Blended Learning: A pre-research reflection

I have been lucky enough to get a grant from those kind folks at the Education & Training Foundation to carry out a piece of research. The focus of my research is on student feelings about blended learning, their perceptions of its impact and on the issues they may have themselves in terms of their own digital literacy and in terms of access to the necessary technology.

The reason I chose this topic is likely to be clear to regular readers of my blog. I think that I would probably describe myself not as an e-learning enthusiast but rather an e-learning pragmatist. There is a value – my own experimentations and reflections are enough for me to feel comfortable saying this, but unlike the enthusiast I am unconvinced of its ability to work as a universal standard of best practice.

It’s like this. In my mind there are two basic tropes in education: the evangelists and refuseniks (who I rather amusingly saw referred to as “the crossed arms brigade” the other week).

The evangelists are the enthusiasts, the ones who are convinced of the amazing ability of technology to transform all learning for all learners all the time. While they may concede that the technology does need to be used well, for the evangelist the absence of technology in the classroom is A Bad Thing. We, they cry, are the innovators and the game changers. I say evangelists for a very specific reason: theirs is a stance of absolute, unquestioning and unshakeable faith, and this stance can be just as annoying as the uninvited religious doorstepper: it is simply not possible to say “yes, but…” to them, and any even slight acknowledgement of having a positive experience with ICT is seized upon with delight, just as a the doorstepper will seize upon any moment of doubt in your religious opinions.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the refusenik. This is the person who has been doing it that way for years and sees no reason to change. It was good enough for me at school in 1965, good enough for me when I started teaching in 1983, and it’s good enough for me now. (Those dates, by the way, are no indicator – I’ve met refuseniks who started teaching after I did, and evangelists who started their evangelising on a Spectrum 48k.) The refusenik is the traditionalist, the conservative. For them, if it ain’t broke… This stance is just as annoying, for almost the mirror image reason, as the evangelist: where the evangelist annoys because they are so stubbornly fixed upon technology as panacea, the refusenik simply won’t acknowledge any value to technology. They are both stubbornly fixed in a single viewpoint.

These are, of course, deliberately provocative extremes, but  in the black-and-white discourse of blended learning and CPD, these are sometimes the only two possible roles you can be cast in (although you are allowed to aspire to be an evangelist – “I’m all right at using technology X, but I’m not like Fred, he’s so good with technology”).

There are two issues here: one is the polarising of these approaches to technology and the other is the equation of innovation with technology use.

Actually there are three, but the third one is the biggie, so we’ll come to that later.

The reality of teaching is that we are all on a continuum somewhere between the evangelists and the crossed arms brigade. I would probably place myself at about two-thirds, perhaps three quarters of the way to an evangelist.

Innovation, of course, can and should go beyond the application of technology. Unfortunately, however, using technology has long been synonymous with “cool” and it is this sexiness which makes it very appealing. It’s big hits, instant wins, observable changes – bang – the students are using ipads! They are bringing their own devices! Pow! They are using the VLE! Kerpow! Enthusiastically embracing technology is sometimes seen as the only kind of innovation, suggesting that now the development of learning and teaching expertise relies purely on the application of technology to that process, and really it isn’t. There are other advances, other developments. Technology is just one form of innovation.

The third issue, the really big one, however, is nothing to do with teachers. It’s to do with learners. I have to stop really and ask a question. Has anyone ever asked students what they think? FELTAG certainly didn’t appear to credit many actual students in their report, apart from a brief nod to the NUS. Certainly learner voice was notable by its absence in the report (although lots of good things were said about learning and about teachers). Nobody seems to have gone out and found out what students are capable of, what skills they have, how much support they need in using this technology, and, crucially, whether they think it will help them learn. It reminds me of when I was on a debate panel on whether technology made for a better lesson – there were two students next to me, one of whom was arguing against. I felt deeply sorry for him because he was unimpressed by all this technology use, and yet the general air in the room (full of educators, teachers and so on) was pretty close to “stupid boy, you don’t know what’s good for you.” (Considering I was arguing the same point, for a short time things felt a little hostile.)

But before the refuseniks come rushing in with joy, this doesn’t mean that students don’t want technology in their learning. I suspect they don’t want you friending them on Facebook, but they may well want it. They may want more online and less face to face, or they may want things the other way round. The issue is not around whether they do or don’t, but rather that in the general discourse around technology and blended learning, assumptions have been made about learners but nobody seems to have asked them. And that, ultimately, is what I want to find out. What do they know? What can they do? What, as blended learners, do they expect?

Just teaching: why I love Wednesdays

I love Wednesdays. I arrive at work at about 12pm, having categorically not worked the morning due to being Daddy and doing the school run, an arrangement my employer has been lovely enough to allow for the last five years. Then I start teaching at 12.45. I have two two hour ICT classes for ESOL 16-18s, then an hour before I teach a lovely Level 1 ESOL evening class from 6 til 8.30. Train times being what they are, I generally end up then having half an hour or so to kill, where I catch up on odd bits of admin, before catching a 9.30 train and getting home at about 10.15. 

It is my favourite day. The 16-18s are challenging but interesting, with no major behaviour issues as far as I can tell, and I finally have head space to explore ICT teaching, and try to do a halfway decent job of it. The level 1 class are massively diverse, with a whole range of needs and challenges. And the best thing? I am teaching, just teaching, all blessed day long. Emails go ignored, urgent requests for this, that and the other can go hang, I can, by and large, legitimately ignore admin for the whole day. I don’t have to worry about action plans, pro formas, meetings, policies, standards, mission statements, KPIs, any of it. I can just go into classes and enjoy. The only  VLE courses I need to care about are my own, the only reflections of any relevance are on my own teaching, and the only good practice that concerns me is mine.

I am tired by the end, and my last hour of teaching sometimes has a slight caffeine-fuelled manic edge to it, but that’s no bad thing for an ESOL class of an evening. But basically because I just get to do my favourite work thing all day, I love Wednesdays.

CELTA

This feels sort of like part three of a trilogy on planning and standards. It is also my first explicit post on the subject of a course that I have been teaching for five whole years.

I didn’t do CELTA. I did the Trinity Cert TESOL, essentially the same course, albeit on a slightly different model. However, the lessons I lesrned from that are still with me. My model of a reading or listening lesson is essentially what I learned on that course, and I still remember (with much embarrassment) arguing with one tutor about the presenve or otherwise of the /r/ on the end of words like car, and bear. I was, of course, completely wrong and I can now imagine, with sympathy, what an irritating person I was that night. I owe CELTA,  or at least its cousin course, my career.

It is a far from perfect course. No course is perfect. It is quite violently prescriptive in its definitions of how to teach, and of lesson structures. This is understandable, given the nature of the course. My favourite analogy for CELTA is that it is like passing your driving test: in reality, it doesn’t so much prepare you for teaching as prepare you to start learning to be a teacher. It is reductive by necessity: here are some basic lesson structures and techniques it says, and a brief introduction to language analysis, now go forth and teach and you may learn to be a great teacher. Let’s face it, many trainees will gain more practical teaching experience  in the first few weeks of a new job, maybe even the first few days, than they do on CELTA. And some of the syllabus is still a bit hokey, in the grand teaching tradition of not getting rid of something, just in case. Just like the cassettes in my office drawer, you can find learning styles still buried in the CELTA syllabus.

But it has some great things in it. The huge huge amount of peer observation involved, for example: the second largest proportion of the course after the input sessions. It is also wonderfully specific: I have seen generically trained teachers struggle like hell to let go of their preconceived ideas of teaching (yes, that complex explanation and use of socratic questioning techniques might have been great for your PGCE, but it’s as much use a chocolate teapot with beginner language learners) and I have seen people who haven’t been in a classroom for ten years become brilliant, insightful teachers because they have so few preconceptions on which to base their ideas. (For the sake of balance, I should add that the opposite is true as well, in both cases.) Teaching English is a wonderfully challenging task when the language of instruction is the same as the language being taught, and CELTA does a good job of preparing you for that.

I love CELTA, I do. It is always good to watch someone move from that first teaching practice of terror to their final teaching practice where they have devised their materials themselves and executed them beautifully. It is satisfying in its absolutes, and a pleasure to teach. I only hope I can make it as much of a pleasure to learn.

On-plan, off-plan?

So yes, planning. I blogged last week about planning lessons and so I thought here’s time for another one. It stems from a conversation I had with a teacher earlier this week about two bits of feedback they had got. The first was that in an observation she had gone off plan and the observer felt she should have stuck with the plan. In the second, the observer felt that the lesson would have gone better if it had gone off plan.

There are two points here.

The first is this: lesson observation in a professional context is a stressful one, even when it is developmental as part of a probationary process. That stress can, and does, make teachers behave differently. One gambles on a hunch quite a lot when teaching a lesson (or we can call it reflection-in-action if you want to hang a naff quasi-psychological term on it). Something appears to be going wrong with the planned activities, so you make a change to the lesson. Fair enough. But during an observed lesson, at least one which is linked to performance management systems, the pressure changes. Do you play your hunch or do you stick to the plan? It takes a lot of guts to gamble in this context, even though the gamble might be the right thing to do. I couldn’t tell you know exactly how I would react, although I think I am confident enough now to play my hunches.

The second point is around the feedback. The two bits of feedback here are based on two different lessons and as such are entirely different reflections on entirely different lessons. The trouble with observation feedback sometimes is that it is hard for the observee to separate out feedback on that lesson from suggestions about what one should always do. (By the same measure it is also hard for an observer to separate out what is “normal” in your classroom and what is “just happening on that day” but I can tell you now that if you try something for the first time during an observed lesson then it will show up like a flashing light.) When getting feedback you need to clarify whether something is a general point of practice, or whether it’s just that day. When I give feedback like this, I make a point of saying “in this lesson…” versus “in general…” because that helps teachers reflect and develop more.

Recommendations based on a single lesson observation need to be developed and worked to see if they are general principles that the teacher can apply or specific suggestions applicable to that lesson alone. Some of that is the responsibility of the observer to say which it is (although I would challenge any observer to lay out that any practice is a universally applicable practice), but mostly it is the responsibility of the teacher to take on the feedback and try the changes, even the ones they are unconvinced by, and decide their own system of practice. Learning about teaching should be a process of examination, exploration and experimentation: observation can help that in so many useful ways that to rely on unexplored absolutes applies false expectations to that process.

According to plan

I taught a lesson this week. I planned it, delivered it and it went according to plan. The stages of the lesson linked in a well oiled machine kind of way, and there were only two or three very minor digressions.

The lesson:
Warmer: vocabulary from the text – students work collaboratively to explain and discuss the language, first in groups of four, then peer supporting across the class.

Then a quick review of the learning outcomes: too quick, I think, and the thing I would change in the lesson.

Lead In: a photo from the news article.
Groups discussed briefly what the article was about (a truck getting stuck under a bridge: funnier than it sounds). Then they read the article and checked their ideas.

The text was a standard news story, but I had, in line with the aims of the lesson, removed all the articles and zero articles from the text.

Students then had a go at adding the articles, with minimal input from me and a little peer support.

We then reviewed the rules: I used a PowerPoint presentation with an example sentence from the text and the question “why do we use … In this sentence?” The students discussed in groups briefly and I selected the group with the best or clearest explanation to do so, supported by me as necessary.

Then I got the group to review the text again, before later going back to review their own writing from a previous lesson.

We played a version of Kim’s Game (what is there? “A stapler” what is missing? “The stapler”) and we closed with a final bit of general speaking where students had to “sell” otherwise ordinary objects in the classroom (empty stapler, dried up felt tip, broken elastic band, paper clip) to the rest of the class.

I planned stuff and almost everything went precisely to plan. There were some fun, high energy moments and discussions, lots of things. Students learned stuff, and we shared strategies to improve articles (basically: check your writing every time.) But if I were to evaluate it, I would say it was all right. Not bad. A bit average. It worked, but the whole thing felt very staged, and really a little bit lacking somehow.

I have the word “sparkle” lurking at the back of my mind now, but aside from being a bloody juvenile term, it’s also deeply unhelpful. What, if you don’t mind my asking, do we mean by “sparkle”? To say that someone lacks it is a pathetic cop out for someone who can’t think of a proper piece of feedback but can neither bring themselves to grant a grade 1 to the lesson. And anyway, it wasn’t that. In fact, while washing up this evening I worked it out.

It’s the difference between this:

and this:

I feel I should apologise for the choice of song, in a sort of “guilty pleasure” way, (although a very wise person once suggested that one should never feel bad about enjoying something), but it makes a point (and come on, the live bit is pretty damn awesome – Budapest, 1986, in case you were wondering).

The point is this: the studio recording is good – it is precise and has all the elements that make the song, just like my lesson. But the live version, with the risks of things going wrong (in the video, there’s a moment where it seems like Freddie has ended up on the wrong side of the stage when he was supposed to start singing), moments of inspiration and crucially, direct engagement with the “audience” is the winner every time. The live song has all the same elements as the recorded song but rendered and managed differently.  The lesson lacked that “live” ness – it was too precisely planned, there were no gaps or moments where learners could insert themselves very much. Partly, I think, the topic was a frustrating one – one of the learners mentioned it in class, and I talked about it in my last post – articles are a very “meta” piece of language – they are largely useless in day to day conversation (if you don’t believe me ask a Russian or a Pole), are unlikely to get corrected or cause a lack of understanding, and as such tend to fall by the wayside. For me, and for the learners, there was engagement with the topic, as with the audience of the studio recorded video, who enjoy the song, but don’t properly connect to it, perhaps. I think, for me, an important element of a good lesson is not the bit where the teacher is showboating, although that can make for some good bits, and by golly I can showboat when it suits me, but rather we are looking for those bits of the lesson where the learners are singing along to the showboating, and the teacher is the ringmaster.

There is also, and this is very personal, the sense that I like a little bit of an edge to a lesson. In this lesson, the precision was scary, especially in the first hour – it was automatic, in the sense that I barely had to engage my brain in order for the lesson to run and the learning to happen. I like there to be a bit of looseness to the planning, where things could go a bit wrong – because that makes me focus on the lesson much more carefully. I’m not reading from a script of pre-planned activities, but rather I am watching and listening to the lesson, looking for a crack into which we can insert a crowbar of learning to open the lesson up wide. I get a lot of (good natured) schtick for being anti-materials, anti-planning, but if I did every lesson by the book, safe, predictable stages, and with safe, predictable resources, very quickly I would get bored and if I am getting bored then that is going to come across to the learners, who are themselves also going to get bored.

Coming Out About Learning Outcomes

Let’s start, if we may, with the rather tender concept of “meta”. Frank Coffield talks about students “going meta” in “All you ever wanted to know about learning and teaching but were too cool to ask…” In his case it was the idea that we become better learners if we know what it is we are learning about and what we will gain from it: sitting ourselves outside of our own learning and looking in at the learning and what there is to be learned. This is the basic philosophy behind target setting, and behind the idea of the learning outcome, and would, at first glance, seem pretty sensible.

Then there is the issue of meta-language: “the language used … to talk about and describe language”, as it is excellently summarised by the British Council. Terms like verb, noun, present perfect, indefinite article that sort of thing. These are the bones, the framework of language description upon which we hang classroom practice, but, and we shall explore this later in a little more detail, but for now I’d like you to reconsider the distinction between being able to use the language and knowing the rules of the language. (And if you don’t think there is a difference, then maybe you and I need to sit down for a long chat).

One area where these two concepts meet up is in the development of learning outcomes. These are the focus of your lesson, the things you expect learners to be able to do: the visible products of learning. They are usually written in some form of meta language (learners will be able to use past simple irregular verbs) and they channel the spirit of going meta but in a teacher managed way: the teacher has the opportunity to manage the whole process of learners reflcting on thier learning and identifying what they need to do to improve. When learners can tell you what they have learned, demonstrate it and reflect on it, this also provides a quick win for assessment for learning, indeed, in some minds, this very teacher-led assessment for learning is the only assessment for learning because it provides visible, measurable evidence of learning: “Have the learners achieved the learning outcomes?” becomes the question, not “Have the learners learned something as a result of being in the lesson?”. All you do is share the outcomes with the learners at the beginning, and get them to self assess against these outcomes, and then reassess at various crucial points of the lesson.

It’s not a bad idea, at least not when you are teaching skills based lessons where the outcome is an improvement in, say, reading or listening. It can be problematic, of course: a SMART learning outcome like “be able to read a text and identify 4 facts from it” is only going to be practice in that skill: it doesn’t allow for the fact that the skill may not be repeatable to order with any given text. It’s partly transferable but not entirely. You also can’t just write “read a text on fly fishing and be able to identify four facts about fly fishing” because although it is, technically an outcome (it is the specific skill that the learners will have demonstrated an ability to do), it is also pretty useless – its far better to be (and this is where SMART bites you on the backside) a touch more general, and say what transferable skills the learners will have developed.

That said, getting learners to think about how to apply the skills and sub skills of language can have value: a little (graded) instruction on how to read can be very useful. It’s not a bad idea, for example, to couch reading in terms of gist and detail, skimming and scanning, as long as the learners have a good idea of what these things mean. I would personally never bother, myself, except for scanning and skimming: certainly I never ask students to “read for gist” because even when you understand the concept it’s still pretty vague – a much better task would be “read it and tell me a good title” or “read it and decide if the writer likes fly fishing”, that sort of thing. (Although the learning outcome would still be “read and identify the gist of the text”).

Grammar and vocabulary based lessons should, in theory, be easier: you start with the language point (e.g. Present Perfect”) then simply choose the form of evidence of learning (ask and answer questions in a “find someone who…” task) and work back from there: “use present perfect to ask and answer five questions” is a workable outcome, and easily “differentiable”.

There are problems, however. For one, as I’ve seen on more than one occasion, explicitly sharing the grammar to be taught can create antipathy, even resentment, amongst the students (“I know present perfect. I study it before.”) or it can totally destroy any sense of discovery, of working out what the grammar is. Sometimes, too much “going meta”, especially at the beginning, can actually spoil the learning that happens. This is especially true of problem areas like present simple third person singular, or indefinite and definite articles, which have fairly neat, memorable structural rules, but which are very hard for some learners to ever use naturally and easily (I have known some very high level Polish users of English who slipped on articles from time to time). In these examples, as in many examples, the lesson structure benefits from the learners working out the rules inductively first before applying them and then finally (as an optional extra) putting a meta-language label on it all.

Sometimes too much explicit knowledge of a given language point can be a bad thing. It can disrupt the classroom processes, interfere with students ability to engage with the learning, because they may dismiss it (“Teacher, I know present perfect”) or they may be confused by it. Yes, it creates a situation where the learners can hang their learning on a framework, and expand their learning with wider reading and engagement, but this shouldn’t be the starting point of the learning.

The final issue with presenting the language to be learned first like this is that the learners develop an impression of language learning that takes place in a false universe. There is being able to use the language, and then there is being able to tell people the rules: these are different things. I can tell you how to saw a straight line, prune an apple tree to encourage fruiting, or fix the brakes on a bike. But I can’t do any of those things, at least not terribly well. My knowledge of those things is far greater than my knowledge how, and no end of reading, study and so on is going to help me improve, because I need to practice using those skills.

It’s not deep learning to be able to tell the teacher the rules, and I would be highly critical of an observer of the lesson who mistakenly identified this as learning. There isn’t a clear theory/practice distinction at play here. Meta-language, or rather meta-knowledge, perhaps, is learning of a sort, but in an ESOL context, and maybe any context, deep learning occurs at those lightbulb moments, where a task has been structured carefully and managed by the teacher that the learners work out the rule and then apply it correctly – “Oh, I see!”. They may take a bit of time and recap to get to the point where they can apply it unconsciously, and it is unlikely to happen in the first lesson in which they are exposed to the language, but the first step has been made.

The challenge here, however, is that to some minds, sharing learning outcomes is Best Practice – a thing which must be done at all times to all learners. But as I’ve explained above, sometimes this isn’t appropriate – because the meta-knowledge required can get in the way of the lesson structure, and even when you make the learning outcomes learner friendly, and remove the meta-language, learners can still spend the whole time trying to second guess the learning: “teacher, I know this!” is a cry that fills me with dread, and to which I always reply “then show me by getting this task right” at which point they fail to do so and you start again. Sometimes a lesson isn’t about the product, but the process – and by their very nature, learning outcomes detract from this. There should still be opportunity for reflection and discussion of what learning happens in a lesson, mind you, it’s just that it shouldn’t be seen as requirement at the beginning of the lesson: why not develop the learning outcomes as the lesson progresses, rather than rely on their conscious application at the beginning?

Awkward Silences, Embarrassing Moments

I have some really interesting, tender and sad stories in one of my classes at the moment. I can’t share them, obviously, but it does make for some uncomfortable moments, even when talking about something which for many people might be seen as pretty average – talking about family, in this case, proved to be something of a touchy subject.

Now, I’m all up for a touchy subject, when it is something big and juicy and fairly abstract – politics, religion, drugs, sexuality, all those things are fair game to my mind. But big and abstract is one thing, but when it is personal and individual, that changes everything, and it occurred to me that in all my teaching career I have never, not once, taught learners how to avoid communication.

We’ve all been there – those awkward moments when you’ve asked the wrong question to the wrong person and at best there is silence and discomfort, and at worst anger and tears. They happen a lot, sadly.

The aim of the lesson was to ask and answer questions using wh- words (in an Entry 1 / Entry 2 group – so focussing on present simple forms), and I wrote answers to personal questions about my life on post-it notes. For each one I then elicited the relevant question from the students, before then handing each pair another post-it with a different answer on for which they had to write questions. They then passed these to the next pair who error corrected or added their own idea for a question, and passed it round and round and round until it got back to the original pair. A brief class discussion followed, and a little feedback and clarification on some common issues in the questions that had been written.

So far so good. I tend to plunder my personal life quite mercilessly for stories and resources. I think it makes learners’ feel welcome in the class, and opens up an environment where learners feel comfortable sharing their stories in class.

Except that bit is where it got tricky. I got the students to stand up and start to ask some of the questions to each other in a mingle task, and as I was monitoring I noticed a number of awkward and uncomfortable silences in the learners’ interactions. Communication was breaking down not because the learners were linguistically unable to participate, but because they were emotionally unwilling to participate. What were, for me, fairly innocuous questions became questions on matters of deep personal pain and discomfort.

Time to stop.

So we stopped. I elicited some awkward conversations and discussions, and we talked briefly about “safe” topics like the weather. Then I wrote the following on the board.

“I’m sorry, I don’t really want to talk about that.”

I avoided the more natural “I’d rather not talk about that because of the level of the learners. I drilled it, checked the meaning, and then set the learners back on the main task again.

What was really interesting is that once the learners had been exposed to this, treated very much as a lexical chunk, rather than a grammatical structure, two things happened. They started to use it, which was great, but they also then started to move the conversations onto a more comfortable and safer subject. Instead of conversations drying up as they had been, the conversations expanded and the learners started to become more creative with the questions they were asking.

***

It is funny that these little diversionary tactics rarely surface in a language class. Perhaps it’s because we are sensitive to our students’ personal situations, and because of the communicative nature of language teaching, we want to make communication happen in as safe and as comfortable a situation as we can. Either way, being able to divert or close down discussion has the potential to open up a whole world of possibilities for class discussion, because I know the learners now have the means to close it down. It’s only a little phrase, but it might save a learner from some awkward and embarrassing moments in the outside world, and that is no bad thing at all.