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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/

Behavioural Economics and ELT: Meaning, Acknowledgement & Pride.

19 Jun

It’s that time of year again, where classes are winding down and courses are effectively finished in all but name and teachers round the world are looking for interesting things to do with their students for the last few lessons before the holidays.  Last night, the student who showed up (everyone else having presumably decided that having done the exam there was nothing left to learn…) and I ended up watching the TED talk “What makes us feel good about our work?” by the behavioural economist Dan Ariely.

Ariely has four talks up on TED at the moment, all of which are good value and are worth watching – some interesting ideas on product differentiation for the managers amongst you – but the talk on the nature of our work struck some chords, not just with memories of the life before ELT as a faceless administrative drone, but also with their applicability to an educational setting.  The talk should be embedded into this post below, or you can click on this link:  Dan Ariely – What makes us feel good about our work?

The key theme that Ariely discusses in the talk is that of motivation – specifically what motivates us to do good work.  The three main answers to that question that he identifies (or at least the three main answers I identified from his talk) are:  Meaning, Acknowledgement and Pride.  Which also makes a handy acronym…

So what does the MAP to good work look like?

Meaning.

People work better when they perceive that there is some meaning attached to the work they are undertaking, or that their work is applicable in a wider context even if it is no longer required for it’s original task.  The applications in ELT are fairly obvious, but worth restating:  Students work better if they understand why they are doing something. Communicating the aims and the activities of a lesson to the students allows them to do this and probably the simplest way of doing this is to write up a lesson menu on the board, which outlines this information.  In all honesty, this is a habit I have not yet fully formed – I try to remember to do this, but I don’t always succeed.

Meaning however, doesn’t just come about from lesson aims, it is the lesson’s wider applicability that can provide this.  Ariely found that even if workers knew their work was being discarded or disregarded for it’s original purpose, if they could apply their work to situations outside the original context then it didn’t matter.  Value then, is a transferable commodity and meaning is derived from perceived value.  In ELT therefore, the things we do in class, which are often taken out of context and presented in isolation, should be linked back to situations or contexts that the learners find valuable.  The obvious point to make this link (at least to me) would be as part of the language presentation.  If the teacher is clarifying use of a target form, it makes sense that the use relates to a context in which it can be used, which can be clarified with concept questions:  “Do you ever negotiate with your husband / wife / partner?  What do you negotiate about?  Do you ever argue about who does what?  Could you use this form to do that?  How?  Why?  can you give me some examples?”

Acknowledgement

Ariely’s example experiment where volunteers find pairs of letters on the page and hand them into the experimenter, who either acknowledges the work, ignores the work or simply shreds it in front of their eyes; had me thinking of an immediate parallel in the classroom:  homework.  I’ve written before on the nature of homework and making it useful for learners, but here I couldn’t escape the vision of myself conducting a conversation with some of the learners in the class while going round and collecting in completed homework tasks and not acknowledging the effort that went into the work.  Just taking it in and adding it to the pile.  Which according to Ariely is just as bad as taking a match to it and laughing maniacally as I do so.

It is a simple thing and no doubt many readers are thinking “Well duh” at this point or perhaps thinking that with homework the acknowledgment comes as part of the assessment and correction.  Ariely however, would probably differ.  Some acknowledgement of the effort at the moment of submission, it seems, would go a long way to improving the learners’ motivation to complete further tasks quickly and well.  This is presumably true with in-class effort as well as homework tasks.  I’ve recently been experimenting with classroom behaviour management software and have found that obvious acknowledgment of good behaviour (in this case through the awarding of points) AND making a point of telling the student that this is happening, has led to a drastic reduction of L1 in the class as well as generally improved behaviour (though as we reach the end of the academic year, this is starting to slip a bit now).  Praise is not only important, it is a necessary part of motivating our students to improved performance.

Pride

People are proud of the efforts they have made, even when the outcome of those efforts is not so spectacular to an external observer.  Good young learner teachers probably know this instinctively and I’m fortunate to work with some very good YL teachers.  In short, even though as teachers we might be able to turn a critical eye towards our learners’ work – at least some of the time, we probably shouldn’t.  It does of course depend on the purpose of the activity.  If for example, we’re focusing on spoken or written production of a particular form, then the focus will be primarily on accuracy and a correction or feedback stage is required.  If however, we’re just having a chat or the focus is on fluency, then maybe not.  The point is that our sense of achievement does not relate to the product we generate it relates to the time and effort we put into the process.  As teachers therefore, maybe we need to acknowledge that process and reward the effort that went into it as much as we do with the result.  After all, I know one of my personal pedagogical hates are the students who coast, or who phone in their performances.  I doubt I’m alone in not minding so much what the finished product is like if I know that the student has tried their best – it’s when I know they haven’t that I get annoyed…

IH Teachers’ Online Conference #IHTOC60

20 May

IH are running another one of their increasingly popular Online Conferences this weekend:  or at least Friday 24th May and Saturday 25th May.

It’s a slightly different premise this time however, as the speakers are being limited to ten minute slots and there’ll be 60 speakers over the two days.

It’s free to attend and is open to anyone and everyone – you don’t need to work for IH to take part!

I’m speaking at some point around 4pm on Saturday afternoon and I’ll be looking at “The Tai Chi of Reading” – a phrase which had my Tai Chi instructor twitching slightly – but essentially the session borrows some of the movements and forms from Tai Chi and Chi Gong and looks at how to use them to help learners remember and use reading strategies.

If that’s of little or no interest to you, there’s another 59 speakers who between them will be looking at pretty much everything ELT.  My personal choice list includes:  Barrie Roberts on teaching reading, Matt Kendrick on the “oomph factor”, Alex Purcell on Ipads & Edmodo, Sandy Millin on “10 blogs in 10 minutes”, Shaun Wilden on “Appetising Apps”….  and that’s just from Saturday.  I’m hoping to watch as much of Friday as possible as long as work doesn’t get in the way…..

For a full rundown of who’s talking about what and when – follow the link:  http://ihworld.com/ih/ihtoc60.

All the speaker biographies, talk abstracts, time & date information, plus any tech details can be found there.

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IH teachers online conference

A passion for teaching?

3 May

Recently a colleague emerged from a particularly trying cover class experience, having decided that all of the problems that were experienced in the lesson could be traced back to a single overriding fault – the teacher’s lack of passion for the teaching.  Vainly it was pointed out that (a) this particular class has a bit of a reputation for being tricksy (b) their regular teacher has huge amounts of experience as a young learner teacher and teacher trainer and still finds them a bit of a handful (c) what they really need is to to be suspended from the ceiling by their thumbs until they’re willing to behave.

Which got me wondering….  Which other professions require “passion” from their practitioners?  Is a passion for teaching a pre-requisite for the job?  Or just an optional extra?

I think if you look around at other careers, passion is possibly a nice thing to have but not necessarily a requirement in the same way that it is perceived to be in teaching.  Anyone who’s been anywhere near a hospital emergency room outside daylight hours will be able to confirm that while medical staff may treat you with practiced efficiency and considerate empathy – passion is not often in evidence.  Then there are those professions where passion could be a definite drawback:  a passionate accountant anyone?  Or a a passionate undertaker?

Curiously flattered by the number of students wishing to attend the class that day, the teacher rushed off to the copy room to make an extra set of handouts.

Alright – no matter how much it might sometimes feel like dealing with a bunch of corpses – teaching and undertaking require somewhat different skill sets.  But the point is still valid:  almost every job, profession or career requires competence and professionalism.  Why is it then that teaching also requires passion?

I have written before on the unreal expectations placed upon teachers and the nobility of purpose that pervades the profession.  I think perhaps that the requirement for teachers to display a passion for our profession is tied into that.  Essentially it comes out of good customer relations.  Students, or their parents, wish to entrust their education to someone who cares.  The teacher is therefore required, by convention if nothing else, to demonstrate that they care.  Hence the belief that passion is required to be a good teacher arises and consequently teachers are judged on whether they are good or not by whether they clearly demonstrate a passion for the cause.

Which is possibly unfair.  I suspect that if most of the people reading this take a moment to think their way around their staffroom, they could identify colleagues who are extremely able, experienced and professional – but for whom “passionate” is not an adjective that could be applied to their working lives.

If I think back over the academic year so far, I’m not sure that passion has applied very much.  Hopefully the experience, ability and professionalism have been in evidence – I’m fairly sure there have been occasional bursts of enthusiasm and creativity and with any luck everyone has taken something out of the lessons that they didn’t have before, but passion?  Maybe not.

The new DoS had spent some considerable time perfecting her “teacher’s look”.

Does that matter?  Also not sure.  I think this differs from teacher to teacher and different experiences and standards apply at different stages of a teaching career.  For some, the passion they have for the profession provides a guiding light, a light for them in the dark places when all other lights go out.  We all have moments in the dark places of teaching and if you have that light, so much the better.

For others however, the passion is like paint and plaster over the face of a wall seated on a shaky foundations.  It can cover up a multitude of pedagogical sins and ultimately if these problems are not addressed the whole edifice can come crashing down.

Personally, I don’t think I’m in a professional  place where a passion for teaching is that important to me.  Don’t get me wrong, I care about what I do and try to do the best I can with the time I have available – but, well, maybe I’m thinking too deeply about the word passion, but I’m not sure I can summon up much of it for the classroom these days and I’m not completely sure I need to either…

What really goes into your lesson plan?

21 Jan

Getting learners to think about their writing BEFORE they put pen to paper is a thankless task.  Most seem to prefer the “stream of consciousness” approach, where the words flow ceaselessly out of the brain, down the arm and out, via the pen, onto the page.  I have, in the past, spent months hammering home the point and process of planning a piece of writing – even to the point of insisting my classes include a plan with every piece of writing they submit.  No plan – no grade.

I gave up on that approach after a student came up to me at the end of one lesson and handed me his essay.  “Teacher, I’m really sorry but I didn’t have much time for my homework.  I wrote the essay for you, but is it OK if I write the plan later?”

Now, on reflection, what I think is interesting about that comment is that the learner clearly didn’t associate planning with the creation of a successful text.  The final product to be assessed was, in his view, more important than the process of getting there.

What I’m beginning to wonder is whether the same view might be more prevalent amongst teachers than it is with learners?  When it comes to lesson planning, do we practice what we preach?

Confession time.  You might find this hard to believe, but not every lesson plan I write includes aims, assumptions, anticipated problems and solutions, timetable fit, stages, stage aims, timings, procedures, interaction patterns and material references.  In fact I think the last time I did any of that was on 6th June 2007, which – not entirely uncoincidentally – was the last time I was observed.

These days, my planning process goes a bit more like this:

  1. What should the learners be better at doing by the end of the lesson?
  2. How will I know if they are better at doing it?
  3. What do they need to know to get better at it?
  4. How can I make the whole process interesting for them?

And then after I’ve spent 45 minutes swearing at the course book for not helping with any aspect of this process, I scribble about six stages down on the back of a discarded handout, do some photocopying and we’re done.  Sound familiar?

So here’s my question – am I alone?  How does everybody else do their planning?  Let me know!

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IH Teachers’ Online Conference – this weekend #IHTOC3

29 Oct

This weekend – or at least Friday 2nd and Saturday 3rd November – sees the third IH Teachers’ Online Conference, a collection of about 20 webinars hosted by the International House World Organisation and available to all, completely free!

Yep – open to anyone at absolutely no cost.

Worth checking out?

For more information, check out the IH TOC3 homepage.

Or you can view the Conference Timetable (via a google spreadsheet), or download the conference handbook, complete with presenter biographies and seminar abstracts.

In terms of declaring a potential conflict of interest, I should point out that I not only work for IH but that I will be presenting at the conference at 10.30am (GMT) on Saturday morning!

My session is “Keep Calm and Write On” and it’s a look at what learners who need to develop their writing skills for exams (FCE, IELTS, TOEFL etc) need to know – and a range of activities to help them.  It will be my first webinar, so if you do come along, please bear that in mind!

Looking forward to seeing you all there!

End of Year Reflection

29 Jun

Today is the last day of the academic year.  On Monday the school summer courses will begin but that’s next week and it’s Monday’s problem – for now it’s enough to know that we have survived another year without too many problems.

A week ago, we had our end of year wrap up session – talking everybody through all the end of year paperwork, reports, handover notes, choices for the following academic year and the like.  As part of that our Director of Studies asked us to take a moment and reflect on the last nine months of teaching – and asked us to look at a 12 item questionnaire to help us do that.

Now I must confess to a certain amount of cynicism in these matters.  I’m better at analysis than reflection and I find questions that ask me to think about the last time I felt joyful or inspired quite difficult to answer.  How, for example, do you define “joy” and are we talking inspiration generally or the degree of inspiration over the baseline level that I normally work with?

But for what it’s worth, I thought I’d share some of the questions and my answers to them.

The questions that we were given came from Raquel Lynette’s “Minds in Bloom” website and the post: “20 Teacher End of the Year Reflection Questions“.  I’ve gone back to that post to select five questions that I’m going to include here:

  1. What are some things you accomplished this year that you are proud of?
  2. What is something you would change about this year if you could?
  3. What is one way that you grew professionally this year?
  4. When was a time this year when you felt joyful and/or inspired about the work that you do?
  5. Knowing what you know now, would you still choose to be a teacher if you could go back in time and make the choice again? If the answer is “no,”  is there a way for you to choose a different path now?

What are some things you accomplished this year that you are proud of?

Thinking about this academic year, it’s been quite a busy one personally and professionally.  My son was born last October and helping my wife with both him and our daughter has been challenging – huge fun at times, incredibly stressful at others and mostly just very very tiring.  I was very pleased with some of the feedback on my MA assignments earlier this year and if I’d finished writing my dissertation by now that would be my biggest accomplishment – but I haven’t so it isn’t.  Yet.

I’ve also been very pleased by some of the reactions to posts I’ve published on this blog.  Blogging can sometimes be lonely, in the sense that you don’t always know whether what you’re writing has value or has a positive impact on people, so getting feedback and reading and responding to people’s comments is always good.

What is something you would change about this year if you could?

This year I’ve been teaching a group of 10/11 year old beginner students.  It has been very challenging and frankly, I haven’t enjoyed it very much.  What I would change is the approach to the class that I took.  Having now spent a year together I have a much better idea of who they are and what they are capable of, so this is possibly only hindsight, but if I did it all again I would think much more about what boundaries I wanted to set with them and I would write those down and keep a copy handy to remind myself of what they are.  I’d incorporate a much more complicated behavioural routine system with them and apply it consistently.

These are all things that I know I should have done anyway – they aren’t revelations – but I do wish I’d started out on a better footing with that group.

What is one way that you grew professionally this year?

This year I’ve been involved in running the International House Certificate in Advanced Methodology course, in a sort of secondary tutor role, and I’ve really enjoyed doing it.  The course is a quite comprehensive overview of ELT and current pedagogical thinking and it’s reminded me of a few things and taught me a few things – I hadn’t, for example, come across ecolinguistics before.

It’s been a while since I’ve been involved in a teacher training course and I think running the course has helped me think about my own teaching in a different way.

When was a time this year when you felt joyful and/or inspired about the work that you do?

The cynical answer I gave to this question was 1st August 2011.  But in fact, it would probably be most afternoons or evenings.  I’ve been lucky in that my classes have been nice this year, CAE, CPE and Advanced Conversation – all higher level groups and so the level and content of conversation is fantastic.  We have been able to talk about a massive range of topics and issues, some lessons have been approached in Dogmesque way, some in a more TBL approach.  I’ve been able to try new things out and while some of these fell flat, others flew.  There have been lessons and conversations where I’ve come out of the class buzzing with the exhilaration of the debate – hopefully some of this has been communicated to the learners as well!  But these lessons have been fun and, by extension, these have been the times when I’ve felt “joyful” and “inspired”.

Knowing what you know now, would you still choose to be a teacher if you could go back in time and make the choice again?

Hell yes.

I don’t think it’s the teaching that most teachers have an issue with.  Most of the things I read or hear suggest that most teachers would be really really happy in their jobs if only everybody else would just leave them alone.  It’s not the teaching that gets people down, it’s everything else that goes along with it.   But that aside I’d still make the same choice again!

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So that’s my five reflections on the last academic year – what about yours?  Why not take a look at the 20 Teacher End of the Year Reflection Questions on the Minds in Bloom site and choose your own five reflection questions to answer?

Special Needs and ELT

27 Jun

I wonder what experience many EFL teachers have of working with learners with special needs.

My own experience is fairly minimal – about seven years ago I did a placement test interview with a student who was partially deaf.  It sticks in my mind because I found it difficult to understand the student and I was obviously concerned not to confuse my lack of understanding with any weaker language areas the learner displayed.

Since then – nothing.  At least nothing that I’m aware of.  Until about four or five months ago when I began to notice that one of my learners was doing an awful lot of hiding in the classroom, her written work displayed some very odd errors – a lot of letter transposition and L1 phonetic spelling of L2 items – and her assessment scores were weak, particularly her reading.  I began to wonder if she might be dyslexic.

Now at this point it gets a bit tricky.  My own view is that if I was a parent and my child’s teacher suspected dyslexia, I would want to know about it.  But this isn’t always the case.  Personally I don’t understand why not – dyslexia doesn’t suggest any lack of mental faculties – just a different way of accessing the world around you.  Nevertheless, it is not always easy to predict the reaction of parents to the implication and as my DoS pointed out, I have no training in this area and am in no way qualified to state with any degree of certainty whether dyslexia is an issue or not.

On reflection I have to wonder why not?  I don’t mean why am I not qualified – the reason there is because I trained as a teacher, not as an educational psychologist.  What I mean is why aren’t learning difficulties covered in teacher training courses?  When I did my DELTA six years ago – we were asked whether any of our schools had a policy related to learning difficulties – only four people put their hands up and we all worked for the same school.  I suspect that most schools would argue that they are generally inclusive and therefore don’t need a policy.  Fair enough.

But I think that CELTA, DELTA and MA ELT courses should include components on teaching learners with learning difficulties as standard.

As an addendum to this story, my student’s mother came into school to see us the other day.  Having had something of a battle to get things arranged and appointments made and so forth, my learner was recently diagnosed with dyslexia.  Frankly, I see this as a brilliant step forwards – because now we can help her move forwards in her learning more effectively and she can stop hiding.

Further Reading & Resources:

Naomi Epstein runs the “Visualising Ideas” blog sharing her ideas and experiences teaching deaf and hard of hearing learners (amongst other things!)

Michael Strong “Language Learning and Deafness“, Cambridge University Press

E. William Clymer & Gerald P. Brent “English for International Deaf Students: Technologies for Teacher Training and Classroom Instruction”  a downloadable pdf from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology.

Sue Swift “Helping Students with Learning Disabilities: Part One” from the ELT Notebook blog, and there’s the second part here: “Helping Students with Learning Disabilities: Part Two“.

Gemma Ormerod’s summary of the #ELTChat on “Teaching Dyslexic Students

Sharon Turner writes as a dyslexic English language teacher, describes what it can be like to be dyslexic and offers some very useful advice for teachers on how to help dyslexic learners in her post: I am Dyslexic and It’s now a blast!

Chris Wilson shares his resources and handouts from a seminar on Dyslexia he gave, as well as links to yet more useful resources.

Chris Wilson also created and links to the IH Young Learners group Dyslexic Learners Linoit – a sort of cork board of guidance and links for teachers of dyslexic learners.

Can you have a normal life and work in ELT?

29 May

objects in the rear view mirror may be more serious than they appear

The car races along the road at 90mph / 145kmph, overtaking slower moving vehicles by forcing them to the side and even causing white vans to leap aside in panic.   As it roars through the outskirts of the town, a police car takes up the chase and eventually pulls the maverick motorist to a stop.  The officer walks slowly towards the vehicle, wondering what on earth could have provkoed such driving behaviour?  A medical emergency?  An imminent birth?

The window rolls down and the officer asks for the documents.

“I’m sorry officer,” comes the reply, “but I’m an English teacher and somebody needs lessons in a hurry.”

“Well, that’s alright then, Sir.  Can I give you an official escort to the school premises?”

*****

It would never happen, which is a shame really because we all sleep in occasionally or something overruns and there are moments when the ability to flout the legal speed limit would be quite handy.  But I can think of absolutely no situation within my own teaching experience, that could possibly be classified as “an emergency”.  Problems – yes.  Plenty of those, frequently hanging around together waiting to mug you when you’re not expecting it.  But an emergency?

Teachers are not doctors, no-one is going to die if they don’t get taught the second conditional.  The fate of nations does not hang on whether extreme adjectives are taught with the right sort of intensifying adverbs.  We are teachers.  We turn up, help our classes get where they’re going for that particular lesson and move on.

Right?

Isn’t that how it works?

So why is our time not our own?

Scott Thornbury, in his recent talk at the APPI conference, talked about the reasons why many teachers enter the profession in the first place and at what point the dream begins to fade.  It’s usually, he suggested, when you have a day similar to the one Mike Harrison describes in his blog.  Mike talks about a working day that runs from 9.30am to 8.30pm at night.  Oh, and you get half an hour for lunch.  Sound familiar?  Mike’s situation seems to be a “typical working day” – I’d be interested to know what his contract states about the hours he’s expected to work because contracts don’t always tell the full story.  I’ve had contracts which only specified the number of teaching hours I was expected to fulfil per week – but the expectations of the school were that I be at work for a set period of time per day and made no mention of the extra-curricular activities the school expected me to take part in.

This for me, is where the ELT industry tries to have its cake and eat it.  The expectations stakeholders have of teachers frequently exceed the job description.  Can I, for example, be requested to teach a new class at short notice (be it a cover class or a new contract) which doesn’t fit into my existing schedule?  (Say that I usually teach a full schedule in the afternoons and evenings and this new class is at 8.30am?)  If the parents of a failing child want me to help their child with extra homework or even extra tutorials – am I obliged to do so?  The answer of course is “yes”.  I am obliged to do all of these things and of course as a consummate professional I do them with a spring in my step and a smile in my heart.  (most of the time…)

But I can’t help feeling that working in the ELT industry seems to be diametrically opposed to the concept of “a normal life”.  I don’t just mean the late evening classes – I mean the expectation that we are always available to do whatever is required of us, whenever it is required.

In his 2004 Daily Telegraph article, Sebastian Creswell-Turner puts it like this:  “OK, you pathetic bums, this is the score. I’m not promising to give you any work at all, and if I do give you the odd hour here and there, you’ll be paid peanuts . . . but, all the same, I want you to be fully available for anything and everything. Plus, you’re all going to pretend that you are immensely privileged to be doing this grotty little job. Geddit?”

Again, there are probably chords being struck around the world with that one, though I’ve always been fortunate enough to work for a decent enough salary wherever I’ve been – perhaps I’ve just been lucky in my choice of employers.  Truth be told, that quote from Sebastian is the only part of his article that resonated.  The rest of it is a fairly jaundiced and stereotypical view of ELT, and fortunately Luke Medding’s eloquent rebuttal in The Guardian deals with most of the serious objections so I don’t have to.  Though I note with interest the bit in Sebastian’s article where he appears to have been turned down for place on a CELTA course by International House London…

Whether an accurate portrayal of ELT or not, and I certainly don’t see myself in Creswell-Turner’s descriptions, what he says does give me pause for thought.  The situation he portrays is not one I face particularly at the moment, but it is one that exists and perhaps even prevails in ELT.  This should not be so.

So why does it exist?  Possibly because there is an unwritten nobility of purpose that pervades the teaching world.  We don’t teach, it is argued, because we want to be rich – we do it because we care.  We do not exist in the realm of material things, we serve an ethereal higher purpose.  We are the ones who meld the minds of the future generations, we challenge and shape opinions, guide our charges to critical thinking, we help our students become more than the sum of their parts.  This view of teaching holds that what we do is a vocation, it is a noble calling and as such there are sacrifices to be made in its pursuit, the rewards of teaching are not pecuniary, they are to be found in what Maslow termed “self actualization” and “transcendence”.  We need to grow as individuals, achieve our full potential and to help others do the same.

As justifications and self-deceptions go, it’s quite a good one.  And I don’t deny that these aspects of the job are rewarding, my point is only that these things are not enough of a justification for the industry as a whole to treat us as less than human beings.  The obvious question simply being – why can’t we have both?

I can cope with the late nights, the extra work, the marking,  the reports, meeting the parents, writing up the lesson records, the required teacher development seminars, the staff meetings, the observations and the cover classes.  I can cope with all of these things because these things are the job that I have chosen to do – but can I please have a normal life as well?  Or am I, like the rest of the industry, trying to have my cake and eat it too?

UPDATE (13 / 06 / 2012):  If you enjoyed this post, or if it struck a chord with you, why not take a moment to complete “A Brief Survey of Working Conditions in ELT“?  The aim is to try and take a snapshot of the situation in ELT at the moment – what are the problems we have in our jobs?

Take a look and add your voice to the discussion!

#APPI 2012: Anna Uhl Chamot – Teaching Learning Strategies in the English Classroom

28 Apr

I’m hoping this will be a follow up to the talk Anna Chamot gave yesterday at #APPI, which was more about the why of learning strategies, why they are important and how they can help.  This I’m hoping will be more about the what and the how, what learning strategies are useful and how to teach them.  She did say yesterday that “explicit instruction” is  often necessary, so that might feature.

This is another “live blog” – so apologies for any typos or missing bits, I’m going as fast as I can – I promise to come back later and try and clean things up a bit!

A brief biography of Anna Chamot and her academic background from George Washington University.

Anna Uhl Chamot – Teaching Learning Strategies in the English Classroom

Asking teachers what are your students doing to learn often comes back with and answer relating to what the teachers are asking their learners to do – which is not the same thing!

What are learning Strategies?

  • what learners do to complete a task
  • how learners understand, remember and recall information
  • how learners practice skills to achieve mastery of those skills

Why teach learning strategies?

  • understand how your students learn
  • share the strategies of good language learners – learners may have strategies to share – peer teaching
  • increase students’ self-efficacy (feeling of competence towards a task)
  • create a climate of thinking and reflection
  • use creativity to make learning strategies concrete (move from the abstract to the real)
  • motivate your students and yourself!

Tips on Teaching Learning Strategies:

  • build on students’ current learning strategies – all learners have learning strategies, but not all the strategies are successful ones.  Often it’s possible to transfer strategies from one environment to another – learners may feel that what they learn in one situation doesn’t apply to what they learn in another.  Think about what they are already bringing to the classroom.
  • model how to use the learning strategy – language can be a barrier to communicating successful learning strategies, so when learners don’t have the linguistic ability to understand learning strategy instruction, they need to see it modelled, teachers need to communicate the process, not just the task.
  • name the strategy in English (see bibliography at the end of this piece for strategies and their “names”
  • give examples of how to use the strategy (this is similar to the modelling)
  • let the students choose their own strategies – people are different.  If it doesn’t work for a learner, don’t force it on them.

Metacognitive strategies:  (these are applicable to any task in life, not just language learning)

  • Planning:  understand the task / set goals / organise materials  / find resources / is it working? – revise the plan if necessary.
  • Monitoring:  while you work on the task – check your progress on the task / check your comprehension (do you understand?) / check your production (are you making sense?).
  • Evaluation:  (post-task) – assess how well they accomplished it, teach students to self-assess and self-evaluate / assess how well the learning strategies they used worked – if not, try a new one?  / Identify changes you’ll make the next time you have a similar task to do.
  • Self-management:  manage your own learning – determine how you learn best / arrange conditions that help you learn / seek opportunities for practice / focus your attention on the task.

Social Learning Strategies:

Cooperation (working with others):  complete tasks / build confidence / give and receive feedback / learn from each other.

INSTRUCTIONAL CYCLE: (see graphic)

PREPARATION – ways to discover students’ learning strategies:  students describe how they figured something out / discussion (how do you do this, how do you learn new words, how do you know you’re right?) / class survey of learning strategies (find someone who)  / learning strategy diaries

PRESENTATION – model the strategy by acting it out (pretend difficulty and go through the thought process by “thinking aloud”)  /  ask the students if they use the strategy / give the strategy a name / tell the students WHEN  and HOW to use it / make it concrete with visuals and realia (see also icons given in the websites in the bibliography).

PRACTICE – choose a challengeing task / name the strategy to practice / remind students to use a strategy / ask student to identify the strategy / encourage students to use them independently

SELF-EVALUATION – discuss how they used the strategy / keep learning stratgy logs / identify and defned preferred strategies / relfect on themselves as strategic thinkes

EXPANSION  find new uses / contexts for thr strategy /  survey strategies used by others / teach a stragey to a friend or sibling / collect tips on using strategies / make a learning strategy book for other students (e.g. from this years class to next years class)

Developing Metacognition:

  • model your own thinking
  • students explain their thoughts about learning
  • students describe their plan for completing a language task
  • students explain how they monitor a task
  • students evaluate their own performance on a task

Websites / Bibliography:

Resource guides for teaching language learning strategies in primary, secondary and hihger education:  www.nclrc.org

List of Learning strategies and research references:  www.calla.ws

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