Friday, April 18, 2014

Are teachers obsolete? Yes, if we keep teaching (and testing) the way we do.

Sugata Mitra's research over the past decade or so, from his early 'hole in the wall' experiment, has given us pause for reflection.  He has demonstrated that students crave learning, and left largely to their own devices they can and do learn on their own. In fact, the desire to learn, the need to create, the quest to find answers to problems--all are qualities that define what it means to be human.

In his 'school in the cloud' approach, Mitra maintains that the Internet must be integrated into pedagogy, and he largely removes the teacher from the active process of learning.  The teacher is responsible to organize students into small groups, to appoint a monitor to make sure they are on task, to arrange for an 'Internet Granny' to provide motivation, and to make the students curious--to give them a 'big question' and then let them work in small groups to find creative answers using the Internet.  However, traditional schooling, as Sir Ken Robinson has demonstrated, usually kills not fosters creativity.  Indeed, many schools actively strive to ban the Internet from the classroom, not embrace it as Mitra recommends.

So why do we still cling to such a traditional and obsolete view of education?  Mitra argues that our current educational system is a by-product of the British Empire, and the need to 'educate' people in the colonies to serve the empire's huge bureaucracy.  People were viewed primarily as 'human computers', and in order to function as cogs in the bureaucratic machinery they needed certain skills.  They needed to be able read, write, do calculations, and follow orders without question.  So the system of education was designed for this purpose, and it was highly successful.  So successful, that even though the empire has long since faded, and the nature of the Internet has transformed how we communicate, work and even think, our system of education is still fundamentally unchanged in its ultimate aim.

Compare the photograph of the workplace in the heyday of the empire, from Mitra's plenary at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate.  What do you see here?

Here is a room full of individuals, working individually and performing menial tasks.  All of these hardworking workers went through an educational system designed to produce individuals who could perform such tasks, unquestioningly.  The method of assessment was the ultimate driving force for the way teachers taught -- people were tested individually, in standardized assessment, so they had to be taught to work on their own, and meet minimal standards of the necessary literacies - reading, writing and arithmetic.  Compare this to the picture Mitra used to show how students are currently tested in India at the end of school--what kind of skills are being tested (and therefore taught in schools) here?  

Here is a picture of the way we test students in learning English.  Do you see any of the influences that Mitra suggests are persistent from the roots of education in the colonial days of the British Empire?
In real life, do we speak English in isolation?  Do we fill in the gaps, and write grammar perfect responses to real life situations?  Do we even write on paper any more?  Do we listen to a person in audio only, and take notes?  Do we read on paper and find answers to multiple choice questions?  

Is the picture of office workers above the reality of the workplace today, or are modern working practice more akin to the essence of Mitra's 'hole in the wall' experiment -- working in collaboration, finding creative solutions to difficult to problems, pushing ourselves to keep learning throughout our lives?  Is our system of education preparing students for obsolescence, rather than current working practices. Which picture below matches the way we test (and therefore teach)?

Mitra has a simple solution to overhaul the education system.  In tests, allow the students to work in groups and use the Internet.  This would be a very simple administrative step to take, but in taking this bold move the entire system of education would be transformed.  Mitra argues that trying to integrate the Internet into pedagogy from the bottom up is a valiant effort many teachers attempt, but all such attempts are doomed to fail without the system of assessment changing to reflect what is happening in real life.   I can't help but agree with him on this fundamental principle. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

So, you think English is easy....

I got this from one of my golfing buddies, Tony Atkinson, who listens to my laments about the difficulties students have in learning English.  I have seen some similar diatribes about the English language, but I thought that this one deserves a blog post.

You think English is easy? Think again.  Read all the way to the end.................

1.      The bandage was wound around the wound.
2.      The farm was used to produce produce.
3.      The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4.      We must polish the Polish furniture...
5.      He could lead if he would get the lead out.
6.      The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert..
7.      Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to presentthe present..
8.      A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
9.      When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
10.  I did not object to the object.
11.  The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
12.  There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row..
13.  They were too close to the door to close it.
14.  The buck does funny things when the does are present.
15.  A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
16.  To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
17.  The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
18.  Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear..
19.  I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
20.  How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Let's face it - English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in  hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren't invented  in England or French fries in France . Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads,  which aren't sweet, are meat. We take English for granted. But if we explore its  paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a  guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth, beeth? One  goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices? Doesn't it seem  crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds  and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables,  what does a humanitarian eat? Sometimes I think all the English speakers should  be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people  recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship?  Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy  are opposites? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which  your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling  it out and in which, an alarm goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race,  which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out,  they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.
PS. - Why doesn't 'Buick' rhyme with 'quick'?

Teachers of the English language might enjoy pondering this.

There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that is 'UP.' It's easy to understand UP meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but…
·          When we awaken in the morning, why do we wake UP?
·         At a meeting, why does a topic come UP?
·         Why do we speak UP and why are the officers UP for election and why is it UP to the secretary to write UP a report?
·         We call UP our friends.
·          And we use it to brighten UP a room, polish UP the silver; we warm UP the leftovers and clean UP the kitchen.
·          We lock UP the house and some guys fix UP the old car.

At other times the little word has real special meaning.
·         People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and thinkUPexcuses.
·          To be dressed is one thing, but to be dressed UP is special..
·          A drain must be opened UP because it is stopped UP.
·          We open UP a store in the morning but we close it UP at night.
·          We seem to be pretty mixed UP about UP!
·         To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of UP, look the word UP in the dictionary.
·         In a desk-sized dictionary, it takes UP almost 1/4th of the page and can add UP to about thirty definitions.

If you are UP to it, you might try building UP  a list of the many ways UP is used.  It will take UP a lot of your time, but if you don't give UP, you may wind UP with a hundred or more.
·          When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding UP.
·          When the sun comes out we say it is clearing UP..
·          When it rains, it wets the earth and often messes things UP.
·          When it doesn't rain for awhile, things dry UP.
·         One could go on and on, but I'll wrap it UP, for now my time is UP, is time to shut UP!

Now it's UP to you what you do with this blog post.