Archive | March, 2016

IH Journal: Examinator Column

30 Mar

It is with very great pride that I’d like to share my new column in the IH Journal!

I love teaching exam classes.  I find them to be among the more motivated and interested students and while this isn’t always the case with every student, very often having that fixed goal of the exam helps the students to think about what they can do, what they can’t do and what they need to know to get where they want to go.  So the fact that I now get to write about teaching exam classes is just the cherry on top of the cake!

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In this first column, I look at teaching writing to exam classes, which I find is often an area of weakness as students don’t always get asked to work with the text types or text structures that an exam demands, until they get to the exam itself.  It’s not that writing is neglected necessarily at lower levels, but that exam writing asks for a different approach to writing than is often presented in more general English course books.

So in this article, apart from introducing the column, you’ll find three key ideas to help your learners with their exam writing.  Find out more here:

Examinator Column:  Helping Learners with Exam Writing

And while you’re there, why not take a look at some of the other great articles on offer?  This issue sees a bit of a revamp of the IH Journal format, under the new editorship of Chris Ozóg, and includes new columns on teacher training and development, academic management, as well as familiar favourites on technology and Young learner teaching.  This particular issue also has a special focus on materials writing, how to get into it, how to do it and what it’s really like.

If you have any comments on my piece, but can’t submit them via the IH Journal site, feel free to comment here.  Particularly if there’s an exam related topic you’d like me to address in future issues.

Enjoy!

5 Highly Effective Teaching Practices

21 Mar

Earlier this year, a piece from the Edutopia website was doing the rounds under the title “5 highly effective teaching practices”.  I automatically question pieces like this as I doubt somewhat whether the purpose of the piece is actually to raise standards in the profession and develop teachers – or whether it is simply to get a bit more traffic to the website.  But perhaps I am being unnecessarily cynical?

To be fair, the practices the article suggests are generally quite effective:

  1. State the goals of the lesson and model tasks, so that students know what they are going to do and how to do it.
  2. Allow classroom discussion to encourage peer teaching
  3. Provide a variety of feedback, both on an individual and a group basis.  Allow students to feedback to the teacher.
  4. Use formative assessments (tests the students can learn from) as well as summative assessments (tests that evaluate student ability, mostly for reporting purposes)
  5. Develop student metacognitive strategies so that students can become more aware of their own learning and how to make it more effective.  (Learner Training)

What surprises me though is that these practices are considered novel enough that they need to be put into a blog post?  CELTA tutors may correct me (please do!) but aren’t these things considered essential on a CELTA?  Aren’t we meant to be doing all these things anyway?  I suppose it speaks to the audience of the Edutopia website, which is not primarily language teaching.  Maybe language teachers are just more responsive and methodologically up-to-date than mainstream education…..

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Image Credit: Pixabay

The piece is based on a book by John Hattie, who is the director of the Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne.  He has made his name in the field of meta-analysis, effectively taking in all the data from studies that have looked at educational attainment and looking at it to see what patterns emerge.  In 2008 he published “Visible Learning”, which was based on 800 meta-studies from around the world and which identified positive and negative processes in classroom learning, such as the long summer break that has now led some schools to adjust their school calendars to teach over the summer and provide more shorter terms punctuated by more, shorter holidays.  In 2011 he published a follow up book “Visible Learning for teachers” that looks at the practical implications for teachers and suggests strategies they can employ to maximise the learning that takes place.  The article is based on this latter book.

I don’t disagree with the suggestions made in the article – but it made me wonder what my five “effective teaching practices” would be.  This is what I came up with.  I can’t claim that I do all these things all the time, but I generally try to do them most of the time!

(1)  Have fun.  Obviously, it doesn’t necessarily follow that if the teacher is having fun the students are too (“Dance, my minions!  Dance!”), but if you’re bored and pissed off then the students probably will be too.  You can’t be happy all the time, and some activities and goals are more serious than others, but fun should always be there, like a background harmonic.

(2) Make it valuable.  Time is precious to everybody, young and old, and we’ve all sat through too many meetings where at the end of it we walk out thinking “That was three hours of my life I won’t see again” that we should probably make sure our students don’t feel the same way about us!  Again, difficult to achieve with ALL the students ALL the time, but possible to do with MOST of the students MOST of the time.  And if you have a student who is getting nothing out of it at all, then they’re in the wrong class.  I had a 15 year old CPE student whose main school teacher used to send him to the library to look up words in the dictionary because she felt it was a better use of his time than being in her class….

(3) Make them DO stuff.  We’ve been having this discussion in the forums on another post, and again, it isn’t something that you can do for every language point or for every skills focus, but my everlasting bugbear with the majority of materials is that the students aren’t required to be active producers of language, but that they are mostly seen as passive receptacles.  There is room for both aspects and indeed, both are needed to give the students time for input to become intake – but I don’t believe that is where it should stop.  Involve tasks and activities that ask the learners to USE whatever language they have.

(4) Know your students.  This ties in a bit to the first two because if you don’t know your students well, then you probably won’t have as much fun or make it as valuable as they need.  But essentially as a teacher, your job is to help the students get from where they are, to where they want to go.  If you don’t know them, you won’t know either of these things and won’t be able to help as effectively.  I am a big fan of needs analysis, in particular using google forms for this process, and I do this with all my adult and exam classes.  I haven’t yet come up with a decent needs analysis form for young learners, so if you have – please share!

(5) Teaching not testing.  The majority of summative testing or formal assessment is completely pointless.  The majority of tests don’t do what they are actually meant to do, which is measure what the students can do with the language.  Very often in a language learning context what they measure is the learners ability to manipulate a grammatical structure under controlled and guided conditions, so I do wonder what getting seven out of ten in an exercise where the student has to put the verb into the past continuous tells us?  Given the choice I wouldn’t bother with it.  Including a test in a course makes a mockery of the idea of needs analysis and student centered learning, because as soon as you put a test in the course, it becomes about test centered learning.  Alas I am not in a position to follow through on this idea completely, mostly because other stakeholders in the process want to be able to reduce an abstract concept like “language ability” to an easy to read number on a report card.  But there we go.

So – these are my five!  I’d be interested to know what other people think.  It is a largely subjective process (despite all the research that John Hattie put into his ideas), so do feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image credit: Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

An Overview of Learning Theories

14 Mar

This is possibly the most complete online resource I have ever come across on learning theories:

Learning Theory

I had to reduce the browser to 50% just to get the screenshot, but if you click the picture or the link below you should be taken to the original.

http://cmapspublic3.ihmc.us/rid=1LNV3H2J9-HWSVMQ-13LH/Learning%20Theory.cmap

It’s a concept map that links thinkers and theorists with their concepts and theories and shows where they are situated in the wider academic context.  It also contains web links to further reading on both the thinkers and the thoughts.

A little light break time reading for you…

Thanks to Anthony Ash for sharing this on facebook.

A Systematic Pattern – material considerations online and off

7 Mar

Image Credit: Pixabay

A Systematic Pattern. (Image Credit: Pixabay)

In many respects, the regular occurrence of systematic features is what makes a course a course.  It is these features which tell us that we are moving from one section to another and thus that we have indeed “moved on”.  Whether anything has been learnt is another matter, but from course design perspective, the impression of progress is important.  There are pedagogical and administrative concerns as well – you select material to help you fulfill the course objectives and you then group that material into thematically linked modules – the systematic features tell us that we are at the beginning of a module, half way through the middle or approaching the end.

The advantages are then that the systematic features orientate us to our position within the module.  When we encounter a particular feature we know (a) where we are and (b) what is expected of us (at least after the initial stages).  The unfamiliar then becomes familiar and allows us to function and contribute effectively, thus adding to our own feelings of accomplishment and learning.  The disadvantages are that these features can act as a bit of a straight-jacket – they might constrain learning by not allowing for experimentation beyond the task or they might constrain the teaching by not allowing the tutor to do something innovative.  Plus, it might all get a bit boring.

This is just as true for face to face courses as it is for online – coursebooks in fact make a virtue of their systematic features (or try to).  An example of this is Cutting Edge if you find your copy of the book and flick through it, you’ll find that the format of each module is broadly similar – some variation in layout and sequence perhaps, but the sections and design of the tasks is pretty much the same throughout.  I think where F2F courses differ from the online is that the F2F teacher is freer to just throw their hands in the air and say “You know what?  Today we’re going to….” – an online teacher, I don’t think, has that liberty.  The units and materials are very often “up there” and the tutors and participants simply access them as they get to them, though obviously the tutors control the rate of access and when materials get released.

There is then, much more reliance on the course materials in the online world.  The teacher is not so much of a resource as they are in face to face and the learners, who are often pushed for time and have busy lives elsewhere, tend to prefer only to do those tasks that they feel will be of benefit to them passing the course.  Very often what happens (and here I speak from experience of both a teaching and learning perspective) is that participants log in, cut and paste their answers into the forum and log off again.  There is reluctance – but not always – to engage in anything that doesn’t meet the course requirements and building the interaction between participants is therefore more difficult in the online world than in the offline world,

But you could also argue that the lack of rigidity and possibility of variance is a weakness in face to face teaching – the students are at the mercy of the teacher and have no choice but to participate in the lessons the teacher has provided.  If the teacher doesn’t really feel up for it that day and decides to put on a movie / documentary / episode of The Simpsons and ask a bunch of content questions at the end to justify showing the thing, what else can the students do?

It seems that the course itself is a thing that needs to have a programmed rigidity, or perhaps certainty would be a better word.  Whether it is online or offline, teachers need to know what they are going to teach and students need to know what they are going to learn.  Within that though, there needs to be flexibility to deal with matters arising and the opportunity to dive off into something useful and interesting that isn’t on the original program.  This is an area where I think online courses are lacking at the moment, but perhaps this too, as the medium develops, is beginning to change?

Image Credit: Pixabay

An Unsystematic Pattern? (Image Credit: Pixabay)

Note:  I originally wrote parts of this post as part of my training to tutor online, when I did the IHCOLT in 2o13 and I had a reflective blog related to my training.  I’m now rationalising that blog and am migrating some of the content here, rather than lose it all.  Since I did the IHCOLT, I’ve been working as an online tutor with IH OTTI and I have updated this post to reflect this experience and my changing thinking.