(Published BrazTESOL Journal 2014)
No pleasurable human activity can happen if environmentally friendly conditions are not provided. I have meditated and acted upon this premise for over the last ten years, perhaps more, and I have observed how most of us teachers finish the school week feeling absolutely exhausted and energetically drained out. At the same time, I have observed how children become more and more anxious towards Friday, causing more discipline problems and conflicts with their peers. These two statements might sound evident and perhaps too simple, one obviously gets more tired as the week goes by, which leads to an increase of intolerance and frustration towards the school environment. However, there is a point I would like to raise again as a passionate teacher and teacher educator who is fully committed to better teaching and learning in every teaching and learning circumstance. All these years I have felt the need to avoid these toxic and destructive working conditions and have made my greatest effort to break the stress vicious circle: frustration – discomfort – conflict – stress – frustration. The big question is always the same: how can we do it? In this article I will pose some of my biggest concerns and also I will share a couple of class techniques related to the following concepts: critical and creative thinking, the digital and image era, attention and multitasking.
OUR GOOD OLD FRIEND, CRITICAL THINKING
Educating for critical and creative thinking has become almost an obsession to anybody involved in/related to any educational activity nowadays. Apart from this, the fact that we are failing at meeting the aim of doing it “well” –take PISA results for example- has added to the hypothesis that our teaching methods are obsolete. In the EFL arena, the issue has been recently raised by Professor Sugata Mitra in his plenary session in the IATEFL annual conference (Harrogate, England – April 5th 2014), causing all sorts of responses and stirring the TESOL practitioners’ brains. It is evident that we are all in the search of new paths to strike a balance between what we can give as teachers and the challenges our new young learners put in front of us. In Mitra’s thinking all we need in order to trigger better critical and creative thinking is “a good question”.
In my experience, this issue of “asking a good question” has been around for quite a while. From Lipman’s community of enquiry to H. Lynn Erickson’s concept based learning, extended to Harvard teaching for understanding, learning occurs after a good question is formulated. In all these frameworks the underlying principle is the same: critical thinking is triggered when the mind is challenged with a juicy question.
All of us, language teachers, provide kids with the tool to enhance higher standards of criticality. Those working with CLIL perhaps see the problem more clearly because most of their students find it very difficult to reach what Bloom called higher order thinking skills, but the way a learner thinks is not only evident in these environments. Also, when teaching language and language skills through more conventional CLT methods, immature thinking is unveiled as the learner fails to succeed at higher levels of language demand such as C1 and C2 usual tasks.
But haven’t we used collaborative and group work, problem solving and projects for long now? What is new to be used in the classroom?
Nihil novi sub sole. To my mind, most of us are far from being ready to accept a radically different pedagogical perspective -just to name one- as the one Mitra presents in “School in the Cloud”, not because we do not want to, but because we still cannot. There are too many variables affecting teaching and learning (English) from outside the classroom: our learners family and cultural background, the educational system, what is accepted as “good teaching” and what is not, burocracy, to name a few. Therefore, a positive and healthy step forward for us professional language teachers is to stop to reflect upon what is really going on in our classes, which can be very different from what we think is happening. Take action research now! Detect a weak area in your classes, ask yourself a good question and try different answers, hypothesize about the solutions. Share your findings with your peers at breaktime in the staff room. Write a journal. Modify your own teaching in the light of your own findings, you cannot teach someone something you do not know, you cannot teach your students how to be critical if you are not critical yourself. In other words, be a reflective practitioner of ELT, become a teacher-researcher. The idea I am trying to defend is that teaching a student how to be critical, if at all possible, will be done by a critical practitioner and to my mind, a critical practitioner is that who gets involved into research, whatever the size or length of the research project.
BEWARE: IMAGE-BOUND DIGITAL KIDS
It is not new to say that our kids come to our classes empowered by some sorts of twenty first century godesses: Image and Digital Culture. Mitchel (2003) refers to the fact that the visual culture is based upon a social construction and that it is related to the History of Arts and social practices. Nowadays our children do “zapping” and surf the web from site to site and get bored easily and more quickly. They demand more stimuli and more astonishing input (Malosetti Costa, 2006) and they are used to a non-stop torrent of images that go past in front of them at a speed that allows no deep thinking. However, in the understanding that we teachers are active members of a teaching-learning social institution, there is a lot we can add to this image-boiling era. There is so much we can do with images in class, isn’t there? Our role is exactly that: help our young learners think beyond the image, see inside it, rejoyce in it.
Again, what each teacher does with this formidable resource is up to each of them. As members of the TESOL community we have explored many techniques around picture exploitation. If we leave aside linguistic aims for a moment, we can do lots of other things. Take the following simple sequence which puts us closer to their digital image culture:
- Choose a digital image you want to work with your kids. Bearing the topic of the image in mind, take your children through a guided mediation where they can see, smell, taste and touch the elements in the image.
- Give your children a blank sheet. Ask them to draw what they have just visualized. Ask them to tell you how it tasted, what it smelled like.
- Show them the image you have chosen. Guide them through a positive discovery of the similarities between the image you chose and their drawing.
- Ask them to file both pictures in their portfolio. Take them out to the playground, ask them to find a natural element that reminds them of the image they have just been presented with and to take notes of this.
- Back in class, ask them to write a mini paragraph answering the question “what is the connection between what you saw in the playground and the image we saw before?”
- Add the paragraph to the other two images.
Neither of these activities is new in ELT, this is just evidence of how much we can do with what we already know.
Some years ago I was so very much amazed at the way my six-year-old son (he is now fifteen) could manage two, four, six visual elements at the same time in his video games. I remember I used to say to myself “no wonder, I cannot do it”. Some time ago, inspired by worldwide new concepts in digital literacy, Roberto Balaguer introduced in Uruguay two categories (outdated now?) to group world citizens: digital natives and digital immigrants. Well, if I used Balaguer’s line of thought, I would call myself a typical digital immigrant who faces digital native students everyday! As my son, they are used to perform many tasks at the same time but what sort of tasks? My intention is not to diminish what they do, or the extent to which they have to take their thinking skills in order to comply with the task assigned in the game. On the contrary, what I believe is that we need to make use of this skill they bring to class in order to help them benefit from it and use it for learning the second/foreing language or any subject area.
It is obvious that we cannot compete against the multitask menu the video games and computers provide them with; the underlying principle is: do more than one thing at the same time. As it is often said, the best evidence of craziness is to do something once and again and expect different results. If we continue pacing our classes with one task at a time, the result will probably be the same: boredom, frustration, giggling, disruption, conflict, stress and so on, you know the end. So we need to find ways out of this problem.
As opposed to unfocused thinking, a positive activity of the mind is always preceded by a relaxation of the body and the whole self. Regarding this, attention seems to be the key issue when we try to tackle the problems that a multitasking mind –in the negative sense, meaning erratic- might bring to the class. In the second part of the book Niños que triunfan – El yoga en la escuela Micheline Flak and Jacques de Coulon introuce ideas on how to identify one’s state of energy and thus be able to diagnose and control our attention. When we identify unsteady attention on the part of our children we must act upon the situation immediately. How? I will bring back one of the very many techniques I have inherited from Michelin and that you can find online:
Children sitting, eyes covered by their hands, no pressure on them.
- Books open in the lesson for today/materials to be used/task.
- Instructions are given according to children’s age and language mastery.
- Relax well, sit properly. Listen to the sounds coming from the street…pause.
- Listen to the sound environment of the class…pause.
- I’ll make three noises, one after the other
- Paper rustle
- Pen clic
- Toc-toc on the desk
- Now remember them in the same order…pause.
- Now I’ll play soft music, listen to it…pause.
- Now listen to the sound of your breathing…pause
- Breathe more deeply, imagine the sound you hear is the sound of waves, count the waves…longer pause.
- Now take out your hands from your eyes slowly, keep on listening to the music and look at the paper in front of you.
If you continue with the task you had planned to do after your children have gone through the experience introduced above, I can assure you that their attention will be much higher. After all, isn’t this our concern: to work on an erratic mind to help it become more attentive?
My teacher trainers and tutors have always inspired me to act upon any trouble or any unexpected event that might occur in my classes. Also, they have taught me how to research and look for solutions to the problematic situations that pop up in the practice of teaching, to work with passion, love, focus and curiosity as the fuel of my engine. Although in this article I revisited some ideas around the issue of teaching multitask image-bound children nowadays, I believe most of these ideas might be common practice to many of you. If this is so, much better, if any of them is new for you, much better still. This means that our curious minds are alive and kicking and that we are in constant search of new paths to enhance better teaching and learning. Isn’t it so?
Brown, D. Principles of language teaching and learning. Longman. London, 2000.
Flak, M. and de Coulon J. Niños que triunfan. El Yoga en la escuela. Ed. Cuatro Vientos. Santiago de Chile, 1999.
Larrosa, J (2006). “Niños atravesando el paisaje. Notas sobre cine e infancia”. En: Dussel, I y Gutierrez, D (compiladoras). Educar la Mirada:Políticas y Pedagogías de la Imagen. Ed. Manantial.
Lipman, M. Thinking in Education. Cambridge University Press. New York, 2010.
Mac Laughlin, L. “Investigating Cognitions: what teachers believe, know and understand about YL teaching” in IATEFL Young Learners and Teenager Special Interest Group Publication. Autumn 2013.
Malosetti Costa, L (2006). “Algunas reflexiones sobre el lugar de lasimágenes en el ámbito escolar”. En: Dussel, I y Gutierrez, D (compiladoras). Educar la Mirada:Políticas y Pedagogías de la Imagen. Ed. Manantial.
Mitchell, W.T.J (2003). “Mostrando el ver”. En: Estudios visuales No. 1 (disponible en: http://www.estudiosvisuales.net)
 Lipman, M. Thinking in Education. Cambridge University Press. New York, 2010.
 C1 and C2 levels in the Common European Framework of reference for languages.
 See Louise Mac Laughlin “Investigating Cognitions: what teachers believe, know and understand about YL teaching” in IATEFL Young Learners and Teenager Special Interest Group Publication. Autumn 2013.
 Brown, D. Principles of language teaching and learning. Longman. London, 2000.
 Roberto Balaguer, Uruguayan psychologist, expert in digital culture.
 Flak, M. and de Coulon J. Niños que triunfan. El Yoga en la escuela. Ed. Cuatro Vientos. Santiago de Chile, 1999.
 Ibid. p. 113