What we learn when we learn by doing

Mureren med sin murerske

Everyone in the education field is familiar with Dewey’s axiom “learn by doing.” It is well known that experiential learning is not only preferable by students, but also more effective. I recently started taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Coursera that helped me understand better what learn by doing is. While I was going through the weekly readings, I could see that the following three basic questions were being addressed: what is learning by doing? what do we learn when we learn by doing? when learning is not motivated by learning to do something (practical/experiential), what is the motivation behind It? In this post I will try to share some of the answers I found to these questions through the readings and the connections I made to my experience as an EFL teacher using technology to advance my own learning and that of my students.

First let’s try to define what learn by doing is and give some examples. Learn by doing is experiential learning. Students learn by doing when they do things instead of being told about things. It is many times easier said than done. In the language classroom, students learn to speak the target language by speaking it, not by being lectured about it. The same goes for writing, reading, and listening. However, for students to speak, there should be a reason for them to do so. Therefore, teachers usually create scenarios or simulate situations to bring about a need to communicate. The more realistic the situation is, the more effective it seems in generating real communication. Having understood that, we should say that using Web 2.0 tools should follow the same “learn by doing” guidelines. Students learn about blogging by actually having a blog, posting, adding, and replying to comments.

Once we know what learn by doing is, we need to understand what one learns when he learns by doing. When there is experiential learning, what is learned cannot be put into words. If you ask a teacher who integrates technology into his teaching to tell you how to create a blog, for example, he will probably be able to show you step by step the procedures for doing it. However, he might not be able to tell you about it without visualing a given blogging platform and actually testing its features. Therefore, when one learns by doing, he learns micro scripts and scripts that help him assimilate and index new experiences. When a student has to create a blog, he first has to create an account. This one is probably a micro script that he has already assimilated. He probably knows automatically that to create an account he will have to provide his e-mail address, a user name, and so on. So what he will learn by doing will be how to customize his blog, how to insert a video or an image using HTML code or just copying and pasting. Besides that, he will also learn how to create a post and with this he will be familiar with rules for typing and editing text. He will learn that paragraphs have to be indented, that capital letters are required in the beginning of new sentences (the later might sound weird, but this is true for my teenage students). So, the scrips I have listed are extensions that are incorporated to the micro scripts he already possesses. The digital native claim proves to be a myth when it comes to creating content. This holds true especially if we are talking about young learners. So that is what is learned when one learns by doing.

However, it is not always that learning is guided by such an experiential tone. Sometimes learning is driven by reasons other than learning how to perform a specific task. In this case, learning is motivated by the willingness of knowing more. This is generally what guides professional development: a desire to learn about the philosophy behind a given practice, a new way of thinking about a given area of knowledge. It is learning for learning sake. I guess that in the field of language teaching this is the reason why EFL/ESL teachers, that supposedly already know enough about the English language, go conferences conferences as attendees or presenters and take other professional development initiatives such as reading/commenting/posting to blogs, connecting with peers through social networking channels, and taking online courses.

Finally, I would like to say that learning by doing also applies to writing. And this is exactly what I am trying to do with this blog and my posts. I confess that writing is not easy for me and I make a big effort to make my ideas come accross the way I want. Nonetheless, I never give up. I have been reading books about writing, I have just decided to blog with my students (I mean writing a short blog post after ech class reporting what went on). I did that because I read that if you ask your students to blog (which I frequently do), you should blog to. Finally, I am just about to begin a course in writing and hope I will feel more confident as a writer when it ends.

Classroom Interaction

Foldable for reading activity

Techniques and behaviors for increasing student participation and practice in class.

On July 25 Dr. Ron Schwartz came back to teach and entertain us a little bit. This time we also had the pleasure to have Madeleine Schwartz as a lecture. The topic of the day was classroom interaction and here is a summary to myself and my readers.

When we teach English, we do not just teach a language, we teach communication. If communication is the goal of our teaching, then classroom interactions are really a vital part of our classes. Therefore, this workshop made us reflect on our practices and gave some ideas on how to promote classroom interactions that help our students learn. This reflection, however, was coupled with experiential learning. Such feat was achieved because the techniques and behaviors discussed were role played during the entire workshop having participants act as teachers or students.

One of the tips shared by Dr. Schartz was a chart in which we could mark the kinds of interactions happening in class. As Dr. Schwartz proceeded with the lecture, participants marked on the hand out the equivalent interaction pattern (teacher asks question, student answers question, student volunteers, etc). This exercise reminded us of the importance of guaranteeing even participation and monitoring the quality of language produced by our students. Although the procedure demonstrated seemed to some of us a little challenging to be execute, it could be used by a peer teacher to observe our classroom and later feedback. A chart like this could also serve as check list to keep on the back of our minds, as a reference to remind us of promoting good exchange and real communication.

As we discussed interaction, the theoretical discussion came to the foreground. This gave us an opportunity to reexamine our, beliefs, methods, and approaches to language teaching in the light of our experince as teachers and the context of our institutions and countries. This was good exercise because it allowed us to share our perspective and reminded us that there is no such a thing as one size fits all method or approach. The ideal method or approach is the one that takes students needs into consideration and is flexible and not restrained by theoretical limitations.

Still related to classroom interaction, we discussed techniques and behaviors that conduct to effective leaning. At this point, Madeleine Schwartz gave us a sample class for teaching very young learners (eleme notary students). We played the role of students and she conducted a very instructive reading activity. The used of foldables together with reading strategies such as predicting, clarifying, asking questions, and summarizing gave us precious tips on ways to engage young learners in reading activities.

On a cultural note, we were reminded that culture affects one interaction style. Although this is little stereotypical, but is helpful to understand the way people interact. Americans are monochronic/linear and when answering to a question go straight to the point and do not give much extra information on the topic. Latins, on their turn, are polychronic and tend to zig zag as they answer a question or tell a story. So being aware of these differences between our culture and the target culture is helpful in making our spoken (and even written – essays) interactions more successful.

Where to Publish Students’ Work?

Since I started using the web in my classes I have become a big fan of publishing and I have always been proud of some of mine and my students’ accomplishments in this arena. In the beginning I started blogging. At first, I wrote blog posts myself and asked students to post comments. I could see that this seemed to be a nice and interesting way of engaging students. It elicited a given structure or lexicon, and got their opinion on a given subject. However, it lacked initiative from the part of learners. I felt that I could not limit blogging to comments from the part of students only. Besides that, I found my posts a little predictable and missing the desirable originally.  To be honest, I started getting tired of listening too much of my own of voice as the conversation initiator.


photo credit: Βethan via photo pin cc

Once I realized that reducing blogging to students comment was not enough, I moved on to the second stage of my publishing efforts. This stage involved getting my students to create blogging entries themselves. As a result, my class blogs blossomed with creativity. Students used their own drawings and images to illustrate posts. Besides that, I could see that they were more interested in reading and commenting on what their friends had written. Comments were not always written, but they always checked and browsed their peers posts. Therefore, there was a change on the cyber landscape. At this point, I also could change my role and started being the one  reacting, giving feedback on my their work. Not only that but I also got some of my online friends to give feedback on my students published content.

However, as time went by, I started realizing that blogging also had some limitations of its own. For example, in a large, prolific group, one easily loses track of content. If you have too many posts, it becomes difficult to keep up with the time line. Posts that are quite recent are not visible and only the most recent ones are displayed on the first page. As result, your audience (students themselves and others) might feel a bit overwhelmed with content. To top it all, as the web evolved, blogging started losing its appeal to younger learners. Their interest moved to platforms that allowed adding peers as friends and all sorts of connections besides mere comments on posts.

It was after realizing that students needed a more connected publishing platform that I went for social networking. So, that is where I am now. I am struggling to find one that suits mine and my students need. Although I really like Facebook, I think it has the drawback of being sometimes too overwhelming for getting an audience to more reflective publishing. Facebook is good to connect a group, but it is limited if you want to teach writing or engage your group in a given activity. I might be wrong, but I think a barrage of posts and updates does not help teaching. Meanwhile I am still looking for a more suitable and “free” social netwoking platform. While I wait, I am using grou.ps. Here is what my students and I have been doing.

The Critical Literacy Winter School

 dsc00206.JPGThe session on Critical Literacy taking place in Brasília was really an inspiring event. Let me share some of the things I reflect on during and after the event. First we had the idea of deconstructing what we know, what we think we know. It is annoying sometimes to be placed on this position where the things we think we know for sure are just our perspectives into something and that others might have a different perspective. More than that is the fact our perspective is not even long lasting. Their nature is temporary and feeble and we do change our minds along the way. On the other hand this perspective of being in such a mutant stage frees us to be what we really are. But this freedom comes with responsibilities and brings with it new responsibilities towards ourselves the others.  

Reflections on Hornby Summer School Brazil 2006

Intercultural Competence 

English as global language raises issues of understanding other people beyond surface level. In a globalized world, geographical frontiers are knocked down. The role of language teachers is, above all, to develop intercultural competence in his/her students. Intercultural compentence is necessary in order to knock down barriers to communication. Developing intercultural competence as speakers of a foreign language involves being able to accept other people as they are. However, to accept other people involves first knowing and accepting we are. As people we are a product of our culture and our personal history. Intercultural competence is not tested in our relationship with a foreign culture or language. It starts in our very backyards, in how we accept our neighbors or our fellow citizens. Intolerance most often, unfortunately, is bred in our classrooms and our homes. Accepting and living with differences is the key element in building intercultural competence


A New Approach to Language Teaching

I was just wondering … the Communicative Approach has been around for quite some time. A new approach should be just around the corner.  I am really interested in delving into this new approach, one that takes into account the international dimension that langauge learning has taken. I am really willing to investigate the guidelines of this practice. I will just star reading about the Multicultural or Ecological Approach.

Reflections on Hornby Summer School Brazil 2006

The Privilege
As a hornbier, I would like to say that it has been really a privilege to be part of such an inspiring and thought provoking event. The event itself has been a source of such input for us teachers that I decided to write some reflections on what I learned or thought of certain concepts or practices discussed in the event on the ELT field. I will to write it in little chunks as time allows once I am pretty busy with so many things to do and so many more burning or half baked ideas on my mind.
The theme of the event was English as a Global Language Implications for Teaching. The pre-reading material hinted at the fact that English has become this sort of global language because of globalisation and the fact that in the future
Global English? Global Village? Maybe not.
It has been almost fifteen days since the last day of course and I still feel the poignancy of the ideas we discussed. For one thing, the HSS kept me really busy. I have the feeling that a 24-hour day is just not enough. Anyway, one my projects was to write here on this blog some of the things that caught my attention on this course and what were my own personal views on certain issues concerning Language Teaching. The reason I do this is to share with my possible readers some of the things I have been thinking and writing is for me a good way of organizing my chaotic ideas. I would like to apologize in advance if my readers cannot see order in my chaos.
The main theme being discussed was English as a Global Language Implications for Teaching. This head topic was divided into strands English as a Global Language, Global Issues and Perspectives, Intercultural Competence, Internet English and the OSDE Methodology (Open Space for Dialogue and Inquiry). Each of these strands was somehow related to this global perspective and its implications.
Personally, I liked the idea of discussing English as a global language because this a view I came to support myself. It is a fact that English is no longer the language of one country; it has become an international language. No one can claim the ownership of English, not only English, but any other language. I firmly believe that languages belong to the whole of humanity. Languages are         a universal domain. So I went to the course with the idea that English is a global language and so global English would be an ideal term.
However, one of our lecturers, Professor Rajan, came up with very interesting points about the nature of language and communication as well as the assumptions and implications behind the term Global English. First of all, he pointed out that global English would be a misleading term. One of the reasons he gave was that the term implies the idea of a global village. His observations made me start questioning myself about this global village idea that has been pushed down our throats through the media.
If we think about it, global village is not an accurate portrayal of what is happening around the world. Although communication has become much easier, differences and conflicts are still common ground in most regions of the planet. The idea of global peaceful village being pushed at us is more like another product then a reflection of what happens in our very own lives. Aren’t we just too busy trying to make ends meet to live in a global village? Just because we have Internet, mobile phones and all the technological gadgets that enable communication it does not mean we are caring more about each other or talking/writing more to each other.
This all comes down to the communication factor. For communication to take place, people should be willing to communicate. On this subject Professor Rajan said something very interesting with which I profoundly agreed “… language is not a prerequisite for communication, but a consequence.” Such a claim is easily illustrated with examples where a break down in communication happens because of an inherent unwillingness to communicate despite the fact that speakers involved speak the same “language.” Sometimes people understand the words but not the message and other times they get neither. Yet in other circumstances one may not exactly understand the words but gets the message, and communication happens and language was just a consequence. I wonder if this point was clear enough, but I was thinking in the micro cosmos of daily interactions where conflicts also exist and people do not “speak the same language.”
The Native Speaker (A Myth)?
 As EFL professional we always take for granted the idea of native speaker. In language teaching, native speakers rule. On this issue the HSS stirred controversy and discussion when Professor Rajan said there is no such a thing as a native speaker. This idea of native speaker, he explains, can be traced back to the 17th or 18th century when each nation state had to have a national language. In multilingual societies the very notion of mother tongue and first language is of no use. Monolinguals are an endangered species, said Professor Rajan. Some questions would maybe make us think about what a native speaker is. Is a native speaker a person who knows everything about the language? Is a native speaker a model from whom one can learn the language? Is a native speaker the one who can him/her understood by the international community of speakers of the target language? Is a native speaker the one who sets the rules for what is acceptable and what is unacceptable?   If one tries to answer the questions above and think about its implications, we can see that this native speaker looks more like a mythical creature. I do not dispute the fact that we need models, but models of successful communication. What we teachers may need to develop in our students, more than native like fluency, is Intercultural Competence.