I was wondering what your ideal EFL classroom looks like right now? If you were going to teach in a foreign country, what would the best set up look like in your eyes?
Some finer points in answering this question might be, but are not exclusive to:
The above question is one I recently emailed to a very well known expert and researcher in the field of second language acquisition. I haven't heard back from him yet, but what was wondering what other people thought.
Please let me know in the comments any and all opinions on how an EFL classroom would be run if you could theoretically control the entire set up.
I am currently reading the book Learned Helplessness by Martin Seligman and crew. It discusses how animals and humans basically stop trying after being exposed to inescapable shocks for a long enough period.
The initial experiments were done with rats and dogs. Basically, they put a dog in a cage that was inescapable and shocked it a bunch (80-100 times) to produce what they labeled "learned helplessness". What this meant was that when they later put the dog in an escapable cage and shocked them, the dogs wouldn't even try to escape, even though it was now possible. All they had to do was jump over a small hurdle and the shock would stop.
These initial experiments led to many more, with different set ups and different animals, including humans. What they all showed was that once animals or humans learn the "shock" is uncontrollable they become passive in their attempts to escape. It doesn't have to be an electric shock, it can be anything that is unpleasant.
This lack of control also bleeds over into all the other aspects of a person's life as well, not just the particular environment it occurred in. This means that after 80-100 "shocks" people can basically "learn" they lack control and no longer be active in their attempts to better their situation.
How does this relate to the classroom I mentioned in the title? Well, how long does it take for a student to get 80-100 "F" papers or other failure assignments? Not very long. And this is bad because part of the learned helplessness phenomena is that learning becomes almost impossible! Once a kid learns they lack control, they literally can't learn as well.
This was shown repeatedly in experiments with rats who had to solve a maze problem. If a single irrelevant cue was added to the maze, such as a light, the helpless rats were unable to learn the solution. However, normal rats did just fine. In fact, the helpless rats were able to learn the solution the same as normal rats if there were no irrelevant cues, but just one made it impossible.
This fact, coincidentally, is extremely connected to yesterday's post on noise and signal. Essentially the researchers showed that any noise at all prevented helpless rats from learning, even with 150 trial attempts! The helplessness phenomena is attributed heavily to neurochemical processes in the brain which become exhausted and lower the signal-to-noise ratio I discussed yesterday. Once the signal-to-noise ratio gets low enough, it becomes impossible to discern what information is relevant from what information is irrelevant and makes it literally impossible to learn.
So in conclusion, make sure you aren't teaching your students they are helpless in the classroom. This makes them both passive and incapable of learning. It also produces anxiety and fear and many other negative psychological states, but I ignored those for now. The classroom should be about learning, and defeating that purpose by showing students they have no control over the environment means they might as well not even come.
I've been interested in minimalism lately and that coupled with some history reading about Claude Shannon, "the father of information theory", has made me really interested in the application of noise and signals in a classroom.
I recently got one of the original books on the subject, but haven't had time to read through it yet. So instead, I found this quote as a jumping off point on Wikipedia.
"The formal study of the information content of signals is the field of information theory. The information in a signal is usually accompanied by noise. The term noise usually means an undesirable random disturbance, but is often extended to include unwanted signals conflicting with the desired signal (such as crosstalk). The prevention of noise is covered in part under the heading of signal integrity."
Since we are all trying to communicate certain things to students in a classroom, knowing a little bit about noise and signals can't hurt. Getting the signals right is pretty much what teacher training is all about. Teachers generally spend a lot of time becoming prepared to communicate messages to students in the classroom. Those messages might be on math, English, science, or simply what homework is due tomorrow.
However, I believe those signals are being lost in a sea of noise. Remember that noise is simply any data this is unwanted, irrelevant, or competing with the desired signal. So if the desired signal to a group of students is about solving calculus integrals, noise is anything that makes receiving that signal difficult. In a classroom, noise can come from:
Everything above can be an example of something making it difficult to hear what the teacher is saying. Many disciplines that talk about noise and signal discuss the signal-to-noise ratio. The higher the ratio the clearer the signal and that's good.
Since you can view it as a ratio, that means you can make it larger in two ways
In the classroom, you can increase the signal by yelling, using clearer PowerPoint presentations, using a microphone, using color, or anything else teacher training has given you as a tool to make your signal louder.
On the other hand, you can focus on decreasing the noise. This is the area I think most classrooms fail rather miserably, especially primary and secondary school. Rather than yelling or finding other ways to always beat the noise, just try getting rid of it. An easy place to start is all the junk on the walls. This is distracting and noisy. Take it down.
Reducing the day's to-do list is another way to reduce the noise. If there is a million things to get done in one class, it is difficult for students to pick up which signal is most important. Instead they will just drown in all the incoming messages and chalk them all up to noise. This is a waste of effort for many teachers.
The more I think about noise and signal, the more I see their application to everything I do in life. You can always add more and more signals, but it won't matter if you can't hear them over the noise of your life. This is where the minimalism I mentioned at the very beginning of this post comes into play. Becoming a minimalist and getting rid of everything non-essential is the first step in turning down the noise. Maybe then you and your students will actually be able to hear the signals you've been trying to send.
"Maria was adrift in a set of conventions she didn't fully understand; she offended without knowing why. Virtually all the writing academics do is built on the writing of others. Every argument proceeds from the texts of others. Maria was only partially initiated to how this works: She was still unsure as to how to weave quotations in with her own prose, how to mark the difference, how to cite whom she used, how to strike the proper balance between her writing and someone else's - how, in short, to position herself in an academic discussion" (Rose, pg. 180).
The above quote is from Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose and the emphasis is mine. I have wondered for a while now about the point this quotation is making. If academic writing is built on the writing of others, then what makes an academic paper belong to a writer? For example, if a writer publishes an academic paper, which is really just built off of 20 other research papers with a couple connecting thoughts and ideas thrown in, then where is the line between the paper he writes being his and it belonging to the 20 other writers he builds off of.
If all writing belongs to others, then it's not really plagiarizing to copy text. After all, the writer your "stealing" from has just taken ideas from others to begin with. Even new ideas or thoughts written in a research paper are rarely a writer's own. The ideas come from conversations, movies, books and the culture a writer is surrounded by. New ideas do not exist in a vacuum. Being the first person to write them down on paper doesn't mean they belong to you.
It's kind of like the current race to patent the human genome. Companies are scurrying to patent genes left and right they have no rightful ownership over. Genes belong to everyone. Companies are not inventing these them, they are simply finding them and filling out a patent slip, ensuring others don't have to access to study or use them. If anything on earth is truly a common resource, it's our genes.
Writing is much the same way. Ideas or memes belong to everyone, to copyright some particular ideas or say they are yours is quite bold and any writer that does so is either lying to himself or the public. Either way, the writer is a liar and all we can hope for is he simply doesn't intend it. Hopefully, he is lying out of ignorance, rather than intentionally misleading the public.
I realized tonight as I was reading Switch that most of what I do in life is because of the identity that I have constructed for myself. There is a very clear "ideal" version of myself that I want to be in real life. Every day I wake up and try to get a little closer to that ideal. I take small, little steps each and every day and hopefully down the road those steps will lead me to the ideal version of how I see myself.
So here is a description of that identity that I am working towards:
Those may not all make sense from just reading them in a list, but that's okay. They all have a definite meaning to me and I know exactly what I am aiming towards.
Furthermore, this list helps me make decisions in life. I can go over in my mind whether a decision will make me stronger, kinder, more experienced, etc., and if it does, I will generally decide in favor of it. If a decision takes away from these qualities, then I decide against it.
At the end of the day, I always want to be a little better and a little closer to my envisioned identity. Anything that takes away from that vision is a waste of time.
Will: See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin' some thinkin' on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that... you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin’ education you coulda' got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.
The above quote is from the film Good Will Hunting. It's from one of my favorite scenes in the movie where the main character absolutely embarrasses a well off Harvard graduate student in a bar. It also happens to be my current view on higher education in the most memorable form I've ever heard.
A recent book I read titled How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen talked about three possible capabilities that a business can provide. They include all the possibilities for what a business can offer and mutually exclusive. He named them resources, processes and priorities.
So what is the value of higher education? It certainly isn't information. Information is free and ubiquitous with an internet connection. You can find course syllabi online from Harvard, Stanford, and MIT and get all the recommended reading materials from online sites like Amazon and Google Scholar. You can follow along with the schedule by yourself at your own pace and do only the parts of a course that you personally see as valuable or meaningful to current situation.
I had assumed that higher education was about the process. After all, educational theory touts not focusing on performance, but the deep understanding. This should lead to process oriented teaching and focusing on the value in providing those processes to others. This doesn't seem to be the case in my experience. What has actually happened is that higher education bundles resources about processes and sells that information. Selling information is just resource service and you can read my thoughts about that above.
I believe processes should be what higher education focuses on, along with the next section on priorities. The value of mentoring, modeling, and apprenticeship can not be overstated in my opinion and it is backed up by many educational researchers including Vygotsky, Rose, and Rogers. The process of learning through apprenticeship is completely bypassed for the teacher-centered convenience of group classes and "constructivist" approaches that force students to learn the material by themselves, at a fraction of the pace they could, by simply observing and imitating real professionals.
So if it's not information and knowledge, i.e. resources, or processes what is it? Priorities? That was my my next thought, well higher education acts a good filter for knowledge. A university can more quickly and correctly decide what information is valuable and disseminate it for us. I do think that is still largely true, but with a caveat. Just because they are capable, doesn't mean that they act this way.
The vast majority of higher education creates programs, which you the student, must fit into. They set the priorities without consulting you. They do not take into account anything about you, the individual, and what you want or need. Naturally, they could prioritize information for you if they felt as though they needed to or it benefited them, but as of now they have no reason to. They simply force you to accept their program and do not go through the hard work of actually prioritizing the information most relevant to the individual.
It's All Necessity
So, if it's not information resources, processes or priorities, what does higher education offer? Nothing.
Nothing of value that is. They are offering you the degree, which in most cases is the only thing you actually need. What you study, where you study, how you study, and whether the information is useful is really not that important. All most professionals need is that graduate degree in something.
This is a great position for any business to be in. They essentially have the customer by the "you know what", and have no reason to change strategies. However, this shortsightedness is going to make higher education pay a huge price in the coming years. This is because higher education doesn't typically view itself as a business, but rather as a institution for the greater good. In that role, higher education is attempting to grant access to itself to more and more individuals. This truly is wonderful and something I agree with. Everyone should have access to education.
But what happens when everyone does have a degree? Will employers still require one? A degree cannot be used as a filter or gateway to employment opportunities when the entire workforce has one. Once some critical percent of the workforce does in fact have a degree, it will no longer be valuable in acting as a filter of talent. That means higher education will no longer have their customers by the "you know what". Since they don't provide much value to the individual and the future access to education will take away the necessity of having a degree, where will higher education be left?
I have some thoughts about what will happen, but for now I just wanted to share my ideas on where the value is in higher education. People see getting degrees as a necessity for employment and that means universities don't truly have to focus on content value. People will continue to buy degrees whether they enjoy or value the product. However, when that necessity leaves and people realize there is little intrinsic value, higher education is going to have to perform a one-eighty really quickly. Personally, I'm looking forward to it.
"Knowledge - even scientific knowledge - is that which is subjectively acceptable." ~Carl Rogers
I am reading On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers at the moment, which the above quote comes from. The quote internally rang true for me and, by doing so, actually confirms what Carl Rogers says in writing it. I have been wrestling with the idea of knowledge as subjective for a while now, but couldn't put it into words the way I desired. This particular line summed up everything I was already thinking and did so in a concise and eloquent way.
After the quote, he goes on to describe how two conflicting viewpoints he holds about knowledge. As a scientist, he tries to prove that knowledge is objective and predictable. As an experientialist in therapy, he is open to subjective reality as much as possible. His attempt to reconcile these two viewpoints are summed up below.
The creative phase
In the creative phase, the scientist is forming his hypothesis. This is, in fact, an entirely subjective process. The scientists chooses what to investigate based on his own interests and personal meanings. This is tentatively believed as a possible explanation of reality, but needs further inquiry to avoid self-deception.
Checking with reality
The next step after forming a hypothesis is where the scientist begins to see if he is deceiving himself. This is where the many different scientific methodologies come into the picture. He must choose the best tools available to himself, so that he can be more sure that he is not falling into self-deception. This is where operationalization, control groups, correlation, and statistical significance are used.
Rogers stresses that even this process is very subjective. The scientists personally chooses what to spend his time on and devotes his attention to seeing if his subjective hypothesis is tentatively valid.
After going through the entire process of checking with reality, the scientist is ready to decide if the findings are useful in forming a satisfactory belief, truth, or hypothesis for his subjective self.
Rogers points out that even after the "rigorous" use of the scientific method, many scientists reject their findings because they do not coincide with their previous beliefs about reality. Therefore, the acceptance or rejection of the findings are still extremely subjective, even after the supposedly objective methodologies employed in obtaining them.
Communication of scientific findings
If the scientist does decide to believe the findings for now, he will share them. This creates what Rogers calls "intersubjective verification". If you show your findings to another person and they cannot find any reason to reject them and also believe in their validity, then you become more sure of them yourself. It is basically the idea that there is strength in numbers. If more people people there is no self-deception occurring, it more safe probabilistically speaking.
Communication to whom?
Obviously, who you share your findings with to gain the intersubjective verification is an important matter. If you discover a subjective truth about reality that someone else is not prepared to accept, then they will reject it before even going through the process of "checking with reality" as detailed above. Rogers gives the example of telling an Australian bushman about bacterial infection. The bushman believe that all sickness is caused by evil spirits, and therefore, do not follow the same ground rules that allow you to put faith in "science" as more true. Their truth and yours are mutually exclusive and no amount of arguing with them will help win them over.
The use of science
Finally, Rogers points out that science is just a tool. How a person goes about using any of their findings is an entirely subjective matter. Individuals that are closed off and defensive may utilize their findings in a decidedly negative way and those more open to experience are likely to use their findings in a personally and socially constructive way.
Continuing to think about my post from yesterday, I realized very clearly that people often confuse explanations and truths. What I mean is that explanations and truths are separate. You can have an explanation without knowing it is a truth, just as you can have a truth without knowing the explanation. Sometimes, it seems people believe an explanation is a truth or that a truth is not not real without an explanation.
A very obvious example is the question, "Why is the sky blue?" For most people, they will not be able to give an explanation. However, that doesn't mean the sky is any less blue, unless it's cloudy or night time of course. "The sky is blue," remains true whether people can explain it or not.
This is very important in professions like teaching, medicine, and athletics where not every truth has been explained yet. I hear many teachers, doctors, and athletic coaches brag that they follow an "evidence-based practice". This means they supposedly make all their decisions based on the available research. This only proves ignorance in my opinion. There is simply too much research lacking to make all decisions in this way.
I one hundred percent believe that when good research is available it should be consulted and that the quest to discover explanations for truths is beyond valuable. However, that does not mean that a lack of explanation is a reason to believe something is not true. After all, most of what we "know" is still considered theory. There are very few "laws" that have been discovered and until a theory is deemed law, it is still open to question and debate.
Some practical examples of what I'm talking about include fat loss, personal health, and learning. Many people believe that fat loss is simply, "calories in, calories out," and that is fine. However, this is just theory and one that is losing evidence fast. Whatever the explanation for fat loss eventually turns out to be is irrelevant for actually losing weight though. Bodybuilders figured out decades ago how to lose body fat while keeping muscle mass. If you have a desire to lose fat, talk to a bodybuilder. They know the truth whether they have the explanation or not.
Personal health is another example. The government says to eat whole grains and dairy everyday for a certain number of servings. This is the "best" way to maintain optimal health. They have plenty of explanations why if you care to look it up. However, more and more people are discovering that going gluten and dairy-free makes them feel better. With or without an explanation, the truth is obvious to them - and subjective as mentioned yesterday.
Finally, education is becoming more and more like the medical profession and public health field. There is an explanation for everything and a theory describing exactly how students should be taught in every situation. However, if a teacher has seen results from a particular method for the last twenty years, there is no reason to discard it because it violates the latest theory. I strongly believe that twenty years of results contains far more truth than the latest theory.
At the end of the day, truth trumps explanations. The one principle that all of these professions should follow is the maxim of "do no harm". As long as they are not harming a client, patient, or student, then it shouldn't matter whether they are using evidence based practices or anecdotal based practices to get results.
The cloud is the easiest way for me to keep organized. Any information or data I can store in the cloud and gain access to from any location is a bonus. One of the best ways to organize all my different cloud applications is with Chrome.
Chrome allows you to add apps to your homepage, which gives you one click access to several different cloud based programs. My homepage has several apps I use every day and I order them in terms of importance so that as I scan from left to right, I am able to run through a mental checklist of things that are important to me.
The apps above are from my homepage in Chrome and include, from left to right and top to bottom:
I plan to do a post on each app explaining how and why I use it. For now, I suggest simply gaining familiarity with using Chrome.
The most important thing to learn is that you must sign in for these apps to be accessible from all computers. This means you will need a Google account. If you do not have one, create one and download Google Chrome. After launching the browser, you should be asked if you would like to "sign in". Just click yes.
If you are not prompted to sign into Chrome, then go to the top right of the browser, just below the "x" button where you close the window, and click on the settings button. Inside the drop down options, there is an option to sign in using your Google account.
Once you have opened Chrome and signed in, all of your bookmarks, apps, history, and extensions will be accessible from any computer you log into. This basically means you have "your own" computer on any machine. This is super important for students because they often use several different computers. For myself, I often log into Chrome using my laptop, my girlfriend's laptop, several of my university's computers, my job's computers, and even friends who I visit. Rather than constantly needing my own laptop to get work done or have access to my information, I can use any of these computers and be fine. The information is all in the cloud and goes where I go.
I'm sure I could go on and on about the differences between a good coach for sport preparation and the way education is run for career preparation. However, I hope that this illustrates the basic points that I've been thinking and talking about with a number of professors that last couple weeks.
The one size fits all and the predesigned programs are not what the future of education is going to look in my opinion. The brakes are constantly being put on motivated students by this approach and leading to frustration and burnout as they are forced to sit through classes and material they find boring, useless, or irrelevant.
I think as education becomes more accessible and we begin to see graduation rates increase, the value of degrees will go down and the market will turn to a more "coach-like" paradigm. Rather than chasing degrees and classes, people will begin to hire personal educational coaches that can deliver what they actually want or need. This will happen as more and more of the population attains advanced degrees and are not able to separate themselves from the population from the paper they receive. They will be forced to look for improvement in other ways. This is just one way that seems likely to me.