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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?

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China is the exam-oriented education,I like Humanistic Teaching.

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