15 April 2013

Managing the tools, managing oneself?

Further to our wee email exchange on the use of word-processing tools in writing, I've been pondering about your suggestions regarding the use of on-line translation tools. I've been discouraging the students from using them as, although they're fast improving and often give accurate translations for straightforward stuff, they encourage laziness, eliminating as they do the necessity to think about and understand the language the students are producing. On the other hand students seem more motivated when using them. Suddenly it's much easier to be able to say what you want to say rather than waiting for the teacher to tell you what she thinks you should know or might find useful.

I wonder if some of our students wouldn't maintain an interest in language learning for longer if we just went with the flow and accepted that these are tools which are readily available in real life, at any moment. Just thinking of my students who are going on the exchange to Nice at the end of the year and who can hardly string a sentence together, having no deep interest in how languages work, they could easily call up the language they need in almost any situation via their smart phones. It's all about communication, after all. It might not help them so much with listening but even there they could negotiate meaning around problems of comprehension. We can no longer insist, it seems to me, that everyone demonstrate their understanding of how languages work, when there are such obvious short-cuts to communication at hand.

Thankfully, there will always be some students who are curious about how the language works so that old fossils such as myself who love grammar will feel vindicated by their curiosity. I'd have to say, though, that the patience of the majority for mastering structure seems to be decreasing exponentially as they see that they can get by without it. Maybe this is the moment when the focus will shift from language mastery to intercultural communicative competence, even if it is electronically assisted!

It makes me think that language teaching is at a cross-roads. How many people these days know how to do the basic mathematical functions of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication? How many people still know their times tables?Not too many, I'll wager. For me they're the most valuable thing I've retained from my maths days and I use them all the time but if I preferred to use a calculator I would have to admit it's no longer necessary to know how to do them in my head. The other obvious analogy is GPS. There aren't too many people who would prefer these days to use a map to orientate themselves. They trustingly put themselves in the hands of their GPS and let it lead them (sometimes astray). The result is that fewer and fewer people have map-reading skills because they don't seem so necessary any more. Could we be getting to the same point with languages? Maybe on-line translation tools will end up opening language 'learning' to a wider range of students. Maybe we should be focussing more on tasks involving pronunciation, although even here they can get the correct pronunciation at the click of a button.

With my junior classes I've been getting them to make powerpoints and little movies about themselves and using puppets for dialogues. A colleague brought me along another bag full of 'friends' so we now have about 16 assorted creatures who seem to be relishing their stardom. Students appear to really enjoy doing this and some have produced much more sophisticated stuff than we could have expected from students before these tools were available. Differentiation happens naturally as people work in different ways, at different rates. Some work slowly and meticulously and include lots of detail. Others dash something off really quickly and want to get onto the next item on the agenda. Some take the line of least resistance and produce the minimum. The exceptional ones are always focussed and show a good understanding of the task. They go the extra mile, including a lot more than is expected. It's a really good way of evaluating the key competencies as well as giving rein to their creativity. Over the last few days of the term we'll be watching some of these together and eventually they'll all be loaded onto MyPortfolio. We had some problems with files being more than 50MB which we'll have to resolve. For the moment, with interim reports looming I've just had to get them to airdrop them to me which is the simplest short-term solution.

I have no doubt my ponderings will set off some reciprocal ponderings from the North. It'll be interesting to see what you think. Am I right or am I right?


  1. In my "darkest moments", I revisit the often produced and brandished "Why Learn a Language?" posters and PPT and campaigns with their arguments in favor of learning a language amd I get to a sinister conclusion upon realising I can list a string of reasons WHY NOT:
    - through my love of connected gadgets I have realised any language sits in my pocket at the ready anytime anywhere
    - if we learn best what we need when we need it, then what is actually the pressing need for a given student in an NZ school to learn a language? Not the reasons as spelt out on the carefully crafted PPT I am talking about the reasons from within.
    - learning languages dont lend themselves well to learning through self discovery: it is a long road to actually start to communicate and the efforts required to do so are pretty major compared to another learning area that may lend itself more to learning by doing, and also to inquiry.
    If I try for a moment to walk in a NZ student's shoes I actually know I would turn my passions and effort towards something where I can invest myself more independently, where I can express myself more freely and certainly something which require less old fashion learning.
    SO this is me when I am down...

  2. So what to do? As you can see from my prompt reactions, I have been pondering myself for some time on the very same subject.
    I see learning a language as the type of things that integrates fully within the "life long learning picture" something you get to when you need to: we know the kiwi rugby player that goes to France for a series of season and becomes near fluent, we know of the businessperson who starts dealing with China and knows has to learn some basics, we know the student who meets the love of their life during their OE in Argentina and learns Spanish... These stories born of need abound. We also know of all the Alliance Francaise and language institutes who offer courses in all languages around NZ: how many school students patronise them? Hardly any I imagine. Learning a Language in a NZ school is a nice to have (and I will continue to campaign in this direction) but in the big scheme of things to work towards (that we often discuss here) I am afraid I am coming to the conclusion upon reflection (and for the time being) that I am no longer fully convinced it is a necessity.

  3. Having said that if there is something which is absolutely a necessity in the world we currently live in, it is for all to develop sound intercultural competencies.
    Why the responsibility of raising this awareness lays with language teachers who overall have dwindling numbers in front of them is the biggest mystery. Much is done/needs doing about developing Cultural competence and a culturally responsive pedagogy to address the needs of Maori learners so that they can learn as Maori. Could we imagine what NZ could be like today if historically all had had an awareness of intercultural competence (to walk in someone else's shoes) and realised its potential to make sense of one's own culture? Naive maybe, not substantiated obviously, and likely open to criticism surely. NZ is not only bicultural it is multicultural. So if culture and language are inseparable then the future of language learning in NZ school lies in its potential to support the understanding and development of intercultural skills first through the acquisition of language. I can hardly believe I have written this when only a couple of years ago we stayed up quite late in this Wellington Café at my request as I needed a crash course on ICLT!

  4. Intercultural competence as one of the Key competencies.
    And while we are at it Digital Competence also! That leads onto your MyPortfolio file size issue: think of myportfolio as an aggregator rather that as a workspace and have your students investigate how best to publish their work before having it feature on MyPortfolio. You have a short term solution for assessment which is good but this has now become your problem to manage all these files rather than theirs. I am better at this type of things rather than the Language Learning dilemma things: just because I can always find a solution to this. Nothing to do with instant gratification, just because it fulfils an immediate need.

  5. I am looking forward to have your retort buldozer my half baked points: that will allow for further cooking!

  6. Wow! Should I say 'go and wash your mouth out' for making such an iconoclastic suggestion, or should I admit to sometimes having these sort of thoughts myself, at least about the way we still tend to cling to language mastery as the indicator of a 'good' student, where in fact we should be encouraging all students to communicate however clumsily they do it. We don't yet place enough importance on the communication aspecct.
    My colleagues and I had a wee debate about my thoughts on translation tools becoming the new GPS and obviating the need for students to formally learn about the language they're learning. Some are very anti Google translate for the reasons I outlined above.
    I must think more deeply over the holidays about how to incorporate more iCTL in my teaching at all levels. Of course I always take the opportunities as they arise but I don't deliberately make it the centre of my pedagogy. There are so many conflicting forces in the language class room and once again, the students are not used to the concept and can't always see the relevance for it when they they thought they were learning 'language'. It looks like there is not a lot of reflection going on about the NZC and scant understanding of language in culture and culture in language. I'm still a bit hazy about it myself to be honest.

  7. Don't get me wrong: I am not saying online translators will ever replace language learning. I am only saying they are here to stay and getting better all the time and sit in anybody's pocket thus play a huge role in instant communication: if I am stuck with something in Beijing I can type my question on my phone and here is the mandarin version. That is achieving communication. I use online translators most days to check for meaning or for an alternative word rather. Language teachers are better off incorporating them rather than dismissing them. The NCEA AS is pretty visionary in some ways by stating them as a possible resource. If this is the case then what do we need to focus on to measure the students' progress and achievement and ensure it raise?
    For a myriad of reasons few see the need to learn a language in NZ, rightly or wrongly hence the battles with timetabling, keeping bums on sits etc. Learning in NZ schools ought to be relevant, authentic, out of need. Interculturality is all of that. Language learning itself won't necessarily foster a positive attitude to other's culture hence the need for interculturality to be addressed explicitly and openly in the classroom. And this is relevant and authentic for learners. No I did not just wake up being a iCLT buff Ruth! This is more gut feeling than investigated and tested as usual. But lots of reading and talking and watching videos about culturally competent pedagogy in the NZ context have really helped me move my understanding forward. I am hazy too on many counts and we don't have many examples nor much direction to help shape it let alone just professional conversations around it. Time for change, how big is your sphere of influence? ;-)

  8. I think we're totally on the same wave-length re these tools.
    How big is my sphere of influence? Barely larger than a small circle around me, I should say. Today I'm dealing with complaints about my teaching from students conveyed to me via parents' comments to the principal. As you can imagine it makes me wonder seriously what I'm doing here. I may find that my pegagogy is incompatible with the type of school I'm teaching in. I think what I'm doing suits the students who are less likely to be motivated and succeed in the 'one-size-fits-all' model but I think maybe the high-flyers feel they should be doing more language mastery and a wondering what we're doing. I've just been to town to buy a 'boite a suggestions' which I'll invite students to convey to me privately their comments, feedback both positive and negative, complaints etc. I'm hoping that will give me a clearer idea of how everyone is feeling about our progress. They're also doing an on-line survey this week
    One huge problem is that the junior course book is 13 years old and extremely dull and neutral, not to mention pedagogically out-dated. However there are obviously some who believe that this is the way forward. If that's how it's to be then my way forward will likely be northwards!


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