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17655Re: [dogme] Back in the classroom

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  • M C Johnstone
    Jan 16, 2014
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      Hello NM White,
      Thanks for your reply to the message I posted here yesterday. I agree with you on the distinction between materials and course materials, and had perhaps lost sight of the context of a "Dogme list" which one might assume means "materials free"....    
      When I say "course materials" I mean published course books describing a multi week course of study. I use materials all the time, similar to the ones you describe, mostly culled from Internet sources.
      You mentioned the amount of time required to build systemic understanding of concepts and what we commonly call "critical thinking." My classes are three hours long and there are five of them a week, so I have lots of time to do this type of thing. You may be right that it does not contribute directly to building basic language competency, I think that a capacity for critical thought is essential to literary competency of any description 
      Krashen and others have identified reading as the most important variable in language development among both L1 and L2 learners, so reading isn't really an add-on for language learners. Indeed, in my experience, it is the students who never read who are the ones who never progress beyond a B1 threshold (CEFR) and no amount of workbook activity will move them on.
      So, I think that whatever time we can spare for this type of work is justified, even though it is rarely included in published EFL materials. 
      I enjoyed hearing about your view of language as internalized expert physical performance like martial arts, or baseball. It could be that the same types of neural development is involved in learning both physical and cognitive skills, though cognitive development does obviously involve epiphany which may or may not be present in physical performance. For example, learning to ride a bike requires loss of fear so we are still dealing with more than a physical act. 
      It must be obvious to anyone who speaks a language that they speak it without thinking about it and that excessive analysis of low level performance only gets in the way. But this generally only a problem with novice learners. When we move to more higher order skills, comprehension, composition, rhetoric, stylistics, and so on, deliberate analysis is usually necessary.
      In terms of assessment preparedness - which you mention - in a language testing we do typically ask students to identify a main idea, an inferred meaning, a referent and so on, as well as to provide specific information extracted from a text or a talk. Even identifying a relevant fact requires something beyond a conditioned response.
      But here we are again, discussing how people learn stuff and this is not a question teachers ask.
      We say, "Sally didn't pass" and the reason is because Sally is stupid, lazy, disinterested...   It is rare to hear a teacher say that Sally didn't pass because the materials were incoherent, the explanations were confusing, or the lessons were boring and irrelevant, or the exam was ridiculous. In fact, almost no one ever suggests these things. Not even Sally.
      On Thu, Jan 16, 2014, at 01:00 PM, N. M. White wrote:



      Thank you for an intelligent and thoughtful response to my last post and for introducing me to the term Design Language, which I think is a very apt description as well as one that formalizes more clearly the idea that I had been trying to express.


      In my first reply (to Diarmuid that is) I referred to Alan Maley's suggestions for activities involving short texts (by which I meant his book 'Short and Sweet') – I've just realized you are probably familiar with it already, but just in case not, there he lists a series of principles (12 I think) which provide a setting for and a way into meaningful communication and closer engagement with the L2 (an activity also sometimes known as 'a lesson'). I guess that is not a dissimilar concept to a design language.


      Course materials are not evil, but neither are they necessary: useful luxury or useless bauble, take your pick. Which ever it is, good teaching never depends on them, and if good teaching is our goal, then we need to talk more about that and less about materials.


      As a teacher, I do personally rely on materials quite a lot. In fact, a very great deal now I think about it. However, by materials here I mean a resource or, if you like, an artifact of some description that is either from the L2 world or one from the L1 world which is likely to be interesting enough in itself to provoke communication among the students (learners) and possibly also myself.


      By materials, then, I mean anything from an audio or video, a magazine article, a Facebook meme, an advert, a page from a journal article etc. but it can also (admittedly much less often) include random found objects, drawings, paintings etc.; and it can also include materials produced by the students – a poster, a text, an mp3 recording of a dialogue they have created and so on. And yes, sometimes, that does also include materials and content from whatever published course book the students may have been required to buy or use. I think an important point is that students are sometimes attracted to the books and can be disappointed if they are not used. To that extent, a teacher should at least consider using them – though how and under what circumstances is still a negotiable point of the lesson / course.


      What I'm about to say is a bit flowery, but another way of looking at it is to say that materials – as a I see them – are something like a territory, an alternate L2 reality to be explored and investigated and/or a specimen to be looked at, thought about, engaged with.


      I have lately been coming round to the idea that language is actually physical and motor ability more than a mental one, one that has more to do with coordination than cognition, one that is more analogous to learning a martial art like judo than a cerebral activity such as learning the structure of a sonnet.


      I haven't fully though that idea through so it probably sounds a bit kooky but in light of that I was interested – by way of contrast – in the very considered acts of reflection you encourage your students to do:


      I give these to students and tell them to do only the exercises they find interesting Once they do, or do not do stuff from the worksheets, I ask them to say why they did this one or why they did not do that one. What use is it? How could we possibly benefit from doing this?


      I think this is a fascinating basis for an activity, one which I would very much like to have a go at when I can find a suitable opportunity. I am at least as interested to try it out as part of my growing suspicion that metacognitive activities may not be as effective as simple pragmatic 'doing'.


      Having said that, I was both surprised and sorry to hear that your colleagues feel you are 'undermining' them in doing this; that seems very disappointing to me as experimentation (or heuristics in Alan Maley's terms) is an essential part of teaching (or learning), certainly for languages.


      That said, in most places where I have taught I would wonder about the time it takes to introduce that kind of reflection activity into the classroom, i.e. my initial feeling is that it would take quite a bit of time to acculturate learners to that more reflective and self-aware approach to studying – would there therefore be time to meet syllabus and/or the assessment requirements? Probably the answer to that question is also a matter of attitude and state of mind (mine in this case).


      Nonetheless it sounds something very much worth trying and potentially very rewarding for the students.

      On 15 January 2014 19:00, M C Johnstone <mcjsa@...> wrote:

      Hello NM White,
      Thanks for your interesting comments about learning teaching. I think it is helpful for us as teachers to reflect on our own experiences as students. Reading your message I began to wonder how I learned to do what I do.
      I agree with you about barefoot teachers but I have seen awful teaching from book bound folks as well, and these have not always been novice practitioners. I would not say that the one is worse than the other. As Dr Seuss says, every one is like another. 
      Reflecting on my own experience, I believe that I knew nothing about teaching until I was able to focus on learning. Once I did that I was able to ask myself honestly what people want and what they need and admit that I could not answer either question. I began to think critically about what I was doing and why I was doing it. Without a book, I had no one to defer to, or to depend on. No one other than myself, and my students. So, I asked them. I started saying that I did not know. I said that I needed their help.
      I still use materials - and I use them deliberately. For instance, the publishers of NG Life have posted grammar worksheets on their website. These worksheets are aligned to the course books and are built like Raymond Murray's books, with succinct explanations on one side and exercises of rising difficulty on the other. I give these to students and tell them to do only the exercises they find interesting.
      Once they do, or do not do stuff from the worksheets, I ask them to say why they did this one or why they did not do that one. What use is it? How could we possibly benefit from doing this? I tell them that 30 years of research has failed to uncover any benefit in explicit grammar teaching on foreign language learning - so why are we teaching it? Did it ever help you?
      Colleagues say, "You are undermining the materials, the institution, and us!" Maybe they're right, but I was not employed to sing praises for any of that.
      They rightly recognise that these are not the questions of a teacher: they are questions of a learner. If you are learning something, you want to do it quickly and efficiently. If you are an autodidact, you do not spend your time wasting your time. You are in charge of your own learning... and 90 percent of the time, we are in charge of our own learning. This is the natural state of humanity, a species that seems to be created only to learn, forever learning. 
      Now, it is unnatural for humans - or any other animal but a dog - to be taught, but when we are taught, we trust our teachers.  Our teachers MUST know what to choose: how to know what is good for our learning and how to avoid what is bad. As students we suspend disbelief. We become credulous. We are disarmed and slain.
      It is important to be a learner and not a teacher.
      You talked about your own teaching, and you said that you do not get flushed because you have a number of loose outlines to suit particular contexts. I think we all develop a number of conceptual frameworks that we can deploy as needed. In a more formalized system, we might think of these outlines as elements of a design language. Design languages include a small number concepts, frameworks, explanations, and processes that can be assembled in an infinity of ways to fit any problem. Design languages resemble natural languages which are small sets of rule bound symbols that can convey any thought a human mind can think.
      A skilled teacher should be able to draw on such a design language to build an environment that is commodious to learning. The skilled teacher is a learning speaker who suggests and promotes activity that leads to learning. The outcome and product of learners may not be predicted by anyone, not even learners themselves. That is the nature of deep learning. Learning is experience that leads to a change that can be measured. It can be measured, but not predicted.
      It is quite impossible to do such learning using linear course materials which unfold predictably, like a fairy tale, to a predetermined and happy resolution: in pedagogical terms, to an intended outcome or product. So I suggest that teacher training start to take account of teaching as an art and science that is rooted in learning. Dogme is, I think, a first step down that road.
      Course materials are not evil, but neither are they necessary: useful luxury or useless bauble, take your pick. Which ever it is, good teaching never depends on them, and if good teaching is our goal, then we need to talk more about that and less about materials.
      On Wed, Jan 15, 2014, at 06:57 PM, N. M. White wrote:


      While I think it likely that we do have diverging views on learning and teaching, though I have a feeling they may not be quite so far apart as it seems to you.

      I accept your objection to the use of the word 'swan' but my intention was not to insult experienced teachers (a group in which rightly or wrongly I include myself) so much as to show how an experienced teacher can appear from the point of view of a novice or inexperienced teacher.

      As you say yourself:

      I am one of those experienced teachers who does not use books … what I do does not depend on published or pre-processed materials. What I do changes from semester to semester, from year to year. I never do the same thing twice … I see course books as learners see them and frankly, I have no time, and no use for 90 percent of them.

      The point I was trying to make is that you are in a position to do what you do, amongst other things such as commitment, because of your considerable experience.

      That kind of experience is not going to be available to others and for them course materials will very likely be extremely useful.

      While I agree with your criticisms of CELTA and Trinity TESOL certificates (and any others like it), I would question the order of cause and effect implied here.

      Firstly, as you probably know, the overwhelming majority of teachers are non-native speakers who have often had training of considerably more than 4 weeks. The comments they make go a long way to shaping those course books – or generally that's the case, though apparently not where LG Life is concerned (as I said, I recognize the title but have never used it so can't comment).

      Secondly, the CELTA, TESOL etc. courses were changed in response to what was happening once the majority of teachers hit classrooms overseas. On my own CELTA in 1996, the emphasis was very much on planning and creating our own lessons and not at all on how best to get use out of a coursebook.

      This was fine, of course, until someone who had spent six hours planning a 25 minute lesson was suddenly faced with a timetable of 22+ contact hours and then, for most people, the whole thing went to pot. With that in mind, I think the solution – to focus on how to get the best from the coursebook – was a sensible one.

      The downside of that of course is when you may now find novice teachers who think that all teaching consists of is processing packaged content – something you are right to criticize (IMO).

      On the other hand of course, I have observed lessons by 'barefoot' teachers so to speak that have been absolutely atrocious so not using any kind of coursebook can – in some cases – be a lot less preferable to using one. Though again, it depends on course, school, teacher, aims, students, etc.

      There is nothing inherently virtuous about not using materials (teacher-made, learner-made or published) just as there is nothing inherently villainous about using them.

      Just one last point, this is almost certainly my fault for using the phrase, but you have a very different understanding of 'ready made' from the one I had in mind.

      I simply meant that – for example – when put on standby, I don't necessarily get flustered in the way that a less experienced teacher might on account of my experience and having a number of loose outlines for lessons that can suit a variety of different contexts. That I have such outlines at all is a result of previous experiences – It was not meant to suggest that I have an off-the-peg-one-size-fits-all-they-have-to-do-it-whether-they-like-it-or-not approach.

      I would say what I do depends on the students, primarily, and not the materials – as I said before, I can sometimes be baffled or even irked by the amount of ire heaped on published materials when at the end of the day it is just one of many elements that make up a course of education and by no means it is even the most important one.

      On 15 January 2014 14:58, M C Johnstone <mcjsa@...> wrote:

      NM White (and Diarmuid) said,

      the grammar is not relevant, the lexical focus is random


      I'm not sure quite what you mean – in what sense can the grammar not be relevant? 


      Referring to NG Life series, it is possible for grammar to become irrelevant when scope and sequence of presented items is random, when it does not refer to any recognizable style or theory of grammar,and when descriptions of grammatical structures or features are  idiosyncratic: in the NGL universe, for instance, there is an English tense / structure called "present continuous aspect."  
      I do not mind idiosyncratic descriptions so long as they form part of a coherent and well described system. Otherwise, they are just BS.
      This takes me to something else you said, that I also thought was very interesting:

      The most searing criticisms of course books are largely unfair because they generally come from the most experienced and qualified professionals, not the least experienced and novice ones. Teachers and teacher trainers who have many, many years of experience and who, in contrast to inexperienced teachers, can confidently swan into a class they've never seen before and do it brilliantly drawing on the wealth of 'ready made' lessons that are already in their head. 

      Poor teacher preparation is partially attributable to an industry-standard teaching qualification that can be earned through only four weeks of full-time instruction and several hours of supervised teaching practice. This initial training focuses on how to write "lesson plans" around packaged course materials, keep records and manage classrooms. You, too, refer to scripted lessons when you say experienced teachers "can confidently swan into a class ... drawing on a wealth of 'ready made' lessons that are already in their head.
      I cannot speak for anyone else but I am one of those experienced teachers who does not use books. However, I never swan and I do not have a head packed with "ready made" lessons primed to deliver at the drop of a hat.
      When I am faced with a class I've never seen it takes me several weeks just to get to know them. Once I know them, then I can decide what I need to do to help them move from here to there - assuming they want to move anywhere. But I cannot do this if am restricted to off the shelf lessons.
      Perhaps we just have different views of learning and teaching. That's fine with me and I do not fault you in any way. But, what I do does not depend on published or pre-processed materials. What I do changes from semester to semester, from year to year. I never do the same thing twice. I see myself as an expert learner in a room full of expert learners. I see course books as learners see them and frankly, I have no time, and no use for 90 percent of them.
      Effective teacher training would aim to give people the skills they need to foster learning, not the skills they need to deliver content. 

      N.M. White: ELT Materials developer, researcher, tutor


      N.M. White: ELT Materials developer, researcher, tutor

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