Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Asian and European educators meet in Dundalk, Ireland

Back from the 10th AEC-NET (Asia-Europe Classroom Net) conference, my mind is buzzing with ideas. After many years of coordinating AEC-NET projects, and preparing project presentations for the conference, this time round I took the backseat, to be able to observe and reflect. The Singapore admin team, together with the Irish conference hosts, had put together a hectic 5 days of lectures, workshops, presentations, and project group meetings, under the title 'Apps in Asian and European Classrooms! Unleashing Educational Creativity'.

Schools in most participating countries have definitely moved on. There is serious talk about taking action, and not just marvelling at philosophical ideas somewhere in a distant 'cloud', as used to be the case a few years ago. Many schools are technologically quite well equipped - some have even moved into the 1:1 laptop or iPad era, like my own. The hardware is there but now the question is how best to utilize it to enhance learning, and engage our 21st-century students.

The conference scene has changed a lot, too - screens of different sizes abound amongst the audience

One afternoon we had a dynamic 5-workshop 'speed data' session, with app after app presented at a breath-taking tempo. Tagxedo word clouds, Animoto videos, Geogebra, Audacity, Google apps, Vimeo, Kinect Scratch, blogging services, Etherpad... An endless list of applications and gimmickry was blast onto us, like a firework show. I wonder what the more techonogically novice teachers thought, as even I, with at least some previous exposure and knowledge, found it challenging to follow! I started to think that while it is certainly useful for a teacher to have a digital "toolbox" of various apps, for example, to visualize complicated concepts, in the end, using hundreds and hundreds of these apps all the time is not the key issue. True, this session kept us teachers awake and running, in the after-lunch sleepy hours, and would probably work to do the same for students, but something more solid is needed to shift educational practices.

One of the most interesting presenters for me, was Ms Chan Lai Peng, Deputy Director from the MOE in Singapore. Having organised some student exchanges, and virtual projects with schools in Singapore, I have realized how much our two small nations have in common, despite the striking geographical and cultural differences. Both nations, with small populations, have competed for the top positions in the OECD PISA assessments, for example. Ms Chan explained to us how they have come to the 3rd Master Plan concerning ICT in education. Vigorous programmes have been put into place to deepen the pedagogy of ICT use, and for each school to reach a base line standard in ICT integration. A lot of attention is paid to cyber wellness programmes, with student ambassadors to tutor their peers in every school. What's more, every school has a full-time technical assistant on site - something that we Finnish teachers can only dream of! Ms Chan finished her lively talk in this observation: "Technology is but a tool but it can be a powerful one when put in the hands of skillful teachers." It is our challenge now, as teachers, to keep updating and developing our skills to keep up with the fast pace of change.

Monday, 10 October 2011

A guest blog post by Lindsey Wright: EFL Beyond Blogging

First ever guest post in my blog. Lindsey contacted me, and kindly offered to write about some other online activities for EFL classes, after reading about my blogging experiments. Thank you for these great tips and links!

Lindsey graduated with a degree in Public Health Administration before relocating with her family to Seattle. She is currently writing, and her favorite topics include health care, work-life balance, and travel.

Teachers everywhere are using the Internet, with its wide variety of instantly available information, as a helpful classroom tool. But did you know the Internet is useful for more than research? There are a wide variety of exercises for teachers of English as a foreign language that are available online. One of the most common exercises for teachers who incorporate interactive internet assignments into their curriculum is asking students to write a blog, but there are also other interesting activities out there for students to experience while enhancing their education. Here is a list of just a few engaging activities that you may want to explore with your students.


One of the most useful tools on the Internet for teaching EFL students is the webquest. A webquest is a lesson plan that is based on proposing questions that students can research and easily answer on the Internet. These “quests” are perfect for students of all levels as well as students who are just learning English, and cover a wide variety of topics. This is largely due to the fact that webquests are designed to maximize the power of a lesson. They are set up so students spend a lot of time using the information they have found rather than looking for it, and use higher level thinking and build language skills as well.

Generally, students who have basic computer proficiency will be able to handle webquests, even if they are younger or are not very familiar with English. Webquest assignments may need to be adapted if the classroom only has one or very few computers, but can generally work in almost any situation.


Another helpful tool for EFL teachers that is being used for online schooling and classroom exercises alike is a wiki. A wiki is a website that is created and edited collaboratively by multiple users. A class can select a topic of interest to them (whether cultural, historical or related to units in other academic classes) and build a website with information about the topic. Additionally, wikis help students learn on an individual level. Each student can be assigned a page that is specifically interesting them that still relates to the overall class topic, and will need to develop research, reading and writing skills in order to actually write their wiki page.

This is a fairly hands-on project for a teacher and requires a familiarity with the Internet and the creation of wikis, but it can be a really powerful tool for a class. Students will be really proud of what they've done when they see their work on the Internet, and the project will develop their language skills in a variety of areas.

Fake Facebook Pages for Historical or Fictional Characters

A final tool that may really engage EFL students is the creation of Facebook pages for historical or fictional characters. This is a really great way to develop research and writing skills while connecting your EFL lessons to other classes. You could assign historical characters from the period of history that your students are studying in their history or social studies classes, or you could assign fictional characters from novels or short stories that are being read in an English class. Alternately, you could simply choose characters that your class has expressed interest in and go from there. The creation of Facebook pages involves research in order to find out biographical information about the characters, as well as photos or artistic depictions of them. It can also develop writing skills as students have to write information about their characters on their pages.

Students will probably be really excited about this project when you announce it to them. You'll have to pay attention, though, as using social networking tools in the classroom makes it all too easy for students to goof off and check their own Facebook pages rather than working on research and writing for the assignment. Also, some school systems may block the use of Facebook on classroom computers, but a variety of offline templates for this project exist. If you can make it work, this will be a great project for your EFL students.

Clearly there a number of ways that allow you to make learning English exciting to your students. However, what is better still is that your options aren't limited to the lesson plans mentioned here. The Internet has opened up a whole world of educational opportunities for teachers and students alike, now all you have to do is explore!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Blogging with students 4

One of the most useful aspects of blogging with EFL students is the interaction created through commenting. From previous experience in global collaborative projects, I know how hard it is for many students to get the hang of quality comments. Without careful guidance, they mostly use the colloquial, short social network-style (Facebook etc.) comments, such as 'wow', 'great job' or other similar exclamations, followed by a long line of smilies. To get a little bit more formal and deeper with comments, we discussed this in detail in class, and I also published specific guidelines in the class wiki, modified from the ones I used to use in international projects.

It seemed to work quite well for the first blog posts. I was glad to see clear exchange and development of ideas in the comments of this blog, for example. Some students still mistook commenting to mean the same as the peer feedback we did on the first drafts. My mistake for not keeping these two activities separate more clearly. So they would point out spelling errors, among other things, in their comments, which sounds a little bit funny when the idea was to try and build discussions on the content. I made sure that I left a comment for each student, modelling commenting for them at the same time.

  • Hopefully, students will learn the importance of a personal perspective in their blog posts, in order to initiate interesting conversations in the comments.
  • As the blog post assignments still come from me, the whole process seems a little bit false and fake. Nevertheless, I feel we need to start from somewhere, and students do need a guiding hand at the beginning, to find their own blogging voice, and the courage to be creative. Let's wait and see!

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Blogging with students 3

The first student blog posts are now up. After a few, unavoidable (perhaps?), hickups, each student succeeded in publishing their post. Eventually, I am aiming at a more self-directed approach to blogging, and I hope that they will come up with their own post ideas but, to make the beginning easier for them, I opted for the same assignment for everybody - their English learning history. I wanted the first assignment to be non-threatening enough, as 16-year-olds may feel rather self-conscious, and wouldn't probably want to reveal anything too personal about themselves. At the same time, this would give me interesting insights into the ways these students learn English. We talked about the assinment in class, and I published further ideas and instructions in our class blog, together with some examples I found online.

Also, to alleviate the fear of mistakes, which especially some girls suffer from, we followed a process writing routine for the first post. They wrote their first drafts either by hand or printed their typed versions. I then guided them to give positive but constructive peer feedback, and each student assessed one of their classmate's writing. After this, I gave further suggestions, after which the papers were returned to the students. They were then to improve on the first draft, to produce and publish their final version on their blog.

Here is a Wordle cloud of their posts. One important goal of blogging in English will be to widen the students' active vocabulary. Their passive understanding of English far outweighs the vocabulary they actually use when they speak or write English themselves.

  • Sticking to deadlines seems to be almost impossible for some teenagers. Should it be a requirement, or should we as teachers be more flexible? Then again, practising commenting afterwards would be difficult if everybody's work is not published first. I also feel that learning the importance of keeping deadlines will serve the students well later on in working life.
  • Students' typing skills seem remarkably lacking. Some didn't even know that you are supposed to leave a space after commas and full stops!
  • Typos were surprisingly common, even after corrections and reminders. Am I being pedantic in expecting almost 100% correct spelling? After all, they are learners of a foreign language. Still, I feel that it reflects negatively on me, as the teacher, if my students publish sloppy work. Should this matter?
  • Text speak - ie. no capital letters, no punctuation, needs to be addressed again and again. I do see a value in teaching them to write slightly more formal language in this type of context. Again, this will serve them well in their later studies.
  • Some students made a lot of effort to improve their first drafts based on the feedback given, while others didn't bother at all. I was hoping that publishing their work for peers to see and read would have resulted in more care and pride in their work, but apparently not for everybody. Maybe I need to work on positive incentives to solve this problem! Or is it that these particular students are not up to online blogging at all? Clearly, they are following the same old, least possible effort tactics of "this will do" that they have learned is enough at school. How to reach students who don't have a lot of inner motivation?
  • Starting student blogging for the first time is exciting but daunting at the same time. I have already had bad conscience about spending quite a bit of class time on guiding the students about some technical problems, the general guidelines of online behaviour, even simple typing advice. As essential as I find learning these skills as early as possible, to be active participants of the digital era, I can't help this nagging feeling whether I should be dedicating more class time on the traditional EFL work. After all, there are the demands of the traditional national final exams looming somewhere in the future! On second thoughts, I hope it will serve us well to take the beginning more slowly, and spend enough time to familiarise the students with the new environment and format. Surely, it will soon start running very smoothly, which will allow us to focus more on the language part. I can already see a lot of potential in blogging as a way to use the language for real communication, instead of having the students doing their writing in isolation, and for the teachers' eyes only.
  • All in all, I think my initial discomfort is down to stepping outside my comfort zone. All through my own schooling, university studies, and most of my working life I have formed a rather fixed idea of what foreign language teaching and learning should be. Suddenly widening that conventional language teacher role, to include some ICT coaching as well, gives me plenty to think about. But it's good to peep over the edges of your safe teaching habits, and try something new!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Blogging with students 2

Two weeks into the new school year, and we have now managed to create individual blogs for each of the special EXE EFL-course participants. There are 13 Finnish students in the group, two all-year foreign exchange students, and 5 EU Comenius exchange students, who will only stay in our school for 3 months, ie. a total of 21 students at the moment.

I am very grateful for Norwegian colleague, Ann Michaelsen for her expert advice on starting student blogs. I approached her in the summer, and she kindly blogged her tips for everybody to benefit from. Following Ann's advice, I let students choose between Blogger and Wordpress. There are now links to 9 Wordpress blogs, and 12 Blogger ones in the sidebar of our joint assignment blog.

We spent one lesson on talking about writing in public, the history of it, and how today, anybody can get their message published for the whole world to read. Special thanks to Australian educator Tania Sheko for her slideshow! We also talked about online safety, netiquette, copyright and other important related issues to do with starting a blog for school work. I uploaded the main information in our class blog, too, and then sent students home for the weekend, with the assignment of setting up their blogs, and sending me the URL before the next class on Monday. I must say, I felt a little bit uncertain how they would manage but they did just fine! Some minor problems were addressed in class but otherwise, mission accomplished really smoothly. Only two of the students had any experience of blogging beforehand.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Blogging with students 1

This school year, I am experimenting with a totally different approach to language learning. I will try blogging with students, either through a joint course blog, in which students will write one or two assignments, or through individual student blogs, which will eventually be a kind of whole year's online English portfolio. In the Finnish senior high school system, the groups a teacher teaches change 5 times a year, and each course with a group only last 6-7 weeks. To make it worth the effort of setting individual blogs up in that system, all my English teacher colleagues should be willing to collaborate and do blog work. Last spring I envisioned setting up an individual blog for all first-graders, which they would then keep adding to all through the 3-4 years in our school, irrespective of who their teacher was. Unfortunately, my colleagues didn't buy the idea, so for the changing groups, I will have one class blog per course. Luckily, with the favourable support of my school administration, I was allowed to design three new courses that first-graders with advanced English skills could opt for. Here is some more background information for this experiment. I now have a small group of students who will stay with me all through this first year, and they are the ones that will have their individual blogs.

I set up a system of teacher blogs on Wordpress to coordinate all the different courses. Only time will tell if my system will be feasible, and work in practice! I did draw several mindmaps for myself, to maintain some logic in the system. Yet, I have already found some pitfalls in it, and will have to keep tweaking it.

I also set up a wiki, in which I will try to collect useful links and more general EFL tips that will hopefully be valid for years to come, too.

Setting everything up takes a fair amount of time but I feel quite excited about it all. It pushes me to think about foreign language teaching and learning in a much wider context. Simply following the textbook, and the teacher's material accompanying it, won't be enough any more!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

New school year - new approaches under construction

Pheww, it's been a while since I've posted anything here, for a variety of reasons. Mostly it's because of a loaded spring term with this, that and the other. I should know better to learn to say 'no' at times! I tend to pile on extra work and responsibilites, without thinking of the inevitable consequences, ie. tiredness, exhaustion and no time or energy for the so much needed reflection.

But all that aside, it's the beginning of the school year, in which our first-graders will shift into 1:1 laptop learning. Two weeks back at school, and no sign of the shiny new tools yet! Also, a brand-new learning management system was to be implemented for the teachers during the summer break, to facilitate the transition into some kind of blended learning/teaching. But even that is still in the development phases, and not ready to use! It will probably be rather chaotic, introducing such big changes in the middle of a grading period, when everybody has already started off as usual. Oh well! When would anything go according to schedule in schools? What's more, the new media class, which is being constructed by covering our mostly unused inside yard, is still heavily under construction. And on top of everything, we don't even have working air-conditioning at the moment, and are suffering from the last heatwaves of the summer. Business as usual, in a school environment, I guess! 

This space will, hopefully soon, be a new-style learning environment, not a standard boxy classroom

Nevertheless, I am quite excited about the changes the 1:1 environment will bring. I can feel some anxiety building amongst colleagues, though. Just today, there was talk in the staff room about doing a student poll to ask them how much and how exactly they would like to start using ICT in their learning. Although I am all for involving student in the decision-making as much as possible, I don't think following their preferences should be the sole guideline for designing new learning/teaching approaches. We teachers, as adults and educational experts, should have some initial direction in mind, shouldn't we? Many students tend to be rather conservative, and don't like to be shaken off their comfort zones (just as many of us teachers are, too). What if such a poll indicated that the majority of students are not that keen on using ICT at all? Would be abandon the whole thing then?

Last spring, some of my students reflected on their learning in their English essays, and I copied two revealing paragraphs:
I am a bit worried about the fact that next autumn every first-grade student in our high school will get their own computer and that the teaching will eventually be moved to the internet. Today's youngsters, including me, are already spending too much time online, so what will be the consequences of internet education? Will we forget individuals?
Here in our school we students use mini-laptops to "study" although what we really do is update our facebook. What kind of education is that?
Valid questions but also an indication of how much learning, UNlearning and rethinking lies ahead, for both us teachers and the students.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Support for Japan

The terrible disaster in Japan has deeply touched many people around the globe. Personal connections to Japanese friends added to my own distress, and made me want to take some action to help the victims.

Social media proved its power once more. Not only could I keep up-to-date with the events more quickly than with traditional media, but educators also shared some great aid ideas for schools. Derek E. Baird's (@derekeb) tweet and blog led me to the website of Students Rebuild, and their project 'Paper Cranes for Japan'.

I used several resources to make the following lesson plan for one of my EFL groups last week.

1. Talk about the students' knowledge and feelings about the catastophe.
As Finnish young people often find it hard to put their emotions into words, I used these photos from the Big Picture as prompts. Especially the photos of children, and people in need, loosened the students' tongues to express their deep sorrow, and compassion for the suffering of others.

2. Introduce the paper crane project.
We looked at the above-mentioned website, and I was pleased to realize that even the rowdier boys seemed to take the project seriously. I had taken my own 'Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes' book to school, to introduce the old Japanese myth of the paper cranes. We briefly talked about history, the Second World War, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

3. Fold our own paper cranes.
At the back of my Sadako book, there were detailed folding instructions in English, which the students followed in pairs. We also watched the video tutorial from the link, provided by the Students Rebuild website. Unfortunately, we didn't have the nice, thin origami paper used by the Japanese, so the thicker copy paper at school had to do. At least, we had it in several colours.

It really was heart-warming to see even the clumsier 17-year-old boys carefully fold their cranes. Quite a few students hurried to fold several to put in the envelope. It was then sent off to Seattle, where the Besos Family Foundation has promised to donate $2 for each crane they receive. Our small group finished 24 of them.

4. Upload a photo to the Facebook page, with a message of support.
Some students, whose fingers just weren't nimble enough for the folding, wrote our message, which, after some joint discussion and several improvements read: Our thoughts are with you, and we wish you strength to carry on.

I found this a meaningful English lesson for several reasons.
1. It was full of authentic language use, reading, speaking and listening.
2. It was hands-on, which is always a welcome change to the too much text-based language classes.
3. We managed to make our tiny gesture towards supporting the thousands of victims in Japan. Although our contribution was mainly symbolic, it was still worthwhile, and something our rather spoiled teenagers, here in our safe country, need every so often.
4. But most of all, as a language teacher, I want to foster intercultural understanding and awareness, whenever possible. This lesson did it very well. It truly created an atmosphere of sharing a global village, and caring for fellow villagers, even far, far away.

Thursday, 3 March 2011


I've voiced concerns about underachieving boys at school before (blog post from last summer). I've also been toying with ideas to improve their performance in English classes, and was reminded about some of the key problems by a TED Talks video that I came across some time ago. In the video, instructional designer Ali Carr-Chellman, highlights some of the reasons why boys are tuning out of school.

Most boys simply don't fit the obedient and conscientious girl mould of doing what the teacher tells them to do. For many of them, sitting in class, fiddling with textbook exercises, is totally boring. Even sitting still for 75 minutes at a time, and on a small hard chair, is torture for many! As a consequence, they get restless, start looking for distractions, and eventually underachieve.

One size doesn't fit all, and we can't force all learners into one mould. Why is it so daunting to stop controlling and allow multiple approaches and learning paths instead?

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Writing for a purpose does make a difference

In my constant search for authentic language use opportunities for my students, I engaged one English group in a small project, proposed by a colleague in Sweden. Actually old-fashioned letter exchange. We received letters, written in English, from a Swedish class before Christmas, which I then distributed to my students to read and reply to. They were ordinary introductory letters, in which the students colloquially wrote about themselves, their school and studies, family and hobbies. In addition, my colleague had asked them to reflect on the similarities and differences between the cultures of our two neighbouring countries, and insert a picture depicting something typically Swedish. All this went quite nicely with our curriculum, and the syllabus of the course we are studying at the moment.

I was positively surprised that my students seemed to take a genuine interest in this task - in contrast to the common boredom with textbook exercises. The letters they received were quite long, and interesting, and the familiarity with Sweden was another positive factor that made them read with enthusiasm. As for writing their replies, the fact that the recipient was another young student in another country, made them tackle the task differently from ordinary homework. We discussed aspects of politeness, political correctness, cultural sensitivity, and trying to be interested and interesting in general. As the letters were typed on the computer, I also reminded them about the use of automatic language check programmes to avoid spelling mistakes, for example. I also asked them to add a similar picture of Finland, and we discussed 'Creative Commons' and the preferable use of their own photographs, to make it more personal, and to avoid any issues with copyright.

Here are some reflections on the pluses and minuses of this small project.

  • Authentic language use for a real purpose.
  • An assignment that required a personal response from the students - not just totally disconnected exercises from a textbook. Real interaction called for a more creative approach, sometimes also humour.
Dear Finnish random awesome person
REPLY: Dear Swedish not such a random person anymore
  • Most students paid special attention to writing correctly.
  • Many students wrote much better, and more interesting and entertaining letters than they would have done if there was no real recipient.
  • The realization that it does matter what you produce, and it does reflect a lot about you as a person.
  • I learned that the Swedish class used Google Docs and process writing for their letters. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to incorporate the full cycle of process writing this time, but will definitely look into using Google Docs in this way in the future.

  •  In every group, there are always students who just won't make an effort - some letters were short, off the cuff, and consequently not very interesting.
  • Despite all the coaching and preparation of the task, some of my students produced letters filled with typos!
  • Some didn't bother to attach a photo.
  • Uneven numbers of students in the two groups - I had more, so some of my students ended up writing a reply to the same person. It didn't matter for this one letter, but having 'personal penfriends' would be difficult to carry out in the long run.
  • I think, interest would soon fade we the letter exchange was continued. It was a good, one-off project, though.
Hopefully we will be able to continue and develop our collaboration in some way in the future!

Sunday, 9 January 2011

A mission for foreign language teaching in Finland


Towards the end of last year, the Finnish country brand delegation published their report. Amongst missions and challenges set for different sectors of society, they also addressed schools and teachers. Most of all, of course, I was interested to find out what they said about communication and foreign language skills.

‘We have the best school system in the world!’ baldly boasts the report. Why is it then that the ‘products’ from these top schools in the world, after finishing their compulsory education, then struggle to keep up with the rest of the world? What happens to the smart 15-year-old Finnish students in the years between finishing comprehensive school and entering working life? The country brand report tackles these same questions:

Finland has achieved excellent pedagogical results for its comprehensive schools. The reason for this is especially down to skilled teachers. The challenge is that enormous potential is wasted because upper secondary schools and higher education institutions are not able to train enough of the world’s best students supplied to them as world-class scientists and experts.
To my mind, the PISA results only measure a very limited scope of students’ capabilities. I think one area where Finnish students, still, fall short of many of their peers around the world, is in their communication skills, both in their mother tongue, but also, most importantly in foreign languages. In English, for example, many of our high school graduates master the structure of the language and possess an impressively wide vocabulary, but unfortunately fail to use all this in active communication.

Our comprehensive schools are praised for the lack of standardized testing. Maybe one of the problems in the senior high school (or upper secondary school) level is that they prepare students for the national final exam, which in languages has hardly changed since the late 1970s. The exam is mainly multiple choice, spotting the right answer amongst given alternatives, ie, testing only that passive understanding. Indeed, spoken skills have never been tested in the final exams. If they were, obviously more time would be spent developing them at school. I am not sure what the situation is like in Finnish higher education institutions, but I know for sure that when graduates enter working life, their employers expect them to be confident in, at least English, possibly in other languages, too. But many of them are not. This essential fact was duly noted by the country brand delegation, too.

The delegation has also vowed to make Finland's strengths even stronger. For instance, Finland has a topnotch educational system. But Finnish students are not required to participate in classes like speech and debate. Encouraging students to hone their oratory skills could prevent public speaking shortcomings in the classroom from entering the boardroom.
The scenario described Mr Jaakko Lehtonen, director general of the Finnish Tourist board, and a member of the country brand delegation, in YLE news (Finnish National Broadcasting company) in September 2009 is very accurate, in my experience:

Lehtonen says Finland suffers from a dearth of confidence when communicating its strengths to the rest of the world. “We don't have the guts to go out there and bravely boast how good we are. We stand in the corner with our hands in our pockets and hope that somebody will pay attention to us, which is a pity,” he says.
It is widely believed in Finland that it is only the older generations who struggle to communicate in foreign languages, because in their time, language teaching was based on translation, not communicative skills. Yes, it’s true that some of the language teaching has changed, but I would argue that after comprehensive school, the focus is still on passive understanding. I have witnessed this ‘hands in your pockets, hoping that somebody will pay attention to them’ syndrome too many times when taking my students abroad on student exchanges. Sadly, our bright youngsters are best at understanding everything that is said to them in a foreign language, and answering simple yes-no questions. Thereby, most of them soon appear to be unable to convey their personalities in any way, in a foreign language. They rarely initiate interaction, nor do they keep the conversation going. But if their conversation partner perseveres and keeps asking them simple questions, they will politely answer. If they get more confident, some will no go on the opposite direction, and suffer from a monologue syndrome, and get very disturbed if, as is often the custom in other language cultures, anybody interrupts them with a comment or question. In effect the Finnish communication culture, simply transferred into other languages, doesn’t easily work.

How to improve this situation, then? I’m afraid I share the skepticism of the country brand delegation (from the above-mentioned YLE news article):

But changing deep-seated cultural norms could be challenging. Even if the plan works, it could take generations for Finns to become natural marketers. The delegation itself says 20 years could go by before the results of the project are known. "It is not impossible but it is a hard and demanding task. And maybe Finns don't want to change," says Jukka Hienonen, a member of the delegation and outgoing CEO of national carrier Finnair. Asking Finns to transform a central part of their identity could be calling for too much. Despite their humility, Finns are a rather proud lot.
Interestingly, I read an article about Hannu Rajaniemi in our local newspaper yesterday (Turun Sanomat, Jan 8, 2011, p. 28). After living 10 years in Britain, this Finnish mathematician and author says that his British personality is much more outgoing than his Finnish self. I think this is the crux of the problem.

We need to be more outgoing when speaking English. It’s a pity that Finns, who want to improve their international presence, either cannot or refuse to acknowledge this simple observation. But at least we should appreciate that people in influential positions have finally recognized this, and brought attention to it. We need to make our students aware of how our Finnish communication patterns may be perceived by outsiders. If you are aware, at least you have an idea what might need changing. We also need non-native teachers to challenge Finnish students to improve their communicative skills. With a classroom of all Finns speaking English, the Finnish patterns just get reinforced. Online collaboration, videoconferencing for example, might be one solution here. Secondly, employers need to understand that, with a high school diploma, and possibly a university degree, their employees’ spoken language skills are likely to be lacking. They need continuous language training, preferably with native speakers, to keep up and improve.

Friday, 7 January 2011

From teacher to 'learning coach'

For a long time, I have felt that the title 'teacher' (in my language, Finnish, too - 'opettaja') is misleading or wrong in the 21st-century context. A teacher is somebody who has sole access to secret knowledge, and stands in front of the classroom giving lectures. He/she is the deliverer of knowledge, in a one-way process, which was believed to automatically lead to student learning earlier, but which we all now know is not necessarily the case. Wouldn't it be about time to think of a new, more appropriate title for ourselves - one that would describe what is expected of us, to make education more learner-centred?

Today, I came across an interesting article on the World Future Society website: The World is My School: Welcome to the Era of Personalized Learning by Maria H. Andersen. And there it was - the title I've been trying think of: LEARNING COACH! Ms Andersen describes the new role like this:
As the learning coach, my job is no longer to “deliver content” to the students. ... Now I can use my time to help students search for good questions, help them to understand the content they are learning, provide activities to help them work with the concepts or connect the material in an applied way, and foster discussion with other students on these topics.
Ms Andersen's model for personalized learning sounds really fascinating, although slightly sci-fi at times, too, but that's what futurists of education should present us with, to boldly go where no teacher has ever gone before.
A system for personalized learning will not grow from inside formal education. Education is like a field that’s been overplanted with only small patches of fertile soil. Too many stakeholders (parents, unions, administration, faculty, etc.) compete to promote various ideas about how to change, acting like weeds or plagues that choke off plant growth. The fresh and fertile soil of the open Web can foster the quick growth of a personalized learning system. Then, like a good fertilizer, it can be used to replenish the soil of formal education and help us to reach that “Holy Grail” of education: personalized learning for all.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Staff room dilemmas

Autumn term of this school year behind me, and things have found their routine slots and paths - it's business as usual. The only major change to last year is that from 45-minute lessons and 5-10-minute breaks, we have switched to 75-minute lessons with 15-minute breaks in between. I have already noticed how it somewhat calms down the hectic pace of a school day.

The longer breaks also mean more time spent in the staff room, as we don't have our own classrooms, and have to change rooms after almost every class. You would hope that it would mean more time spent on developing ideas, initiating team-teaching and projects to integrate classes, not to mention sharing good practices and new experiments with colleagues. In a school with a long-standing permanent staff, though, it's really rare that any of this takes place. Breaks are spent gossiping and small talking about everyday trivia, or complaining about problematic students. As important as all of this is - we all need to vent out and socialize, of course! - if staff room talk is nothing but this, I think a very important element is missing.

For me, the staff room is, first and foremost, a place to work. This puts me totally at odds with those for whom it is mainly the hub of their social lives, and work is something they do privately behind closed doors. I have resolved this situation by spending more and more time online, even at school. After all, why wouldn't I spend my time reading informative blog posts, on educational networks or Twitter, as that's where the enriching conversations are, where I learn and get inspired? I have tried to share my ideas, get others excited, or at least mildly interested, but mostly to no avail.

How to solve this dilemma in this new year? By giving up my professional ambitions and passions, and becoming one of the cackling mass? Or by secluding myself even more into "the cloud", and becoming a hopeless, anti-social and arrogant geek in the eyes of most of my face-to-face colleagues?

Monday, 3 January 2011

What did you ship in 2010?

New year - time to reflect and start anew. Reading Seth Godin's impressive list encouraged me to post my achievements of 2010:
  • Took students to Singapore on a home-stay exchange TWICE, in February and in May.
  • Organised a home-stay exchange in my school for 17 students from New Delhi, India and hosted their accompanying teacher in my home.
  • Organised a home-stay exchange in my school for 7 students from Singapore, and hosted their accompynying teacher in my home.
  • Presented at the national language teachers' union autumn PD seminar.
  • Coordinated and completed an AEC-NET project with almost 300 students from 12 different schools in Asia and Europe.
  • Collaborated with teacher and student partners online, to prepare and rehearse a Prezi presentation and script on the above-mentioned WHAZZUP? 2010 AEC-NET project, with several video clips from the participating schools. It was presented by students, as one of the 6 nominees for the award, at the 9th AEC-NET conference in Gurgaon, Delhi, India. I am proud that our project was one of the 3 award winners!
  • Took part in the above-mentioned AEC-NET conference, and had a chance to revisit India.
  • Completed a 365 photo challenge on Flickr, plus the accompanying blog.
  • Coplanned, collaborated and completed a students' photo project, Through Global Lenses, with two wonderful colleagues in the US and Australia.
  • Received 3 Spanish students for a 3-month Comenius Individual Mobility exchange, and sent one of our students to Spain in return.
It was full year, overwhelming at times, but certainly worth celebrating. CHEERS and thank you all who I had the pleasure of working with in 2010!

What I didn't manage to ship, was to keep this blog active. That will be one of my first priorities in this new year.