21 February 2013

Tagging, portfolio pondering and John de Mado

Coucou Pascale,
I've just had a second read of your synthesis of our various frameworks with Ewan McIntosh's tagging for self-assessment and your reflection on incorporating e-portfolios as an integral part of the learning and assessment process. Lots to be digested here but it's certainly going in the right direction in terms of passing the responsibility onto the learner. One of my first tasks when I get to my new school will be to ascertain what they already have in place, if anything, and then take it from there. It's certainly the way I intend to go.
For years I've felt that there was something radically wrong with teachers going home night after night with a pile of books to make laborious comments that students rarely act upon. It's just too passive. It's a form of martyrdom which makes teachers seem very busy, but how often do they ask themselves "WHY am I doing this? Is this helpful for the learning process or is it just generating grades for my mark book and ultimately for the sacrosanct school report?". In other words, is it being done for purposes of compliance because someone else is going to check that work is dutifully done and marked?
I dislike imposing anything on students that smacks of duty or 'cod-liver oil' - you have to do this because it's good for you. I don't think that learning out of a sense of obligation, and at the teacher's instigation, is likely to elicit the intrinsic motivation required for real engagement with the subject.  I like the idea of students deciding when they're ready for their teacher to comment and/or grade their work as I totally agree that they all learn at different rates and don't have to be assessed on exactly the same thing at the same time. The only advantage it has is its convenience for the teacher who likes to tick things off as they go, under the illusion that if it's been taught, it should've been learned.
In fact I even have difficulty telling any group of learners what I think they should learn and when, as this robs them of ownership of their learning. I have also felt that instead of producing a quantity of work they would learn much more from reworking and polishing fewer items. An e-portfolio seems a perfect vehicle for doing just that. All this fits in very well with the model you propose. If I had to tag it à la Ewan McInstosh, what would I say? What is it? > Tagging, student-centred assessment, e-portfolios. What skill/competence is involved? developing learners' autonomy and self-reflective capacity  How do I feel about it? Enthusiastic, optimistic, curious, exploratory......

As you know, my blue sky vision for language teaching is partly shaped by the ideas of John de Mado who maintains that language is acquired rather than learned, that students self-select language in accordance with their interests. His presentations at the Queenstown NZALT conference made a deep impact on my thinking as they articulated precisely my own feelings about what's really important. He outlined the difference between Language Knowledge and Language Proficiency, saying that language teachers traditionally focus on, value and assess against Knowlege whereas it's Proficiency that fosters communication. Language Knowledge values accuracy and complexity and tends to give rise to inhibition and risk-averseness. Language Proficiency on the other hand is about survival strategies for communication. In other words, what you say (the message) is much more important than how you say it. The key element in communication is vocabulary, as it's impossible to understand or express ideas without a good repertoire of words at your command. You can communicate a great deal with nouns or verb infinitives with gestures or simple time words to indicate tenses. This is unsettling for many teachers who feel strongly that language should be used correctly. John de Mado drew a rather neat analogy to illustrate his point about what's essential to communication. What he said was frankly liberating as it fast-tracks students to a stage where they can say practically anything provided the listener has a tolerance of errors.
Here is his analogy. Supposing vocabulary was represented by consonants and structure by vowels.
Would it be possible to make something comprehensible purely out of vowels (=structure) ? ae i u ouie. NO (That was 'my name is Ruth Bourchier'). Would it be possible to make something comprehensible out of consonants (=vocab)? My nm s Rth Brchr ALMOST.
He illustrated his point further by asking us whether the letters BTTR were comprehensible. Well ALMOST. What would be required for those letters to have only one meaning? Most people answered 2 vowels but on closer inspection it was only the first vowel that was really necessary to distinguish BATTR, BETTR, BITTR, BUTTR, but that the second vowel, E, although adding to accuracy actually added nothing to the comprehensibility of the word.
Thus he underlined the importance for teachers and students of identifying and devoting time to essential structure and elements of language that allow language users to avoid miscommunication. So if we take a quick look at French it becomes clear that most structure turns out to be largely decorative - aesthetically pleasing but not essential for communication. This includes some biggies that normally hog lots of teaching and learning time.
  • verbs conjugated with être in the passé composé 
  • gender 
  • the subjunctive 
  • most agreements 
to name but a few. Essential things could include subtleties of pronunciation such as the distinction between u/ou which can lead to problems (merci beau cul,  cou/cul) or the tu/vous distinction which is so important interculturally, but which we tend to delay tackling because it's felt to be too difficult for beginners to grasp. French has traditionally been taught in a fairly standard progression based on a perception of what's easier or more difficult for students to assimilate, with the present tense preceding the passé composé, preceding the subjunctive etc. There has been little account taken of what students are actually interested in being able to say. My argument now is that if we were less precious about errors and allowed students to experiment and try getting their meaning across with survival French, not only would this more closely equate to the experience of anyone learning an additional language in an authentic context, but it would be a jolly sight more motivating and fun, as it would no longer be a case of pre-learning prescribed language for the purpose of practicing it. Can you see how well this fits in with  the notion of students being responsible for their own learning? Considering the majority of students don't continue learning languages beyond Y10 why are we clipping their wings with structural constraints when they could be having fun exploring and making their own meaning? This would be a better preparation for the real world. Let's tap into their creativity!!

Nothing is plain-sailing though. According to the Ellis' principles, effective language acquisition depends on having plenty of input, output and interaction as well as an extensive repertoire of formulaic language and some rule-based competence. My question to myself is 'If students are all self-selecting and building their own individualised repertoire, how can teachers guarantee that they will end up with enough common repertoire to be able to interact effectively? They might be able to interact with a teacher or native speaker but not necessarily with each other'. I'm still pondering my way through that problem. On the one hand I'm adamant that we should be looking beyond the time-honoured boring, neutral old topics to something of real interest, more likely to engage the learners emotions, but what can I put in their way instead, which will give rise to some common ground on which to interact? This is not a problem for writing so maybe that's where there should be much greater freedom. For interaction it's vital to develop a good repertoire of language that can be adapted to lots of different contexts and topics. I think perhaps one of the best ways of doing this is to get the students to monitor how frequently the same words and expressions pop up in English in class. These should become the transactional target language, generated by need rather than habit. This would be more effective than my presenting the students with my pre-prepared list, even though they're likely to come up with something very similar.

Getting back to subject matter, I was interested to see the FLIP lessons on Chris Harte's website, Learner Evolution. These clearly gave students more responsibility for their own learning but I couldn't help noticing that the subject matter was unchanged. The students were building Spanish sentences with cards, which they seemed to be enjoying but they were still saying 'I don't like maths because it's difficult and the teacher is too strict' which is the same sort of predictable utterance students have been trotting out forever. It's dictated by the obligation for everyone to learn the same words and expressions. There's no evidence of being encouraged to put one's own stamp on the content by asking 'How do you say........ in Spanish/French....?' Where's the students' creative input? Maybe they have little choice with regard to content. In New Zealand we're particularly fortunate to have 'carte blanche', as our language curriculum no longer has suggested topics or prescribed structure, although there is a list of prescribed NCEA vocab, designed less to constrain learners than exam-setters, and very broad proficiency descriptors for each curriculum level. I wonder, then, why most teachers still adhere to the same old stuff. WHY ARE WE WAITING?

So how do I see my role as a teacher of French, if it's not to push all students through the same mold? I can draw on my own experience of learning languages and share with them strategies that have helped me to become fluent in French and proficient in Spanish. I can put them in contact with native speakers both in person and virtually. Some would say that it's best to stick to authentic materials that adolescents are likely to engage with but how can we be sure this is not short-changing them? For me what has been memorable has been the unexpected, often moving, inspiring things that I might never have come across without guidance from the teacher (poetry, art, music, history, literature). I wouldn't have wanted my teachers to limit themselves to my popular culture or keep me fixed in my present. I'm looking for myriad ways to inspire my students and foster their intrinsic motivation.

Wow, this is a ramble. Congratulations for getting to the end of it!


  1. Much to think about from your post Ruth! I am really happy that you have written about John de Mado. I have had the opportunity to hear you talk about his impact as you felt he articulated what you have always believed in. Now I read it, and because I am this type of person, it makes a lot more sense to me to read it. Or maybe it is because revisiting concepts and ideas in a range of ways, over time helps with making sense of?
    Yes I start to see how it fits in with the notion of students being responsible of their own learning. I will see better still when you open a window on what students make of it.
    I like your suggested "emotion tags"! Would be fabulous to have students evolving to generate similar vocabulary describing how they feel about learning! And that is what you propose to do "to engage the learners emotions" .
    I can't wait till you survey/diagnose what your new school has in place for tech, servers, BYOD: then there will be toys to play with!
    About tasks, authentic materials with a good question to accompany their discovery on a theme that "talks to" the student grab their "buy in". Then suggest something inspiring according to what you know individual students respond to. I remember getting well thought responses (and more questions back! in my very traditional classroom) about architecture, design, fashion, advertising… themes that inspire me and that students got to explore in their way with the language they had at their disposal.
    There are (at least two or three!) main differences between you and me: you are a linguist, who has reflected on what it means for you to master other languages and who has studied how to teach them. I have not: I have learnt English without thinking about it when I was at school, and went to live in England at age 20. I learnt English because I needed to. I did not think if I liked it, or liked the process of it, or not. I actually have less interest in Learning Languages that I have in Learning. Another main difference is that it has ever appeared to me more clearly that you have an inbuilt "control tower" (I borrow the expression from David Perkins) intuitions and inner ways of being about language teaching and learning. I don't have that, I actually quite like to labor over things which grab me. And you know my routine and exercise too: "I have to do things because they are good for me" but what I know now is that it can not be imposed on anyone!
    Great post Ruth, I am loving this very much!

  2. 'Control tower'- that's an interesting way of putting it. I like to labour over things that grab me too, but find it well night impossible if they don't grab me, being a confirmed hedonist. Obedience has never been high on my list of virtues and I've always challenged existing beliefs as a learner and as a teacher. I love to delve into and wallow in subjects that inspire me. Never a dull moment.
    It'll be important for me to be aware that there are a lot of learners who thrive on more structure than I do; people like you and David who are not averse to routine and putting in the hard yards for what may appear to be small amounts of gain. I admire the tenacity of sportspeople, musicians and anyone else who has to put in long repetitive hours. They tend to be much more goal orientated than me. As I've said before, goals and I are uneasy bedfellows. I'm aware that there are certain of Guy Claxton's magnificent 8 qualities that I could do with developing, such as discipline and perseverence. Intrinsic motivation is pretty vital to my learning. It'll be fascinating to have these conversations with students and get them to measure themselves against the Magnificent 8. It can take me quite a long time to tame new things (such as the NZC) but once I've reflected deeply on them over a prolonged period they're then internalised and become like a yardstick. And you're right about me and language. I've always found it fascinating. It's only more recently that I've come to be as consciously interested in pedagogy. Glad you didn't find the post soporific, as I'd feared.

  3. hehehe now that I think of it (yes I write then I think LOL!) Control Tower may not describe it so well... It was clumsy: what I meant that you have a strong set of values that are clearly inbuilt and that you use to guide/ponder what you do.
    I followed #edchatnz (every other Thursday at 8.30pm) last night, and the theme was how do we as teachers contribute to building students' persistence. Do you know James Nottingham' notion of Learning Pit? Some great comments there emanated from 1ry and 2ry teachers, but pace was frantic and I stood in background!

  4. I thought 'control tower' was quite apt as it's a form of constant self-surveillance, although it becomes automatic. You just naturally put the things you do through a series of filters (or values, if you like). As new values are added it makes you question how you used to do things. If your methodology doesn't stand up to the WHY scrutiny then it's time to change it.
    The Learning Pit sounds interesting. Tell me more.....!

  5. Well that it that clarified eloquently! Merci! Like the "Why" scrutiny will definitely had to the "How do you know?" scrutiny!
    I know next to nothing about the Learning Pit apart from many primary teachers making reference to it. Let's look it up sometime soon! Oh and you might like to listen to Ewan McIntosh' Problem Finders ICOT2013 keynote. It s now at this link http://www.edtalks.org/video/problem-finders#.USbXTBm3K88


Let's go Back to the Drawing Board!