All posts by autonoblogger

A Japan-based native-speaking English teacher (and compulsive diarist) blogs on the subject of autonomous EFL learning (aka angst-ridden self-doubting under the guise of professional inquiry).

Back to life – starting over

I’m resurrecting this blog after many years (last update was 2010).

I will write about some chronic issues that I’ve encountered over the years, and which never go away or seem to improve. These are the major speed-bumps in my teaching.

After teaching for over 30 years, and now approaching retirement, I want to pass on whatever wisdom or insight I may have acquired with regard to teaching English to college students in Japan, and if possible, to throw some light onto these major stumbling blocks or obstacles.

The major obstacle, I’ve found,  is a culture gap: a gap between (obviously) my English/British/European culture and the Japanese, but also a gap between European and Japanese values, and perhaps between the older and the younger generation.  The gap is only partly linguistic: it is not just because they don’t speak or understand English and my Japanese is still limited. It is also because of major differences in values. The problem becomes one of how to identify these differences, and then how to talk about them and resolve them if possible. Until recently, I had no real way to talk about them with students, except privately with a very few interested ones, and mostly they would agree with me but be unable to offer any practical suggestions for future action.

Here is a brief summary of some of the issues I encountered, with a list below of other topics I plan to address in future posts: Continue reading Back to life – starting over

Can role-play help fluency?

In The Language Teacher, March/April 2010’s “Readers’ Forum”, Eric Bray writes about role-play in EFL (PDF, login and password required) (the TLT homepage mistakenly attributes the article):

Unlike more controlled language learning activities, roleplays [sic] are tasks which fall towards the freer end of the language learning activity continuum discussed by Nunan (2004) and Richards and Rodgers (2001), and give students practice accessing their current language resources. This builds fluency…

However, Krashen noted that a corollary of his input hypothesis is

Talking (output) is not practicing
Krashen stresses yet again that speaking in the target language does not result in language acquisition. Although speaking can indirectly assist in language acquisition, the ability to speak is not the cause of language learning or acquisition. Instead, comprehensible output is the result of language acquisition.

The article includes no evidence that roleplay helps students to develop fluency, although it does suggest ways in which it might “indirectly assist in language acquisition”.

if roleplays are set up carefully, students can get useful practice in situations they are likely to encounter abroad, while developing fluency and the confidence to deal with the unpredictability inherent in real world language use…

Indeed, Bray admits that “students must have adequate language ability to be successful with role-play”.

In Margarete Wells’ December 2008 review (PDF, login and password required) of Bray’s roleplay textbook (link to the publisher’s info page for this book), we find

the language of some instructions and model materials… is very high for EFL students… learners whose level is at least low intermediate, but preferably higher, would stand to gain the most in terms of  increased confidence and improved proficiency, by using this book. The course relies heavily on learners being willing to think on their feet and be linguistically creative, not to mention the heavy stress on question techniques, which would seem to be very demanding for lower level students. (Margarete Wells, “Moving on With English: Discussion, Role Plays, Projects”, The Language Teacher 32,12 (December 2008): 21)

Even her post low-intermediate students “needed considerable input in terms of language and ideas”. This would seem to indicate that, in order to do these roleplays, students already need to have acquired a certain fluency, which undermines Bray’s claim, but supports Krashen’s view (see above).

In his conclusion, Bray points to what might be a strong motivation for a teacher to use roleplays (and by the way, Bray writes it as one word in his TLT article, yet in the title of his book the term is written as two, unhyphenated, words):

Finally, successful roleplays can transform the atmosphere of the classroom into a more fun and exciting place where anything can happen and probably will.

Now, I’m not against fun and excitement. However, teachers need to be clear on what their purposes and their priorities are, lest we fall into the trap of becoming illusionists. And we are still left with the problem of how to develop our students’ fluency.

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Caring and teaching: only one is difficult

I recently saw “Freedom Writers“. The reason I hadn’t watched it before then, apart from it’s general unavailability in Japan, was Dan Meyer’s review of it, wow! 3 years ago. Thanks to Google Search, it took me less than a minute to find Dan’s review. After watching the movie, I felt Dan nailed it, especially this paragraph:

I don’t mean to set up this false dichotomy between teaching and caring. Both happen in the same practice; both are essential. But teachers — or rather, Teachers, by which I mean my union proper, the blogosphere in general, and my co-workers in particular — have emphasized caring over teaching. Teachers continuously fail to differentiate us from well-educated au pairs, as evidenced and perpetuated by Freedom Writers’ very existence.Again: teaching and caring (passion, if you want) are inextricably linked.

But: only one of them is difficult.

The reason I watched Freedom Writers was because I’d brought the video of Stand and Deliver to a friend’s house to watch, and as the opening scenes rolled he remembered he’s already seen it. So then we flipped thru his hard-drive to see what else he had that might interest us, and he had Freedom Writers and recommended it. The same Google Search on Dan’s site pulled up this comment of Dan’s about Stand and Deliver, which made me laugh (the comment, not the movie):

Stand and Deliver? Are you people kidding me? That was 1988. Pretty sure I wasn’t even born then.

Okay, so I saw it a long time ago, so long I didn’t feel comfortable introducing it into the post proper. All I remember, in fact, is Edward James Olmos collapsing and falling down a flight of stairs. Which kinda strikes me as par for the teaching movie course.

I mean, Jaime Escalante did some fantastic stuff, no doubt, but we’re talking about creativity and perserverance, primarily, neither of which are very cinematic attributes.

So you overdramatize. Instead of some rowdy bangers, you have the freaking teen slum lord of South Central sitting in the back row. Instead of an intrusive, useless administration you have completely antagonistic dictators. Instead of a strained, joyless family life, you have husband and wife screaming at each, throwing perishable items against walls, and divorcing, in the case of Freedom Writers.

And you have Edward James Olmos falling down a flight of stairs.

None of this is to suggest these tragedies don’t afflict teachers, that they aren’t real, but to see all of them in the same movie, as is par for the teaching movie course, beggars belief.

I think the book has more to teach about teaching and dealing with people than the movie, which tries to pack everything in, and leaves out such important things like Principal Gradillas.

Stand and Deliver? Are you people kidding me? That was 1988. Pretty sure I wasn’t even born then.

Okay, so I saw it a long time ago, so long I didn’t feel comfortable introducing it into the post proper. All I remember, in fact, is Edward James Olmos collapsing and falling down a flight of stairs. Which kinda strikes me as par for the teaching movie course.

I mean, Jaime Escalante did some fantastic stuff, no doubt, but we’re talking about creativity and perserverance, primarily, neither of which are very cinematic attributes.

So you overdramatize. Instead of some rowdy bangers, you have the freaking teen slum lord of South Central sitting in the back row. Instead of an intrusive, useless administration you have completely antagonistic dictators. Instead of a strained, joyless family life, you have husband and wife screaming at each, throwing perishable items against walls, and divorcing, in the case of Freedom Writers.

And you have Edward James Olmos falling down a flight of stairs.

None of this is to suggest these tragedies don’t afflict teachers, that they aren’t real, but to see all of them in the same movie, as is par for the teaching movie course, beggars belief.

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Academic writing software

Following my two earlier entries on academic writing software, today, thanks to James Atherton’s questing VoLE blog, I found a link to this (possibly) useful website: Write your own academic sentence!

Too lazy to write it yourself? Let the Virtual Academic do it for you

Need a sentence for your latest article? Write one here! Just select a word or phrase from each drop-down list and click “Write It.”

Don’t like the sentence? You can use the same words in a different sentence by clicking “Edit It.” (Click “Edit It” repeatedly to see several options!) Or to write something completely new, you can change one or more of the words you’ve selected and click “Write It” again. Have fun!

Dictation redux

Peirce 55-B dictation wire recorder from 1945....
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A while back, I posted about using dictation in EFL classes. I recently gave dictations in my final exams, and reading the results taught me some further uses for dictation.

  • Students failed to notice how a falling intonation indicated the end of a sentence. I did not announce the punctuation, as I had not consistently done so in earlier dictations, and did not want to start now (or then, i.e. in the middle of an exam). It had not occurred to me that the significance of falling intonation was not obvious and needs to be taught. They put full-stops where there should have been commas, and failed to put full-stops (or subsequent capital letters) where they were indicated by meaning and by my falling intonation.
  • Dictation can be used to not only test (or review) known or previously taught vocabulary, but also to test if students have acquired enough patterns of English spelling to make a reasonable guess at spelling unfamiliar words. (All my students failed miserably at “champagne”.)
  • The dictation revealed grammatical weaknesses I had not covered (I assumed students had acquired enough English, but I was wrong), e.g.:  I gave New Year’s presents two my children.
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Timed writing

Blaine Ray wrote,

Having [students] do time writings without editing is an excellent way to assess fluency.

I’ve been having my students write for 5 minutes almost every class, usually at the beginning, sometimes at the end. Sometimes I set the topic, but most times I left them free to write whatever they wanted. I had them count the words and keep a record. These writing samples were great sources of information, both personal (about students) and linguistic (they revealed areas of grammar, syntax or vocabulary that needed more practice).

I did timed writings in almost all my classes, including “Speaking” and “Listening” classes.

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Academic Writing Part 2

St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writin...
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This is a follow-up to my previous entry on this subject.

If you are looking for a website to help you teach academic writing to university students (whether EFL students or native-English-speaking students), I recommend those by Gavin Budge (Writing for the Reader), and by Andy Gillett: Academic Writing.

As many of my students don’t seem to be clear on what academic writing is, or what it is for, I found the following sections of Writing for the Reader particularly helpful: I paraphrased some sections or translated them into Japanese for my students. I don’t actually teach Academic Writing, but two of my courses require students to write several essays which must include references and citations in the MLA style. Judging from my experience this year (academic year 2009-2010), most students don’t really have much of a clue. Students who wrote an essay comparing a British children’s story with a Japanese children’s story, for example, often wrote more just describing the plot than actually comparing the two stories.

I found the pages below particularly useful when helping me explain the why’s and wherefore’s of academic writing to my students. If this year’s experience is any guide, I shall need to spend more time on these basics.

I discovered several problems with my students’ academic writing.

  1. Problem #1: many of my students wrote lots describing the plots of the stories they were using for their comparison essay. See “writer-oriented prose” from Gavin Budge’s website.
  2. Problem #2:  students were making all kinds of assumptions about who their readers would be and what they would know. Essentially, they assumed their “readers” would be Japanese college students like themselves; in other words, they had not thought about who the readers would be at all, they were still writer-oriented. In the case of my writing and blogging students, they assumed the readers would be their classmates; in the case of the more academic classes, they assumed their readers would be their classmates and/or me, their instructor, a gaijin familiar with Japan and things Japanese. (See “rhetorical situation” below.)
  3. They seemed unaware of the purpose of proper referencing,  paragraphing and formatting. Gavin Budge wrote the following in an explanatory article, and it was this that first caught my attention and made me want to explore his site more:
  4. The other fundamental problem with most existing guides to academic writing, whether in book or electronic form, seemed to me to be that they don’t explain the purpose behind the advice they presented, a purpose often clear to those who have already mastered the craft of academic prose, but whose obviousness can’t be assumed for the students the guides are supposed to be addressing. Referencing conventions, for example, are often set out in considerable detail, but the purpose of providing references is rarely discussed. And yet all studies of the learning process show that material which is assimilated superficially, without an understanding of its purpose, is quickly forgotten, so that it is little wonder that even those students who have consulted a writing guide often fail to reference effectively, by which I mean not just with mechanical correctness but with an understanding of the rhetorical purposes served by referencing in academic writing.

  5. They wrote their essays as “reaction papers”, or what the Japanese call “kansou-bun” 感想文: they started off with explanations about why they had chosen the topic and added all sorts of irrelevant, personal details. They also threw in their personal opinions helter-skelter, anywhere, and failed to adhere to my rule that they at least leave out all personal opinions until the concluding paragraph: they simply could not understand why. (See “rules” below.)
  6. They also did not really understand the reasons for splitting their writing up into paragraphs, or the importance of the order of the paragraphs. When they remembered to do so, they only did it (I felt) because I insisted on it. They did not understand the need for a clear, introductory paragraph, and indeed found it very difficult to write one. (See  “cues” below.)

Unfortunately, I came across this excellent website too late to make much use of it in my classes for this (Japanese) academic year, which is now drawing to a close (end of January). I plan to translate some of the key points below and make them available to my academic writing classes next year (starting in April, with the cherry blossom).

  • writer-oriented prose:
  • Writer-orientated writing may be appropriate in a note-taking context, but should be avoided in the context of a university essay, which is expected to be reader-orientated. The requirement in university work to take account of the reader’s perspective is one of the main differences from the kind of writing you may have done at school. Typically, when revising, you can improve the effectiveness of your writing by making it more orientated towards your imagined reader.

    The tell-tale symptoms of writer-orientated writing may be summed up as a lack of synthesis. Although it may sometimes be necessary briefly to remind your reader of the content of a text you are discussing, if you find yourself taking more than a half a page to describe the plot of a novel, for example, it indicates that you haven’t really arrived at any overall view of what the novel is about. In the same way, if you are aware that you are presenting information in a particular order simply because that is the order you came across it yourself, it shows that you haven’t really worked out what the significance of the information might be for someone else.

  • rhetorical situation
  • It’s very easy to assume that simply by producing a piece of writing you have succeeded in communicating. Everything seems perfectly clear when you read it over, so why wouldn’t somebody else understand it? The short answer is that, if you haven’t put considerable effort into providing cues, you are expecting your reader to be a mind-reader. You have spent hours preparing and writing your essay, and as a result have formed a very detailed mental picture of the topic, which you automatically relate to the words you have put down on paper. But the reader can’t see this picture inside your head; they can only form their picture of the topic through a process of creative reading. Your job as a writer is to make it possible for your readers to reconstruct an adequate version of your mental picture, or approach.

  • expectations
  • Unlike the essays you may have written at school, writing at university level is expected to be reader-orientated and aware of its rhetorical situation, rather than an essentially writer-orientated display of knowledge. This means that nobody can give you a simple checklist of the differing expectations that apply at university level, because what is being marked by your tutors is often the structure and the cues you provide for the reader, rather than anything which can be reduced to discrete items. You can only understand these aspects of essay-writing by actively exploring writing strategies.

    One of the fundamental differences between writing and speaking is the lack of interaction with the audience when you’re writing, which makes it easy to forget to put design for a reader into your essay. The lack of audience interaction is also responsible for the feeling of not knowing what is expected which you may have. This is why it is often useful to give an oral presentation when working on an essay, since it helps you develop your sense of audience.

  • rules
  • Impersonal forms of expression are preferred in academic writing. This does not mean that you should never use the word “I” in a university essay. The word “I” is quite acceptable in contexts where you are talking about what you are doing as a writer (e.g. in expressions such as “I am now going to discuss…”). The reason you may have been told not to use the word “I” (perhaps at school) is that you were being discouraged from taking a writer-orientated perspective in which the meaningfulness of assertions in the first person (e.g. “I think that fox-hunting is wrong.”) is assumed is to be obvious. Making this kind of claim using the word “I”, and without providing any evidence or supporting argument, is very like citing from unpublished sources, because it gives your reader no way to examine the basis of what you’re saying. Using the word “I” in this way, in order to substitute for evidence rather than to clarify your approach as a writer is fundamentally in conflict with the reader-orientated perspective that is one of the expectations attached to essay-writing at university level.

  • cues

When we’re in conversation with somebody, or listening to an oral presentation, we’re provided with a running commentary on how to understand what is being said by the speaker’s tone of voice or their body language. A reader is cut off from all such signals, and unless you take care to provide plenty of explicit indications in your writing about how one part of your argument relates to another, will quickly become disorientated. One source of these cues is the structure of your writing, particularly the introduction and, to a lesser extent, the conclusion, which perform a framing function for your argument, allowing your reader to place what you’re saying in a context, and thus understand its bearing by answering the so what? question. But it’s a waste of time doing the work to provide this context and then allowing your reader to forget about it – readers have fairly short memories and will simply be puzzled if your argument refers back to something you said more than about three pages previously, so you need to keep this context in your reader’s mind by regular signposting.

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Academic Writing

Markin4, editing software for EFL/ESL teachers

Most of my classes are of the “Oral English” type, but I also teach some classes in which students are required to produce academic writing in English. At first, I assumed that my students were getting basic instruction in academic writing in their native language (Japanese) in other classes, e.g. their seminar classes. They probably are. However, I have discovered that they don’t have much of a grasp of references, reporting and citations. Basically, they either don’t quote anybody at all, or when they do, they don’t indicate where they are quoting and where they are not (although a sudden switch from pidgin English to something perfectly comprehensible is the usual indicator).

After much ranting from me, they are now beginning to refer to other writers, and to include the references at the end of their writing. I think their problem was partly a language one, and partly cultural: they simply did not know how to refer to another writer.  So I gave them some examples (with the help of this very useful website by Andy Gillett, UK), such as “According to Krashen (2003)”, or “Krashen (2003) writes that… ” and so on. Actually giving them examples seemed to increase the frequency with which they referred to other writers in their essays.

They are still not clearly signaling when they are referring to another writer’s ideas or words: they seem to think that bunging a couple of references at the end is enough. Reading several examples of such student essays prompted the following, earth-shaking insights:

  1. they may not have read any academic essays in English, which would account for a lot;
  2. they may not be familiar with the English academic or formal register;
  3. it might be of more help for their academic and linguistic development if they actually read (samples of) English academic essays, rather than reading a bunch of explanations about academic writing;
  4. #3 above seems kinda obvious after reading Krashen on the subject of language acquisition (the only way language is acquired is by lots and lots of comprehensible input).

I’ve been using a software program called Markin4 to correct and mark my students’ electronic files electronically. I use this because it’s quicker than doing it by hand (and when you’ve got 40 students writing assignments twice a week, you welcome anything that saves you time), and because I am teaching some students at a distance (i.e., they take the class but they don’t come to the actual classroom). It is very easy to install and use, and you can output the edited student writing as a RTF file and a html file. It is quite good, however it focuses on the sub-paragraph level of writing, and has no functions specifically for academic essays, so I started to look for academic-essay editing/evaluating software, and after ages and ages of backbreaking slog typing search items into Google and what have you, I can now announce to the world the results of my labours, thereby saving you, dear Reader, absolutely tons of man-hours of useless toil.

I came across StyleEase, and downloaded the free demo version. It works as a plugin for MSWord (or OpenOffice, I believe), and uses macros. I followed the instructions carefully about configuring MSWord to allow StyleEase macros to work, particularly as the ReadMe file states that problems with this are the most frequent problems encountered by would-be users of StyleEase. However… I was unable to get StyleEase to work, despite following all the instructions. So, too bad: out it goes. Perhaps you will have better luck (it could be that I am using a Japanese version of Windows and of MS Office, but frankly I couldn’t be bothered to spend more time tinkering to see if that was in fact the case: even if it’s free, if it don’t work first time like it should, then it gets the boot. Life is short).

Here’s another one: StyleWriter. This looks good, but the company, White Smoke, don’t offer a free trial download. I can’t tell from the brief popup video if it will do what I want. It also seems to come bundled with lots of stuff that I’m not sure I’ll need like lots of letter templates, and an “international dictionary”. (I also didn’t like the fact that I had to type in all my details before I could find out how much the damned thing cost.)

I also came across this useful list of software programs and the writing process, although it includes software designed for writing other than academic writing. In that list was a link to Merit Software and two programs called Paragraph Punch and Essay Punch. Both of these, you’ll be glad to know, have their own web pages which include a link to a price-list, for which Merit Software earns serious Brownie points. Both Paragraph and Essay Punches have online editions, and they also have free trial downloads (more Brownie points). I’ll be downloading these and test-driving them, so come back later to read my results.

Google search also brought up this interesting newsletter entry about an academic writing website by another British academic, Dr. Gavin Budge at Birmingham University. The newsletter gives the link to the actual website, a wiki called Writing for the Reader: I was not able to access the site from a university-campus computer, but from home, no problem. It’s all text-based, but it looks useful, and it seems to do what Dr Budge claims in the newsletter:

My interest in creating an essay-writing website stemmed from the perception that most books on essay-writing, while making a lot of sense to university lecturers, who already know how to write, tend not to make all that much sense to students, who typically seize on one or two pieces of essay-writing advice in a one-sided way because they have no grasp of the essay-writing process as a whole: common examples from my own experience include the student whose writing goes through incredible syntactic contortions in order to avoid using the word ‘I’ in any context whatever, and the student whose writing is unintelligible because they have replaced all key words with what they assume are more impressive ‘synonyms’ from a thesaurus. Truly understanding a book on essay writing involves appreciating that its writer has reduced the complex reflexivity of the actual writing process into an essentially linear form; but since such a representation of what is multi-dimensional by a one-dimensional line of argument is precisely what students who are learning about essay-writing have yet to learn to do, it is hardly surprising if they misinterpret essay-writing guides presented in the form of a book.

The wiki itself contains some good advice and each page is short (screen length). There’s a lot there, and I’m still exploring it. My only gripes so far are:

  1. There should be more graphics (tho Budge does use the Axion mindmapping software to add a few small graphics, I’m not sure how helpful they are)
  2. I’d like to see more examples of actual academic writing: I think it is reading lots of academic essays that allows people to “acquire” a good academic writing style; this, more than carefully worded examples, is what is needed, especially for students whose first language is not English
  3. how about using video? Maybe not to replace the text pages but to re-inforce them and to offer a different medium, and to break up the tedium of page after page of text.

(Budge links to three different mindmapping software programs. I discovered mindmapping in my last year of grammar school (sixth-form) while preparing for university entrance exams and A-levels: my dad lent me one of Tony Buzan’s first books.

  1. FreeMind
  2. CmapTools
  3. Axon Idea Processor (the one he ended up actually using in the wiki)

Another couple of interesting, academic-writing-related websites were these two online essay-evaluating services:

To be continued…

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Do people have a right to education?

On the BBC news website is an article reviewing the British educational scene 2000-2009. At the top is a photo of a banner which reads in part “everyone has a right to education“. This idea seems to have entered common consciousness: it is now almost part of what I would call the dominant ideology. Where did this idea come from? Is it correct?

Ayn Rand wrote an instructive essay on this subject, Man’s Rights. It is an appendix to her book Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal. In it she points out that, to say someone has a right TO something implies that someone else has the duty or obligation to provide it.

She begins by defining “rights”:

The concept of a “right” pertains only to action—specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.

Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights… the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.

When this definition is not clearly understood (it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object), then statements like that on the banner in the photo are inevitable.

Rand points out that, if someone has a right to something, that means someone, somewhere has to provide it. “Have to” means whether they want to or not, i.e. they will be coerced. However, have to contradicts the basic human right, the freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice.

She further points out that the basic human rights are not granted by governments or monarchs; they arise from the fact that man is a rational being. She then concludes that to force someone to provide a good or service for someone else is therefore to deprive that person of their basic rights, and therefore cannot be morally justified.

“The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational.” (Atlas Shrugged)

To violate man’s rights means to compel him to act against his own judgment, or to expropriate his values. Basically, there is only one way to do it: by the use of physical force….

Jobs, food, clothing, recreation(!), homes, medical care, education, etc., do not grow in nature. These are man-made values—goods and services produced by men. Who is to provide them?

If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor.

Any alleged “right” of one man, which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right.

No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unrewarded duty or an involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing as “the right to enslave.”

A right does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one’s own effort.

Observe, in this context, the intellectual precision of the Founding Fathers: they spoke of the right to the pursuit of happiness—not of the right to happiness. It means that a man has the right to take the actions he deems necessary to achieve his happiness; it does not mean that others must make him happy.

Whether you agree with Rand’s libertarianism or not is immaterial. In any discussion of rights, whether of the “moral” kind which Rand refers to, or the “economic” rights of FDR, it is important to have a clear grasp of the concepts involved. (It’s well worth reading the whole essay.)

(It is a mistake to think of Ayn Rand as representative of libertarian thinking: many present-day libertarians disagree with Rand on some points. To read two articles by someone who disagrees, click the links below to the articles by Stephen Kinsella.)

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“Why don’t children like school?” and “How to teach critical thinking”

Why Don’t Students Like School? – Because the mind is not designed for thinking. (pdf)

Don’t be put off by the ludicrous-sounding subtitle (what he means, as he explains later, is that thinking is hard work and we avoid it wherever possible, usually by relying on memory instead). It’s well worth reading. Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology, is not only knowledgeable in his field, he also writes clearly, without condescension or jargon.

He writes for a section in the Washington Post called The Answer Sheet, and has published a book called Why Don’t Students Like School? (The linked pdf file is an excerpt from the book).

The second article, Critical Thinking – Why is it so hard so teach? (PDF) –  is also by Willingham, and this article will be of interest to TPRS teachers. There are certain similarities between his suggestions for effective teaching of critical thinking, and Krashen’s theories of Second Language Acquisition. I’ll write about what TPRS teachers can learn from this article later.

The basic idea of Why Don’t Children Like School is that children don’t like school because they are required to think there, and human beings are not “designed to think”. Well, what Willingham means is two things:

  1. that thinking requires effort and humans prefer to avoid it unless there is no alternative (in particular we prefer to rely on memory),
  2. that, although humans find thinking difficult, they also enjoy it, particularly solving problems, but can only sustain it if there is sufficient satisfaction derived from the effort.

Working on problems that are at the right level of difficulty is rewarding , but working on problems that are too easy or too difficult is unpleasant…. The core idea presented in this article is that solving a problem gives people pleasure, but the problem must be easy enough to be solved yet difficult enough that it takes some mental effort.

Willingham points out three properties of thinking:

First, thinking is slow… Second, thinking is effortful… Third, thinking is uncertain.

Then, Willingham considers the implications for teachers:

What’s the solution? Give the student easier work? You could, of course, but of course you’d have to be careful not to make it so easy that the student would be bored. And anyway, wouldn’t it be better to boost the student’s ability a little bit? Instead of making the work, easier, is it possible to make thinking easier?

… what can teachers do to make school enjoyable for students? From a cognitive perspective, an important factor is whether a student consistently experiences the pleasurable rush of solving a problem. So, what can teachers do to ensure that each student gets that pleasure?

One suggestion he makes is to remember to ask or pose questions. The following paragraph will be interesting for TPRS teachers because a basic TPRS technique is asking questions and using the answers to build a story, or as TPRS teachers say, to ask a story.

One way to view schoolwork is as a series of answers. … Sometimes I think that we, as teachers, are so eager to get to the answers that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question. But it’s the question that piques people’s interest. Being told an answer doesn’t do anything for you. When you plan a lesson, you start with the information you want students to know by its end. As a next step, consider what the key question for that lesson might be, and how you can frame that question so that it will be of the right level of difficulty to engage your students, and will respect your students’ cognitive limitations.

I was reminded of a difficulty I encounter while blogging, when I read the following:

There’s a final necessity for thinking: sufficient space in working memory. Thinking becomes increasingly difficult as working memory gets crowded.

How many open tags is the max I can handle?

For details, read the (pdf) article.

The second article, Critical Thinking (pdf), also has some points of interest for TPRS teachers. Willingham asks, “Can critical thinking actually be taught?” His conclusion, based on the results of various studies, is that critical thinking training programs are not as effective a was hoped (or as many people think). He then examines possible reasons for this. To explain, he uses the following concepts: surface structure or knowledge, and deep structure or knowledge, critical thinking as a skill, and metacognitive strategies.


People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation.  Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skills. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, theyprobably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize.

This has implications for TPRS teachers, as it sounds similar to Krashen’s theories about learning and acquisition. Krashen posits that learning, which he defines as conscious learning about the language, does not result in acquisition; in other words, learning rules of grammar, spelling or vocabulary does not necessarily transfer to actual competence. Krashen actually suggests that conscious learning is a waste of time, if one assumes that the goal is language acquisition, although he does admit there is a place for learning grammar, but only after students have acquired sufficient language.

Willingham then examines surface knowledge vs. deep knowledge. Willinghamwrites that when we read, we tend to take in the surface structure first, and not look more deeply. He provides two mathematical word-problems: although they are both about the same mathematical process – using the least common multiple – experiments show that people are more likely to think about the surface structures of the problems:

Earlier in the experiment, subjects had read four problems alongs with detailed explanations of how to solve each one… One of the four problems concerned the number of vegetables to buy for a garden [the other was about calculating the number in a high school marching band]… When a student reads a word problem, her mind interprets the problem in light of her prior knowledge… The difficulty is that the knowledge that seems relevant relates to the surface structure… The student is unlikely to … think of it in terms of its deep structure…. Thus, people fail to use the first problem to help them solve the second: In their minds, the first was about vegetables in a garden and the second was about rows of band marchers.

Willingham is showing that, first of all, we bring our background knowledge to bear on problems; that our background knowledge relates usually only to the surface structure of problems, not to their underlying deep structure hence we may often miss seeing the common factors and therefore the principles to apply to similar problems. He then examines how knowledge of how to solve a problem gets transferred to similar problems which have new or different surface structures.

He relates an experiment which gave the same math problems to groups of American and Chinese students. 75% of the American students solved the problem compared to 25 % of the Chinese students. It was surmised that the reason was cultural: the problem was similar to one faced by Hansel and Gretel in the Grimms’ fairy tale, which most of the American students knew whereas most of the Chinese students were unfamiliar with it. A second problem was given, this time based on a Chinese folk tale, and the percentage of solvers from each culture was reversed. Willingham continues:

It takes a good deal of practice with a problem type before students know it well enough to immediately recognize its deep structure, irrespective of the surface structure, as Americans did for the Hansel and Gretel problem… The deep structure of the problem is so well represented in their memory, that they immediately saw the structure when they read the problem.

Sounds like evidence for providing lots of cultural background information (including stories and fairy tales) in our language classes. It is also suggests, does it not, that the way to develop familiarity with the grammar of a language is not to teach the grammar directly, but rather to provide lots of comprehensible input: It takes a good deal of practice with a problem type before students know it well enough to immediately recognize its deep structure, irrespective of surface structure.

Willingham also takes a look at Critical Thinking Programs, and his conclusion based on the evidence, is that they take lots of time to implement – three years, with several hours of instruction … per week – and the benefits are modest (actually, he says that the studies that have been done have methodological problems, and only a small fraction of the have undergone peer review.)

Next, Willingham takes a look at metacognitive strategies. Perhaps we can help students learn by teaching them to look for deep structure?

Consider what would happen if I said to a student working on the band problem, “this one is similar to the garden problem.”… you can teach students maxims about how they ought to think… they are little chunks of knowledge… that students can learn and then use to steer their thoughts in more productive directions. Helping students become better at regulating their thoughts was one of the goals of the critical thinking programs that were popular 20 years ago… these programs were not very effective. Their modest benefit is likely due to teaching students to effectively use metacognitive strategies… Unfortunately, metacognitive strategies can only take you so far. Although they suggest what you ought to do, they don’t provide the knowledge necessary to implement the strategy. For example, when experimenters told subjects working on the band problem that it was similar to the garden problem, more subjects solved the problem… but most subjects, even when told what to do, weren’t able to do it.

Much has been written, and many studies done, about teaching language students metacognitive strategies (see Anita Wenden’s classic Learner Strategies for Learner Autonomy, for example, or any of the zillions of  “learning how to learn” books, etc). Although they seemed interesting and the idea is plausible, I could never overcome a deep suspicion that this was snake oil. Ha! Now I have proof.

Finally, Willingham concludes that scientific thinking cannot be taught in isolation, as a separate skill, like reading music. In fact, Willingham states categorically that critical thinking is not a skill, because it does not transfer in the way that skills do. In addition, the ability to think scientifically depends on scientific knowledge: background knowledge is necessary to engage in scientific thinking.

His conclusions:

First, critical thinking … is not a skill… Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically (to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for) depends on domain knowledge and practice.

Here are two more articles by Willingham on a similar theme: Inflexible Knowledge: the first step to expertise and Students remember what they think about.

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