Innovation in education: looking for learning (British Council Associate blog post 3)

For my third blog post as a British Council Associate, I chose the topic of innovation in education.

This was the brief:

As learning technologies become more and more ubiquitous in our teaching, how can we ensure that pedagogy is at the centre of what we do to increase learning? What tools do you incorporate into your teaching and how do you ensure they help learning?

I shared the approach I use to ensure that the tools I use help learning, and to ensure that pedagogy remains central, using Edmodo and Wordandphrase.info as examples.

To read my blog post, please follow this link.

To see other blog posts I’ve written for the British Council, please follow this link. (Topics so far are: “Course books in the classroom: friend or foe?” and “How does blogging help you to be a better teacher?”)

Thank you, British Council Teaching English, for letting me post alongside some really great bloggers.

CPD and a cup of tea in the sunshine: go on, give it a go!

On Friday, we had a really fantastic CPD session. It was such a very simple idea, yet worked so effectively – well done, our DoS!

I really think all schools should incorporate this idea, or variations on it, if they can, from time to time (perhaps once or twice a term, depending on term length), so I thought I’d write about it here, for others to try.

Materials:

Sets of questions relating to teaching, professional development and career paths (e.g. about recent good lessons, bad lessons, favourite activities, recently used activities, memorable students, courses you’ve done, courses you’d like to do, how you got into ELT etc etc – the possibilities are endless!)

Time: 

As long as you have! – Whatever time allocation you have for workshops.

Procedure:

  • Put the kettle on. Allow teachers to get their tea/coffee and biscuits.
  • Put your teachers into small groups.
  • Let everybody sit around little tables (sunshine optional but much preferred!).
  • Give each group a set of questions and encourage them to discuss these together.
  • Change sets of questions periodically, change groupings periodically.
  • Repeat until questions/time have run out!

Yes, it’s that simple. 🙂

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CPD in the garden! 🙂 Photo taken from en.wikipedia.org via google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification.

Benefits:

  • Time to talk: never underestimate the value of time set aside for talking: though you could argue talking about classes etc happens in the staffroom, generally that is amidst lesson planning, admin and the usual 101 things to do. It was really nice to be able to just…talk! And learn from each other. The combined experience and knowledge in a team of staff is huge and varied, so time focused exclusively on tapping that was time well spent.
  • Increased motivation: we all felt rather up-lifted by the end! The atmosphere after the session was relaxed and happy, with us all feeling enthusiastic despite it being Friday and therefore the end of a long week – a real morale booster.
  • New ideas: talking to people about things they’ve done is a great way to collect some new things to try and to think about things you might not have thought about otherwise.
  • Reflection: Having to discuss your answers to the questions encourages you to reflect on them, and reflecting on your teaching/learning/development etc is always beneficial.

To all the DoS’s out there: It’s  well worth giving it a go! And a really good use of 1.5hrs of INSET training time.

Extensive Reading (Part 3): The “Reading Project”

page turning

Turn those pages! Take from an advanced Google images search, licensed for commercial reuse with modification

In part 1 of this series, I reflected on the benefits of reading extensively, from the point of view of my own language learning experience, and in part 2 I discussed the process I had used to initiate my “reading project” with my adult classes (pre-intermediate to advanced) at IH Palermo language school. Following on from my British Council Teaching English webinar on Learner Autonomy, here is part 3. In this post, I look at the outcomes of the reading project and explore the links between this project and learner autonomy, which was the goal that drove its creation.

The benefits of reading extensively are well-documented, and in an EFL context where exposure to target language is limited, the regular exposure to language in use that reading extensively can provide is even more valuable to learners. But how do we get learners reading extensively in their own time? I started to explore this question last year, when I started working at IH Palermo, having explored a lot of the theory related to learner autonomy and motivation while studying at Leeds Met. I felt that if I could get learners reading independently, of their own volition, over an extended period of time, then this could be one way in which they could learn autonomously. And so, in collaboration with my learners,  the Reading Project was born.

Fast forward several months and those courses came to an end. I gave learners a feedback form to complete.

  • Out of 23 students who completed the forms: (there should have been 6 more but they were absent from the classes on the day I handed out the forms for completion) 19 said they read more in English now than they did before. They circled between 4 and 6 on the Likert scale I used for this question.
  • Breaking this down: of these 19,  6 students circled 6, 6 students circled 5 and 7 students circled 4.
  • In terms of level: The lowest level class (Pre-Intermediate), all learners circled 4 and upwards, with the majority 5’s and 6’s, while in the Upper Intermediate class, only one learner out of 9 circled below a 4. The lower number in the Up Int class and the three lower numbers in the Advanced class were qualified by their explanation, in the space provided, that they already read a lot in English before. I’m pretty sure the Reading Project won’t have done those few learners who already read a lot any harm, while the majority who didn’t may have benefited a lot. 

The feedback form also asked learners if they would continue to read in English after the course. All respondents except one circled “yes”. Whether they do actually continue to read is, of course, an unknown quantity at this point, but the positive thing is that the desire is there. I bumped into one of the students the other day and she spontaneously started telling me that she was still reading and listening to audio books, so that’s at least one who continues – at least for now! 🙂

Obviously numbers can be deceptive, or circled at random. However the comments learners wrote in the space provided for this, or in the end-of-course reflective pieces I asked them to write, tallied with the numbers circled. NB, I did not stipulate what aspects of the course the learners were to comment on, it was a completely free piece of writing so learners were free to choose what to highlight. Here are a few comments from the learners, written on their feedback forms or in those end-of-course reflective pieces:

Advanced learners:

“Definitely yes. I wasn’t used to read in English, now I understood that it’s not impossible as I thought, I’ll continue reading.”

“I think that reading in English is useful to learn new vocabulary but it needs time”

“I have always read in English whenever I felt a need to do so, not really because I found it helpful. The reading project has surely helped me read more in English”

“One of the aspects of the course I have appreciated most, was the encouragement our teacher has given us to read as much as possible from different sources such as books, short stories and so on; I also liked the follow up in the classroom when we were comparing our ideas and emotions.”

“The reading project was the thing I appreciated the most. It helped me having a start to read in english, which is something that i wasn’t used to, but now i’m sure i’ll continue”

Upper Intermediate:

“I’ll continue because it’s more pleasurable than reading in Italian”

“Well why should I learn English then?”

“I found reading in English very useful, so I think it’s important to keep reading in order to improve my English”

“Because I’ve found it useful to improve my language and vocabulary”

“I would like to continue, although in this period I don’t have a lot of time”

“I understood the importance of reading in English”

Pre-intermediate:

“I like reading in English. I found a new word: English Lettereture. I choose amazing English book and I thanks you for this reason.”

“I want to continue to read in English because I think it’s a good tool to learn new words”

“Yes, because I understood that it is useful, and because now I like reading a book in English”

“I think that it is important and I like read in English”

Overall, then, I feel that it was a successful project: Lots of reading happened on a regular basis, learners remained motivated, to the extent that they express desire to continue reading beyond the end of the course, and, importantly, showing recognition/understanding of how reading can benefit them. Learners also set their own goals and experimented with different approaches, within a supportive environment.

What made it so, other than the wonderful learners I was working with?

  • Through the initial discussion questions, I drew learners’ attention to the benefits of reading extensively in English, as well as the validity of different text types (e.g. authentic text vs graded readers vs bilingual versions) and approaches to reading. They understood the value of it and so were keen to embark on the project. Insecurities of the “is this type of book as good as that as type of book?” and “if I read like this <describes approach>, is it bad?” sort were also dealt with in this discussion.
  • Free choice of reading material meant that nobody had to read anything that didn’t interest them. One man’s meat is another man’s poison…
  • The subsequent discussions, at regular intervals (once a week), helped learners maintain their motivation to keep on reading. These discussions addressed potential issues. For example in one of the discussions we discussed The Rights of the Reader  which emphasised, amongst other things, that it was ok to stop and change books if you weren’t enjoying it, amongst other things. This is important because it is obviously far better for a learner to recognise that it may be the book that is the issue, rather than reading in English itself, and try changing books rather than give up. This applies both during the reading project and beyond.
  • Another benefit of the regular discussions was that learners often brought their books along to these, excited to show everybody what they had decided to read, and other learners were interested to see what their classmates were reading and hear where they had got these books from. This show-and-tell element kindled interest in those who were slow to get involved. And, of course, when learners finished a book in English (sometimes for the first time in their lives), they were always delighted to share that news with everybody.
  • Goal-setting also helped learners maintain their motivation. Setting their own goals gave learners more ownership over the process and project. Obviously this was scaffolded rather than independent, but hopefully as learners recognise the value of it, and learn how to do it effectively, it becomes a tool they can use independently beyond the end of the course.
  • There was no stick: learners didn’t get in to trouble for not meeting their goals, or not being able to read so much one week compared to another week. Conversely, whatever reading they did manage to do was met with enthusiasm (by both myself and their classmates!). Through this they learn that it is ok not to be super-successful ALL the time, that just because you have lots of commitments (e.g. exams or work-related commitments) during a period, doesn’t mean you are a failure and should give up altogether. They also learn that every little helps.
  • It wasn’t homework, it wasn’t compulsory, it wasn’t a chore, it was something they chose to do. They also chose how much to do, when to do it etc. In this way, they found out how to fit it into their life in the way that best suited them. Of course initially not everyone was super keen, there are always one or two who are a bit skeptical, but then a couple weeks down the line, they turn up in class clutching a book, ready to tell their classmates that they are reading now too! I prefer to let them come to it themselves, rather than forcing it on them. If it is a choice they make, they are more likely to continue.
  • I let them reflect on, and evaluate, the project at the half-way point, asking them what they thought would improve it. One of the classes decided to add to it: alongside reading their books, they decided to take turns posting an article link to Edmodo so that everybody could read it between classes, discuss it on Edmodo by responding to the original post and have a few minutes in class once a week to discuss it face-to-face. Again, this was giving them ownership of the project and some say in how their class time be used.

I have just started again with a new lot of courses (several pre-intermediate, an upper intermediate and an advanced) and have so far made a little change to my process:

  • Before asking them to set goals, I explicitly elicited different types of goals that they could make, so as to make it easier for them to make goals. What was interesting is that with two classes of the same level (pre-int) at the same point in the course, one class was able to supply, between them, all but one of the goal ideas I’d thought of,  while the other class were a bit blank and needed more support.  All classes are different and it’s important to be ready to respond to what a particular class needs. In the first class, they’d all found something to read by the second weekly discussion (the first post-being encouraged to find something), in the blank class, only one had. However, the following week, the majority of the blank class had found something to read and they are starting to learn to set suitable goals. Such inauspicious starts are just as normal as the keen bean starts, the thing is to persevere gently with it.
  • Another change is that I have introduced the project right at the beginning of the course, whereas last term, I only had the idea, and developed it, part way through! This will hopefully give learners longer to benefit. Certainly in my semi-intensive class, a learner who had never read a book in English before is now on her fourth and her confidence has blossomed along with it.

How does The Reading Project tie in with learner autonomy development?

The Reading Project was one of the strands of my learner autonomy development project, the other two being use of collaborative online platforms (Edmodo and class blogs) and my Experimentation with English ProjectObviously learner autonomy looks different in different contexts. In my context, my goal was to enable learners to harness effectively all the resources at their disposal outside of class time, so that they could benefit from maximum exposure to the target language and from using it a variety of ways. The Reading Project helped raise learners’ awareness of different approaches to extensive reading and the benefits of extensive reading. Some learners changed their dominant approach, entirely of their own volition, as a result of discussing with other learners who used different approaches, experimenting with a new approach and finding it more effective. The project also helped them use goals as a means of managing their motivation in the long term by setting short term goals which are challenging yet attainable. Finally, it offered opportunity for reflective discussion regarding their reading progress and how they felt about it. It was a regular process of goal setting, reflection and evaluation of progress.

All I did, as the teacher, was provide the opportunity for discussion (about 10 or so minutes at the start of a lesson – except when setting the project up, the first two discussions needed 15-20 minutes) and feed in questions for discussion, using this as a tool for generating interest in the project and then maintaining that interest and motivation as the course wore on. I elicited as much as possible from the learners, in terms of benefits, different approaches, goal types, pros and cons of different text types etc and just fed in the odd little bits that were missing between them as a group. In this way, by starting with the learners’ knowledge and experience, they were able to learn from each other: as a group they had a much bigger knowledge and experience base to draw on than as individuals.  The discussions also enabled their motivation as a group to be harnessed, with those less motivated benefitting from those with more motivation, leading to a net result of greater overall group motivation levels. Of course individual motivation levels fluctuate, so different learners benefited from “feeding off” the group motivation at different times.

I think an important aspect of the project is that it became very much a part of the course. The discussions and goal-setting happened at regular intervals. I believe that if you embark on such a project (which isn’t very demanding in terms of teacher input/preparation) it is important to persevere and not let it fall by the wayside. Another very important aspect is that there is no obligation coming from the teacher. The teacher is in the role of enabler in this project, opening up an on-going dialogue with the learners and joining them in their journey towards greater autonomy. The journey isn’t smooth, it’s more of a rabbit burrow than a bridge (thinking of the oft-used expression of “bridging the gap” used in association with autonomy!) and learners have to work hard to keep burrowing. By bringing the project back into the classroom at regular intervals, learners are given support in their efforts, as well as being helped to become better at using various tools to make the process easier for them.

Obviously my approach won’t be applicable in all contexts. As a teacher, it is important to be sensitive to your context, which is why I believe Smith’s (2003) strong methodology is very effective. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend blindly applying my Reading Project in any context. What I would recommend is:

  • careful consideration of context and learning goals.
  • adjusting your own mindset so that you are constantly on the look-out for ways to help your learners become more autonomous.
  • working with your students to identify ways of meeting those learning goals. If you have ideas, share them with your students and see what they think. Do this in such a way that they are fully aware of the potential benefits of whatever it is you have in mind: guided discussion is invaluable for this.
  • differentiating between ideas that require autonomy and ideas that support its development. If you have one that falls into the former category, think about how to scaffold students’ use of it.
  • not forcing anything on your students. If you have helped them become aware of the benefits and not all of them want to do it, let those who are keen embark on it and see what happens.
  • recognition of the role of motivation and being aware of how you can help learners manage their own individual motivation and harness their motivation as a group.

I would be very interested in hearing about your current or future learner autonomy-related projects: please do comment on this post either to tell me about them or to post a link to where you have written about them.

References:

Smith, R. (2003) Pedgagogy for Autonomy as (Becoming) Appropriate Methodology in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

5 ways of using Edmodo with language learners (part 2)

In part 1 of this series, I shared 5 ways of using Edmodo with language learners to make homework more interesting. In this post, I will focus on ways of using Edmodo with language learners, to support the development of their language learning autonomy. This post extends what I spoke about in my webinar on developing Learner Autonomy, offering a similar mixture of initial theory followed by practical ideas for using Edmodo.

Introduction

In my current context, learners are obliged to do ten hours of private study over the duration of the course, in order to pass. With classes that only happen twice a week, in most cases, out-of-class study is vital for good progress to be made and I am fully in favour of this component of the languages courses here. However, I would argue that this obligation requires autonomy rather than scaffolding it. Indeed, “…fostering autonomy does not mean simply leaving learners to their own devices, but implies a more active process of guidance and encouragement to help learners extend and systematise the capacities they already possess.” (Benson, 2011:91)  When faced with the requirement of private study and left to their own devices to fulfil it, some learners may just default to doing language practice activities online or watching films in English. This may be particularly true of those who are new to language learning and do not yet know many different ways of helping themselves learn outside the classroom. Of course there is nothing wrong with either activity in the above example, and learners may find that these work best for them. The important thing, I feel, is that this be an informed decision based on awareness of alternatives rather than a default position.

Theories of, and perspectives on, learner autonomy abound (for an overview of different perspectives, see Oxford, 2003).  The sociocultural perspective is the one I have chosen to use in my work with my students, with its “central interest in the roles of interaction and social participation in the development of learner autonomy” (Borg and Al-Busaidi, 2012:5). In terms of methodology, I prefer Smith’s (2003) “strong” approach, which works on the assumption that learners are autonomous to different degrees and attempts to work with them to “create the atmosphere and conditions in which they will feel encouraged to develop the autonomy they already have” (Benson, 2003:305). This contrasts with a “weak” approach (Smith, 2003), which is based on a deficit model in which learners are viewed as lacking certain behaviours, which must be transmitted to them. Autonomy within this perspective, then, is a product of instruction and a deferred goal (ibid). A “strong” approach starts with what learners bring to the table and addresses issues, raised by critics of the concept of learner autonomy, with regards to its appropriateness in different contexts. By developing an approach with the learners, the methodology is what Smith (2003) describes as a “becoming appropriate methodology”.

But where does Edmodo fit into this? Well, Edmodo, as a collaborative space for learners, can be used in conjunction with giving them a handout with range of ideas for them to try, some of which entail using Edmodoand providing opportunities in class for learners to reflect on and discuss what they have tried, how useful they found it, as well as why, and what they would like to try next, setting personal goals along the way. These discussions needn’t last for too long (for those who are anxious about using class time) and provide a valuable opportunity for building motivation, by enabling learners to help each other with any difficulties met along the way (group trouble-shooting!) and sparking interest in terms of trying ideas that classmates have tried. In my experience, learners are proud to share what they have achieved and interested in what their classmates have done, as well as generally able, between them, to resolve problems met by a member of their cohort. The metacognitive element inherent in reflecting on one’s own learning and discussing it with others is also invaluable in the development of person, task and strategy awareness (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012).

Here are five ways that learners could use Edmodo, within the framework described above, to further their own learning, in doing activities that are not set for homework and to complement other activities, using English, done in their own time.

5 ways of using Edmodo

1) Article sharing and discussion

This activity gives learners the opportunity to express their thoughts, opinions and ideas related to a newspaper or magazine article and see what others think. This uses both receptive (reading) and productive (writing) skills, and enables authentic, communicative use of language between students outside of class time.

  • A learner finds an article that he or she thinks is interesting and posts the link to Edmodo, along with a short paragraph explaining why they think its interesting and an opinion related to the topic.
  • Other learners in the class can then read the article and respond to the original poster with their own ideas and thoughts.
  • The discussion continues until it has been exhausted.
  • (Optional: Learners are allowed 5 or so minutes at the beginning of a lesson to discuss the article[s] in small groups.)

Benefits:

  • The opportunity to share opinions provides a purpose to reading that may be motivational for some learners.
  • Sharing opinions about an article requires a greater depth of processing than just skimming the article for an overall meaning and moving on. The learner has to engage with the ideas contained in the text in order to form an opinion.
  • For learners in contexts where there is not a lot of opportunity to use English outside the classroom, a genuine communicative situation is created.
  • The teacher can look at the exchanges to see what language is missing, that the learners need to express themselves better, and provide this in the classroom.
  • If this is done at intervals, learners can look back at early discussions and compare these with more recent ones. This enables them to see progress in their ability to express themselves.

Of course, the same activity can be applied to a podcast or video clip.

2) Listening task generation

This activity is adapted from Vandergrift and Goh (2012). They call it a “peer listening task” (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012: kindle loc 3923), whose goal is to facilitate extensive listening. The idea is that learners create a listening task for their classmates to carry out.

  • Learners find a youtube clip or podcast in English. (This will require listening closely to a number of such clips, in order to find a suitable one)
  • They post a link to this clip on Edmodo, along with some questions about it.
  • The teacher checks the questions to make sure they are correct and clear, making any suggestions/corrections by responding to the post.
  • The learner can edit the questions according to the teacher’s feedback.
  • Other learners then watch/listen to the clip and answer the questions.

Vandergrift and Goh (2012) provide a template for this activity, which can be adapted and used, or you, the teacher, can create your own brand of scaffolding, if you wish. Obviously, in order to make suitable questions, learners need awareness of suitable question types for listening tasks. By taking a metacognitive approach to listening in class time, you can help learners to increase their task knowledge, which can then be applied to to this activity, with support from you.

Benefits:

  • Edmodo provides an easy means of sharing the clips and questions, creating a repository of listening tasks for learners to do in their own time.
  • To decide on a clip, learners need to listen closely to a variety of such clips.
  • A bank of listening material is built up, which learners can use at any time. (I did this with my learners in advance of their end-of-course listening test, as a means of enabling them to do extra listening practice!)
  • Making questions for other students to answer may be more motivating for some students than just listening, particularly if they don’t understand enough first time round: rather than giving up and moving on, they are encouraged to persevere.

3. Time for a chat!

This is a very simple activity but potentially a very beneficial way of recycling language met in class in a communicative, meaningful way.

  • Any learner may start a conversation on Edmodo, on any topic, by posting a conversation opener. (In Headway Pre-intermediate, there is a lesson on keeping conversations going. You could model this activity by setting it as follow-up homework to that, or a similar, lesson and then encourage learners to do it independently when they see fit. Learners may be more inclined to do it if they have had a go and know that it is not complicated, whereas they may shy away from doing things they haven’t tried before, as it is easier to stick with the known.)
  • Other learners respond and the conversation develops.
  • The conversation continues until learners run out of things to say.

Benefits:

  • Learners use language communicatively outside of class and are able to experiment further with language that they have studied earlier in the course.
  • Quieter learners may feel more comfortable expressing their opinions in writing and doing so may help build up their confidence to increase spoken production later on.
  • The teacher can see if learners have understood how to use this language and troubleshoot any misuse.

When recommending this activity to learners, suggest that they try to incorporate language that they’ve been using in class: this then becomes an opportunity to experiment with that language. It doesn’t have to be from the latest lesson, it could be from any lesson or combination of lessons earlier on in the course. It could be grammatical or lexical,  most likely a combination of the two. Of course the emphasis is on communicating meaning rather than using specific forms, but if learners have in the backs of their minds that this an opportunity for recycling, they find ways of bringing in some of the language naturally. If it sounds stilted or is used inappropriately, the teacher can use this as the basis for some analysis in a subsequent lesson. Research demonstrates that

4. Let’s Cook!

This activity will not appeal to all learners, but that’s fine. Those to whom it does appeal can try it and may benefit from it…

  • Learners write a recipe for a favourite dish. (Not an easy task, but you can direct them to recipe websites, particularly those with lots of pictures, for them to see example recipes)
  • When finished, they post it on Edmodo. 
  • Learners may then try and cook friends’ recipes and post pictures of the finished product on Edmodo. They can tell their friends what they think of the recipes and find out what their friends think about their own recipes.
  • Variation: For lower level learners (one of my pre-ints managed this very nicely!), direct them to a recipe website, where they can search for a recipe in English that they want to cook. Once they have cooked the recipe, they can post a picture on Edmodo and/or (depending perhaps on what it is!) bring a sample to class! (My pre-int did both!)
  • Variation: For higher level learners, they may like to compare an L1 recipe and the English version (i.e. a recipe for the same dish but written originally in English) and see what similarities and differences there are in structure, lay-out, use of language etc.

Benefits:

  • It’s a fun way of using English outside of class.
  • It exposes learners to English used in a different way from what they may be used to.
  • It’s practical and hands-on, using language rather than just learning about language: this will hopefully be motivational for learners, as there is a concrete outcome of using the language.

Obviously if a learner has no interest in cooking, then it’s a non-starter. But the beauty of out-of-class work is that learners can choose what they do…

5. Reporting a conversation

Many schools offer some kind of conversation club or guided (to a greater or lesser extent) speaking opportunities, that learners may attend outside of class time. Edmodo allows students who attend these extra-curricular sessions the opportunity to benefit more from them.

  • Students attend conversation club/pub night/guided speaking opportunity of whatever description.
  • Subsequently, learners write about it on Edmodo: What was discussed? What new language did they learn? What did they find most interesting? What was the silliest/funniest/cleverest thing that was said?
  • Other learners who were not able to attend can then read about the session and respond to the content of the post in any way they wish. A further discussion on the topic may arise!

Benefits:

  • Students who attend the speaking occasions gain from revisiting and reprocessing the content and language of these.
  • Students who did not attend may be tempted to attend at a later date when they are able to and may learn something new from the posts written by students who did attend.
  • The teacher can see what their students have picked up from a speaking occasion and clear up any linguistic misunderstandings that may have arisen.
  • If further discussion arises in response to the post, this creates another opportunity for meaningful language use. For the original poster this may offer chances to recycle newly learnt lexis.

Edmodo and Reflection

In addition to activities such as these, of course, Edmodo has potential as a reflective tool. You can encourage learners to write reflective pieces regarding past language learning experience, progress they feel they’ve made on a course so far (perhaps at the mid-course stage), goals, and what they’ve learnt when they reach the end of a course. Reflection is arguably an important factor in the development of learner autonomy: “only experience that is reflected upon seriously will yield its full measure of learning” (Kohonen, 1992:17). Obviously this shouldn’t be over-done – learners may get tired of it if you try and get them to do it all the time! Written reflection of this type, done at reasonable (what is “reasonable” will depend very much on the length of the course, the frequency of the lessons etc) intervals, can, however, complement the discussions alluded to earlier in this post. The added benefit of using Edmodo as a means of doing this is that learners can read each others’ reflections and gain from their colleagues’ insights, which may differ from their own, and it’s also very interesting for the teacher to see what the students think and how aware they are of their learning, learning processes and learning progress, and what they take away with them at the end of a course.

Student feedback:

As I’ve already shared student feedback from completed courses in the webinar (see my slides in the recording) and in part 1 of this series of posts about Edmodo, I thought I would use feedback from my current semi-intensive course who are now just over half way through their level. At the half-way point, I find it useful to give learners the chance to evaluate Edmodo and come up with ideas of their own for how it could be used. A class of heads plus mine is better than one! In addition to fresh ideas arising, it gives learners ownership of the page, and this ownership motivates them to invest more time and effort into using it. My semi-intensive gang are pre-intermediate and focus on the first 6 units of a 12 unit pre-intermediate course book. Therefore at this point, they have looked at 3 and 3/4 units.

I gave my learners the beginning of six sentences to complete – two about the reading project, two about Edmodo and two about the course as a whole. The two about Edmodo were:

Edmodo is good because…  and I think Edmodo would be better if…

This didn’t give me any statistics but those 6 questions gave the learners the opportunity to critique different aspects of the course and the course as a whole, and me the opportunity to negotiate the onward path with them. Between us, then, we benefit in terms of the course becoming better-suited to learners’ needs.

Here are the students’ answers:

Edmodo is good because…

  • Edmodo is good because is useful to exchange and train our English. It is also good to propose topics for discussion and creates team spirit of classmates.

  • Edmodo is good because….. I think that it’s a very good way to exchange some informations not only about homework but also about topics we chose discussing on.

  • Edmodo is good because we can talk with the other classmates and when there are some homework we can compare together.

  • Edmodo is good because, through the app, I can read and post topics and homework from everywhere…

  • -Edmodo is good because allows all the students to comunicate each other not only for the homework but on everything we decide is useful to improve our english

  • Edmodo is funny even though I hate FB. This exercise of writing would be better if we read and checked our written in classroom all together.

Edmodo would be better if…

  • Edmodo would be better if we use it more and if we continue to use it after the course.

  • Edmodo would be better if…. I don’t know, I find it useful enough as it is ! …..Perhaps if everyone could choose a topic of conversation on which we have to prepare from the next time and on which we will discuss for improve our ability in conversation.

  • Edmodo would be better if it was possible connect it with the student’s personal mail addresses So when a student writes something or a post, all the recipients could automatically receive notice or, if possible, the whole contents of the edmodo’s posts

  • Edmodo would be better if is possible have a private chat like facebook because I think that if I can talk with someone for a thing the private chat is more useful than the notice-board ( ? )

  • Edmodo would be better if?

2 students have yet to respond (this is hot off the press homework!) and one conflated the questions, as you can see in the first set of answers above.

This class didn’t wait till the half-way point before taking ownership! They are the first class which I introduced Edmodo to straight away at the start of the class. They are also the first class who got the activity ideas handout for the Experimenting with English project straight away. (Straight away in both cases means lesson 2, when we did the Self-Access Centre tour) However, on the strength of this evaluation, we have decided to use the beginning of the lesson on Monday to bring Edmodo up on screen using the projector and do a quick collaborative error correction slot. This will focus on the posts that are generated by the other idea to arise, which was to choose a topic each week, share links to relevant articles/information and discuss it on Edmodo, then use a small amount of class time to share ideas in class too. So again, learners benefit from rehearsing language, followed by feedback and task repetition (although changing the medium from written to spoken) and all based on something of interest to them as a group. With regards to the student who wants email notifications every time something is posted, I have looked into that using the Edmodo community support forum and got a link for him to set it up.

One similar thing to come out of this feedback and the feedback from the end of my previous courses, is that learners may not be keen on social media but still like Edmodo and recognise the benefits of it. The feedback from these learners clearly demonstrates their recognition of it as a tool for supporting their learning and for using independently – they like the fact that it is not just for homework. It is important to emphasise from the start that it is their space. Using it for homework, to model activities and to encourage communication, is great but at the same time, if they know it is theirs, they will find even more innovative ways of using it.

Finally, being a semi-intensive class, they are likely to have a good rapport anyway, due to the frequency of classes, but having Edmodo enhances that, too, as one student above recognises explicitly. Therefore, while autonomy may be a major goal (at least as far as I am concerned!), the benefits are not limited to that. I  think, on the whole, that this group of learners is getting a lot more out of their course than 4hrs a week of language study. As well as becoming more autonomous, they are getting what they want out of their course (despite the fixed learning goals/curriculum/assessment, there is still room for negotiation, if one enables that) and enjoying lots of opportunity to use language collaboratively, communicatively and meaningfully outside of class time, as well as the “team spirit” that arises from this.

Conclusion

It is important to differentiate between expectation of learner autonomy and fostering learner autonomy. In order to do so, it helps to be aware of different perspectives on learner autonomy and methodologies for bringing it in to the classroom. Edmodo is a collaborative tool, which allows greater scope for language use outside of the classroom, and used in conjunction with a supportive framework, which helps learners to experiment, reflect on their experimentation and become more aware of different ways of developing their language skills, can, I believe, play a role in helping learners become more autonomous.

How’s your work-life balance?

Yesterday, I got out of Palermo for the first time since the Christmas holiday. It was also the first day since the Christmas holiday that I didn’t do something ELT-related – be it teaching (obviously, 5 days a week), teaching-related admin, prepping for teaching, marking, IHCYLT course modules/assignments/portfolio tasks, blogging, reading ELT-related books/journal articles/blogs, preparing for my webinar etc. It was lovely to actually see a bit of Sicily (which turns out to be rather beautiful when you get out of the city – which isn’t a bad city, but is a city!) to go horse-riding, enjoy the wonderful colour of the countryside and relax! It was also quite an effort, getting up early to get the station for an early train, after a tiring week at work – but so worthwhile.

Now, one of my resolutions for this year was to achieve a better work-life balance – do you think I’m succeeding? I’d say I’m not. And now that the IHCYLT has come to an end, I feel it is time to do something about that… Now that I don’t need to divide my weekends between course-related work and recovery/sorting life and flat out/batch cooking etc, I would like to start getting out of the city on Saturdays and doing day-trips to see a bit of the beautiful surrounding countryside and towns. So that when it eventually becomes time to leave Sicily, I’ve actually seen something of it. I think the thing about doing the ELT thing abroad is that unless you are proactive and make time for it, do something about it, you just end up working and not seeing much of where you are, which is a shame really. At this rate, when my visitors come here during the Easter break, they will end up seeing more in that week than I will have seen in nearly 7 months. On the plus side, I will be seeing it with them! 😉

Ironically, next Saturday I’ve got my first Palermo-based social commitment in a while and in a couple of weeks I’m pretty sure there’s some more Speaking examiner training which I shall be doing. (Unless it’s on a Friday this time, I can’t remember…)  However, that aside, when there are no other commitments, I want to commit myself to getting out and about! There is life outside of ELT (believe it or not!) and I’d like to taste that part too. So that even if all the rest of the time I sleep, breathe, speak and live ELT, there is ONE day a week where I DON’T. Where I switch off, do something else, go somewhere else, think about something else.

So that’s me. And in thinking about me, of course I started to wonder about the rest of the ELT world. Are you all as obsessed as I am? Or are you better at managing the whole work-life balance thing? Do you leave work at work during the week? I find that difficult. When I’m not actually at work prepping, doing admin or teaching, which doesn’t leave much time anyway as I’m at work between 9 and 11 hrs a day, I’m either anticipating what’s to come (if it’s morning before I go in) or my brain is spinning with what’s been done (if it’s night and I’m finally home). I often dream about it, I generally wake up thinking about what I’ve got to do at work (or worrying, if there’s a lot on to remember!) and it takes time for my mind to stop spinning when I go to bed at night (despite always reading for 40 mins before bed, non-ELT related things that is!). If I wake up during the night, sometimes I can’t get back to sleep because my brain starts thinking about work. I do other things in the morning before I go to work (study Italian, do yoga) but it’s always there at the back of my mind. Yet, I’m *sure* the sky would not fall and the world would not end if I weren’t like this! I’d just be less strung out :-p

So, to reiterate my earlier questions, the answers to which I’m interested to hear/see, and to add a few more: What is your work-life balance like? How do you manage it? Do you leave work at work during the week? How about weekends? If you have reached a good work-life balance, have you always been able to do that or did you have to work at it? Any tips for me? 😉

End-of-course reflections

Today, three of my adult classes and one of my kids classes did their final tests. Tomorrow, my two teenager classes will do their final tests. The three young learner classes, I keep, the three adult classes, I lose. So today was goodbye to three lots of students: I felt (feel!) rather bereft! It’s certainly been quite a roller-coaster of a four months: Moving to Palermo, starting the new job – and these classes! – as well as learning Italian and then embarking on the IH Young Learner Teaching certificate course, to top it all off. Phew! Meanwhile, this is my first job post-Delta and M.A. ELT, so there has been a backlog of learning to process (meanwhile trying to deal with all the learning from the YL certificate course too!), some settling down to do, as well as lots of experimentation, naturally. This mid-way point seemed like a good point to pause and reflect.

I feel I have learnt heaps in the past four months, much of which from my students. It’s been wonderful working with them and trying to help them become more autonomous, confident language users. Learning has also resulted from being observed by my DoS and my Young Learner Coordinator, both as part of regular in-service CPD and as part of the YL certificate course. A grand total of 5 observations in 4 months! In addition, there have been a fortnightly series of workshops on various topics. Sometimes I go to them thinking, “this is really the last thing I feel like doing this [Friday] morning” but then, once you’re there, it’s really refreshing being back in the learning seat and it has a clear positive impact on your teaching. The YL certificate has taught me a lot, it goes without saying, as well as driving me up the wall on a regular basis. Nothing like in-service training certificate courses to test the boundaries of one’s sanity! And of course I’ve also learnt a lot from being a language learner again: my attempts to learn Italian have certainly coloured what I do in the classroom. Finally, the various threads of my learner autonomy project have been immensely rewarding and have yielded some very positive results/feedback, but there is so much more potential for development with the project, which is a great position to be in – very exciting! 🙂  I will continue to experiment and find ways to help my learners harness all the potential bubbling away in them as individuals and as groups.

My Delta and M.A. already seem a very long time ago, and I miss that time, as it was such an immense time of learning and growth for me. However, it’s wonderful to be working in a place where I can really work with what I’ve learnt and build on it. I’m looking forward to the next wave of courses and building on what I’ve learnt during the first lot – using all the freed-up processing space that comes from not having to learn a bunch of new systems for doing things (e.g. progress reports, testing, etc etc) and from greater familiarity with the materials. Once the YL course has finished, and I have more time freed up, I would like to make some more materials – or at least finish refining the ones I made during my M.A. and started to upload onto my blog before the tidal wave of work swept over me! – read more (I’ve got a back-log of ELT reading building up!) and experiment more systematically with the many, many things I’ve learnt over the past year and a half.

The last four months have been hard work, there’s no denying it, but so rewarding. I suppose that is what teaching is all about! Here’s to the next four and all the challenges they hold… 🙂 (First things first, though: a heap of marking and reports to plough through by Friday! 😉 )

 

 

Minor achievements, major gains

Last Friday evening (it’s been a busy week!), I took myself out to dinner. It’s become my Friday treat here – a meal out, on the way home after work. It means the weekend has arrived! Usually it involves some degree of stuttering and feeling annoyed with myself, because I just can’t summon up the language I know I have, when I actually need it. (Ten minutes later, no problem – by then I’ve usually got it :-p)  That time, however, for the first time, I did everything smoothly and appropriately! A very minor achievement, ordering a meal in a restaurant, asking for various condiments, dealing with between-course exchanges (I had some rather lovely seasonal fruit for dessert) and post-meal bill-sorting exchanges, but a real confidence-booster. Last night, I went back (it’s my Friday night restaurant, so sue me!) and felt confident – I’ve done it before, so I can do it again! – and upped the challenge: this time I decided to try adding some small talk too and managed to do so. No philosophical discussion, but baby steps, just baby steps…

Dornyei’s (2011)  Motivational Self-System has three components, the third of which relates to the L2 Learning Experience.  This third component draws attention to the role of the learning environment within motivation and within this component, the “experience of success” (Kindle edition loc 1848) plays a role. Motivation, of course, is not static. Part of a dynamic system, as Dornyei explains motivation is now considered to be, it is in constant flux, affected by both internal and external factors (ibid: loc 5013) This theory of motivation makes me picture the classroom as a cauldron, motivation (of various types) AND demotivation (ditto!) bubbling away within. The question then arises of how we can help learners, as a group, to harness all these different positive energies and enable them, in combination, to be stronger than the negative energies, both at that time and outside class, when they are doing various activities using English.

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A cauldron of motivation and demotivation, bubbling away… (Taken from Google search licensed for commercial reuse with modification)

One of my learners came up to me at the end of class today, for me to sign her guided study form. The exchange went something along these lines: S: “I finished my book”  Me:”Yay! Did you enjoy it?” S:”Yes my first book in English! So I’m very happy!”  Me:”That’s brilliant! Are you going to read another one?” S:”Yes, definitely I want to!”. (I’m not sure who was more delighted – her or me! 😉 ) Is this a minor achievement? Some might argue it is (not me!). Either way, the gains are massive for this learner, in terms of confidence and motivation, which will hopefully last until the next “minor” achievement. Adam Simpson wrote a very interesting blog post about motivation in the classroom, and how a lot of  it is down to the students, as individuals and as a group, rather than the teacher. I fully agree with his post (and, like him, feel very lucky to have some super groups of learners to work with! 🙂 ); however, I think the teacher can have a positive influence on the evolution of motivation: perhaps as well as scaffolding language learning so that learners can experience – and be motivated by – success in their language use in the classroom, we can also scaffold their development of approaches to learning language out of class-time which enable additional success/achievement outside the classroom. As with my student from the example above. Perhaps part of learner autonomy is enabling learners to find ways of being successful in their own language learning outside of class, as part of their own motivation management, be it in choosing, reading and finishing a book, or in choosing and successfully completing other language use activities, and setting their own goals in doing these things. The teacher doesn’t create/generate or manage the learners’ motivation, but helps them do this themselves.  I believe that what happens in the classroom can play a key role in this, in various ways. Starting, of course, with the learners themselves and what they bring to the table between them, as a group.

This  can create additional work for the teacher, certainly at least initially, but it’s so worth it when you enable students, like the one mentioned above, to read their first book in English or find “a new word: English Lettereture (sic)” (from a student feedback form, different class).  However, I’m going to refrain from launching into an in-depth discussion of exactly what I’ve been doing with my learners and the feedback I’ve had (entailing plenty of food for thought for me!) – for now, anyway! After my I’ve done my British council webinar, I imagine I’ll expand on the simplicity of the reading project (as a follow-on to Extensive Reading Part 2) and other threads of learner autonomy development that I’ve been attempting to weave through my classes. (Disclaimer: There will be nothing earth-shattering!! There is no panacea…)

For now, for a warm fuzzy end to this post, I’d love to hear about your last “makes it all worth it” moment! (I want to bottle them all to get me through the final tests marking/reports/admin hell that comes next week! 😉 )

References:

Dörnyei, Z., & Ushioda, E. (2011). Teaching and researching motivation (2nd ed.). Harlow: Longman.