Thursday, 31 December 2009

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

New year - new classrooms

This picture by Ben+Sam is from the wonderful pool of Great quotes about learning and Change on Flickr. It is a good reminder of the need to move forward from the old teacher-centred classroom into new learning environments that put the learners in the centre.

During the last couple of weeks of school before our Christmas break, I was part of a team of colleagues who were given the task of redesigning some of our classrooms, thanks to some surplus in the budget. Rather a challenge to be tackled in such a short time, but luckily we had preliminary plans from last spring that we could now put to use.

During the summer, the old language lab had been torn down (read the reasons in an earlier blog post) and turned into a new music class, which left the old music class empty. We had planned to turn that room into a small-group working space with some new technological solutions, too, but the funding had been missing until now.

We had three guiding principles for our plans:
1. pedagogical principles - our choices should support student-centred learning
2. downsizing - to make space for anything new in already too cramped classrooms, a lot of the old stuff would have to go
3. flexibility - the desks and chairs should be easy to move around and regroup into different formations

This is what the room looks like now. A typical desks-in-rows arrangement with the teacher, blackboard, screen etc. in front. There was also a huge TV and VCR contraption in the right-hand corner, but as you can see, the TV has already been dismantled and is on the floor waiting to be taken away, along with its metal shelving and the screen railings plus the OHP, (first part of the downsizing).


All the furniture will also be replaced by something like this:




There will be triangular desks that can be arranged either individually, in round groups of five as here, or in other formations depending on the needs of the lesson. The teacher's desk has been moved to the other end, even though the old blackboard will still stay in place. An IWB will be installed on one of the other walls, and the teacher will also have a spot table with a high bar chair- ideal to move around and use the new Airliner wireless slate on. Student laptops with some clever wiring from the ceiling will have to wait till a later date.

A small, 12-seat classroom will also get a make-over. Especially the teacher's end of the room has been a real nightmare to work in, although students haven't had much more room to move around either.



The whole room will be emptied and turned into a negotiation style space, ideal for small staff meetings, but also teaching small groups in a more adult setting, which suits our 16-19-year-old students quite well. Hopefully this will even help the students behave in a more mature way. The long oval table is put together of separate units that can also be arranged separately in a more traditional way.
We have definitely come to a point where 'a generation change' will have to take place as far as classroom technology is concerned. When computers and IWBs come in, last century equipment will become obsolete and will have to go. Or so you would think! We have already heard the first bouts of strong opposition from colleagues whose comfort zones have been shattered by these plans. I need to add that, in our school, hardly any teacher has the luxury of a classroom of their own, but we all go round the school teaching in different rooms, so classrooms will have to serve multiple purposes. Apparently, the upset colleagues' subjects are impossible to teach if students don't sit in rows of desks. In addition, they object to giving up their OHP transparencies, since learning to use a laptop and data projector or an IWB will take too much time and be too difficult. And lastly, how will they ever be able to teach that one course a year where they always show the same ONE clip on the VCR? Where their logic fails, is that it's all about TEACHERS and TEACHING!

Of course, ultimately it's not about classroom design or technology, but it is to be hoped that the new environment might open up some new perspectives. It's good for teachers to be forced to stop, think and rethink some old routines every now and then. If only we had had more time, we would have involved our students in the planning, but unfortunately school budgeting works in mysterious ways... I will post some more photos once the rooms have been completed. Let's see how many colleagues will be fighting for the chance to work in these rooms!

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Ning and school - once again


After closing a very promising experiment with an online project Ning and  having started a new similar one, it's a good time to touch base and do a bit of reflection. All last year, my aim was to provide a lively, but to a certain degree secured (e.g. monitored membership), learning community to students in many countries. Looking back now, that's what we managed to build in a year although it wasn't by any means perfect. One of the problems was that initially, most of the students only joined because their teachers told them to, and consequently, the bulk of their community presence was in the form of teacher-led assignments. Very typically, students just went through the motions of uploading their blog posts or taking part in discussions to get their course credits from their teacher, but as soon as the assignments ended, the rest of the community members never heard about them again. On a more positive note, at the very least, they got a little bit of information about a new way of sharing information - with pictures and hyperlinks as opposed to the old static and linear pen to paper approach. Also, one of the main goals last year, apart from the obvious intercultural communication and authentic language use, was to introduce students to the idea of writing more serious blog posts in addition to the conversational chatting they are more familiar with. What I'm not so sure about now is whether this brief introduction will serve them for anything in the future, when they are more mature, and possibly have more to share and contribute.

Some time ago, I came across Dean Groom's blog post Communities just don't happen. Reading the next quote made me question the success of our learning community.
A strong community is desirable over a collection of people using a portal, because members are less likely to want to break the bonds made between them. Portals have users, who have no bonds.
Did we get anywhere beyond sharing a well-functioning portal for a loosely connected group? To my surprise, Google analytics revealed that last year's Ning still has almost as much activity as this year's one, even after officially stopping to manage it and guiding students to join the new one for this year. Clearly, some students managed to make lasting friendships and wanted to continue the dialogue even after the project as such was closed. What is quite evident, though, is that without teacher guidance and given assignments, the students simply use the old Ning as a place to leave short chatty messages on each other's walls, and possibly still carry on some of the discussions in the forum. No photos are added, or blog posts written any more.



I can't help wondering whether it would have been a better idea to keep the old Ning running and just accept new members to it. The reason why we opted for starting a totally new Ning for the second year, was that otherwise we would have ended up having too many dormant members after students graduated and left school, or their teachers decided not to continue with the project. With Ning, members have to delete their accounts themselves, the network creator can't do it. In addition, I was afraid that the this year's new members would find it difficult to navigate on the site, if all last year's posts, photos, videos etc. were already there. To avoid this, more guidance into following RSS feeds, for example, would be needed, to keep students on track of the latest additions on the site. Not a bad idea anyway! I think it's the old control-syndrome of many teachers that makes me want to keep organizing the Ning instead of just letting it shape a life of its own. On second thoughts now, I can see that there should be some sustainability to the whole concept of our Ning. We had better rethink the big picture of creating ongoing dialogue between students across continents and focus on the process and creating a sustainable community rather than a one-year project with a one-off end product.

The underlying problem is the 'old school' setting of such a project. In particular, if project work is made part of the curriculum, where students get credit for it, it easily turns into just another assignment for assignment's sake. To some extent, you can 'force' these assignments on students, but I totally agree with Dean Groom that "Participation in groups at the higher levels is entirely voluntary" - you cannot force commitment. As the structure of traditional school systems rather works against this, I have some budding ideas to develop next year, but more about them later.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Motivational quotes for passive students

Just before the Christmas break, we started our 3rd grading period of this school year. It is the last period for our graduating students, who will finish regular school in February and then start preparing for their national final exams at home. The Finnish senior high school system is quite particular (as I have tried to explain many times before). For example, I teach English, for which students study 8 courses during 2.5 years, with each course graded individually. The final English grade will be the grade point average of these 8 courses. A typical scenario is that the first 3 courses, which are considerably easier and basically only revision of earlier English studies, will give most students much better grades than the later, more demanding ones. By the time students start their 8th and last course, many know that the grade for this last course won't make any difference whatsoever to their final grade, so they just slack through the last weeks. I get quite frustrated with them, since they should really be learning more than ever now that the final exams are looming so close. But for the carefree youngsters there is always tomorrow, and "when school ends I will really start studying". Total self-deception and procrastination.

This year I decided to start 'brainwashing' them into making the most of the last lessons and taking advantage of any help and guidance I could give them before the all important exams. I looked for inspirational and motivational quotes for them, then browsed through Flickr to find illustrations for them and decided to start each class with one of these quotes. Apart from motivating the slackers, I also use them to introduce some more vocabulary, and also to start discussion in English about their relevance to the students reality.

So far they have worked quite well, and students are actually already expecting the new quote at the beginning of each lesson. The following one has produced the most discussion so far:



It was rather endearing how keen and open my students were to reveal all their secret strategies of avoidance (most of which I could guess anyway!). I don't know if these quotes will actually change their studying habit in any way, but at least the discussions we've had have been worthwhile. In their hearts, they know all of this, of course, and I know I should be looking in the mirror to find out why they have become so tired and passive, but for their last few school weeks, at least we are having constructive discussions about learning and teaching, and all in English.

For the quotes and illustrations, I have been inspired by others, who have kindly uploaded their work online:

the Great quotes about Learning and Change - a pool by several great educators
Education & Technology Quotes - 19 slides by Tony Vincent on Slideshare
Quotes - beautifully visualized by Silvia Tolisano

(and I'm sure there are many others, but these came to mind straight away)

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Taking stock of 2009


It seems like ages since I've last posted anything here in my blog. In fact, I haven't been much online at all for weeks. I could resort to the accepted excuse of 'being busy', but the truth is that, of late, I have chosen to give priority to offline life. When family, including a teenage daughter, started commenting about mum being at her laptop too much, I reckoned it was time to break some routines. And so I did.

However, I have missed my online contacts and pontificating about education in my blog posts. I want to make this a more regular habit in the new year, provided that I really have important issues to write about. Often I do question the value of my thoughts being online. Personally, blogging has taught me to stop and reflect, which has been crucial to my professional development. But surely I could just as well save these posts on my harddrive for my eyes only. Then again, I have met some wonderful educators through the
comments that they have left here, and I won't want to lose that great opportunity.

Other insights this year: learned a lot about using Ning for international school collaboration, and finally got to use Twitter and tried a couple of online conferences, both of which have truly been more educational than any conventional conferences I have attended in the last couple of years. I have also started taking small steps to get some shifts going on at my school. It is very slow, though.

2009 will end peacefully amidst lots of snow and enjoying candlelight during the darkest time of the year. New year, new tricks soon!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Inspirational learning environments

During the 8th AEC-NET conference in Denmark, I had the chance to visit Alssundgymnasiet in Sonderborg. It's a senior secondary school like ours, with about the same number of students (400). But what a difference in the design!
I won't go into the details of the wonderful building, since it would just make me and many others green with envy. Suffice to say that entering the building was close to getting into paradise, complete with its own snake, too!


Something else about the school impressed me even more than the creative achitecture. The school was a totally wireless campus, and everywhere we could see students working on laptops - their own that they bring to school every day, I was told when I asked them.


How can they afford this? Surely this can't be a requirement for all students! I learned that students don't have to buy their own course books, but can get them from the school library instead. Books are a major cost for high school students in Finland, whose families have to fork out hundreds of euros every 6-7 weeks. In a year, that money would easily be enough for a laptop or two, not to mention the positive effect of recycling books on the environment! Publishers in Finland would no doubt go up in arms if this was proposed. I also doubt whether our local authorities could afford to supply schools with the books. The Danish students also said that for students who don't own a laptop of their own, the school has got some to lend out. However, no student is forced to use a laptop, and some students still prefer the old pencil and notebook learning.


I wish I could see something like this in the hallways of my school. No wonder there is concern that Finland is falling behind in the application of ICT at schools. In my school, for example, the accepted wisdom is that wireless Internet would be impractical and too complicated to install and maintain. How does it work in Denmark then?

We were taken to observe a class where students presented their research on their ecological footprints in English and with the help of computer graphs and illustrations. Excellent!


We don't need a new school building to adopt similar 21st-century classroom practices. What we do need, though, is the wireless internet and the laptops. I wonder how long we will have to wait for them in today's economic atmosphere! To make the rest of us feel better, the Danish colleagues explained that their school was well ahead many others in their country, and that by no means all schools were as well equipped and advanced in the use of technology.

Even so, I dream on.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Redesigning traditional classrooms

Most people have a fixed idea about what classrooms should look like - desks in neat rows facing the blackboard on one wall, in front of which the teacher is supposed to teach. The industrial model, deeply entrenched in people's consciousness, around the world. Difficult to change, too, with tight budgets and old school buildings, with the traditional square and boxy classroom design. Nevertheless, I have noticed that primary and middle school teachers even in Finland have been slightly more adventurous in rearranging their classrooms, but the higher up you get on the educational ladder the more set are the rows of desks.



Inspired by a colleague, who arranged the desks into groups of four, I wanted to experiment with the same arrangement last year, with quite encouraging results. After some negotiation with the principal and the school development group, we managed to get the green light at a staff meeting to make this a permanent arrangement in two classrooms. The reason why we need to consult all the teachers, is that we are not lucky enough to have our own classrooms, but instead each teacher changes rooms all through the day and week, and consequently several teachers share the same rooms.

Since then I have had all my groups study in this format - 3-4 students together in a small group.


I must say, this suits foreign language learning very well, since we do spoken work and practise communication in the foreign language in every class. Having more than one partner to exchange ideas with leads to more active participation by all the students and wider perspectives on the topics discussed. What's more, this is a simple little change to make me throw the learning ball to the students more often in my lesson plans.

SETTING UP THE GROUPS
How to arrange students into the groups then? I have tried different ways. I had read earlier that the teacher should set up the groups, making sure that there are both boys and girls and students with varying abilities in each group. Doing this is rather time-consuming, and I don't always know the students enough in advance to be able to gauge their ability. In addition, I am often unaware of personal chemistry problems between students, which may lead to unnecessary conflicts and unconstructive collaboration. Our high school system, as I have explained in a previous post, is unique in that it is more like a university system. Students choose the courses they want to study in each of the 5 grading periods, and so the compotisition of each group changes five times a year, so in every group I teach I usually have some students that I meet for the very first time.

After a couple of failed attempts, I decided to let the students choose their own groups. Quite expectedly, this led to some disruptive groups of good friends and a few shy and quiet students helplessly standing by the door, too afraid to join anyone voluntarily. This didn't work all that well either.

My latest system has worked quite well. In the first lesson of a course, I let the students sit in pairs that they choose themselves. After that I will join up the pairs and individual students in mixed groups of 3 or 4. In this way the students are given a little of bit of choice, which they like, but I can interfere, too, with hardly any opposition from the students. Lonely students don't stick out like sore thumbs, and the noisy ones are kept apart.

CRITICISM
I don't think anyone has come up with one, universally working solution for organising classrooms and learning in a school setting. If that solution had been found, I'm sure we'd all know about it by now!

Naturally, not everybody likes the new classroom set up. Students protest because more active participation is expected of them. Sitting in rows allows them to spend more time quietly in their own thoughts, or withdraw totally from any participation in class. Not so in the groups, where they have to at least recognize the existence of their group mates in one way or another. Shy students find it difficult to sit facing others. Some also complain that when they do have to face the front of the class, with the board and the screen, it's awkward to keep moving their chairs to be able to see properly. Other complaints have been about the difficulty of moving between the groups in a crowded room.

Colleagues who share the same classroom complain that it is impossible for them teach their subject with this desk arrangement. This is especially true about maths teachers. Last spring we had rather a big conflict, where one maths teacher couldn't find anyone to change rooms and so started demanding me to put the desks back into rows for her to be able teach in the room. I didn't comply, since I had the staff meeting decision to back me up. On the other hand, some other colleagues who have been intially forced to teach in this room, have actually found it good, and have changed some of their classroom routines accordingly.

The latest criticism, just this week came from a cleaning lady. She was waiting for me outside the classroom, ready to come in after my last lesson in the afternoon. She asked me why I had the desks in groups and suggested I go back to the old arrangement, so it would be easier and quicker for her to wipe the floor. I was rather astounded by this sudden comment from an unexpected source. I considered it wiser not to start throwing pedagogical jargon about collaborative learning to her and gave a simple explanation of group work. She then went on to enlighten me that I was actually preventing students from learning properly, since most of them weren't facing the blackboard! Oh well, maybe next week I should offer her some good tips about cleaning in return...

Friday, 6 November 2009

8th AEC-NET conference in Sonderborg, Denmark


Greetings from Denmark! I have more or less been 'off the radar' for over two weeks. At first there was the presentation to prepare as we were lucky to be shortlisted for the AEC-NET award again. I wanted to introduce the audience to something new, and practised with Prezi, the new presentation tool developed in Hungary. I had some trouble downloading the finished presentation and was rather panicky at one point, since the presentation date was getting closer and closer, but with the friendly and speedy help from the Prezi team, plus totally unexpected assistance through Twitter, I managed in the end. Pheww! Thank you so much everybody!

On the whole, though, It was a lot of fun learning a totally different concept of putting a presentation together. PowerPoint is so linear and predictable, whereas Prezi forces you to start from the big picture and then add surprising details and fun parts to it. I must say Prezi did live up to its novelty value, especially since all the other presenters relied on good old PowerPoint. I got a lot of interested questions. Here is the beginning 'canvas' of the presentation, where I used pictures of lego characters as part of the illustration, since we were in Denmark.



I don't think it was only thanks to Prezi, though, that we were lucky to win another AEC-NET award for our WHAZZUP? project. We did have a very lively online community last year, where students learned a lot
about the 10 different participating schools and their respective cultures. Students were also guided to more academic blog writing in addition to the popular forum discussion and chat, where more colloquial language could be used. Many of them also produced multimedia presentations on various topics that they were learning at school. Creating a positive digital footprint, and responsible net behaviour were also among our goals, and to a large extent we did manage to get the message across.


Here we are, the winning WHAZZUP? team - I and my colleague Merja plus our student Henna, who presented with us, holding the certificate, and two of our partner teachers, Geeta Rajan, from New Delhi India, and on the right Adrienne Webb from Dublin Ireland. Adrienne, our partner for many years in various projects, has just published a very nice account of her AEC experience on the webpage of the Computer Education Society of Ireland.

As good, efficient and easy as virtual communication and collaboration is these days, I still think face-to-face meetings retain an important place in building trust and motivation for lasting partnerships. All my long-term colleagues around the world are ones that I have had the chance to meet and get to know personally outside the virtual world. I feel energized and inspired after sharing ideas with so many wonderful teachers from so many countries. The new WHAZZUP? 2009-2010 is on its way - a hopefully improved version from last year. Working on intercultural projects is an ongoing learning process that I really enjoy!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Student assessment - a necessary evil or a learning tool?

I seem to have embarked on a mission of explaining our rather peculiar high school system in Finland in English. The reason for this is that I haven't found any grassroots information about it in English, and many foreign colleagues often ask about 'the Finnish secret of success' based on our students' outstanding results in the OECD PISA assessments. The PISA tests involve 15-year-old students, so it doesn't really say anything about our senior high schools, where I teach, and which about 50 % of Finnish youngsters choose to attend, while the other half goes into various vocational institutions. If you are interested in the Finnish school system, you will find a lot of information on the University of Helsinki pages about Finland and Pisa, for example, or some of my explanations about senior high schools in particular in this post.



This time I will reflect on student assessment, an integral and passionately discussed part of all schooling. To tell you the truth, I sometimes wish I could forget about course assessment all together and concentrate on mere learning with my students. Pie in the sky, I know, as I'm sure assessment will always be performed in schools, in one form or another, but all the multiple purposes it can serve, is another story.

In my previous post I touched on one part of student assessment in Finnish high schools - regular exams that take place 5 times a year as part of the course-based, modular curriculum and the national final exams as the culmination of students' 12-year schooling, a kind of  'test of maturity' reflected in the often used English translation of the name of these exams 'matriculation examination'. At graduation, each Finnish student receives two diplomas - one given by the school and based on the GPA of all the exams and grades during the 3-4 high school years given by various teachers, and the national diploma based only on the results of the national exams. Both of these are taken into account when applying for university, for example.

In our system, the grade for each course is given based on the students' performance in the end exam together with their overall performance throughout the course, which may be a very subjective assessment by the teacher. In our curriculum there is a concept called 'continuous performance', which usually accounts for +/- 1 grades in the final course assessment. In reality this concept is rather vague and there appear to be as many interpretations of it as there are teachers.

Some say it means active participation in class - but how about students who may be very good learners, but are very shy and quiet by nature to share what they know in class? Should they be penalised for their personality? Moreover, what is considered active participation? Is it simply putting your hand up to answer the teacher's questions? Some students appear to be very active, but actually only want to answer the simplest questions, the answers for which they can read from an exercise book - which  they may have acquired from a sibling or friend who had taken the course earlier and filled in all the correct answers. How is a teacher to know all this in a group of 36 that you only meet for some 30 lessons? Others interpret 'continuous performance' to mean some proof of the student's learning during the course, maybe demonstrated in extra homework assignments, project work, a portfolio, spoken presentations, a learning journal  - there are countless options, and teachers have free hands to design their courses, as long as they make sure that each student knows exactly what is expected of them right at the beginning, and how each assignment and test is going to affect the final course grade.


About ten years ago, the situation was quite different - the structure of courses was more standardized and teachers didn't use to negotiate the learning goals, focuses or methods as much as now. Although I welcome this democratization and individualization of education, I must say I find the accompanying increased litigiousness of schools rather troublesome. For example, I have already started writing 'course contracts' with all the expectations clearly stated, which each student then signs to prove that they have been informed and that they understand it, too. Before I did this, there were always students who claimed that they hadn't been informed, and consequently weren't aware of certain extra assignments, for example, and so couldn't be expected to hand them in. I am inclined to interpret these claims as a game of avoiding learning, a total waste of valuable time, which the student could choose to spend productively. No doubt, the students may have a totally relevant justification for such behaviour. Maybe the assignment didn't challenge them enough, or was simply too boring. Why should they do it anyway just because the teacher says so?

In foreign languages, an extra assignment is most often writing an essay on a given topic at home. Cheating goes on, essays are copied from the net, friends' old essays are recycled, essays are written for others as a favour, you name it. Often none of this can be proved by the teacher, and so a cheat gets a claringly unfair benefit compared to a slacker who never bothered to write the essay, but still managed to do better in the end-of-the-course exam. I wonder if anybody else ever gets totally desperate with the challenges of school assessment? I strongly suspect that it is impossible to be 100 % fair to all students.

I have fairly clear goals of what I would ultimately like to achieve during my language courses. My most basic principles are: firstly, that students should not waste their time at school, but keep learning all the time and later be able to apply their learning outside school, and secondly, transparency and fairness of assessment. To achieve these goals I have mostly abandoned the only-for-the-sake-of-it homework writing assignments, and started doing process-based writing with peer reviews, several editing sessions and hopefully, improved end results that clearly attest what the student has learned.

Photos:
students hard at work by Susan NYC on Flickr

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Should there be a 21st-century hat code?



Oh, the lovely old days, when people used to dress like this and everyone knew the important hat etiquette. According to columnist Miss Manners (quoted in an article about Hat etiquette), the reason for the rule of women being allowed to wear their hats everywhere was the following:
Men's hats are easily removed, but women's hats with ribbons, bows, flowers and other decorations can be quite a production to remove, especially if they're anchored with hat pins.
According to my collegues, the same old etiquette still applies, ie. boys are not to wear any type of headgear in class or school canteen, whereas girls are exempt from this rule. Apart from prohibiting overcoats in class, this is the only dress code my school stipulates.


So, at my school this sign reads: "BOYS, no hats/caps."












In other words this boy must remove his hat at school, but the girls can keep theirs on. I really can't see why it would be any more difficult for the girls to remove theirs - hardly any ribbons or flowers here! I don't think this really makes any sense in these days of partly unisex fashion.

In actual fact, I don't even notice who is wearing a hat or a baseball cap and who isn't. I am more interested in what goes on inside the head underneath the headgear. My suggestion is to either accept that headgear is an essential part of teen fashion today, move on and abolish the archaic rules, or apply the hats off rule to everybody equally. But for saying this, I am considered a dissident trouble-maker, while colleagues continue wasting time talking about the horrible caps meeting after meeting.

Photo: Sissy and Bubba by Patrick Q on Flickr

Monday, 5 October 2009

The feared and much awaited exam week



Exam week is here again, the first this school year. Our Finnish high school system is quite unique compared to many others, as our school year consists of 5 grading periods, each with their own different timetable. Basically, each student chooses 6 academic subjects for each period, each of which will be studied for five 45-minute lessons per week for approximately 6-7 weeks. On top of that students can also have a varying number of optional subjects per week (eg. sports, music, ICT), for which there won't normally be any exam. Each 6-7-week period ends with an exam week, during which students take one 3-hour exam a day in one of their subjects of that period. .

From a selfish teacher's point of view the beginning of the exam week is a welcome change into the daily grind. There won't be any classes to teach, only exams to prepare and invigilate. Of course, it's stressful to see the pile of papers on your desk getting higher and higher as the week proceeds. But if you are disciplined enough you can beat it before the next grading period starts, especially since you can finish every working day at midday, and possibly even have a day or two completely off during the exam week.

Surprisingly perhaps, even most of our students like this system. They say it's better to be able to concentrate on one subject at a time, and not to have any other distracting lessons on the exam days. They do find the approaching exam week rather daunting, and many get almost burnt out during it, but still they wouldn't want it changed in any way.

From a pedagogical point of view, however, there is a serious downside to the whole system. For too many students it leads to a dangerous cycle of 'bulimic learning'. In the long run, it doesn't seem to lead to real understanding of what they are cramming a day or two before the exam, let alone any higher order critical thinking skills. We have a considerable number of students who happily sail through the lessons included in each course, only showing up physically in the classroom, but hardly doing any work. They believe it's only the exam that counts, and that studying and learning means a rushed job the night before, in a stupefied state after too many energy drinks and cups of coffee to keep awake. On the exam mornings, you would see pale and exhausted groups of students nervously waiting to get their papers in front of them to quickly regurgitate all the fragmented bits of knowledge they still manage to remember. We all know what kind of learning this represents. Can we even call it learning?

Something is badly wrong with this system. At times I feel that all our students do is sit for exams, while there is hardly any time for any learning in between. Students who fail a course, can retake the exam, but this is no more than a couple of weeks after the previous exam, during which time the students are left on their own to revise. In practice, a student - with usually rather lacking study skills anyway - cannot hope to patch up a lot for their almost non-existent knowledge in that short time. Of course, there are students who do understand the importance of consistent learning all through the course. But for a great number - boys in particular - the system allows for a happy-go-lucky, carefree attitude that unfortunately too often backfires as disappointing underachievement in the end.

Although we Finnish teachers are privileged to have the freedom the design our own course assessment,  few teachers dare to use new and innovative assessment methods. Most just repeat the same old routine, because everybody else does, possibly out of fear of protests from students, who also tend to be rather conservative and need their comfort zones. True, we do have a very clear end goal in mind - the national final exams, where students' overall knowledge in several subjects will be evaluated by the national examination board. This does have a big effect on what is taught, and how learning is assessed at the school level. Yet, nobody tells us to give a written exam after every course, but still we do. We could spend the hours set for the exam on something totally different with the group of students, if we so choose, but still we don't.

This year, I am gradually trying to move into a more balanced and continious learning process all through the period with more peer assessment and modeling of different learning strategies and what it means to really learn something. By doing project work in small groups, for example, all through the course, the dangerous bulimics will hopefully learn to plan and pace their learning to have some time for developing deeper insights into and possible connections between the subjects they have chosen. This usually means easing off the hectic rushing through all the overbloated contents of the course book. Some of that content will have to be skipped and more time to be devoted to stopping, thinking and reflecting. I honestly don't believe that I would jeopardize my students' chances to succeed in the national final exams by not covering every single page of the course book. Less with more focus, will be more, is my new mantra. I hope I won't be proved wrong!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Stop whining!



Today I remembered this slogan, which was used in an MTV environmental campaign some years back. It came to my mind after our school development group meeting. The goal of the group is to get all our teachers involved in 'a campaign' to change some of our ingrained practices to be better able to help our students learn.

Since its inception back in 2002 our development group has worked hard to tackle problems, such as students' lack of motivation and aimless drifting at school, and consequent teacher frustration and cynicism. Over the year these problems have led to a culture of teachers whining and complaining about the recurring themes of  irregular school attendance, neglect of homework assignments and general apathy and low performance among students, accentuated by our aging and long-standing permanent staff. Year in and year out the staff room echoes with us listing the same problems again. Of course, every now and then, it is healthy to do a bit of complaining to vent out when you're feeling tired and fed up after a disappointing class. But to keep going through the same - largely structural or pedagogical - problems without seeking possible solutions, is useless and sets a vicious cycle of passive helplessness and shifting the blame. The unquestioned belief is that we teachers are doing the best we can, and even more, while it's the students who aren't pulling their weight.

There is an old wisdom that rings more true to me here: "if you keep on doing what you've always done, you'll keep on getting what you've always got." Why does this need spelling out? We need to break out of stuck-in-a-rut patterns. And for that we will need innovation and creativity to instill an environment of hope and enthusiasm instead of the eternal whining. Maybe it would rub off on our students, too, and we might witness unpredictable results.

In our meeting, we decided to create an online discussion forum to start actively looking for constructive solutions that would energize us all. In the forum complaints about the problems that we all recognize too well by now are strongly discouraged. I look forward to seeing the response from the rest of the staff.


Photo: IF YOU'RE NOT PART OF THE SOLUTION THEN... by Lulu Vision on Flickr

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Should text speak be banned or allowed at school?


Today a correspondent in Paris of my local newspaper wrote about the growing alarm among French academics and teachers concerning the present young generation's deteriorating spelling skills. According to the article, 2 our of 3 young French students fail their annual dictation tests these days. The finger has been pointed at poor teaching, too few lessons, the government, the influence of English or, of course, young people's texting culture, until somebody dared to suggest that it is the outdated French ortography, stuck somewhere in the 19th century, that should be blamed. French spelling is notoriously challenging, since there are, for example, no fewer than 13 different ways to spell the sound 'o' in French. As one solution to the problem, it was suggested that students should be allowed to systematically use the automatic spelling checks on computers. Oh no! That would be the destruction of French culture as we know it. Nothing must be changed!

Similar concerns are voiced around the globe. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote about generation Y and texting with the title 'It's ok how we communic8'. They give the reassuring message that rather than killing acceptable forms of language, texting and online chat forums are actually making our youngsters write more than ever. Problems arise when the text speak conventions of the young clash with the expectations of older generations, eg. teachers at school. Dr Bruce Moore, director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, is not worried, though:
Most people realise that language is used differently in different contexts. Most people know that while it's OK to be informal with text messages, different rules apply when you are writing a job application.
Probably this is mostly true, although I wouldn't take it for granted. A colleague of mine was appalled by a student who, for the first time in this teacher's 20-year career, had finished her national final exam psychology answer with a smiley! It is not automatically clear for many students what style is appropriate in different contexts. The problem becomes even more complicated in the case of foreign languages. Students simply don't have enough experience and exposure to the language to be able to choose the correct register. Our Finnish students' English, for example, is mostly colloquial, spoken language learned from TV and films. Very few of them would be able to produce formal academic texts in English without a lot of guidance and scaffolding. Yet, they are expected to manage this in their final exams if they want to reach the best grades. The problem is accentuated by a lot of English text-speak entering our Finnish language, which makes it sound like part of the standard language. LOL, for example, has become part of young people's everyday Finnish. I have also heard some of our younger government ministers being interviewed in English on TV, and I must say their style of English sounded more like that of a rock star than a serious politician. Although they are quite fluent, their style and register are off-key for somebody in their position. Colloquial spoken English is ubiquitous in Finland, and Finns come to regard it as the current norm. It's a tough job for us EFL teachers to try and introduce the more formal style. Students easily write the formal style off as something nobody but we, old-fashioned English teachers, would use. I have almost weekly arguments over this with students. Are we teachers behind the times, not realizing that communication culture has actually evolved to a new level that we don't understand and appreciate?

In an earlier post I referred to the Finnish research revealing the wide gap between the types of texts students engage in in their freetime and what is expected of them at school. It is true that teachers are not familiar enough with young people's new communication patterns. If we were, it would be easier for us to help them change their register when needed. Rather than being shocked and dismissing students' texting and online communication as something bad and totally unacceptable, we should understand the changes at hand and welcome these new forms of communication. Attitude adjustments are needed from both teachers and students, I feel. Social researcher Mark McCrindle, in the above-mentioned Sydney Herald article, nicely sums up what is expected of today's teachers and students:
Generations Y and Z need to be given the tools which will allow them to communicate effectively with other generations. They also need to know when it is appropriate to use 'text speak' and when it isn't. If they are writing an essay, for example, or a job application, it's probably best to use the language they learnt at school.
In our international school projects we have solved this problem by using the Ning platform, where students are guided to use a more formal style to express themselves in their blogs, but still allowed to use their familiar, colloquial style - even text speak and smileys, if they want to - in the discussion forum. I feel this approach is working quite well, if only we teachers take the time to keep reminding and guiding students to keep editing their texts. Quite a few of them need constant reminding, even to run their pieces through the computer spell checks before publishing!

Photo: LOL by sermoa on Flickr

Saturday, 26 September 2009

English teacher's environmental week


While autumn is splashing all its colourful palette around me, this week, for me, has been mainly dominated by one colour only: GREEN. I have often commented on the wonderful serendipity of online connections and discoveries, and this week seems to have been filled with them. Or is it rather that once your attention is drawn to something interesting, you easily start to notice it all around you? Whatever the reason, every day this week I have come across various environmental issues, most of which have been directly or indirectly linked to the threat of global warming.

I try to be environmentally aware, and I also try to model responsible behaviour in my own lifestyle. I believe it's my duty as an educator of future generations to bring these issues up in my English lessons, too. English, after all, is the language of most global cooperation, when solutions are negotiated to our huge common problems.To be honest, though, I must say the emphasis here is still on the word TRY. But it seems this week made me stop and think what my tiny role in all of this might be.

Fair trade Monday

On Monday our topic for one group's English lesson was 'fair trade'. We studied the related text in our textbook and then watched this Oxfam video clip. It tied in nicely with the text recycling the key vocabulary and also visualizing the conditions of the farmers in the developing world.



During the ensuing discussion, I was surprised to find that none of my students' families bought any fair trade products. Unfortunately, fair trade is still in its infancy in Finland, as the choice of products is very limited compared to many other countries, but it is gradually getting better. I must say I was rather taken aback at the seemingly indifferent 'I couldn't care less' attitude of many of my high school students. Did I manage to arouse empathy and global responsibility and awareness in any of them? I have no clue. Probably I only managed to sprinkle some seeds of ideas amongst them, and can only hope that some of them will fall into fertile ground and take root one day in the future.

Mind you, I am not making much better progress among my colleagues on this front. Somebody threw out the idea of only buying fair trade coffee for the staff room at the beginning of the new school year in August. We all bring a couple of packets of coffee every so often to keep us well stocked in order to avoid ever facing the catastophe of coffee running out in the middle of a busy school day. I took the suggestion seriously and started buying the more expensive fair trade coffee for school, too, only to realize that most of my colleagues refuse to follow suit, for some reason. What a pity to lose one opportunity to model some concrete action to our students.

Carfree Tuesday

On Tuesday this week, as every year on September 22, it was the World Carfree Day. Cycling for me, and tweeting about the day was my contribution, but sadly, it mostly looked like 'business as usual' in my town. Mind you, I cycle on other days, too, and sometimes ask myself whether these annual one-off theme days really make any difference in the big picture.

Other Newspaper headlines also brought up the consequences of climate change. Apparently, winters are predicted to get gloomier and gloomier here in Finland increasing the number of SAD sufferers. Bad news for people like me, who are already seriously affected by the dark winter blues. Other than moving to a sunnier climate, is there anything else I could do to mitigate this phenomenon?

Informative Wednesday

Interestingly, both English magazines that I read featured the environment on their covers in their articles this week. Serendipitously, Time had an article on fair trade, presenting rather sceptical and pessimistic views on the future of the fair trade model. Some more reading on the topic for my students.

Even more environmental content for this week, when I stumbled upon the Edging Ahead blog, where Rob, the teacher-librarian-blogger wrote a post about his juggling between adopting new technologies and taking into account a future where electricity, for example, may be scarce. I share this dilemma of getting my priorities sorted out with so many mixed messages floating around these days. And if I am lost, my students must be even more so!

The global problems that Rob addressed in his post are rather overwhelming, and may lead to a feeling of total  helplessness and despair. Personally, I would like to hold up some hope in the face of all this impending doom, though. There is too much scepticism, cynicism and subsequent indifference amongst our students as it it, at least here in Finland. In this respect, Doug Johnson's reply post to Rob especially resonated with me. He wrote:
It has always been my contention that the ONLY solution to our world's problems lies in a truly aware and engaged population. And such awareness will only come by way of education that requires, not believing, but dispassionate thinking and robust problem-solving abilities.
I would like to emphasize the problem-solving abilities - and some practical hands-on activities instead of the traditional book-knowledge-only approach of Finnish high schools. It's one thing to know a lot of facts, but quite another to be willing to take action and apply any of that knowledge.

Sustainable development strategy Thursday

The Finnish Ministry of Education has set extensive goals for sustainable development in schools.
The aim is for all schools to have an action plan for sustainable development by 2010 and for 15% to have received external accreditation or certification of their activities by 2014.
In our school, we have a team to do the background work for ideas. The problem with a lot of government initiatives is that they tend to be lengthy and wordy, and often just remain empty rhetoric in dusty documents, or rarely visited websites. That's why real concrete ideas are needed at the local level, if the initiatives are to be turned into everyday practices at schools.

Today a meeting was held to come up with our first steps towards a more sustainable direction. We chose to start with saving paper. In a school with only 30 teachers and 400 students, a staggering number of close to 300,000 sheets of copy paper have already been used since the beginning of 2009! It was decided that each member of staff will get their individual copying code to help us all monitor and keep track of our use of paper. It will be interesting to see if this will start making a noticeable difference.

Paperless Friday and environmental seminar

No end to serendipity this week, since a tweet led me to the Teach Paperless blog and the mission of Paperless Friday, which already got over 100 teachers involved after reading the first tweet about it last week. I'm always keen on renewing old practices and trying out something new, so I definitely want to jump on the bandwagon, and challenge some of my colleagues to join me. What's more, this would be an excellent start for the paper saving campaign we embarked on on Thursday.

I couldn't start this week, though, since I wasn't at school on Friday but spent the day in Helsinki to attend a seminar on 'The Social Impact of Climate Change', organized by the Federation of Finnish-British societies at the British Embassy. What an appropriate finish to my green, environmental week. We heard, for example, Mr Malcolm Keay from the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies predict a very grim future, basically telling us that it's too late already. Luckily, young Finnish Green Party MP Oras Tynkkynen emphasized everybody's personal responsibility in making choices in life. More mixed messages again, though. I didn't enjoy hearing my idealistic little everyday endeavours, such as recycling or using energy-efficient light bulbs, labeled as useless tinkering, when really drastic national and global measures are called for. "Climate chaos" instead of "climate change" was one lecturer's opinion of a more appropriate label for our current circumstances.

As a teacher, I am still wondering what message to give to my students, and how. It seems that each individual, even an informed and well-educated one, issuch an insignificant player in the massive, global corporate and political game. Or maybe I should stay on my turf, ie. focus on teaching English grammar, and leave the environment to experts.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The long and winding road to changing the practices of EFL writing



This Chinese proverb has been on mind a lot this week in connection with trying to find ways of shifting the focus from teaching to learning and student involvement. In particular, I have been thinking about the writing skills of my EFL students.

On the whole, our students get a fair bit of writing practise, but the way it's traditionally done, is giving them essay titles to write on as homework assignments, with the excuse of an overloaded curriculum and too little time to focus on this in class. The submitted essays are then meticulously marked by the teacher and handed back with a grade, and possibly a few written comments to help the students improve. In practise, though, the next time the student writes another such homework essay, the same mistakes will usually be repeated, and repeated and repeated again, irrespective of the teachers' well-meaning comments and hours of hard work in correcting all the mistakes. Many students go through the 3 years of senior high school with hardly any improvement in their writing skills.

It's exactly the scenario that I read in Tara Seale's blog Enhanced English Teacher some time ago. She
quoted the following from Michael Degen's book Crafting Expository Argument:
Too many teachers merely assign a paper, provide little instruction over the methods for achieving expectations, and scream while grading “these terrible essays.”
Ouch! How many times have I screamed, although I should actually blame myself for neglecting the poor students by leaving them to struggle with the writing assignments alone at home. Is it any wonder that the results are the same  – again and again? Telling them and even showing them is not enough, if students are not expected to get involved in the editing process themselves.

Another problem, of course, are standardizedl, formal testing methods. We are faced with the same challenges as described in the NCTE blog by Scott Filkings:
For the foreseeable future, we’ll measure (“officially,” anyway) our students’ ability as writers with assessments that have no authentic audience and no rhetorical purpose other than to invite efficient evaluation
Many students just go through the motions of perfunctorily producing the required number of words on a given theme only to the teacher or some other evaluator - "a nameless, faceless reader" from Scott Filkings' post - just because they have to, for their course credit or diploma. How motivating is that? This system makes many of them lazy to make any effort to edit their writing. Instead, it's over and done with as quickly as possibly, just as any tedious and meaningless homework.

This week I asked one group to write a slightly longer piece of project work on one aspect of Finnish society that they could choose themselves, according to their interests. We had been reading about different social issues and learning related vocabulary, so that rather dictated the general theme. To make the assignment more authentic, their writing was to be published on the international project Ning of our school. That means, once we start getting foreign partner groups to join the Ning, there will be a real audience to read the students' writing.

We started the work in class, so the students had a chance to consult each other or me to get started. We talked long and hard about plagiarism. Sadly, the 'copy and paste' method is quite common among our students, since the net, with all its English content, is too tempting for those who tend to leave all their work to the last minute. I would like my students to learn to produce their own material in English, because it will be essential for many of them in their future careers. The older Finnish generations have never been taught this, which is why it's not uncommon at international conferences to hear Finnish professional and experts giving thoroughly boring presentations put together with the same 'this-will-do' attitude from copied and disconnected sentences and paragraphs from various net sources. No wonder the lack of marketing skills among Finns is often talked about these days! Writing to a potential audience was also discussed and how it should affect the choice of topic and point of view. In addition, I introduced them to hyperlinking, instead of the citations or footnotes of traditional writing assignments. We also talked about the use of photos to bring some life and colour to their online work, and naturally copyright came up in this connection. Last but not least, I encouraged the students to think about the project as a process, in which they could email their first drafts to me for consultation. In the end, only 8 students out of 24 made use of this. For those who did, I pointed out some recurring mistakes in their English, and also suggested how to elaborate on their chosen theme to make their writing more interesting. Finnish students tend to write in the form of lists of unrelated facts, which is a reflection of the communication style typical of Finnish. It doesn't translate very well into English, and many students need constant reminding about the importance of linking ideas together and adding illustrative examples and their own opinions and thoughts, when they write in English. Another thing I needed to spell out to them was to remember the real audience. The impersonal, rhetorical style, which they are used to when writing assignments for assignments' sake only to the teacher, is really hard to change!

If you take a look at the different blog posts on Finland on the Ning, I have a feeling it will be easy to spot the majority of those who never bothered to edit their work once, despite all the pep talks and coaching beforehand. All in all, the results were rather discouraging again. Some even resorted to almost word by word copying from Wikipedia! As far as they were concerned, my words and good intentions fell totally on deaf ears. It's beyoung my comprehension whether they are really totally dumb to think that they won't be caught, or whether they can't understand a word I say to them. Why doesn't it matter to them what they publish online for anyone to read? Why don't they want to take more pride in their work? Or is it still the old disconnect between what school expects of them and what they, themselves, find valuable and worth investing time and effort in? Obviously, there still wasn't enough student involvement for them to understand. The requirements of writing to an audience are far from self-evident and the long tradition of isolated writing for school only is surprisingly hard to break. I foolishly took it for granted that students would automatically be able to write differently to a real audience - only a few managed this.

My next move is going to be to do the whole process at school, since most of them clearly cannot be trusted to do it on their own. We started today with some peer assessment of their first drafts. They all wrote their first drafts, then exchanged papers with another student, and with the help of my guiding prompts, then wrote some comments and suggestions to each other. Let's see if there will be any change of attitude and possibly even development in their writing this way!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Ridiculous testing of spoken English skills



It's national final exam time again in Finnish senior high schools. To graduate our students will have to pass national exams in a minimum of 4 subject. The exams are prepared by a special exam board, and there are two occasions to take them during the school year, in the autumn or in the spring. Students are free to work out their own schedule when they prefer to take each exam, yet the dates are set by the board and they are always the same for every school in Finland.

Today was the date for this autumn's English exam. Instead of the conventional set of reading comprehension, structures and vocabulary and composition, they had come up with a new section this time - filling in lines in a dialogue.

Finland is remiss I would claim, for not testing students' oral language skills for the final tests in any way. I don't know many countries where language tests are solely written! I have a feeling that writing lines in a dialogue was the board's attempt at silencing the many critics of the written-only exams. You see, the board, in their great wisdom, have decided that it is impossible to design and organize national oral exams. Maybe so, but I don't think they have come up with a very clever replacement this year. Or what do you think of the following scenario?

There is a dialogue between a farmer who stops his car to pick up a hitchhiker on the road somewhere in the British countryside. The hitchhiker is a travelling Finn, and the students are asked to write what this traveller would say based on Finnish cues. After the students have been prompted to write the words of the hitchhiker to indicate that he/she would like to get off to continue his/her journey, the farmer then goes on: "Well, the wife likes to have a chat with visitors. Are you sure you wouldn't mind comin' in for a cup o' tea?" After which the cue asks the students to decline politely because of a busy schedule, or something to that effect. Honestly, is this a script from a horror movie? If I was in a situation like that, I don't think politeness would be the first thing on my mind, but rather how to get out of the car in one piece and run away as fast as possible!

Not only is the whole story laughably artificial (would you really get in a strange farmer's car in the middle of nowhere these days any more?), but do they really think that they can test what spoken skills students have acquired in 12 years of English studies by asking them to write ONLY 5 lines in a dialogue? Utterly useless, if you ask me.

Photo: Exam Hall by non-partizan on Flickr

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The value of global school projects?


Today I had a Skype interview with an independent monitor for the European Commission concerning the AEC-NET projects our school has been involved with. The purpose for this interview was to help the Commission assess the value for their money invested in the various projects of Asia-Europe Foundation.

For me, the value is quite clear. During every single project, whether virtual or a face-to-face student exchange, I have witnessed incredible changes in the mindsets and attitudes of many students. From monocultural, often stereotypical, even prejudiced attitudes they start gaining insights into the urgency of becoming more multicultural in their mindsets. I believe these are invaluable learning experiences for today's youngsters growing up in the globalising world. Not only isolated language training, but also authentic intercultural communication practice as an essential part of it.

All through the interview, I felt I was failing to explain this in terms that the evaluator would understand. On a personal level, yes, he could appreciate the value, but how about the stakeholders holding the purse strings? I doubt it. You can't quantify the development of somebody's mindset in any way. There is no test to prove that any of this will have any concrete value to these youngsters' futures. Deep down I know there is a lot of value in it, but it is only a hunch, a gut feeling - my biased interpretation perhaps? It is this value, however, that drives me forward and makes me invest a lot of my freetime and effort in developing these projects year after year. It is something you can't learn by reading books or listening to teachers or lectures alone. You will need to engage in this dialogue yourself, face differences with an open mind, and grow beyond the boundaries of your own language and culture.


How can we make our governments and school administrators realize the value? Too often I feel that idealism and softer values are dismissed in today's harsh atmosphere of insisting that value can only be measured numerically. In such an atmosphere, the words students and teachers wrote in the final evaluation questionnaire of last year's project, tend to fall on deaf ears:

I could meet new people of different countries which have different cultures. Here, I see that intercultural learning is crucial in order to build harmonious relationships between countries.

I enjoyed the opportunity to be able to learn and understand the students involved in the project. I am also more understanding to certain cultural practices of other countries. I could discuss and know others' ideas in the different countries.

I really enjoyed the fact that I could talk to people from other parts of the world. It gave me a chance to learn about other cultures as well as individual people. I also got to learn how to write a blog. This was something I had never done before.

I have learned about European culture and school lives. I am very pleased to have my students have chances to participate in the international understanding. My students could widen their horizons.

How would you describe the value of global school projects?

Monday, 7 September 2009

More on grammar - darned gap fills and translations!


I seem to have it in for grammar this week. My previous post set me off on a real ranting path. Why is it that students, who remember all sorts of grammar rules by heart, rarely manage to relate those forms to meaning and use? They might be able to parrot a pattern in a mechanical drill exercise, but when it comes to natural use, the practised grammar is soon forgotten.

Hanna Torp, another English teacher in Finland, blogged about a recent Finnish doctoral thesis, in which it was found that

the current curriculum leads to mechanical learning of isolated pieces of knowledge
Isn't isolating grammar from the larger entity of communicative competence of a language a glaring example of this in language classes? And separate grammar exercises purely for the school context only - and apparently nothing much but busy work to keep students occupied, but with little relevance to any real communication. What is the goal in the end - for students to actually learn English, or for them to be able to explain how English grammar works?

For Finns, the English word order is a case in point. Language teachers have cleverly put together a simple rule for students to memorize: SPOTPA (subject, predicate verb, object + adverbs of manner, place and time). All my students proudly recite this whenever asked. Yet, even good students automatically go by their mother tongue when speaking or writing freely, resulting in sentences, such as "I like very much English.", or "In my school is much new student" (not to mention all the other typical Finnish mistakes in the second example!). What is the value of remembering SPOTPA when there clearly is little transfer to actual language use?

Another example. Ask a Finnish student how to form the passive in English and most will readily produce the pattern, and manage to mechanically fill in gap fill exercises correctly. The teacher then is lulled into believing that they have learned it, only to realize that in real situations many still can't differentiate between "the message should send" and "the message should be sent". It is no use then starting to repeat the grammatical terms - active, passive, auxiliary verb etc. - as they obviously didn't have any meaning for the students in the first place.

I can't help mentioning another Finnish peculiarity. Finnish students are taught English irregular verbs as a list of 3 forms - 'think, thought, thought', 'see, saw, seen', 'lie, lay, lain' and so on. They are tested on these so many times that they would be able produce the correct list even in their sleep! But when they speak or write, it's 'he thinked about it', or no past tense whatsoever. There would be an endless list of similar examples of useless rote learning of grammar formulas and rules.

I often think about the processes of learning your native language compared to the school style foreign language learning. Everybody learns their mother tongue without needing to know any grammatical terms, or understanding the, to me largely artificial, constructed grammar structure to explain how the language works. You use your language to express yourself and understand others - either in a written or spoken form. Why can't you learn a foreign language in the same way? Whenever I discuss this with colleagues, their argument, invariably, is that with the very limited number of lessons we have for foreign languages at school, the natural method simply wouldn't work. Consequently, their argument continues, we need to explain around the language for students to be able to apply the structures to whatever they will need to use the language for later. But what if we didn't, and spent all those hours practising fluency and natural use instead?

I honestly think that the types of exercises in our English textbooks are a big part of the problem. By far the most common grammar exercises are gap fills with Finnish clues, or sentences to translate from Finnish to English. In my opinion, translating from one language to another is a totally different process from using a language naturally. Typically, the sentences our textbooks present for translation focus on the common mistakes Finnish learners make, due to interference from their mother tongue. Teachers tend to believe that if they bang on these differences in the structure of the two languages, highlighting the underlying grammar rule again and again, the students are bound to get it in the end. Yet, what I see in class every day is that these translations only reinforce the mistakes, making them fossilize in the students' minds. Utterly frustrating, but great for testing!

I find it pointless, and tantamount to devious, to test students on the typical Finnish mistakes - you are just making a rod for your own back having to keep reading the same old mistakes. It's like digging holes for the poor students knowing perfectly well that they will fall into them in hordes. The Finnish board for designing the national final exams is especially keen on testing these - otherwise they wouldn't be able to create the desired normal distribution of scores every year. But national testing really is a topic for another rant later...


Photo: RANT, this way by Nesster on Flickr