Monthly Archives: February 2013

Learning by doing: Reflections on teaching for standardized tests

Puzzle

Following my first post on the ‘learning by doing’ philosophy, I’ve been searching for more ways that I can implement it in my classes. I don’t think that there would be many teachers these days that believe in teaching by rote without giving students the opportunity to use target language in some kind of context, but somehow the number of teachers giving classes straight out of a textbook without any meaningful language practice is much higher. There are many reasons why we deviate from practising what we preach; in many language schools teaching load is high and planning time is consequently cut down to a minimum. Beginning teachers (or more experienced teachers moving into a newer or more specialized field) may feel that the less-targeted activities offered by a textbook are of a higher quality than what they can produce themselves.

The majority of my classes are business English classes which take place in companies. These lend themselves to a real hands-on approach. Learners can present their products, give tours of their workplace in English and use materials that they access on a daily basis. As a teacher this is equally advantageous as it gives me a very good idea about the situations in which they use English and lets me plan my classes accordingly.

A class that I find especially difficult to teach in the spirit of ‘learning by doing’ is the exam preparation, TOEIC in particular. Although the test is designed to assess a candidate’s ability to communicate in a business setting, the focus of these classes is specific techniques of overcoming the ‘traps’ of this particular test. Perhaps we could argue that learning by doing in the context of a test is simply to do practice tests? The problem with this is that the student can do the practice test out of class and teacher contact time can be spent on other things such as vocabulary work and test strategy. Is it that standardized testing is incompatible with ‘learning by doing’, or is there some real practical use in test preparation? I’d love to hear your ideas on this!

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The Fundamentals of Online Teaching: Course on hold

On hold

I just received the following email:

Dear Kirstin,

We want all students to have the highest quality learning experience. For this reason, we are temporarily suspending the “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” course in order to make improvements. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. We will inform you when the course will be reoffered.

I knew they were having some difficulties organizing groups for the assignments etc. but I am very surprised indeed that they’ve ended up suspending the whole course! Perhaps there’s a certain irony in a course on online education being closed down owing to course design problems. I think this also highlights the inherent difficulty of having to plan an entire course before it has begun, with limited opportunity to change it as it goes along. We can see by this example that this can be a challenge even for the experts. Luckily this is a free course that isn’t required to fit into any university schedules.

The readings from the first week were really great, so I think that while I’m waiting for the course to come back online I’d like to take some time to reflect on them in more detail and think about how I can better integrate the ‘teaching by doing’ principle into my classes.

If you’d like to sign up to the class (although I’m not quite sure when it will start again) you can do so here

Week 1: The Fundamentals of Online teaching: Teaching by doing

This is my second post on a Coursera course I’m currently doing on online course design and teaching. This week the focus is on teaching theories and in particular the importance of having students learn in a hands-on way. Our first assignment was to reflect on some excellent articles and videos provided to us on teaching with technology.

When I first began reflecting on ‘learning by doing’ I thought of baby cheetahs learning to hunt. They learn by hunting themselves and if they don’t do it correctly there won’t be anything to eat. Perhaps this can be applied to business language learning: if you can’t communicate effectively it can be very difficult to do your job!

 

Here are my reflections:

The first article ‘The Trans-classroom Teacher (Lowes 2008)’ had me thinking very deeply about the process of adapting a course from a face-to-face format to an online one. It reminded me of ESL veteran Thomas SC Farrell’s plenary session at last year’s TESOL France conference ‘Reflecting on Reflective Practice’ when he encouraged us to consider very closely why we do what we do in the classroom. This is equally as important for the big things as the small things (the words we say, the gestures we make and the order of activities). I was unsurprised at the teachers’ reports that this reflection led them to make changes that significantly improved their face-to-face classes too. ‘Brain-based learning’ (Clemons 2005) reiterated the importance of structuring materials into ‘chunks’ in order for students to integrate these into their spatial memory. My attention was drawn in particular to the importance of emotions in learning and students’ tendency to close-up when they sense anxiety, threat etc. As a language teacher, it can be challenge to teach in a way that is sufficiently intense and varied enough to peak students’ attention while being careful not to make students feel anxious or threatened. This is something that varies between students, so teachers’ adaptability is paramount. I wonder if a one-size-fits-all online system will be able to address this for all students?

‘What we learn when we learn by doing’ (Schank 1995) was a scathing criticism of rote-learning and teaching for the sake of teaching and reminded me of the importance of teaching what is immediately useful and in a meaningful way. For me, this is particularly relevant in the context of adult learning and English for business. Motivation is natural when the student needs a particular language to do their job and when the motivation wanes the first question to be asked is ‘Is this material immediately relevant?’ The students at Carnegie Mellon West seem extremely motivated and can see straight away how the skills they are learning are applicable to the work environment they will soon enter.

Overall, I really appreciated having the opportunity to reflect on the question of doing vs reading/listening in learning. While it isn’t something new for me (as teacher-training has been centred on ‘doing’ for some time now), these resources are a fresh reminder of the importance of taking a step back and really putting this into our courses.