More notes on November 12th autonomy class

A continuation of the previous post.

One of our purposes in this class (indeed, in all our classes) is to make learning fun, to create an atmosphere that will remind students that learning can be fun, and that fun is an important part of learning. So many Japanese classes (and I’ve observed quite a few at my children’s various schools) are unbelievably boring. It’s as if Japanese teachers (ALL of them!) believed solely in the transmission model of teaching/learning, and have never heard of (let alone studied) HOW to teach: the focus is entirely on the tranmission of information; just open up those craniums and pour the knowledge in. Simple! What is there to learn about teaching?! Just teach! In particular, it seems to me, that many teachers do not distinguish between language-teaching and the teaching of other subjects: English is taught as knowledge/information, not as a skill. Not only that, but there seems to be no debate about the matter! The result is incredibly boring classes, all taught the same way.

My colleague are I see our job as partly to break this habit of thinking, namely that learning English is boring and difficult and involves 100% studying (which is boring and difficult!). Many of our students tell us this: English is difficult; learning English is difficult, learning English means studying it (it is only recently that my colleague and I have been pointing out that there is a difference between the studying and learning).

This class is a second-year class (and above); it is not open to freshmen. As my colleague and I have both taught freshmen classes for the last 3 years, and between us have covered all the sections, and as this class is now a compulsory class for sophomores, between us we know all the students in our classes.

Amongst this year’s cohort of 2nd-years, there is a small number of “difficult” students, students who seemed particularly unsuited to university, and that was clear from last year. There is 1 boy, for instance, who never comes to class on time and who never brings anything with him: no paper, pencil, textbook, dictionary; nothing. He has to borrow everything, which a) annoys the teacher, b) gives him a chance to chat and fool around with classmates, and c) gives him plenty of opportunities for creative manipulation of the truth, all 3 of which he excels at. Another boy was part of a group of 3 who, when they heard in the first class of last year that my time-limit for full attendance was 20 minutes after the start of class (later than that and they are marked as “late” and 2 “lates” = 1 absence), hung around outside the classroom until 19 minutes were up, then loudly all came in together. This boy, unlike his two mates, seemed genuinely interested in English and was actually quite good (relatively speaking); he likes English pop songs and can sing quite a few, and would do so, usually under his breath whenever I approached him, trying to get my attention. In my class last year, this group of 3 did their best to fail the class, but I made them work and they passed (just). I genuinely like all 3 of them, they have interesting, creative personalities and are not afraid of being different. In this year’s class we have 2 of the three (the third is in another colleague’s class who is not part of the autonomy experiment), and they show up irregularly. My colleague has spent some time talking to this boy, trying to make a connection with him and stimulate his interest in learning generally and in English in particular, trying to cure him of his disaffection.

One of our requirements (and this needs review) is to write a short report about what they do in each class, why they did it, and what they got out of it. Last week, this boy had some questions about the report: he wasn’t clear what he was supposed to write (we provide a bilingual form). After listening to my explanation he sighed and said “English is difficult”. He had written his answers in English, and told me how hard he found it just to put together an English sentence. I forgot to mention to him that, as the evaluation of the material and his self-reflection sections were the two most difficult ones, writing them in Japanese was acceptable.

A rather different kind of student caught my attention today: a quiet girl who always works alone and always uses the SRA kit. In order to create a relaxed atmosphere, I play background music, usually something British, either pop or classical. Today I was playing Paul Gilbert (also here; and here’s how he learns Japanese). And I asked her if the music bothered her. Major problem.

The autonomy class

This class has 34 students signed up. Today 26 signed in, tho when I did a head count, only 12 were actually in my room (some were nextdoor in my colleague’s classroom). Where were the others? Some borrowed a video and went somewhere to watch it, but that still leaves a few unaccounted for. Should we be concerned about these? Should we know where they are?

Several students (7 altogether) were preparing for an English vocabulary test the next period. I spent some time with some of them, asking them questions about the test, how they are tested, etc: do you need to know how these words are pronounced? Do you need to know how to write them or just recognize them? Do you need to recognize and understand these words when you hear them? Do you need to know how to use these words in a sentence?

I’m not sure how I feel about these students working on another teacher’s materials; I tell myself that they are studying English, so…. Would it be possible, or even worthwhile, to find out if they would LIKE to study in this way, even if they didn’t have a test next period. Does this signify some students might prefer to be given vocabulary items to learn and then tested on them later?

There is one group of students who usually hang out together: about 7-8 girls, who revolve around one who acts as the leader. She is competent and confident in speaking English, and I’ve nicknamed her “the sensei”. Today she organized her group and they decided to use flashcards (I don’t know how they came to this decision: it would be interesting and useful to find out) for about the first 40 minutes of the class. They then tried a board game that my colleague has made. Usually my colleague explains how to play this game orally (his explanation is done orally, not the game, well the game includes a lot of speaking, too), but as students in this class are working individually or in small groups, he prepared a page of instructions in English.

Just before class began, I was talking to my colleague about the fact that some of the materials we provide for the students are obviously language-learning materials (like the SRA reading lab); others are less obviously language-learning materials – they are more like prompts or stimuli – like the reproductions of graphic art, or the Crazy 8 card game. Do they require explanations? A written manual? How about an explanation on audio? Or a video? Perhaps a video made by students themselves? One of the reasons we are thinking about such questions is that we are thinking of going shopping for more materials and equipment, including materials and equipment to MAKE more materials for this class. With all this in mind, when class began and the young lady I dub “the sensei” came in (right on time, as always), I asked her opinion about this. True to Japanese form, she gave a “no comment” comment (“dou deshou ne!”), but I’m hoping I’ll get a response at some future time.

Would having instructions be helpful? And what KIND of instructions, seeing as one of the factors we are taking into consideration is learning style and intelligence (as in Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory, see here, here, here and here)? I think both my colleague and I would prefer to let students “play” with the materials and come up with their own ways of using them; we feel that part of their lack of motivation/interest is a general lack of motivation/interest in studying/learning generally (not just in English), and we also feel that one of the reasons for that might well be the years of information-transfer teaching that they’ve received since childhood. While we may feel we are just being “helpful” and giving them a helping hand, we might come across (to some of the students at least, especially the more disaffected ones) as “oh, here it comes again – the teacher telling me what to do”.

I spent the whole class walking around asking people what they were doing, or just observing. I took some pictures too. Two girls were using the crazy 8 card game. I watched for a while. They soon figured out the game is like one called Uno, which a lot of Japanese know. They were laying down the cards slowly, reading the name on each and figuring out what it meant or what the Japanese name was. Later, I saw that they had listed words that they had learned and added the Japanese translation. As Japanese students think that “learning a word” means simply knowing its Japanese translation, I asked the girls to say some of the words, and was pleasantly surprised to see that they had either figured out or looked up the pronunciation.

Two boys were preparing for a (different) teacher’s vocab test. I asked them which teacher, and what kind of test it was (what do you need to be able to do?). I was unable to resist playing “teacher” and pointing out that knowing a word doesn’t have to mean just knowing its Japanese translation. I got a glazed look for my trouble. That’ll teach me!

Four boys were listening to songs on the MD player. They said the 2 MD/cassette players were usually very popular, but today the boys had come early and as there was no-one using them yet, they took the opportunity. One of them is a rugby player who recently had an operation on his shoulder and is still undergoing physical therapy.

A few more boys were wandering rather listlessly around looking for something to do, or something interesting. They were looking at the picture books Come Look With Me also here, and I Spy, also here. I was interested to see what they would do with them. I talked to them about how they might use the pictures, but a few moments later I saw the boys had gone.

There was also a group of students who were sitting chatting. Some of them had some SRA reading cards. One was asleep. One was playing with her mobile phone. Two were writing something. I went over to see. The girl playing with her phone suddenly stopped, looked at me, then glanced at her neighbour. They all looked at me with a deer-in-the-headlights look. The SRA reading lab box has color-coded, numbered reading cards which include a text and some comprehension questions; it also includes answer cards for the questions. Three of the kids had cards with the answer cards, and were clearly busy just copying the answers. Another was doing the same thing with a song.

Well, at least today I managed to get around and talk to almost all of the students who were in the classroom. And I felt that was a step forward!

Learning histories in an adult autonomous group

I recently was invited to a meeting of an autonomous English-learning group in my neighbourhood. The members are all middle-aged women who for various reasons are interested in English, and don’t want to pay the fees of a language school. The founder also said another reason was that, while many language schools employ native English-speakers as teachers, the “teachers” are sometimes just people who happen to speak English fluently, and are not necessarily intellectually stimulating or knowledgeable. I introduced myself as someone interested in autonomous language-learning, and asked them to introduce themselves and briefly say why or how they became interested in learning English. Here’s a summary of the notes I took.

The first lady said she had been interested in English since Junior high school, though she could not say exactly why. She enjoys trying to think in English, rather than thinking in Japanese and then translating into English.

The second said she learned English in rebellion against her parents who wanted her to go to pharmaceutical college! The harder her parents tried to get her to improve her grades in maths and sciences, the harder she studied English!

The third said she had a wonderful JHS English teacher who not only taught English but also the culture behind the language, and she found that fascinating. She now teaches JHS students at her home, and also tries to instil in them an interest in more than just knowledge to pass exams.

The fourth said her children were studying for the STEP (Eiken) test and she decided to take it as well in order to help them, or to at least know what they were going through. Now her children have grown up but she maintained her interest in English, and now is trying to understand English news programs on TV.

The fifth said she was interested in English in high school, but failed to enter the English Department of the Foreign Languages University she had hoped for, so she entered the Russian Department instead! She had thought that she would have some time (and some classes) to study English, but unfortunately she did not. However, she did not give up, and went back to learning English after graduating from university. She now teaches English in a kindergarten.

A sixth said she had loved English in JHS but got a rude shock in SHS: everything was so much harder and less interesting. She has never been abroad, yet has taught herself to speak quite fluently. She learns English mainly for fun, to meet people from other countries, and as a preventative measure against senile dementia (this last was said half in jest, but I’ve heard it said many times, and I think it’s become a kind of urban legend).

Another lady was impressed by an interpreter she saw on TV when she was about 10 years old. The (female) interpreter was translating for a visiting sports star (I think), and the girl was amazed to see how this woman understood the strange sounds coming out from the foreigner’s mouth and turned them all into perfectly understandable Japanese! She was also inspired by a JHS English teacher who lived nearby.

The last story was of a woman who hated English in JHS and SHS, and did not study it at university. It was not until she married, and her husband was posted to England and took his wife with him (their two children were born in the UK) that she had any interest in English, and at first it was only out of necessity. However, she discovered that learning, and trying to speak it, was fun! And she has continued to learn it since her return 4 years ago. She now is aiming to get a qualification as a tour guide.

Trying autonomy in a class with a textbook

Here are some notes I took of one of my classes from a couple of weeks ago. This class is called Oral Communication for freshmen. The class is divided into 2 groups according to their results on an English test, the G-TELP. The top third are streamed into a separate class. I have not tried much autonomy with the “lower” group. Here’s what I tried in the other class. (This class came before this one).

Q1: What did we do last week?

A1: Some role-play (actually we what DiPietro called Strategic Interaction).

Q2: Does anyone have any (new) role-play suggestions?

A2: Yes! Guest who has booked a room shows up the hotel only to be told that they no reservation was made.

The previous class, we had done the role-play as 2 teams. Each team chose a “player” to do the talking; the player could call time-out any time for consultation with their team. This time, as an experiment, I made them do it in pairs. This is how they usually work with the textbook, so they are used to it. After a few pairs had “finished” I had them change partners and do the same role-play, with a new partner.

After a few changes (most pairs seemed to either “solve” the problem or run out of steam pretty soon), I suggested a different situation, and again had them do it several times, changing partners each time.

I then distributed a list of 25 different situations, and asked them (still in their pairs) to choose 6. I noted down their selections, then had them choose 1 from the 6 they chose and do it.

When they were done, we came back into 1 big circle and discussed it. How was it? Which was better, the “team” version or working in pairs? Some said the team was better (the team role-play seemed to grab their interest more, and it went on for a lot longer than the pair ones). One girl suggested it wasn’t so much a question of “team” or “pairs” as that of the situation of the role-play. The “team” role-play situation had been a “tough” one, whereas the ones we’d done in pairs were easy, or less confrontational.

The discussion petered out, and rather than push it, I took the reins again and said I’d brought some movies (actually, I’d brought them at the request of the previous class). They didn’t know the movies.

Do you want to choose one from the cover of the DVD, or watch the first 5 minutes of each? They chose one from the cover. Actually, there were 2 opinions: some wanted 1 movie, but the student with the strongest personality (who also happens to be the ablest in English) adamantly refused, so we chose another one.

Do you want subtitles? Yes! English or Japanese? English! They watched attentively, but for the most part in silence, the first 20 minutes of the movie (“About a Boy”), when class ended. I wasn’t sure what the silence meant: did they not find the comedy funny? Did they not understand it? Were they awake?? Or perhaps it was because the movie wasn’t really their choice?

Reflections on a class observation

Last Tuesday I had the chance to observe a class. Not an autonomy class, but it gave me plenty of food for thought, like why and how I implement autonomy. The teacher of that class has students keep diaries in which they record what they did each class and their comments. Some students wrote that they wanted to speak to me, or hear me talk about my native country, or teach them something, and the teacher forwarded their comments. I wrote him a reply:

“It might be interesting to find out (e.g. the one that wanted to hear about England), why didn’t they ask me? As I’m sure you know, in Japan/Japanese, such a question is usually a rebuke in disguise, so they may not realize you are ACTUALLY EXPECTING AN ANSWER!! We might learn something about some of the “representations” (as Holec calls them) that get in the way of these students being autonomous.

I don’t share your somewhat gloomy expectations of your students’ abilities, either in English or in autonomy, and I felt there is a lot of potential for autonomy in that class, and many things you could easily do (without requiring a new room or major equipment). Someone once wrote that they would like to see less theory and more practical suggestions or descriptions of autonomy. As someone once said “there is nothing so practical as a good theory”.

1) Autonomy is the ability to self-direct one’s own learning. Holec talked about mental representations, concepts, habits, that get in the way of this ability, and which need to be addressed and if possible replaced with more accurate and useful ones. This applies to teachers as well, of course. One big one is that it’s the teacher’s job to make all the choices. What other representations do you and your students have that might be getting in the way of developing autonomy?

2) Autonomy is not just freedom of choice, but REASONED choice. The aim is for learners to be making choices and to be able to say WHY they are making these choices. In other words, they need to develop criteria for setting objectives, selecting materials and methods. For instance, if learners don’t know the difference between “studying” English and “learning to use” English, how are they to choose between a reading text and a listening exercise? Can they even recognize that one of them IS a listening exercise? Do they know what the PURPOSE of a listening exercise is? Do they realize WHY listening exercises are provided? Do they know what listening IS? (What IS “listening”?) (Hint: it’s not translation!) (Left to their own devices, most Japanese students will revert to translating everything in sight. Don’t take my word for it, try it!)

3) Learners need a little bit of the expert knowledge of the teacher; those bits of knowledge about language and about language learning that the teacher uses when making decisions and choices about texts, activities, learning objectives. If the teacher makes all the choices, obviously learners don’t need to know this, but if the aim is to help learners make the choices…. And without this information, learners will not be able to make decisions; they won’t be able to self-direct. My colleague and I have seen this with our “autonomy class” students: many of them gravitate to the reading cards, probably because that is closest to what they have habitually done. I’m sure that they would translate these if comprehension questions were not provided. So, what kind of knowledge and information do YOU use, that the learners might need in order to become more autonomous?”

A blog reader responds

This reader (yes! people do read this blog! And I don’t know why they don’t use the comment option!) attended the presentation mentioned here. The presenter had told about his technique for combating student passivity, reliance on the teacher, and reluctance to speak out or really use the language: it was a card with some of the main strategies (or behaviours) that he wanted them to exhibit, listed. Each time they showed one of these behaviours, they got a point, which was marked on the card.

So the reason why I didn’t like the point-awarding card activity was because it merely serves as an extrinsic motivator. It rewards ‘good’ behavior and in the long run does not help them become responsible for their own learning and treats the students like children (though I am against using extrinstic rewards with kids as well). Maybe this type of activity can help the students get used to speaking English with their teacher and peers and build speaking confidence but it does very little to encourage internal motivation. If anything, it has an adverse effect on motivation and learning.

Read your latest blog. Question: When the students are answering ‘yes’

is this a consensus? and how is it reached? Did they all want to watch the movie? No dissenters?

Giving the students some choices allows them a sense of responsibility for their own learning which in turn should lead them to more choices and put the responsibility more squarely on their shoulders. But what if they don’t want this responsibility? It’s easy to dictate and follow; difficult to be free and responsible. With more freedom comes more responsibility…or anarchy. Is this getting political?

And this was my reply:

Re your question “When the students are answering ‘yes’

is this a consensus? and how is it reached? Did they all want to watch the movie? No dissenters?”

Of course this is not true autonomy, because the group dynamics come into play: the stronger personalities will win out and the others will yield to them for the sake of “wa”. This is a very tightly-knit group and it’s hard to break them up: they gang up on me! I figured asking them questions was just better than me making all the decisions. Also, asking them questions helps (I think, I hope) develop their criteria for making choices. Asking questions alone won’t do it, of course, but it’s a step: let’s say, instead of me deciding when enough repetition (drilling) of the dialogue is enough, how about asking them? “Is that enough repetition? Or are you hungry for more?” They have to refer to something inside themselves in order to answer (at least, the ones that answer first), even if it’s only “Am I bored of this already?” Anyway, it’s a step on the road. Or am I deluding myself here? Maybe this is a distraction?

Also, I think this is a way of “teaching” autonomy in a class/group setting, when you don’t have a bunch of options for them to work with. To be doing autonomy “properly” I would have needed to have options available for those who did not want to watch the movie (e.g. a number of portable DVD players so they could watch other movies, and other materials for those who did not want to watch ANY movie, etc., etc.)

You asked: “But what if they don’t want this responsibility? It’s easy to dictate and follow; difficult to be free and responsible. With more freedom comes more responsibility…or anarchy. Is this getting political?”

I hope so! “What if they don’t want this responsibility?” That’s a big one. My response is, if they don’t want it, am I willing to go back to the teacher-led class? Technically I could, it’s easy to do, right? But I’ve grown so much through trying to teach autonomy that I don’t think I would accept this.

And why wouldn’t they want it? Surely because they’re still brainwashed? I really think you struck gold when you mentioned your daughter’s decreased curiosity/initiative due to schooling. (The daughter loves to read in English, but does not exhibit the same enthusiasm for reading in Japanese; when her mother asked, why not? the daughter answered that the schoolteachers were always pushing them to read books and use the library, and that seemed to take all the fun out of it!).

A reason they may not want the responsibility is because they’re not really interested in learning much: “just jolly us along, give us something anodyne, not too hard, not too complex, not too boring, some easy hoops to jump thru so we can get the credits and graduate.” You’ve seen the Emperor has no clothes, but the crowd want you to play long, keep it under your hat, pretend you don’t know. Are you OK with that?

I mentioned John Holt, and how he eventually gave up on school: real learning cannot happen in school. It wasn’t till on the journey home that I realized what I’d said: what if that were true for learning English at Japanese universities, too? What if the class and credit systems (grades, etc) are insuperable obstacles to real learning taking place? I was talking about John Holt and the Summerhill school with my colleague the other day. Many years ago I told him an anecdote from Holt: it made a deep impression on him: it’s the story of when Holt brought a pair of scales into school one day, left them at the back of the classroom before school then went off to get ready, drink coffee, check his mail, etc. When he came back, the kids were playing with the scales and many had figured out how it worked, i.e. figured out the “maths” of this instrument. This gave him a lot of food for thought: here the kids had learnt something without being taught! Was there a lesson there for him? He figured there was!

In 4 corners, I think what I’m aiming for is something like “the scales at the back of the room”: some interesting materials that intrinsically contain English, which invite students to “play” with them, and in the playing they will pick up some English and something about how English works. I guess what I’m talking about is, I’m searching for real learning! The materials exist (videos, music CDs, maybe even some board games in English, computer software, the Internet).

But then I had to face the question: how would I grade kids, then?

To tell or to ask?

My colleague with whom I teach an autonomy class, recently expressed his concern that students were not making as much use of the different materials available as he would have liked: they seemed unimaginative. That was his analysis, and so his solution was to “teach” them different ways in which they might use the SAME material, e.g. a short video clip. I was half-convinced, but a part of me thought the analysis wasn’t complete. There might be other reasons why they don’t show much “imagination” in their use of materials, reasons that might have nothing to do with imagination but more to do with motivation, with their ideas of what “learning” is, with their particular objectives (get thru the class with the mimimum of hassle and yet still get the credits, for example), but I wasn’t able to identify them at the time, and I was swayed by the reasoning that exposing students to different activities, or ways of using a particular medium, was important training, training that would help give them ideas about how they could learn. After all, this is one of my objectives in the freshmen classes I have.

[Does it make a difference if one calls them “students” or “learners”? Does it make a difference to the way I think about these people in the classroom?]

So my colleague prepared a video clip from “Titanic”. I still would not agree to just “teaching” them: I thought that was against the principles of autonomy that we subscribe to. So I suggested that, instead of us demonstrating different ways of using this video, or instead of having them work through different activities based on the video, we could show them the video clip and have them brainstorm different ways it might be used. As clues, we put a box of possible reasons at the bottom of the handout: for listening, for pronunciation practice, for reading, for vocabulary, etc. We also intended to give a short talk at the beginning about the difference between studying English and learning to use English. For this purpose my colleague brought a tennis racket, and proceeded to demonstrate “studying” the tennis racket, and then using it. We then showed the video clip, with the sound off, then let them fill out the handout with 10 different ways of using it, while he and I wandered around asking questions and making comments.

A couple of students simply copied “for reading, for listening” etc, 1 onto each line, and within a minute or so had “finished” the activity. On seeing this, my colleague was moved to say a few words.

More effective, though, was us walking around and asking questions: HOW would you use the video for pronunciation practice? This seemed a difficult question, so I simplified it by asking, “OK, you put the video into the cassette deck, push “PLAY”… and… ?” My colleague had thought this whole thing would take 10 minutes. We were still at it 75 minutes later! We weren’t able to talk to all the students: a few (right at the front!) were sprawled across their desks, fast asleep. We let these dogs lie. However, the conversations we had were quite productive. It was clear to me that it was only by sitting down and talking things through with them individually or in small groups that we were able to get them to understand what we were driving at.

Whether this will have any effect remains to be seen. Watch this space.

Does autonomy look like this?

To be autonomous, Holec says, students need not only the ability of autonomy, but also an opportunity and/or environment to direct their own learning. In the absence of self-access materials, what can a teacher do? Well, here’s what I tried today: offer choices, and ask questions. Is this “teaching autonomy”?

First I asked students what they wanted to do: they said “role-play” as that was the last thing we did last class, and their homework assignment was to think of a new role-play situation. The one they came up with was: husband returns from business trip unexpectedly early and finds wife in a compromising position. Take it from there! OK.

Q2: Do you want to work on this in pairs (like we did last time), or as two teams?

A2: Teams!

Q3: Do you want preparation time?

A3: Yes!

Q4: Who’s the first player for each team?

Q5 (much later): Are you done?

A5: Yes!

Q6: Now what? We can do

Q7: another role play?

A7: No!

Q8: Use the textbook?

A8: No!

Q9: Watch a movie?

A9: Yes!

Q10: OK, I’ve brought the movie we watched a bit of last time (About a Boy). Do you want to watch the movie, or read some of the transcript?

A10: Read the transcript!

So, we read thru a couple of pages of the transcript, of the part of the movie that just follows where we left off last time. (The transcript, published by Screenplay, includes a Japanese translation with explanatory lexical notes). We then watch that part. I stop the movie at the end of the transcript, and ask

Q11: Do you want to watch more?

A11: No!

Q12: Do you want to use the textbook? Watch another movie? (Pregnant silence). Go home?

A12: Yes! (It was 10 minutes early).

Q13: OK, but first let’s decide what we’re going to do next time.

A13: Watch the Llama movie! (The Emperor’s New Groove)

Q14: Do you want a transcript? Actually I don’t have one, but there are the English subtitles. I…. could make a…. fill-in-the-blanks exercise, tho it would be a REAL bother….

A14: Yes! Fill-in-the-blanks!

A Japan-based native-speaking English uni teacher rambles about teaching EFL at university