Sunday, October 30, 2011

FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN: LOW TOLERANCE FOR AMBIGUITY

“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time”

André Gide

It is easy to claim that when André Gide made the above observation, he was completely ignoring the survival value of staying close to the herd; a dictum deeply embedded in the psyche of any gregarious mammal that ever roamed the planet. Young zebras, for instance, trot around with their elders and betters in one swirling series of black and white stripes the hypnotic effects of which must be truly a pain for the big cats seeking their dinner. The only mammals that flaunt this dictum are those that can stand on their own feet thank you very much like rhinoceroses who are far too powerful to care about anyone else or orangutans whose habitats are completely inaccessible anyway – as they rarely descend from the canopy. Human primates, having neither the advantages of rhinoceroses nor orangutans, have not escaped the deeply embedded fear of the unknown seeking shelter in the company of their brethren and thus the familiar. It is this fact that has provided the strongest opposition to any form of change in society, but I digress.

There is one small problem with the truism discussed above: it does not, never has and never should apply to language learning. Foolhardiness or rashness is to be deplored in most areas of life but letting go of the crutches, leaving the confines of your cubbyhole, venturing into the garden the boundaries of which you can’t see for the sake of being able to get a complete picture is to be desired in this context. The cubbyhole a language learner chooses to inhabit is restrictive; there is, after all, a limit to the learning experiences possible in this setting. He is restricted in terms of vocabulary, lexical variation, reasoning skills and even grammar causing his self (and officially) imposed prison to become stifling after a while, engendering a deep tedium comparable to cabin fever – the feeling that the first settlers experienced imprisoned in their cabins on the prairie for the duration of the long harsh winters in the wild west. Boredom will, in turn, lead nicely to lack of concentration – a  fact for which one can hardly blame the poor captive – which will in turn lead to inordinately high failure rates as the tests a student eventually sits require intimate knowledge of the garden beyond, not the cubbyhole. Hurled in at the deep end come the end of the year, the student suddenly sees the light: he realizes exactly what has happened and consequently feels cheated and very bitter. He has, after all, lost a wonderful opportunity to broaden his horizons and there is no going back. He should, ethically, be able to sue his captures claiming mal practice; this not being possible, we, the teachers, need to help the language learners entrusted to our care to step boldly “where no student has stepped before”.

Getting to Know the Nature of the Beast

The Students

Those of you with small children will recall the first faltering steps your offspring took and how your heart came to your mouth as he waddled vaguely in the direction of the coffee table looking all the while as if he were going to fall flat on his face and possibly hit his head. For one agonizing minute you watch with bated breath and heave a sigh of relief as he promptly sits down on his well padded posterior. Another mother, faced with the same spectacle, leaps to her feat and grabs baby before disaster hits as she is sure it will. Baby howls with fury and frustration and this continues as mother’s well meaning efforts to avert “disaster” prevent him from exploring the coffee table with all the shiny ashtrays, the kitchen cupboards with those tantalizing saucepan lids, his dolly when he wishes to see what it tastes like. As he grows up in the confines of the nursery where mother can protect, guide and instruct him, he remains oblivious to the pleasure  of making mud pies, climbing trees, playing outdoors ( where mum can’t see and explain the pitfalls of the garden path). Any desire to visit a friend forms the basis of a family crisis involving interrogation that would put the most thorough secret service to shame and mummy delivering and fetching the victim (who may be visiting a friend living a block away).  The list is endless; mother’s nerves are warn to a shred and so are baby’s and later child’s; at least initially. Initially, because baby will eventually fall into a routine as he learns to fear the unknown and wait for mummy. Hence another dependent child is born. As already discussed in “An Elusive Quality: Motivation” (on my blog under papers http://theproproom.blogspot.com  and my academia page www.academia.edu ) paralyzing overprotection well into adulthood is a common problem and a terrible hindrance to all new experiences. I also discussed, in the same paper, the combined effect of such an upbringing and an authoritarian education system. If you remember, I explained that this is the team we need to work with. Having dependent subjects would have been fine in Stalinist Russia but it is fatal if you want students to actually think, assess a situation, evaluate an issue, form opinions and reach conclusions; all of which are necessary if they are to ever truly master a foreign language. A lifetime of overprotection, mollycoddling and spoon feeding – the latter being a feature of any authoritarian education system worth its salt – means that a lot of language learners in this part of the world at least will arrive in their prep year with the disease firmly entrenched; i.e. as dependent students if you like, who will cling to tenaciously to the familiar.

The Educators

This, however, is one aspect of the problem only; there is a second contributing factor: the teachers themselves. It is sad but true that one of the major obstacles to the failure to overcome low tolerance for ambiguity is the fact that teachers themselves, being products of the same system and now having taken on their adult roles of aiding the young in their education, have replaced that mother I described earlier who snatched baby up. I must hasten to add that the good intentions, diligence and even idealism of such teachers are without question; the fact that they are seriously misguided is not. Overprotection in the classroom is soporific besides being frustrating – never a good combination. Imagine reading a story about a young girl and a lad on a date; they hit it off really well. Eventually the lad says” Your place or mine?” and they arrive at the front door to find the latch key under a flower pot in the porch. A student with low tolerance for ambiguity will latch on to first “latchkey” and then “porch” and if encouraged by his teacher will learn the difference in meaning between the verb and the noun, what a porch is and how it differs from a veranda or a patio and even have pictures drawn for him. The student who has learnt to ignore unimportant details will gather very quickly that they got indoors and not having the patience to go up stairs, fell to on the couch. The student in shackles will eventually catch up and then start wondering what a rubber is in this context, look it up in the dictionary find eraser, scratch his head and bleat for teacher (mummy) who will kindly put it all on the board with sample sentences while our other student is on to the problem solution essay discussing teenage pregnancies and how to solve the problem, which is, after all, the point of the whole exercise. Does this look familiar? What is also familiar is the teacher’s reaction: the desire to instruct, to explain and completely clarify every minute detail, to leave nothing and I mean absolutely nothing to chance. Heaven forbid they get the wrong idea about what a porch is or what a latchkey is. “Whatever you teach, be brief” ( Quidquid praecipies, esto brevis) said Horace in Ars Poetica ( 333) and how right he was though I have sneaking suspicion he wasn’t referring to language learning. I must hasten to reiterate that the teacher’s good intentions are without question and a teacher’s desire to teach is just as powerful as that maternal instinct to protect yet both can be carried too far. The old adage – which reflects the same sentiment Horace was trying to convey – claims you can have too much of a good thing, and it is perfectly true. It should be obvious from test scores over the years on centralized tests that mollycoddling in the classroom only panders to a firmly rooted natural inclination which should not have been allowed to develop in the first place. When Judge Joseph Channing (in the BBC series Judge John Deed) refers to someone as “an oleaginous reptile”, how is knowing the fact that the word means fatty going to help the language learner? Surely knowing he was angry would suffice. Consider another example: The young lady, being of diminutive stature, was unable to reach the shot gun hanging above the fireplace and opted for the bread knife; an equally effective weapon in the hands of a woman scorned. Surely, the student should be permitted and encouraged to guess that she was too short to reach the shot gun and murdered her husband with the bread knife; especially if the focus is domestic violence and not obscure vocabulary.  Going back for a moment to the young couple we left to their own devices on the sofa, admittedly it requires willpower to desist and let the student work out that first the couple arrives at the front door and then ends up on the couch, ergo they must have got indoors somehow. The trouble is that most educators can’t resist vocabulary; it is like the proverbial kid and the cookie jar; particularly if the word is one they themselves don’t know either. What the teacher should tell himself is that he has managed very well without incorporating the word oleaginous in to his active vocabulary and the students ought to be able to as well.  Similarly, showing him he can just ignore the dratted latchkey is the greatest kindness a teacher can do for a student. That the responsibility rests with the teacher should now have become obvious. The teacher can help the student step bravely forth and really come to grips with a text both through the choice of material and pace; i.e. the syllabus, and his attitude in the classroom.

Help is at Hand: The Syllabus

The human brain is a wonderfully efficient super computer which aims to conserve energy and save time and effort should the need arise. This being the case, any task which has been performed since the year dot will trigger a signal: done this before a hundred times, know it like the back of my hand and switch, immediately, to auto pilot – a scientific fact I had always suspected and was delighted to find to be true. The task is then completed in record time, perfectly efficiently yet with no conscious thought what so ever. Throw a spanner in the works, in the form of a new step in the process hitherto absent, or try and concentrate for one moment and the process will be interrupted. One obvious example of this in the classroom is certain grammar exercises; after pages of drills or exercises the student will still make the most hideous mistakes come the text. After all, as one expert once said, one can’t learn whilst one is asleep as conscious thought and active engagement in the work at hand is required for synapses to form and new connections to be made. Autopilot mode is the closest you can get to being asleep without being flat out so to speak and the rule is the same for language learning; grammar, reading, vocabulary in fact all the skills (for more on how to teach grammar and reading, check out my papers  on my blog or academia page). The obvious first step, therefore, is to get the students to be actually fully engaged in the task they are performing at a cognitive level and this can’t be done by setting them tasks which they can perform with their eyes closed.

Whilst rectifying the problem described above, the natural inclination of “the dependent student” and “the teacher come mom” should also be kept well in mind. For the solution to the problem is obvious: the syllabus – including both material and the pace – requires a minor revolution. Trying to implement these changes is another problem all together. In his article in the October issue of Humanizing Language Teaching Magazine, “Tolerance of Ambiguity and Its Implications for Reading” (www.hltmag.co.uk ), Ruben Cardenas Cabello addresses the issue of low tolerance for ambiguity in great detail and very succinctly. The point I would like to add is that the major obstacle to radical change in the syllabus is often teacher resistance; a fact beautifully yet rather bluntly expressed by an irate administrator now deceased: “Getting them to do anything is like politely asking a herd of rampaging buffalo to turn left!” Crude and even crass I admit yet the sentiment is captured very successfully: change is bad, it is dangerous, it can have fatal consequences, what was good for our grandfathers is good for us, stick with what you know and don’t rock the boat; this despite the fact that the boat is taking in water and is about to sink – the end of year exam.  Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that teacher resistance has been dealt with either with methods of persuasion or cajoling and “The Revolution” is nigh. What kind of material should be used to combat low tolerance for ambiguity and why? Moreover, what should the pace be like?

The obvious first step is not to fall into a rut or do anything what so ever to induce hypnosis; the latter can only be avoided by making the material being used both interesting and challenging. I have dealt with the choice of material in detail in my papers on the teaching of reading (Read in the Name of the Lord and How not to Teach Reading: Beware the Call of Functionalism on my blog and on my academia page) so I will focus here on the latter criterion: the challenge.  I remember reading in the famous quiz show host Anne Robinson’s biography a few years back the furore resulting from the decision to stop printing the daily crossword taken by a British daily. The server crashed and telephone lines were blocked as the paper was inundated with calls from irate readers. Naturally, the decision was retracted. The reason is obvious: people do, contrary to the widespread belief, enjoy a challenge; an inclination that can and should be exploited in the classroom. As already discussed, material that is too simple will cause a student to switch off; similarly, material that is too hard will cause him to give up in despair; neither bodes well for learning. The trick is to get the material just right so that the student can accomplish it if he rallies all his powers like in the case of the crossword. Naturally the level – just within reach rather than out of reach – should be determined correctly. After all, some consider the Times crossword a challenge like Morse in the Inspector Morse Mysteries (who is continually trying to get the daily mental challenge complete in under 12 minutes), while others consider this to be double Dutch and opt for the Sunday supplement. Material that is just possible to come to grips with will actually teach a student faster than simple stuff and save valuable time and effort in the long run. This is no mean feat as it runs counter to everything both the student and often the teacher have been brought up to believe. Breaking the deeply ingrained habits of a life time is a serious undertaking yet it must be done. Unlike my deceased colleague, I have great faith in the good will and idealism of my fellow teachers so let us proceed.

First and foremost, both teachers and students need to be disabused of the idea that everything in a text needs to be thoroughly understood; it doesn’t. Quite the reverse is true in fact as the students and teachers must learn to accept that there are key words in a text, for instance, which must be understood – by checking in an English to English dictionary; a skill to be encouraged – and there are those one can roughly guess from the context like the word adore in the case of the teenage couple we left on the couch earlier. Imagine he breaths “I adore you” in to her ear; knowing that the word vaguely means “to love” should suffice; details are unnecessary. Then there are those words which fall into neither category: they are neither key words, nor can they be understood from the context; they should just be ignored. It is the lack of this fundamental skill that left one of our students stranded on the porch and later scratching his head by the couch, as his less handicapped classmate  entered the room at a brisk trot and grasping the situation, moved on to the writing task. This latter skill can be fostered in language learners only if the material selected is of  an appropriate level of difficulty; i.e. if there is stuff that can be guessed and that which should be ignored. Once a text of the correct level of difficulty has been picked, the next step is to lead the students through it helping them to learn to ignore details, guess from context and thus see the whole forest rather than a couple of trees. My nightmare vision in a reading lesson is a student text with every unfamiliar word underlined and meanings scribbled in. If you feel, on looking at a student’s text, that you need to ask him where the text is – if you are unable to pick it out amid a dearth of notes – this student is in trouble and you, as the teacher, need to put him right.  

The Advantages of Stretching the Students

The first obvious advantage to be gained by such a choice of material is that students will be furnished with the skills necessary to be able to read texts that are slightly too difficult for them without panicking, and also continue learning; both of which are vital if they are doing a year of prep before commencing their studies at an English medium university such as our own. The second advantage is that they will learn to actually enjoy learning as true pleasure is only possible if all one’s senses and faculties are involved in the task at hand; so much so that all else is forgotten. The greatest compliment a teacher can receive is comments indicating that the students were unaware that the lesson had come to an end. There is a third advantage: students will, in fact, learn vocabulary faster and progress faster: provided there is adequate opportunity for practice and the syllabus is purposely designed (i.e. the pace, the selection of material and the order in which it is presented are all correct), the students will first roughly guess the meaning of the word, then grasp it at a deeper level and finally learn it or get very close to learning it ( recognition level); all without the teacher doing much other than the planning and setting of the task – presenting the texts in the correct order. It must be remembered that it is the reasoning skills that are ultimately tested on any good reading test and as a teacher, if you furnish your charges with these, you are home and dry. The three advantages of this method of teaching will also have a knock on effect on the pace: the syllabus designer or teacher will be able to increase the pace as the year progresses and students acquire the necessary skills thus enabling more learning to be achieved in a shorter space of time. This is the only way to prepare for centralized English Language tests that measure competence in a language such as IELTS or TOEFL or The Proficiency at our university in a relatively short space of time and hope for a measure of success. Keeping students on a lead will mean that they will be unable develop the reasoning skills necessary and their learning will fall far short of the desired target – the standard set by the centralized test. You may be forgiven for thinking that these reasoning skills can be explained to the students in the context of a simple text though I doubt that many of those who have been following me thus far still believe this.

The reasons are simple: firstly, skills of any kind can best be acquired if the student is allowed to draw conclusions; in short, if he is forced to work things out for himself. Active mental involvement or engagement in the task goes hand in hand with successful learning and remembering. The second reason is so obvious that I feel almost ashamed to have to point it out: the students are trying to increase their competence in a foreign language to a level which will enable them to follow lessons at university level for instance, like in our case, or to go abroad and do graduate work. What use is learning what previewing, predicting, skimming, scanning, reading for detail, main ideas, topic sentences are if the lexical difficulty of the texts he can cope with fall far, far too short of the standard required at the end of the year. It is mastery of the language itself that is paramount; a simple truth that is often forgotten in the selection of reading material for classroom use. When selecting a text or a text book then, the content, quality, level and appeal of the texts themselves should be of prime concern. The skills can easily be taught by a teacher who knows what he is doing. I will go further: my ideal student reader would only have the texts. All activities would be in the teacher’s book and could be photocopied and distributed as necessary. This would keep the students in suspense and therefore focused. It would also aid enjoyment of the text, which would in turn foster successful learning. As I have often said before, we, as a breed, are often mesmerized by various types of reading activities, charts, vocabulary sections and the like. The lengthier the activities, the more thoroughly hooked we become. This is a feeling comparable to any addiction – drugs, alcohol, nicotine – and should be crushed both for our own sakes and the students – who are on the receiving end of all this.

Should one allow oneself to be carried away by all those lovely activities and amble along like George the Galapagos turtle( a current resident of London zoo where he has been for the last couple of centuries if I am not mistaken), the end of the year will mean Erebus as students fail in their hundreds. When such a disaster hits, one can hardly just blame the students as the teacher is the team leader and master of ceremonies. After all George has no need to run or even trot; he can afford not to with his lifespan. We don’t have the luxury of a couple of hundred years to get from A to B; we often have eight months. We teachers stand alone with a few other professions in that our prime concern is to best serve our students; not material gain, contrary to current trends so all is needed to avert disaster is teacher training and good communication. The latter has, in this day and age, been greatly facilitated by technology. Thus, there is no need at all for the problem to persist. Our motto should be that of Dr Seuss’ when he said “Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting. So…. Get on your way” It doesn’t have to be The Matterhorn, at least not initially, but it most certainly must not be a couple of feet of garden path either.  

This article is dedicated to my good friend and colleague Oya Özağaç in the hope that it answers her question

           

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