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.

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EAP – A Door of Opportunity for EFL Instructors and Language Learners

A gift I received from my EAP group  on their graduation.

In January 2011 I took a course to prepare for teaching a new one. The course I took online through UMBC was called TET (Teaching English to Teens) and the course I would start teaching was named English Access Microscholarship Program or just Access or EAP as we call it now. This program according to the official description on the web “provides a foundation of English language skills to talented 13-20 year-olds from economically disadvantaged sectors through after-school classes.” In this post I will try to describe my experience with the English Access Program and how I applied some of the theory I learned in the preparatory course. (or already knew) to my classes.

The course on teaching English to teens lasted about a month or so and the new EAP group started in March 2011. The TET course was helpful because it reminded me that teenagers, despite social/economical background, are equal in the sense that they share certain characteristics of personality and have needs that are almost universal. Therefore, taking that issue into consideration and trying to address it, is vital for a successful class. Being aware of these variables, what I did was to apply principles for teaching language to this group catering to some of their specific needs.

One important thing I had to do was to change students’ attitude towards the language. Knowing that they were probably coming from a school where English was taught mainly through translation, I could assume that many them believed that learning English was difficult or even impossible. Therefore I told and showed them (through teaching) that translating was not always the best strategy for learning a foreign language. Once they knew it and realized they could understand chunks of language without necessarily finding the equivalent word or expression in their mother tongue, they discovered a new way of learning, and consequently, started changing their attitude towards the target language.

Another important aspect to consider was keeping learners interested in coming to our Friday meetings. Although these students were quite motivated to take the course, I thought it would be advisable to give them something to look forward to when coming to class. To achieve this goal, I used music. Almost every class I played some latest hit song. I usually had some kind of task related to the song. In other occasions I just projected the lyrics on the screen and we sang along. They really had fun and later told me they had that song on their heads all week long. Sometimes songs were not that recent, but if I felt the song had a cultural/historical value, I played it and explained to them why it was important. For example, if there was a major event in which a certain musician (unknown to them because of their age, but famous worldwide) was going to give a performance, I would play his/her most famous hit. This proved to a good strategy because it anticipated something they would see on TV and made them feel more aware of the world around them. So music was a motivator and another way of changing their attitude towards the language.

Providing a range of learning options and resources is also another important issue when teaching a foreign language. In relation to this, I remember that before the course began, we (school coordinators and teachers involved in the program) were concerned about the digital divide. We were a bit cautious about using the web for blended learning because we assumed that these learners, given their social economical background, would not have the desired access to computers with internet connection. To our surprise, however, not only did they have access to the web but were also able to do tasks assigned for web based projects and the available web resources to advance their learning. In this regard, the initial assumption that they had no access to computers was wrong. Under these circumstances, we were able to work on several projects in which they went home, gathered information from their relatives and community, and later shared them in class and published their work on the web. Such projects did not make them more autonomous but also provided an opportunity for reflection and discovery.

It is true that teens have emotional and intellectual needs. However, they also have a very basic physical need: food. Their growing bodies demand a lot of energy and they love eating junk food and sweets. Cooking, however, is not one of my specialties. Nonetheless there is one thing I can make that almost all my students simply love: chocolate chip cookies. Therefore, I made cookies for my EAP class quite often. Once I made them during class Getting some involved in making the though, others in writing the recipe on the board, and others in taking pictures or filming the event. Some of them learned the recipe and baked cookies for their families. I could see that something as simple as this helped them see themselves as more valuable and autonomous learners once they could share something learned in class with their community. Cookies became a sort of transitional object that frequently popped in our conversation and mediated our informal interactions. This connection was so meaningful that we scheduled a reunion some time next year to get together and have some cookies and refreshments.

The enhancement activities were a kind of mandatory part of the course. What we tried to do was to whenever possible draw a parallel between their culture and the target language culture. This was a nice away of contextualizing learning and providing students with an opportunity to make discoveries or recycle their own culture. Once they did that it also made them proud of their background and increased their self-esteem. The latter being an area that deserves special attention first due to their age group and second due to their social economic situation.

All in all, I would definitely say that my experience with this program was a very rewarding one for me and for the students as well. As I watched each one of them walking towards the stage to get their certificate, I felt that they were a bit transformed and had taken their first steps into their journey of learning a foreign language and many other things that will be extremely important for their lives. As a teacher, I felt grateful for the contribution they had given to make my classes better, enabling me to teach teens just like them that will be entering my class next year.

Gagne and the Nine Events of Instruction in an English Lesson

Skitch note created in Brasilia at 19:37

After years and years of teaching and planning, it is common to think that we know everything. During this teaching journey we also discover that our craft is everywhere we look around. I recognize this might sound like I am a bit obssessed about teaching. But, think with me, don't sports stars and actors also seem a bit obssessed about what they do? So, why shouldn't we? Anyway, obsessed or not, we see a lesson and an opportunity for teaching in a film we watch, on a flyer handed out in traffic light, in a science podcast. Being that enthusiastic about what I do, I have always thought that this is a wonderful job. It extends throughout your life and the older you get the better you become. It might not be so, but thinking like this makes me more comfortable about getting older and having chosen such a career. This pervasiveness is true especially for those who teach language once our subject matter is everywhere. We have a drive to communicate and spoken, written, and even sign language is everywhere. This way, we language teachers, are never at a loss for teaching materials and and the instruction ideas that spring out from them. In this matter, I would like to share with you what I have learned in the course I took at UMBC about Gagné and the Nine Events of instruction. In this post, I will try to connect each of the nine events to the way most teachers teach language.

Gain attention in the first event of instruction according to Gagné. It is true that if we want to engage our students in the learning process, the first thing we should do is to find a way of having, if not all, at least ninety percent of them, focused on what we have planned for a given class. So, this is the moment in which we announce that there will be discoveries. It is that ” hey you ” moment in which you stop any parallel conversations without asking your students to shut up. To gain attention, you share something that is in way connected to the lesson you are about to start.

Inform learner is the second event of instruction proposed. This is an opportunity to tell your class what your objectives are. I know many teachers are against doing it explicitly (especially if it is a grammar lesson), however we can always come up with implicit/inductive ways of doing it. Informing learners make them realize that we care about their intake of the content ahead and also helps building autonomy. Besides that, it is helpful in the wrap up process at the end of every lesson. Once informed about what lies ahead, learners can access what they have really achieved once the lesson comes to an end.

Stimulate recall of prior learning is the third event in a language class. It is during this event that we show students that we want to learn a bit from them, that what they already know is extremely important for us and for that specific learning community. When we do this, we allow them to share their knowledge and give the first steps in the direction of building a tapestry in which their contributions start being woven into the fabric of collaboration that emerges in class. This event sets the foundations to build the rest of our teaching event. It tells students that they are active participants in the learning process and not mere passive, blank slates.

Present stimulus material is the fourth event on Gagné's list. This one refers to the moment we show learners the content that needs to be retained. For retention to occur, Gange points out, we need to organize the material in meaningful chunks. That is exactly what language teachers do: we divide the content in bite sized morsels so that our students can slowly swallow, digest, and later use it. I like this analogy with food because it helps language learners and teachers realize that it is not possible to speed up the process.

Provide learner guidance is the fith event of instruction. This step has to do with how the instructor communicates with the learner and is intertwined with the previous one. This communication, in case of language teaching is very specific. The teacher tailors the language and instruction to guide the learner and help him or her stay on track. This guidance comes not only in verbal discourse, but also through images and any other media that assists the learner in retaining and encoding information. Such precise and guided communication allows learners to understand content and process it in a way that they gradually feel capable of using it later.

Elicit performance is the sixth event. This one is in a way much anticipated by educators. After crafting a good attention getter, informing the learner, and grading the language used to present content, we do look forward to the moment of having our students perform a task that demonstrates we are doing a good job. Performace at this stage, is still a controlled practice and limited to the repetitions of examples we have given. It is a moment for repetition of a model provided by the instructor. Nevertheless, it is much awaited because it gives us feedback on how much progress is being made by students in retaining the target content.

Provide feedback is the seventh event. This is the one in which we prune or praise the controlled practice. Here lies an opportunity we have correct the course of the learning journey. This correction can be done in many ways. The istructor can give explicit and direct feedback or use strategies that allow students to notice what needs to be corrected and do it by themselves. Here teachers give opportunity for students to review and improve performance.

Assess performance is the eight event. It is at this moment that the teacher checks whether learners have fully understood the lesson. Different from the previous one which involved controlled practice, this one involves a larger degree of freedom because the goal is to assess, not to correct or give feedback. This event is the coronation of a lesson and might indicate the need for change of methodology in the future. An attentive instructor might discover during this event that one of the previous events need to be re-evaluated.

Enhance retention and transfer is the last event. Once assessment has been carried out, learners must feel they have learned the content and are ready to apply it to other situations. So, teachers should plan activities that expand students' knowledge and make them confident in using what they have learned. This is the moment in which students produce language that goes beyond what has been drilled or modeled by the instructor. It is a moment for exercising creativity and transferring what has been learned to a variety of situations. This event is an occasion for free production of language.

As you could see, the nine events proposed by Gagné are a good way of revisiting what we know about teaching. Besides that, they also offer some insights into steps we should consider taking when planning our lessons. For me, the breaking down of the standard lesson plan into more discrete units seems to be helpful for instructors trying to better understand the dynamics of teaching and learning. Finally, it is good exercise to read the steps and compare them to our prior knowledge, and also, a way of enhancing retention and transferring our skills.

 

Project Based Learning – Some Challenges

Guilherme Viana Lima

In the last two years I started working with projects. It all started with online courses I took in the beginning of 2011 with UMBC called Teaching Young Learners and more to the end of the same year I took Methods II on Project\Problem-Based Learning with University of Oregon. In these courses, I developed projects for the courses themselves and tried to synchronize assigned course tasks and the ones in my teaching practice. In this post I will address some of the challenges posed by project based learning while working on some projects with my students.

In my opinion one of the greatest challenges of working with projects is the tight schedules we have in our institutions.  As a result, instructors are generally expected to teach a certain amount of content within a given time frame. In my case, most of the content is broken into units and lessons. Therefore, teachers know what lesson to cover in a given class or week. Besides that, a teacher has to keep an eye on the incoming test date which serves as a sort of time tracker that informs them that they have to squeeze content within certain deadlines. To cope with this limitation, the best approach is to work on mini projects, on something that will not take up more than two consecutive classes. A second solution would involve assigning tasks as homework. Doing so, the instructor  saves valuable class time and adds authenticity to a project.

A second challenge has to do with the syllabus itself and the textbooks we have to use. Most of the textbooks adopted by schools are content-based. Being a teacher myself, I know that some teachers would certainly agree that task-based course books would make the perfect match for a project-based learning approach. However, we do not always have the luxury of inhabiting such perfect worlds. Besides that, I have grown to believe that a task-based syllabus has its own limitations. To win the battle between content versus task, an instructor has to carefully plan tasks that smoothly integrate the content taught into projects he or she plans to carry out.  So, for every piece of content, we should try to think of a realistic task that could be inserted into a mini project. This approach makes the content more palatable and gets learners involved into more authentic activities.

 A third challenge is the sharing of these so-called mini projects. Therefore, once you and your students have invested some precious time and effort into something such as a class project, it seems reasonable to come up with a way for displaying\sharing the work done. If schedule is a little tight, it certainly poses some limitations to the usual group by group presentation scheme. A possible solution is publishing the final result on the web. Such approach allows for the class members and its immediate community (parents and classmates)  to check the outcomes beyond the classroom walls. Besides that, when you decide for this mode of sharing you force your student and yourself to acquire twenty first century learning skills (publishing and all the skills associated with this task). Finally, sharing project outcomes on the web also makes learners aware of the importance of building and online presence and is a valuable opportunity to teaching netiquette (some basic rules for good online behavior).

As a final remark, I would like to point out that this short post is in no way a complete inventory of all the challenges an educator might face when working on projects. I have

just tried to address some of the problems I had to deal with in my specific context – the one of an EFL instructor teaching at a binational language center in Brasilia – Brazil. Nevertheless, I do recommend setting aside some of your class time to work on projects. It is really rewarding and it does change the way you and your students engage with content and learn.