Category Archives: education

Phonics or… creativity?

I just re-discovered, a British website (and actual TV programme?) that hosts a host of information about teachers and teaching in British schools. Obviously most of the content is going to be of more interest to people who actually live and teach in Britain, than to people who don’t (like me), but I enjoyed this 45-minute video by children’s author Michael Rosen from the programme School Matters on the subject of phonics and the teaching of reading. Apparently, phonics is now the British government’s official teaching-to-read method. Michael Rosen, though, is in the “whole word” camp. He visits a number of schools and interviews different people, teachers and researchers and people in government. It’s a very well made video. Rosen’s purpose is to examine whether phonics and testing stifles children’s (and teacher’s) creativity.

I don’t think the whole-word argument is convincingly made in this video, and certainly the question of whether it really is an either-or argument goes begging through the entire 45 minutes. Equally unasked is the question of why the government needs to decide on a single approach at all, and then mandate that for the whole country.

Here’s the video blurb:

Author Michael Rosen questions whether the current political enthusiasm for synthetic phonics, designated literacy hours, and league tables is turning off young readers.

Rosen examines the evidence for claims that these devices have led to higher literacy standards, and finds it wanting. Unlike many critics, he suggests ways of encouraging reading, and he’s not afraid of advocating poetry, often one of the most difficult and frightening tasks facing both teachers and their classes.

In his journey to discovering ways of improving literacy Rosen hears from heads, literacy experts, teachers and academics and even Jim Rose; the man whom he holds principally responsible for the imposition of synthetic phonics throughout the land.

Learning styles? Rubbish!

Harold Jarche shares his scepticism of the learning-styles theory, and I must say I tend to agree. Simple logistics is one objection I have. It sounds great, benevolent and taking into account students’ individual differences and needs, but read this and see if you still agree with it.

The list he offers, tho, has much in common with the principles of instruction espoused by many who subscribe to Multiple Intelligence Theory.

Use Cast‘s Universal Design Principles:

* Multiple means of representation, to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge,
* Multiple means of expression, to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know,
* Multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation.

Here, for example, is an extract from an article by Thomas Armstrong, a long-time proponent of MI in education and the author of a number of books on the subject:

One of the most remarkable features of the theory of multiple intelligences is how it provides eight different potential pathways to learning. If a teacher is having difficulty reaching a student in the more traditional linguistic or logical ways of instruction, the theory of multiple intelligences suggests several other ways in which the material might be presented to facilitate effective learning. Whether you are a kindergarten teacher, a graduate school instructor, or an adult learner seeking better ways of pursuing self-study on any subject of interest, the same basic guidelines apply. Whatever you are teaching or learning, see how you might connect it with

  • words (linguistic intelligence)
  • numbers or logic (logical-mathematical intelligence)
  • pictures (spatial intelligence)
  • music (musical intelligence)
  • self-reflection (intrapersonal intelligence)
  • a physical experience (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence)
  • a social experience (interpersonal intelligence), and/or
  • an experience in the natural world. (naturalist intelligence)

For example, if you’re teaching or learning about the law of supply and demand in economics, you might read about it (linguistic), study mathematical formulas that express it (logical-mathematical), examine a graphic chart that illustrates the principle (spatial), observe the law in the natural world (naturalist) or in the human world of commerce (interpersonal); examine the law in terms of your own body [e.g. when you supply your body with lots of food, the hunger demand goes down; when there’s very little supply, your stomach’s demand for food goes way up and you get hungry] (bodily-kinesthetic and intrapersonal); and/or write a song (or find an existing song) that demonstrates the law (perhaps Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing?”).

You don’t have to teach or learn something in all eight ways, just see what the possibilities are, and then decide which particular pathways interest you the most, or seem to be the most effective teaching or learning tools.

Here are a couple of old but fun-to-read critical articles of the learning styles theory: Learning styles don’t matter (the whole heterodox site is worth investigating), and Do learner profiles enhance learning?

"Attendance" and "instructional objectives" connection

Last year I blogged about taking attendance in Japanese university classes, particularly about the tendency by so many people in higher education in Japan to use attendance as a measure of achievement, or at least as a factor when calculating final grades.

I’ve been thinking about it again more recently, after reading Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives, and I’ve found a link: vague instructional objectives which specify instructional procedure but not desired student performance (what students are expected to be able to do as a result of the instructor’s instruction) seem to often accompany this tendency to stress attendance in a certain number of class-hours as an important factor in calculating final grades.

When I think about it, it’s obvious: what else is there? If you don’t have a clear idea of what you expect students to be able to do as a result of your instruction, there’s not a lot left to go on when calculating grades except how many classes they’ve attended. Granted, if you need some actual figures, you can always drum some up by having a final exam and by giving students quizzes, or assigning homework and giving them a grade for that, and I suspect this is what a lot of teachers do: I’m guilty, too: I have given quizzes primarily for the (unspoken) purpose of having numbers I can calculate for a final grade.

In the afore-mentioned book, which I heartily recommend (it’s a very easy read, written in a breezy, humorous style), Mager writes,

Instructors function in a fog of their own making unless they know what they want their students to accomplish as a result of their instruction.

I was reminded of this today after watching an “open” class taught by a Japanese literature professor at the university. The only clear instructional objective I could glean from her explanation and from her published syllabus was “students will be able to pass the exam I set”.

In addition, there was no clear objective for this particular class; there was nothing for students to do except listen and take notes; there was no task, or any opportunity for students to participate.

I’m still a long way from making and adhering to clear instructional objectives myself, but it seems a most worthwhile professional objective at this time, although I’m surrounded by people who think the following is an instructional objective (says me with the sneer of the freshly converted):

Next year will be the 1,000th anniversary of the publishing of The Tale of Genji. This lecture series will survey the 1,000 years of history since the writing of the Tale of Genji to the present day, with that work of literature as a focal point.

This is what the instructor will do. What will the students be able to do as a result of this series of lectures?

OK, perhaps not all university subjects easily yield to such an approach; some might argue, with reason, that some subjects are studied for more intangible benefits. Yet surely there can be few subjects that might not benefit from the rigorous examination that is required when creating clear instructional objectives.

"They just want to be taught"

In a previous, long-winded post, I blathered rather incoherently about teacher-led classes versus student-led or some form of negotiated curriculum.

I have one language class where for part of the time, students work in pairs or threes, each group with their own CD player, textbook and text CDs. They practise a combination of listen-and-repeat exercises, listening only, and speaking only exericses. We started in April, but it is only recently that I have felt students are ready for the responsibility of working on their own. I was recently telling another teacher about this class, and how students seem slow to adjust to the idea that learning English is largely a matter of practice. She said, “Yeah, they just want to be taught.”

Taken out of context, this sounds like praise, not censure. “They just want to be taught.” Great! Wonderful! What’s wrong with that??!? “I’ll swap them for my kids any day! Go ahead and teach them, then!”

I can do that, no problem. But at some stage, they need to go away and practice, then come back and show me what they can do. That’s the part they won’t really do. They are happy being passive, but balk when it’s their turn to actually produce. And to be fair, in what other of their classes are they required to produce anything? Again and again, students ask “How many times have I been absent?” Clearly, the frequency of attendance, not some product or performance, is, in their minds, the criterion for passing the course.

Cede control to students? Revisited

Dan asks how I’d respond to this solution:

Cede instructional control to the student. Let her direct her own learning. Curriculum and student desire will align.

I teach university students, not high school; uni students are less easy to convince that they absolutely need what I’m teaching; they are IN (the uni) – the major extrinsic motivator for learning English previously.

I tend towards a negotiated syllabus. Here’s why.

In the post that prompted Dan’s question, I wrote about a mismatch between curriculum and student desires.

Pissed Off (Teacher)‘s comment offers one approach to this dilemma, but to work it requires wielding a degree of fear:
if you don’t learn this stuff, you’ll be

  • out on the street
  • unemployable
  • a leech on society
  • one step from prostitution and/or gang membership
  • all of the above

What if students don’t buy that? What if they don’t believe that the consequences will be as terrible as you imply, OR they don’t believe that even if they do learn this stuff, that the world will open to them?

In my situation, the hard part is getting in to university (“hard” is relative, and it’s getting easier all the time, due to demographics). Once they are in, students pretty much sit back and take it easy, indulging in (what they are frequently told is) their last period of freedom before the penal servitude/military service of life in a Japanese company.

Therefore, there is not much incentive for students to work hard. Even getting better grades will not greatly affect the kinds of jobs they will get. What jobs they get depends a lot on the rank or name of the university they graduate from. As this ranking is outside their control or influence, there is not much incentive to work hard and get better grades.

Assuming that you believe what you are teaching is vital (or important) for students’ future well-being, then a possible solution is to negotiate with students to find out what they are interested in, what topics they would willingly (or less unwillingly, at least) read about, talk about, write about.

Another reason for negotiating syllabus might be if the curriculum provided is quite obviously inappropriate, or if it’s appropriacy is challengeable or open to debate. Perhaps students’ reluctance is not so much a matter of “attitude” as that they do not consider the syllabus relevant or suitable. OK, then what would be suitable or relevant?

Dan’s point about the importance of being engaging could be considered a form of negotiated syllabus. Otherwise, why bother?

Finally, I think that ceding complete control of learning content and direction to a student would work well in a one-to-one, tutorial situation, the ideal learning/teaching method. But I haven’t made it work yet in an institutional setting, and I don’t think it is either practical or effective, though I continue to be amazed by and admiring of people who try it, especially those who seem to succeed with it.

How aggregate displays change user behavior

Here’s something that I thought might have valuable implications for teaching, particularly teaching using web2.0 tools (and particularly after reading Dan’s post about being engaging).

Aggregate displays are everywhere, from the book ratings at to the most-emailed articles at the New York Times to the number of diggs at They’re a primary element of social design. They not only let people know how their actions relate to others, but they also alter the behavior of those who view them.

In other words, it was found that posting the ratings or download figures alongside the songs, influenced people in their choice of song rating or download.

Well, duh! you might say (or you might say bandwagon effect). Still, when I read this, I started thinking of possible ways to use the info to persuade students to make more use of their blogs or other social software/web2.0 tools that I’m waving in front of them (that’s a figure of speech). Haven’t worked out the details yet. I’m thinking, not of trying to sell music to students, but of possibly posting the visit counter numbers of my students’ blogs, or perhaps the “highest number of hits this week” kind of popularity contest. To make things more fun.

Anyone already using this kind of info with students?

(The original article, by sociology professor Duncan Watts of Columbia Uni, is over here: despite the title, the article is not about Justin Timberlake, in fact he’s not even mentioned. Go figure.) And the experiment’s website is here.

The article also refers to another article which examines the Columbia experiment, and comes to a more cycnical conclusion. Scott Karp on Publishing 2.0 writes:

All of a sudden it’s crystal clear what Web 2.0 really is — the greatest platform ever for harnessing randomly imitative social behavior. Before Web 2.0, achieving utterly arbitrary results took time and effort. Now, with platforms like Digg, we can get nowhere in a fraction of the time it used to take.

WOW — I am humbled and awestru by the power of technology, and the power of randomly socialized human beings to snuff out each others’ critical faculties and personal tastes.

This reminds me of another article I read about Andrew Keen, bemoaning the “cacophony” the internet has spawned. That article (you’ll need to register with the Guardian to read it) and Scott Karp’s article are missing something: web2.0 is not a project designed to produce great art or great writing necessarily, but to break the idea that only a few elites can (and should) decide for the rest of us what we should read, listen to, watch and think; that a few should decide what is valuable and what is not. Of course there is a lot of dross out there, but there is also some excellent stuff, that would not exist if we had to wait for some “expert” to find it and tell us about it.

Update: I see , has a similar view.

Bloggy thinking?

Harold Jarche points out that blogs are good for conversations, but not so good for longer, more sustained thought, and his own entry is a good example.

Homework is only one activity that lacks evidence to support its continuance. Subject-based curriculum, age-based cohorts and reliance on unsound models like Bloom’s Taxonomy to measure learning outcomes are other examples.

Oh, really? There are good reasons for looking critically at these pedagogical methods, certainly, but I’d like to see more evidence that these are “unsound models” before I make up my mind. And where is the evidence that NOT assigning homework is a “sound model”?

Oh, I forgot, this is a blog, where you can throw out such comments and not have to provide any supporting evidence. Is this kind of gratuitous criticism (and how hard is it to knock homework?) part of being a good conversationalist, or just another nail in the coffin of rational debate?

Finally, I’d like to quote Shawn, at Anecdote, on the importance of conversation, “… most learning comes through interacting with people. Learning richness increases as multiple perspectives are described, discussed, challenged and explored.“

Actually, Shawn writes, learning is social—it benefits from conversations. Not quite the same thing. And I’d disagree that MOST learning comes throught interacting with people. I think this idea may be a distortion of ideas from Vygotsky and Bakhtin who (if I remember rightly) suggested that even reading or thinking are in fact dialogues or dialogic activity.

In fact, this suggestion kind of contradicts what Shawn writes in the previous paragraph: people don’t think they’ve learned anything until they’ve reflected on what happened. Reflection can be prompted or encouraged by others, but other people are not necessary for reflection (and therefore learning) to happen.

And even if it is true that most learning comes from interacting with people, it doesn’t necessarily mean that interacting with people provides the best or most efficient or effective kind of learning.

powered by performancing firefox

Making a commercial for your class

Dave Warlick likes using the ad for the game Civilization IV. Then he asks,

What if you had a commercial for your text book?  What if you made a commercial for your textbook?  Could You?

What if you had a commercial for your class?  What ifyou made a commercial for your class?  Could You?

Timely thought, as I’ve started a new intensive EFL class and need to pitch it to students, erm, tomorrow. I won’t be burning the candle at both ends tonight fiddling with Powerpoint or ComicLife or whatever, but it sounds like a fun and valuable project. Maybe I can delegate it?