What I did on my holidays.

I have, for the first time in ages, been on holiday to Abroad. The lucky place was France, and in particular to the fine city of Paris, enabled through free movement within the EU, and an astonishingly swift train journey that took us from Leeds to Paris in mere hours. Naturally, of course, being the parent of two under-10s, a trip to Paris naturally meant a payoff of 6 days city, 1 day of Disneyland. It also meant a severe dusting down of the secondary school French, for which the word “rusty” doesn’t even come close: it wasn’t entirely moribund, but certainly took a lot of effort to revive. Very rarely is anyone truly monolingual, instead we have degrees of multilingualism: but my own language is distinctly towards the monolingual end of the spectrum. This rustiness and the general novelty of overseas travel (expense, hassle, and just not being all that bothered, if I’m brutally honest), meant that being in Paris was an instructive and illuminating experience,  particularly when filtered through my ESOL teacher brain. 

For one I was gratified to learn that lots of fragments kept coming back. This is not least in part down to the massive amounts of crossover between English and French. Vocabulary is an obvious candidate here: English and French have a large number of shared words, thanks mainly to the Normans and the Church, not to mention the global impact of English as an international language. There is also a lot of shared grammar: sentence level word order is broadly similar, and as a tourist your grammar doesn’t generally extend beyond simple present tenses and a lot of very functional structures: Je suis…. Nous avons… Avez vous…? Je voudrais… Ou est…? and so on. 

For me, most of these structures are now lexical chunks, rather than built out of systemic grammatical knowledge. I can just about parse some bits of present tense verbs etre and avoir but it’s a mental challenge, and mainly based on translation of similar lexical items rather than the application of a rule. Put simply, I remember that He is translates as Il est, rather that remembering the rule that the third person singular pronoun is il, and that the third person singular form of etre is est. My current productive knowledge of French is essentially just knowing which set of words to apply when, combined with a bit of first language transfer. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, and perhaps this is what it’s like to be a beginner: you simply don’t have the grammatical and lexical resources to draw upon in order to start making extensive grammatical connections, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do this at all. Certainly this technique enabled me to negotiate whether it was possible to extend a three zone metro Paris Visite pass into a five zone metro pass, roughly “J’ai un Paris Visite carte pour les zones une à trois, mais c’est possible acheter une carte pour zones quatre et cinq?” Not brilliant, and both carte and zone sound distinctly dodgy, but it was a fair stab at a compound sentence with an infinitive of purpose, and crucially, it worked. 

The was one rather massive problem. Having managed to express a fairly complex concept, and create, on the fly, a pretty decent chunk of second language, this then generated a reply. Who’d have thought that asking a question might result in a reply! Crazy stuff, no? The gentleman behind the counter forgave my dubious grammar and pronunciation, and proceeded to explain in a fair amount of detail not only that it was not possible to extended or to buy a two zone pass, and instead if I wanted to go to Disneyland I should use the pass to Vincennes or Nation stations, then leave the train and buy a ticket for the remainder of the journey. (I include this detail should you find yourself in a similar situation). Luckily for me, he picked up in my helplessly blank expression, and using far better English than my French, managed to negotiate meaning. 

So another thing I learned , then, is that listening is bloody difficult. Really really hard. Even in less challenging contexts where the language was slowly spoken and mostly within my very limited range, all it took was a couple of unknown words and I was thrown. And sure, there are skill elements to listening, but actually any misunderstanding on my part was down not to a lack of listening skill, but to a lack of grammar and vocabulary. Take, for example, travelling on the metro. French metro announcements are efficient and unburdened with superfluous information like being instructed to read safety notices, have a pleasant onward journey, or buy something overpriced and unpleasant. Rather there is a simple list of stations, and only the occasional section of information about, for example, the fact that the RER line A between La Defense and Nation is closed. (Again, handy travel info in case you are headed to Paris in the next couple of weeks.) I used some top down listening skills to work this out: predicting what vocabulary and grammar I should be hearing from the context I was in, and with the support of the written station names on the metro map, I was able to follow, if you like, the detail of the discourse, then to reapply this when travelling on an unfamiliar line. So far, so textbook. 

However, in more complex interactions, it was far far harder to keep up with what was being said and to apply any of this top down knowledge. After my masterpiece of functional French at the metro station, I was flummoxed by the reply, perhaps inevitably. However, even in a simple shop context I couldn’t always follow the numbers when told what the price was, relying instead on two pre-listening strategies: 1) read the till, and 2) try to add up the amount you are spending before you get to the till. Then there were things like being asked whether I wanted a bag not to mention various interactional elements that confident speakers put into functional conversations, d’accordbon, smiles, other incomprehensible bits. Mostly, however, the problem was that I simply didn’t have the bottom knowledge which you need in order to effectively process anything. Ye gods, I thought, is is what my beginners have to do every single day. 

Unlike many of the beginners I teach, however, I have a fair degree of literacy, and used this extensively to decode and support my understanding and application of spoken language. I am probably slightly stronger at reading French than I am at speaking, and certainly more confident at it, and could use simple written integrations to sidestep more complex spoken ones: maps, signs, and ticket machines, for example, until I worked out that these latter could be used in English. These strategies also reminded me of the the importance of affective factors when it comes to language use. I felt much more comfortable reading and interacting in a written format than I did in a face to face spoken setting simply because speaking to someone in a second language is terrifying. I’m generally quite shy, as well as acutely aware of the importance of at least having a go at using the language out of respect. My strategy, then, is to avoid situations wherever possible. An absence of personal confidence can be challenging at the best of times, but with the potential to be positively crippling in high stakes interactions involving your son’s very pressing need to use the toilet. 

What this all really bright home to me was the realisation that a second language is not a simply a dualistic process of reception and production, as it is often presented on training courses, and certainly how the skills are traditionally broken down for exams and so on. Rather it is a process of negotiation. When you enter into an interaction in a language you don’t fully understand or have full control of, both you and your interlocutor have various resources to draw on: your knowledge of their language, their knowledge of your language, shared knowledge of the world and how it works. A regular morning international relied firmly on contextual understanding that at least one person (me, the customer) wanted to get something from the conversation (4 croissants) and that the other person (the boulanger) was in a position to facilitate that in some way, but would also benefit from said interaction being successful (he got paid).You negotiate meaning through whichever resources you have at hand, whether they are “proper” target language resources, or “cheating” by using other methods. In this sense, a language classroom is an essentially false setting: we discourage first language use, and insist that learners use only the target language, when in reality this is not always how people function in a second language interaction. Even in a classroom setting, “real” language, that is language which occurs in the classroom because of the classroom context (instructions, explanations, clarifications, passing on of administrative information and so on)  is often similarly negotiated using various resources: first language between peers and sometimes teacher, a reduced form of the target language, and various metalinguistic strategies such as sign language, facial expressions, tone of voice and so on. The target language is borne out of the essential falseness where the outside experiences and needs of the learners dictate language which cannot occur naturally in the classroom. So this falseness isn’t necessarily a bad thing: after all, a classroom is in many ways about creating a pretend language environment, but the reality should at least be acknowledged, rather than denied.


A slightly darker, sadder, postscript to this was that I very quickly also learned to understand the meaning of Votre sac, Monsieur? as we entered just about every shopping centre, museum, or major attraction. Due to terrorist events in France over the last year, security was on a particular high: armed police and soldiers were very visible and present, the base of the Eiffel Tower protected by a security fence and bag search upon entry (this is before the queues to actually pay to go up the tower), and one or two places, including the Louvre, had a full airport scanner for bags. By way of defiance to any kind of victory felt by terrorist organisations at this, this mild inconvenience in no way lessened our enjoyment of Paris. No, any sense of danger or fear was almost entirely due to the frankly terrifying Parisian motorists. 

New Literacy Standards, Old ESOL Problem.

What a difference 15 years makes. Prior to 2001 ESOL curriculum design was a bit of a straggly, weirdly funded, mess. Then along came Skills for Life, and as well as lots of money, came a rather enormous Core Curriculum. It’s an interesting thing to look at, charmingly dated (“Now, we are going to listen to a tape of Amir paying for a CD-ROM with a cheque.”) but otherwise it sort of almost works.

It was never brilliant. It was too tied to the Literacy Curriculum, for one, and was a bit of a botched attempt at shoehorning language learning descriptors onto a literacy framework, i.e. one designed for first language users learning and developing, mostly, reading and writing skills. It was a decision presumably made from a policy / funding perspective, rather than an educational one, and suffered as a result. Rather than using an already well defined standard, such as the CEFR, the policy decision was made to start this from scratch so that it could be more easily aligned with the funding for the other bits of Skills for Life.

All of this, however, is by the by, as the Education and Training Foundation have recently been running a consultation on a draft set of standards for literacy and numeracy. All of which looks familiar – numeracy, of course, is there, as is literacy, and, oh no, wait, English for speakers of other languages is notable by its continued absence in this. I’ve done my bit, and consulted via the survey on the web page, and I’d encourage you to do likewise, whether you teach ESOL or otherwise. It’s interesting to read the draft – as with the old adult literacy curriculum and the functional skills standards, we are not concerned with lexical development, grammatical complexity at word level, tenses, and the rest, but rather with the development of sentence complexity (clause structure, discourse markers, that sort of thing) and an understanding of text types, register and formality. Not that this sort of thing isn’t useful, nor that it isn’t necessary, just that there is a marked difference between the learning needs of a native speaker and a second language speaker. There are other things an ESOL learner has to learn which are specific to ESOL and these are simply not adequately covered in this sort of “one size fits both” document.

But if I was in charge, what would a “good” ESOL curriculum look like? That’s a huge question and by answering it I’ll no doubt raise even more questions, not to mention a whole heap of disagreements from everyone.

For one, it probably wouldn’t look much different, at least not superficially. Perhaps because I’ve worked with the current curriculum for so long, I’ve got used to it. As a means of level description for ESOL, however, I think I’d like to promote grammatical structure and lexical development to the forefront. This isn’t to say that I think these should be the primary consideration when designing a course plan, mind you, but for me at least, the assessment of a language course should be significantly based around the ability to handle the structural elements of language: grammar, lexis and phonology.

With these structural elements in place I would then want to look at the building up the skills elements. Being able to read for gist is all very well as a skill, but how do we select a text that an Entry 2 learner might be able to read for gist, if not by linguistic complexity? By the same token, we wouldn’t mark an Entry 3 learner down for inaccurately trying to use a third conditional in a piece of writing, but would be critical of a Level 2 learner failing to form a structurally accurate past simple question. However, both the old curriculum and the new are driven by these skills elements, with language relegated to a subheading, if at all, and this imbalance, to my mind, is what needs redressing.

Usually this rebalancing act is done by tutors when they design their course, or by exam boards looking for concrete distinctions between adjacent levels. These latter often place the responsibility for language item selection on the assessor by using conceptually fluid statements such as “language expected at Level 2“. I would expect, for example, a Level 2 learner to be able to use a second conditional with confidence, for example, but only if the context required it: I’d also expect them to know when not to use it. Present simple would qualify as “language expected at Level 2” if this were the most appropriate language for the job at hand. Either way, the only place we have is the list appended to the back of each section of the core curriculum document, and it is to this, I suspect, that the majority of teachers refer when designing their course content, if they refer to anything at all.

The impact of the skills-driven core curriculum is seen in other ways. Now, this is not another excuse to take a pop at the Skills for Life materials, although it is tempting, but certainly the general tenor of the ESOL core curriculum (and indeed the literacy and numeracy curricula) was one of deficit and disadvantage – the focus was, and is, on what the learner cannot do, rather than looking at what they are capable of and how best to expand upon that base. (Remember that this is a system which encourages us to start by “diagnosing” language needs, like not speaking English is an illness to be cured). There is that tendency in resource design by publishers, governments and teachers (I’m as guilty, to be honest) to cast learners in deficit roles, as passive consumers, as employees and patients, not professionals, not people with power. This is because we look at those contexts where learners are, rather than where they might be, or could aspire to be, and because we look at the skills they need now rather than the language that may enable them to move beyond that point.

OK, so that was a bit of a loose association, tenuous at best, but there is definitely something in that whole functional language / skills-driven curriculum which promotes the drive towards “practical” language, and this too easily situates learners into a deficit narrative.

I don’t think the new literacy standards are about to redress any of this, mind you. They are clearly, blatantly, written without ESOL learners in mind. And perhaps that is OK, because perhaps there will be a new ESOL curriculum developing soon. That’s a big perhaps, I know, but it might happen.



The comment I had from  the Education & Training Foundation seems to suggest that there might be something in the pipeline for ESOL, although I hope it’s more than “maths literacy” (not that that isn’t needed, mind). I’m also a little concerned by the vagueness of “support” for ESOL, rather than a promise to develop something specific. It’s a shame, really, because if we are talking about developing new curricula, then this is an ideal time to make a proper ESOL curriculum. Sure, ESOL is distinctly politically unpopular, now more than ever, but it’s still needed, and if there is a need for ESOL, then there is a need for a real ESOL curriculum.

The “Just Been to a Conference” Post

You know, this academic year I have attended a whole bunch of training. Some of it external, but much of it internal. Now, I have to admit that I don’t often get to engage with internal training events as a participant so I feel like I miss out sometimes. I’m a bit of a subject specific snob sometimes too – as soon as someone starts to share or discuss a technique which is highly linguistically demanding for learners then I’m afraid you have more or less lost me. I try, and I want to try, but you know, if I can’t see how I can apply the idea as is to my practice as soon as possible, then I’m really going to struggle to engage. Someone once observed that I was “too much of a specialist” but you know, I rather like being an ESOL specialist. It’s never going to score me much by way of a career, perhaps, both in and out of college, but I don’t think I really care. Becoming too generalised in mindset feels to me like selling out, in some weird, undefinable way.

So anyway, this all means that I rather like going to a subject specific conference, as I did on Saturday at the NATECLA National Conference, where I get to talk and think all things ESOL. There are a lot of people I on it ever see at these things, which is lovely, of course, but it’s also good when there is no need to filter concepts into an ESOL friendly format. Instead, I find myself taking on a whole bunch of new ideas and concepts, or realigning ideas, or just having ideas for simple classroom activities that I can do stuff with.

There were some recurring themes in the sessions I was able to attend, and indeed linked to my own. One of these themes was around reformulation. This is taking a learner’s inaccurate or incomplete utterance and repeating it back to the learner in the correct form. It is a fairly instinctive, natural method of error correction and functions as a sort of “on the fly” input for students

S: I make my homework.

T: I do my homework.

The session I attended by Richard Gallen from Tower Hamlets College was on that very theme, and around the ways in which classroom conversations can lead to specific learning, and fairly early on he established that the simple act of reformulation considered on its own is largely ineffective. I’m sure, as well, that this wasn’t news to me, but I can’t remember where i picked that up from.However, it does make sense to suggest that simply repeating back the language to the learners is unlikely to lead to anything useful – there’s nothing there to encourage the learner to act on the reformulation, there is no follow up for learners. No, the point is this: for reformulation to work, we need to make things explicit to the students – make sure that the learner notices the reformulation and actually attempts to assimilate it. The phrase that kept coming up during the session was language upgrades, which distinguished nicely for me this kind of conscious improving of language in situ rather than simply correcting errors. Richard suggested a number of ways to introduce this – recording the language on the board, then getting students to revisit the language in a follow up lesson, perhaps using a slightly different context. If you record all the language reformulations, you can then turn these into simple gap fills, for example, as an activity in the following lesson – to use my example above:

“I always ______ my homework after class.”

There were other things too. Timing is crucial for these language upgrades – it’s no good getting the upgrade too late – and it needs to be just at the periphery of awareness: conceptually familiar, perhaps, but not completely linguistically familiar.  In short, if you get the upgradewhen you need it “just in time” and “just right” then the language is more likely to stick.  Richard quoted here from Leo Van Lier: The Ecology & Semiotics of Language Learning, which I am adding to my reading list. There may be a confidence / fluency payoff here – such immediate upgrading is surely going to interrupt the flow of a learner’s speaking, but if it makes the language stick, is this a worthy sacrifice? To interrupt fluency like this is a tough call for a teacher whose main focus is often communicative effectiveness, of which fluency is a major part.The challenge, I guess, is making that judgement call in the lesson, and this would depend very much on the learners themselves. There were some interesting insights into learner practices – students who took on the new vocabulary offered in an exchange tended to use that language with some sort of qualifying definition or statement. It was a genuinely interesting thing to see the transcriptions of the classroom conversations, and I really did wonder how practical such a thing might be for me to try one day.

There were plentiful other insights from Richard, things like the notion that learners grouped by similar ability, rather than mixed ability is more likely to lead to learning because of the quality of upgrades they can offer: the lower level learner in a mixed pair is less likely to act on the upgrades offered, and is also unlikely to be able to offer appropriate upgrades to the higher level student.

What else? learners remember more lexical feedback than grammatical and in fact generally ask more questions about vocabulary, although this sort of questioning does tend to be at higher levels rather than lower. The other humdinger moment for me was the revelation that our learners should be aiming at developing around 12-15 words a lesson in order to progress appropriately.

So I found myself thinking, as one does at these times, about my own lessons. I reckon that I’m pretty good at reformulating and am definitely one for letting language emerge “on demand” in the lesson rather than being overtly dependent upon “input” language. I’m also fairly good at recording the language that arises, usually informally, I think: the day before the workshop I was revisiting an old IWB file with a colleague and found myself wondering how a whole bunch of words had appeared on the slide, which appeared to have only the most tenuous links to the main information. Where I know I need to do better, then, is the follow up work, the consolidation, if you like, something I want to be much much better at next year. I think I do it in the lesson, and I’ve noticed students doing this sort of conscious application of new language in the moment, but as was discussed in the workshop, teachers need to actively promote this kind of emergent, negotiated language in order to enhance learning  – students need to know that the language is there and do something with it.

This is, of course, going to appeal to me as a piece of research, and I guess when you sign up to sessions at a confenrence it is often a bit of an echo chamber – I’m unlikely to be going to sessions on, say, SMART targets, or engaging learners with learning outcomes, because I’d rather scoop out my hear with a spoon than listen to someone extolling cheap performance managed behaviourism, but I’m likely to be battering down the door to a workshop on conversation and emergent language. But then you go to conferences to find out more about things you are interested in, I guess: it’s not a comprehensive education, so to speak. I’d have been deeply disappointed to find out about Richard’s workshop second hand, whatever happened.

I’ve just seen the wordcount in the bottom corner creeping up towards 1500, so I think I should probably stop. This doesn’t mean I’ve nothing to say about storytelling from Jamie Keddie, just that this post is getting ridiculously long! In a lot of ways Jami’s talk on storytelling and ways to exploit videos in line with this was similar – after all, these kinds of activities often build on language that emerges in reaction to, or as part of the story – opportunities are presented for emergent language which can be capitalised upon and exploited in just the same way.

So it was a good day, and a good event – I’ve got a serious batch of ideas for next year, which is sort of the point, isn’t it?

The Inevitable Brexit Post

As I started this post I was standing at my local leisure centre watching my son’s gymnastics class. We were in Leeds, and judging by the voices around me, I am surrounded by people from at least three continents. This includes, of course, a significant proportion of people from  what I can (for now) call the rest of the EU. It’s always been a nice, friendly place, the leisure centre, even while the worst excesses of the nasty Leave campaign were playing out, and happily it still is. People standing around united by the fact that they are just parents chatting, drinking overpriced machine coffee, and waiting while little Callum/Magdalena/Julianna/Jasvinder practice balancing on beams, jumping, vaulting and the rest. The only real division is between those who see it as a bit of fun, and those who take it far, far too seriously. At the end, when one of the children gets to be “star gymnast of the week” everyone claps and smiles, regardless. For me, it’s Britain at its best: diverse people concentrating on the experiences that make us the same. I don’t want this sort of thing to end, and I’m worried now that it will. 

Given my general political and professional leanings, it’s safe to say that my mind on Brexit was made up from the outset: remain. The job of the Leave campaign was to try and convince someone like me that they were right and I was wrong, but nothing they said ever rang quite true (turns out I was right on that front), not to mention based on too much guesswork. What was clear, however, was that it was largely based in abstract, fear-based nationalism. I’ve said before, I don’t really care for that kind of thing, and, as with religion, I find the negative, divisive impact of notions of national identity far outweigh any benefits. 

And the Leave campaign was about nationalism. The campaign played on fears of immigration that are stoked by the nastier ends of the UK media. It’s easy to blame the media, and while I lay plenty of blame at their door, let’s not forget that they are only peddling their stance based on what they think will sell papers: and a diet of Princess Diana conspiracy theories, cures for cancer, and skewed headlines on immigration based on cherry picked data does, apparently, sell. There is, as the referendum showed, a big market for prejudice. This fear of immigration is most easily exploited in those places where direct experience of it is rare, or where local socio-economic difficulties leave individuals looking for a scapegoat. And sadly, the family with the funny name and foreign accent is a much easier target than a complex financial system exploited by the wealthy. 

Richard Dawkins argues in The God Delusion that moderate religious belief essentially gives a mandate to extremism, because when it comes down to it, the moderate and the extremist believe in the same basic concepts. This means that the moderate individual cannot fully condemn every aspect of the extremist’s behaviour. Something similar applies here. The votes of what is probably a moderately nationalistic (flags out for football and the Queen) but ill-informed and worried majority have now granted a mandate to the nastier xenophobia and racism of the far right. The British Leave voters have essentially said “it’s ok to be racist”. I heard first hand of a friend being told to “fuck off back home” despite the fact that they were born in the UK and is of southern Asian origin. It wasn’t the first story I heard: it seems racists were pretty much saying it from a few hours after the results came in, having been given the blessing of the British populace.

The campaign was built on fear of immigration, on the demonisation of immigration. There was the tacky and vicious appending of Iraq and Syria onto a map of countries wishing to be part of the EU, for example, not to mention UKIP’s awful, terrible poster

“No, no,” I can imagine them saying, “Not at all. We were voting against the undemocratic processes of the EU.” This is also a ridiculous argument. For one, however things pan out, our lives will be affected by the EU, and we now have absolutely zero input into what happens there. What makes this even more ridiculous is that the upper houses of our parliament is entirely unelected, not to mention unrepresentatively dominated by rich white men, a proportion of whom are there purely because they are leaders of an organisation representing a minority religious viewpoint. I’m not saying that any of these people do a bad job, mind, but they are unelected. Oh, and did I mention the small fact we are a monarchy? So we really have little claim to be protesting about democracy, particularly as the next Prime Minister of the UK will be taking office without having been elected to it. 

And it’s not just about my job either. Brexit is going to take years to work through, and in that time people will still continue to arrive in the UK and need ESOL. In fact, the biggest challenge for ESOL now is how much it will get squeezed as the government looks to save money in the face of the inevitable recession brought about by Brexit. Nothing to do with there being fewer immigrants, thanks, because even if migration from the EU stopped completely, people will still keep coming from the rest of the world. So potential ESOL students and the whole debate about language education will continue. 

I voted remain because I liked being in the EU. Because it is flawed (what government isn’t?) but you can’t fix it if you’re not in it. Because I didn’t believe in the Brexit campaign. Because I thought we did have a future in a united Europe. Because I thought it would benefit my children. Because I don’t trust a single soul in the Houses of Parliament anyway. Because I think EU membership did benefit this country, in terms of stability, diversity, economy, and in terms of society.  We are far poorer without the EU, I think, and in many ways I have lost faith in this country, and the people who live here: not because the referendum showed that people are worried and badly-informed, or too easily influenced by a nasty popular press, but because they thought that they could endorse prejudice and racism as the answer to their problems. This is not my country any  more, I just live here.


(Normal service will resume next post, but for the time being I just needed to work through something.)

To Do

Möbius_stripI’m wary of writing to do lists. I can just about manage to write one for a given day, particularly on days like today, when I’ve not got a lot by way of teaching, but a bunch of other stuff that I need to get done, but beyond that they have a tendency not to be motivating reminders of tasks, but depressing records of your own personal failure, an uncrossed list mocking you with a smug reminder of what you haven’t done. Perhaps it’s the way I use them, I don’t know, but I sometimes struggle with the whole notion that life can be compressed into neat little tasks to be robotically ticked off, as if granting profound meaning to a stack of chores.

But at least a to do list works in theory. After all, you are dealing with concrete, measurable tasks leading to specific results, like “mark 15 functional ICT papers” or “email B about X” or indeed “plan lesson for tomorrow’s evening class”. This last, of course, is where I’m going with this. After all, we generally set our students a kind of “to do” list when we plan and share learning outcomes with them, and it’s part of the teachers job to know what is realistically achievable in that time, and to check that the “to do” list becomes a “have done” list.

Ah no, I hear you think, the learning outcomes are not a “to do” list at all. They are a “to learn” list. Really, you think that, do you? I disagree.

It’s all in the phrasing. We refer to learning outcomes, not aims. An outcome, in all its performance management glory, is usually talked about in terms of observable behaviours, and post observation teachers are usually grilled with interrogatives like “ah ha, but how do you know they learned?” Because really, imaginary observer, how do you know they didn’t? A focus on observable evidence means that all I can say that my students have done in a lesson is produce the evidence to meet the learning outcome, not necessarily learned the things inherent in that. I’m going to pitch this outside ESOL, too, because in ESOL pretty much any teacher in the world could tell you that “use present simple third person singular to write five sentences” is a cheap proxy for “learn present simple third person singular” but that it is very unlikely for that student to have learned such a thing in any convincing way. So if I think of a training session I ran only recently during which I aimed for teachers to “identify and evaluate methods of stretch and challenge”, what I actually wanted was for them to learn one of them and then to apply it. Achievement of the former is only gong to be an educated guess, and the latter something I would struggle ever to find out, short of fitting CCTV to classrooms.

So when we share learning outcomes with students, and ask them to measure their own performance against these outcomes, what are we asking students to do? Some students, perhaps, are knowledgeable enough learners to recognise the learning subtext of an outcome, while others when presented with with an outcome will be able to recognise this aspect of the learning outcome, while the rest is more or less meaningless. For others, perhaps, they read this achievement at face value and wonder what they are actually going to learn? When we share those learning outcomes and ask student to self assess against them, are we effectively peddling a lie to our students about what learning is?

Things get worse when we consider that we use the same methodology for composing individual goals on an ILP – what are we saying that a student has learned if they have achieved a personal target of “use present simple third person singular in five sentences”? A student covering that language point is unlikely to be able to understand it: so we resort to making it more meaningful “write five sentences about things my friend does every day” or something similar. At this point, any awareness of transferable language knowledge has been well and truly lost and we are left with a task, not an outcome. Even in the bizarre world where a student could develop the language ability to be able to meta-analyse grammar in this way, but at the same time not actually know that language point then what model of language learning are we following? I don’t think anyone believes that learning anything happens in neat, observable, evidenceable steps, aside from auditors and similar.

All we can say for sure about learning is that it’s an internal, individual process. It’s probably not even cyclical, really – it’s not that neat. I suspect we’re dealing with a kind of complex spiralling variation of a möbius band, where things are learned, then forgotten, then learned again. If we are using achievement of a learning outcome or individual target as a means of tracking learning, then we do have to wonder what it is we are tracking exactly: to my mind we are tracking performance, not learning – achievement of said target or outcome is simply an example of performance, and one which fails in terms of reliability and validity when considered as assessment.  and if it’s an example of performance, then a list of learning outcomes or ILP targets is indeed a simple to do list, and only loosely linked to learning.

There are other implications too. Achievement of observable behaviours in the form of learning outcomes, whether individual or classroom based, is a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts: we use this achievement as evidence of success for all sorts of classroom practice: “in study X, teachers applied technique Y and this was a success because students achieved the lesson’s stated outcomes” but if the measurement scale is questionable then what does this mean for evidence? I’m personally not sure we can dismiss evidence based practice on this justification, because something was achieved in those lessons, I just have questions as to exactly what that something was.

Even if we accept that the aim is genuine, but that the outcome is false, learning is not restricted to the teacher set, teacher driven, teacher shared learning goals. Students take all sorts from a formal lesson, and not all of it is predictable and measurable. Which makes me think. I have a lesson this week which is free from exams and the rest, so I might try something. I’m going to teach a lesson and not share the outcomes (I’m told this is bad practice, but never mind). But there will be things I have in mind for the learning in the lesson, call them outcomes if you like. Then, at the end of the lesson, I’ll ask the students to tell me what they are going to take away from the lesson, what they learned, what skills they practised, and see how much a) they can articulate these things, and b) how much their perceived achievements marry up with my aims/outcomes/whatever.

Better put that on my to do list.

An Adult’s Learning



I finished traditional formal education at the age of 21. In that time I attended primary school, secondary school and university, plus a brief incomplete stint at my local FE college. It’s hard to quantify the impact of that learning on the rest of my life, with most of my memories of those experiences being social and interpersonal rather than but in the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot of stuff I can pin onto direct educational experiences.

For one, of course, there is my entire professional learning. Learning how to be a teacher, and developing as a teacher. All of that process occurred fairly late on, as I did my Cert TESOL at 24, the DELTA aged 26, and then turning that into a formal FE qualification at the ripe old age of 31. There has been a whole bunch of other stuff as well – the e-guides training which I did back in 2007, the various funded research projects I’ve been involved with, various conferences and workshops, training days and other such things all of which have conspired to contribute to my development. Tracking that, of course, is a more challenging task – a straight course is nice and easy to fit into a measured pattern of development but the reality is that with the exception of the Cert TESOL & the DELTA, my main development as a teacher has been incremental and ad hoc: learning which occurs in little snippets on a need-to-know or perhaps on a want-to-know basis.

Much more interesting, however, is all the other learning I’ve been doing in that time. I’ve learned how to wrangle a computer, and developed a fairly high level of brazen confidence, if not actual skill, in using various forms of digital technology. I’ve learned to be a passable baker of bread, and can knock out some pretty decent biscotti (although like my fellow former resident of Wessex, burning cakes is a bit of an issue.) I’ve learned confidence and road skills on a bicycle that make many of my nearest and dearest wince when I mention them (“Yeah, obviously there’s room and time to get through that gap and beat the lights”), not to mention a developing skill set in the actual repair of bicycles. This last is the most surprising – I am pretty inept when it comes to practical things, so the fact that I am developing an ability to do something like bike repair is pretty impressive.

What unites all of this learning is motivation. Sometimes this is “professional”, in the sense that I want to know more about how to do my job, or how to do it better, or exploring an aspect of my work.  Sometimes it is a combination of frugality and curiosity as it is with the bike maintenance, extrinsic motivation that I can save a bit of money, along with the satisfaction of being able to do a thing which I would have previously considered to be beyond my skills and abilities. Sure, it’s not rocket science, but for someone as maladroit as I, it’s incredibly pleasing that I have stripped a rear wheel hub and put it back together (and been able to ride it for a while too), removed and refitted a bottom bracket, and a number of other tasks. I’m certainly at a point now where I will consider doing a job myself rather than taking it to a bike shop, including even stuff with cables, although they still unnerve me. In short I want to learn those things either in and of themselves, or as a means to a specific end, and for me that is one of the things which typifies adult learning.

The other interesting thing is the absence of formality in much of this. This is learning without planning and often without, or in spite of, teachers (we’ve all had those training events, right?). The formal input for much of the learning, including the “professional” stuff has been primarily self-selected, using things like books, websites, and online videos as demonstrations, and in some ways the self-selection has been more effective than if the content had been selected for me. When you learn on a need-to-/want-to-know basis you ignore the non-essential information and focus much more closely. If you come on a course, inevitably, some of the content will be taught but not immediately applicable, and therefore unlikely to stay fresh. (As an aside, consider this: if I attend a training session and “achieve” the learning outcomes within that session, does that mean I have permanently learned those things? Unlikely, I think, unless I can apply or re-practice those skills. Otherwise that learning will only remain temporary and within a short span of time, perhaps even only a week or so, I will no longer remember how to do it. So the point of the learning outcome was what, exactly?)

Learning informally on a need-to/want-to-know basis does have its drawbacks, mind you. For one you end up with gaps in your knowledge – my IT knowledge is made up of lots of little bits of very precise, clear understanding mingled with whole chunks of stuff I have no clue about: I can knock out all sorts of crud in MS Word, but give me something like Publisher and I’m floundering. 

Sometimes the inevitable trial and error process means that things can take longer (even if you perhaps learn them “better”) and that sometimes that sense of success doesn’t happen. Sometimes the source of learning is flawed or inappropriate – I almost destroyed the threading that held the bottom bracket cartridge inside of my bicycle frame because I was following the wrong instructions, which would have very possibly had to lead to some very expensive work by a professional. Certainly the brakes on my old bike are decidedly dodgy as a result of incompetent fiddling.

Whatever. The fact remains that adults do and will continue to learn, and this is very often in spite of considerable barriers. Formal bike maintenance is not currently offered at any price at any of my local FE colleges, although there are bike shops in the area who sometimes run courses at a cost. Formal, certified training would cost upwards of £300. To be fair, this is pretty niche, but if I wanted to gain formal training to bring my IT skills up to a more acceptable level, then I would be looking at significant cost in both money and, of course, in time. These are, of course, among the toughest barriers for an adult to overcome when it comes to learning. If I want to do an MA to advance my career, for example, I’d be looking at a huge cost which is simply impossible for me to imagine. Would any potential benefit justify the debt? Unlikely. Is there a course that is intrinsically motivating alone for me to do? Not that I know of. But learning to fix a bike can be wedged in around the rest of my life, and indeed has immediate positive benefits.

The benefits of riding a well maintained bike are easy to see and predict, as are the benefits of a specific training course, but the benefits of adult learning are far more than the base and pathetic economics of current FE priorities. When I can learn something I relax, I switch off: bike repairs and baking are fundamentally different to my professional life, so participating in those things helps me to switch off in a much more profound way. Learning to repair a rear hub was frustrating and fiddly, but the total engagement with working it out and then doing it was absorbing in a way that even the best entertainment can manage. Entertainment helps you block it out, but it’s so often a transitory sensation which merely masks rather than refreshes. Learning something new and different helps you to reset completely. 

This sort of impact is hard to see and to evaluate because it is complex. But naturally when the current education system is controlled and managed by those who see FE, indeed all education, as a simple input-output system creating wealth for the wealthy, something as complex and socially beneficial as adult learning doesn’t stand a chance. 

Moodle: A Year Off

Last year, I carried out a bit of research into how ESOL learners perceive and feel abt the notion of online and blended learning, and I had grand plans, or plans, anyway, to trial some sort of blended element to one of my courses this year: adding an online element through the VLE as an adjunct to the main course, and linking into the main course as its been taught.

It didn’t happen. In fact, for most of the classes I taught this year, the VLE generally has been a non-event: not unused, for sure, but much less promoted and enforced as I might have done in previous years. Strangest of all, I spent a significant chunk of this year teaching ICT, a context in which VLE access might be seen to be somewhat integral for all sorts of reasons.

There are several ways a person could react to this. There might be knee-jerk outrage that I might be so openly rejecting best practice in elearning as espoused by my institution. Frustration, perhaps, as well as outrage, that someone so evidently capable of using the VLE without much specific effort has simply failed to engage. Yeah, whatever. So sue me. I’ll put it in my action plan for next year, if you like.

However, the only really interesting reaction is to ask questions about why this might be. which is a great question, but I’ll tell you what, I don’t really know. I’ve always blown hot and cold on the VLE as a general thing, often finding it too staid and dry, with clunky interactive tools that are much easier to replace with externally sourced things: Google forms and documents replacing quizzes and assignments, for example, emails and the occasional Facebook update forming communication and feedback channels for student work. And you know what, there has been paper: real texts, bits of cut up paper, photocopies, all the stuff that works bloody well without the extra fart-arsing of logging into a system, whether through college devices or BYOD. Controversial, I know.

There just hasn’t been a need. There hasn’t been a gap that the VLE has had to fill. There has been no process which could have been more efficiently or effectively managed through a college VLE. Indeed, for some of my courses, the VLE would have created an extra layer, extra stuff to do, an extra barrier to learning, and arguably not an enabling thing at all.

And let’s not forget that the notion of a VLE as the be all and end all of online or blended learning is essentially flawed. From a certain perspective a VLE has many benefits: tracking learning, monitoring engagement, that sort of thing. I can see that, although that is at least one of the reasons a VLE is just so horrendously dry and tedious.

I’ll tell you what, though,  we’ve been blending all over the place. Most digital technology use in class is no longer special, and lessons are connected in ways which were simply impossible in the past. The biggest visible impact, of course, would be student’s own devices: I’ve done whole ICT sessions with students using their phones to carry out search activities, for example. The interesting thing there, of course, is that the activities themselves tended to be printed on paper to enable more comfortable switching between task instruction and the web search. Sure multi-tasking smart phones are pretty average these days, but it’s still not easy or smooth on anything smaller than a tablet simply because of the physical dimensions involved. Student devices feature most prominently as reference sources: dictionaries using either spoken or written words, google images to find simpler meanings, that sort of thing. Apps have had very little impact, apart from dictionaries. I think the paid for nature of that aspect places significant limitations, although some amusement was found with the google translate app which can sometimes show translations of printed words floating on top of the original in a very cool augmented reality stylee. We’ve had some iPads at one of our centres: I’ve used them a few times with maths: researching prices, for example, or number based information to form the basis of some numeracy practice. 

And I’ve got to admit the interactive whiteboard has really come into its own this year for me: being able to manipulate an audio recording, then annotate the answers to the questions has worked well this year, and generally using the IWB as part of whole group checking of answers, as well as simply as a projection screen has been fairly normal. In one class we managed to bring to life the inexplicably common subject of house types by looking up students’ houses using Google Streetview. Quite why words like “terraced house” and “semi-detached” which are neither high frequency nor terribly useful are so often taught at low levels is always a bit of a mystery, but still, we did, and it became real.
Then there has been my own use of technology to develop resources. Just because the students haven’t used the tech themselves doesn’t mean the tech hasn’t had an impact. I create a lot of my own resources, using, yes, digital technology to do so, utilising the web as a source of authentic texts, both written and spoken. Then there is the cation of resources, digital and otherwise using technology: I created a neat little jigsaw speaking activity using a photo of the college canteen menu with the prices blanked out: I took the picture with my phone,  and then edited it in word using text boxes to cover prices.  Easy as pie, and an authentic, realistic, communicative speaking task for a group of beginners. I emptied my wallet onto a table and took a photo of the (edited) contents to teach money and simlar vocab: this formed the presentation on the whiteboard and the practice and speaking work that followed. 

Still, by all means, tell me I’ve not being using online learning. In one regard, perhaps, I might as well not have bothered using the technology at all if it isn’t tracked through the VLE because there is no evidence to an outsider that any of this happened. This is hardly a reason to use a VLE, of course, if the impact on learning is negligible. I have scant respect for this kind of auditing “evidence” of learning in lieu of professional trust, not least because fifteen students accessing the VLE every week for ten minutes isn’t proof of anything apart from, well, accessing the VLE. I’ll concede I don’t think I’ve been innovating particularly, mind you. All I’ve been doing is making use of the technology in a way which is normal, without forcing in the technology because someone thinks it’s best practice. This “normal” technology is embedded in a way that the VLE could never be. I have been using the VLE with one group, my evening class, fairly regularly as a support for and extension of lessons, or for people who miss class, because I know it works well in that manner for that group of students. 

But for the rest of the time? It’s just not the best tool for the job.