21 December 2012

Classroom activity: the ever-expanding story

When I started learning Gaelic, I was learning from a very experienced teacher.  She was a retired headmistress (former music teacher) and had been teaching Gaelic since she gave up her previous job.  (Dr Margaret MacKinnon, a long-serving judge at the Gaelic music festival "the Mod".)

It was an intensive week-long course and towards the end of the week she had us lined up on the steps of the outdoor amphitheatre (it was a gorgeous sunny day) and she got us to tell a story.  The rule was simple: repeat everything that had already been said, then add something.

I liked this, and I've frequently gone back to analyse why.

My first attempt at an explanation was this:
It is easy to try to translate received language into your native language.  It is easy to remember the story as the meaning only, and forget about the words.  With a short sentence, you can usually get away with translating backwards and forwards.  As the sequence grew longer, the complexity of trying to mentally juggle the original sentence, the translation and meaning became too great.  The most efficient way to carry out the task was to stick with the Gaelic.

So that was my first thought: it "maxes out" your brain, forcing you to be more efficient.

Now I recently tried something similar but without the repetition -- just the addition of words.  It was only partially successful, leading to two further observations:
  1. The complexity of the structure of the story and language is supported by the repetition.
  2. The need to repeat is a great piece of classroom management.
The second realisation was useful to me.  Too many tasks leave gaps in the need for student attention, and it's in those gaps that many of my lessons have fallen apart.  If everyone listens -- if everyone has to listen -- the teacher owns the class.

The first one is pretty interesting to me, as I'm very much against rote learning, so of course I had to justify to myself why this repetition isn't rote. ;-)

Well, for one thing, they're not going to be able to recite the story the day after, so it's not really rote "learning", even if it's a somewhat rote process.  Well that's sophistry, so I couldn't really kid myself on with that for very long.

The second justification is that I found that the longer the sentence got, the more I needed to visualise the story in order to remember it.  You can repeat a short phrase parrot-fashion, but it takes a long time to memorise a long passage if you don't understand it.  Therefore the student is forced to engage in the material meaningfully.  This is just a refinement of my earlier assessment of it as a "maxing out" of the brain, but I believe it's crucial to addressing classroom problems in all activities.

Too many tasks that I have been faced with as a learner have left me with the choice between a rote, mechanical approach to solving the problem and a meaningful approach.  I've always chosen the meaningful approach, which is what makes me a successful learner.  The least successful learners are the ones who chose the mechanical approach -- but that's not the learner's mistake, it's the teacher's mistake, because the human brain always seeks the most efficient approach to complete the task at hand.  If the easiest way to complete a language task is a mechanical one, that's bad task design.

I cannot emphasise this point enough.  I have spoken to a great many teachers who simply don't get it.  They say my approach is the "correct" one, and what others should be doing too.  They blame the weaker students for making the wrong choice.  But how can they make that choice if they don't know what it is?  I knew how to learn because I was taught to learn: I spent most of my pre-school hours in the care of my mother, a fully-qualified school teacher, playing with educational toys.  I did not need to be taught how to learn, but the others did.  Please don't ask students to make a choice until you've started to teach them how to make that choice...

But I'm diverging from the activity....

So we've got a task that requires attention, discourages distraction, forces the student to process language efficiently and meaningfully

The next big concept I picked up on was the idea of "mirror neurones".  I had long believed that receiving and producing language were intrinsically linked, and that we understood others by considering what would make us say the things that the other party says.

Then I read about mirror neurone theory, which claims that this is pretty much what happens.  So does the activity put words in your mouth?  Are the students going through the process of production every time they hear this language that they now understand?  I hope so, and even as the teacher doing this task in English, I feel myself "speaking" in my head while the students are trying to recall the whole story.

But today I refined my views further in terms of gamification, which I have been thinking about a lot lately.

My lack of belief in gamification has been previously documented here, and can be summed up as "gamification isn't about the core mechanics of a game, and it's the mechanics of the game that make a game 'fun'."  In a gamified classroom, this activity would be rejected as there are no scores and no winners and losers.  There is no "competition" or "achievements".

If you tried to add anything like that in, you would reduce the effectiveness of the game.  When Margaret did it with us, she encouraged us to correct our own mistakes before continuing.  When I do it with my students, I correct their mistakes and work them into the story.   If a frequent pairing comes out in the wrong order due to the turn-taking, I stop and I fix it, and the language content improves (eg if one student said "butter..." and the next said "...and bread", I would correct it to the neutral order "bread and butter" to prevent rehearsing an unusual collocation).

But the only way of scoring it would be to penalise mistakes, which would probably result in much shorter and much less effective sentences.

However, the activity has a natural "game mechanic" which is solid and motivates learning: there is a challenge, and the challenge increases, and as you face the challenge you learn to cope with it.  That's what a game is: learning to progressively cope with more and more difficult, and more and more varied, challenges.  "Gamifying" this activity, like most educational activities, would kill "the game" that's already there... which is why gamification is such a waste of time.

So after all that theory and pontification, here's:

The activity

Arrange the class such that there is a clear order.  That can be rows, a single line, or a circle.

Say one, two or three words to start the story.

The first student repeats your words, then adds 1, 2 or 3 of his own.
The second repeats his, and adds 1, 2 or 3 more.

Now it's vital that this happens quickly.  Some students will want to stop and think of "what" to say when a quick "so he", "then it" or even just "and" keeps the game moving and leaves it to the next person to finish (and they've got the whole time of the repeat to think of something).

Correct errors.  Make sure they're repeating correct language.

It will stutter and slow down.  Some people will need prompting with a few words to jog their memory.  Keep it going for a while longer -- don't restart at the first forgotten word.

But at some point stop it and start afresh -- a few problems is a challenge, but too many is frustrating, which is never good.

Don't let them write it down -- that just gives them a way to stop paying attention.  (In a very mixed group, it might seem necessary for the weakest, but it's a survival strategy and it seems to reduce the educational value.)

So why all that pontificating before?

Why didn't I just explain the activity on its own, before all the theorising?

Because a learning task must serve a purpose and the teacher must know what that purpose is.

Because I'm personally tired of seeing teaching activities described without giving a clear description and justification of what they're supposed to achieve and how.

Because I don't want readers to see the activity and then "adapt" it without fully understanding what it currently does.  I don't want people to delete the repetition on grounds of being "boring" or "rote" -- the activity is far more boring without it.

And maybe mostly because I'm a self-important wee so-and-so who loves the sound of his own voice.  Aren't we all?

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