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One thing I’d like to mention connects to how much freedom of choice a teacher should give to his/her students to make their learning more effective. I’ve seen a number of young teachers or tired older ones come into class asking the students, “what would you like to do today?” and the like. Occasionally, such offers may create wonders, but has the teacher ever thought about, let alone tried to verify, how much those students actually learned?

I’ve also seen teachers who go into class and start talking about what interesting things come into his/her minds, or asks the students whatever has happened to them since they last met or during the weekend and so on. All this is first intended to be an introduction, a warm-up, to let students quietly get into the mood of learning and activate their curiosity and involvement, but very often, these introductions take up most of the lessons, become a lecture by the teacher, or a series of anecdotes by anyone inside the room and don’t lead anywhere. The involvement and curiosity wanes after ten or fifteen minutes, and the teacher doesn’t realize it, because the faces still show interest. Out of politeness perhaps. But the class has already turned into a Chinese-style language class.

Some of my readers may still remember the four vultures in the wonderful “The Jungle Book” cartoon of a few decades ago. They’ve had flown into the burnt-out wilderness, landed on the skeleton of a tree and started considering, “Whaderwe gonna do?” “Ah dunno, whaderwe gonna do?” “Ah dunno …” which goes on for some time, clearly showing that they have no purpose any more. They obviously can’t do anything more. I consider this lack of focus a danger to a language class. If a teacher goes in and expresses indecision in his actions, the result is inevitably a lack of learning.

The same danger is similar when the teacher asks the students to “write a text about something.” This means limitlessness, which is also a lack of focus. Full freedom is not appropriate for school. We have to have goals, short-term, mid-term and long-term purposes for our students so that they have an idea where they are expected to be progressing.

Out in society, limitlessness, even in less severe cases, may lead to unruly gang activity like from events in Romeo’s Verona to ‘favelas’ in Rio, or slum disturbances in any ‘developed’ or less developed country. Let’s not imagine that school activities cannot end up like these. I’m convinced that it is the teacher’ task to train students to concentrate their energies when in school. In most cases I can identify with film examples of taking children off streets to learn even martial arts and the like. These imaginary examples are pedagogically sound. They put the role of pedagogy in a wider context, the context of society. Teachers may not be able to teach high science to everybody, but they can turn pupils from even the worst backgrounds into useful and contented players in the world, according to their own abilities.

My other topic today falls into the category of limits as well. I’ve read a debate about using the 5-paragraph academic essay in schools, many doubting its role on the basis that in real life there’s no such thing. I agree with this latter. But we have to be aware of other connections as well: school and classes are not exactly what in real life happens – they are meant to introduce it. A class lasts for 45 or 50 minutes, life begins afterwards. Children go home after school to their own lives and may start their own mental adventures. Teachers also have lives outside schools. If we don’t bear this in mind and give tasks to our students simply ‘to write an essay’, students may write three lines in three different paragraphs, or write five pages according to how interesting they’ve found the subject and how much they have to say. The first remains nonsense and useless in pedagogical terms, and doesn’t help the student to acquire any sense of structure and supporting ideas at all. The second becomes fluid, also unstructured and so unreadable. It also requires incomparably long time for the teacher to assess it, not to mention provide advice on improvement. It’s also the case when a teacher tells students to ‘talk about something’ in class, ‘which interests you’ implied, but most students’ minds simply stop at this asking. Wouldn’t yours? Remember the advantages and application of task-based learning.

This said, I’d also like to draw attention to the fact that in real life, imaginative writing also requires structure, support to ideas, a balanced flow of events and so on. A present-day English poet once told a group of interested teachers at a short course on using poetry that looking at poetic inspiration with awe is nonsense. Anyone can become a good poet through practicing doing it. Musical geniuses also go through the process. They assign ‘opus 1’ to their first composition which they think is worth it. But they do a lot of work before too, for practice. My advice is for the teacher to teach students to focus, and limit verbiage to manageable amounts both for student and corrector. Afterwards, in real life, if things went well in class, some of the students may develop to be writers.

StateLibQld 1 113036 Cartoon of students recei...

StateLibQld 1 113036 Cartoon of students receiving the cane, 1888 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally for today, I’d like to mention that I’ve read a very good article and listened to a brilliant lecture embedded into it as a video on how the human brain processes information flowing towards and through it. The pedagogical implications that are described are enormous, as it is pointed out first of all that any information that represents danger, or is not appropriate to learning something new and important is blocked out automatically by certain parts of the brain dependent on its own state.

Apart from the fact that I’m glad I won’t see the day when scientists will be able to stimulate or manipulate the sequence of neurons necessary to program the brain, I’ve found this article and the video inside it very-very useful and interesting. I consider it a must-see for boring, bored or tired teachers who’ve already given up on certain students or on improving their work and impact. And for anyone going into class. The teacher-scientist speaking also means to say that the main way of learning may not be among the traditional four skills. Thinking, which some educators, including me, think is the fifth skill, is the key to acquiring all the other 4 skills, not vice verse. What she presents also quite contradicts the traditional learning-style categories (auditory, etc.), while introduces something different and much more efficient. Besides, it points to the shortcomings of the communicative method of language learning, exposing the weakness in that if somebody speaks, he/she also learns something. Much more learning can take place simply while the student is allowed to reflect, take notes, exchange a remark with someone, besides full discussions or writing essays. Of course, a well-though-out argument presented to peers may be the best.

The article and the video can be accessed here at Classroom Aid.

by P.S.