The task of teaching

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

FullSizeRender 49

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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 08.25.32

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:

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 09.55.12

MoralPolitics

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.

References

Duke, R. (2008). «Why Students Don’t Learn What We Think We Teach» [lecture; online]. http://www.cornell.edu/video/?VideoID=225 (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]

 

Advertisements

Is task-based language teaching just a variation on presentation-practice-production?

Many language teachers are interested in the question of what makes a task a task. Pre-service teachers are often under pressure to conform to some see as the hegemony of task-based language teaching (TBLT) which they feel is imposed on teachers by the Common European Reference framework (CER). They want to know whether their textbook which claim to follow CER principles offer genuinely task-based teaching activities. Or they wonder how the demands of “authentic” language use associated with TBLT can be squared with the seemingly artificial language used in the foreign language classroom where everyone shares a native language.

Teacher educators, too, struggle with strong versions of a task-based approach, as opposed to weaker, task-supported incarnations, which often seem to overlap with the production phase of the PPP approach, where structures are Presented and Practiced with the teacher before learners are encourage to Produce their own contributions. Does this seem a reasonable compromise, or does it mean abandoning the principles of TBLT?

In the slides above I summarise two articles, one by Jason Anderson in defence of PPP, and another by Rod Ellis, one of the main proponents of TBLT. Anderson argues that PPP has admirably stood the test of time and is suited to a wider range of teaching contexts than TBLT. Ellis, on the other hand, defends TBLT against a number of misconceptions about this approach, and to my mind invalidates many of Anderson’s points. My own view is that TBLT is quite different from PPP, and that there are good reasons, related to how languages are learned, to favour TBLT (see Jordan for instance).

Update 15/03/17: more from Jordan on Two versions of task-based language teaching, drawing in Long’s book on TBLT and SLA, and Breen’s process syllabus.

Anderson, J. (2016). Why practice makes perfect sense: the past, present and potential future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education. Practice, 19.

Ellis, R. (2013). Task-based language teaching: Responding to the critics. University of Sydney Papers in TESOL, 8(1), 1-27.

Jordan, G. Principles and practice. Critical EFL.

Resources, tools, and training: Open educational practices for language teaching

Open educational practice: taking care in the design and creation of digital materials with a view to future sharing and repurposing, working towards a goal of sustainable development for (language) teachers.

I ran a workshop for language teachers at the University of Limerick covering a range of resources, tools, and networks to try and answer some of these questions.
  • How can teachers best select teaching and learning materials and adapt them to their own particular needs?
  • Which digital tools are most versatile, and how can they be integrated into learning activities?
  • And what can teachers do as their careers progress to try and keep up with technological innovation?

From open resources to open practices

We talked about the Paris Declaration on Open Educational Resources, and how open resources lead to open practices. My own epiphany about openness came when teaching a course on technology in language education to a group of teachers of several European languages. The course encouraged participants to share teaching resources publicly, and some of my students’ selections – for languages I don’t speak – were picked up by colleagues at other universities.

work that would otherwise be invisible or lost to the wider community once a course assignment is completed here can be recovered and exploited by others

Read the full paper

I used Google forms for a background questionnaire to gauge participants’ interests and knowledge, then we used Padlet to share open resources collected by myself and others using the curation platform Scoop.it. (See the resources.)

One of the difficulties in supporting language teachers in integrating technology is the vast array of digital tools at our disposal. Conventional wisdom suggests focusing on pedagogical objectives rather than the affordances of tools, so we looked at a task I used with one of my undergraduate EFL students: a story slam based on the Moth format.

A storytelling task

In my university EFL class, I used the open resources from the Moth website to set the task and provide examples for my students. I think this makes a decent task because it meets most of the criteria for task-based language teaching: it’s a real-world activity (target language speakers do it), there’s a clear outcome (a story that meets certain pre-determined standards), and learners have freedom in the language they choose to use.

There are also opportunities for reflection and collaboration, because the Moth also has a transcription system where volunteers can check and correct automatic transcriptions of existing stories. Students used the audio platform SoundCloud and Google forms to allow students to record their own stories as they performed in class, upload and safeguard their recordings, and share with the teacher. I used the canned response gadget in the Labs section of Gmail to provide individual feedback to students, together with a link to a blogpost with ideas for work on pronunciation. I tried to encourage reflection with a post-task activity where students were asked to react to this feedback.

Incidentally, as I prepared my introductory lesson for my students using a specific Moth story, I cleaned up the machine transcription of the story so that my students could analyse the storyteller’s technique and language. In so doing, I made my own small contribution to the Moth project by leaving a full, correct transcription for others to use (either native-speaking storytellers or L2 learners). This provides an argument for openness in itself, and one which also suggests another type of task where learners perform this transcription checking task themselves, to work on listening and writing skills.

Most of the links to the activities and tools for this storytelling task are here.

Playing safe and playing fair

Of course, open education also imposes some particular requirements on teachers and learners. It’s important to respect learners’ privacy and make sure we have permission to share their work. With adults this can often be done simply using the following suggestions:

  • ask learners to create their own accounts on free platforms
  • allow learners to choose pseudonyms if work is shared publicly
  • offer the chance to share only with specific individuals (e.g., the teacher) or a restricted group of learners
  • remind learners to hide or remove files, or delete their accounts once the course is completed.

Similarly, both teachers and learners need to respect the intellectual property of others. Gosia Kurek and Anna Skowron produced a very useful guide to help language teachers understand what can be shared and how, as part of the LangOER project. This guide also has up-to-date references to places to find images that can be used freely without attribution, for example.

Going further for language teachers

The last section of my presentation (see slides above) includes telecollaborative platforms and some reflection on my experience in teacher education in this area. We didn’t get that far in Limerick, but in the interests of openness it’s still there.

It was great to hear about work in languages at the University of Limerick with Catherine Jeanneau, including a French-language debating team (another real-world task) and a very active Facebook page.

And as a quick coda to the session, we looked at Plickers, a paper-based clicker app that allows learners to respond to multiple choice questions by holding up QR codes which the teacher records using the app on their phone. Results can be displayed in a browser at plickers.com and projected for the class to see. I like this tool for myself because I don’t always have internet access in class. For the secondary school teachers I train, it can be used in schools where pupils are not allowed to use phones in class. In Limerick, however, the teachers were working with adult learners who all had smartphones with wifi access: they showed me Kahoot, which offers similar opportunities for their teaching context.

References

Kurek, M. & Skowron, A. (2015). Going open with LangOER. PDF

Paris Declaration on Open Educational Resources PDF

Whyte, S. (2014). Bridging gaps : Using social media to develop techno-pedagogical competences in pre-service language teacher education. Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité – Cahiers de l’APLIUT, 33(2):143-169.

.

Top tools for learning 2016

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 17.20.58

I recently responded to an online poll of educators’ tools for learning and saved my responses to kick off a class on learning technologies for language teachers.

These are my picks; here’s why. (They are all free.)

Getting started

LastPass

LastPass is a password manager that saves your passwords online and lets you access them from one master password (the *last pass*word you’ll need from now on). It can generate secure passwords, but I don’t risk this (if you have connectivity problems you can’t retrieve these from memory). Instead I create my own passwords with a keyword system and save them to LastPass.

I suggest this as my first tool for learning because it’s the obvious first hurdle to using almost any platform, tool, or application and I find until students or trainees are confident logging in and out of multiple sites it’s difficult to build up confidence or expertise.

An associated tool is Xmarks, which lets you synchronise bookmarks across browsers and devices, which I also find useful for moving between machines, though if you share computers it might not be so relevant.

Google apps

Once you have your password manager set up, my next recommendation is Google Drive, where you have e-mail (Gmail), online storage (Google Drive), online wordprocessing (Google Docs) and spreadsheets (Google Sheets), as well as Calendar, Slides, and Forms (for online surveys, questionnaires, and tests). Also worth a look are Sites for building your own websites or getting learners to do so, and Communities for working with groups.

I find these work well for planning my teaching, administration (attendance, grades), giving feedback on student writing (Docs), or collecting links to sound files, for example (Forms). We have run telecollaborative projects on G-Drive, using a private folder to save student-teacher video selfies, with sub-folders for class tandems to share their learners’ productions and prepare collaborative papers and presentations.

If you have multiple Google accounts it’s worth associating one account with one browser (work gmail on Firefox, home gmail on Chrome, for example) to avoid problems signing in and out. I have never found the offline functionality anything close to effective, so only for use with good internet connectivity.

Writing and feedback

Google Docs

As noted, Google docs is useful for your own writing, but also for use with learners. They can edit their own documents, prepare translations in groups, or submit work for evaluation and you can set access to private (sign-in), public (no sign-in) or an intermediate option with files accessible via link (no sign-in).

I find the Docs interface (there is also one for Sheets, etc) less easily navigable than Drive. Also be aware that you need a computer for full functionality – on smartphones and tablets comments are not accessible, for example.

Evernote

Evernote is very useful for taking notes offline and saving all sorts of bits and pieces which you can tag and sort into Notebooks or leave unorganised to search. The search function is great and it works offline. There’s an app for your phone but the free version limits the number of devices you can connect.

Collaboration and sharing

Dropbox

After Google apps perhaps the single most useful tool, Dropbox lets you save files and synchronise across devices. I use it to save teaching materials (slides, handouts) but also for collaborative research writing with colleagues in other countries. Accessible offline, syncs in the background, usable like a drive or folder on your own computer.

One thing to be careful about: the default drag and drop which copies a file from one drive to another in other circumstances moves the file on Dropbox. So if you download a file from a shared folder you delete that file for others. Doesn’t work well on an external drive; you must save your local version on your local hard drive.

Weebly

This free website platform lets you make your own website with images, media, and other links very easily and intuitively. It has the advantages over Google sites of a) letting you create classes with your students’ names and e-mails, and b) making comments on pages easy to see.

Audio and video

VideoLAN

For language teachers, you need the digital audio player VLC, which plays any format you can imagine.

SoundCloud

This open platform is a good place to share audio files, which you or your learners can upload and save privately, share to a select audience, or open to the world. With adult learners you can outsource the recording (smartphones), uploading (SoundCloud), and sharing (Google Forms) so you can focus on the feedback.

Social media

Twitter

I use the microblogging site to find and communicate useful resources for teaching (educator blogs, tools, pedagogical resources) and research (conference and journal calls for papers, new publications).

Scoop.it

I save the references in my tweets to curated sites to help keep track, though the service for the free version of Scoop.it has fallen off and it may not be worth starting there now.

Low-tech classroom teaching

Finally, special mention for technology you can use in class without technology: with Plickers, learners hold up paper cards to answer pre-set or spontaneous multiple choice quizzes, and the teacher records them via smartphone.

Coloriage magique: on busywork and boxticking

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-11-18-25

Sometimes good ideas lead to disappointing applications. Bruner’s appeal for discovery learning as an alternative to “mere memorizing” (Whyte, 2011) brought “learning by doing” to teacher education programmes the world over. But it often feels as though our educational system is entirely geared towards doing rather than learning, and this is ultimately detrimental to learning.

Asked about her experience of ICT training in pre-service primary teacher education, a graduate some years ago reported feeling as though she had been given a stack of “magic colouring” pages (often distributed in French primary classes for arithmetic practice) at the start of the year, had worked steadily through them, and having completed everything successfully, nonetheless had no impression of having learned anything substantive whatsoever at the end of the year. I was reminded of this comment on reading a recent post by Hendrick on resisting fads and gimmicks in the classoom.

My impression is that the managerialisation of education has brought learners, teachers, and teacher educators alike to an almost exclusive focus on box-ticking. We all spend our time completing tasks designed more to show that work has been finished to standard, rather than on the content to be considered, assimilated, or reflected upon.

With respect to learner at the receiving end of classroom instruction, Hendrick (2016) argues against dumbing down by appealing to contemporary youth culture and passing fads:

By insisting that the only way kids can learn is by being distracted into learning, we are offering them a debased view of the process itself

The same writer also contests the conflation of motivation and learning in a 2015 post here, arguing

If [learners] are being motivated to do the types of tasks they already know how to do or focus on the mere performing of superficial tasks at the expense of the assimilation of complex knowledge then the whole enterprise may be a waste of time.

It seems to me that the magic colouring activity corresponds exactly to those two points: the “learner” is simply repeating operations already known to them (in the above illustration, counting to 5), for the dubious reward of an unrelated outcome (Pokemon picture).

In further criticism of death-by-colouring, Hendrick cites a 2015 post by Quigley pointing to research which suggests that student use of highlighters as a revision tool is less effective than other, more reflective methods. Quigley anticipates resistance from teachers reluctant to abandon such ineffectual yet reassuring practices and responds thus:

I have been given feedback by teachers that use highlighters regularly that it is useful for effective organization in MFL; that they work best for lesser able students English; that it makes things stand out more than the humble pen.  My question would be: how do you know?  I can assure you that I am not certain that the answer will be what I expect, far from it. The research may be poppycock when translated to your setting, but if [sic] we won’t know that if we don’t reflect on the evidence and question our methods.

In the university contexts where I teach and train future teachers, many of the questions students ask during lectures are related less to how the course fits in their overall programme of study, or how particular points relate to more general learning objectives, than to specifics of how the course will be graded and what kind of questions can be expected on the exam. Robert Duke has an interesting take on teacher responsibility in this area in his 2009 lecture Why students don’t learn what we think we teach.

It’s interesting that one answer to Quigley’s call for teacher engagement with evidence is one I find appealing: action research (which I’ve written about in Talking the talk and Online support for classroom language teachers, and Masters in Teaching English research project topics). But of course as my trainee teacher noted earlier, without a change of tack, even these projects can be reduced to so much busywork, a coloriage magique, and just one more box to tick on the way out.

 

Duke, R. (2009). Why students don’t learn what we think we teach. Cornell University.

Hendrick, C. (2016). Why fads and gimmicks should be resisted in the classroom. Chronotope,18/09/2016

Hendrick, C. (2015). Engagement: Just because they’re busy, doesn’t mean they’re learning anything. Chronotope, 22/03/2016

Quigley, A. (2015). Why I hate highlighters. The Confident Teacher. 17/01/2015

Whyte, S. (2011). Good questions. Learning and teaching foreign languages.