Self-control (don’t eat the marshmallow YET)

This is a great presentation. Not sure if I have posted it before, but it’s probably worth a few minutes of your time (love the videos of kids at the end).

Listening and taking notes: harder than just listening?

I’ve been meaning to write something about this for a couple of weeks months now.

I started doing listening exercises this year in my university reading classes. Students listen to graded reader CDs as a class while taking notes, then talk in groups checking their understanding, and finally write a short summary of what they heard.

So far we’ve been doing short (two three minute) sections of level two reader CDs. These are texts that my students would be able to read easily, but they have trouble following it as audio. I presume this is because most high school students rarely if at all practice listening for more than a single sentence or short dialogue.

The feedback so far has been pretty good, with most students finding the practice interesting, challenging, and useful. They also appreciate the chance to practice listening, speaking, and writing in a short time.

However, there was one thing that came up that really surprised me. Many of the students have mentioned in feedback that they find it much harder to listen and take notes at the same time. I had assumed that taking notes would help them focus, but it seems that for a substantial minority this is not the case.

After receiving this feedback I allowed the students to take notes or not in the following class, and that seems to have solved the problem.

Does anyone have any similar experiences or articles/theories that address this? It was fairly counterintuitive to me, although I guess it makes sense that the increased mental load of having to filter the content to take notes would make it harder to actually process the language…

Thai (lack of) progress

Okay, so we are now two months into 2012, and my Thai study is going nowhere very slowly.

This has been a very interesting exercise for me, both from a learning point of view, and as a way to test out my theories regarding how best to study a language. Now, it has been very clear to me from observing my students that learning preferences and habits are extremely personal and vary widely among individuals. Some of my students take to internet drills, some like reading, some spend hours writing journals, and some, despite my best efforts, do nothing.

I am definitely not a self-directed learner. I like the idea of input, but at the end of the day I need the structure and encouragement provided by a teacher, a class, or by actually living in a foreign language environment.

Come to think of it, I have done all my language learning under one or more of those conditions. This is the first time for me to try to learn a language on my own, outside of a place where it is spoken. It is not going well.

There are many examples of successful language learners who have succeeded under similar conditions. Khatsumoto for Japanese, or Steve Kaufmann for all sorts of languages. They rely on masses of input, supplemented with judicious use of SRS (spaced repetition system online flashcard applications). I completely agree with the approach, and see great results from those of my students that follow my advice. So what’s my problem?

I have been listening to the Learn Thai Podcast materials, which are pretty good, but in all fairness are nowhere near adequate to take me to Thai language mastery. I need a foundation of basic phrases to provide a base, then a huge amount of input supplemented by the ‘teaching’ in the podcasts, as well as conversation practice/tutoring once I get a bit better.

I have three fairly serious issues I need to overcome first:

1. I can’t read Thai yet. This is a huge hurdle because it is preventing me from getting input through reading (probably the best way to get lots of input fast)
2. I haven’t found good sources for input (radio, videos, music)
3. I haven’t found anyone to help me with Thai or hold me accountable for (not) studying

It’s fairly clear what I need to do.  I need to learn Thai phonics and the alphabet. I need to find videos, TV, and music that I like and make sure I spend a chunk of time each day with it. And I am going to need a teacher or class to keep me focused. That last point is particular to me. I tend to get distracted and lose interest in things, so I need an external motivator to help me.

Okay, round two. I’ll keep you posted.


Are we stealing dreams?

Seth Godin, who is an internet/new media/publishing/idea guru, just published a manifesto aimed at starting (or continuing) a conversation about the future of education. Very much in the same vein as Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk on the same subject, Stop Stealing Dreams (what is school for?) is a 30,000 word ebook that is currently available for free. Based on his previous work, it’s probably worth your time.

Amazing Minds 2011

I’m on the train on the way back to Sendai now, after a long, tiring, and wonderful weekend talking and learning about teaching. Pearson Kirihara was kind enough to invite me to their annual study meet, Amazing Minds, held in Tokyo this year.

The basic idea behind the event is that the publisher’s sales representatives nominate teachers all over Japan who are then contacted to see if they want to attend. Pearson picks up the tab for travel, accommodation, and food, and puts on a two-day program of presentations, discussions, and informal gatherings. Apparently it’s supposed to be a chance for the company to give back to the teaching community, to join and contribute to the dialogue on teaching in Japan, and to get to know individual teachers better.

I was initially skeptical, although having two of my friends (John Wiltshier and Ann Mayeda) presenting made it a lot easier for me to say yes and make the effort to clear my schedule.

The program for the event was three blocks: one on Saturday followed by dinner, then two on Sunday. Each block consisted of an initial one-hour lecture followed by a ninety-minute group activity session, and finally a feedback session  to finish off. Each block was three and a half hours, a long time when you are out of practice concentrating. I got a good sense of what my university students go through most days (they have up to five ninety minute lectures per day).

The three lectures were:

“Two Pathways for Successful Language Learning”, John Wiltshier

“Teaching in 2020: Rethinking the Classroom Environment”, Ann Mayeda

“Lesson Analysis Checklist for Elementary School English Education”, Emiko Yukawa


I have to say I really enjoyed the presentations and came away with dozens of actionable ideas. Overall it was a great experience. I did notice a few things that could be tweaked to make it even better, but I have already passed those on to the organizers and don’t need to mention them here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the highlights.

Probably the biggest realization came during the first lecture, as John was talking about procedural and declarative memory, as well as the optimal period for language acquisition. It came to me quite suddenly that perhaps I am not a normal language learner. After all, I learned my first second language when I was five, in a total immersion environment. I have been at least intermediate in six languages, and find it fairly easy to pick up new ones mainly through input and trial and error. Very few people have this kind of background.

The problem is that I have made all sorts of assumptions about teaching and learning that are based on the possibly mistaken belief that my own experiences are generalizable -that I can teach my students as I would like to be taught and this will provide them with an optimal learning environment. If I am an outlier, however, this is unlikely to be ideal for my students. There will possibly be more effective ways of helping them learn and I will have to go back and examine literally everything I do once again with an open mind.

This seems fairly obvious when I write it here, but it seriously had not really occurred to me before.

Fortuitously, my beliefs about language learning are mainly a bias towards large amounts of input of the appropriate level, a desire to encourage my students to become self-directed and independent learners, and a tendency to believe that learners need to practice in order to improve (ie listen if they want to get better at listening, talk if they want to talk, and so on). I don’t think any of these are harmful.

The second, perhaps less revolutionary, but more specific breakthrough came from Ann’s presentation on flipping the classroom. Much like the Khan Academy, she is interested in ways teachers and learners can lever technology in order to do more outside the classroom, in turn allowing them to use their limited class time on more efficient or productive activities.

It’s a concept I have been very interested for a long time, as it ties in with my own beliefs about the best ways to learn a language.

Independent, self-directed learning is the only way students can possibly get the necessary amount of input and practice they will need to master English. The amount of time is several orders of magnitude larger than even the most specialized or intensive language course could provide. Using the power of the internet to facilitate this means that it is easier than ever for students to come into contact with foreign languages.

The only specifically new things for me in the presentation were several iPad/iPhone apps, but the real value came from the way I was reminded of various extremely promising ideas that I had meant to implement, but that had somehow ended up on the back burner.

Creating a Youtube channel for my students, pre-teaching things online so that students to go over them as many times as they need to in order to master them, introducing online resources in a more systematic way, monitoring and advising students as they explore various self-study options.

Hopefully I’ll be able to get started on one or more of these in the near future. I will definitely keep you posted.

Finally, Yukawa-sensei’s presentation gave me a good look at a systematic way of assessing classes and lesson plans. Again, there was nothing new in this presentation, but it was a great opportunity to once again go back and think about things in a slightly different light.

I used to do a lot of classroom observation when I was the ALT Advisor at the Miyagi Board of Education, and although I didn’t have anything as elegant as Yukawa-sensei’s checklist, I was looking at similar things.

I’ll be applying to checklist to my own classes this week, and predict that I will find several areas to work on during the next few months.

I really enjoyed the weekend and hope Pearson continues putting on these events for teachers and that they consider having me back again sometime.

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