Post Manchester Iatefl Reflections

Post Manchester Iatefl Reflections

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My number one theme from the Conference

Two weeks have now slipped past since I came back from the Iatefl conference (How’s that for a Present Perfect?) and as time goes by certain things recur or fall into place in the somewhat fragmented jigsaw puzzle of my mind. I think the overall theme this year for me at the conference was the issue of where learning takes place, how muchof it is formal, tradional and how much, on the other hand, is informal, incidental, accidental if you like. The question that I keep asking myself is this: where does learning happen?

In fact incidental, informal learning was a theme that came up in the LTSig Pre Conference event where Agnes Kukulska-Hulme’s talked about it, describing the way some learners, who need to integrate themselves into new communities, with new languages, access the language they need for very specific contexts such as “going to a hospital appointment”. She discussed ways of encouraging this  technologically by means of various teaching apps being developed in the projects she is participating in.

The very first conference plenary also touched on this subject as Donald Freeman wondered whether we as teachers are “frozen in thought” driven by the myths of our profession, which, as he said, are not right or wrong but may be both useful in that they are th course we chart, but also limiting if we do not see that other things are going on outside that charted territory. He questioned two points related to the issue of learning in his presentation:

1) there is direct causality between teaching and learning: teaching causes learning;

2) The teacher has “sole” responsibility for the process;

Most of us would have our doubts about these, because we all see on a daily basis that what our students learn may be what we are attempting to teach, but very often is not. Most of us also subscribe to the idea of learner-centred teaching, but the point he was making is that what is taught is often chosen by the teacher, the course book, the programme or what is required to pass exams, and rarely by what the learner truly wants or needs to learn. Of course we all have to respect syllabi, and exam requirements but these could be our map and we can also keep our eyes open to see what is going on around us as we chart this course. Freeman talked about “managing what you can’t control” when you teach but perhaps we should go even further and explore what we can’t control or help the learners control what they want to.

In my Context

In my context, which is not one of learners seeking to integrate themselves into a new world, but rather one of large classes of university students doing lessons that are often held  in traditional classrooms, with a traditional syllabus and traditional expectations, I find myself increasingly asking the question I mentioned above: “Where is learning happening?”. Michael Wesch’s project in 2007 posed the same question in the YouTube video below, asking why learning was “up there” on the blackboard, rather than “down here” where the learners are actually sitting.

So much of what we do in class pays lip service to the notion of being learner centred, I think. But how learner-centred is it? Exams play a central role in the motivation and organisation of study in our university and, therefore, learning comes about often as a sort of by-product of exam preparation. In a world of continual cost cutting and shrinking course hours the focus is often on what is in the exam and what to do to prepare for it. This is almost inevitably a top-down process.

Added to this the belief in online self-access courses as a sort of general panacea and we are charting a route towards disaster rather than a real learning process. In my version of blended learning, as yoou probably already know, I believe in integrating the online work with the face to face work in what I hope is a smooth “blend”. Learners participate in the online classroom space developing online dialogues with each other and with me which help to direct our course along its charted path but without being afraid to stop and visit some fertile islands and sandy beaches along the way.

My own Beliefs

Despite the limitations of my own context I am a firm believer in learner centred classrooms and in empowering learners to help them towards autonomy, if that is what they want. One of the other things that I have brought back from the conference, for instance, is a renewed enthusiasm for the use of copora in class. My own learners often misunderstand why certain language choices just don’t work, and they will not always have their teacher there to explain things to them. To teach them how to be able to access a corpus, then, so that they can work these things out for themselves is an essential step in this journey towards autonomy and empowerment. This is easy to say but not so easy to explain so I’d now like to share one example of how we are doing this in class working on an error which is extremely widespread amony italian L1 speakers.

 

 

An example of Student/Teacher  Online Dialogue

In a recent piece of wPossibility collocations wordleork, for instance one student wrote:

” If anyone had the possibility of choosing their dream house…”

I questioned the use of “had the possibility” and this was the exchange that followed. It was an asynchronous dialogue that was developed over two weeks in the chat box function of our digital classroom, which is, in itself, a step towards more learner centred work, I think:

 

Me:

Possibility is the wrong choice here both because of the meaning and the verb/noun collocation . Why?

‘Chance or opportunity’ would both work better here. Check the verb patterns for these too.

Student 

I do not know why.
to have the chance to do
to have the opportunity of doing

Me

Yes, those verb patterns work, but what about possibility?

Student 

I guess “possibility of doing” as I wrote. I cannot figure out why it is not correct.

Student 

Why is it incorrect?

 Me

Because the meaning of possibility is related to negative things that might happen. It does not collocate with the verb “have” but often with “there is” or “there might be” and intellectual or “thinking/discussing” verbs. 

The verb pattern afterwards is right: of + ing/ or a verbal phrase. So an appropriate use of “possibility” is, for example: “there is a strong possibility that it might rain this afternoon”.

Enabling Learners to Answer their own Questions

 

As I answered this last question I couldn’t help thinking that it would be so much more helpful if that student (and his classmates) knew how to analyse language in a corpus for themselves as all these things are quite easy to see if you examine examples of “possibility” for its meaning and usage. You need to know, however, what to look for. So that is what we did in class, integrating the need that had emerged online into classroom work that would, hopefully, empower some students to use this tool for themselves independently.

Using Concordance Lines in class

Concordance lines are the examples limited to a certain number of words on each side of the word or phrase you are analysing. They can easily be found by doing a search of the BNC or the American Corpus, both of which are freely accessible, but I actually created a worksheet based on examples from The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, which I include here:
Firstly we noticed that he had only really focused on the question of language forms and usage not on the meaning so we looked at what  “possibility” really means in English. This is a worksheet which guides learners through a series of questions to help them notice various aspects of the meanings and patternings related to “possibilty” and “possibilities” followed by the chance to make this Language their own, another crucial part of the process I think.
Some examples of the type of Language they produced after they had gone through this process were:
“There is a faint possibility that I might pass the French exam.”
“The government is considering the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations to solve …”
 “Nowadays, after recent events such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we can not ignore the possibility of an terrorist attacks happening everywhere.”
This is very impressive language use by any definition but what was almost more interesting was the fact that later on we were doing an activity which was not really linked to this but involved developing a questionnaire and interviewing different people in the classroom about their opinions. In this activity I noticed that quite a few people were asking questions like:
“Do you think there is a strong possibility that……….?”
It was one of those light bulb moments for me, when you think “Yes” and want to punch the air around you in triumph. I was fascinated what they were saying as it is not a pattern that these learners would normally use. I don’t know, of course, whether they were doing it intentionally because we had just studied this pattern or whether they will be able to use it this time next week, but I did feel that they had worked out their own meanings and were applying them to a common problem which had emerged from the needs of this particular group, and that the learning was swirling around the activities we were doing each person taking what they could or needed to from each part of the lesson.

Learning to Use Corpora Independently

 

 

Students in flow
The next step is to teach learners to use online corpora and to ask “their own questions” rather than mine. So we took some of their representative language problem areas from a recent discussion of social issues in our world and worked with a new site that I have already talked about in an earlier post: SkeLL, which is Sketch Engine’s latest very impressive English Language Learning site. This user-friendly site gives you 40 examples according to common meanings and provides a word sketch of common collocates (for single words) with syntax information as well. Here is the worksheet we used to learn how to use this resource:
What we found was that when it comes to understanding initial meaning dictionaries combined with the examples in the corpora are your best bet, but when it comes to looking at usage, collocations or patterns then SkeLL is a wonderful resource. We then went on to use it to look up kep words for an essay the students were going to write to find out useful language related to the register they needed as well as the lexical grammar of the single item. If you do a search for “government” for isntance you will find a completely different register to the one you would find if you search for “picturesque”.
We are in the middle of our jorney of discovery and I’m sure we’ll meet both limitations and insights along the way, but in any case it is a journey we are undetaking together as a group and in our group both the learners and the teacher are “learning” . Donald Freeman also cited George Pickering as saying “Minds work best like umbrellas, when they are open.” I hope that is what we are doing.
I still keep asking where learning is taking place but a glance at this photo of some of my students working together suggests that the learning is there with them and not up on an authoratative, scary blackboard. At any rate, I hope so 🙂
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