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.