Updating pedagogy with ITILT: against PPP

Presentation

ITILT 2 Multiplier Event, June 2017

Summary

Language teaching in public educational settings in Europe is subject to pressure from many different sources. Official programmes and curricula, textbooks and other ready-made teaching materials, educational institutions and other stakeholders, as well as teacher educators and researchers all offer different and often conflicting recommendations regarding language teaching in primary and second schools, as well as vocational and higher education settings. Learners must cover a certain part of a larger programme in order to succeed in high-stakes examinations. Textbooks have been purchased and need to be used efficiently. Schools want teachers to participate in class exchanges, and place pressure on teachers to use technology for international collaboration; at the same time, teachers must respect rules regarding internet safety and privacy laws. Educators and researchers generally call for change, for evidence of learning, and for reflective, collaborative, even open practices. All these can prove destabilising as well as time-consuming for teachers. In many ways, European projects such as iTILT, focusing on integrating technology to improve interactive language teaching, can appear to add to, rather than relieve the tensions of everyday classroom practice.
In this presentation, I intend to take a step back from the very practical details of technology integration and language pedagogy to ask a deceptively simple question: why change? What is wrong with the way we traditionally teach languages? Why not stick with the traditional presentation-practice-production (PPP) model which many of us experienced as language learners? After all, many modern textbooks still propose teaching units which Present a particular grammatical structure, provide exercises to Practice the new forms, followed by more open-ended Production activities where learners can test their new skills? Why are newer action-oriented approaches or task-based language (TBLT) considered more effective and more likely to produce confident users of the target language?
This presentation starts with an overview of two European projects: iTILT (LLP 2011-13) and ITILT 2 (Erasmus+ 2014-17). Then I contrast PPP and TBLT approaches, drawing on examples from French teachers of English in the iTILT project at primary, secondary, and university levels to illustrate these differences . A close analysis of the video examples shows the weaknesses of PPP in addressing the complexity of the language learning task facing learners, and suggests TBLT may offer a more flexible and ultimately more effective framework for second language acquisition and learning.

References

Anderson, J. (2016). Why practice makes perfect sense: the past, present and potential future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education. ELTED, 19. PDF
Ellis, R. (2013). Task-based language teaching: Responding to the critics. University of Sydney Papers in TESOL, 8. PDF
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Mobility abroad in teacher education: a virtuous spiral

SPIRAL, School-teacher Professionalisation: Intercultural Resources and Languages, is a European teacher education project which aims to develop intercultural and foreign language competence in pre-service primary teachers (Erasmus+ 2015-18).

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The project

Coordinated by the French International Centre for Pedagogical Studies (CIEP), SPIRAL involves institutions for teacher education in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK. The project partners have designed a learning platform to support trainee teachers who undertake short school placements in a different country.
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The platform provides
  • practical help in making contact with their host schools, and
  • pedagogical support for making the most of this opportunity to develop teaching and intercultural competences.

In each of the three years of the project’s lifetime, 30 pre-service primary teachers (6 from each partner country) make 2-week school visits to another project country. Where possible, the mobility is organised as part of regular teacher training courses.

The learning platform

The online platform has been purpose-built to accommodate participants from the five SPIRAL countries on Moodle, using the project’s own graphic identity. It includes
  • a survey tool
  • a built-in video/audio recorder, and
  • an ePortfolio.

The platform offers a structured sequence of 17 activities designed to help learners before, during, and after their mobility along three dimensions labelled research, practice, and language. Following a self-assessment activity, where participants complete can-do statements related to a common reference framework developed by the project, the primary student-teachers work on the activities with support from a tutor in their home country.

Examples of activities designed for the three dimensions at each stage of the mobility are shown below:

RESEARCH
PRACTICE
LANGUAGE
BEFORE
(10 activities)
read articles on intercultural competence (ICC)
find out about education system in host country
record a video CV for host school
DURING
(3 activities)
explore four Competence Cards (intercultural competences) selected for special emphasis
keep classroom observation notes in relation to each competence
monitor own language and teaching experiences where appropriate
AFTER
(4 activities)
relate own experience to previous ICC reading
write a reflective paper
record a short oral reaction to experience
Student teachers enroll in the learning path corresponding to the host country: a French student going to the Netherlands joins the Dutch path. Instructions are offered in each of the project’s five languages in each path. The activities are identical in each path, with the exception of one webquest specific to each host country. The trainee teachers can collect a variety of media in their own space on the SPIRAL platform (web links, audio, video, text, PDF), organise these into collections (folders) and share whole collections or parts with their home tutors. Host teacher feedback is also expected.

SPIRAL in teacher education

A group of language educators external to the project were invited to a presentation of the project at the University of Alcala for feedback on progress to date.

My impression was very favourable: it’s clear a great deal of thought and effort has gone into the design of online activities. The results appears coherent, well integrated in local SPIRAL contexts, and very relevant to the wider language education community. This is the kind of project that institutions should support through long-term integration into local curricula and programmes, in order to establish its role in intercultural and foreign language teacher education. We know from experience that when modules appear in permanent course catalogues with an appropriate attribution of credits, buy-in by both tutors and trainees is much easier to sustain. And once institutional recognition is assured, generalisation to other institutions across academies, countries, and even at the international level, becomes a real possibility.

Supporting (language) teacher education with mobility

It is hard to resist the temptation to raise a few issues I think are worth considering for a possible SPIRAL 2 and beyond, with the goals of sustainability and normalisation (Bax, 2003) for exploiting mobility in teacher education.

Closed versus open platforms

I confess my heart sinks when I log on to most traditional learning management systems like Moodle. My objections include
  • an uninviting interface where I see only enclosing folder upon enclosing folder containing information to be downloaded and assignments to be completed. The internet’s answer to brutalist architecture;
  • the top-down pedagogical framework: the user cannot take an initiatives, only respond to activities already defined and timetabled in advance;
  • the lack of ownership of any resources added: neither students nor instructors are assured of being able to retrieve work accomplished on the platform, either for their records or to use/share for other purposes.

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While open platforms using free tools obviously have the drawbacks of not providing the privacy and safe space to share that students often need, they do offer more freedom in both the type of resources that can be accessed and the range of activities that can be engaged in. On open platforms, future teachers can learn to use tools they may re-use with their own pupils as their careers progress, and they also have control over what happens to any work they post. Perhaps most importantly, they can interact with one another.
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Tutor-trainee exchange versus group interaction

My second gripe about online delivery of this type of course is related to the first. Because they tend to reflect somewhat conservative views of both web-related technology and pedagogical practice, Moodle-type learning platforms encourage a fairly transmissive view of teaching and learning. The instructor defines the content, plans delivery, and sets assignments to check understanding. The instructor uploads materials for the student to download and digest, the students upload materials for the instructor to download and evaluate, and the instructor posts feedback. Students don’t collaborate either on the input provided by the instructor, or on the output produced by each student.
This format misses opportunities for students to learn from one another, either by collaborating on learning tasks or by providing feedback to one another. The whole burden of supporting learning and assessing it is borne by the instructor alone. This makes it more likely for both sides to become discouraged, since the students have no peer support and the instructor is limited to providing individual feedback.
In courses covering foreign language learning and intercultural understanding, it seems important to include multiple perspectives, making group interaction an obvious asset for both teaching and learning.

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In case of SPIRAL, since the project has a fixed duration and functions essentially as a pilot for a future intercultural/foreign language course, there is neither funding nor staff resources for more interactive modules. But this is a point to consider in any future developments, in my view.

Intercultural learning versus foreign language focus

Alcala city hall displays a portrait of El Empecinado (the Undaunted) who saved the city from Napoleon against the odds, and gave the Spanish language the verb empecinarse (to insist).

My third point concerns the relative importance of intercultural versus foreign language competences. I understand that particularly in primary education, where teachers are responsible for a general curriculum comprising all the core subjects, it is unrealistic to expect very high foreign language proficiency from participants (e.g., CER level C). I also concede that my own linguistic training disposes me to place high value on both language proficiency and linguistic knowledge. But I do feel that to improve the language skills of tomorrow’s citizens we need teachers able to teach foreign languages well, which would imply both having good language skills and knowing how to support classroom foreign language learning. (See recent research by de Bot and colleagues on instructional time and teacher proficiency with very young learners in Dutch schools, references below.)

I feel that we have in many ways abandoned the goal of promoting foreign language acquisition in schools.

Much language teaching is diverted towards culture, to the detriment of actual language learning.
Primary school language teaching, seldom delivered by language specialists, often emphasises human geography and cultural traditions. Secondary school and university programmes generally focus on learning about the target language grammar, as a gateway to the target culture. More recently, intercultural competence, or communicating with individuals from different cultural backgrounds, has taken centre stage. As a linguist, I argue against both approaches.
Intercultural competence is a natural consequence of learning a foreign language, and need not be a specific focus of study.
In learning to comprehend target language speakers, and in turn express themselves even approximately, learners being to equip themselves both to understand communication breakdown and negotiate misunderstandings. And as proficiency develops, the culture of the second language can constitute content (like history, mathematics, or science in CLIL teaching).
The culture of target language speakers can be studied separately, once the language has been acquired to an appropriate level.
No doubt the current focus in language classrooms on cultural and intercultural competence is partly due to the difficulty of actual language learning. Acquisition is a notoriously long and uncertain process which does not lend itself easily to short teacher training programmes (which often also have other, more pressing learning objectives to attain). All the more reason, I would say, to grasp the nettle.
I believe a number of steps can be taken to address the problems of second/foreign language learning and teaching during teacher training.

Experiential modelling

At the very least, our teacher education modules should offer a good model of using the foreign language to communicate. We should provide opportunities for spontaneous exchange, in written or spoken mode, using any of the many synchronous and asynchronous tools now available. We should allow student teachers to try out their perhaps limited linguistic skills in a safe environment, where mistakes can be made and risks taken, risks and errors both being integral to language acquisition. Then they can hit the ground running when they arrive in the host environment.

Collecting teaching resources

We should also encourage student teachers to seize the opportunity of a stay in the target culture to collect resources to be used in future language teaching classes, such as photographs, recordings of native speakers, or cultural artifacts. They should also try and cultivate contacts for future class exchanges. This would remind student teachers that this school placement is not simply a chance to put themselves in their learners’ shoes as low proficiency speakers. It is also a chance to view the host class through their learners’ eyes: what would an eight-year old French child notice about the German classroom? What topics could be explored in future class exchanges? Note that this argument applies to placements where students use English as a lingua franca (e.g., French students working in English in the Netherlands) as well as where they aim to teach the host language (e.g., German future teachers of English in the UK).

Continuing professional development

Finally, any teaching module based on foreign language teaching and learning should provide motivation and resources for ongoing language learning on the part of the future teacher. A placement of two weeks, a month, or a full term in the target culture will in most case suffice only to assure the student teacher of the extent of language practice still to be undertaken if a level of proficiency is to be attained that is truly comfortable for teaching. Upon their return, we need to offer ways to prolong and extend contact with the target language.

Only in this way can we ensure that new generations of teachers have the wherewithal to create genuine opportunities for language acquisition in their classes.

References

Bax, S. (2003). CALL—past, present and future. System, 31(1), 13-28.
De Bot, K. (2014). The effectiveness of early foreign language learning in the Netherlands. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(3), 409-418.
SPIRAL common reference framework PDF
SPIRAL competence cards PDF

Unsworth, S., Persson, L., Prins, T., & De Bot, K. (2014). An investigation of factors affecting early foreign language learning in the Netherlands. Applied Linguistics.

Photos from unsplash, the SPIRAL project site and Twitter feed, or my own.