Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Teaching in the New World

I've become a little frustrated at lack of data, so I've scattered an appeal in three different places: in the writing lab where I work, in the meeting of ESL teachers and graduate students, and finally, in my class itself, which is a high-level class training people to become teachers at the university. This last one has students in many departments, Math, Chemistry, Petroleum; many of them are at the end of their learning curve, having succeeded in almost everything in English, except perhaps the tone, or the rhythm, or their ability to answer questions successfully.

So today, in a short interlude where we were waiting for a student to show up for his midterm, I posed a question to them: How has technology changed your learning, the way you learn, the way you write, or your understanding of grammar? And then, how is teaching in the New World going to be different from the way we have always understood teaching?

One teacher pointed out that learning in her country, and generation, always involved writing things out in elaborate, or at least careful script - but that students today don't want to learn cursive, and in fact it is being downplayed in the schools, not even taught in some cases. Given the choice between working it out on the board, or using smart-board technology to get it where you can see and manipulate the figures, they'll go for the smart-board every time. This implies to me that if you were to have an essay test, and simply demand that students write out an answer, by hand, that consisted of two or more sentences, they'd actually be at a disadvantage.

Students reported a phenomenon. A Brazilian student had a nephew, six years old, already fluent in listening to English; the Saudi student had seen the same thing in the son of a friend. YouTube is available everywhere; it has good things that they want to see. They watch it over and over again. Their ability to hear it and understand is very good. They are not always able to transform this into spoken English fluency, but their general ability to manage spoken television/YouTube English is much better than it used to be. I asked other students if they had noticed this phenomenon; they had. Increased availability of entertaining English is definitely part of the New World paradigm.

One student pointed out a glaring weakness of the computer translators: humor, which is at a very high level, and often depends on tone. Computers can't pick this up yet, he said, implying that they were on their way to being able to deconstruct, use and interpret tone. But for now, such things as SNL are totally beyond them, since they can't provide or understand the cultural context for most of the humor.

As students (and I only had a few of them; roughly four or five remained, the rest taking the midterm on other days) they freely admitted that they knew more about technology than their teacher did. They used it at home if they could. It was very convenient for understanding and doing certain things. Generally the teacher did not approve of it, either because it created language the teacher didn't approve of, or because getting the computer to do something was allowing the student to not do it. Of course, they would not always tell the teacher of the technology they were using to do their assignments. They were well aware that sometimes the computer gave them the wrong translation of a word.

One said something really perceptive about the new Google Translate app. Such apps, he said, are really useful if you are just visiting a country. I go to China, he says, I need to know a few words & phrases, like "bathroom", "Give me three of these," and "thank you!" But we can't expect such things to teach us the language. And we can't learn the language in a couple of weeks anyway. His point, I think, is that what we consider "learning the language" really is learning the grammar, because it deals with the way words are used together, and the pure word-word translation part of it, which may involve some pronunciation issues, is readily accessible by computer. 

Based on my discussions with students, I have formulated a number of questions. First, how do students view teachers who prohibit technology altogether? Second, if students know more about apps than teachers do, generally, how do students feel that teachers are keeping up? Would they always tell the teacher about a new app that made their life easier? 

How many students now have the Google app? What is the likelihood that they are sharing this information with their teachers? How are they finding it most or least useful?

Is it even possible for them to identify the structures they've had the most trouble with, on the basis of what they know and have been through? For example, most students can look back from this point of relative fluency, and say, in effect, I've had trouble with the passive; the word grammar-check kept telling me it was wrong. With a little coaching they will tell you what they learned from the computer, and whether or not they learned or gathered some false information, and they may even be aware of trouble they had as a result. But most often, they're aware of this on a less accessible plane, still struggling with it, still basically unwilling to share their struggle with a teacher. After a while I felt like I was pulling teeth. They either didn't know what had confused them (although passive voice is a subject that comes up regularly) or were barely aware of what they didn't know.

If our generation learned things by writing them out in cursive, using kinesthetic learning techniques, one could say, to engrave things in our brains. Obviously the younger people are tending to find these of no use; they don't want to take notes or write things out by hand. So, are they learning things more shallowly, or not at all? Can one simply transfer the skill of learning through cursive to learning through tapping on a keyboard?

Finally, if a generation of Anglophiles pounds on our door, having watched YouTube for fifteen years, but never having written a sentence, what will we do? Will their good listening skill and easy familiarity with American cultural norms transfer into a faster learning curve? The old Krashen doctrine said that listening came first, and was the foundation of all other learning, that oral interaction skills preceded everything else and was an essential and basic component of their learning. They should, based on what we know, have a foundation of something. Whether this aligns with the kind of knowledge that will really help them, remains to be seen. And what we should do about it? I'm not sure.

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