Thursday, 21 February 2008

PHEWW - thank you Wikispaces!

Just as I thought, despite some little gnawing doubts, an unexpected server failure at Wikispaces was soon fixed as the day started in the western parts of the world. I am so relieved! All my project work is up and running as it should be.

I was particularly impressed by the efficiency of the Wikispaces team in sending personal email replies to those who had queried about this. What a nice touch - much missed in my part of the world! I just love Wikispaces and would recommend it to any teacher. Top marks for their dedication and professionalism.

One thing that this experience made me remember is that it's actually real people behind all these Internet services and widgets and bells and whistles. Sometimes I tend to ignore this when it's just me, my laptop, the keyboard and stuff that I can magically make happen on the screen. It's reassuring to know that there are people I can turn to when technology doesn't do what I would expect it to.

Then again, we do hear about communication cables being cut in the ocean that disrupt Internet connections between continents, or friends mysteriously losing all their digital photos from their hard discs. What if one day the whole WWW shuts down? Oh well, rather than fretting about Internet doom, I will continue my adventures in the wonderland of 21st-century technology, with a little help from my friends on the net every now and then.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The issue of language in global school projects

During my short time of online networking, I have got to know and enjoy many blogs of American teachers, some of them teaching around the world in American or international schools. A lot is going on in this world, so much so that it seems to me that a lot of Europe is still hopelessly stuck in old 20th-century school practises while American educators are boldly going where no teacher has ever gone before. Not a surprise to me, though. I can still remember one great insight I got into the American spirit while spending my Fulbright year there. I and my family travelled to North Carolina where we visited the Wright brothers’ memorial at Kitty Hawk.

Sitting at the foot of the monument on that hill, it suddenly dawned on me how Europe is filled with statue after statue and memorial after memorial of ancient kings and queens, war heroes and philosophers. But Kitty Hawk celebrated two courageous and determined inventors who went to great lengths to fulfil their dream that would radically transform the whole world. Sometimes I feel that in Europe novel approaches are stifled with too much cynicism and caution. At least in my country, people with high academic degrees and learned book knowledge are generally more valued than dynamic, innovative practitioners.

The same goes for implementing 21st-century technology into schools. In Finland, there is a lot of lip service about the educational use of online tools, but not much action yet. Talk about computer games for learning here and you are labelled as a recklessly irresponsible teacher. Learning is not supposed to be entertaining or fun! Talk about the many advantages of American schools, eg. building students’ self-confidence and presentation skills, which greatly impressed me during my teaching year in the US, and most of my colleagues are all too keen to point out how poor, in their opinion, Americans’ general knowledge about anything outside their own country is. So many stereotypes, prejudices, and unquestionable ethnocentric conceptions. True, maybe much of it is to do with the hard to change educational institutions in general. The American blogs I read are probably written by a group of pioneers, while the vast majority of schools and teachers there are still as oblivious to the dire need of shifting schools as we are here in Europe. I’m just speculating here, of course.

Anyway, I can’t help being fascinated to see all the marvellous online projects being carried out in English-speaking schools around the world. I have got a lot of inspiration and helpful ideas from them into my own projects – so far almost exclusively carried out with other non-native English-speaking students. I feel it’s a pity that the popular belief is that there is no point in trying to involve any native English speakers in these projects, since they would very soon get bored and tired of their language being so imperfectly used by EFL speakers. Then again, I can see why. It often makes me cringe to realize how dull and unimaginative even my brightest and most intelligent students come across in English. It’s not their fault, though. They are still made to learn the language as an objective linguistic system, totally separate from their personality. When confronted with an authentic language use situation they are unaccustomed to expressing their true selves in this foreign medium.

I feel teachers around the world should take the challenge to collaborate much more across these linguistic lines. But it will require a fair bit of adjustment from both sides. Firstly, we EFL teachers will have to work towards making our students confident communicators in English to be able to express their ideas clearly and interestingly enough to be taken seriously by native speakers. By the same token, native English teachers will have to sensitise their students to be empathetic towards others who may not be quite so eloquent in their use of English. Intercultural communication should be part of everybody’s education, not only dealt with in foreign language classes.

Another challenge will be to find the common ground in different curricula around the world. Foreign language teachers, like myself, will have to remember that they can’t simply expect native speakers to be nothing but language practise partners for their students. Similarly, native speakers can’t expect students from other countries to play the role of mere informants for a particular curriculum unit they happen to be studying.

I feel that everybody’s worldview would be significantly broadened and global communication enhanced if young students had more experience in collaborative projects including both native and non-native English speakers.

Orville Wright by cpence on Flickr


What a shock this morning when I was going to continue getting my wikispaces finalised for the launch of a new project involving several schools in different countries. I worked on the site last night, without any problem. Yet, this morning, all I got was this:

Nothing but the frame of the page, but all the contents just plain BLANK! Hours and hours of work just disappeared. OUCH! Silly me, haven't made any backups either...

Judging from a bunch of posts in the wikispaces discussion from others experiencing the same problem, I am keeping my fingers crossed that it is just a temporary hitch and will soon be sorted out by the wikispaces team. Oh, I do hope so! You see, I have a couple of other wikis, too, that all have this same problem now. A lot of the stuff in those is totally irretrievable. Gone with the wind...

I guess what I am learning here is to keep regularly saving backups for all my online content in the future. As I am not an ICT specialist, but rather a lay-person user of the tools, I have been just blithely enjoying all the wonderful new services without a care in the world about their possible vulnerability.

I am still optimistic and hopeful, and promise that the moment my pages are back online, I will start making the backups. Please, please, keep your fingers crossed for me!

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

What is meaningful learning today?

While buried under a never-ending pile of exams to mark again (and increasingly frustrated with the poor-average performance of our students), I've tried to get inspired for the starting new courses. What I am trying to come to grips with is how to make constructivism the guiding principle in most of what is done in my classes. From my recent reading I want to quote David H. Jonassen's insights into meaningful learning. I found this quote from Jonassen's 'Learning to solve problems with technology' (2003) by Zia Ahmadi in the Journal of Educational Computing, Design & Online learning.

Children learn best by constructing their own knowledge. They learn better from each other. Learning best occurs when the teacher does not “teach,” but guides the students and facilitates the learning process by creating a productive environment in which the students can discover, explore, and build an artifact. David Jonassen argues that meaningful learning will occur when technologies engage learners in:

• Knowledge construction, not reproduction

• Conversation, not reception

• Articulation, not repetition

• Collaboration, not competition

• Reflection, not prescription

(Jonassen, p. 15)

A good list to remember when planning and introducing my new project to students. You see, with the type of students we receive in our school (mostly average and below) it's sometimes a hard job to sell any new practices, since many of the students just seem to prefer the 'old method', ie. leisurely passing the time while the teacher does the traditional 'chalk and talk' routine. No effort needed from students if they so choose. But what a waste of young, active, inquisitive minds!

Tuesday, 5 February 2008


LUXURY! For our next grading period (some 6-7 weeks) I will be able to teach two out of my 3 groups in a classroom equipped with a mounted dataprojector on the ceiling (we are still waiting for these to be installed in all the classrooms!). Not much of a 21st-century setting yet, but as I've written before, we all have to start somewhere. If only I could still get some sense and organisation into this mess in the drawer of the teacher's desk!!!

This is what happens in schools, where teachers haven't even got their own classrooms, let alone their own laptops! At the moment, if something doesn't work with the laptop or the projector, I simply get frustrated and totally paralysed with this jungle of wires (remember, I am an absolute tech-amateur language teacher!). Luckily, my students are usually capable of helping me out. So, first job this week, do something about this and insist that the colleagues sharing this classroom keep it tidy in the future!

I must say I am slightly envious of my colleagues around the world, who teach in 1:1 schools, such as Clay Burrell in Korea, or what Ewan McIntosh wrote about Pine Crest School in Florida, just to mention two of the edu-bloggers that I regularly follow. Although I agree that it's not ultimately about technology and the equipment, still, you can only do as much if you lack the gear.

Just less than a decade ago Finland professed to be among the top countries in the world as far as technology in schools was concerned. I can remember how I used to visit project schools elsewhere and boast that we had a modern computer lab and even some student computers in the corridors. In 2008, however, I'm afraid Finland has already fallen way behind. Not much is said about the necessary shift in pedagogy to move into a 21st-century learning environment. Simply having a dataprojector in class is considered top-notch! And even that is only randomly used by a few teachers, since the rest are so much in awe of this new-fangled technology that they prefer their safe old OHP transparencies. Talk about activating students... It keep amazing me that teachers in Finland can afford to selfishly object to integrating the latest technologies in their classrooms. Is there any other profession where an employee could simply refuse to use the computer - shop assistants, bank clerks, doctors, journalists... almost anybody else?? You'd soon make yourself unemployable in any other field, but oh no, not if you have secured a permanent tenure in a Finnish school.

At the end of the day, though, who am I to sneer at any of my colleagues? Even I am not much more than a fledgling dabbler in Web 2.0. But at least, for the next courses I will be able to enliven my English classes with up-to-date BBC news flashes, or interesting YouTube videos every now and then. And to bring in a bit of authentic interactive learning, I will be able to use the computer room once a week, to carry out an Asia-Europe project on young people's use of technology. I guess I should really be thankful for small mercies. And really, if learning is supposed to be most efficient if it involves authentic problem-solving situations, I am happy about these challenges, which constantly give me good learning experiences. I must admit, though, that sometimes I wish it wasn't such an uphill, lonely struggle every step of the way.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Metaphors for teaching

After reading interesting posts in the Students 2.0 blog about how today’s teens see learning, I started to reflect on how I see teaching, and my role as a teacher. My first reaction is to question the connotations of the actual words ‘teacher’ and ‘teach’. In my language, at least, they infer a one-way process where the teacher, who is in authority and sole possession of knowledge, transfers this knowledge to a group of ignorant students. I actually tried to find the etymology of the English ‘teach’ and ‘teacher’. Apparently, in Old English the verb ‘to teach’ had the meaning “to show, point out”, whereas to indicate “to teach, instruct, guide” a verb, which is the source of modern ‘learn’ was used. Today we seem to have gone back to include the idea of teachers partly being co-learners in class again. Funny enough, before gaining its modern meaning around the 14th century, ‘teacher’ was used to mean ‘index finger’! This instantly evokes angry and intimidating caricature characters like this, at least in my imagination.

Unfortunately, even if not angry, many teachers still consider themselves as the controllers of learning in front of the class. They keep complaining about the inability and laziness of students, who don’t seem to remember what they, in their well-meaning wisdom, have told them hundreds of times. The old behaviourist belief that teaching (=telling/lecturing/pointing out) will inevitably lead to learning hasn’t yet been replaced by new constructivist methods in most classrooms. Some colleagues even feel that they are not properly earning their salaries if they don’t teach (=speak) in class most of the time, and spend countless hours outside the classroom chewing and organising all the material required by the curriculum into easily digestible chunks to then serve to the students.

However, it’s a totally different story when you start focusing on what actually happens in the students’ heads in class. Are they learning? And if not, why not? I can repeat the same old English grammar rules till I’m blue in the face, and still, over half the class never get it – the same infuriating mistakes recur on too many exam papers, course after course, year after year. Brings to mind the old slogan used in an MTV environmental campaign: If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

So, if I don’t want to be a teacher in the traditional sense, what should I call myself then? A facilitator, a guide, a trainer, a coach? In fact, why try to be clever and think of a new name, I am still a teacher, but in the 21st century the meaning of the words ‘teacher’ and ‘teach’ should be reconsidered and expanded. I’ve been thinking of nice metaphors to illustrate how I see my role as a teacher.

I might see myself as a construction worker putting up the exactly right scaffolding needed for each student to create their magnificent and unique buildings of personal knowledge.
On second thoughts, though, even if this idea is widely used in constructivist theories, somehow it seems too technical for my more humanistic mindset.

I need something more poetic. I know, I am a gardener who lovingly tends to every little sprout, sapling and bud in the hope of one day seeing all of them flourish in a most unique and colourful display. This time of the year, this picture especially appeals to me, since the grey, white, dead winter period has gone on too long, although I’m not very happy about the gardener being a totally separate entity from the plants.

Maybe I’d rather be a match to ignite the eternal flame of learning in my students. Burn baby burn!

Or how about something cooler. Perhaps my role is to be like droplets that, when falling into water, will start the ever-expanding circles of ripples around them, whose effects may be felt far far away.

Hmm… Can’t I come up with anything more original? All the previous pictures have been repeated too many times in different contexts. As a foreign language teacher I could be a fellow traveler, one in a group of global trotters on a tour around the world. For a while, we all make the journey together and marvel at the magnificent diversity of languages, cultures, people and nature on this earth. The only difference between me and the students is that I as the more seasoned traveler, can give them good tips and advice, while they, in turn, can help me with the latest technology, for example, and keep me young at heart with their enthusiasm. Eventually, after many invaluable moments of sharing our knowledge, we will all continue along our own life-long paths of learning and adventure.
The only problem, of course, is that some people prefer easy, ready-made package tours. How do I motivate those reluctant youngsters, who have an aversion to any kind of project work, but instead just want ‘ordinary teaching’, ie. the teacher making all the effort while they passively listen (or simply shut their ears)? Lindsea’s idea that ‘Ignorance can also be the willful act of not learning’ struck me as so true. I have plenty of these willfully not learning students. Shall I just leave them to mature hoping that they will hop on the learning train later on in life, while I and the willing excitedly explore the wonders of the world now? The tragedy in this, of course, is that the present school institution is capable of extinguish the will to learn of innately curious young people and making them waste many years on underachieving and not being able to take any responsibility for their own learning?

If any fellow teachers read this post, it would be really interesting to hear what metaphors you may have for your role as a teacher!

Photos (other than my own)