A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF CLASSROOM PRESENCE
In the first part of this paper, two important components of successful classroom interaction, the leader and his team, were discussed in general terms. Here we return, once again, to the master of ceremonies, i.e. the teacher as his role in determining student attitude, receptiveness, and ultimately successful learning is paramount. The successful imparting of knowledge and the equally successful acquisition thereof is achieved by a teacher with what is described in the profession as classroom presence. Classroom presence is indeed an elusive quality and not everyone has it. Some, those who feel teachers are born not made, feel that it is innate; others feel that it can, to a certain degree, be learnt.
There is certainly a lot of truth in the view that certain members of the teaching profession are just born with that certain je ne sais quoi which makes students sit up, focus, learn and often enjoy the process while also respecting the teacher. Delving back into the recesses of our minds, I am sure we can, each and every one of us, think of at least one individual who would fit the bill. Two brilliant examples that come to mind in my case are my math’s teacher and my biology teacher. I remember the former very clearly: she used to wear grey suits, white blouses and cameo broaches. All I recall about her person is her jet black hair and her eyes; eyes that could read your mind including thoughts that hadn’t entered your consciousness yet and were due to emerge, say, next week; see what you were doing when her back was turned and much else besides. She knew the way our minds worked; she had it down to a T. The result was that we learnt. When we didn’t, she knew and rectified the problem. Result? I graduated with a first, did very well on the seriously difficult university entrance exam and have always loved maths. The latter is due to another essential feature of a brilliant teacher: passion. Passion, as you well know, his catching; enthusiasm spreads through a class like wild fire; a fire which remains for a life time. My biology teacher had the same sort of aura about her as my math’s teacher; something students of all stripes can recognize at a glance. She used to wear her auburn hair up in bun on top of her head and had these diamante glasses which did nothing to cut back on the glare from her piercing blue eyes. One obsession of hers, which I have referred to earlier, was the anatomies of creepy crawlies which we were required to draw meticulously. Precision was paramount and failure to produce a successful rendition was met with this sharp piercing gaze and a feeling that it could get VERY much worse. No one ever dared to push the boundaries and these two teachers never ever raised their voices or uttered a sharp word; they didn’t need to; they had successfully conveyed the feeling of “what if”. They had, in short, classroom presence. I remember coming across my high school biology exercise books years later with the pictures of the members of insect communities and finally deciding to throw them out. As the thought crossed my mind, I also experienced this feeling of supreme guilt – I was letting her down – and fear; fear that she would know and be displeased and… This, despite the fact that she was dead I may add; God rest her soul. Not every member of the profession is thus blessed however, and it is to how they can improve their act that we shall now turn.
The Secrets Revealed…
There is, so I have been told, this psychologically revealing Chinese game – Wei-Chei – which, when played, gives a quite clear indication as to the sort of person you are. However, there are a group of people who do not need to contend with a game to work out what kind of a person their leader is and that group is students. Students will know within seconds of the teacher’s venturing, striding or ambling into the room, how far they can push him, whether he is experienced or inexperienced, whether he loves teaching or whether he is there under duress, whether he really cares if they – the students – are present in the full sense of the word or not and a whole lot more. They will then proceed to “play” or “manipulate” the poor unsuspecting teacher, jerk his chain, retire to their own little planet, go on auto pilot and / or occasionally listen and learn. This much should make it quite obvious that a teacher’s debut is of vital significance since teaching proper starts as the teacher is entering the door.
First: The Prop Room…
It is imperative that one issue be dealt with before finally going on stage: costume! Some may look aghast on reading this but it is of vital significance. Consider, if you will, all those leaders who are in the public eye: any president would rather be dead than not don his suit and tie when in office; officers, officials of all stripes, police chiefs, nurses, paramedics, firemen, those working in the private sector as a whole all have their “uniforms”. They will, in short, “dress for the occasion” as a sign of respect for their position, to imbue their presence with the correct sense of propriety and seriousness, to draw attention away from themselves as men or women, to stress their professional qualities and to clearly delineate the hierarchy. The aim of these men and women is to draw attention away from all but the matter in hand: the budget meeting, the battle, the fire, the patient to be saved and the like. Attention needs to be focused, distractions eliminated and the sense of urgency of the mission conveyed; the costume described here goes a long way towards achieving this goal. This is the rule of the business world as well where certain colors – yellow and beige for instance – are frowned upon, exposing the toes is a no-no – as I found out from my daughter who was then in human resources – and shirt sleeves unthinkable – at least in sectors where the professional is in direct contact with the all important customer. So if you thought for one moment that school uniforms remain a fixture of secondary school, think again; they return, after a brief respite, as soon as one joins the business world. I will, in fact, go as far as to say that there is far more specific attire deemed appropriate for certain professions: take the finance sector. I recall walking across the campus one morning towards our faculty when I happened upon what looked like a flock of penguins – male and female – except they were dressed in dark blue and white rather than the traditional penguin-black. I noticed they were young, about the age of our students, but the suits? I was flummoxed. It was at this point that that my glance fell upon the daughter of a family friend: Hi! She exclaimed, hurrying over to greet me. “Why are you all wearing uniforms?” I enquired with interest. “Oh this is the way we dress in A…. A…. (A reputable company, NOT Alcoholics Anonymous); we are here for a seminar” she explained cheerfully so then I knew: the dress code, like the constitution, is very, very much a fact. I have since learnt that pink is the new white for men’s shirts but I digress. This, then, is the world we live in and for better or for worse, these are the rules of the game. It is not my intention here to defend “uniforms” far from it; what needs to be emphasized is that this is the social learning that human kind grows up surrounded by; these are the associations that have been embedded in his psyche – at least in the psyche of the vast majority of the population. Could you honestly claim you would trust in the judgment of your bank manager more if he greeted you in combat trousers and a T-shirt? Alternatively, consider your supervisor, Ms. X; would you be able take her warnings concerning the pitfalls of such and such an investment seriously if she entered the board room wearing a leopard print and a miniskirt? Would you even be able to focus? The reason is that that old adage, “Clothes maketh man” is truer than it has ever been. Although there are some famous exceptions which are few and far between, there is attire that is associated with specific positions and anyone who wishes to be taken seriously, needs to play by the book. The same is true for the teaching profession despite claims to the contrary.
On the up side, the dress code, which is so very strict for many other professions, is much more lax when it comes to teaching. This doesn’t mean, however, that you can arrive in class wearing that comfy floral print which you’ve had for fifteen years or that T-shirt which has grown transparent but lovely and soft through repeated washing. Clean, tidy and well groomed is the rule of thumb. A second point to remember is that, just like your bank manager or your supervisor, you need to put your “professional self” across; not you as the attractive woman or the trendy young man. There needs to be nothing to distract attention from the substance of the lesson: students should be focusing on what the teacher is saying not her cleavage, how good she looks in leggings, what a good bust she has, how good he looks in those tight jeans or that they can see his boxers when he bends over. The teacher, like other professionals, needs to dress for the occasion; he/ she is not exempt from the all important dress code. On the plus side, as I indicated at the beginning, lee way is provided: unlike other fields, jeans and cords are fine for instance but classic cuts rather than the skin tight variety; decent pullovers rather than skimpy v-necks. It is, unfortunately, a fact that we can’t dress for the workplace – be it an office or a school – as we would for an evening on the town or for slobbing out in front of the TV. If you wish to have discipline, a responsive an attentive class and consequently some actual teaching and learning, this the attire that will give you a head start. If, on the other hand, you are satisfied with a free-for-all, mayhem and consequently lack of respect and effective learning, go in your hipsters and boob-tube by all means. As George Orwell so aptly put it: In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. This is the truth however little some people may like it.
Suitably attired, the teacher enters the room. This may sound simple but isn’t as those first steps are a dead giveaway concerning who the teacher really is, what he is capable of and also what his limitations are – remember students have mastered the art of reading body language. The first mistake one may make is fixing one’s eyes on the desk and making a bee line for it without so much as a glance in the direction of the class. The subconscious reaction of your team – for that is what they indeed are – is as follows: he doesn’t care if we are here or not; whether we listen or not just so long as we sit quietly and there is a semblance of attentive listening. This is often very far from being the intention of the novice to the profession who may be suffering from stage fright (which the students will also sense rather like hounds on the scent of that hormone the brain produces as a response to fear) and is trying to cover up, or is preoccupied and just wants to get on with it. There are those in the profession who, unfortunately, do really feel that a captive audience will suffice. Consider, if you will, this professor of law who marches into class turns up his nose at the students and tells them that they are too thick to understand anything he says anyway and with this opening remark proceeds to talk at the students for a year (true story). It should come as no surprise that success rates were very low. There are some who make it a practice to hurl abuse at students; a very counterproductive method, which breeds a hearty dislike for “the team leader”, whatever he espouses and by association, learning in general. Someone once said: when the hammer is the only tool, every problem looks like a nail but if this is the case, why, one may enquire, do such people teach? They do so because they crave a captive audience; not because they are actually concerned about imparting their knowledge to the next generation and also because they have serious narcissistic personality disorders. They are obviously not the concern of this paper as the issue at stake is effective teaching and in this regard, motivating and enthusing the students with effective team work. To return to the teacher who we deserted to his own fate in the doorway, he should walk into class looking at and addressing the students for a good leader picks up the reins immediately if he isn’t to lose his grip. There will be a rostrum or a desk of some kind but these he should avoid. A desk is where a teacher should place his books and notes not where he should sit. Whoever heard of any leader ever leading from a chair behind a desk? A leader needs to be visible and the focus of attention as he is the conductor, the master of ceremonies and the director. Skulking behind desks, barricading oneself behind computers and the like will lead the team to lose confidence in the leader and this in turn will impact the whole lesson. Teaching has nothing whatsoever to do with trench warfare; it is to do with communication and in this regard, with the communication of knowledge. Someone expressed this sentiment very aptly as follows: the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it took place. Anything but direct confrontation and communication will be completely ineffectual in a classroom environment. We have got our teacher, suitably attired, into the correct place in the classroom but that is only the first couple of minutes; it gives him a head start but the action is only just beginning…
Once the lesson is underway, the teacher must endeavor to communicate whatever it is he is trying to impart verbally and nonverbally. All leaders and public speakers are masters of the art of using body language effectively. Then there are those who are not: I recall a teacher we had for Old English whose presence in class we became aware of on sensing a light breeze as he darted past (Clark Kent eat your heart out). He would then proceed to flit round the room for a full sixty minutes like Tinkerbell on crack talking nineteen to the dozen the whole time. Although he was the most well meaning and enthusiastic teacher I had, following him was an uphill battle. There is also the reverse; another teacher we had was cursed with the most soporific tone of voice imaginable; couple that with the fact that he would waft into class rather like that professor of history who taught the goblin battles in Harry Potter and drone on and on from a sort of central position in front of the board. Following him was an uphill battle too… What to do? The thing to remember is that we do communicate with our gestures as well so if communicating knowledge is one’s chosen profession, one would do well to remember that fact. The teacher wants each and every student to sit through the lesson thinking that he is looking into his eyes and delivering the lecture. This he does by mentally dividing the class into three lengthwise and looking at each portion for twenty seconds. I remember one of our teachers who kept saying” keep your heads on swivels, keep your heads on swivels”. He had the right idea but the important thing is to get the timing right; if it is so, each and every student will feel the teacher has maintained eye contact with him personally for the duration of the lesson. The advantage of this has probably dawned on you by now: eye contact means focus and concentration; it means attention won’t waver; in short, it will mean time well spent.
How one actually speaks is also of vital significance. If one has been born with a squeak or a sleepy drone, there is very little one can do; these are problems that one can probably work round with appropriate teaching techniques but a lisp one can’t. There is one teacher I know, a very knowledgeable and decent person I might add, who has the most unfortunate lisp. His students claim he uses fourteen letters of the alphabet and substitutes “th” for anything – that sound being the joker so to speak. The first week with him is a challenge and everything takes twice as long as he has to resort to putting anything and everything on the board. Hith lithp ith made much worth by the fact that he talkthlikeamachinegunandeverythingsortofrunthintoeachother. I am not really sure whether lisps can be rectified but one thing I do know is that speed can be controlled. So teachers need to master the art of classroom speed and “classroom speak” punctuated by notes on the board. This comes with time but it should be cultivated too as students need to be able to process and make notes on whatever the teacher is saying. This teaching voice and classroom style if you like is very distinctive and spills over into all walks of life. For your typical teacher, saying something once, paraphrasing the remark, asking a leading question and then making a restatement all at ninety decibels is pretty typical. Irritating for family members who interrupt with remarks like “Got you the first two times!” but not too much of a problem generally as most members of the teaching profession are pretty clannish sticking closely to their own species. Conversations just take a little longer but being long winded or vociferous goes with the territory.
Then there is the small matter of classroom pitch as well; of great significance as the primary aim of the teacher, contrary to what some think, is to communicate information. I recall a physics teacher I had in high school that used to enter the lab where we used to have our classes with his white coat flapping and his eyes firmly fixed on the Bunsen burner. He would then proceed to whisper the lesson to the test tubes; a fact we learnt to live with. Someone did venture a question once and I shall never forget the stunned silence that followed: our teacher looked up at the class – we discovered that he had blue eyes incidentally – and there was this thirty seconds of absolute, total silence and then our teacher shifted his gaze back to the test tubes and proceeded from where he had left off. We never tried it again but surprisingly, now I think back on it, we were very kind to him: there were no discipline problems either. We just sat through the lessons two parts asleep. This kind of pitch is, of course, completely unacceptable as I am sure you agree. I will go so far as to say that a pitch best compared to a fast approaching train becomes so firmly ingrained in the teacher’s psyche that normal, everyday pitch is lost forever. Teachers have this innate fear that those in the back row will not be able to hear them and that “back row” is somewhere on the horizon so “a voice that shatters glass” often becomes the order of the day. Continual admonitions by family members that there is no reason to yell are met with surprise and mild irritation but “the teaching pitch”, once fixed, will never change. Again, since most members of the profession converse in the same way, this fact causes no major problem.
The teacher enters the class, steps forward to face his team and says with a smile “You can call me Jim”. This is perfectly acceptable in some parts of the world but a most definite no-no in Turkey and the Middle east where respect for age and experience is habitually expressed through the use of certain epithets. What’s more, this includes people three or four years older than one as well. Older students in my class – I teach in the language preparatory school where there may be graduate students in class along with undergrads – are addressed as “elder brother Ertan” for instance. A middle aged lady on the streets of Istanbul may be addressed as elder sister, aunt or mother if she is older; a man of similar age is often addressed as elder brother or uncle. A young person growing up in this kind of a culture will be completely thrown by the new teacher’s opening remark. After some initial confusion, the teacher will be placed on the same rung of the ladder as classmates and any respect or decorum will be lost. As I tried to explain in the first part of this paper, it is very important for the teacher to know his team and their background in order to be able to relate to them and this is just one small example. Teachers who have lived in this part of the world for any length of time will never make the mistake discussed above and Turks will raise their eyebrows in horror at the very idea. This is a culture that thrives on rules of etiquette handed down through the generations.
There is one issue that remains to be mentioned before moving on to the content of the lessons and the action plan ( syllabus) and that is the fact that the teacher needs to keep the channels of communication open at all times. He needs, in short, to correctly read the public pulse. Drifting off into ones’ own little dream world where classrooms, students, blackboards and computers just melt away to muse lovingly on the intricacies of the present perfect with no regard for the troops, who may also have drifted off into their own little dream worlds, is unacceptable. It is also a truism yet how often it happens is beyond belief. This problem may be avoided by maintaining eye contact and not obsessing with the board – the essence of the lesson in this case involves communication, not copying from the board; it is proficient users of English that are required, not scribes. When Max Lucado said “Anyone who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd”, he didn’t mean teachers presenting the class with a continual rear view. In the case of teaching, communication needs to be face to face and the lines need to be kept open at all times. A teacher needs to learn, very quickly, how to read the first signs of confusion and respond; he needs to anticipate problems or questions and be prepared; he needs, in other words, to be on the lookout. A stitch in time saves nine and if problems are ironed out early on, more serious complications can be avoided. Although a lot of questions can be anticipated, often this needs to be done on the hop and one piece of comfort is that teachers get better at doing this in time.
The components of classroom presence here outlined can be learnt and implemented. These coupled with dedication and real passion will provide the rest so long as the teacher considers teaching as a vocation and not a job – a means of making a living. Any profession whose aim it is to serve people thus is best achieved with devotion to the task in hand and how to best accomplish it. This mentality will also provide the motivating force in designing the best action plan and strategy with which to achieve this task. What I am referring to is syllabus design and that is the subject of the third part of this paper. There is also the matter of methodology – how the information is conveyed to the class – that, however, has been dealt with in the remainder of the papers I have posted. One last point: incase there is any lingering concern about discipline problems, it must have become pretty obvious that with the approach outlined in this paper and all the others that have been posted, there is no cause for worry. It simply doesn’t happen as students are well occupied because, thanks to the teacher’s approach, they would much prefer to be occupied with the task in hand. There is, as I stated earlier, one stone left unturned and that is syllabus design while handling which I shall touch on discipline once again.
AN ELUSIVE QUALITY: MOTIVATION-PART THREE
THE ACTION PLAN: THE SYLLABUS
Having established what the correct attire, mode of addressing the students and general demeanor in the classroom should be like, we need to move on to the teacher’s strategy and action plan, which is one thing that cannot be done on the hop. Before getting into the specifics of syllabus design, we would do well to focus on an article written by futurist Thomas Frey and posted on his website: Curiosity- Driven Education. Frey quotes A. Clark in this article, who he heartily agrees with, that “a student’s interest is the most important thing in education”; a fact that a lot of educational establishments seem to have lost touch with. He demonstrates by providing some rather scary factual information and I quote: “As it turns out, the average American spends 11.8 hours every day consuming information. Many other countries are posting similar numbers. People today are being exposed to far more information than ever in the past. Buried deep within “the other” category, constituting far less than 1% is formalized education. Even for students attending college, their classroom studies constitute a relatively small percentage of the information they are exposed to on a daily basis.” He goes on to inquire why “the pedigree of information coming from scholarly people is considered more valuable than all the other information we are exposed to on a daily basis.” The conclusion he reaches is that in fact it isn’t; the information we get from a host of other sources seems to be much more highly valued and thus have a greater impact – being much better retained. He cites various experiments to bolster his position that if a student is curious, enthusiastic and intrigued, he will learn and retain information better. When the excitement, scientific curiosity and desire to know more at all costs is gone, so is effective learning and how we, educators, have managed to lose track of this fact I really fail to see. Perhaps we didn’t completely lose track but although many seem to pay lip service to the idea, they don’t seem to actually act on it. It is sad but true that many of us seem to have lost sight of the most important goal of education: to foster “an amazing sense of curiosity driven by a need to understand nature” The only point I don’t see eye to eye on with Mr. Frey is the solution: while he tends to agree with Arthur Clark that “ If a teacher can be replaced by a machine, he should be”, I feel that although technology has a very important place in learning in the 21st century, the problem of lack of interest and motivation on the part of students is largely due to the teaching staff of many establishments for as I have been saying from the outset, they are the leaders, the master of ceremonies, the director and the ring master. It is down to teachers to enthuse – and technology is certainly one of the weapons in the teachers’ arsenal – if they are failing, there is something very wrong in the state of Denmark as Shakespeare so aptly put it.
Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, imagination encircles the world” and he was right. I strongly feel that it is this fact that seems to have fallen by the way side. No one ignites true passion more successfully than a dedicated and imaginative leader who can visualize “the complete picture” and also the methods to be employed while overcoming the various hurdles en route to achieving the goal he has set for himself. A real leader – in our case the teacher – who is by definition imaginative and unfettered by conventional ways of doing a job, can put the curiosity, enthusiasm and passion back in learning by carefully planning his strategy; i.e., his syllabus. Having determined what the underlying principle of syllabus design should be, it is necessary to direct our attention to the specifics of how the learning objectives envisioned can be married up with this philosophy. For married up they have got to be if successful learning, a lifelong love for the subject matter – in our case reading, writing and listening in English – high pass rates and complete cooperation on the part of the students is to be ensured.
Concerning the necessity of a syllabus…
When William of Normandy invaded England in 1066, he was greatly aided in his attempt by a series of events he had not bargained for. First of all, although he had been ready to set sail for the shores of Britain for some time, he was not able to do so until late September when there was finally a favorable wind. Being late autumn, the people of England were bringing in the harvest – understandably – and the small force that Harold had left when he set off for the north to face his brother Tosti and Harold Hardraada – The king of Norway with whom Tosti had formed an alliance and who had invaded the north of the country – were no match for William. This being the case, William pretty much walked a shore. To give him his due, Harold did defeat his brother and Harold Hardraada and marched straight south without so much as drawing a breath and faced William at Hastings. Despite his ordeal, Harold put up a wonderful resistance but was defeated; the result being that William of Normandy was crowned king of England. Now consider another battle that took place in 1071, a few years later, in what is now Anatolia: the battle of “Malazgirt”; fought by the Selchuk Sultan, Alpaslan. Being master tacticians, the Sultan and his generals surrounded the enemy army in a crescent shaped vice of soldiers, having lured them there, and destroyed them. This tactic was later successfully used by The Ottomans as well if I am not much mistaken. The point of this little history lesson is that while the latter had a tactic, a plan of action that was well thought out, the former invasion was greatly aided by first the weather and consequently the need to gather the harvest, and Tosti and his Norwegian ally. The fact that if such hadn’t been the case, William may, in fact, not have won is supported by the fact the Battle of Hastings could have gone either way in 1066. At this point, we should stop and ask ourselves whether we can always trust in chance or ourselves to make the right move at the right time, take the correct decision or implement the correct policy. There are two possible adjectives one can apply to anyone who ventures to say yes to such a question: foolhardy or misguided.
The view that long term strategy is a must holds true for the government and the business world, where five year plans, yearly budgets and long term policy decisions are commonplace. The manager, his department heads and in the case of Japan, workers way down in the hierarchy will be involved in determining long term policy and the best ways to implement it. Nothing is left to chance for fear of tactical errors that can have serious repercussions. No general in his right mind will say “Let’s get as far as that stream and then we’ll look and see” or “I’ll think of something when I get to the meeting”. The question is what if there are factors you didn’t bargain for? What if, when you are seated in the board room, your mind goes blank?” Or even worse, what if your tactical decision goes horribly wrong? Remember the Battle of The Somme in W.W.I and the disastrous consequences of the tactical decisions in that case – in the shape of a complete and utter bloodbath. This is why planning is paramount in any major operation and that includes deciding what to do in class. What is meant by this is not just sitting down for five minutes with coffee and a friend but very careful planning; the sort where no stone is left unturned.
There will always be those teachers who will amble in five minutes before the bell, flip through papers and books, grab something and walk into class – or grab the whole lot and walk into class postponing the final verdict for when they are actually facing the students. One thing these teachers need to remember is that students will feel at once if the teacher is well prepared and knows what he is doing or not (shuffling through a bunch of papers at the rostrum while students wait will not produce respect); they will then respond accordingly and most importantly, will not learn as well if they come to believe that their teacher is making decisions on the hop. There is another point too: the teacher won’t enjoy the process of teaching as much as he could have either thus perpetuating the problem. There is yet another problem closely linked to lack of planning and that is discipline. A great thinker once said “The only way to rule people is to serve them; the rule has no exceptions”. He was right; if a teacher wants to do a worthwhile job, be respected and followed, he has got to let the students see that he is serving them. The teacher who is really “serving” the students never need fear discipline problems; love and respect put a stop to that. There may be the occasional problem in spite of all this, but that issue we are going to need to postpone to a later date. We have, I hope, now established that a teacher can’t walk into class and expect to teach “ex cathedra”; through divine inspiration.
Who plans the syllabus?
Is there really any doubt about who is best qualified to plan the syllabus? When the aforementioned Sultan and his generals decided to go to battle, they didn’t consult “army campaign planners” who drew up the plans and handed it to them to implement. Similarly, our manager discusses policy decisions with department heads and assistant managers who are the same people who proceed to implement the plans. The point we need to keep in mind is that strategy works best if the planners and those who implement the plans are one and the same. When such is not the case, it is almost as if there is a break between the brain – whoever is designing the action plan – and the body, arms and legs and so forth who devoid of the need and often also the desire to think, will retire into a semi vegetative state from which position they will try and do as they are told like Dr Who’s Darlects. A position of blind obedience is supremely comfortable as one can sort of plod along without worrying oneself too much about the larger picture; or indeed the smaller picture like what happens on Tuesday for instance. This is why so many members of the teaching profession in such a situation fall rather too comfortably into a rut, becoming implementers rather than the master tacticians and leaders they were originally meant to be. Passivity is easy; questioning, challenging rocking the boat is not only harder but also unpleasant. Quarrels at universities or other teaching establishments can get vicious and hurtful so why would one bother to express qualms? The fact that a teacher doesn’t have the luxury of not thinking, not planning and not leading should be, by now, pretty obvious. So if there are still those members of the profession out there who are thus plodding along, I strongly recommend that they have a little rethink.
There are various additional reasons, which may not be immediately apparent, why “central planning committees” are not ideal: for one thing, they start becoming more and more cut off from the realities on the ground; i.e. the classroom, and lacking this valuable source of direct feedback, become more prone to mistakes which in turn they defend to the death – the “this is my baby syndrome” can mean the gloves come off. Any individual who is tucked away somewhere in an old university – especially if he’s permitted to vegetate there year in and year out – does tend to turn inwards and for lack of another focus in life, devote all his enthusiasm, passionate love and dedication to his one and only child: the syllabus. The bonds forged between a syllabus designer and his brain child; i.e. the syllabus, thus tend become a tad obsessive; a feeling that grows in strength – if that is possible – the longer that person is compelled to stay cooped up in his turret dishing out action plans. These action plans, lovingly nurtured, are delivered to the teachers who will take them on and walk off into the horizon – down the corridor to class. The tearful parent is destined never to see those first faltering steps his brain child will take, he will never be able to watch, lend a helping hand, encourage or if need be, take the child by the hand and leave.
Lacking the opportunity to observe and assess firsthand how his strategy works, he will be unable to make amendments. He may receive feedback from teachers who, as a breed, don’t mince their words to the effect that “This sucks! What the hell were you thinking of!” which will lead him to cling ever more tenaciously to his darling whose existence now depends on him. In response to raised eyebrows concerning the ferocity of this attack on the curriculum planner, I would like to point out a certain idiosyncrasy of teachers worldwide: they live in mortal terror of not being able to get their point across, to fail to penetrate the hippocampus, jump start the creation of new synapses. Unlike politicians, they consider all who are before them in the capacity of students as somehow deficient and in need of PLENTY of consolidation. Believing that “a stitch in time saves nine”, the teacher charges the frontal lobes before him with the ferocity of a pneumatic drill. In prehistoric times, there were a group of dinosaurs called the bone heads the front bit of whose skulls were a good a couple of inches thick to enable them to head-but each other. It is to these creatures that the teacher – the pneumatic drill – likens the students on the receiving end. This is all unconscious you must understand but observe the teachers around you and you will find that no other group of individuals explains anything with such energy and with such an air of determination and desperation. To the teacher, it is a matter of life and death. This earnestness spills over into other spheres of life as well which means that the local grocer, the tea lady, family members all have to be “made to understand”; irritating for the latter as no amount of protest will make an iota of difference to the teacher in question. Naturally, the curriculum planner “must also be made to understand”. The latter being a teacher as well, he responds in a similar vein making staff meetings at educational establishments some of the stormiest in the world.
Getting back to the class teacher who we left confronting our curriculum planner ,his focus is the class – his attention is divided – he has no such hang-ups with any material he produces casting it aside if need be with a shrug of the shoulders and turning to what he deems a better alternative. Why then do we have curriculum committees?
The answer is simple: in large institutions where – as in the case of the institution I work at – there are close to two thousand students who have to be ready to pass a proficiency exam, or the IELTS or TOEFL at a specific date in eight months time; it is too risky to leave things to chance. Tight controls are a must, the system has to be foolproof, and the pitfalls are far fewer if there is a team doing the planning. Large institutions are compelled by their nature to play it safe; however, smaller establishments can implement more direct democracy if you like and mimic small town meetings in cantons in Switzerland: five teachers can perfectly well get round a table, exchange views, design their syllabus and then tweak it should the need arise; a couple of hundred teachers cannot. The problems linked to curriculum committees can be minimized with the implementation of certain safe guards:
- No one person should stay in the curriculum department for more than two years at the very most.
- Curriculum members should consider it part of their duty to observe classes
- They should hold frequent meetings with staff members where a frank exchange of views takes place.
Having rather reluctantly come to the conclusion that a more “representative” system is best, it is important to pose one crucial question: what is the magic formula, then, for that all important ideal syllabus? Very simple; there isn’t one. There is a single ideal syllabus suited to a particular group with certain features and needs. What this means for a teacher in a large teaching establishment is that although the syllabus the central committee prepares may be appropriate in the main, it may not be a hundred percent ideal, which in turn means the teacher has to roll his sleeves up as well. The teacher needs, in other words, to prepare material, contribute to the syllabus and the determining of the learning objectives as well. Teaching, like learning, is a truly active process; a detail that some would prefer to forget. Who knows? Rediscovering themselves as thinking, planning and teaching individuals may bring true joy. What could be more fulfilling than the satisfaction derived from a job well done?
What kind of a syllabus?
A syllabus is by definition an action plan devised to meet the needs of a specific, well defined target group. It is not an arena for a teacher or syllabus designer to ram down students’ throats what they feel they should be doing. Students, in the form of young business executives for instance, may be attending a course for the purpose of conversing more comfortably with clients or customers. Compelling such individuals to suffer through the intricacies of the reduction of adjective clauses for example would not only mean going against the customers’ wishes which in turn would mean loss of business ( in this case the students), but also mean either that no learning objectives have been devised or that they are being disregarded. Such a program is doomed to fail. Consider the reverse: a group of students are attending a course with the purpose of taking some kind of proficiency test to enter an English medium university. The learning objectives need to be thought out in tandem with this particular test: proficiency in reading, listening, essay writing and also everyday conversation is the target so skills practice should be a major part of the course as of day one, gradually building towards the climax. I was passing the time of day with a colleague – a young woman who most definitely has her head screwed on right – and she remarked, on being asked, that they were still completing the grammar required of them according to the syllabus and hadn’t got into skills proper; a capital offence in my mind as the said conversation took place at the beginning of May and the proficiency was in June. If, as I said before, the ultimate goal is a skills based English proficiency exam, skills practice should be fed into the program as of day one ( for further reference, see” The Lord Said Let There Be English Grammar And There Was Much Rejoicing”). I shudder to think how one can get through all that grammar without skills practice. If the class is still examining the past forms of modals or omitting “if” from a conditional sentence a month to the exam, it doesn’t take a university degree to tell you that there is something very wrong with the action plan. The particular teacher or planner’s individual fondness for some obscure grammar point (a common affliction among English Teachers) for instance should not be allowed to infect the program. To sum up then, the program should be tailor made to suit the needs, capabilities and interests of the group in question. If you recall, awakening curiosity, enthusiasm and passion for learning is the main criterion; this, as I said before, needs to be worked into the syllabus with a view to attaining the specific goal that is being targeted. However accurate the learning objectives, however good the syllabus, very little learning will be achieved if this latter point is disregarded (for details concerning the selection of material, refer to the relevant papers on this site). Someone once said of managers “Good management is the art of making problems so interesting, and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them”. This would be a very apt way of describing a teacher and curriculum planner’s relationship with the students.
Where to start?
Deciding where to start is only easy if the target group is composed of absolute beginners. This is not always the case however; there is often a most annoying amount of variety. Get the starting point too simple and the students will slip into those unhealthy study habits, unruly behavior and dangerous overconfidence before you can say Jack Robinson. Once there, they will be very hard to shift even if the material starts to become quite challenging, say in two or three week’s time. The feeling that they have very little to learn and that their being there is down to some administrative error is supremely hard to shift as generations of teachers and planners have discovered to their cost. When learning, overly simple material breeds boredom; overly difficult material breeds despair and both become deeply entrenched surprisingly fast. Challenging material that is just difficult enough to be interesting but not so difficult that one has to abandon the task is perfect however, and will engender full concentration; and in lieu of that, learning. With regard to the curriculum team, making the starting point too hard is not so great a problem as it is discovered in five seconds and rectified immediately.
What, in this case, is the novice curriculum planner to do? The answer is simple: unless there has been some major hue and cry the previous year, he sticks to the syllabus in hand slowly substituting material at each stage that he feels will better meet the requirements of the program. He does not play with the framework until he has done A LOT of observing of classes. It goes without saying that the teacher assigned to this post has to have taught at this level for some years, have a clear vision of what the goal and the various stages on the way to achieving it are and have views concerning what type of material will best serve the purpose. Most ideally, he should have his own tried and tested syllabus which he brings to the job. Anything short of this is unfair to the teacher in question if he is assigned to this post as he will be in for a very bumpy ride indeed and a much bruised ego. If, on the other hand, he has volunteered of his own free will, say while drunk, he is ripe for a very rude awakening. Like in the case of any other job, curriculum design presupposes a certain skill set any applicant to such a post must possess. It is a job the applicant needs to interview for like any other. Once ensconced in his new position, our curriculum planner needs to get together with the dinosaurs of the establishment – those individuals who have devoted their lives to the place and have been there since the year dot. As in everything, practice makes perfect: there comes a point in anyone’s career when estimations are spot on, plans slot into place and the material is just right. The experienced professional develops a feel for the job that is very hard to quantify although there have been efforts to do so. One system is to gage the level of a reading text via a lexical analysis yet vocabulary, sentence quality and grammar are not the only things that determine the level of difficulty of say a reading passage; there are the exercises as well. I would, at this point like to draw your attention to a reading passage the reading task to which I have posted on my blog (http://theproproom.blogspot.com) : “Curiosity Driven Education”, which I referred to at the start of this paper, and the questions I wrote for it. When I posted the task I deemed it, in my wisdom, sort of pre intermediate level; how wrong could I be! Although lexically it certainly is a delightfully straight forward text, the questions have turned out to be well, to put no finer point on it, hard. When writing questions for a text, one ends up reading the text at least half a dozen times by which point everything begins to look straightforward; hence the importance of feedback. I discovered my misjudgment when I walked into class with it. My students are advanced at this stage of the year and they had to concentrate; there was no way they could breeze through it in ten minutes as I thought they would. This in spite of the fact that I have been at this for a wee while! Let us consider another example, another reading exercise posted on the same blog based on an article out of The Guardian: “BrainGate gives paralysed the power of mind control” The text informs of a wonderful little brain chip which enables those who are paralyzed or suffer from “locked in syndrome” to communicate with the outside world. The reading task I designed for it (also on the blog) is fairly straightforward; the writing task, however, is not. So where do you place it in the program? Determining the level of difficulty of material is not as easy as it looks and very hard to write computer programs for. The answer is to use it at an earlier level minus the reaction essay as a reading activity, or use it later on in the year as a prewriting activity. This kind of know how comes with experience so this brings me back once again to the all important communication, dialogue and the civilized give and take of opinions among members of staff to remedy problems.
What about pace?
Although the issue of pace seems to be a problem at first glance, in fact it often is not; not for our curriculum planner anyhow. The reason being that pace is often determined by certain outside factors beyond one’s control in the shape of central examinations or finals which are set for a particular date and cannot be altered. This leaves the curriculum planner facing the following predicament:
- The goal is firmly fixed and there is no shifting it even if one should wish to (our proficiency exam is on June 10th come hell or high water).
- The starting point is similarly firmly fixed ( the start of the year)
- This means the pace is also firmly fixed ( as students have to be prepared for and have a reasonable chance of passing the said exam)
- The goal being clearly defined, the learning objectives are also obvious even to the uninitiated.
- This leaves the itsy bitsy little problem of how to achieve the learning objectives imposed on the establishment from on high.
The very limited area of maneuver the curriculum planner is required to do his job in is consistently and sometimes willfully forgotten with the poor individual continually being upbraided for going too fast or introducing, say summary writing, too early. The truth is he doesn’t have a choice; he can’t go in fits and starts languishing for weeks on end to break into a sprint Ussein Bolt style for the next few weeks. A uniform pace has, at all costs, got to be maintained. What, you may wonder, is to happen to those who, for one reason or another, fall behind? “Adapt or die” Darwin said but we don’t need to be that brutal – we do need to come pretty close though; this is the way of the world: you shape up or ship out. Most schools will have safety nets in place in the form of remedial classes or extra coaching to help stragglers. In this modern age of fierce competition, we all know what happens to those who are left behind. The exam date you remember is fixed; this being the case, the pace cannot slacken. Occasional pleas from teachers that “We should slow down” are impossible to comply with. This reminds us, once again, how important it is to get the selection of material, which will enable the learning objectives to be successfully accomplished, correct at the outset. The solution is team work good and proper: the individuals responsible for the curriculum need to work hand in glove with the teachers for the duration of the program. One feedback meeting at the end of the year with nothing in between is a grave mistake as by that time, tempers get seriously frayed and people, in desperation, become vitriolic. This, in turn, puts the curriculum people on the defensive and no improvements to the program are made. The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that the curriculum designer must actively and routinely seek feedback.
What about the building blocks?
Going back for a minute to that wonderful article “Curiosity Driven Education”, we discover that Arthur C. Clark embedded a computer in a wall in a New Delhi slum and provided high speed internet access. He then left. On his return he discovered that the children who had never seen a computer before in their entire lives had discovered how to download music and play it to their friends – this in four hours. I strongly recommend that you should read up on “The Hole in the Wall” experiment and its findings in its entirety. When you do, you will discover a truism that we should have known all along: what is truly intriguing and fascinating will enthuse like nothing else; will drive concentration, learning and attention like nothing else. This being the case, the curriculum planner’s job is relatively simple but again how often this simple truth is ignored is amazing. All he has to do is provide a framework and context for learning which is in keeping with the students’ interests. After all, “Can You Live For Ever? No, But You Can Have Fun Trying” (www. scientificamerican.com), which is all about symbiosis and really appeals to students, will provide just as much reading, vocabulary and grammar practice as some stuffy text somewhere. While we are on the subject of stuffy texts, we, as teachers, need to hold up our hands and admit that “the fondness” we feel for them is as ingrained in our psyches as our love for say, the subjunctive. Sadly, if we are to really get through to the students, this is one obsession that has to be laid to rest. Bob Dylan warns those who refuse to keep up with the times in no uncertain terms: “Don’t stand in the doorway; don’t block up the hall; for he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled”. He could have been referring to teachers and teaching material. While we are on the subject of frank admissions, there is a whole list of subjects we need to lay to rest too: texts concerning education ( a pet hate with the average student), healthy living, aerobics, health issues, way out of date scientific texts we’ve been hanging onto( teachers are, by nature, pack rats)… Need I go on? However much we personally like these subjects, the sad truth is that students hate them with a passion (with the exception of Thomas Frey’s text). Teachers, as I stated in part one of this paper, need to really get to know their teams and correctly read the public pulse. The modern generation is into science and technology for instance. Have you ever wondered why students yawn through geography lessons but adore The National Geographic; why they loath history but adore the history channel; why they feel biology sucks but David Attenborough is OK? These are just a few examples of the rivals for students’ attention the curriculum planner has to compete with. My point: why compete at all? Why not keep up with the times? As Heraclitus said succinctly: “There is nothing permanent except for change”, and it is high time we accepted the fact that this is especially true for teaching material.
The wakeup call…
The Black Crows tell the “Daughters of the revolution” to “open their eyes and see the solution” and warn that “to give up now would be such a pity”. They weren’t referring to teachers but it really fits remarkably well. Changes have already started to appear in the latest language books in the shape of PowerPoint presentations to introduce lessons, online labs for students to benefit from and the like. Gone are cassettes ; even CDs are on their way out as they are being replaced by, say, YouTube, the multimedia sections of various online publications like The Scientific American or news channels like the BBC or CNN. Pre reading or pre writing activities now need to come from the cyber world if we are to capture students’ attention and keep it. How much better to include talks from websites like http://www.ted.com or http://www.slideshare.net as an alternative in listening lessons instead of the teacher droning on the whole while for instance?( Were you aware that the teacher who uses ted.com is also able to add subtitles in a language of his choice? )The teacher, whose focus is the young population needs, more than anyone, to keep up with the times. Failure to do this is, essentially, the root of all evil in teaching and classroom practices and what led Thomas Frey, in desperation, to suggest alternatives. There is one thing he may have overlooked however: as a breed we are always up for a challenge even if the challenge involves venturing into unknown territory – the world of technology. The instinct to instruct and impart knowledge cannot be destroyed but it most definitely needs to take a somewhat different rout. Fail and we lose the students. This being the case, curriculum planners need to rethink the building blocks of the lesson plans and syllabi they prepare. For details concerning these so called building blocks, I would suggest you consult the remainder of the papers on this site where specific examples as well as procedure and pitfalls are discussed at length. Although individual teachers can be very innovative in the ways they present the lesson, this will not suffice; the curriculum designer needs to work innovations, especially modern technology, into the curriculum. The innovations need, in short, to be made official. The curriculum designers are, after all, the vanguard and must lead the way in implementing changes and keeping up with the times if they are to keep the team, the students, on board. The students we face today are radically different from those ten years ago and to persist in planning for the former instead of the latter is both unpardonable and totally insane. For details of how this should be done, refer to individual papers on this site.
And our motto: Keep them enthused, keep them keen!
More details than this cannot be provided for as stated previously, curriculum planning does not amount to a prescription where one formula fits all; this we have established. There are certain general principles and an overall philosophy that apply everywhere across the board; this we have also established. Then there are specific learning objectives, a specific pace and specific ways of achieving these objectives which will only apply for the group in question and can be correctly ascertained only after close scrutiny of the latter. Generalizations can, however, be made in this area too and have been dealt with in earlier papers. As far as introducing innovations and excelling in the classroom however, the sky is the limit and we should all put our shoulders to the grindstone and remember what Faulkner said many years ago: “Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries and predecessors, be better than yourself”.
HOW NOT TO TEACH READING: BEWARE THE CALL OF FUNCTIONALISM
There is this wonderful bay in present day Foça – previously Fokia – on the Aegean coast of modern day Turkey, which is now thankfully a military zone. Thankfully because this means it gets protected and preserved from the ravages of holiday goers and developers allowing the Mediterranean Monk Seals, whose home it is, to get on with their lives. I had the good fortune of enjoying the unique experience of swimming there some years back and heard for myself the haunting cries of these now endangered animals reverberating round the rocky and mountainous shore line and the little islands dotting the sea. As I swam, I realized how compelling these cries must have sounded to sailors of yore who, I am reliably informed, took them to be mermaids and following the calls, came to a grisly end on the rocks. The call of functionalism, an approach to the teaching of reading, is just as irresistible, and the consequences of succumbing to it are just as fatal so teachers be warned.
Functionalism for beginners
Functionalism, which I personally feel should have been dead and buried ages ago, retains its surprisingly tenacious grip on power as it appeals to all our baser instincts as members of the teaching profession: the desire to not only analyze but dissect, to not only decode but place under an electron microscope. The best way to get to the bottom – this being the key word – of what a reading passage is all about is to leave no stone unturned in the effort to discover the elusive “hidden meanings”. Forget about the forest as a whole, it is not even every tree that counts; it is every leaf. Sentences are neatly broken down into bite sized chunks, clauses, which are carefully labeled – multi colored felt tip pens are on optional source of brownie points – as attention is shifted to various vocabulary items (in accordance with the tired old mantra that if you know and absorb all the vocabulary the text will follow), say to depression in the context of The Great Depression of the 1930’s; all the other forms of the word are committed to the board and to notebooks under the eagle eye of well intentioned but seriously misguided teachers, a few sample sentences are spewed out, diligent paraphrasing is attempted before attention is shifted to a larger chunk of the text: the paragraph. The paragraph is then tackled with gusto: the topic sentence, the introductory statement if there is one, the nature of the support – which is also meticulously analyzed – the concluding statement, the types of transition are all determined with pinpoint accuracy before going onto, yes you have guessed : paragraph two! A few paragraphs of this will cover half the morning if the students are lucky which will leave a wee while to tackle some further analysis of the text as a whole ( if they are unlucky,” the intriguing” study of the anatomy of paragraphs will take all morning leaving the students without the faintest clue as to what the text was all about and a deep loathing for reading, which the English language has no adjective to describe).
Functionalism and the text proper
You are greatly mistaken if you imagine for one minute that this stage of the onslaught on the text actually involves reading the text; heaven forbid, no one can be expected to understand the text as a whole without outlining, skimming, scanning, detailed comprehension questions, paraphrasing and to put a tin lid on it, summarizing. All this, I will have you know, is done without just sitting down, putting everything else aside and actually reading the text properly. “Elementary my dear Watson” you might be forgiven for thinking, “if you want to improve your reading skills, just read”. The well meaning teacher pays no heed to basic common sense like this (neither do a lot of text books, which pours fuel on the fire) and ploughs on in every sense of the word. When classes are finally over, she emerges from class wiping the sweat from her brow to exclaim that she has been reading all about The Great Depression of 1930s with the class for three blocks of 75 minutes each; the class would beg to disagree. Depression certainly; but The Great Depression of the 1930s? Really? I don’t think so somehow.
Textbooks don’t help either
I am yet to see a reading book that actually tells you to just read the text as a whole and forget everything else. On the contrary, any good reader worth its salt will start by hurling a few well chosen skimming questions at you followed by a volley of scanning questions but need I go on? Functionalism is certainly doomed to go down in history as one of the big killers along with heart attacks – which it would precipitate were the victims not so young. Such being the case why, you may well ask, is this state of affairs allowed to continue? The reason is that many of us are still oblivious to the harm it does and its tragic long term consequences. I recently attended a feedback meeting at the university I teach at where our conscientious curriculum planner introduced a new reading book to us, which she hopes to use next term. She had gone to enormous lengths to prepare this wonderful power point presentation consisting of all the points involved in “text biology” running down the left of the screen and the unit numbers running across the top all encased in this irresistible little grid where she had ticked the relevant boxes. So we could see, at a glance, which of the specific methods of torture were implemented with what frequency, in which unit. I witnessed my colleagues glaze over with delight; their expressions can only be compared to that of a baby who has fallen asleep at the breast; an expression those of you with kids will immediately recognize; our curriculum planner looked ecstatic. What we didn’t get to see was a selection of the actual texts or the table of contents which would have told us what subjects are covered in this reader. The mode of presentation says it all: what is paramount here? The texts or all the activities? What our curriculum planner thinks is obvious but I am going to stick my neck out and dare to disagree. After all, what you really need is only a good text; you don’t need to be told to do the rest and despite what some may think, you can actually go ahead and exploit the text as you will despite the fact that the book may not specify that particular area of freedom and scope for free will. Moreover, you won’t get sued for doing so. What was that presentation all about then? I will give you one guess!
Last week, I had a PhD student (also a junior colleague) listening in on my classes and recording as she plans to make a case study of how I teach. One of the things she enquired of me was whether my students did any extensive reading. Knowing that they all read, a fact reflected in their grades, I assured her they did. What, she wanted to know, did they all read and how did I check up on them. I did my best to explain to her that all the motivating and positive encouragement I provide in class is cleverly stage managed to appear nonexistent; a fact that in no way detracts from their effectiveness; quite the reverse. I have given up on most readers and declared my independence of the restrictions they impose some time ago and reverted to using current magazine and newspaper articles and also academic texts in class; the latter come later in the year when the love of reading is well and truly established (we will get back to them a little further on). You may be forgiven for thinking that textbooks with such material exist; the fact is that they don’t and they can’t. Once the book is printed, some of the texts are already outdated. One needs to read about WikiLeaks as the saga is unfolding not a year later when everything has cooled down and attention has shifted. You need to read about the damage done by gold mining with cyanide in Guatemala as the news hits television networks and videos start appearing on YouTube. You need to read about the latest in symbiosis as the conference is taking place. Material is much more effective and motivating when it is hot from the oven; not after it has been allowed to cool down. Material can flop with time rather like a “Soufflé Suissess”. The immediate advantage provided by such material is obvious: you devour the text savoring every morsel in class and naturally when students come back for seconds, they can just log on and continue ad infinitum. There are related videos, YouTube, magazines, websites, blogs you name it. Wrap all this up with a well targeted writing task and provided you haven’t selected a truly deadly topic, the students will be on side; in short, you will be home and dry. Keep it up for a year and they will have developed a lifelong reading habit. As mentioned in previous papers on the topic, two obvious preconditions for enthusiasm on the part of the students are a good nose for a text and an enthusiastic teacher. The package above described has always proved to be foolproof for me.
The issue of reading books
Are all reading books on the market to be trashed then? Most certainly not as this would place an enormous load on individual teachers, be immensely impractical and risky. The point I wish to make here is very similar in nature to the one I made concerning who the best person to design a syllabus is. If you recall from my previous paper on syllabus design, I endeavored to explain that the ideal person for this job is the teacher himself as he is the one actually implementing the program. I also said that for various practical reasons – the size of the establishment being one – this was not feasible and committees are commonly assigned to do the job. The issue of reading material is the same. Although a lot of teachers can and do prepare reading material for their classes all the time, the program has got to have a structure; free floating cannot be allowed. Yet reading material is probably the most frequently prepared extra material and there are two very simple reasons for this: it is easy and a good many books get it wrong. You need but two components for a good reading lesson after all, a text and a teacher who knows what he is doing. You don’t need to have all that you can do with a text in black and white in front of you; teacher training colleges should take care of that and failing that, in service training. The shift away from the actual text and the tendency to subordinate it to activities that get ever more detailed has given rise to some of the misconceptions concerning the teaching of reading that I have outlined thus far.
To return for a moment to our feedback meeting described earlier, we never got to see the most vital part of the book: the texts. Yet it is the texts, not the activities that make or break a book. So the next question that needs to be tackled is the nature of the texts. I would personally avoid technology unless you plan to bring out new editions of the book every couple of years. I would also avoid texts which aim to export western culture – are culturally biased –as it is very hard to get students interested in say how American teenagers live or the school system in The States. One must remember that the ultimate aims of reading lessons are to broaden students’ horizons, provide more in depth background knowledge about issues which can, in turn, provide a springboard for further learning and develop reasoning skills. We should ask ourselves what the text contributes to the students’ stock of background information and how it will help them to move forward to other reading material which will only become comprehensible thanks to the former text. In short, we should inquire of ourselves where the students can go with the said text. All this can be achieved via texts on social, environmental, historical or even political issues all of which can be easily supplemented with videos, texts and other material off the internet making them interesting and topical. Personally, I always cover The Russian Revolution, The Chinese Revolution, how India gained its independence, The Antiglobalization movement and many similar issues in class as they all fit in with the criteria described above. Such topics leave students spellbound yet there seems to be some tacit approval to avoid them in readers; a fact that I have never been able to understand. Science texts can also be used provided texts which are going to be outdated in a year or two are avoided. Genetics for instance would be fine as a subject for material prepared by an individual teacher but not perhaps too practical for a book as new developments in the area are coming in thick and fast. Some subjects are pretty safe for longer periods of time though like two texts I discovered on The Scientific American website some years ago. The first is called “Magic and the Brain: How Magicians Trick the Mind” and explains how illusionists depend on the ways our brains work to carry out certain magic tricks and reaches the conclusion that perhaps neuroscientists have something to learn from magicians. Each trick is carefully described and is followed by an explanation of the accompanying brain activity. I coupled the whole text with a video depicting each magic trick prepared by a colleague and the whole exercise turned out to be one of the most interesting reading lessons of the year. A second example would be “The Future of Man – How will Evolution Change Humans?” This text is beautifully organized and starts out by attempting to prove that evolution exists and then goes on to discuss the forms it will take in the future. Being completely futuristic in its predictions, it will be a safe bet for some years yet. History, as I have stated earlier, is a firm favorite with students too; especially 20th century history. Texts concerning Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Che Guevara for instance will always fly. Couple them with showings of that wonderful Oscar winning film Gandhi , Cry Freedom or Invictus and The Motorcycle Diaries respectively and you are up and away. Sadly, I find most reading books fall seriously short in terms of the quality and nature of the texts they include, which has led me to develop the habit of preparing most of my own material; I haven’t given up though, not by any means and keep my eyes peeled for good books.
To get back to my colleague and graduate student’s query as to whether my students read outside class, one doesn’t need to play the nanny with students so long as you have the attitude and tactics right as described above. In fact, I will go so far as to say it is far better not to, and when you discover one student subscribes to The Economist, while another to The Scientific American, while yet another is trying to decide whether he likes Tolstoy or Dostoevsky better, it is better to act as if this is the most normal thing in the world. One can always do one’s little Indian war dance and whoop all one likes in private later. In public, you just bash on with the next newsworthy text with a good dose of enthusiasm to preserve the momentum. Enthusiasm creates a domino effect and is accompanied by opinions eagerly voiced, which in turn whet the appetites of other students, who in turn hit the internet or library not to be left out. Think if you will about all that extensive reading material that has been placed on the curriculums to date; hand on heart, did any of it work? Don’t you think it is about time to try something else?
Surely we don’t just read!
Naturally, one needs to do a lot more than just read; one does need to learn vocabulary, examine style and even do some text work but the key to doing this successfully is to subordinate these activities to the actual reading and pure enjoyment of the text; not the reverse, and sort of feed the activities in well coated with cheese sauce so to speak, not just plain boiled. “All in the golden afternoon, full leisurely we glide…” said Lewis Carroll in the Prologue to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and that is what the experience of reading needs to feel like. One needs to get one's priorities right: the text is paramount and if that goes down well, everything else will follow. Very few things need to be analyzed to death to make them comprehensible; I will go so far as to say that by far the best way to ensure that the desire to comprehend is destroyed is playing surgeon general with texts. Try thinking of the next beef steak you eat as a source of 16 amino acids and go on to look up each one; this activity will be sure to turn you vegetarian and reading texts are no different. The details of how to tackle reading texts the painless way have already been dealt with in two previous papers so we will now turn our attention to another aspect of the actual text itself.
Two types of text; two ways of dealing with them
Some of the texts I suggested should be used up to this point were magazine and newspaper articles, blog posts and the like and I have already explained the repercussions of the said choice of text in terms of both short term and long term reading habits. What I didn’t mention is that many of these texts go like a dream due to the fact that students have the background knowledge to cope with the content; they can relate what they read to prior experience and reading. The text they read adds on, if you like, to prior experience increasing the depth of their knowledge on the issue and helping them form opinions of their own. Yet there is a second category of texts: those whose subject matter relates to nothing the students have learnt up to that point, and it is therein that the problem lies. A text covering The Great Depression of the 1930’s for instance would fall neatly into this category in the East; so would a text on The Age of Enlightenment titled Crimes of Reason (The Economist), Reinterpreting the Crusades: Religious Wars (the same), A Good Soldier ( The NewYorker, concerning Napoleon), The Harsh Angel ( the same, concerning Che Guevara). One of the comments made by some of my junior colleagues at the meeting I alluded to earlier was that students get bored with long texts; the long texts being referred to being the ones like the examples listed above. How, in that case, does one get the students to soar with you “Up with me! Up with me into the clouds!” as William Wordsworth would have the skylark do? It is quite plain that the usual formulas won’t work yet the subject matter has so much potential if only the students could be persuaded to see it. The teacher can state that they are interesting as firmly as s/he likes, threaten or discipline; none of these tactics will work. S/he has got to convince them that they are interesting; get them firmly hooked as it were so out must come some very special tackle. Allow me to take you back to that formidable text concerning The Great Depression; I am sure you will agree that the average 18 or 19 year old has nothing much to fall back on here (at least in this part of the world) but help is at hand in the shape of the deep recession we are just emerging from, which has touched the lives of many and continues to do so. Also, rather fortunately, papers have been writing about little else for quite a few years now. A trip to the computer lab will take care of introductions. While you are all there, you could Google The Great Depression and initiate a perusal of the photo gallery you will find there, top it up with a few videos they could listen to and make notes on – one of which is a report prepared by students and is a very gentle introduction to the said event – and Bob’s your uncle. You can then produce that “boring text” which was relegated to the shredder and go into some of the details of one of the greatest manmade disasters of the century. While doing so, the teacher will need to supplement the text with additional information of her own – which means homework for the latter if she really wants the text to take off. Top it off with a reaction essay written about a short text off the BBC website titled “My Grandfather Killed Himself in the 1929 Crash” and I assure you horizons will have been broadened, they will be keen to know more and even better, the new found interest will carry on to that next “boring” text – provided the teacher holds up her/his end of the bargain and steps in to provide the missing background knowledge. The Great Depression can, for instance be linked to a text concerning the authoritarian regimes of the pre Second World War period providing valuable background knowledge and insight.
The pitiful lack of background knowledge…
In his book “The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children” E. D., Jr. Hirsch recounts an educational experiment where two sets of students, one group avid baseball fans, the second not, are asked to complete a reading task concerning baseball. There is no need to tell you who scored better. He states and I quote: “Knowledge not explicitly presented in the text is essential to reading comprehension”. I remember clearly the Eureka moment I experienced on reading his words and better understood Archimedes’ headlong rush out of the public baths; someone had finally said it; background information building up over the years, all linked together contextually and reaching forth into the future… This is what makes a good reader. Hirsch calls this knowledge “enabling knowledge” or “cultural literacy” and it is thanks to the education system that it has been lost, it seems, worldwide. Telling students to read and bemoaning the fact that they don’t won’t work if their careers as students involves ticking boxes or circling alternatives. The current practice of too much testing and too little actual teaching – an epidemic I might add – guarantees that freshman students at university score full points on the local equivalent of SAT but have the background knowledge, attention span, tolerance for ambiguity and intellectual curiosity of geriatric newts ( see my paper An Elusive Quality: Motivation).
As I said earlier, the students described thus far are the people we, as teachers, need to work with since the option of being beamed to a parallel universe where everyone is an avid learner and brimming with curiosity does not really exist. I will reiterate though that there is light at the end of the tunnel and with the correct material and methodology, a transformation can and does take place if not in all, in most cases. I start each academic year in deep despair and claim that I will fail to get anywhere with my class and each year my family tells me I say the same thing every year and have never yet failed to achieve the standard I desired; the same thing happened this year. A group of students who found a single paragraph too long have become competent university students so do not lose hope just observe, plan, work hard, do not lose hope and above all don’t lose your love of teaching.