Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Tower of Babel

I got a lot of comments and questions recently. Thanks to all of you who took the time to comment my posts. Regarding the questions it will take some time to answer them, if I can. But maybe somebody else does have answers. Use the comment to react to peoples questions if you have some hint to a specific subject.

One suggestion I would like to make is that you should try to write your comments in English.
I think that most readers will understand English and expect English, as the whole blog is in English.
If I accept every language, the blog will be something like the Tower of Babel. Unfortunately I know only a few languages and most of the people around the world don't understand Luxembourgish. This makes it difficult to moderate comments. So let's all make an effort and avoid confounding of tongues to keep confusion low.

Besides, I don't give marks here and I don't care about your spelling - I care about the message. And if you are a teacher or a future teacher, try to do what you expect students to do, take your time but don't avoid the difficulty ;-)

The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith

This is one of the books I regularly reread and one of those that I wish I had written. On 120 thought-provoking and illuminating pages the author retraces the roots and illustrates the consequences of some of the well established practices that inhabit school. Most of these practices are taken for granted by teachers, parents and politicians. Among these practices you'll find learning through repetition, hard work, individual effort, conditioning, reinforcement, exercises and corrections, testing, rewards and control.
He opposes this "official theory of learning" to a "classic view" of learning which says that most of the time "you learn from the company you keep" from the individuals and the groups you most identify with. We learn "new things" from them by connecting those things to what we already know, to what we have discovered, imagined or understood and by connecting them to our beliefs and theories, and to what we would like to learn.
Smith also says that the question should never be if you are learning, but always what are we learning, because you always learn. I totally agree with that. In reading lessons you could for instance be learning that reading opens new doors to imagination and understanding, or you could be learning, that you are a poor reader, that you will never be a member of the "literacy club", or you could be learning which strategies are most effective to avoid reading until you end up being illiterate - as school expected you to be from the start.
If you are asked to memorize word lists, you may be learning that putting things into short term memory helps getting good marks in tests or, if you have difficulties remembering those words, you may be learning that you probably have a learning disability, that you don't fit, that you have no talent for languages, that your brain is not made for learning, that learning is an endless struggle and a continuous war against forgetting.
Smith also questions the value of testing, measurement and standardization as a means to achieve quality in education. On the contrary, continuous testing diminishes the motivation and the self-confidence of the low scorers. On the other hand the high scorers "become so addicted to tests (...) that thy are reluctant to read or write anything, in school or out, unless a score or a grade will be attached."

Besides the devastating critic Smith has also to offer some interesting suggestions on how to change school, well knowing what questions they will generate. Regarding these suggestions he anticipates:
"The teachers then ask who should bring all this change about. My answer is that they must. Teachers shouldn't expect people outside the classroom to improve their working conditions for them; all their problems were created by people outside the classroom. Teachers must take charge of their own professional lives. How might teachers take charge and improve what goes on in schools? I have a simple answer. They must change the world. And when they ask how they could possibly change the world, I have another simple answer - a little bit at a time. I suggest they start with their own classrooms."

For me, one of the key statements in the book is this one:
"You learn in communities of people who do what you are expected to learn."
My interpretation of this is the following : If you expect your students to write, you have to write and share your writing. If you want them to read, then read and share your readings experience with your students. If you want them to reflect on their learning, then you should reflect on your teaching and share your reflections with them ...
Teachers - think about this!

Monday, April 14, 2008

"I don't know, that I know", Setarcos

Children learn languages that they encounter in their socio-cultural context without formal instruction. This is not only true for their first language but also for a second/foreign language. They are capable of learning hundreds and sometimes thousands of words and expressions on their own. In a school-centered approach to language teaching this hidden vocabulary is usually ignored.
Ok, I know that Socrates said "I know, that I don't know", and you probably guessed that there's is no philosopher named Setarcos.
My point (as usual) is an attempt to lead teachers into a different perspective. For one, teachers often don't know that they don't know about children's real learning capacities or their hidden knowledge. And secondly, students often don't know that they know already a lot more than what they think they know having adopted a school-centered perspective which they hadn't when they were younger.
We all have met one or the other child aged 4 or 5 saying: I speak English! (or any other language which is not one of his mother tongues) listen: "My name is Ben." And when you ask: Great! What else can you say in English? he replies: "Nothing, that's all."
And for sure, have we met children and adults saying : "I don't speak English."
But if we take one or two hours to investigate on the matter, we soon find out that they underestimated their knowledge and that because of schooling they are convinced "that they are not members of the literacy club" as Frank Smith calls it.
I tried to find out more about my daughter's "hidden vocabulary" as I would like to call this language knowledge which is ignored in formal language instruction. If you're interested read my transcript of our short investigation check this link http://en.olefaschool.org/courses/hiddenvocabulary . I working on designing an approach to language teaching that would built upon this "hidden vocabulary" (at least during the first weeks of a course), which every student brings to school. It's not finished yet, and I am open to suggestions and to questions of course.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Become a Reflective Practitioner in Three Steps

My last post was meant to encourage teachers to reflect on their teaching by writing. I'd like to come back to this subject.
Teachers often feel more threatened than encouraged, when they are asked to do what they expect students to do - to write. This tells us a lot about their schooling experience. If you are one of those teachers, or if you have never done the effort to reflect on your teaching by writing, this post is meant for you.
I suppose, that usually you choose from one of the following replies when asked to write down your thoughts or feelings: I am a poor writer. I have nothing really interesting to report. I don't know what to choose from all these events that occur every day im my classroom. When I read what others have written I feel incompetent. I don't know if it's fair to concentrate on one child when all of them deserve my attention. What's the use in writing on something that belongs to the past, even a recent past, when everyday new events occur that are equally important. I have so much preparation to do. How should I find the time to write? I don't like to leave written traces when I'm still searching for the right answer. Why should I spent the time on writing when I can tell it in our next meeting. etc.
(In case you have other excuses I am interested to know them;-)

How can we get past this obstacle? It's not easy, I know it by experience. Let's do it step by step.

First step:
What I say is not: Write down your reflections!
I say : Reflect by writing down your thoughts on your teaching!
What's the difference? Well, you don't need to know in detail what your writing will be about. Whatever comes to your mind is perfect to start from. You don't even need to start with a good question. Often the good questions emerge during writing or only at the end.
Your reflections will take shape during the writing process, trust me. There is no need for having thought out beforehand where to start or to end and what should happen in between. Don't think about details and depth. In short, don't reflect to much before you've started to write. Both are closely connected.
What happened today? Can you think of a specific situation, one child? Was there something you didn't feel comfortable with or something you would like to improve? Is a specific student's behaviour a mystery to you? Was their a conflict difficult to handle, maybe with parents or your principle? Have you been bored by a task, one that you repeat continuously because you think you have to, without being convinced that it's useful?
I am sure you can find something. Sit down at the computer or take a pen and give it a try. A few sentences or one hundred - it doesn't matter. What comes out comes out.

Second step:
What should you do with your writing? You should share it with somebody. Do it as soon as possible. Do it before you've thought it over and over and before you consider deleting the file. Who should you share it with? It can be another teacher or anybody else who could be interested; a parent, your students, your principal, your daughter or son, your grandma, ...
The easiest would be to share it with your students of course. But if you don't feel comfortable with that idea and if you can't think of anybody who maybe interested in your writing, post it here, or send me an email (fr, en, de, lu).
Whoever your conversational partner will be, you will probably get some reaction in return, maybe even a good question. Don't expect to much. It's not that important how much reaction you get. What counts is your effort to write and to share.

Third step:

After having shared your writing with somebody, go back to your text and develop one aspect of it. Or if another subjects turns up keep the first one, add the reactions you got as a comment and a short description of the sharing situation, and continue with the new subject.

Next steps:
Is there a fourth and a fifth step? Yes, of course but it depends on what you have written about and on the reactions you got, and on your reaction to the reactions you got. We'll think about that when you've done the first steps.

That's it for today. I wish you an inspiring quest.
May the courage and passion be with you!

This post has largely been inspired by recent meetings with teachers and the connections I made with some (re)readings like : On Listening to What Children Say, by Vivian Gussin Paley and A Teacher's Quest for a Child's Questions, by Kathe Jervis both published in Teachers, Teaching, & Teaching Education, Ed. M. Okazawa-Rey, J. Anderson, R. Traver.

To finish this post, here's a quote by V. G. Paley: "The act of teaching became a daily search for the child's point of view accompanied by the sometimes unwelcome disclosure of my hidden attitudes. The search was what mattered - only later did someone tell me it was research - and it provided an open-ended script from which to observe, interpret, and integrate the living drama of the classroom." in On Listening to What Children Say.

Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain