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


BOFsensai said...

Intersting observation re the statutary idolisation:
How nice, NOT to have the Ameriacn approach knocked for a change .. after all, it takes all types and different strokes for different folks, huh?

sinikka said...

Thanks for your comment. I always try and highlight the many good sides of American culture, which are often hidden to people who haven't experienced life there first-hand.

Carmen Cannello said...

I'm building an online collaborative journal that I hope to find a way to get going. Check it out and let me know what you think if you have time.
I'm a mom going to grad school in Indiana for Library Science and I hope to do my next degree in Creative Writing.This wikispace is for a school project, but like I said, I really want to finish it and get it going at some point.
I am so inspired by your blog. It's nice

sinikka said...

Hi Carmen, What a nice surprise to receive your comment :) I will have a look at your wiki this weekend and get back to you!

sinikka said...

Hi again Carmen, I'd very much like to share ideas with you, but it would probably be better through email to start with. Had a look at your wiki, and it certainly seems to be very much like what I am trying to achieve this year in my Asia-Europe project. If you read this, would you send me an email at and I will get back to you then. Couldn't get your email anywhere, you see. Hope to hear from you soon!