responsibility in this both in the way they present material and the assignments they set their students.

I was reminded of A.N. Whitehead’s three-stage model of learning, where he recommends teachers try to keep three balls in the air at all times: a “romantic” or big-picture reminder of what a class is trying to achieve and why it matters, “precision” or practice activities that help students develop essential skills and understanding, and a “generalisation” phrase where their attention is drawn to how these new skills are already bringing them closer to their big-picture goals.

I have applied this model to language teaching in a talk on “digital pencil sharpening” (see slides 20 through 36 for the section on general teaching and learning). I believe Whitehead was on to something when he complained that too much teaching spends too long on low-level information, skills and practice, and does so in isolation from what we might term pre- and post-practice reflection, which would help learners make sense of the drudgery.

Other university educators have taken a similar stance. The mathematician Paul Halmos provided the pencil-sharpening metaphor to refer to our tendency to procrastinate in order to avoid intellectually challenging work. I think this also applies to classroom contexts when we fill our syllabus with basic texts and boilerplate assignments to provide “background” which we see as an essential preliminary to the “real” content. But the “good stuff” keeps receding over the horizon.

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Robert Duke makes this point in his excellent 2008 talk Why Students Don’t Learn What We Think We Teach. He is especially good on conflicting student/instructor agendas and agrees with Whitehead on the importance of the “here and now,” as this little extract shows:

I wrote about this in a paper on technology and learner autonomy in language education. The more I discuss pedagogy with teachers of subjects other than languages, the more I feel task-based language teaching has a lot to offer the wider educational community.

A second area of my discussions with AUP colleagues is perhaps more related to education in its broader sense than to the specifics of what happens at the chalkface.

What role do we in humanities or liberal arts play in teaching students to think?

Thinking about things that matter

Perhaps inevitably in the current political context, our discussions turned to some of the bigger issues of our times: climate change, immigration policy, electoral discourse. How should we address these with our students?

In the run-up to the US presidential campaign I came across the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff on political discourse.  Lakoff uses frame theory and metaphor to explain how political thought is shaped (and thus manipulated).

He applies this theory to the Trump campaign on his website, and you can read more here for example. I decided to take this theme as our topic for an undergraduate translation course in our media and communication strand: the science of framing political debate. While we need to be careful about political bias in our teaching, I feel we also have some responsibility to take on issues like these when relevant to our classes.

Here’s my take on Lakoff’s contrast between strict father and nurturing family frames in a presentation I prepared for my students:

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Translation classes, perhaps more than other foreign language classes, allow discussion of issues in a somewhat impartial and unemotional manner. It’s a good opportunity to tackle the meaning and implications of texts in a neutral way: does this expression in language A mean that same as that one in language B? Why did the writer use this particular expression, and how can we render it faithfully yet idiomatically? We’re not discussing what we think about a particular argument or line of thinking. We’re focusing on what the intended meaning seems to be, and how different translations render different aspects of that meaning salient.

The framing comes, of course, from our selection of texts to translate.

What do I take from all this?

Perhaps that it’s stimulating to talk about teaching and learning with colleagues in other disciplines in different university contexts.

Perhaps that language education might have some approaches and ideas for addressing pedagogical issues that are relevant to other university disciplines.

Or simply that the “here and now” can shift depending on both the focus of your attention and your vantage point.


Duke, R. (2008). «Why Students Don’t Learn What We Think We Teach» [lecture; online]. (2013-06-01).

Halmos, P. (1985). I Want to Be a Mathematician. New York: Springer Verlag.

Halmos, P. (1975). «The Problem of Learning to Teach». American Mathematical Monthly, 82, pp. 466-476.

Whitehead, A.N. ([1917] 1932). «The Aims of Education». In: Whitehead, A.N. The Aims of Education and Other Essays. London: Ernest Benn.

Whyte, S. (2014). Digital pencil sharpening: technology integration and language learning autonomy. EL.LE, 3(1): 31-53. Università Ca’ Foscari, Venezia. [PDF]


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.