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?

One thought on “A blog reader responds”

  1. In the story of the scales, there is much of what we (you and me and many others) believe to be ‘learning in its purest sense’. But that, is ‘learning in the wild, out in the open’. And remember we have justified our roles, our profession and our salaries as promoters, facilitators and/or agents of ‘good’, ‘effective’ and ‘short-term’ SCHOOL learning. We have ‘promised’ learners and authorities that it is through ‘us’ where ‘good’ learning takes place and above all that we can make this a mass project. How many students have we had in our careers? Give me the tools and I’ll make them learn whatever you need them to learn! (used to be my slogan in life).

    And part of our responsibility is to show results on our duties. Learning needs to be quatifiable. Because ‘good’ teaching depends on ‘good learning’ but above all on tangible measurements -grades. And obviously, on learners’ (consumers’) satisfaction, which many times comes, hand in hand, with ‘good’ grades, promotions and even diplomas at the end of courses. I bet learning is attached to the back of any diploma (!).

    But sooner or later, we discover that we are trapped in the walls of constrain. Walls that do not let us be who we want or do what we want. Your search is right but we must find a balance between REAL learning and school learning (whatever that is).

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