24 November 2011

The Myth of Groupwork

Today's blog post was inspired by me walking out of a class for what may be the first time in my life.  (I probably ran out of a few classes as part of childhood tantrums, but that doesn't count.)

Now I've always felt a lot of groupwork is a waste of time, because you could complete the task much quicker on your own.  But then I would say that, wouldn't I, because I always did well at school.  Theory has it that groupwork is an opportunity for the weaker students to learn off the stronger ones.

OK, so in this particular class, I've found myself being "the one who knows stuff" in pairs a few times, so I've sat as scribe and asked the other person for all the answers, and only offered anything myself when the other person wasn't sure or when I disagreed with them.  But today we were working in threes, not pairs, and for once in my life I was no longer the brainbox/swot/smart-alec because it was something I've never learned properly.  But the group scribe (not me) was writing away, filling in the "easy" ones, including quite a few I wasn't sure about.  Her and the other guy were discussing answers, and I wasn't really able to chip in, as I didn't really know how to explain what I was trying to say, or how to word a question if I had any doubts.  So I muttered a few swear words, put down my pen, and left the room.

Why wasn't I learning off the stronger students?  Quite simply because there is a difference between a good student and a good teacher: it is a teacher's job to ask questions that they already know the answer to.  Students, on the other hand, ask questions that they don't know the answer to.

What exactly was going through my classmate's head is hard to say for sure, but there's two likely explanations.
  1. She was acting in a goal-orientated way.  She had a quiz in front of her and the goal was to get all the answers, like in a pub quiz.
  2. She categorised the questions as "hard" and "easy" based on her own perception of difficulty, and only asked our opinion on the "hard" ones, assuming that we weren't interested in the "easy" ones. 
As I say, I can't say which of these (if either) was her motivation.  However, I can say that these two situations are quite possible, and indeed likely, in any classroom.

Both of these approaches introduce problems. 
  1. In a pub quiz, everyone answers questions on topics they're confident about.  People who aren't into sports might pop outside for a fag during the sports round, for example.  Unfortunately only answering questions on what you already know doesn't lead to learning.
  2. The "easy" questions are the ones we expect the weakest members of the group to answer, and we hope that by listening to the strong students answer the "hard" ones, they'll learn from them.  However, if the scribe is a strong student (and they're the ones most likely to volunteer), then the easy questions may never be asked, so the weak students never get any opportunity to do anything.  And as weak students are usually shy about their weaknesses, they're not going to butt in.
Now of course neither of these two situations is inevitable, but there are very few students who are genuinely aware of what is expected of them in groupwork -- I am only aware of it because of my own situation as a teacher.

Although I don't have any statistics to say how often these two situations arise, I can state categorically that current groupwork practices leave open the possibility that these situations arise, and it's a possibility that the teacher has little control over or visibility of.

Perhaps the teacher is also blinded by a task-orientated mindset.  When we see that the task is completed and the students have the correct answers, how often do we ask ourselves how they reached those answers?   Can we ever truly know?  I think not.

And that is why I called this post "the myth of groupwork".  I am not saying there's no such thing as groupwork, but that groupwork is something we take on faith, uncritical of the facts or evidence.

As teachers we cannot directly control our students' thoughts, but we must take steps to reduce the possibilities for them to complete tasks in pedagogically pointless ways.  Current groupwork practice opens up too many "wrong paths", and that needs to change.

22 November 2011

Link drop: how technology is changing language

A very well-written article with a lot of material from David Crystal about the effects technology is having on language and literacy at: http://www.silicon.com/technology/software/2011/11/21/from-lolcat-to-textspeak-how-technology-is-shaping-our-language-39747927/print/

17 November 2011

A dull echo of bad practice in teaching...

There are many things in language teaching theory that are hotly debated, but there are some things that are universally accepted.  In theory.  In practice, they can be forgotten about.  I'm currently working through the Michel Thomas Polish Foundation course and one of these springs to mind:

The echo effect

The echo effect is quite simple: the last thing you hear stays in your mind longest.  The theory around this varies as our understanding of the human brain improves, and some people talk about "echoic memory", others about "feedback loops", others still "working memory".  But whatever the theoretical models people come up with, they all seek to model the same universally agreed observation: the last thing you hear stays in your mind longest.
The echo effect in practice

So that's the theory, but how does this work in practice?  The canonical example would be the listening exam.  A sentence or passage presented in a listening paper will be followed by silence -- all instructions come before the passage so that the internal echo is the actual material, not the instructions.  After all, if the instructions are clear, the student should understand and internalise them easily.

Failure to follow through to the classroom

However, you will find that some teachers don't consciously consider the echo effect in their day-to-day teaching.  Instead, they try to follow a natural order for language.  The reason this example is based on an MT course is that it's the nearest most lay people get to being able to observe a language class.

Let's look at a couple of quotes from Jolanta Cecula's MT course:

"I'm sorry, but I don't quite understand what you are saying"... talking to a man? (CD3 Track 2)
Notice here that the background information, "talking to a man" comes after the sentence to be translated.  This means that "talking to a man" is in echoic memory, rather than "I'm sorry, but I don't quite understand what you are saying".  This makes the task harder in a way that is of benefit to the learner.

Two tracks later, we get this:
"Can you help him", meaning to him, asking a woman? (CD3 Track 5)

Here we have two pieces of background information coming after the material that should really be in echoic memory.  The learner then has to expend effort on recalling the prompt, distracting from the task of producing the desired target language.

Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work(ing memory) we go...

But the problem of prompt wording goes beyond the simple echo effect, and into bigger questions of language processing.  On a few occassions, the course has prompts of the form:

So what would "" be? / So "" would be...?

Here we make life harder for working memory by interrupting the simple prompt with the phrase for translation.  Processing the interrupted clause further distracts our working memory from the target translation, and makes the task unnecessarily difficult.

What I strive to do in class is to make sure the students know what is expected of them with the minimum of prompting.  In the case of teaching-by-translation, MT-style, I would start a session with some explicit prompting, but quickly move to just giving them the target phrase with no other prompting.

Let them concentrate on the language, not on the classroom

14 November 2011

An example of language change: Genealogy.

Genealogy has always been moderately popular as a hobby, but in recent years it has become all the rage, thanks to TV programmes like the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? which shows celebrities and public figures tracing their family trees (and often crossing continents in the process).

Now, I had always thought the word was geneology, but the BBC and various websites disabused me of this notion.  But just the other day, one of the other students here mentioned that her dad was working on the family tree... and she said "geneology".

Let's have a look at the etymology of the word.

According to Etymonline, genealogy comes from the Greek "genea" (generation, descent), + "logia", (to speak about).  So originally -logy was about lecturers, and over time was generalised to experts, and hence knowledge.

Unfortunately, the English-speaking brain doesn't understand declension of nouns, so it sees the first morpheme as "gene", not "genea", and expects the "alogy" bit to be a single morpheme.  As most "-logy" words are "ologies" (biology, radiology, geology etc), we have generalised all -logies to -ologies.  (Even though Etymonline has the suffix entry as "-logy".)

Don't believe me?  Consider this famous advert from the 1980s:

If the English-speaking brain recognised the original morpheme boundary, would they have scripted it as "ology"?  And would we have understood as easily?  The popularity of the advert (it was a widely-used pop-culture reference for years after it stopped showing) suggests it's natural English.

Given all that, I can only conclude that the word is, to all intents and purposes "geneology", and that attempts to preserve the A are misguided.

Let English be English and let Greek be Greek.

09 November 2011

Overgeneralising and undergeneralising in general...

In English, we have two ways to talk about nouns in a general sense.  In normal speech, we say things like cats are vicious little creatures -- i.e. we use an indefinite plural.  In some very formal prose, you'll see instead the cat is a vicious little creature --i.e. a definite singular.

The existence of the second is probably just a case of "translationese" -- it arises in lots of translations of Latin works, and I believe it is used that way in most of the modern Romance languages (French, Italian etc).  Unfortunately this isn't easy for me to verify, as I have no idea whatsoever what to look for in the index of my grammar books.

Bizarrely, this fundamental (and straightforward) element of language seems to have been overlooked in the classical grammar models, so there is no common label for it (hence me not being able to look it up!).  This means it is often overlooked in teaching, too.  Many beginners' courses pass it by, and even when it comes up, you're not likely to get more than a little box-out mentioning it.  It's not really "taught" in the same way as other grammar points.  I suppose the reason for this goes back to the very basics of the structuralist view of grammar, which values form over meaning, and too often simply gives a few short sentences explaining usage after drilling form.

But we've been moving away from structuralism for quite some time now.  The in-general/universal has been marooned by the incoming tide, as functional and communicative approaches have picked up on the link between form and meaning in the noun and article for specifical and truly indefinite cases, but they've not integrated the general/universal with it.

This underemphasis of the general/universal is particularly noticeable in Gaelic.  It's not a subject I've seen come up often at all.  I read it in one book and one book only, and I don't believe I've ever heard it discussed ever in classes.  According to the book (well, my memory of it -- the book's 100 miles away), the general/universal in Gaelic is the definite singular. (The cat is a vicious little creature, the lion is a noble beast etc.)  And yet....

When you study the genitive in Gaelic, it may be pointed out to you that while "describer nouns" in English always stay singular even when representing a plural concept (for example "biscuit" in "biscuit tin", "tooth" in "toothbrush"), this isn't the case in Gaelic genitives, which have both singular and plural forms.

So I was giving a talk in a classroom debate, and I mentioned "teenage pregnancy" which I rendered as "leatromach nan deugairean" -- "pregnancy [of] the teenagers".  Genitive, plural.  After the class, I started asking myself if that was right, thinking of the general/universal rule.  Now I'm too confused and I'll just have to ask one of my teachers to try to clarify....

04 November 2011

Choose your terminology carefully

People often get confused with all these fancy words in language learning and teaching.  I discussed my basic views on terminology before, but I want to look at one of the big problems that poor thought over terminology can cause: false dichotomies caused by false opposites.

For example, in the use of reading or listening, we often talk about intensive and extensive input.
  • Extensive input means reading or listening to a lot.
  • Intensive input is reading or listening closely and carefully, perhaps going back over material to get a lot of detail.
These things are not opposites, and on a conscious, intellectual level, most people recognise this.  Of course, they're not completely compatible either, because it's hard to read a lot if you're reading it slowly and carefully.

But once you stop thinking very carefully, most people start talking about the two things as though they were truly opposite.  Why?  Because whoever chose the terminology wanted two names that looked like a set, but inadvertantly made them look like opposites.

(Of course, this is just an extreme example of the problem of counterintuitive grammatical terminology, such as "regular" in the earlier article).