Thoughts on ‘Why Believing in Your Students Matters’ by Katie Martin

teaching beliefs cycleToday I came across this succinct article by Katie Martin on why believing in our students matters, as this can have a significant impact upon a teacher’s practices and students’ uptake of learning regardless of where learning and teaching that takes place – whether face-to-face or online.

While I have known about the need to wait for responses from students for some time, and I value this approach, sometimes one can wait a bit too long. UK universities have had high and growing numbers of students from China for a while now. Some universities throw their doors open to International students since they pay higher fees.

One such university near London where one Master’s program of 150+ students has well over 95% of its students from China. At the same time, some of these same universities that seek to recruit large numbers of International students, often heavily reliant upon specific markets such as China, can, at times, lower the bar in terms of language requirements. From my own experience of observing and delivering teaching, this situation, which isn’t unique to the aforementioned university, creates a number of issues since the students often:

  1. come with different levels of language readiness for an intensive postgraduate level of study;
  2. are not or may not be used to interacting and socializing with those from other countries;
  3. are unlikely to work outside their ‘peer’ group of compatriots due to shyness, peer pressure or do so begrudgingly; and/or
  4. lack confidence in their own abilities and are perhaps not provided with enough motivation from teaching staff to instill a positive, ‘can-do’ attitude to learning.

The result of any or a combination of these is that lecturers, academic tutors, learning developers and tutors of English for academic purposes are frequently put into tricky situations: the content has to be delivered, but if students are struggling to understand, what is to be done? Too often I have heard over the years, from staff at various institutions, similar negative remarks that Katie mentions in her article. I’ve always found these types of comments particularly demotivating and, silently, I ask myself upon hearing sustained negative comments “Well, why the hell are you in teaching?!” It is as if those making such comments were perfect students who always worked hard.

On the flip side, the best colleagues I’ve had have always been positive, supportive and empathetic to the student journey. This empathy seems to set apart the negativity of the moaners from the teachers/lecturers whose lessons that we would always look forward to when we were once students. I think part of this empathy that some educators have is at least partially informed by the works of the Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire, among others.

Going back to Katie’s article, I think one solution is creating a positive, welcoming environment that seeks to recognize the students as intelligent participants who are able to interact at Master’s level successfully with regular, positive support that seeks to push the students’ boundaries and to modify our teaching practices to engage the students in such a way that might tease out from them meaningful participation.

One way, I believe, is to have a meaningful, welcoming induction to a program that gets students involved in getting to know their peers and teaching staff beyond the polite formalities of titles and names (think: basic teambuilding activities that get students to solve real problems related to their studies and/or life within their new educational setting). Oftentimes, I’ve seen inductions that were so superficially boring, stereotypical and/or dry that it immediately set the wrong (superficial) tone for the program of study in question.

Another solution is to embed positive thinking throughout a program. As Katie says in her post:

… when we believe we can learn and improve through hard work and effort we can create the conditions and experiences that lead to increased achievement and improved outcomes.

In terms of learning and teaching, this is particularly powerful for our students. If they feel the above, they can and will improve in their learning journey. We, as educators, have a responsibility to instill these ideas into our students, especially International students who might genuinely need extra support, encouragement and motivation in order for them to become independent learners. Part of ensuring the success of our learners is to change our thinking – to think more positively, and to believe in our students.

This also means we might need to change our approach to learning and teaching. So, for example, imagine you have a session of 15-50 students and they don’t volunteer answers without being called on and prefer to stare at their phone or laptops (or both!). If our students are quiet and reticent to raise their hands to volunteer an answer, then there are some easily-doable solutions.

Apart from those small solutions, I believe that part of ensuring the success of our learners is also to change our thinking – to think more positively, and to believe in our students. So, for example, rather than immediately assuming that most, if not all, International students are likely to plagiarize essays, we can set the stage from the start by building a positive, supportive environment that seeks to educate rather than pontificate. Another quote from Katie’s article below underscores my message:

“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur. (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985)”

Let’s take plagiarism. I’ve often heard from colleagues both genuine concerns and negative comments/expectations of students in terms of plagiarism. This, in turn, leads to plagiarism being approached in an almost compelling manner within course materials: plagiarism is bad, and therefore if you plagiarize you are bad and so if you plagiarize, you will fail, etc.

Using the above example, one relatively simple way to embed a positive approach to learning and teaching is to change the negative, hellfire-and-damnation discourse on plagiarism often present within course materials to one that offers an open, frank discussion on attribution and giving credit. One such way I have done this is by getting students to look up and understand attribution through discussion, and then following this up by reading an in-depth report on a politician who plagiarized a paper for a Master’s degree. From what I have observed, these combined approaches give students a chance to explore the issue of plagiarism through a more empowering lens while exercising their academic literacies (digital and information among others).

From what I have observed, these combined approaches give students a chance to explore the issue of plagiarism through a more empowering lens while exercising their academic literacies (digital and information among others). It gets them thinking and talking amongst each other rather than being spoken [down] to in terms of the issues of plagiarism. Along with the teacher creating an empathic, positive atmosphere, this also makes students feel part of the discussion and (more) part of the academic community as they seek to understand expectations that may be new and/or alien to previous educational experiences.

Ultimately, the choice lies with the teacher in question to change their practices or not. There is always an element of risk to transforming teaching practices. However, without taking risks (even small ones) to innovate, one will simply never know how effective the changes to might be. Mulling ideas over is a good way to get started, but as with anything, mulling ideas over for an extremely long amount of time can kill ideas and innovation. Staff who have ideas should be allowed to experiment, and line managers should be proactive in supporting staff who are enthustic about learning and teaching.

If things don’t entirely work as planned or expected, well, at least learning has occurred on the part of both the learners and the teacher(s) in question. The light bulb and radio weren’t perfected within a day’s time, so why should a new teaching approach be perfected before trying it out?! Just do it!

Just do it!

Ideas on teaching: should we abandon adherence to lesson aims?

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Reflections on an article on Bakhtin & digital scholarship

I’ve recently read an article from the Journal of Applied Social Theory called ‘Bakhtin, digital scholarship and new publishing practices as carnival’ which discusses how digital scholarship causes disruption to traditional academic practices (Cooper & Condie, 2016). The authors theorize the issues by using Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts on language and dialogue ‘to understand how new forms of digital scholarship, particularly blogging and self-publishing’ are able to both foster and limit academic dialogues (ibid). One idea throughout the discussion is that of whether digital scholarship represents something ‘carnivalesque,’ or in other words, something that disrupts traditional, established practices in academia (Bakhtin, 1984b as cited by Cooper & Condie, 2016).

According to the Cooper & Condie (2016), one part of the dominant discourses in academia and research is that these can be viewed as ‘finalising’ which thus creates a definite, fixed understanding of subjects as opposed to them being viewed as ‘unfinalised’ and thus changing. Cooper & Condie (ibid) discuss this notion through Bakhtin’s view that a more ethical approach to social science is one where research dialogues attempt no finalization of participants in research or topics of inquiry (Frank, 2005 as cited by Cooper & Condie, 2016). Cooper & Condie (ibid) note the example from Bakhtin’s analysis of a character called Devushkin from the Dostoevsky novel Poor Folk:

Devushkin, who in recognising himself in another story, did not wish to be represented as something totally quantified, measured, and defined to the last detail: all of you is here, there is nothing more in you, and nothing more to be said about you (p. 58). Thus from a Bakhtinian perspective, researchers should not ‘Devushkinise’ their research participants, and the power to finalise people with social science discourses should be scrutinised (Frank, 2005).

In brief, Cooper & Condie (2016) appear to be advocating an ‘unfinalised’ approach in research that invokes a ‘carnivalesque’ element is one that seeks to be inclusive by welcoming voices from students, teachers and researchers alike rather than solely established researchers and traditional, established ‘norms’ within academia.

Traditions in EFL/EAP teaching: the teaching observation

What most interested me about the ideas and theories in the article was the potential applications to teaching within English as a foreign language and English for academic purposes. One tenant of EFL/EAP especially within the UK context is that one should be indoctrinated, as it were, by undertaking the Cambridge CELTA course initially and the Cambridge Delta course subsequently. Indeed, many English language schools and professional organizations, such as BALEAP and the British Council, often require teachers to have one of these qualifications while most UK universities where EFL/EAP is taught often demand the Cambridge Delta qualification which is an expensive and narrowly focused undertaking that does not always fit ‘well’ within the context of teaching academic writing for university.

Both the Cambridge CELTA and Delta qualifications place a high value on narrow aims for lessons, which must be adhered to in order to demonstrate learning. However, I believe that any experienced teacher would fully understand that a list of 3 aims for the lesson does not indicate learning and will not indicate that the students have learned everything by the end of the lesson. Learning is a continuous process that does not begin and end within the confines of the walls of the classroom. However, those seeking CELTA or Delta qualifications are forced to demonstrate that these fixed aims have been met within the space of 60 minutes, and thus, that learning has been achieved by the students as a result of the teacher’s success in addressing and thus ticking off each of the aims!

As part of one’s employment as a teacher of English as a foreign language and/or for academic purposes, mandatory observations are often required as part of the contractual obligations, whether employment is in a language school or a university. One set of criteria that observees must note down are the lesson aims. In the observation, the observer will look to these and attempt to identify whether the aims have been met within the context of the lesson plan, often within the space of a 60-90 minute observation.

However, this approach to observations, in my opinion, raises several questions which relate back to the theories in Cooper & Condie’s article:

  • Can the lesson aims, without a doubt, demonstrate whether learning has taken place after the lesson?
  • Do not a series of lesson aims suggest that learning is fixable, and thus able to be finalized?
  • Where do student interest and inquiry come into play as far as the lesson aims, and whether these are met or not?
  • Where the students and teachers spend more time on specific aims that lead to an aim not being met, should this reflect poorly on the teacher?

A potential solution

I think one potential solution is to revamp how observations are done: they should not be conducted according to how Cambridge CELTA and Delta observed lessons are conducted as these observations are quite narrow in focus and presume that a 60-90 minute ‘snapshot’ of the teacher is ‘enough’ to make a value judgement. These observations also tend not to focus on students at all, but solely on the teachers – as if learning and teaching were not a dialogic process! Learning and teaching is a dialogic process – without dialogue, the teacher would become a speaker who talks at the students as opposed to discussing with the students the issues being covered.

Therefore, observations should also look at learning on the part of the students rather than focusing solely on whether the teacher is delivering a lesson and meeting lesson aims according to a plan. A pre-planned lesson on paper might indicate that deviation from the plan should be avoided in order to fulfill the lesson aims and thus the plan. For some reason, lesson aims are traditionally seen as tenants – they must be achieved.

However, learning and teaching in the classroom does not often go according to plan for various reasons. One reason is that students might want to know more about a particular area, and thus might have questions, deep questions, about a particular topic. If we, as teachers, only quickly address their questions on the surface without going into depth in order to meet our aims, I feel we are doing our students a disservice. This also can make teachers appear a bit rushed or hesitant to address students’ concerns – within the eyes of the students – at their expense and for achieving the lesson aims, which might negatively affect the atmosphere in the classroom.

Another reason might be that the materials, at times published within a book or within a course pack, might work in theory within the lesson plan and thus within the mind of the teacher but in practice do not work according to plan. In this case, the teacher has to ‘teach on their feet’ especially they observe that the materials are presenting problems for the students.

Final (but unfinished) thoughts…

To sum up, if learning and teaching is a dialogic process, it is very likely an ‘unfinalised’ process that does not end once the class has ended. Students do not simply learn everything within the space of 60-120 minutes whether or not lesson aims have been met. Teachers should advocate for different forms of observation in order to reflect the complex reality and nature of learning.

Learning continues through dialogues outside the classroom, whether face-to-face or online through discussion forums or text messaging or most importantly, within the minds of the students. I would argue that learning has no natural endpoint, and thus, it simply cannot be encapsulated or evidenced within a lesson observation.

We can attempt to understand what learning has taken place in the classroom, but in order to do this, observation practices will need to start taking a closer look at the learners perhaps before, during and after a particular lesson. A more ‘carnivalesque’ approach is merited – one that is inclusive and looks at all participants in the learning and teaching process, and gets a sense of their voices on the processes. A snapshot observation of teachers is old hat, and in the world of the digital  – where information can be easily obtained and disseminated to foster and support learning and teaching – I believe such observations are outmoded. A new model for observations must include student learning and participation as they are also key stakeholders in the process of learning and teaching. To close, Bakhtin would not support traditionally accepted notions of teacher observation practices in 21st Century world of teaching English as a foreign language/English for academic purposes, and therefore, change is needed.

Bibliography

Cooper, A., & Condie, J. (2016). Bakhtin, digital scholarship and new publishing practices as carnival. Journal of Applied Social Theory, 1(1). Retrieved from http://socialtheoryapplied.com/journal/jast/article/view/31/7

Are we OK, you and I, after you voted to destroy my dreams? — Andrew Reid Wildman, artist, photographer, writer, teacher

Reflections on the EU referendum result

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I came across this moving post which was written as a result of the EU referendum that appears to be causing deep fissures across the UK to surface. Increasing numbers of reports are coming in of xenophobic and racial slurs being hurled against ordinary people going about their daily lives as a result of the slim majority of Britons voting to leave the EU. This is not what the UK stands for, but now that appears to be changing as rightwing extremists celebrate their knife-edge victory.

However, no matter how probable or possible, the referendum result is being contested by, as of this post, nearly 3.5 million people who have signed this petition to Parliament which went from around 300,000 signatures on Friday morning after the referendum to nearly 3.5 million as of 22:04 Sunday evening.

Personally, I am sincerely disappointed in the result as I view it as a severely backwards step away from cooperation and integration into one that is more isolationist and nostalgic in nature. I personally believe that certain “newspapers” such as The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Express and other related “media” have helped to caused this disastrous result.

The “journalists” who work for these papers should be ashamed of themselves… through their actions, by constantly feeding their readers “news” with highly inflammatory headlines and emotionally charged language that have caused people to fear immigration and immigrants, wherever they’re from (even the EU) and believe that the UK not only contributes £350 million weekly to the EU, but that this money, following a leave vote, would be put back into the NHS.

Perhaps what is disturbing is that readers of these papers took to the highly emotive headlines like puppies to antifreeze: sweet, but deadly. They lapped it all up and made decisions with their hearts rather than their heads.

And as a result, the future of those under 25 is suddenly thrown into disarray; they may well not get to benefit from freedom of movement, freedom to work and live in the EU wherever they please. Those under 18 may well not get to enjoy the enormous benefits that the Erasmus Programme creates: studying abroad in the EU, developing an intimate understanding of another culture, language and people – all of which break down barriers and help peoples to understand better one another… The list goes on, let alone Scotland now positioning itself to leave.

Who knows what will happen…

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Anyway, do have a read of the post below, it is moving…

I feel like someone has taken something dear to me, my identity, my connection to my continent, and they have killed it. If you voted Leave, I hope you are prepared to take responsibility for what you have done, and that you do not regret it. It is over to you now, to sort out. […]

via Are we OK, you and I, after you voted to destroy my dreams? — Andrew Reid Wildman, artist, photographer, writer, teacher