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Humanistic Teaching - Murmurs Archive

An approach to learning English

September 06, 2009


Just go out and do whatever it is you want to do. Live your dreams every day.
Mike Perham 

At 17, Mike Perham has just become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. He is a few months younger than American Zac Sunderland who completed the trip in July earlier this year. Meanwhile, thirteen-year-old Laura Dekker has just been placed in the custody of a Dutch Court to prevent her from setting sail on a similar journey. The authorities haven't completely ruled out the possibility of the trip and there will be a second ruling on October 26th by which time she will be 14. The presiding judge stated that the voyage was risky for a girl Laura's age. "She would be confronted with difficult situations that will challenge her mentally and physically," she said. This could be said for any person sailing solo around the world. Given that Mike Perham sailed across the Atlantic solo at the age of 14 the remarks of the Judge come across as somewhat sexist, though perhaps the Judge would have made similar arguments to restrain a boy. Other arguments against the trip included the notion that Laura's education would suffer. The family lawyer rejected such claims saying, "Where do you learn more, on a two-year trip or at high school?".  The question needs no answer.

I'll be following what happens to Laura with interest. Her situation raises many kinds of questions. To what extend should parents be able to control what their children do? Under what circumstances is it legitimate for the state authorities to intervene in a family decision? Laura's case is complicated by the fact that her parents are divorced, though both gave consent.

Sailing around the world is a huge ambition, though the questions remain pertinent in more regular life. Why should children be compelled to go to school especially when schooling for most is authoritarian and undemocratic? Or turn it around, rather than demanding that children reach particular standards in particular subjects shouldn't school really about helping children to discover their passions and pursue them? Just who is schooling supposed to benefit? The child, the parents, the economy, the state? Comments and answers, please!

November 15, 2009


Once upon a time, recently in fact, the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language Young Learners And Teenagers Special Interest Group had a field discussion about storytelling led by Andrew Wright. The discussion was deep and diverse but what a mouthful that opening sentence was! Are there certain kinds of words, certain strings and phrases that have no business in a story - are unstorylike, unstoryable, I mean unusable in stories - or does it all just depend upon the skill of the teller, the audience and the relationship between them?

One of the threads that developed was about NLP. Andrew was angered by the term and pointed out that the words it stood for Neuro Linguistic Programming were designed to be just as intimidating. He suggested that NLP was little more than dressed up common sense. This drew forth a response from me that I am going to use in full:

Hi Andrew,

While I agree with you about the name, I think NLP is a bit more than collected common sense, it's more processed, refined, distilled. Having been on an NLP course I wouldn't say that tying a knot in one's hanky is REALLY anchoring or fitting in with others is ACTUALLY mirroring. At the very least mirroring would involve copying a person's posture, breathing, language, tone etc. A lot of stuff on the web about NLP is horrible so it takes perseverance to find clear useful information. By chance I came across a page describing Anchoring the other day that I bookmarked. Here's the link:

One thing NLP is ABOUT is learning techniques to control and CHANGE one's mental state. It's about the senses. It's about thinking. A lot of us prefer thinking in pictures. Some of us prefer sound, Some of us use feelings, some of use words. Most of us can do them all but we have a preferred method. What this means is that if we want to get an idea across we need to present it in different ways. This is similar to Gardener's multiple intelligences idea.

NLP is based on suppositions. For example, the idea that if one person can do something then anyone can do the same thing. It's just a matter of finding out exactly how the something was done. Another is...

Eek.. this is getting long! If anyone wants me to write more about NLP please let me know. For now I'll finish by mentioning a technique I learnt on that NLP course which is split stories. I often use split stories when I present. The idea is to start with a story and break at some point. This usually gets people curious and attentive. Splitting a story can make it more powerful and also help people to reflect upon what they have just learned and experienced. In The Arabian Nights tales Scheherazade uses split stories to save her life and reform a king.

Best wishes,

Chris (Hunt)

Andrew then asked me about split stories and I started on a reply but day-to-day work took me away from finishing it. Now, with cold trying to take camp in my body I'm taking the liberty of finishing it and using it here:

Hi Andrew,

I doubt splitting stories is unique to NLP and didn't mean to suggest that it was. To show you what I mean here is one I use when I was presenting about using games to teach English. I used "The Cancer Of Competition"as my title but one time I was asked to change it on the grounds that it was negative. Though it's less the case nowadays, often when teachers think of games, they think of competitive ones without even realising that there are alternatives. My presentation was about the alternatives, non-competitive games and co-operative games. My opening story usually went something like this:

"Hello, I like games and I like stories. Here's a true one. I learnt to play chess at the age of 4. I once got asked if I'd ever considered turning professional and sometimes I wonder what could have happened if I'd ever had a proper teacher when I was young. Anyway, I've been making games longer than I can remember. I used to save up my pocket-money, such as it was, and think about which game in the shop window I'd buy once I'd saved enough. Sometimes I'd try to figure out the rules of a game from looking at the pieces and I'd try making my own version. After a while I noticed that the games I made myself were often more interesting than the ones I bought. Anyway, when I started teaching English I immediately thought of using games. The games I used were competitive because I didn't know of any other kind. They worked OK until one day I had a class with a little girl in it who just never won anything. Whatever kind of game I tried be it language game, or physical game or both she always lost. The other children never complained at her or ridiculed her but I still felt sorry for her. Sometimes I'd try giving her a helping hand but she hated that kind of cheating. I wanted to do something. I started thinking about what I was observing and then I got hold of "No Contest" by Alfie Kohn and that was a revelation.

Alfie Kohn defined competition as MEGA. I'll write it on the board. I promise it's the only bit of jargon I'll use today. MEGA stands for mutually exclusive goal attainment which has several implications. It means that if I win you lose. It also means that if I can make you lose I win. Not very friendly! Anyway, I told you I used to play chess? One time while at college I was in a chess tournament and in the first round I had to play a young boy. He was about 10 years old. After a few moves I came up with an idea, a new move I had never seen before. I decided to try it. This boy looked at the board for a while and then sacrificed his Queen. He forced check mate in just eleven moves. My new move led to a forced lost and the boy had found it! That's my shortest loss ever, but he was a nice boy and we had a friendly talk after the game. A bit later on, maybe round 4, I played another boy the same age. He was totally different. He lounged at the board. He sneered. He banged out his moves aggressively. I tried to be nice and offered to buy him a drink. He ordered cola and somehow managed to sip it contemptuously. He had some book knowledge and he caught me in an opening trap. Before long my position was totally lost. I could easily have resigned but there are times when you just don't want to give up, when you just want to win. So now here's a questionnaire all about games that I'd like you to fill out...

I hope that shows the idea. Start a story that has relevance to the topic at hand and at some point, hopefully when the audience is drawn in break the story and go onto something else. This way when you return to the story later it has more resonance. The story is a hook to draw learners to look at something important to the teacher. It's more than a bookend and it's more than a sandwich. It helps the learners. The story helps shape and deepen the more formal learning experience. What do you think? Does this make any sense?

Best wishes, Chris

What about BICS vs CALP? That will have to wait until next time. It's not another story but rather emeshed in this one. If you can't wait and why should you, you can read about it here and here. What's that? You couldn't care less about the acronyms. They give you indigestion? You want to hear about the little girl and the horrible boy? In my story they need you to know about BICS and CALP.

December 06, 2009

Feedback Fallacies

One of the presuppositions of NLP is that when communicating, the response received indicates the message that was sent. Meaning that the meaning of the communication is in the response that comes back. So, for example, if you try to help a child and the child gets angry then that is a good sign that the child feels you were talking down to them, or treating them like a child when they wanted to be treated as an independent human being.

I receive very few messages about the stuff I write here so I guess that means I'm not hitting the mark, or perhaps not hitting the mark enough. It could also mean that I'm writing in a vacuum and very few people are actually reading this at all. I could do with finding out some statistics about the this site and my pages in particular. But I guess I'm guilty of too much pontification and not enough pork. This week will be no different! Christmas is coming. The goose may be getting fat but it's also getting frantic and frayed at the edges. Too much to do and too little time to do it in.

Any way, if you feel that recently this blog has been substance light then have a look here. The link will direct you to a report I wrote on my recent excursion to Osaka as one of the two guest speakers for the 2009 Kansai ETJ expo. Apart from the report there are several complete activities and games that can be downloaded. There are even some written rules!

Burt actually, this week I wanted to pen a few words about the Kansai guest speaker presentation given by Kim Horne. This was a powerful, energetic wonderful presentation packed with information that somehow left me feeling apprehensive and queasy.

Kim spoke on Brain Rules and Power Teaching in the Classroom. She presented three rules and gave attendees some tools to activate the rules. The three rules are:

  • Exercise boosts brain power
  • Repeat to remember, remember to repeat
  • The brain craves excitement

I agree with these rules, especially the first and the third and I hope to examine them in more detail at a later date but right now I want to focus upon one of the tools that Kim presented which was a scoring system.

The system was simple enough. It consisted of a table with two rows. One with a smiley face and one with an unsmiley one (at least that's how I remember it. Neither my memory nor my eyesight are what they were even a few months ago. So if you are reading this and saw it differently please let me know.

The idea is simple. At the end of each activity the teacher rates the overall performance, participation, and sheer energy of the class during the activity and either gives them a smiley point or an unsmiley one. The class are then supposed to respond accordingly. This might be a mighty cheer or dramatic sighs of desperation or even two catchphrase linked to a particular theme. In the presentation Kim showed us two for a pirate theme.

The aim of the points is to give the children - kindergarten and elementary ages being the recipients - feedback. The idea is to encourage them to think about what they did well and conversely what they could do better if they miss a smiley point. However, even during the presentation I felt perturbed. I could hear a sinister little whisper at the back of my mind, "test!"

This may partly have been because I was feeling severely tested by the TPR Kim was throwing at us. I think TPR is a powerful tool and I'm always wondering how to incorporate more of it in my own classes but it seemed Kim had a gesture for everything and there was too much for me to take in.

I actually like words, and for me gestures can easily get in the way! One thing I raised with Kim after the presentation was that I like to mix and match when it comes to gestures. Some things, for example prepositions I think it is useful to have shared gestures but for others, especially anything to do with expressing their own feelings I think it is better for children to come up with their own gestures. Of course this means having a classroom culture that encourages gestures, otherwise children will likely come up with nothing. So from this point of view spending time getting children to learn gestures that help with metacognition is time well spent, as long as the children don't feel overwhelmed.

One of the downsides of the ETJ expo presentations is that they are only 45 minutes long. Invariably presenters need to rush at breakneck speed. A little bit more time would allow a little bit more reflection. as it was I personally couldn't keep pace with the number of gestures and chants Kim was showering us with. Now I think showering children with meaningful English is a very useful way of getting them to acquire English rather than learn (study) it. The younger the child the more useful showering is, but the older the more one has to be careful with overload. Overload turns a shower into a flashflood which can wash away confidence and motivation in an instant.

So for me, the number of gestures were too much, especially with the scoreboard on the board. I felt there was too much pressure for me to get it right rather than enjoy the process for its own sake. Probably, people who are more comfortable with gestures wouldn't have felt this way, but now a week later I am sensing it just as clearly. Rather than feedback I felt the scoreboard was grading our performance. It was clear that it was meant to be a tool for enlightenment rather than one for ranking and control but I felt it belonged to the teacher rather than to the class. It is as if the teacher is some mighty Roman Emperor at the circus deciding whether to allow the defeated gladiator to live or to die. In my mind it would make more sense if the students could assess each activity themselves, but something a little bit more sophisticated than a thumbs up or thumbs down approach would be required.

I think there is a vast difference between feedback and ranking, even if the ranking is applied to the class as a whole. I think the best way to give feedback is to simply make observations, to describe in detail what one has seen. There's an interesting YouTube video that makes a similar point about the dangers of praising children. Of course, one of the difficulties of detailed description is how to do it and remain in English and be understandable. Otherwise one's feedback becomes a test of understanding which then defeats the very purpose of giving the kind of feedback I am suggesting in the first place. When and how to use mother tongue is a whole other mess of worms. But for now I'll conclude by saying that finding tools that allow children (or adults too for that matter) to notice things about what and how they are learning is very important. If you know of any please let me know. A score board may be better than nothing but I am very doubtful. There must be something better, out there, somewhere.

December 13, 2009

Christmas Reverie

If we can get past the raging parties and frantic shopping Christmas can often be a time for nostalgia and reflection. Was the carol "Silent Night" first played on guitar because the church organ had broken down or was it originally arranged that way? Either way it was far removed from the hustle and bustle that pursues us at this time of year.

When I think about my first Christmas in Japan I remember that what still haunts me is the incessant sound of Christmas musik. The k is deliberate. It stands for kill. Everywhere I went it seemed there was no escape from Frosty The Snowman and Suzy Snowflake. I was near to near to going crazy. It was partly as a defence and partly as a joke that I began making Black Christmas tapes for my sister. She had been in Japan for a year and returned to England before I arrived. The tapes combined Christmas music counterpointed with anything I deemed appropriate - from horror themes like that from Psycho to bits from Bill Laswell and the Last Poets. Over the years I began running out of material and began creating my own. My sister was forgiving. I think there's even a video of her somewhere dancing with her children to Bring Me Santa Rap which I made for a very early homework tape (I used to make ten minutes tapes for children every week. Now they get sporadic DVD's without homework). The rap was also used to remind children of the dialogue of a very simple game. Players would sit in a circle and one of them would don a Santa hat. Santa would ask the player on "his" left to get an item of food. The food was at the end of the room. When the player returned with the item Santa would pretend to eat it and then put it in a bag before passing the hat and bag to the newly returned player who would become the next Santa. If Santa asked for something that had gone or was not available the player would shout back, "No [item]" and Santa would ask for something else. The aim was to gather as many items as possible within a time limit. Rather than using a timer a lively piece of Christmas works better.

This is one of my early non-competitive games that I am still happy to use. The only downside is that it could do with more interaction for the players sitting in the circle waiting a turn. One idea that's just come to me as I type this is for players to keep passing the bag and then the new Santa could be the player holding the bag when the food item was brought back. Players could then practise different dialogue while passing the bag: "Here you are", "Take this", "Is this yours ?" etc. Alternatively, the current Santa could "drill" the others in the circle by making sentences for them to repeat, "We have a banana!", "We don't have a pear!" etc.

Another Christmas game that works fairly well is Tree Decorating. It can be done with either a real tree and real ornaments or a paper tree stuck to a magnetic board and magnetic ornaments (cardboard cut outs with a magnetic strip stuck on the back). The teacher (or a player) takes charge of the decorations and the other players line up. The teacher asks the first player what they want and the player names a decoration. The teacher gives the item to the second in line saying, "He/She wants a [item name]" (for young ones you can say "[Name] wants this/these"). The item is then passed down the line with players repeating the phrase. The first player runs to the back of the line to receive the item and then goes to place it on the tree. The whole line moves up one and the process is repeated. This game was an early attempt to help children distinguish between "Give me" and "I want".

Looking back to my first Christmas party in Japan I realise that the games I used were all competitive. I was teaching adults at that time but even so it now strikes me as odd. Surely the idea of a competitive Christmas should be an oxymoron? One thing I did do though was move away from giving winning teams prizes. It was decided that rather than have lots of cheap nasty prizes that the budget allowed it was better to have a handful of more attractive items. The solution was to give people raffle tickets in the form of numbered chocolates. At the end of the evening we had a prize draw. The more candies a participant had the greater the chance of winning a prize. But since everyone got at least one chocolate everyone had a chance as long as they didn't eat their ticket. The chocolates also allowed us to use a Pavlovian technique of boosting atmosphere. I could move round the room mingling and call out the occasional "Merry...". The first person to respond with "Christmas!" could earn a chocolate. One image that still remains strong for me many years later is from my second Christmas party in Japan that was based on the theme of Dick Whittington. Part of the entertainment was a version of the story. At the beginning of the party we gave everyone a pair of rat ears. Instead of chocolates we had numbered cheese balls and we arranged so that when we rang a bell the first person onto our mock stage got one. At first people were a little slow on the uptake but then suddenly people got it and one time we rang the bell we had about fifteen people jump up on the stage all at once their eyes full of expectation and their hands out for cheese!

It's been a number of years since I've done a large party for either adults or children. Regardless of the size I still prefer starting with a theme and arranging games and activities around it. Having said this, we don't really have a theme this year. We are reversing the usual idea of having Santa coming down the chimney. Instead, since we are in a trailer home we are sending objects up the chimney. Children will take turns visiting a grotto (a decorated area of our loft) to be interviewed by "Father Chris-mas". To gain entrance they will need to get an item of food sent up a cardboard chimney using a pulley. Thus a variation on the old game described above. "Father Chris-mas" will be myself dressed up according to selections made by the children during the party. This kind of DIY Santa is the only way I am willing to have a Father Christmas (I'm from England) at all. It avoids any kind of trickery and is just plain funnier. I usually try to encourage the children to avoid choosing a beard (because of the discomfort from heat) and go for oversized bowties or glasses. I often end up with all three, but I feel it's worth it. We arrange the grotto so that the children are on camera and I am hidden until I make a final entrance and dish out the presents that the children have bought for each other. Santa the charlatan?

it was Angela Ota at Angel English who introduced me to the idea of a personal present exchange. Rather than have a random pass the parcels type affair Angela gets her students to fill out age appropriate questionnaires. Students draw these from a hat and buy a present for the person whose paper they get. It's a little tricky to organise with children and you need to collect presents in advance of the real party to make time for those who accidentally leave presents at home, but it is much closer to the real spirit of Christmas.

During the First World War in 1914 there was a Christmas Truce and British and German troops sang Christmas Carols to each other and even exchanged gifts. The next year the French got involved. The High Command on both sides were fearful. Artillery bombardments were ordered for Christmas eve so that there could be no silent night . On no account could peace be allowed to prevail. Fast forward to today and not so much has changed. I wonder if there is a link between the use of competitive games in school and the general acquiescence we seem to have towards fighting wars when our leaders decide it should be so. I wouldn't be surprised.

January 17, 2010

New Year Resolutions

Did you make any New Year resolutions for this year? If you did, are they still alive, or have they already started to push up daisies in the wayside? I gave up making them long ago, although I often think about them as each New Year rolls around. One thing I do do off and on with my adult students is get them to make weekly or monthly resolutions. There's a page at Wise Hat about it. Basically it's just a way to get students to think about how they could be doing more English at home.

The problem I have with resolutions is that I like to change my mind. For a while now I've been thinking about changing how I approach this blog. When I started it, something just over ten months ago, I decided I was going to make an entry every week, no matter what. Apart from some holidays I more or less did that. I must say that I had hoped for some more feedback. Right now I'm thinking of relating my entries to the amount of feedback I get. I'm wondering about just going for mini entries and only writing long pieces when I get some comments. Life is only so long.

Life is only so long. If I were to make some resolutions for the year then what would they be? Here's my list in no particular order:

  1. Make sure students have real choice in every class.
  2. Get students to make resolutions to improve their English.
  3. Focus on developing passion rather than teaching.
  4. Fade into the background in class.
  5. Forget about results.
  6. Create a range of materials children will want to use at home.
  7. Complete a DIY phonics course.
  8. Get children to know why they are doing English
  9. Help children who are less than ambivalent about English to quit.

What would your list be?

January 24, 2010


Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit.

George Carlin

Last week I mentioned that if I did make resolutions then one I would adopt would be to help children quit English. Since I got a couple of comments questioning this idea, this time around I'd like to expand a little on my reasoning.

Quitting is generally seen as negative, copping out, chucking it in, throwing in the towel. As the famous American football coach, Vincent Lombardi, remarked, "Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit." But I think this assumes your heart was set upon what you are giving up. For children learning English this is often is not the case.

Looking back on my childhood the only thing I ever took lessons in was playing the piano. I must have had lessons for four or five years, though I honestly don't remember. I know I loathed practising and hardly did any. I also remember having to do transposition exercises. I had a grubby little blank score book all smudgy with pencil stains and eraser  marks. Given that my mother hardly ever threw anything away it's probably around, somewhere. Looking back, I realise that I can't remember my piano teacher's face, just her fingers that were stubby, lumpy things deformed by arthritis. Perhaps one reason I didn't practise was because I didn't want my fingers to end up like hers. I guess I was one of those thankless, pitiful and inadequate students whose only purpose could have been to generate income for the teacher.

Do you have any students like that? If you do, isn't the honest thing to do to tell them to shape up or ship off? Possibly, though the language to be used depends upon the student. What I mean to say is, if we can't get the student to make some effort then surely we should tell the student that they are wasting their time, and ours?

It's not that I don't like music. I love making it. But I didn't and don't get much from formal lessons. I think I only took lessons for so so long because my brother and sister were taking them and to please my mother. Bluntly, these are terrible reasons for doing anything.

I think there are times when the honest thing to do is to help a child to realise that quitting is the honest option. Doing something because our parents want us to is almost always a poor reason.  Sure parents have more experience than their children but that doesn't mean they know what is best for a child. Parents can have their own scripts, as Philip Larkin put it in his short poem This Be The Verse :

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

I don't mean to suggest that my parent's pushed me to have piano lessons or that all Japanese children taking English lessons are forced to do so. Far from it. In fact that's the problem, the situation is so seldom clear-cut. I remember long ago a kindergarten child I had whose only interest in English was playing a Freddi Fish computer game we had on the school computer. The only English word she ever said was "fiiishu". We should have told her mother after a month that she was wasting her money. It took us around six. Nowadays, I'm prepared to speak up even after a trial lesson. In one case, I've even had two brothers have trial lessons twice, a year apart. I refused the mother both times. The boys aren't remotely interested in English, and why should they be?

I really question the idea that quitting is a form of weakness. It takes real strength to look into one's heart and know one's own mind and be able to confront to one's parents. When I write about helping children to quit I mean supporting them in understanding their feeling towards English and also towards English lessons. In some cases a change of scene or situation is best. My own experiences playing chess is a case in point. I learnt to play when I was four. My first visit to the school chess club in secondary school I beat the teacher looking after the club (he wasn't that strong). But the school used a ladder system where one could only play people depending upon your ranking and theirs. It made chess boring and pedantic. I dropped out. But everything changed when we got a temporary teacher who by chance had been a county champion. He got three of us so interested that one Summer evening we walked alone over a mile to a pub because we heard there was a chess club there. It was the first time I had ever been in a pub without my dad. We were several years under-age but we were able to join the club. Chess became a big part of my life for many years. It once even got me a job teaching English, but that's another story.

What I hope I'm conveying is that life in finite and too short to spend time doing things that we don't have a passion for. It's also long enough that we can find, loose and find passion for things more than once. But when we do things to please others we seldom learn things very deeply and if we are not careful we can make ourselves miserable. Misery is the enemy of passion. This kind of unhappiness is sapping and soul-destroying. Much better to quit than to continue. In any situation where such feelings are creeping in quitting is essentially a form of medicine. As one old Chinese saying goes, "Of all the stratagems, to know when to quit is the best". Quitting English isn't the same thing a giving up on life. It can be a way of creating space for something new. Fill up our days with what we find mundane and we erode passion. If we can, we should teach children to do better than that.

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.

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?

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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