Teachers, what to do when you don't know what to do!

Carefully observe students

There are times when an instructor is in the middle of a class and a learner poses a question that the instructor does not know how to answer.  There are other times when the instructor detects a gap in student learning where learners may not come right out and ask a question, but there is some issue that needs to be addressed that the instructor is unable to answer.  By carefully observing student behavior, an attentive instructor should be able to detect these moments and either make a mental note or write down some notes in order to look into the issue later.

Paraphrase students' doubts

Part of the observation process is having an exchange with students in order to clarify precisely the issue they are experiencing.  Paraphrasing what the learners have said or what was observed offers a clear way to determine what the exact issue happens to be.  This gives the instructor time to think more deeply about the issue as instructor-learner exchanges emerge, allowing the instructor to share some knowledge about the issue depending on the circumstances.

State what is known, and be honest

While instructor-learner exchanges are unfolding, instructors should be honest about what they know and how certain they are about what they know.  Mistakes can happen, but being honest is always the best policy when stating something as fact. Usually, learners can detect when instructors are making things up as they go along, so it's best to error on the side of caution if not completely certain about a particular topic.  When possible, state what you know and reference outside sources when applicable, and when outside sources pose a difference in perspective, present various viewpoints when there is no one correct answer to the question.  Also, instructors should try to be aware of personal biases when expressing what is known about a particular topic, and constantly reflect on how one can continue to grow one's knowledge base through ongoing professional learning through objective observation of one's own perspective.

State what is not known, and be honest

An instructor should be forthcoming when it comes to sharing with learners what is not known about a topic as well.  There may even be uncertainty about a topic which should also be communicated to the class.  Don't be afraid to ask the learners themselves for answers as well.  When instructors do not know how to answer a question while in class, instructors may choose to turn the moment into an inquiry-based experience where learners look up a question online (if mobile devices and an internet connection are available).  Alternatively, an instructor might have learners look up the answer outside of class, and have them present their answers in a subsequent lesson.

Commit to a follow up response

After the instructor and learners have determined what needs to be looked up for a subsequent class, the instructor should commit to a designated date for answering the question.  Either the instructor can schedule a time to answer the question or the learners themselves can answer (or both).  The point is that the same day that the unanswered question comes up, there should be an arrangement set in the future so that the question doesn't just fade away.  If the instructor and learners are using social media as part of the educative experience, then follow up answers might occur more timely and before a subsequent face-to-face class by exchanges happening openly online (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

Pursue Wisdom

Professional learning for an instructor comes from one's wisdom.  The five facets of wisdom that an instructor might consider are as follows:

  • "Problem Solving with self-knowledge and sustainable actions.

  • Contextual, sincerity to the circumstances with knowledge of its negative and positive aspects (or constraints).

  • [Value-based] consistent actions with knowledge of diversity in ethical opinions.

  • Tolerance towards uncertainty in life with unconditional acceptance.

  • Empathy with oneself to understand one's own emotions (or to be emotionally oriented), morals...etc. and others feelings including the ability to see oneself as part of a larger whole" (para. 11).

An instructor can consider professional learning in terms of cultivating a personal and professional eportfolio or website dedicated to demonstrating one's knowledge and understandings, skill sets, and values and attitudes related to becoming a more competent teacher practitioner. A teacher practitioner should embrace those moments when an answer to a question is not attainable by always having a clear plan when unprepared to answer a particular question while in front of the group of eager learners.


The Dangers of Using the Term "Pre-Teaching"

Pre-teaching as a “thing”

After having read The Dangers of Pre-Teaching I feel there is more danger in just using the term pre-teaching the way it is commonly used. The word pre-teaching currently does not seem to be trending any one particular direction and appears limited to mainly being used in the United States, according to Google Trends. But clearly, for many, pre-teaching is a “thing”: search pre-teaching and Google preteaching /pre-teaching for how it’s used over the web.  The first definition of the term, interestingly enough, comes from outside of the US, by the British Council: “Pre-teaching is the teaching of the language learners need before an activity”.

Some argue that pre-teaching does have some limitations...

What is the point in pre-teaching?The dangers of pre-teaching
It really can break the flow of a lesson.Pick out every single unknown word in the text and pre-teach it, turning pre-teaching into a main event where a random list of vocabulary is presented one after the other with no context (because the context would come later in the form of the reading/listening text!)
Learners often seem to look a bit bewildered at why 4 seemingly random words are being taught.Pick out words that students already know and teach them.
I’m just not convinced it actually helps learners read better or develop strategies to deal with text.Pick out words that are so obscure and useless that students would probably never encounter them again.
Don’t think of white bears! What are you thinking of now? If you highlight some lexis before moving on reading work, is there not a risk you actually distract from this work by drawing attention to difficult items? (This can be Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’s contribution to ELT…)Pick out words that might be in the text but don’t really have much to do with the main message of the text.
If done badly, it’s seriously counter-productive and can lead to boredom, disengagement, etc.Pick out words that can easily be guessed from context and co-text when the students actually begin listening/reading.
It’s not how we read in real life – this is hugely important: just who is going to pre-teach some selected items for learners when they read in the real world?
Selecting the words necessarily involves assumptions about the learners. How do you know they won’t know that word? Why do you think they don’t? What if they do?
And it also involves assumptions about the usefulness of the items – would you pre-teach “lusophone”, for example, in Dubai?
It’s not appropriate for every receptive skills lesson but is often presented as such cf. when I did CELTA years ago.
It can distort the focus of the lesson from a reading skills development one to a lexis learning one.
If you’re ‘demanding high’, why not just let the learners get on with it and come back to lexis, etc., after the reading stages of the lesson (more on that below).
It may hinder learners’ developing “word-attack skills”, to borrow Christine Nuttall’s term (anyone else actually see a text being knifed by Nuttall there?), such as working out which words are important/can be ignored, inferring meaning, etc.

So, based on the definition and limitations listed above, pre-teaching appears as a distinction between two different types of teaching/learning activities: some sort of behavior that enables the learner to better perform some “main event”, or performance/activity that comes later.  This leads me to a philosophical analysis of the word, pre-teaching and why the word just gets in the way, regardless how one feels about any of the limitations listed above.

Philosophical Analysis of Pre-teaching

The prefix pre- means earlier than, before, in advance, beforehand, etc. (Merriam-Webster). Teaching is defined as something taught; of, involving, or used for teaching: teaching materials; teaching methods;  the act or business of instructing; etc. (worknik). So, pre-teaching is something (other than teaching) that occurs before the act of teaching.  Yet, the term pre-teaching is typically used to mean, “pre-teaching teaching” as in,pre-teaching refers to the teaching of certain skills that would be needed for a lesson. This is sometimes done in a session prior to the actual class, and can be helpful for students who might struggle to follow a lesson” (para. 4)... “It is important to point out that the main event in question here is the task: and that may be a listening task, a reading task, or a group task that involves speaking and writing. The main event is NOT the pre-teaching of lexis (or it won’t be called ‘pre-teaching’. It’d simply be teaching)”. (para. 7).

Let’s unpack a bit more… the notion of task can have a variety of meanings but usually refers to either task-based learning (as a series of tasks) or a quite different idea as in the case of a performance task (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005).  So from the beginning, there are several ways to interpret any pre/post-types of teaching or learning.  Moreover, when saying that “Pre-teaching refers to the teaching of…” something, basically this means that pre-teaching is... well, teaching.  What is, then, “pre-teaching teaching”?  How can this be a “thing”?  Can pre-teaching teaching occur before the class, but not always?  Can it occur during the class as well? Can an educator pre-teach and teach at the same time?  What specific behaviors by a teacher are associated with the act of pre-teaching?  And how do these behaviors differ from the act of (regular) teaching?

In The Dangers of Pre-Teaching, the term pre-teaching is used 15 (out of 18) times as a noun, as in “What exactly is pre-teaching?” (para. 3).  I have the same question actually. On three occasions, pre-teaching is used as an adjective, as in pre-teaching stage. As an adjective, pre-teaching makes perfect sense, like when we refer to other non-teaching behaviors or concepts: pre-teaching activities, pre-teaching methods, pre-teaching materials, pre-teaching behaviors, etc.  Again, pre-teaching in the nominal form remains odd.

Learning Trumps Teaching

In English language teacher training, we spend a lot of time helping teacher trainees to develop their knowledge about how languages are learned, their pedagogical skills and related theoretical knowledge base, and their English proficiency skills.  We promote reflective practice so that they become more autonomous in learning how to develop not only on their own but through reflective practice through the interaction with other teacher trainees and in-service practitioners.  But in doing so, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that what the learners do is more important than what the teacher (trainer) does.

The problem with the term pre-teaching is that it is more representative of a different type of learning than any specific type of teaching.  It shifts the focus from learning to teaching, which at best remains vague, at worst, a mistake.  Learning vocabulary before a performance task is an enabling act.  All learning is just a string of enabling acts (or behaviors) that connect what one knows and can do already to something new (or something they don’t know and/or cannot do).  Pre-learning is not a thing, just as pre-teaching is not a thing.  Students and teachers both teach and learn throughout the educative experience, becoming less dependent and more independent, on to becoming more interdependent as the learning trajectory unfolds.  Any value in what is referred to as “pre-teaching” relates primarily to trying to understand how one type of (learner) behavior might enable a different type of behavior, and so on.  

To conclude, we seldom think of pre-teaching a child to play baseball, pre-teaching a child to learn how to swim, pre-teaching a child to play basketball, etc.  If I help a child with her free throw shot, I’m not pre-teaching the athlete to become a better basketball player… it’s just a teaching moment, and more importantly, a learning opportunity to see how being a better free throw shooter leads to becoming a better overall player.  

By the time a learner is ready to perform the "main event", the instructor is no longer a "teacher" (i.e., didactic instructor), but rather a facilitator or coach.

Agree or disagree?  Is the idea of "pre-teaching" just a substitute for "didactic instructor"?  Or something else? Leave your comments below.

Personalized Learning: A Beastly, Binary Buzzword… Begone!

Personalized learning (PL) does exist, but not in the way most tend to use the term within the context of formal education (e.g., schools). The website, Getting Smart, has long promoted the term PL, which although is a for-profit business covering educational topics, does manage to publish many non-PL topics that are worth reviewing. But in What Does Personalized Learning Mean for Teachers, the Getting Smart Staff describes new approaches to teaching and learning (under the umbrella of PL) as follows:

  • Meet the needs of each child

  • Adjust teaching practice

  • Give students “voice and choice”

  • How to achieve mastery learning

  • How to consider student input within the process of learning

Taking each of these in turn, I’ll outline why the term PL is not needed and usually leads to convoluted discussions around education.

  • Meet the needs of each child: Consider the term differentiated instruction (DI), which refers to students making decisions about course content, learning processes, academic products or learning outcomes, and learning environments based on the readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles of the students. Personally, I would omit from this definition learning profiles since it’s too similar to the idea of “learning styles” — something that has more to do with course content than actually any preconceived set of learner characteristics driving daily decisions about curriculum, assessment, and instruction. Thus, in terms of formal education, DI is based on readiness levels, interests, and the curriculum, where a written, taught, and tested curriculum exist in aggregate as a set of iterative and reciprocal networked nodes or actors. Therefore, what a student needs is derived from current readiness levels (i.e., understanding the gap between what a student knows and what they should know), interests (i.e., there is a low level of interest in the curricular goals), and the written, taught, and tested curriculum itself.

  • Adjust teaching practice: Adjusting one’s teaching practice relates to assessment. Formative assessment comprises of adjustments to learning tactics (the student’s responsibility) and to instruction (the teacher’s responsibility) for the purpose of promoting higher academic achievement. This can also occur through dynamic assessment when summative assessments (e.g., grades, badges, etc.) are followed by formative assessment episodes (e.g., turning a multiple choice exam into a learning activity), after having found out that student achievement was subpar. Although formative assessment blurs the line between assessment and instruction, it is still much like DI in that much of the decision making remains a negotiation between teacher and student.

  • Give students “voice and choice”: Giving students voice and choice is directly related to DI as it provides students the opportunity to choose content, process, product, and/or learning environments depending on the context. DI empowers students to take more responsibility for their own learning by democratizing education in terms of what, how, why, when, where, and with whom learning experiences are to occur. Nothing here is personalized nor individualized… just students making decisions about their own learning within the context of formal education.

  • How to achieve mastery learning: Mastery learning sounds good, but what does it mean in practice? How does one reify the idea that a student masters a concept, understanding, a set of skills, etc.? Setting behavioral objectives perhaps (i.e., per Bloom’s taxonomy), but the problem is that possible learning outcomes involve a vast number of performance verbs that go well beyond a simple taxonomy or even a set of competencies. In reality, performance verbs educators rely on to infer whether a student has learned or not are both intentional and (more importantly) incidental or emergent. Plus, Bloom’s taxonomy is more about assessment than setting predetermine learning objectives (how they are commonly used today) to drive instruction. Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005) six facets of understandings (with aligned performance verbs) gets closer to more expressive-like outcomes by assigning a particular set of criteria or standards around specific performance tasks scheduled over the course of term, but leave room for certain knowledge to emerge. Finally, DI forces educators to take into consider what the student views as mastery learning since they are encouraged to make decisions about course content, learning processes, learning outcomes, and learning environment.

  • How to consider student input within the process of learning: Again, DI allows for student choice in terms of content, process, product, and learning environment, and does so by understanding that these relationships allow student and teacher to better define their roles within the educative experience.

What personalized learning means for teachers is that the term personalized learning is no different than the term learning: Learning cannot help but be personalized because there is only one person who can personalize it: the learner. So, because it is so ubiquitous, it cannot not exist. A learner is constantly personalizing learning based on a particular set of forever-changing circumstances: what the student knows, what materials a student has access to, and the personal relationships a student maintains. It is impossible for a teacher to personalize learning for a student — it is like saying that a teacher is going to learn something for the student.

Example 1: A student takes a course where there is zero differentiation such that the student is unable to access any other content, must adhere to one learning process dictated by the teacher, much complete one give product, and the only learning is to occur in class. Those in the PL camp would likely refer to this example as one that lacks personalization; that is, it lacks personalized learning (and probably individualized learning as well). Even within these learning constraints, the student will personalize her own learning by using any tactics necessary to maintain an educative experience. If there is any criticism in how this course is implemented, it comes mainly from the teaching practice and not necessarily the learning tactics. Differentiated instruction, WHERETO (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), assessment practices, etc. are the issue and not personalized or individualized learning.

Example 2: A student takes a course where there is a high level of differentiation but the student still struggles or fails the course. Let´s assume there are no learning disabilities and student makes every effort to achieve the objectives of the course. Contrary to example 1 above, DI, WHERETO, assessment practices, etc. might all be favorable, giving the students many opportunities to learn but the issue here might be the learning tactics or strategies that the student employed. Teachers also have the obligation to bring about awareness of learning strategies that provide wisdom (knowing what to do when one does not know what to do). The student (not the teacher) learns which strategies work best under different situations in order to make the educative experience more personal, yet all the while remaining personalized. The educative experience is never more or less personalized; it is personal, for better or worse. Stated another way, a PLN always exists but can either be purposeful or serve no purpose.

What teachers can take away from this is that students can become better learners by understanding their own personal learning network (PLN). For this discussion, a PLN is defined as ideational, material, and human connections or relationships that interact with each other for a particular purpose. The learner remains at the center of this aggregate set of ideational, material, and human nodes as relationships remain, grow, and diminish. What a teacher can do is to bring about a metacognitive awareness of how to maintain, grow, and prune a PLN for a particular purpose, like achieving personal and curricular goals simultaneously, for instance.

Educational stakeholders often use the term “personalized learning” to mean a shift in power usually from the teacher to that of the student. I have also heard the term used to promote technologies that use algorithms to tailor the learning experience for the student. The term, individualized learning is also used, which tends to confound the issue even more. But learning is personal, not personalized nor individualized. Personal learning, as in cultivating a personal learning network, is the recognition of greater learner autonomy in how the learner interacts with content (ideas), materials, and individuals. Personalized learning can only come from the learner if learning is understood to occur within a PLN, which occurs by degree or along a continuum. Personalized learning is not a dichotomy; it is not an all-or-nothing proposition. (Personal) learning, like a PLN, is continuous and by degree, and will forever be a sociocognitive (networked) experience that remains fluid as the individual changes over time.

We don’t get smart nor are we getting smart… we get smarter.

Originally posted to Medium.

How can a diagnostic test determine "fossilization"?

  1. When I read "fossilized error" (term used in quotation marks), I suppose that Jagasia does not really accept the term, but uses it anyway given that others have come to define the term a certain way in the past? Later the term is not in quotation marks that would suggest that it is an accepted term?
  2. The thesis of this piece seems to have less to do with "fossilization" and more to do with 1) feedback and assessment, 2) differentiated instruction (DI), and 3) potential issues with the placement test in terms of validity, reliability, and/or bias. So, to answer the first question from the title would include more to do with feedback, DI, and diagnostic test validity, reliability, and unbias than some notion of "fossilization". These were issues not covered in the piece.
  3. Regarding point #2, in the absence of any real example, it is hard to support the idea that just because a student has a tutor (e.g., italki, Verbling, etc.) that "fossilization" is less likely.  To understand "fossilization" is to observe a language learner longitudinally and not necessarily the individual learning spaces where learning (or lack thereof) takes place.  Another way to state this is that observations (to understand "fossilization") need to be understood from a diachronic versus synchronic lens. 
  4. The problem that this piece sets out to address is not clear.  Jagasia (2016) states, "Almost every student who sits our placement test possesses a significant amount of ingrained or "fossilized" errors" (para. 2). Again, how can a single diagnostic exam (synchronically) measure fossilization presumably before the fact?  Perhaps the assumption is if a language learner is taking a more advanced level class but is still making lower-level errors that this automatically means that "fossilization" occurs.  Intuitively, one can see the weakness of this argument when considering other possibilities: 1) learners acquire the language at different rates, 2) learners had little-to-no exposure to a grammatical structure, 3) learners had little-to-no practice in moving understandings from short term to long term memory, 4) the error could have be a "slip of the tongue" or a mistake that the learner really understands but carelessly overlooked, 5) personal circumstances that would interfere with concentration during the test, 6) simply a poor test taker, 7) poor alignment between diagnostic test and instruction, 8) poor alignment between diagnostic test and assessment, 9) poor alignment between curriculum and diagnostic test, etc. 
Forgetting the term "fossilization" for a moment, how students make mistakes (whether repeatedly or in isolation) cannot be viewed entirely from a single diagnostic test.  It seems for Jagasia (2016) as if the diagnostic test is detecting issues of instruction or assessment?  To understand how students make mistakes requires observations that occur over time in terms of how feedback is given and received and requires test designers to recognize the integrity of the instrument and its purpose.

English Language Teaching (ELT) Lesson Planning and Assessment (#eltlive, #keltchat)


I enjoyed today's #eltlive discussion on lesson planning.  The main takeaway for me was how to associate lesson planning around the idea of assessment.  One of the questions I posed was how can lesson plans be assessed, which shifted the conversation to the importance of assessing students during the implementation of the lesson plan (i.e., formative assessment).

Assessing students

Comments were made about how we receive feedback from students and how we typically reflect in action, to borrow from Schon (1983). The conversation included the dichotomy of covering content by strictly sticking to the lesson plan and being flexible with the lesson plan based on how students are performing in class.  And although this relates to assessing students indirectly, it doesn't exactly reveal how we plan lessons around the assessment of students.

I tend to think of lesson planning as being a backward design (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005; Popham 2008).  We plan our lessons around assessments first (presumably based on course objectives), then decide on the most appropriate learning sequence.  By deciding on assessments first, we prepare a "road map" that frames the journey students are to take in order to achieve particular outcomes (whether these outcomes are part of the curriculum or pre-determined by the language teacher and students).  This approach to assessment is the opposite of planning a lesson sequence first, then thinking later how to assess students on what was covered in prior classes.  In a backward design, the point is to "uncover" content and not merely cover it.

Assessing the lesson plan

Throughout today's discussion, I also kept thinking about how others might assess their lesson plans (I ask because I don't do nearly enough of this).  Assessing lesson plans can take on three forms: 1) assessing the lesson plan before implementing it, 2) assessing the lesson plan while implementing it, and 3) assessing the lesson plan after implementing it.  Assessing before the class might involve sharing and collaborating around a lesson plan with colleagues, students, admins., or any other education stakeholder around course objectives, materials or technologies used, among others.  Assessing during the class is not necessarily the same as assessing students as mentioned earlier, but rather would include reflection in action in terms of students' actual behavior and how one originally planned students would behave before class.  And finally, assessing after the class would not only be an individual reflection (reflection on action) on students' actual behavior vs. planned behavior, but could also be a shared experience with others (e.g., via social media).  All three ways to assess a lesson plan include distinguishing between intentional and incidental student behaviors that are either favorable or unfavorable.   

One idea I heard repeatedly was that many of us know when students are engaged, on task, etc. which we then can assume to mean that the lesson plan went well...and this quite often might be the case.  But I have oftentimes been surprised to finish a lesson, think that all went well, only to find out (after asking students) that it did not go quite as well as I had originally hoped.  It's not a stretch to acknowledge that misinterpretations can exist when it comes to the signals students provide in class and assumptions we place around those signals.

I always appreciate those who take part in these open, online discussions (like #eltlive), whether they are HOAs, Twitter feeds,  or through some other means because it gives me perspective and awareness that teaching in isolation does not have to be the norm and that professional learning opportunities continue to be at our fingertips.

The Mitra Debate: Research vs. Teaching Practice

I read ELTJam meets Sugata Mitra today and found some interesting comments that I thought I might tease out.  My comments today are based mainly on Robinson's text as many of the YouTube videos I was not able to open at the time of this writing.

I commend Robinson for taking the time to conduct this interview with Mitra in revisiting some of the issues around his research and how many EFL educators perceive his research.  Then taking the time to post the interview with some journalistic tones that emerge throughout his text.  Overall, I get what he's after: to bring forward some of the controversial issues that have been floating around the web, along with sufficient dousing of editorial comments throughout.

But there are moments in this text that left me scratching my head, followed by a comment from Nicola that prompted me to ask myself, What is journalistic writing as it pertains to this blog post? I realized that this question and the reasons for me scratching my head were related, so I wish to explore this relationship...and yes, I might sprinkle in a few editorial comments of my own as well. :)

Nicola really loves Robinson's piece...

I love this piece! I am choosing to comment on the article as a piece of journalism rather than the questions raised because there are so many and worth a longer time to consider.
But I wanted to say, on first reading, as a piece of journalism this blew me away. I really care about writing – maybe more than I care about ELT in some ways and this seems to me like pretty groundbreaking journalism. It’s not just an interview/blog post…it’s creative non fiction with video. Stand back a minute and look at the skill that went into presenting this in this way. It’s awe inspiring – really.

She may be able to divorce language with content, but it's not as easy a task for me. But I appreciate her comment as it made me take another look at this post from a slightly different perspective: fact vs. opinion.

The Road to Newcastle

Since I was unable to ever view the recording, my commentary is strictly related to Robinson's text.  His use of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person is distracting and presumptuous at times.  This section is mainly based on opinion...after two paragraphs he introduces his first report by quoting Mitra which was his describing how he ended up becoming a teacher and his motivations...

How to make money. … How to make money doing the least amount of work as possible.

Then Robinson's response throws me off...

There it is in black and white: the root of the whole problem. From those early days would come a quest for economic efficiency straight out of the neoliberal manual for the automation of labour, and the root of the eventual demise of teaching as a profession.

I think if you ask any teacher, most would agree that summer vacations, holidays, etc. (time off) is one of the perks of being a teacher.  Isn't that what Mitra's saying?  And I think in most countries, few teachers would say that they got into the teaching profession because of the money.  How does this statement get construed to Mitra being the "devil in disguise" (aka a neoliberal)? Can anyone argue his investment into educational research as not being work?  And do we need to compare this with the amount of work found by a "traditional" teacher?  Finally, even if he did have horrible intentions when getting into the profession...who cares?  Isn't what he's doing now more relevant?

Then, Robinson shifts from a strict personal opinion to being diplomatic.

But it’s a little facile to read too much into it, isn’t it? What’s more, I agreed with him, as you can hear in the video. And I think many other people would agree, too. Who wants to work inefficiently? Who wants to work more than they have to? Do teachers? Do we feel that it’s the teacher’s lot to work too hard? Do we have some kind of martyr complex? Is that why some people can’t even start to entertain the thought that our role might end up different (or diminished)?

This sudden shift threw me.  I'm used to reading either an opinion piece from start to finish (e.g., persuasive/argumentative piece); reporting that is more diplomatic throughout (e.g., an objective balance between various sides of the argument); or presenting facts, like something Mitra said, followed by a comment (an opinion).

East vs. West

The first paragraph is more reporting, but then in the second paragraph...

What I’d hoped to get here was some sense of just how bad the conditions in a place needed to be in order for the possibility of ever getting a teacher there to be ruled out.

This says a lot.  I'd argue that having this discussion was not at all about how bad conditions would need to be to take any kind of action to improve teaching and learning.  The presumption here is that the result leads to a teacher being ruled out (Robinson does this later as well), which I do not subscribe to.  Robinson continues on which leads to the following questions...

What if the system is actually broken? What then?

I'll just say that every classroom has something that is broken, and that this premise goes a lot further in getting to better solutions that simply asking a overarching, dichotomous question that requires a complex answer.

Better than Nothing

I worked hard to follow Robinson's logic here, but ends by posing two questions:

Are those who agree with him [Mitra] simply giving up too easily?

Or are those who don’t simply too idealistic (or, maybe, naive)?

I commend Robinson for trying to simplify the matter, but I just don't follow.  I think we (the TESOL community) are better off having been exposed to Mitra's research. I think it brings up important questions like how can EFL educators create learning environments where students can learn more on their own, and then assist them more efficiently and effectively in matters they are unable to learn on their own.  Robinson's questions seems to again attempt to simplify a complex scenario.  And whether or not a teacher agrees with the outcomes of Mitra's research specifically (or him personally) does not mean that the research itself is irrelevant.   

The Neoliberal Question

Robinson states, "I’ve taken the liberty of pulling out some of the choicest quotes from this section and displaying them without context, as that’s what’s likely to happen in blog comments and on Twitter anyway..."  In other words, he might as well post isolated comments that are easily misconstrued since everyone else is doing it. Robinson goes on to list six "choice quotes" (again, going by text only since the YouTube video does not open):

  1. How Mitra feels about the profession of a postman is irrelevant.

  2. If Mitra is saying that teachers cannot be replaced, and that schools can never disappear, then what's the problem?  What side of the argument is this statement on?

  3. I have no idea as to the relevance of this "choice quote".

  4. In other words, are educators putting their time to good use when students can learn the same content without the help of the teacher? Students should learn what they can on their own (using the objects available to them), so that educators can take students to the next level.  Wouldn't Mitra support this idea?  I think so. How would one support an argument against this idea?

  5. Any educator who is teaching a student something that they could just as easily learn themselves (with no teacher intervention), and this behavior represents a singular teaching method, should be replaced (by either man or machine - using gender-specific language for effect).  Am I being unkind?  To the educator who is not adding value to the educative experience, yes.  To the learner, no. 

  6. See comment five above.

A Theory about English Language Teachers

Robinson concludes, "non-native teachers of English from around the world; in the anti camp: native speakers from Britain. Is this another battle line in the debate – East vs. West?"  Comparing native/non-native speakers and East vs. West is like comparing apples with oranges.  The logic is all over the place.  Stick to one point and unpack it.  If it's a native/non-native thing, stick to that.  If it's an East/West thing, stick to that.  To answer one of Robinson's questions, yes, I think our community can be divided at times in terms of expectations individuals have between the perceived notion of native and non-native speaker teacher.  But the way to remove this division is to stick to the nuances of issues and avoid generalizing (stereotyping) groups of people.  We should be beyond the native vs. non-native speaker teacher debate by now to one that is more about what is and is not working in the English language learning classroom.

On Evidence

I completely agree with Robinson here.

The Edge of Chaos

Robinson started his conclusion well...

From our conversation, I, at least, did get something of a clearer sense of what makes Sugata Mitra tick: a belief that we’ve let control go too far; that if we can loosen that control, learning will happen, and it will happen in a better way; and that, in some cases, the way to relinquish that control might be to...

I was with him all of the way, until he finished with...

...get rid of the teacher altogether.

What?  Why must the end be "get rid of the teacher altogether"?  Why can't the answer be somewhere in the middle?  Why can't the answer be something like teachers taking a closer look at their teaching practice and adopt and adapt as necessary as they recognize that students can learn a lot more on their own than we sometimes give them credit for. 

I know why...Educators, at times, misunderstand research design for teaching method.  Yes, research should be rooted in pedagogy.  Yes, there should be a link between research and teaching and learning.  But to Robinson's point about evidence, educators should take research (evidence) and compare and contrast how the findings relate to their own teaching and learning (local) context. This should be done without feeling that a particular research design, under a particular research setting, is synonymous in application across an infinite set of local learning environments that may exist.

The Mitra debate is as much about the role of research and teaching practice as it is about Mitra and his research.  It's a worthy debate and one that is likely to continue.

Photo Attribution (Steve Jurvetson)

Educator As Decision Maker

I was reading Ditch the Plan! #30GoalsEdu today and it got me thinking ... always a good thing.

If we ditch a plan, are we really planning to begin with?

Finding those teaching moments requires one to reflect-in-action.  Instead of ditching a plan before the fact (i.e., class), reflect on those times when you were reflecting in action, and during the class itself, you realized that you must ditch the plan.  Reflect on those classes when you deviated from the syllabus in order to take advantage of a teachable moment.

Hunter (1979) claims that teachers make decisions before, during, and after lessons primarily around three distinct categories: content, style of the learner, and the behavior of the teacher.

(Language) Educator Challenge: What decisions have you had to make during a class that deviated from the syllabus?  Formulate your answer in terms of forms of evidence: content, style of the learner, and/or your own behavior.  Provide a rationale as to why you had to make these decisions.

Educator As Decision Maker

I was reading Ditch the Plan! #30GoalsEdu today and it got me thinking ... always a good thing.

If we ditch a plan, are we really planning to begin with?

Finding those teaching moments requires one to reflect-in-action.  Instead of ditching a plan before the fact (i.e., class), reflect on those times when you were reflecting in action, and during the class itself, you realized that you must ditch the plan.  Reflect on those classes when you deviated from the syllabus in order to take advantage of a teachable moment.

Hunter (1979) claims that teachers make decisions before, during, and after lessons primarily around three distinct categories: content, style of the learner, and the behavior of the teacher.

(Language) Educator Challenge: What decisions have you had to make during a class that deviated from the syllabus?  Formulate your answer in terms of forms of evidence: content, style of the learner, and/or your own behavior.  Provide a rationale as to why you had to make these decisions.

Essential Question Discourse Analysis

I was reading Alber's (2013) 5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students and I began to think about how discourse emerges behind asking essential questions in the classroom.  Alber (2013) suggests that teachers ask the following types of questions:

  1. What do you think?

  2. Why do you think that?

  3. How do you know this?

  4. Can you tell me more?

  5. What questions do you still have?

When applying the Socratic Method, pace becomes important.  The suggested question types provided above avoid the easier "yes/no" questions that allow for lower order thinking, but what happens when students 1) are not used to answering essential questions (or used to the teacher simply giving the answer), 2) lack the content knowledge to adequately address such questions, or 3) lack the language skills - in the case of English language learners - to provide an adequate response.  Alber (2013) suggests a type of think, pair, share activity to allow for deeper group discussions, but this too affects the overall pace of classroom discourse and an interruption of the Socratic Method.

(Language) Educator Challenge: Record yourself during a class and analyze the way you form questions and how your students reply.  For example, how do you lead up to any one of the five questions above?  Are there lower-thinking questions that occur first, or are you able to jump right to these questions in order to generate thought-provoking discussion?  Conduct a discourse analysis to see how you present questions in a way that maintains good pacing and thought-provoking discussions around big ideas.


Essential Question Discourse Analysis

I was reading Alber's (2013) 5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students and I began to think about how discourse emerges behind asking essential questions in the classroom.  Alber (2013) suggests that teachers ask the following types of questions:

  1. What do you think?

  2. Why do you think that?

  3. How do you know this?

  4. Can you tell me more?

  5. What questions do you still have?

When applying the Socratic Method, pace becomes important.  The suggested question types provided above avoid the easier "yes/no" questions that allow for lower order thinking, but what happens when students 1) are not used to answering essential questions (or used to the teacher simply giving the answer), 2) lack the content knowledge to adequately address such questions, or 3) lack the language skills - in the case of English language learners - to provide an adequate response.  Alber (2013) suggests a type of think, pair, share activity to allow for deeper group discussions, but this too affects the overall pace of classroom discourse and an interruption of the Socratic Method.

(Language) Educator Challenge: Record yourself during a class and analyze the way you form questions and how your students reply.  For example, how do you lead up to any one of the five questions above?  Are there lower-thinking questions that occur first, or are you able to jump right to these questions in order to generate thought-provoking discussion?  Conduct a discourse analysis to see how you present questions in a way that maintains good pacing and thought-provoking discussions around big ideas.


How Do You Provide Affordances to The Nomad (Language) Learner?

From A is for Affordance « An A-Z of ELT. the following questions were presented:

How can you replicate [learning affordances] in a typical classroom? How can you turn the classroom into a hike through the snow, or a walk around the island? How can classroom talk achieve the degree of contingency that Crusoe and Friday achieved?

As a language teacher, I think in terms of how might I create cognitive, physical, and emotional affordances for each-as-every student.  The short answer in how to replicate affordances in the language classroom is by engaging students in opening up the content, process, and products in ways that allow them to make informed decisions and take responsibility for their own learning.  This requires constant feedback loops that stem not only from me (their teacher), but also the students themselves, their peers, and other experts that extend beyond the four walls of the classroom.  One example might be teaching an academic writing class.

Using a public wiki allows the writer to openly choose a topic and produce an essay, report, thesis, etc. where feedback loops emerge from anyone at any given time.  That is, public spaces used to complement face-to-face classes (i.e., blended learning) provide a key affordance: feedback loops that exist across time and space.  As a web tool, a wiki provides an affordance for more engaging, effective, and efficient feedback loops.  Since anyone can change the wiki, anyone can provide feedback.  And since each revision of the wiki is saved, the writing process is preserved and made explicit as well.  

In a learning ecology, the learner must adapt to the environment, and that adaptation is associating the potentialities that exist at any given moment.  Helping the nomad learner recognize learning potentialities also means recognizing that outcomes will vary.  In formal education, the challenge is reconciling the various outcomes to specific outcomes that are explicit or implicitly stated in the curriculum.  


At the end of the day, I attempt to promote understandings (Wiggins and Mctighe, 2005) and language so that each becomes both a means and an end.  Instead of following a task or problem-based approach, I guide the learner in helping to recognize personal adaptations made throughout the learning process and to problem-set along the way.  Very little is fixed when it comes to learning about something or learning a particular skill set, as in learning an additional language.


As a teacher, how do you go about designing a learning ecosystem?

Teachers as Advocates for a Learning Ecosystem

...we have to admit that a gap exists between what our students actually understand and are able to do, and what we actually end up reporting (via Come and sit beside me and I'll tell you what I think! | Canadian Education Association (CEA)).

I'm not sure I'd consider it a gap between student understanding and what a student can do because student understanding is in fact, what a student can do.  When I assess a learner (i.e., student understandings), essentially, the entire process depends on what evidence the student is providing.  I see formative assessment where there is less of a boundary between assessment and instruction as the avenue for providing the "learning ecosystem" needed in order for students to perform in a way that provides the evidence required to make reasonable inferences on student achievement.  The following questions were posed:

What are the assessment strategies and tools that allow us to collect the most accurate picture of student understanding? Which methods of assessment actually widen the gap between student and teacher? Which come closest to allowing us to “sit beside” our students? Does any of this really matter when it comes to quality teaching and learning?

Formative assessment - as opposed to summative assessment - allows educators and students to "sit beside each other" as well as students themselves sitting beside each other in a more cooperative learning community.  Specifically, formative assessment that is "baked in" to the following approaches are in order: questioning techniques (aka Socratic Method or instructional conversations), performance tasks, projects, and problem-based learning.  These approaches, methods, whatever, provide higher-order thinking that is more likely linked to leading learners to think outside of the box and to be more creative in how they interact with people and materials (i.e., forming a socio-technical organization based on the principles of semiotics).

Having more formative assessment than summative (and we can have both) is the best way to provide the constant feedback loops necessary for all educational stakeholders to grow and learn from the educative experience that a classroom can provide.  But I feel that teachers are in the best position to be advocates for working with all other educational stakeholders in making it all happen.  This is only possible if teachers are free to take risks, make mistakes, and share their successes and failures through open and constructive discourse.

Your thoughts?

Preparations for authentic learning #change11

I'm reading Preparations for authentic learning #change11 and wondering how we recognize which of the theories in education are trustworthy and helpful.  And I'm wondering if we need to "recognize the right theory" to begin with.  

I'm wondering if recognizing how we plan, implement, and reflect on a class in terms of established or emerging theories (plural) is enough.  

So the question is, do we try to find the right theory for our educational context, then speculate?  Or do we interpret the actions that occur in the classroom in terms of the various theories that exist...a kind of theory eclectic?   

Learning Preferences Emerge

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Do we need to adapt our teaching to suit the learning style of learners?

Instead, I would say that learning preferences emerge throughout the teaching and learning process, a process that is both iterative and reciprocal.

Designing an engaging and effective learning experience requires establishing desired results, various forms of assessment, and instruction, whether the educative experience is formal or informal. These three interrelated aspects of the learning experience evolve around a learner's interaction with conceptualizations, material, and people (i.e., PLN). In my view, the notion of a PLN is based less on one's socio-cultural background yet still depends highly on the choices an individual makes at any particular moment; it avoids isolating the individual from the material and concepts, isolating the material from the individual and concepts, and so on. The PLN is a context-rich ontological frame that connects the desired results of the individual, feedback loops (i.e., assessment and instruction via human interaction), conceptualizations, and material through open and ongoing negotiation.

Students experience a dynamic shift in learning preferences depending on the PLN and more specifically the learning experience at hand. Working with learning preferences by giving learners some level of choice leads to adapting the teaching and learning process at any given moment and not simply presuming that learners are visual, kinesthetic, etc. a priori (e.g., via curriculum, standard teaching methods, lesson plan, etc.).

Needs analysis

Reflect on what we discussed today regarding the importance of doing a needs analysis in your own teaching context. Create a needs analysis that would be most appropriate for your own CLIL course. Some things that you might consider follow.

Teacher perspective:

  • Name of your class (teacher perspective)

  • Brief description of your class (teacher perspective)

  • Class objectives (teacher perspective)

  • Your expectations for your class (teacher perspective)

Student perspective (source):

  • Personal Details:



    Main Language:

    Date of Birth:


    Contact telephone number/email address:

    Professional Details:

    Current Job Title:

    Basic Duties:

    English Language:

    Number of years you've studied English:

    Rate your skills in the following (1-10, 1 being poor, and 10 being excellent)







    Which of the following would you like to improve:







    What is your main goal in studying English?

    Is there anything that you'd like to focus on specifically?

    Other comments:

Feel free to adapt this needs analysis as you see fit! Submit your needs analysis by responding to this post (comment section).

helpful sites:

Needs analysis

Needs analysis 2

MEXTESOL Aguascalientes

It was good to see some new and familiar faces at yesterday's MEXTESOL Aguascalientes conference. Two topics in particular struck my interest: 1) when to use translation when teaching English language learners and 2) and how to consciously promote academic and character development simultaneously.
Although most would agree that translating for ELLs does have its place in language acquisition, there appears to be some debate as to the degree in which teachers use it (i.e., what model is most effective-The role of translation in the EFL / ESL classroom). What model is most effective within your own teaching and learning contexts: 90/10 - 90% L2, 10% L1 - 50/50? How do you use translation, if at all, in your class?

Developing character and academic proficiencies at the same time addresses the importance of teaching the whole person - or using the common catch phrase teaching the whole child. As foreign/second language teachers, as with any educator, we all are responsible for developing learners to be more productive citizens by establishing a set of virtues that promote professional success. So, how do you promote character development in your class?