22 February 2013

Learning, content seasoned with more John de Mado and Guy Claxton

I've been pondering a bit about the relationship between learning and content. For me the lack of prescribed content in the NZC and learning languages curriculum is a distinct 'plus'. This is particularly advantageous for a subject such as languages where there are as many possible ways of reaching the same end point as there are learners. There's no single recipe or blue-print. In other words, despite the deep-seated beliefs of language teachers that there's a logical progression to be followed and certain basic content to be acquired by all learners before they're equipped to be creative with the language, this seems to me to be an artificial construct; a desire to frame the learning for purposes of tidiness and convenience -  imposing order on the messiness that is learning ('Make sure that your linguistic uniform is worn correctly!'). Remember when teachers used to say to students embarking on writing 'Don't translate; use and adapt what you've already learned'? This is not only very limiting to the curious and exploratory learner, but it's also contrary to what's known about language acquisition and the role of error in learning. I'm interested in a more task-based approach where the structural component of the lessons is generated by the needs identified through the performance of the task, rather than  learning language first in order to practice it later, as still seems to be fairly standard in language classrooms. 
John de Mado in his NZALT presentations talked about the three languages which are always present in language learning. L1, L2 and interlanguage. When learners start out with zero knowledge L1 and L2 are completely separate. As learning ensues, they merge, giving rise to an area of overlap between the two which is interlanguage (illustrated by a venn diagram). Despite the best efforts of teachers to keep learners on the straight and narrow, to avoid producing error-filled language, in case they should become permanently contaminated, it would appear that making errors is an essential part of steering the interlanguage towards L2. The risk of fossilising errors only occurs after years of failing to notice and assimilate correct form. Initially students production will inevitably be influenced by both structural and phonological interference from L1 (position of object pronouns and adjectives for example or failing to make the u/ou distinction). As they're exposed repeatedly to correct form, they will, in the natural course of events, (and if correctness has some pay-off, such as being taken more seriously by native speakers) self-correct. Actual language acquisition takes place independently of the instruction and at the pace of the learner (Ellis' inbuilt syllabus). No amount of brow-beating and red pen will make students consistently produce correct language unless they're ready and willing. John de Mado even suggested that the way languages have traditionally been taught, with a goal of Language Mastery and native-speaker competence, has had an inhibiting effect on learners. When we hear of adults' negative language learning experiences and of their conviction that they're 'hopeless at languages', I can only agree with him. It's true that some people are quicker at understanding how language works and assimilating rules but these aren't necessarily the ones I would call the most effective linguists. They're likely to be more inhibited about making errors, which makes them less communicative. A few years ago I wrote an article for Polyglot which I subsequently posted on l'Ecole Hors les Murs (where I thought it would be more accessible) called 'What does it mean to be 'good' at languages?'
But back to our 'moutons' of content.... What content? When I had this conversation with David,  calling into question the justification for overburdening programmes with content that's not particularly relevant or interesting for the learners,  he pointed out that the arbitrariness of content is less of an issue in some spheres of learning. He argued that for medical training, for example, where a certain body of knowledge and procedures is essential, there's more of a blue-print.  As an assiduous follower of recipes and a fairly linear thinker, he self-selected himself into medicine.  Of course he has to solve problems but generally within familiar parameters and by following protocols. He might just as easily have chosen engineering, dentistry, law or veterinary but it was always going to be something with a large component of specific common factual knowledge. Learning to drive is another area where there's little or no margin for error. It's a matter of life and death, where there's only one right answer. I'm aware that among my learners there will be quite a few Davids who are more comfortable learning in a linear progression that's mapped out for them. As long as they make the choice 'en toute connaissance de cause' rather than by default then I should respect and accommodate that. This isn't incompatible with self-directed learning. Always in the back of my mind though, are Guy Claxton's Magnificent 8 qualities. The linear, text-book approach may offer less scope for developing all of these powerful dispositions of the autonomous learner.
What are they again?
  • curiosity
  • courage / resilience / perseverance
  • exploration / investigation
  • experimentation
  • imagination > creativity
  • reason / discipline / rigour / method / analysis
  • sociability / empathy / sharing
  • reflection / mindfulness
How does text-book based learning stack up against them?
  • curiosity (not much if everything's mapped out)
  • courage / resilience / perseverance (lots needed to stave off boredom! seriously though, these qualities come into play regardless of methodology)
  • exploration / investigation (probably very little)
  • experimentation (not much room for this either unless the activities are open-ended)
  • imagination > creativity (not really a lot of scope for these in a prescribed course of study)
  • reason / discipline / analysis etc (there's always plenty of this whatever the methodology)
  • sociability / empathy / sharing (perhaps, as long as there's group and peer interaction involved)
  • reflection / mindfulness (perhaps, but prescribed courses don't leave room for much bigger picture reflection on the learning.
On the other hand there needs to be common ground for interaction to take place. Maybe the best way to proceed is by instinct and intuition, the way I always have, incorporating a variety of strategies as the need arises.
What would you be doing now if you were me?


  1. What would I do now with knowing what I know now, with the framework we have and with what is at our disposal? Before you read more, please accept that what follows are ideas in no particular order and that they are "top of my head" things. Students need to communicate in the TL and interact, the most immediate "immersed" environment is the classroom: activities in the classroom must be conducive to interaction and communication amongst each other. My aim overall would be that my students had acquired the confidence to use the language in any situations they may find themselves in where it is required, the skills to know how to negotiate meaning, the independence to look up what they need if they have not got it there and then, the courage to keep going when it gets tough because I would hope they have the motivation to complete the task , the curiosity to make connections between their culture and the one of the TL and think about what it means. I would hope also that they would make connections between what is involved in Language learning and Learning generally speaking.

    - plan progression broadly with the LL Curriculum achievement objectives as the base for each class
    - Ellis Principles + iCLT + eLearning to support
    - CECR Grille d auto évaluation as a rule of rhumb (from "mon monde à moi" to "le monde autour de moi" to "le monde')

    (To be continued below!)

  2. - teaching as inquiry (this is what I meant when I wrote a while back that I need a system)
    - I think my teaching as inquiry big questions would be around assessment for learning, effective feedback and making learning visible for students, me but also parents.
    - know my students and they know me: beyond the Je m appelle… what they are bringing to the class in terms of interests, backgrounds, culture > great to know for tasks, ( I I agree with you that doing stuff that the kids want to do is not enough yet to know what interests them is a way to hook before extending)
    - establish the Why they are learning French? their self statement, their own intention, not the "Learning languages is cool because…"
    - establish a common vocabulary around what learning French involves (actions, skills, aptitudes) for them and me.Maybe use criteria describing high achievement and unpack in their own words and translate into actionable words
    - Have "French class" team building activities regularly, " en français on…."
    - lots of set phrases as basic toolkit , displayed on walls, in books, brainstorm "comment dit on.." "qu est ce que c est.."
    - phrases to help them work collaboratively on tasks> displayed
    - create my online space with references, videos, that is the students first port of call for finding info
    - mobilize their digital capacities to record, listen, rewind, find information, relevant clips etc and encourage them to build their own French tool kit, encourage them to share good ideas
    - facilitate an online space for my students to interact in, in and out of school, in French and use info gathered there for my assessment of their learning
    - foster opportunities to revisit language in different contexts at different times: recording the process of learning (eportfolio) make this a no brainer
    - ensure we get French speaking visitors to the classroom regularly (in person or online) as resource/ information etc

  3. (and to finish for now...)
    I know little about TBL but I like the idea that the task is completed over time, that it is not swapping from one thing to the next and that it involves getting stuck in with the end in mind. I like to the idea of pre tasks, as it is an opportunity to have both teacher and student directed "lecture" time when the need arise over certain things".
    I would like to think that the students and i would choose a theme for say a term, which could maybe common to the different levels and that tasks would be derived from that theme, and the exploitation of it would be at the level required. Maybe that each level would present it to the other (e.g.: a video or presentation or whatever),
    I am not adverse at the idea that there is course book, not to follow it from page 1 to 200 but to dip in an out, when necessary. Mobilising students exploration is enabled if they have plenty of materials at their disposal and the skills to make sense of it in the context in which they are progressing. Their creativity is in how they go about getting to the outcome, not that it looks arty or what else, so I would need to ensure that I have systems in place to provide personalized feedback that is timely to help them with that.
    I would also want to have them develop the ability to reflect , potentially in TL with carefully chosen words issued from our common vocabulary, on how they are doing and monitor how they progress in doing that. And another thing I would like to see them give each other feedback and thus work on this "mindfulness" together. That to would move me away from that " I am the only one in charge of assessment here" mindset I feel I would certainly revert to sometimes..
    I would need also to have on my "learning goggles" on and book myself with my inquiry cycle to be able to stir all this in a meaningful direction, where students progress and have high expectations of themselves. In any school I would certainly have to do summative tests and reports with grades at different times of the year, have to follow a department policy which in turns certainly aligns to school goals, which certainly will dictate me to choose goals related to these. Guy Claxton said something really cool at ICOT: "trust the process"!

    So these are the things I would want to do if I was going back to school. A far cry from when I was in school and concerned with what existing resources were available to me….

  4. Cool! Thanks for these thoughts.
    'facilitate an online space for my students to interact in, in and out of school, in French and use info gathered there for my assessment of their learning' I'd want to do this. What would you suggest as a 'dispositif'. It could be a class space or a space for all my classes possibly - this might foster some exchange between the levels. Maybe some mentoring of younger students by older students?

    I like the idea of trusting the process too, as long as it's not a pre-ordained process imposed from the top.
    I'm really looking forward to the discussions with Jacqueline as it seems we're on the same page and this means we should be able to spark of each other and draw in others who may not be so 'into' IT. Jacqueline seems to have a strong social conscience and is interested that Columba students are expected to get involved in community projects. This could be taken off shore.

    1. I was just sitting down to add a few things when your comment came through!
      So first in response to your question re. a potential online space:
      Worth trying something for them all together, why not for bit of tuakana-teina? Any tool would allow to separate in different forums when/if need arose so that can be tailored anytime. Wait till you get there and see what there is in place at either institution level or Dpt level and leverage use from there. If not then we will consider what is best in the light of infrastructure and access. But glad you too think this is a key idea.
      Community projects would be a fab way to set the scene for the language learning to take place and the theme, I will be really interested to find out more how you and your colleague are going to bank on this. What page are you and her on together?
      Now a couple more thoughts arising from my run:
      - if I went back to teach French now I would want to instill an "eportfolio" way of being about learning French from an early stage. Hence the importance I would put on modelling the use of tags ( à la Ewan, and arising from the established common vocabulary), the documenting of stages of learning in a personalised individual space, the reflection, and the eye firmly kept on the success criteria
      - to this effect and to make evident that there is choice on how to get there I think I would visit the idea of choiceboards and evaluate how they support students visualising what to do to achieve in the best possible condition for them
      - I would also certainly ensure the environment I teach in (if I was lucky enough to have that space called "my classroom")is conducive to the teaching and learning that I envisage: thinking about the use of space, tables, chairs, use of walls, quiet corners so that it supports movement, conversation, interaction and reflection as well as use of ICT, conference and "lecture" moments.
      Thank you for prompting me to think about this "if" scenario Ruth.


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