e=mc2

One of the tougher variables to account for when seeking out the best avenues to learning is motivation.

Motivation is talked about everywhere. Conference abstracts promise new ways of motivating students. Publishers sell their textbooks with new and improved tasks or culturally relevant material. Teaching offices are filled with lamentations regards the lack of motivation in the classroom along with plenty of prescriptive advice from colleagues.

Students need to be, at least partially, intrinsically motivated to successfully learn languages.

This post will argue, however, that motivation alone will not do the trick. Motivation, like a delicate flower, will bloom and wither away or be crushed without the appropriate care (or input). I myself have attempted to learn a number of languages and had all sorts of intrinsic motivation to do so. Each time ended with a whimper and frustration.

In my own failed attempt to learn language, I often lacked direction, which (by the way) is where a good teacher comes in really handy. Who knew?

I also lacked any way of interpreting the contextual nuances of the language I was attempting to learn. As any teacher knows all too well, Google translate is not yet meet the standards of the Babel Fish that helped Arthur Dent navigate the galaxy with his trusty towel.

As Google translate proves, understanding the nuts and bolts of a language (vocabulary and grammar) does not bring forth useful or often even understandable communication.

Considering that linguistic knowledge alone is insufficient, what is a teacher to do? To begin, it is critical to understand grammar as more than mere form. Diane Larsen-Freeman has a very useful article titled ‘Teaching Grammar’ in which she describes how linguistic grammar can be taught via a three dimensional understanding of grammar as: form, meaning and use.  Rather than merely focusing students on grammatical form, Larsen-Freeman advises that students be exposed to the meaning and social contexts in which different grammatical elements are utilized.

This idea of a semiotic understanding of language was developed by Michael Halliday’s. Halliday’s systemic functional linguistic (SFL) model of language sees language as a system. By seeing language as ‘a meaning-making system through which we interactively shape and interpret our world and ourselves’, (Derewianka & Jones, 2012) the systemic functional model demands far more of learners than merely becoming acquainted with the pieces of a language.

Context is critical. In order to understand linguistic context an interlocutor needs to understand the channel of communication (mode), who is involved and how that affects linguistic choice (tenor), and what is happening in the interaction and how the external environment may be playing into it (field) ((Derewianka & Jones, 2012). Considering the fact that mode, tenor and field are constantly shifting in the real world, how might a language learner possibly begin to account for the seemingly infinite variables that may affect their choices?

I believe that this complexity is exactly what feeds learner motivation. Teachers need to help learners lean into the challenge. Learners need an appropriate guide that can help dissect and analyze linguistic encounters. By not shying away from the complexity and assisting my learners in disassembling the language they encounter, I have found engagement in the language learning process far easier to cultivate and maintain.

Engagement = Motivation * Context 2

ESL & EFL

In an ESL world, finding meaningful interactions and experiences for students is a bit easier. The EFL world, however, is a far different story. EFL students learn English as an abstract concept. Teachers, parents, school administrators and governments impose English on them. Often this occurs without students ever really understanding why they are learning the language. The amount of times I have been forced to ask some variant of “Why do you want to learn English” and heard the canned response (almost verbatim – across two continents and multiple age groups) “because English is a global language that I need to blah blah blah” is depressing.

If students don’t know why they are learning, how will they maintain whatever motivation they have? If learners are working with decontextualized and meaningless linguistic knowledge how can they be expected to engage and succeed in the difficult and complex process of language learning?

One of the most difficult tasks (especially) for a native speaking English teacher in the EFL world who does not speak the learners L1) is communicating effectively and gathering enough input from the learners to know how to connect their language learning with their lives outside the classroom. If I do not know the how or why or what about the English speaking world my students are interested in, how can I expect them to stay engaged with such a process as mentally taxing as language learning?

In an excellent interview titled “How Teachers Can See Students’ Identities as Learning Strengths“, Dr. Christopher Emdim talks about his idea of ‘reality pedagogy’. He states that, “the fundamental principle of co-teaching in reality pedagogy is that the neoindigenous student is the expert on the best way to deliver information to others who are part of their culture.” Reading this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my friend Alex Grevett (who has a wonderful blog that can be found here) and his 2012 presentation entitled “Make Your Students the Experts“. In other words, hand over the classroom to the learners and let them use the language being worked with to explain and/or discuss matters of personal interest to them and their lives.

Mind Map 2.0

Another way of working with meaningfulness and context is to think about content. What will the learners need the language for in their immediate and daily lives? What are their goals and interests that might lead to motivating them to learn now for the future?

The picture to the left is the result of a conceptualization exercise I did prior to beginning a course. I took what I knew (generally) about the students I had worked with at my school in the past. I then envisaged a window. I pictured myself as one of my students. How might they see the English world.

Home became a metaphor for the comfort students feel in their own language and culture. The window to the ‘English World’ outside became a passage through which they had to navigate the multiple stakeholder demands of their education, as well as an indicator of the skills they would need to successfully immigrate to ‘the English World’ on the other side of the window.

The ‘English World’ included everything I knew that interested my former students about the English World outside. At the moment, I teach only male students, so football and cars are always dominant and popular themes. Twitter is a large and ever present influence in their daily lives. As is TV and movies, travel, future employment, family obligations, etc.

By completing this exercise I had a platform from which I could draw meaningful content. I also had a good idea of how much more I wanted/needed to know about my students!

Knowing what pupils are interested in is critical to making the language presented to students meaningful, thus providing a reason to be motivated to learn it. Further, being aware of the contextual scenarios students will or might encounter provides the necessary information to help pupils develop pragmatic understanding (i.e. what are the appropriate [or less-than-appropriate] linguistic choices available to them when confronted with such scenarios).

When students are provided with content that is meaningful and the contextual understanding necessary to make informed choices, their engagement with their learning is usually more sustainable.

 

e=mc2

 

 

the provisional nature of the self

“A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything that we saw in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage of discovery, the only real rejuvenating experience, would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is” (Proust, 1933).

My perception of the reality of I is both self-driven and socially constructed through contextualized life experience. Being at least partially socially constructed, my perception of I cannot ascertain aspects of self that are hidden from me – hidden both in the perceptions of others and in the void of the unknown that is hidden both to myself and to others.

The Johari Window

Being inherently subjective, self-reflections cannot serve to illuminate this gap: they are ‘clothed’ in the same senses that drove my initial perceptions.

Further frustrating this search for who I really am is the temporal nature of the I, which constitutes a dynamism and complexity in continual flux. So being, the finish line in the pursuit of our ‘true’ selves is perpetually out-of-reach, a thought that can lead one to see the endeavour as fruitless. I would argue though, that it is the search itself that provides the reasoning for continuance.

In conducting the search for my ‘true’ self I must seek to gain some insight into the universes of those in which my socially constructed self coalesces. Partially seeing myself through others eyes helps to correct for the subjectivity bias’ of my own perceptions.

Accessing bits and pieces of the ‘Blind Self’ sheds light on the perceptive universes of the other, and brings in to sharper focus the reality of the ‘open self’. Through this parallaxic research comes greater understanding of who I provisionally was, at some point in time and within a defined context. It also brings greater understanding of the other present at that time.

As a teacher, greater awareness of self leads to a more informed decision making process as the perpetual search consistently raises up, questions, and challenges the values, beliefs, and experiential understandings that guide my thinking.

As an EFL teacher, this greater awareness serves to come some way in alleviating potential misperceptions and misunderstandings of the resident culture and society that partially define the students I teach. In undergoing the struggle to find my own ‘true’ self I consequently discover aspects of the universes of others, which helps define the questions a teacher poses in order to make better decisions.

Considering the provisional and complex nature of a single individuals understanding of self, a teacher may be best advised to “focus on wholes, relationships, open systems, and environments…seeking out patterns and phenomena that emerge from the multi-dimensional and dynamic interactions of the classroom” (Cochran Smith 2014).

Through the prism of complexity theories, a teacher can begin to take stock of the complex whole of the classroom, which is more than the sum of its constituent parts. Reflecting on the patterns and phenomena that become evident through the use of complexity theories helps guide a teacher’s decision-making; creating a more defined path to greater learning opportunities for one’s students.

Effective teaching, I posit, is best achieved through the relentless pursuit of the answer to the question, who am I? Armed with a perpetually updated sense of who I am allows a teacher ‘see’ with greater effect, helping to illuminate the patterns and phenomena of the complex system of the classroom – the key source data on which we rely.

 

Cochran-Smith, M., Ell, F., Grudnoff, L., Ludlow, L., Haigh, M., & Hill, M. (2014). When complexity theory meets critical realism: a platform for research on initial teacher education. Teacher Education Quarterly, 41(1), 105.

Pippin, R. (2005). The persistence of subjectivity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Proust, M. (1993). The Guermantes way. New York: Modern Library.

takeaways

This post is dedicated to (a very few of) the books/articles/presentation that have facilitated a fantastic amount of genuine (Tony Gurr style) LEARNing for me this past summer. LEARNing which has made me eager to get back into the classroom and continue my personal LEARNing journey through the practice of teaching and reflecting critically.

The following sources of learning are followed by short summaries of my personal learning from each.

Donald Freeman’s presentation on teacher development 

July 2014

Freeman’s presentation was phenomenal and rich. He spoke of teacher development, specifically how content is defined in a TESOL classroom. Thanks to this presentation I have found a way to clearly define some of the fuzzy thoughts that have rolled around my head since my career began. As I have learned well this summer, making what is tacit, explicit is a critical skill (a skill this blog is meant to assist me with).

Instead of coming to class with a suitcase full of language, I try to bring an empty suitcase (Freeman’s metaphor). I am then prepared to take that suitcase and close it around content autonomously chosen by learners. I want to take that content and manipulate it in order to orient learner attention to the form, meaning, use of language. Skills involved in these tasks include: using information garnered from interaction with and among students to design/provide engaging contexts, highlighting the pragmatic qualities of use and implications of intonation, matching learner needs with course requirements, analyzing the usefulness of learner errors and adjusting tasks to meet the needs of learner, persistence in requesting feedback. When learners lose engagement with content, change the content by mining learner output and explicitly requesting feedback from learners.

—–Find openness to question self

“Social Identity, Investment and Language Learning” (Norton Pierce 1997)

Norton Pierce produced a stellar piece of research which really helped inform my thoughts surrounding learner identity and it’s effect on language learning. The author here convincingly reconceptualizes current second language acquisition (SLA) theories conceptions of the individual.

A binary view of learner motivation is inadequate when the multi-faceted and fluctuating nature of identity is understood.

“confusion arises because artificial distinctions are drawn between the individual and the social, which lead to arbitrary mapping of particular factors on either the individual or the social, with little rigorous justification”

Thanks to understanding found in this article I now hope to find new ways of facilitating learner investment in their learning journeys by helping them acquire tools needed to enter and maintain conversation, namely by focusing on increasing phatic and pragmatic competence. It is my theory that if these skills are honed, learners begin to feel they own the language they use. That is when the magic happens.

“Going Beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching” (Cook 1999)

Cook was instrumental in helping me make sense of my thoughts surrounding English as a lingua franca.

A few snapshots of my notes:

– The native speaker is not a monolith

– The native speaker norm intimidates learners

– Considerations of learner mulit-competency should be a component of task/lesson creation

I’ve always considered unattainable goals demoralizing and agree with Cook in believing we should redefine the Native Speaker/Non-native Speaker paradigm as L1/L2 users of language. Each user of the language owns their own version of it. Learner goals should reflect learner need and context.

“selections from the work of Earl Stevick” (2015)

Stevick was perhaps the most enjoyable of resources I encountered this summer. His ideas on the roles of the teacher and learner were very enlightening. If you haven’t yet encountered his work, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What I pulled from the first two chapters of this book:

– if what reinforces your self image contradicts/detracts from mine, mine is threatened

– the stakes in any social encounter are high

– deep experiences draw more energy from our “world of meaningful action” and in turn help to shape that world

– critical self plays a negative role when the performing self fails to meet expectations

– Students need to know that choices offered them fit into the teachers overall plan and that they are not presented with them out of teacher weakness

Reading Stevick has helped me better define how to find a holistic understanding to language teaching. His ideas on teaching and the classroom have provoked an immense amount of personal reflection and have helped to orient my attention to aspects of teaching that I had previously been blind to. If I recommended one person to read, it would be Earl Stevick.

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It was a remarkable summer and these tidbits don’t come close to highlighting all the wonderful resources I encountered (some of which I hope to cover in future posts).

 

 

 

 

#edtech, star trek and the matrix

So #edtech is a big deal lately.

From what I can tell, #edtech is the idea of using technology in the classroom. There are all kinds of thoughts and opinions about different technologies usefulness and effectiveness to student learning.

Some argue for full tech engagement, others shy away completely. I’ve heard voices inquire about where we educators are supposed to find the time to add another layer to our classes. Who finances all this tech?

There are arguments that say #edtech can help the environment. There are rebuttals to these. There are studies that make one claim or another on any and all arguments.

In the end, there is large disagreement on whether or not we (educators) need to jump on the tech band wagon.

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missing the forest for the trees

I have a hard time engaging in this debate. From my humble point of view, it misses the point.

I would argue that the job of a modern English language teacher is to help students navigate their world through the medium of English. It isn’t about using technology to teach students, it’s about teaching students how to understand, decipher and decode English when using technology.

If looked at through this prism, teaching with technology becomes just another avenue in which to connect with our students. It also helps us connect our students with the greater English speaking world. By preparing them with the skills and tools necessary to interact in the digital age, we better prepare them to communicate successfully in a medium that THEY WILL UTILIZE whether we teachers are comfortable with the technology or not.

The world never stops moving forward. We get older, our students don’t.

Some technology is certainly useful for SOME student learning, just as (and I dislike saying it) some textbooks are useful. Bad technology is as bad as a bad book.

It’s the teachers job to keep up to date and make the determination of what will be useful for their students.

the borg

the Borg

That said, #edtech is certainly not about to replace the need for teachers or face to face contact with ones peers. That won’t happen until we all turn into the Borg.

If we see our job as helping our students navigate the world they find themselves in outside the classroom, we certainly shouldn’t keep technology out of the classroom.

Regardless of the argument, the fact is that technology is here, has always been here, and will continue to be. The challenge for us is that technology is changing faster than ever. This fact does not necessitate that we need to become techie superstars. It does, however, mean the importance of building relationships with our students becomes even greater. For if we don’t, we cannot hope to keep up with all the ways they communicate, and if that happens, the effectiveness with which we teach deteriorates.

Technology is a resource. Teachers need to understand how students use technology to communicate if we want to better aid them in navigating the world of today and tomorrow.

red pill blue pillThere is no technology prescription. It’s not an all or nothing choice between the red pill and the blue pill.

Remaining flexible to our students needs and working to better understand the necessary technology to better serve those needs is what we should be focusing on. If we do that we are assured to remain relevant to our students.

There will be a place for a good old pen and paper for some time to come. There will always be a place for face to face contact. AND, technology will always be an important aspect of our lives.

We may not yet BE the Borg, but they are right about one thing.

Resistance is futile.

confidently going beyond the textbook

As a teacher there infinite suggestions, requests, demands, proposals, responsibilities (etc) placed upon you. It’s an immense job to do, hence why it is consistently enthralling, inspiring and motivating.  It’s also why new teachers can find it immensely challenging and intimidating.

This intimidation leads new teachers to see their textbooks as crutches. The textbook leads the teacher who leads the students. The textbook manages student learning. The teacher decides how fast to move through that learning.

I find this depressingly formulaic and dull.

I follow an axiom I learned from somewhere – A great teacher is a good thief (ie, a good teacher sees what works with others and steals the ideas for use in their own classroom). I am always on the look out and thinking of ways to twist or change exercise to make them more engaging for my students.

Breaking the norm in a Korean classroom has not always been easy, but after three years I can assuredly say that it is doable.

One way I seek out new ideas to thieve is through reflective practice meetings. They are a treasure trove of ideas and experiences from teachers of all sorts of backgrounds and classroom contexts.

For our most recent RP meeting I planned on recycling one of the very first topics I did as an RP facilitator – Our teaching toolbox. (You can read about this meeting through this previous blog post)

Meeting with 5 fellow teachers, we began talking about how we wanted to step away from what we have always done in class. Stuck in a rut is a phrase I heard with nods of agreement all around. “Fantastic!” I thought, this fits so nicely with my toolbox topic idea. Huzzah!!!

However, that excitement quickly turned to confusion and a tinge of frustration. As much as I prodded my participants, none of them came up with much from their toolbox- aside from computer, markers, textbook/workbook. I gave examples of some tools in my toolbox and how I used them. They were not impressed. One participant actively told me the myriad of ways my ideas can not work in a Korean classroom (forgetting the fact that I have only ever taught in a Korean context). I asked them if they could think of anything they could use to do what they do in class a little differently. Bupkis.

At our break time I sat and thought awhile. I’m still not sure what exactly was the issue. Perhaps I presented the idea poorly. Perhaps their minds needed more time to adapt away from their preconceived “Korean classroom context”.

Afterwards I came home slightly dejected. Never had I left a RP meeting feeling…unfulfilled.

In the past few weeks I have continued thinking about this meeting and how I could have more successfully steered our discussion. I think I might bring up the following.

Teaching in Korea is difficult. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. However, the context of a Korean classroom does NOT have to define YOUR classroom. There IS a way to integrate autonomy and fun into your students learning while still achieving the objectives set out in the curriculum/course book. In order to do so we need to remember a few things.

1. Failure is OK. It is OK for the students. It is OK for the teacher. Nothing worth much of anything is ever done correctly the first time. So, let’s stop worrying about what our students/peers/administrators think of us every minute in the classroom. Make mistakes.  It opens a space for your students to do the same.

2. Once the space for safe experimentation is established students will find what used to be the chore of production (ie speaking and writing) to be a fun, flexible and freeing exercise. To see students honestly expressing themselves in a different language,  after years of restriction and critiques of each and every flaw produced, is a joy. It becomes a joy for you as the teacher, but more importantly students find the joy in learning.

3. When students find joy in what they do they often desire to keep doing it, even without the leadership of the teacher. This is called autonomy. It is a good marvelous thing!

4. No textbook topic can match the vividness of memories. No textbook exercise can hold the same meaning as a personal experience. Use the students, and your own, lives to your advantage. They are a wealth of usable knowledge, and they’re keen to share it (whether or not they will ever admit that fact to you!). Additionally, when you do this you help students connect what they are learning to why and how it is useful to them in their lives. They start to learn for themselves rather than for the next test.

5. Textbooks aren’t all bad. I’m not saying that we should all be rebels and throw our textbooks out the window. I don’t believe all teachers need to “stick it to the man” and that such. Textbooks ARE a tool. They are ONE tool. Not every project needs a hammer. Not every task can be completed with a screwdriver. As a teacher, it is your job to know which tool is needed and when to use it. A wide array of quality tools is the best way for you to enter the classroom confidently. If you’re confident with the tools at your disposal, you’ll find yourself ever less reliant on that hammer (ie- textbook) and more willing to utilize the best tool for each circumstance that arises.

These are my humble suggestions to my fellow peers in the Korean ELT world (and beyond). I have found them to be quite helpful over the first three years of my career. I hope they prove useful for you as well.

**Side note- apologies for yet another listy type blog post. I know there are myriads doing the rounds on blogs these days.

let’s be realistic

In the latest of what may seem a never ending line of “duh aha moments” I’d like to remember that being realistic with time, goals and myself is critical to a successful lesson/classroom/life.

During my short career in teaching I have often found class a struggle. I was prepared, but always wanted more. I wanted more from my students in terms of production, attitude and focus. I wanted more from co-teachers (ie participating on any level). Most of all I wanted more of myself. I’m a very demanding individual, as many in my life would certainly be shocked to know.

Now, what kind of teacher doesn’t set realistic expectations. John, you fool, teaching 101 page 2.

For any teacher that may stumble upon this in the beginning of their career, let me say this. Easier said than done.

Before I figured out how to be realistic I had to know myself, my lesson, my class, my students (yes, the previous two are different) AND perhaps most importantly, I had to practice. I had to practice a lot. I’m still practicing and will always continue.

A class will lack full effectiveness if I expect too much, pack in too many activities/tasks, or set goals too high or too low. There is no one answer for any of these. Indeed the answers change by class, day, school, weather, etc.

I guess what I’d like to tell/remind the me of three years ago/3 years from now is that as a teacher the best thing I can do is to reflect, adjust and experiment. Professional footballers have stinkers from time to time and so will I (and you too reader- hi mom).

The last thing I ever want to do as a teacher, and as a human being, is to stagnate.

Never let feelings of naiveté or embarrassment dissuade you from asking questions and seeking different perspectives.

Demand the most from yourself and recognize when you’ve done that. Even if success wasn’t to be had on the day.

hot potato

One fun way I’ve found to get my students to focus on form is to play hot potato.

You know, that game we play as kids where no one wants to be the man with the ball when the buzzer sounds?

Example:

My students have a very hard time forming questions. They mix tenses, swap verb and subject, forget the subject, forget the verb, pretty much every way one could mash up a question they manage to do it.

So, what I do is get them in a circle. I take my trusty tennis ball and begin. Something like…

1) Seung Min, what have you eaten today?

Then I bounce the ball to Seung Min.

2) Seung Min repeats the time, then chooses a student, and asks a question.

today. Min Ji, Where have you traveled this year?

3) Min Ji repeats the whole process.

this year. John, Who have you spoken to in this class?

We play with the timer set for a minute. The student with the ball in their hand when it buzzes is out. When the group has a winner you can play again, or change the verb tense you’re focusing on. In the beginning I hold my hand up until the student gets the form for their question correct. They aren’t allowed to pass until my hand goes down.

Once my students get good enough (It takes awhile. It seems to be extremely difficult for a surprisingly long time) I switch the tenses after every one minute clip. Or students can choose their own tense and the student following cannot repeat that tense.

The game focuses the students on their form. It also lets them hear that form repeatedly without being dull. By having students state the time in their question they begin to understand the relationship between time and verb tense. The repetition of time also requires students to listen carefully.

All in all, it is a highly variable “game” that a T can do as a recycling activity, ice breaker, review, or pretty much whatever they like.