Category Archives: theory

Cultural difference

Teaching English in a foreign country is a whole different game. I read a few teachers blogs, teachers in the US, UK, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Canada. Almost all are teaching in their own native language, and teaching students who mostly have the same native language as the teacher. When you’re teaching students who do not share not only your native language but also your cultural values, it seriously warps the playing field.

A couple of days ago, I had a final, last-day-before-the-summer-vacation class. As we had already had our exams and tests, I brought in a couple of English games: Clue and Scrabble. We played Clue(do) first.

This is a board game with cards for all the suspects, the murder weapons and the rooms in the mansion. By a process of elimination, players figure out who dunnit using what weapon and where: a player enters a room and makes a guess; if the player to her left has any one of the cards (suspect, weapon, room) named in the guess, that player must show the card.

It was amusing to watch my students play. They did not seem to know the concept of elimination. They all seemed to be most pre-occupied with finding out what cards the other players held, not by elimination but by pure guesswork. Whenever a player, in response to another player’s guess, showed that player a card, some would shout “Oh, I know! I know” (often, this was mere theatre), while others shouted, “Wait! Just hang on a minute!!” while they perused their own cards and stared with fierce concentration at the board.

Very soon after the game began, at least two of the 6 players abandoned their checklist saying it was no help or it confused them! The other players sometimes used their checklists and sometimes not. It seemed that, rather than using a process of elimination, they were trying to intuit which cards were in the envelope (the crime cards). Some students actually encouraged each other, or claimed to, “read the air” literally (空気を読む kuuki wo yomu).

I was strongly reminded of John Holt’s elementary school pupils who seemed to avoid using their knowledge and powers of reasoning, and, instead, using guesswork and intuition to try and divine the “right answer”.

If I were teaching people from my own or a similar (say, European) culture, I would have no hesitation in labelling these efforts as misguided, ineffective and “wrong”. But I’m a stranger in a strange land. For all I know, this way of “thinking” may be just as effective as my Western rationalism. I have come across some examples of intuition in this culture which I would flatly have refused to believe if I had heard about them at second-hand and not experienced them myself.

Students seem to use a similar approach when learning English: rather than recognizing patterns or thinking things through using their knowledge of English syntax or spelling patterns, they try to intuit (pronunciation, meanings of words or phrases) – they are hoping to hit the jackpot with an inspired guess.

A slightly different tactic, but which to my mind springs from the same mindset, is to try and memorize everything: when practicing conversations, I fondly imagine I am giving them the lexical and syntactical “building blocks”, which they must then put together to create something new. But often they reproach me saying they are not ready, they haven’t memorized the examples yet!

Despite my tendency towards cultural relativism (not to be confused with moral relativism), I still strongly suspect that my students are trying to take a short-cut where there isn’t one.

So, which is it? Are these students culture-bound, using an approach to learning which is familiar to them, but unfamiliar to me, and which I should therefore tread lightly around before criticizing? Or are they exhibiting a tendency fostered by schools? A tendency that John Holt described as a strategy* designed to fool their teacher into thinking they know what they really don’t know?

*The anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don’t know.

Cultural difference
Originally uploaded by passionfly

Personal Construct Psychology

I (think I) first came across the ideas of Kelly and his Personal Construct Pscyhology in a paper or two or three, written by in-Japan-teacher Gregory Hadley.

Well, I’ve just spent a happy hour lost in the maze of James Atherton’s Doceo site, and came across this page on Kelly and Personal Construct Psychology.

Atherton also included a link to Phil Race’s website, in particular to this Powerpoint presentation on a further theory of learning, Ripples.

(Atherton teaches (taught?) teachers for many years. His writings are aimed at college teachers, but some of the theory of learning stuff would apply to learners of many (all?) ages.

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?

Can critical thinking be taught?

Having fun reading the brain-teasing posts of Artichoke,
especially this one with a ton of interesting links. This one (RTF file) in particular is relevant to autonomy, altho the title is “critical thinking”. In fact, it is one of the first articles I can remember reading which links autonomy and critical thinking; an obvious connection, but I hadn’t thought about it deeply before.

The article essentially asks, Is it possible to teach critical thinking skills? Basing himself on Lamm’s “Cognitive Map of Instuction”, the author Harpaz posits there are essentially 3 theories (or “logics”)  of instruction, and that these logics conflict “in the realm of their practical results. The patterns of instruction neutralize one another in terms of their educational effect.”

The three logics of instruction are “a necessary product of the three components of the human condition: society, culture, and the individual.” The three patterns are therefore imitation derived from the “super-goal” of socialization; molding derived from the “super-goal” of acculturation, and development derived from the “super-goal” of individuation.

Harpaz then examines the teaching of critical thinking in the 3 patterns. Do the patterns of imitation suit the goals of teaching critical thinking skills? He basically says, No: there are too many contradictions. He therefore suggests a fourth pattern of instruction for which he borrows a term from Lamm, “the undermining didactic.”

Here are some bits I underlined:

A more crucial contradiction appearing in instruction for critical thinking in the pattern of imitation is a result of the “hidden curriculum” of this pattern – the covert messages sent by the practice of teaching, of which the teachers and students are unaware….Anyone learning critical thinking through imitation has also learned, in addition to the skills of critical thinking, that his or her opinions and motivations are of no importance; that to know is to remember; to think is dangerous, since thinking can disrupt the precise replication of the teacher’s words; authorities must be obeyed, because they know; knowledge is objective, cumulative and unequivocal; problems are well-defined; every problem has a clear-cut solution; one’s worth is dependent on others’ opinions of him/her; learning involves futile suffering….[my emphasis, my favourite!]  In short [someone] proficient in the skills of critical thinking…but [not] a critical thinker…

The pattern of imitation is driven by the principle of “visible results”, meaning that behaviors acquired in the pattern of imitation are public behaviors. They may therefore be easily modeled, exercised and evaluated. They also suit the school framework (which is not coincidental, for schools were originally created for the purpose of socialization, and are therefore governed by the pattern of imitation)….

Any content, including philosophy, can be taught through the use of the three patterns of instruction. Though it is perhaps more pertinent to teach philosophy in the “commuity of inquiry”, it is not obligatory to do so. Philosophy can be taught in a lecture designed to cover the “material” in order to succeed at an exam, which determines the extent of memorization of the “material” – in other words, the pattern of imitation. (In most places where philosophy has been taught, this has been the method.) The pattern of imitation is dominant in the average school, and other patterns of instruction introduced in schools tend to disappear under its shadow.

…in the average school… open and critical discussion will come to an end when the teacher, principal or supervisor thinks that he is not “keeping up pace” or “covering” the chapters of the “traditions of the great cultures” indluded in the curriculum. In other words, in the contexty of school learning , instruction to critical thinking tends to be ritualized…

It is questionable whether dispositions of critical thinking can and should be molded by the pattern of molding. By its very nature, the pattern of molding cannot develop a critical attitude to the beliefs it is attempting to instil, thereby contradicting the idea of critical thinking. The essence of this idea is that no belief is protected from critical thinking, including the belief in critical thinking itself. Ultimately, it is quite possible that unexamined lives are worth living.

Conceptions that reduce the term “critical thinking” to autonomous or authentic personality, and claim that it is possible to develop such a personality through the use of “negative education” – meaning education that avoids forcing any “extrinsic aims” upon the students (including critical thinking) – are a version of the pattern of development… No approach to critical thinking is suited to the pattern of development. This is surprising, considering the fact that critical thinking is an essential and declared goal of this pattern….Non-critical “true believers” [does this have the same overtones as the phrase used by John Gatto, I wonder?] are bound to the belief (or “meta-belief”) that their beliefs are derived from some foundation in the world, that they are forced upon them. Experiencing choice through freedom undermines a person’s propensity to attribute a deeper essence to the world than to  himself, in other words to be non-critical.

Charles Silberman noted in his once popular book Crisis in the Classroom
that the decisive mistake of teachers is that they think students learn what they teach [Silberman, 1971, p.181]. The analysis proposed here adds another decisive error: that teachers think they are teaching what they teach. Teachers teach content; but the students learn primarily from the pattern of instruction the teachers use and from the messages inherent within it.)

A hierarchy seems to exist in the three primary categories, “skills”, “dispositions” (or internalized values and principles) and “personality,” which comprise the “ideal types” of education to critical thinking. The “personality” category is broader than that of “dispositions,” for (autonomous or authentic) personality is likely to supervise or criticize its own dispositions; while “dispositions” precede skills, which they guide and actualize. Since we [“we”? Only one author is in the byline!]  claim  that education to critical thinking must adopt only one pattern of instruction, it is fitting that it employe the pattern centered upon the most basic category. This is the pattern of development, whose goal is to develop autonomous personality, recognizable by its critical relationship to its beliefs.

[What is needed] is a process necessitating a pattern of instruction not easily plotted on Lamm’s “Cognitive Map of Instruction”. However, it suits a pattern of instruction described by Lamm elsewhere: the pattern of the “undermining didactic” (Lamm, 1972).

…pedagogical tact is always needed, especially in this undermining pattern of instruction. This educational process aims to develop the personality’s flexibility, openness and autonomy. It does not educate directly to critical thinking, because it is impossible to do so.

…The seed of the “fourth pattern” exists in all of the approaches discussed above. Its roots lie in the Socratic dialogue, as well as in Dewey’s and Piaget’s concepts of thinking and learning.

A Google search on  “Cognitive map of instruction” brought up this article which I will peruse later.

Am back to Blogjet, as once again Firefox’s Performancing extension is letting me down. Is it a problem?