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Humanistic Teaching

An approach to learning English

April 24, 2011

I had a dream...

I wonder if there is any significance anywhere in having a dream on Easter Sunday? I skipped out on having a new year dream this year. This morning's dream was so vivid I'm still not quite sure I'm awake. It had nothing to do with Easter or eggs despite the fact that they have been saturating our classes all this week. The main features were a shopping mall, Sir Ken Robinson and a language conference.

It's been a while since I last attended a conference. For some reason I'm still on the Jalt Abstract Reading committee though I haven't been a Jalt member for several years. I quit in feeble protest over events in the Teaching Children SIG. Not something I want to rehash, though in fact I'm doing so. I'll just say it was to do with lack of democracy (what else!).My jaundiced view about EFL conferences is that they are more for pushing merchandise than exchanging ideas. That's probably why in my dream the publishers were occupying shops in the mall for the duration of the conference. Most of the shops were boutiques and the language materials were intermingled and obscured by clothes. Everywhere you look there is new this and new that but is the content really ever new? I'm tempted to say that I can't remember the time when I picked up a text book and was impressed with the content - but actually I can. It was when I first picked up a copy of Finding Out by David Paul. I remember I was intrigued by the idea of focusing on phonics, and the clear layout with lack of clutter, and the large illustrations intended to encourage children to come up with their own interpretations of the activities.

I hadn't thought of it before, but in a way, quite a similar way, my use of activity cards serves a similar function. These cards give children an indication of what an activity is. They allow children to think about what an activity might be and what it involves before doing it. The cards encourage interpretation and discussion and provoke interest and curiosity. Up to this point there is no substantial difference from the Finding Out illustrations. But there is a difference and it is essential. Finding Out offers only one illustration at a time. So the children have no choice.  The lesson proceeds in a linear fashion. In contrast, I currently present between 9 and 12 cards per class and where the class goes is much more in the control of the children.  I have some notes in pdf format about using the cards that can be downloaded here

For some years now, in the musty dusty crevices of the back of my mind the idea of having a non-linear text book has been lurking. It would be a book with blank squares where the page numbers would normally be. As the students worked through the book they could fill in the page numbers to show the order they traversed through the book. if it were absolutely necessary to sequence some material the book could also adopt some kind of colour coding. For example, no "red level" page could be done until the "white level" pages had been completed, no orange level pages done until the red level were done, and so on. Or of course, those advanced pages could just be put into an entirely separate book. The idea would be that the students could look at the book and negotiate their way through it with the teacher. Pages could even have symbols relating to skill type so that a record could be kept and the students shown if they had a bias for or against a particular skill type. 

Why go to such lengths? But then, why not? It's not as if the lengths are really all that long. The form has altered only minimally. It's not as if the learner is even being given any control over the content. They would just gain influence over how and when they encounter the content. Surely that should be a bare minimum?

In my dream I got on an escalator. I intended to return to the main conference area but I got on the wrong one. The building was a gigantic dome and the escalator was one of several that became vertical to whisk the user to the higher levels. I have a great fear of heights (having got stuck on a cliff as a teenager) and the dream was more than no exception. I ran screaming back down the way I had come unable and unwilling to wait to see how the people riding did not fall.

Should knowledge be at the command of the teacher alone? Is it something to be poured into empty vassals? I believe that the teacher should get out of the way of the learner. Surely, learners should have as much say over what they choose to learn as possible? If we can create a way for them to do so, why wouldn't we use it? Much as I would like to see a non-linear text book it is still a textbook. At John Bardos questions the effectiveness of textbooks in EFl classes and points out that real communication doesn't start by looking at pages in a book. A text book bends the interests of the learners to the book, rather than using the interests of  the learners as the starting off point. I think that if we don't start from and stay with the passion of the learners we are in danger of curtailing creativity. Enter Sir Ken Robinson.  Here's a link to a recent video of a talk he gave that I haven't watched. I found it unwatchable. It is an RSA Animate and it makes me want to vomit, almost literally. I just can't cope with visuals in that way. Having previously argued that schools destroy creativity he says that it is necessary to change education paradigms. Since I've never made it to the end I don't know what his suggestions are. I hope there is space for democracy in his conclusions.

In my dream Ken Robinson stayed in bed while I was giving my presentation. I told him to. For some reason he was sleeping at the conference centre, an absurdity I never noticed. His own presentation, a workshop, began brilliantly and he had complete strangers making connections like long lost friends. But then it went slightly awry when got everyone in a line. The idea was to for people to relate experiences in turn into a kind of collective narrative, but one man talked too long and missed an opportunity. I guess I'm doing the same.

Before I started this I intended to relate some of the happenings in my classes since my last piece. I had been going to start a kind of  lesson diary but my monitor scotched that by continually switching itself off. So here I am now trying to get the dream out of my head.

In themselves, the activity cards still leave most of the control in the hands of me the teacher. I get to choose which cards to present to the children. But I think the idea of giving such choice is not to be blinked away. From a teachery perspective they definitely perk up interest. But from a human perspective they are the first step in a transition to giving the children the chance to be creative without abandoning the idea of staying in English. I don't want to lose English as the central means of communication. My mind's eye plan is to go from using the cards I provide to using a mix of cards and ideas generated by the children. There are two steps with the cards. Currently I am letting the children take turns in choosing the cards. I'll move from this to getting them to choose the cards democratically.  In my experience it is generally better to introduce new ideas a step at a time. To determine who chooses first I've been using a dice, and because I happened to come across some Morecombe and Wise on YouTube I rediscovered the importance of being theatrical. This sounds contradictory to the idea of getting out of the way of the learner, so I guess what I mean is when we want or need to be present we at least should be engaging and entertaining. In other words give the children a reason to allow us to be the teacher.  So, rather than just rolling the dice I showed it to them in a deliberate fashion and slowly assigned a number to each child so it was clear what the result would mean. I did this more than once trying to build up the tension before rolling the dice and then when it finally came time to roll the dice it wouldn't leave my hand. I got the idea after watching Eric's paper bag trick. I was able to go as far as writing the letters d r  o p on the board and getting the children to read and say drop, such was their determination to get me to roll the dice. Then of course when they did actually say the word I dropped the pen rather than the dice. I rediscovered my sense of fun which is why I guess I wanted to do the diary. But perhaps keeping that diary would kill it. I know that Easter has put a dent in it. Now where did that theme come from?

March 24, 2011

Turning Fifty

I am fifty today. So allow me some indulgence. I want to write about saving the world. About connections observed, experienced and imagined. I want to write about teaching children and why I think we should stop. And I want to write about life, about how tenuous and how tenacious it is. This will be a mess.

Just before I started bashing away at my keyboard I performed my current ritual of checking the headlines on the TV. People in Libya are being bombed in order to save them. Regime change is not planned. The war is humanitarian and not about oil. Water in Tokyo is safe to drink. Babies, children and pregnant women should not drink it. There is no danger. A bomb has gone off in Jerusalem. There was no mention of my birthday.

When we talk about the world we invariably focus on ourselves. If we think at all about the environment we think about how to manipulate it to serve the interests of humanity. We are sentient and somehow this seems to make us egotistical. As the old "Tears For Fears" lyric has it, "Everybody wants to rule the world". But what does it actually mean to rule the world? Perhaps it means having the power to turn back the waves as King Canute is famed to have commanded. Or perhaps it means having the power to split the atom and control the power unleashed. Or perhaps having the power to control the flow of information and so shape what people believe and how they act.

There are around 22,000 nuclear warheads in the world. 8000 are active. There are 442 nuclear power plants.

In 1887 Lord Acton wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton,

 "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

If this is true then it is in our own egotistical interests to destroy or severely limit power. Life is, perhaps another matter. James Lovelock, who first suggested the Gaia hypothesis, that Earth acts as a kind of single living organism, argues that Nuclear power is our only practical defence against global warming. He is unconcerned about radiation:

"One of the striking things about places heavily contaminated by radioactive nuclides is the richness of their wildlife. This is true of the land around Chernobyl, the bomb test sites of the Pacific, and areas near the United States' Savannah River nuclear weapons plant of the Second World War. Wild plants and animals do not perceive radiation as dangerous, and any slight reduction it may cause in their lifespans is far less a hazard than is the presence of people and their pets"

We are conscious. We know we think and feel. We can choose what we want our role in the world to be. We can act as hedonists, despots, guardians, servants or caretakers. Perhaps our greatest evolutionary gift is our ability to imagine. We can imagine how we want the world to be and we can act on that imagination to actualise our visions. That is of course, much more difficult than it sounds. We are confronted and confounded by difficulties. Some are immediately solvable. Some are intractable. It is important to understand the difference. For example, if we want to build a bridge or tower with our current knowledge the problems are inherently understandable, testable and foreseeable. The solution is linear. But if we want to build an equitable, fair and sustainable society the problems are, as Roy Madron and John Jopling describe in Gaian Democracies (Schumacher Briefings, Number 9), "wicked". This is not intended to suggest they are morally evil but rather something complex that evolves through time and effects different people in different ways. A problem that has stakeholders.

Recently, I was told that my approach is too black and white, too either or, too extreme. I wonder if this is because I place too much value on principles. Perhaps I agree too much with Stephen R. Covey's "true north" thesis in The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People. Perhaps I am too literal. For example, I think Gaddafi is a ruthless dictator. I think dictatorship is wrong (and so called democratic governments shouldn't supply dictators with weapons). It follows that I think teachers should not be dictators. There should be no dictators in the classroom! I think being able to control one's own learning situation should be a universal human right. To my mind compulsory education without any form of democracy in reality teaches children to accept the notion that might makes right. You must stay in the classroom and do what the teacher says! It is good for you!

I think schooling squanders the deep potential of children. I'll return to this theme in future columns. What I want to emphasis right now  is the importance of democracy. Currently there are various uprisings across the world against the established order. I see, or perhaps I hope I see, this as a rejection against hierarchical government. I see democracy as the best defence against the tyranny of absolute power, but not the shallow, vapid, tweedle-dee tweedle-dumb representational kind that exists today. We need to develop genuinely transparent interactive forms of government across all levels of society.

In the back of my mind an idea for a teacher's charter is forming. Something a bit like the Hippocratic Oath that modern commercialised medicine apparently rejects. The first principle would be:

I will not teach unless the child asks me to do so.

Here are some more:

I will use non-violent communication.
I will allow children to follow their passions.
I will do nothing to dampen a child's natural enthusiasm.
I will not give homework unless the child requests it.
I will put the interests of the child before those of the parents.

The one that causes me the most trouble is homework. Certainly my experience of regular school leads me to think such a stipulation is essential, but what about private language schools where it can be argued that the child has chosen to attend the school? We all know that attending a class once a week is not sufficient to gain any real skill in a language and moreover, spending any degree of time at something without gaining some skill is disheartening and demotivating in itself. In other words, homework can be considered a necessity when it comes to learning language. But at the same time I think that children should be able to control their own time and that in Japan adults impinge on their time too much.  So, I'm wondering if there is a way to get a class to agree on how fast they want to learn English. It would need to be at the class level as having children in the same class doing different amounts of homework would be to store up trouble unnecessarily. I think for any method to work it would require some kind of easy to comprehend symbol. One such could be different forms of transport. A class could chose to travel at the speed of say, a bicycle, a car, a train, a plane or a rocket. The faster the vehicle the faster the pace in class and the more homework the group would get. Of course, if such a system were adopted one would need to figure out how often a vehicle could be changed. One possibility would be to link it to the theme for the month. It would be difficult to offer children a completely free choice within the context of a language school. But perhaps a choice of themes could be offered and a quantity of homework created in advance.

What I am saying is that I think that democracy is important for the future of humanity. The best way to learn about it is to do it. Rather than have it as a subject that is occasionally studied have it as something that is real. I know that democratic schools work. They exist in many countries throughout the world. The question, the experiment, is whether it is possible to have democratic lessons within a once-a-week language school. When Mary Leue was contemplating what was to become the Albany Free school, she asked A. S, Neill, the founder of Summerhill, what he thought of the idea of trying to establish a Summerhill type school for the children of inner-city poor. He replied, "I would think myself daft to try". The Albany Free School is now over 40 years old. Daft or not, I think the idea of democratic lessons is worth a try. What say you?

February 28, 2010


I had a yada experience yesterday, the first I've had in a long time. Direct confrontation, vitriolic refusal, fearful contempt. It's hard to convey the nascent power and negativity contained in just one word. I'm probably a little over sensitive but yada is one word I won't countenance. 

We were having a make-up lesson which we do once a month to allow students to catch up with classes they have missed. At Wise Hat English we not only give make-ups but we carry them over so sometimes we even end up giving them to students who have quit! Students who miss two classes in a month have the option of getting one make-up class or paying half the fee for the month. We are also very laid back about cancellations and don't require notice in advance. All in all we have a good response and no real attempts to take advantage.

Make-up classes invariably have students from different classes as we try to arrange them according to our students schedules while taking into account personalities and experience. Our make-up day is usually long and yesterday was no exception. I won't be writing much today!

During make-up classes we try to cover topics and activities students have missed though invariably there is some overlap because students missing from different classes and different weeks have done different things. Thus it was that I tried to introduce an activity that some students had done more in the month than others. Our theme for the month was weather and time and the activity in question was Wizard Weather. This, a variation of Snow Escape, is invariably popular but not on this occasion. Basically nobody wanted to do it and two of the group, who incidentally were all girls, began yadaing (yadering? I'm not sure which).

Whenever the word yada crops up I take it as a sign that something has gone badly wrong. It's a horrible sound and I admit that all too easily I can react badly to it, making the situation even more negative. But yada completely shatters any English atmosphere that might have built up. And of course, it should be completely unnecessary. Japanese children should be able to communicate their strong dislike without resorting to Japanese. A simple "No thank you!" or a "No way!" are much better and should be sufficient. "I don't want to..[complete sentence here]" is much more complicated and doesn't have the same impact. Finding an equivalent  that has the same emotional impact is important when wanting children to stay in English. "No thank you!" wasn't really enough in this case, but a spirited and varied chant of   "No way!" was enough to dissipate the negativity that had emerged, both in myself and in the girls. We agreed to skip Wizard Weather and do a shopping activity instead. 

I'd be very interested to hear what gets your goat and any strategies you have for dealing with it. My strategy with yada is probably a little bit too confrontational. I jump on it. I guess I want children to see it as taboo. I'm happy to deal with and accept the grievence though I usually push the situation again to get a response in English after I have taught it on the spot. But I think a better strategy would probably be introduce a "No Way!" activity so that children would have something they could use. Anyway, hope to get some comments and I'm crawling away to rest up. Until next time.

February 21, 2010

Question Time?

One topic that cropped up in the ETJ Owners list this past week was the subject of answering questions, or rather the kinds of answers we require as teachers. The big decision is whether we should insist on full answers using complete sentences or whether we allow students to use truncated replies. The benefit of full answers is that it gives students more exposure to grammatical structures and increase the chance for them to learn them. The disadvantage is that full sentences can often sound stilted and unnatural. Native speakers  will happily take shortcuts and drop words during conversation so shouldn't learners know how to do likewise?

My typical approach is to divide a lesson into distinct parts. During "practise time" I get students to make complete grammatical sentences but outside this framework I focus more on flow, speed and communication. Having said this, I hit upon a simple activity for older children this week that combines both forms. It's still in the experimental stage but I'd like to share it, and hopefully get some feedback. I've yet to settle upon a name for the activity but for now will go with Reply Relay. The activity is suitable for small groups and requires question cards and some six sided dice.

Prior to starting I write the following on the board for reference:

  • 1, 6 Short Answer
  • 2-5  Full Answer

Each player recieves a dice. One player becomes the interviewer and takes a question card. While the interviewer is looking at the card the others each roll their dice. The rolls dictate both who will get asked the question and how to answer. The interviewer asks the question to the player rolling the highest number. If there is a tie then the interview asks all the players concerned. The players must give full answers if they have rolled 2,3,4, or 5 and one word answers if they have rolled a 1 or a 6 (1 will only count on the rare occasions where all players roll a 1). The interviewer should avoid reading the question but instead aim to get eye contact with the players being questioned.

After the interviewer has asked a predetermined number of questions one of the other players takes over the role. Ideally all players should have a go at asking questions.


Use a timer for each interviewer. Keep a record of the total number of questions answered by the group.

Rather than the highest score alone determining who answers the questions instead use tied dice rolls first and highest score second. For example, five players roll 2, 2, 3, 3 and 6. The two players rolling 3 answer the question.

For groups that can't read the teacher could ask the questions. Alternatively, the interviewer could just make up questions onn the spot or ask a particular kind of question. 

Further Thoughts

I've tried out the main method described with a few groups and it seems worth pursuing.  One problem with larger groups is that the dice rolls can easily get mixed up and it can be hard to know who has rolled what. Another is that some children like to spin dice rather than roll them and this wastes time. As I type this I think a solution to both problems is to use a paper cup. Players could drop their dice into a paper cup and call out the results. Alternatively, and I think this is better, they could start with the dice in a paper cup and tip the cup upside down onto the table so that the dice is trapped under the cup. Then all players could lift their cups up at the same time. This would add a little bit of tension. Anyway, I welcome some feed back on this idea. Thanks!

February 14, 2010

Kind Hearts And Pancakes


It may be Valentine's Day today but truth be told I've never done much with it in or out of the classroom. A quick search of my computer reveals a solitary worksheet for adults and high school students  based on the information found here. It contained a true or false quiz, a version of which can be downloaded by clicking this link. Students were invited to read each statement in turn, discuss it and make a guess before the answer was revealled. One aim was to see how long it would take them to decide that all the statements were true.

I wonder if St Valentine's Day is something done more often in schools in the US than in Britain? I don't remember the event ever being celebrated once while I was at school. It never made an appearance at home either, but Pancake Day did which I guess is why I have a soft spot for it. The same computer search draws forth nearly a dozen files, though in general when I do pancake lessons I like to make them completely practical, or perhaps I should write, physical. Very few schools I've taught at have given me access to an oven range but for pancakes a portable gas cooker actually works better. Children can get as close as you deem advisable. I usually let them get very close and of course they all get a chance to have a toss, if they want one. In my experience the older children get the more concerned they become about drops. This could be because they are concerned about wasting food but I think their reserve comes from fear of making a mistake. One thing I want to get across with pancake lessons is that the only real mistake is trying to avoid making them. One method I've found to encourage them to have a go is to designate one pancake as a a practise pancake. I tell them it doesn't matter if it goes on the floor as we can use it just for throwing practise. If by chance it does end up on the floor we can keep using it and then rinse out the pan before before making ones to eat. Anyway, I'm going to be lazy today and draw this week's entry to a close. If you want to read more than try this link to an old Now's Newsletter. It's got a little bit about NLP reframing and a little bit more about pancakes. Happy holidays!

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