Dissertation Diary 4

I’ve decided to use my blog as a reflective tool while doing my dissertation project – the final component of my M.A. in ELT –  hypothesising that this will make it an even more effective learning experience for me, by mapping it, enabling me to look back on my thought processes and decisions and see what effect these have on the project development. (Other posts in this series can be found here) Once I get to the end (13th September is D-Day!), as well as looking back over the experience of doing the project, I plan to try and evaluate the effect of these reflective blog posts on it.

Yesterday (a day earlier than planned, by necessity, but it worked out well in the end, happily!) I had my second tutorial with H. It was fantastic! Much better than the previous meeting (which was also really, really good, don’t get me wrong!), because I’d done some proper work on the project, so there was something to properly pull apart and get our teeth into. So, this post will summarise what we covered in 45mins of tutorial as well as the next set of goals that have emerged. Boy, do I ever have my work cut out for me now! (Both in synthesising that little lot AND implementing the resulting plan of action!)

(But a quick aside before I start: I think doing a dissertation project like this, with an experienced supervisor whom I trust implicitly (important because it means I feel comfortable discussing my [often questionable] ideas), a.k.a. a “more experienced other”, means exactly working in my own “Zone of Proximal Development” (a la good old Vygotsky) – I’m being scaffolded to work beyond my current capabilities and produce something that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to produce, acquiring valuable skills/learning in the process. Socio-constructivist learning in action. And I LOVE it! :-))

Right, to business…

We began with a somewhat timid “What do you think of my ideas?” from me, and the first thing addressed was a glaring gap in my reading thus far. So, next on my list to read is:

Willis D. and Willis J. (2007) Doing  Task-based Teaching Oxford University Press.

Or it might be…

Willis, J. (1996) A framework for Task-based Learning. Longman.

Ach, why not both! Basically, there is a Willis (and Willis?)-sized hole to be filled! I don’t have to follow the Willis framework but it can be a starting point, even if it becomes a case of simply rationalising why it isn’t there or using it as a point of comparison when discussing Ellis’s version. Not unreasonable – a dissertation project based on TBL with no mention of Willis OR Willis might be rather questionable!

H likes the combining the Language Awareness work with Task-Based Learning idea, so that was a good start. I need, though, to clarify exactly what the cross-over is between Ellis’s Consciousness-Raising and Language Awareness – if I claim they are similar, I need to be very clear how they are similar and how they are different.

Regarding the culture element, for the rationale I need to be aware (and state) exactly what my approach is:

  • what cultural content am I including?
  • what exactly is it that I am aiming to do AND aiming not to do in terms of culture? E.g. I’m not trying to get them to learn about the Queen/parliament!, it’s a different kind of culture and a different approach, an enabling approach.
  • what exactly are the materials doing and not doing with culture?
  • what about intercultural capability?

We discussed how I am approaching the syllabus. My task cycle is preparatory tasks, the main task (exploiting the ESE), then tasks using the information gathered, then ending up with it on the wiki and then reflection. I need to think about/justify in the rationale my approach to language focus (in terms of selection).

Then we moved onto the (somewhat half-baked) framework I produced yesterday (just in time for the meeting!) and spent the rest of the meeting pulling it apart in great detail, which was very useful (genuinely!).

Here is the framework as it was: Framework Draft 1  

One of the criteria for calling something “task” is that it must have a non-linguistic outcome. (NB: A non-linguistic outcome needs to be tangible e.g. for the task “Find 3 pieces of dirt under your table”, the outcome would be the three pieces of dirt!) “Page 1” involves scaffolding use of the self-access centre. However, that may be the pedagogical goal of the sequence but it isn’t an outcome – as far as the task goes it’s a means to an end. The leaflet that the learners are going to produce is an outcome but it’s an outcome of the post-task element rather than the main task. In the end we established that the data collected through use of the self-access centre (scaffolded via a worksheet which will be a photocopiable resource in the teacher’s book) was the non-linguistic outcome of the main task. Getting from the outcome of the main task (the data collected) to the outcome of the post-task (the completed leaflet) will require more scaffolding for the learners. Another task…

And herein lies a major flaw in the current framework: The word “task” is repeated so many times that it becomes at best confusing and at worst meaningless. I need to decide what I am going to label a “task” and what I am going to label an “activity” and I need to be careful in applying these labels.

  • What I call things needs to be principled and thought out so that it is clear when the big task is coming, which will have all the qualities specified in the literature.
  • Avoid the trap of calling everything a “task” and then not knowing what is meant anymore. It will make things seem more sensible.

“Page 2” – With regards to the vocabulary focus, I need to think very carefully about how to focus on form in a) Task-based learning and b) Language Awareness approach. Is this going to be teacher and materials led or is it going to be students finding what they find useful? Need to link back to the theory – look carefully at what L.A. says about how much it should be teacher/materials-led and how much it should be open to students to look for examples of x and work out the rules for yourself. Need to think about exactly how I am going to do this.

  • Will the students be able to work out the rules?
  • What happens if they can’t?
  • Are the resources there for the teacher to guide them?
  • Is the L.A. approach suitable for everything? Or suitable only for some language points?

For the materials-led form focus, I can have a language reference in the book as well as the L.A. stuff, but I need to justify why I am combining these approaches. Now is the time where I need to go backwards and forwards between this initial draft framework and the theory, it’s a good stage to do this. And keep asking for every step of it:

  • Is this compatible with the theory or am I just trying to shoehorn something in for the sake of it or something that doesn’t quite fit with the ethos of what I am doing?
  • What am I going to put in my rationale to justify this?
  • Is the world ready for this?! Or might I want to include something a bit more traditional (e.g. the language reference vis-a-vis Language Awareness approach) to make it more palatable?
  • What are the non-linguistic outcomes for each of the tasks in the task cycle?
  • What exactly is the purpose of each main task?
  • Exactly which part of the task is the main part? (It is from this that the non-linguistic outcome must emerge.)

“Page 3” – It starts to become clear that I am taking the students through a process, almost like a research process, some input at the beginning and preparing them for the main task (exploiting E.S.E.) through making questions/a questionnaire and then exploiting the data collected. So each of the stages is a mini-task but the whole thing is also one big task cycle.

To make it easier to understand:

  • I need to make a framework of the macro task cycle, divided up into stages, A/B/C/D etc however many stages.
  • That framework then should be reflected in the mini-tasks that go on in each lesson so that each lesson is going to take on a task cycle.

It’s a matter of the labels and the language I use around it that will make my pattern transparent.

  • I need a formula that will be followed for each mini task and for the overall task.
  • A diagram in the rationale would be good.
  • And I must pay attention to the headings for everything and the language used to describe everything (very important!).

That’s what will (hopefully!) make it understandable for me/H/teachers and students who use the materials/to anyone who looks at the materials: They would be able to look at the pattern, understand it, see how everything fits in. That will also make it fit what I say it’s doing, vis-a-vis the theory (Ellis and Willis and so on), which will be important for the rationale: bringing it all together in perfect harmony… (ah, can you just imagine it…somewhere wayyy up the dissertation mountain…)

So, next goals:

  • Address all the above bullet points/questions
  • Think about how long each mini task cycle is going to take and therefore how long the macro cycle will take as well. (This is important because if it’s a 20hr cycle, then I only need to make one but if it’s a 10hr cycle, then I need to make two)
  • Make sure the task sequence that is followed each lesson is clear (in terms of non-linguistic outcome, duration etc)
  • Maintain the inclusion of different kinds of tasks.
  • Map out the the materials – an outline (what is each task going to be, what is each stage in each lesson going to be, that kind of thing)
  • Draft a rationale if possible (or headings and notes and references otherwise)

There’s no one way to structure the rationale, but I do need to consider and include:

  • Description of the context
  • What theories I’m drawing on (methodology, SLA, materials design…) [this is the biggest part of it]
  • Main principles behind what I’ve chosen to do.
  • Make an argument for the design of the materials in the way that I’ve done it (why I’ve chosen the methodologies/principles that I’ve chosen )
  • Why TBL? What task cycle am I using? What kind of tasks? How are the materials organised? Exemplify it.

Essentially it’s a whole justification of what I am doing. So I can make a diagram of the task cycle, relate it back to the theory and justify why it is that students will be learning from this task cycle in that context better than they would if done in a different way. It answers the question: “Why are my materials like this?”

At this point time ran out (I reckon we could easily have gone on for another 15mins or half an hour if H hadn’t had back to back appointments all afternoon – we only talked through the first two pages of the plan and touched on the third!). Next meeting will be at the end of June. Plenty to be getting on with meanwhile… So many questions to answer, so much thinking to do, so much to produce. I think I might still be in the foothills of this dissertation mountain!

First things first, time to go to the library and dig out the Willis collection…

As ever, any thoughts/criticism/comments etc all very welcome! 🙂

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