I don’t think I’ll ever cease to be blown away by twitter and what all the connections we can make there. Even though I can’t put my finger on the exact moment I met Fiona Mauchline on twitter, I certainly remember the moment her thoughts called my attention. If I’m not mistaken, after one or two innocent tweets with another tweep, the discussion got momentum and, as it usually happens on twitter, a whole bunch of tweeps came onboard to join the discussion, and Fiona was one of these. At that very moment, I knew it would be a great chance for me to have a guest post here, as she was certainly making me do some thinking. She’s also the author of two blogs, macappella and blood, sweat, and gazpacho. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her post, and I do hope you all enjoy it too – oh, and Fiona, I’ll definitely have you back for part 2!! It was definitely worth the while! Now, without further ado, here it comes!!
La Pasión Turca
Holes in the Wall and Postman knocked twice.
At the recent ISTEK conference, Scott Thornbury gave a plenary session listing the six most significant influences on or sources of inspiration for his own professional development and direction. As is becoming the norm for these events, Twitter was a-flutter with tweets during the plenary, and while many merely passed on the birdsong, some chirped in less dulcit, more sceptical tones.
Of course, a good plenary will always provoke anti as well as pro opinions – the worst thing that can happen to you in a talk is to provoke no opinions whatsoever – but as I read the tweets, I couldn’t help but feel that some people were either simplifying to the extreme or slightly missing the point, in relation to two of the ‘influences’. Since then, I have found myself pondering those tweets and what it was that made me feel uneasy, sense that those tweeting weren’t looking closely enough. I have found myself pulling over into lay-bys to take notes and chewing my pen in coffee bars. This post is the result of those ponderings and, as such, is totally non-empirical, but if you don’t mind that and a couple of spoilers, read on.
Part I: Holes in the Wall (of dissent)
In 1999, Professor Sugata Mitra, now of Newcastle University in the UK, carried out the first of a series of experiments he called the Hole in the Wall (HIW) experiments whereby he literally made a hole in a wall in a rundown urban district in New Delhi, India, and installed a kiosk containing a computer. He also installed hidden cameras nearby and waited and watched what happened. Local children crowded round to teach themselves to use the computer and the internet, with no external ‘bothering’ by teachers. Mitra called this Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). With the success of this initial experiment, other hole-in-the-wall computers were installed in India and, latterly, in Cambodia, and the results were similar. As a by-note, these experiments were also the original inspiration for the scriptwriter of Slumdog Millionaire… However… What Scott said he had drawn from these experiments was the fact that children – or learners – do actually have an innate desire to learn and will both absorb information and be motivated to learn if the circumstances are right. These experiments also favour learner-centred learning and put a huge question mark over the role of Teacher as generally perceived by The Establishment. In fact, they show that a teacher – or at least an adult Teacher is not always necessary.
But the tweets went out ‘Ah but they worked because it was all about technology’ ‘It was using computers that made the experiments work’ ‘How curious that S Thornbury should be inspired by experiments showing that computers help education’. And this is where I beg to differ.
Professor Sugata Mitra works in Educational Technology, yes. That is his current field and he was using those experiments to find out if using computers and the internet is something that kids can learn for themselves. Rather like Chomsky might try to find out of we have grammar hard-wired into our brains. That was his ‘agenda’, if we can overlook the negative connotations of that phrase.
However, Sugata Mitra is not a Mr, he’s not a research students or a Microsoft employee, he’s a Professor, and a polymath at that. He has also worked in other scientific fields, and what brought about his interest in computer networks was his work on neural networks and cognitive science. By the time he carried out his HIW experiment, he had also being studying learning styles as well as learning devices for years. So it’s fair to say that he probably based his experiments on rather more than a desire to find out/show how cool computers are in their ability to teach children to, um, use computers (NB not to teach them languages). And personally I think the conclusions that can be drawn from the experiments are multiple. The following are my own.
In terms of showing the virtues of technology per se, the bottom line is that the HIW experiments proved that use of computers and the internet is easily self-taught (backed up by the fact that even I’ve managed it) or semi-peer taught (peer-teaching was also highly influential in the children’s success), which, in turn, suggests that overt teacher-led teaching of internet/computer use in schools is a waste of time as, given the right environment, kids will teach it to themselves. This should ideally result in an effect on school time-tabling… It also means that we can get on with our jobs as language teachers and have little responsibility, moral or otherwise, for teaching IT, which in turn means that doing IT (pun intended) or not doesn’t much matter, as you aren’t intrinsically smarter, more professional etc. either way. It simply indicates different teaching styles, different choices, different preferences, underlying characteristics of being human.
It also means that, despite what many of us ‘older’ (ie more aged) language teaching types may think, technology will only add a WOW factor to our teaching in areas where access to computer/internet use is rare; in other areas, children will be self-taught from an early age and furthermore will simply ‘do IT’ without much thought. Technology will not make a class memorable just because. We should only use technology in class where it’s fully justified (and sometimes it is), not because we think it’s ‘gonna be cool’. T’ain’t what you use, it’s the way that you use it, to paraphrase an old jazz number. Common sense to many, unfathomable to a few.
However, on the other hand and nevertheless…
to my mind, Sugata Mitra’s experiments showed a lot more than a couple of characteristics of technology. What the children were actually doing rather than what they were using is more significant in terms of implications to language learning. Without any reference to Mitra’s conclusions, here are mine (largely drawn up while sitting in the car) with some implications as I see them.
The HIW experiments were about kinaesthetic-visual learning. Much teacher-fronted teaching is aimed at ears, which is pointless in a society where children find listening harder and harder. In many cases we actually need to sharpen students’ listening skills before we can start. The HIW experiments were based on, essentially, hitting keys in a trial & error way, reading instructions on the screen and then clicking on the appropriate thing, watching other children using the computers, and working together. Children learn to use video consoles in the same way, so perhaps it’s not news in the area of children-using-technology, but the kinaesthetic-visual combination is also behind the huge success of the scratch & sniff Geronimo Stilton books which have seen many 8-10 year-olds start reading for pleasure, expanding vocabulary and improving literacy. Not just black words on a white page, these books incorporate words written in a way that makes their meaning clear, and include scratch & sniff pages to appeal to/revolt the senses. The books are fun, and they work. So perhaps language teaching should pay even more attention to this combination, using more mechanical, visual, and sensory stimuli to enhance learning, and making the teacher’s voice/presence less intrusive, more of another resource or back-up system on hand for support. Personally, I have worked a lot with this idea, particularly with under 8s and over 13s, with wonderful results, and others I know who have also worked with it say the same.
Secondly, what children in the HIW experiments were doing was a type of puzzle-solving, an activity which is intrinsically motivating (think of the popularity of Sudokus, crosswords, illusionists etc) and forms the basis of much of our learning in life. I noticed last December at our town’s Christmas Market that the stall you could hardly get near was one selling wooden puzzles. In particular, boys and men would stand mesmerised trying to rebuild a town, release a bottle or fit all the pieces back together. At this ‘hands on’ stall, the concentration was total, the sense of satisfaction great and, I suspect, the sales figures impressive. So if problem-solving has such a pull, whether in middle-class Spain or less salubrious areas of New Delhi, why not incorporate more into language teaching? Yes, many ELT materials nowadays do (although the grammar box still refuses to relinquish its grip) and some teachers do, but there is still too little of it and too much spoon-feeding. Yes, educational software is good for problem-solving, but it is not unique.
Thirdly, as well as learning from the screen and from trial and error, the children learnt from each other. Peers replaced adult teachers. This has always been the case, for example when kids get together to kick a ball around or to build a kite/tree-house/den/go-cart. The implications here are clear – group/team work, peer-teaching/correction. Again, the teacher’s role in the language classroom should be reviewed and this idea of group constructed knowledge embedded in teacher training not only for us CELTA/DELTA types but across the board.
Finally, the HIW experiments strike me as being somewhat rooted in behaviourism – as much of human learning is – in a ‘get it wrong, it doesn’t work; get it right, yippee’ sort of way. So my final implication is that children should be allowed to get it wrong and not be penalised during the learning process, simply encouraged to try again until they get it right (‘right’ meaning ‘get their message across, achieve communication’ at early stages – polishing can come as they develop and become used to reworking, to trying again, rather than to being demotivated by red pen and numbers). Rewards should be as significant if not more so than penalties. A sense of ‘you’ve won the key to the next stage’ would replicate the computer experiment observations and what keeps kids on those pesky video games for hours 😉 This, of course, means reviewing how we deal with errors and feedback.
Now I’ve far outstayed my welcome, but there was another ‘big idea’ that got a volley of tweets and, indeed, is still causing ripples and waves, so I shall leave Part II of La Pasión Turca (dangerously called Postman (always) knocked twice) for another day…. if Henrick will have me back!
I live in Cáceres in Spain, a beautiful and inspiring sort of place to live, and I’m a teacher, trainer, writer. mother and life-enjoyer. Although I originally trained as a translator and interpreter, I’ve been in ELT since the late 80s and, as a person who trained when Headway was just out, I now tend to teach dogme and am co-moderator of the Dogme web group. I’m big into visualisation, sensory stimuli for the imagination, motivating even the ‘grottiest’ of teens, learner-generated materials and a heap of other things, many of which are not related to teaching, but I give workshops on the ones that are ELT related. I’ve also written coursebooks and other ELT materials.