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The Learning Style Debate

10 Feb

I am sceptical about learning styles.  Much is made of them, CELTA and DELTA trainees are required to learn about them and to plan their lessons taking into account activities that cater to the visual, auditory or kinaesthetic sensibilities of their students, or at least to show evidence of having intended to….  Personally, I don’t doubt that people learn in different ways or have different preferences for processing information, but what I’m not sure about and have yet to see any evidence confirming, is whether changing my teaching to cater for these various styles actually has a positive effect.  Which is why I was very interested to read Katie Lepi’s “The Myth of Learning Styles” on the Edudemic blog, which presents the arguments against.  The fantastic infographic from her piece is reproduced below.

teflgeek learning styles

The original learning styles model came from the work of David Kolb, who, in the seventies, first posited his experiential learning cycle and the subsequent learning styles that could be discerned in it.  There then followed a five year argument in the journals as to the validity of his approach with many eminent academics pointing out there was no evidence for his claims.  These days, his ideas seem fairly mainstream though I suspect the way they are viewed academically depends on which field the academic concerned ploughs for a living.

In essence, Kolb borrows from earlier work by Lewin who posits a cycle :  Abstract Conceptualization – Active Experimentation – Concrete Experience – Reflective Observation and back again.  The learning process, it is argued, follows this cycle:  you have an idea, you try it out, you get your data and you decide whether it worked or not and what to do next.

Kolb then identifies four different learning styles, which rely on aspects of these cycles for their learning, where these aspects are divided into (a) how we do things and (b) how we think about things.

  • Divergers (Concrete Experience / Reflective Observation)
  • Assimilators (Abstract Conceptualization / Reflective Observation)
  • Convergers (Abstract Conceptualization / Active Experimentation)
  • Accommodators (Concrete Experience / Active Experimentation)

On a personal note – this seems somewhat unsatisfying to me and appears to unnecessarily bracket people in certain categories, surely these are better seen as learning skills that individuals can draw on at any given point, which are underwritten by the learning concepts described in the cycle?  I write this as someone who has clearly not read much of Kolb’s original writings….

Honey & Mumford, basing their work on that of Kolb, adapted these descriptions into, for want of a better term, “plain English”.

  • Activists are Accommodators
  • Reflectors are Divergers
  • Theorists are Assimilators
  • Pragmatists are Convergers

Activists are doers – they learn by experimenting and trying things out, often without considering the consequences.  They tend to have relatively short attention spans, quickly getting bored and moving on to the next thing.

Reflectors are watchers – they learn by observing the environment, gathering as much data as they can and then drawing their own conclusions.  They tend to be more cautious and to let other people make most of the running before making their own opinions known.

Theorists are thinkers – they learn by formulating a theory and then by integrating any data they have into that theory – either proving the theory or discarding it in favour of a replacement.  They prefer objective data and tend to take a logical approach to things – they can be quite rigid and dismissive of anything that doesn’t fit their theories.

Pragmatists are, unsurprisingly, practical.  They like to see what works and what doesn’t and are keen to try new ideas out and see what happens.  They love looking for new ideas to try out and tend to be more down to earth and problem solvers.

Where I think the idea of learning styles falls down slightly, is when it gets lumped together with the idea of multiple intelligences.  Jim Wingate’s 1996 articles for ETP contain a 49 item questionnaire that is intended to help teachers and learners identify which type of intelligence is dominant with them:  linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial (visual), musical, bodily – kinaesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal.  Wingate’s argument is that by identifying dominant types of intelligence in students and the classroom, the teacher can select activities which appeal to the learner’s intelligence type and therefore maximise the effectiveness of the input.

There are, in my view, some problems with this.

Firstly, an intelligence type is not the same thing as a learning style – the way you think and the types of activities you like to do may, or may not correspond with the way you learn, but the automatic association is for me at least, troubling.

Secondly, there is no evidence that it makes any difference.  The key article here is Pashler et al “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” which concludes “there is no adequate evidence to justify incorporating learning style assessments into educational practice”.  Their article goes on to cast doubt on the rigour of some of the studies which do show a correlation and points out that in general studies with a sound methodological base tend to contradict the idea of differentiated instruction for learning styles.

Thirdly, it presents a very black and white view of the way people learn.  A preference is just that, a preference.  I have a preference for tea over coffee and chicken over fish.  But I enjoy coffee and fish when I have them and will sometimes prefer them to the tea and chicken options.  Mackenzie (in Multiple Intelligences and Instructional Technology) makes the point that (a) Everyone has all the intelligences (b) you can strengthen an intelligence (c) any such survey is only ever going to be a snapshot of that particular moment and (d) the purpose of MI theory is to help people, not label them.

I don’t doubt that learning style questionnaires and multiple intelligence assessments can be useful tools in helping learners to be more aware of their cognitive processes and in identifying educational strategies they might find more enjoyable.  Equally, I think the single most valuable contribution learning style theory may have made is in pushing the concept of variety firmly into the classroom and I will continue to include as much variety in my lessons as they (or the learners) need.  But while my learners are multiple and they are intelligent – I just don’t think they don’t need me to cater to their style.

Postscript (added 11/02/14):

Russ Mayne, who blogs at the excellent and always readable “Evidence based EFL”, shared his own post on the credibility or lack thereof of learning styles theory.  His post, “Learner styles revisited: VAK-uous teaching“, is a very well argued deconstruction of learner style theory and he makes the point that it is also a bit of a sacred cow in EFL and while criticism of the idea is allowed, you aren’t allowed to discard it entirely.  It occurs to me in this context that just as a fact is merely a theory which hasn’t been disproved yet, an unproven theory is actually only a belief.  The problem with beliefs is that they tend to require you to invest your emotional and psychological selves and it is very difficult, having committed so much of yourself to an idea, to give that idea up; as negation of the belief equates in some respects to negation of the self.  But then, this is why we do research, right?  I look forward to seeing any confirmatory evidence for learning styles in due course.

References & Further Reading:

Mackenzie, Walter, 2005 “Multiple Intelligences and Instructional Technology”, ISTE Publications.

Mobbs, Richard “Honey & Mumford” retrieved from: http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/gradschool/training/eresources/teaching/theories/honey-mumford

Pashler et al, 2008, Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 3.:  retrieved from http://steinhardtapps.es.its.nyu.edu/create/courses/2174/reading/Pashler_et_al_PSPI_9_3.pdf

Wingate, Jim, 1996.  “Multiple Intelligences” English Teaching Professional:  retrieved from: http://www.ilkogretimkalbi.com/dokuman/ingilizce/English_Teaching_Professional-/multiple.pdf

 INFOGRAPHIC FROM EDUDEMIC: http://www.edudemic.com/the-myth-of-learning-styles/

Language Needs in Europe Survey

5 Feb

Northumbria University and King’s College London are running a survey to try and discover the language needs of young adults across Europe.
If you teach young adults (18-24 range), you can help by completing the survey – and there is a separate survey that the students themselves can take.
The following text was posted in the IATEFL Facebook group and gives more information on the project as well as the key links:

Northumbria University and King’s College London (both UK), supported by the British Council, are surveying student and teacher perceptions of the English language needs of young adults in Europe, and the implications of this for English language teaching.

This survey asks teachers their views about how and why young adults learn and use English, the kinds of English they want to speak, and what this might mean for English language teaching. In the survey, the term ‘young adult’ refers to 18-24 year olds.

The survey is therefore for all English language teachers working in Europe. It should take approximately 20 minutes to complete and answers are completely confidential. (Note: Although the focus is on young adult learners, aged between 18-24 years old, teachers working with learners of all ages are invited to participate. ‘English language teachers’ is a deliberately broad criteria for taking part in the project and includes, for example, those who teach EFL, ESL, ESOL, EIL, ESP, EAP and so on, those who both teach language and train teachers, who teach and manage etc.).

The survey is available online at:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/youngadultsEnglishneedsEurope

For further information about the project, visit:

http://www.northumbria.ac.uk/sd/academic/sass/about/humanities/linguistics/linguisticsstaff/g_hall/englishlanguageneeds/?view=Standard

Research Papers from “Language Teaching”

30 Jan

As they did last year, Cambridge Journals are offering limited access to the top 10 most requested articles in 2013 from the Language Teaching Journal.

Some articles that made the list in 2012 are repeated, but there’s plenty of new material.

Access is only until the end of February – so get downloading!

Many thanks to Marisa Constantinides for sharing this on facebook.

 

Articles include:

Have fun!

 

 

 

#EdTech: Tablets in Education

28 Jan

I have a love hate relationship with my tablet.  I have a few apps that I think are genuinely useful and contribute to the smoother running of my life and a few that I keep around for reference purposes or information inflows (some of which haven’t been used in six months) and then there are some that I spend far more time on than I should and which basically fritter away more hours of my days than I have available to waste.

This is my prime concern with tablets in education.  The tablet is basically a tool.  It is neither good nor evil – it is how you use it and what you use it for that defines it’s worth.  And that comes down to the apps that are on it.

Tablets and Apps

For a much fuller overview of the issue of tablets in Education, OUP have just published a “white paper” called “Tablets and Apps in Your School” which is available as a free (registration required) pdf download.

Systematically running through things you’ll need to think about before you even start, how to prepare teaching staff to use the new technology and how you can actually use them in class – this is a comprehensive look at what tablets can be used for.

I think the problem at the moment is that tablets are still quite new and while the take up rate is increasing rapidly (not quite exponentially), it has not quite made the shift from desirable and luxurious into essential – in the same way that mobile phones have managed.  Which is not to say that they won’t, but that the requirement for people to own tablets in order to pursue education goals is quite a costly one and represents a large imposition on schools or learners.  While, in the state sector, it might be possible to centrally fund or to seek business funding for a tablet project, the private sector probably doesn’t possess the margins to go down this road.  I have enough trouble maintaining the school’s stock of audio equipment (CD players & MP3 players) without having to worry about high cost tablets (which I suppose could eventually replace all the audio kit as well!).

What will be interesting over the next few years is to see which publishers start releasing app versions of their popular coursebooks as well as maintaining the print versions.  Tablets could be incredibly efficient ways of delivering coursebook content and a quick search of the Android store shows that some publishers are already doing this:

It’s worth taking a look – some of these are free, some are free and “lite” versions of more expensive apps and some are full price.

For a good case study on how to implement tablets in a language school – International House Cordoba has been running a project for the last two years.  Jennifer Dobson reports on it in the IH Journal here: “Learning through an Ipad” – or you can watch the IH Cordoba team’s one hour webinar at last year’s IH Online Conference:

Ten Things Worth Further Investigation (#04)

7 Jan

The holiday period is over and as usual, interesting posts from other people have been piling up in my inbox, or have been glanced at and put to one side for later, more detailed, examination…

(1) Arriving today, via freetech4teachers, is the “Word Tamer” site, a flash based interactive “game” for developing students’ abilities to craft a good story.  While it’s aimed more at native speakers, I would expect B2 level learners and above to be OK with the language level and it would be quite a nice way of helping teens think about what makes a successful story (possibly for FCE?).  The only criticism I have is that you can’t combine the different elements you create while on the site, you’ll have to get the students to either make notes on paper, or transfer everything into a separate document.  Check out the site here:  http://www.wordtamer.co.uk/

(2) Academic Language seems to be a hot topic at the moment:  Stephen Krashen’s denouncement of “Academic Jibberish” is doing the rounds at the moment:  is there a tendency, he asks, for academics to obfuscate their message in obtuse language in the hope that people will agree with what they can’t understand?  This is a post I’m hoping to come back to in more detail later this week, so stay tuned!

(3) Whether “jibberish” or not – learners of English often find academic discourse difficult to access:  two recent posts are here to help with that:  Cheryl Boyd Zimmerman’s post on the OUP blog (offering a taste of her upcoming webinar) looks at “Academic Language and School Success” – offering some key considerations.  Todd Finley at Edutopia has “8 Strategies for Teaching Academic Language” – including some nice analysis tasks for learners to work with.

(4) #ELTChat offers up their highlights of the year, in the form of a nice summary by @Ven_VVE.  If you are an educator on twitter – you should check out #ELTChat – a source of much support, inspiration and innovation.  It’s always nice to know you’re not the only one for whom things go wrong – and to pick up solid advice on how to make things go right!

(5) The new year is typically a time for reflection and looking back at the successes and failures of the previous year – at the end of December Geoff Jordan posted his Aplinglink Awards for 2013:  awards were given in the categories Best Book, Best Contribution to SLA, Best Article, Best Blog, Best Video, Best New Overview, and Best Contributor to ELT Methodology.  Go read his post to find out who the winners and runners up were!

(6) Just as we reflect at this time of year, we also look forwards.  At the iTDi blog, the latest issue “13 for 2014“, has Chuck Sandy, Ann Loseva, Josette LeBlanc and Kevin Stein sharing their thoughts on the year gone by and hopes and plans for the future.

(7) Two great offerings from the Digital Play blog that were doing the rounds just before Christmas: Argument Wars and Vortex Point 2.  Argument Wars is a game based on landmark civil rights cases from the USA – the learners have to find the best arguments and find logical connections to craft supporting points, in order to win their case.  Excellent for advanced (CAE) level groups.  Vortex Point 2 is a hunt and click flash game where you have to find things and do things in the right order to solve a mystery.  Lesson plans for both these games are available via the links.  Thanks to my colleague Neil for telling me about these in the first place!

(8) The teacher as researcher is, or can be, a contentious issue; with questions as to the validity, reliability and wider applicability of such studies.  Marisa Constantinides’ latest post asks the question “Can Teachers do Research?“, looks at how they can do the research, what the lessons of such research can be and who should be learning them…  (A must read article, by the way, for anyone doing their DELTA or an MA…)

(9) How much of a students’ test score is down to the teacher?  (Or in other words, can you assess the worth of a teacher based on the performance of the student?) – Apparently, about 15% or so.  Larry Ferlazzo shared the graphic on the right, taken from an ETS sponsored lecture by Dr. Edward H. Haertal.  ETS are the providers of the TOEFL exam series, and while the lecture (downloadable in pdf via Larry’s post) makes it quite clear that the research relates to an investigation of a specific teacher assessment measure used in US education – it raises yet more interesting questions to throw into the testing debate.

(10) And finally…  and more because I think it’s just a fantastic illustration of an incredibly complex issue, but an image I think should be on every staffroom wall from the always excellent and amusing xkcd.com – a cartoon about ADD:

#IH60 Conference: Live and Online – this weekend

25 Nov

This Friday and Saturday (29th & 30th November respectively) sees the International House 60th Anniversary Conference, featuring a host of luminaries from the world of ELT live in the flesh in London and online to all across the web.

Conference speakers

The Friday sessions are a series of webinars by current IH teachers around the world, while the Saturday sessions are a series of talks given live in London and streamed over the internet for anyone who can’t be there in person.  For more information on the speakers and their sessions, visit: http://ihworld.com/60conference

IH 60 Conference

My own session is running at 2.00pm on the Friday and it looks at small things that we can do to make our classrooms a better place and to encourage better learner behaviours and better learning behaviours.  It’s based around some of the work of behavioural economist and writer Dan Ariely and in particular, two TED talks he gave on the way we make decisions and on what motivates us to do good work.  If you want to do a little background viewing beforehand, the TED talks are given below:

Upcoming Webinar: Writing with Exam Classes

11 Nov

This Thursday (14th November 2013), I’ll be giving a webinar in conjunction with the British Council’s “Teaching English” website.

The session is going to focus on Writing with Exam Classes, but most of it is equally applicable outside an exam context, so if you’re not currently teaching an exam class, there will still be plenty you might find useful.

Writing Skills for Exam Classes

As you’ll see from the sneak preview slide – I’m thinking about common areas of difficulty that learners encounter in exam class writing, and I’ll then be looking at some practical activities that you can use with your classes in each area.

For more information on times, dates and locations – just follow the link:

http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/webinars/november-2013-david-petrie-writing-skills-exam-practice

Hope to see you there!

Really Learn English: Interview

5 Nov

The nice people at the Really Learn English site very kindly contacted me back in August as this site had been nominated for their annual blog awards.  Unfortunately, and owing to the arrival of “Language Acquisition Research Subject Number 3″, I wasn’t really paying much attention and by the time I did get back to them it was a bit too late!

So, even more kindly, they asked if I’d do an interview for their site….

If you’re interested in how this blog all started or what my teaching style is – head on over!  I also talk about my top tip for exam preparation, whether to go for IELTS or TOEFL, and what my favourite teaching mode is…

For all this (and more – because they also have quite a lot of cool stuff for teachers and students to check out), click on the picture below:

Really Learn English

 

The Reading Teacher

19 Oct

Today I gave a presentation at the APPI / British Council BritLit 10th Anniversary celebrations in Coimbra.

You can see the presentation slides below – and in due course I’m planning to do a you tube 15 minute version of the talk and I’ll post that below when I can.

The presentation is based around two main ideas:  (1) the fact that I don’t like teaching reading – at least not in coursebook contexts, (2) my contention that coursebook reading tasks, in the main, fail to develop the reading skill in learners.  Obviously, this latter point is contentious and it would depend on the text, the learner and of course – the teacher.

The presentation therefore looks at the difference between a typical coursebook treatment of a text, and how we access and react to texts in real life – it goes on to look at useful reading sub-skills and strategies and finally suggests some activities to use in class to help learners develop these sub-skills and strategies.

I know that as I post this, there’s no explanation of the activities towards the end, if anything is unclear (and it will be!) please feel free to leave a question in the comments and I’ll try and explain.  Or you can wait for the video version!

 

ELT Materials Writing Competition

9 Oct

Not a teflgeek competition I hasten to add, but a competition sponsored by the Disabled Access Friendly Blog.
If you are a budding materials designer / ELT writer – then this competition will be  good way to get a great start in the game!  
All the information on the competition now follows:

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The Disabled Access Friendly campaign has teamed up with ELT Teacher 2 Writer and Burlington Books to bring you this opportunity to use your worksheet writing skills to inform students about issues affecting people with mobility disability.
All suitable entries will be published online on Disabled Access Friendly’s site, which is visited by ELT colleagues from over 120 countries
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There will be three prizes: 
  1. 200 Euros towards the cost of professional development, such as an online writing course or participation at an ELT event (kindly sponsored by Burlington Books)
  2. 100 Euros towards the cost of professional development, such as an online writing course or participation at an ELT event (kindly sponsored by Burlington Books)
  3. A set of six ELT Teacher 2 Writer modules:
  • How To Write Vocabulary Presentations And Practice
  • How To Write Reading And Listening Activities
  • How To Write Critical Thinking Activities
  • How To Write ESP Materials
  • How To Write Graded Readers
  • How ELT Publishing Works
Disabled Access Friendly is a voluntary campaign that provides ELT teachers with online material that raises awareness about mobility disability. All this material is completely free.  The site has lesson plans, reading texts and video clips at all levels that can be used as supplementary material, for projects and examination practice.  The material allows teachers to provide insight and information about life as a person with a mobility disability, thus building pathways for caring and action.  By stepping into someone else’s shoes, the students explore their own and other people’s attitudes and become aware while learning English.
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ELT Teacher 2 Writer is a database of ELT teachers who want to write. Publishers search this database when they’re looking for writers.  It is also a series of training modules designed to help teachers write better ELT materials, either for publication or to improve the quality of their self-produced classroom materials.
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What are the competition guidelines?

1. You choose the mobility related topic, language area and level.   For ideas we suggest you look at  Disabled Access Friendly’s reading textsvideo clips and lesson plans, and read disability blogs and published articles.
2. Find the full writing guidelines here.
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Who are the judges?
  • Adir Ferreira, teacher, teacher trainer and content writer
  • Disabled Access Friendly campaign
  • ELT Teacher 2 Writer

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How to submit your entry

Entries should be submitted electronically as a word doc. attachment to:
disabledaccessfriendlycampaign@gmail.com
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Please save your file as follows:

Your surname, Your first name.  Title of worksheet e.g.
Smith, Susan.  My wheelchair friend

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Deadline

Entries to reach us by the closing date of 16th December 2013
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DAF website capture

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