- The truth about dreamtime
- Meet the culprits: the cortical regions
- Now I am awake, now I am not
- Teachers they are ‘a changing’
- Central control versus individual initiative in ELT
- Edward De Bono and “The Power of Perception”
- Yours is to reason why
- The wakeup call
- Enter the usual suspect: capitalism and the free market economy
- You are paying me by the hour sir
- Breaking the cycle
- The listening material: the sky is the limit
- The reading material; the motto: educational and fun
- The writing material: the better the input, the better the output
- Zugzwang: bureaucracy is out and passion is in
The purpose of the following article is to underscore the link between disengagement, which is an obstacle to creativity, innovation and therefore progress, and an authoritarian form of management on the one hand, and the current free market economy on the other. It is believed that this link is a source of concern as the effects are devastating to teaching establishments. The method of research pursued in an effort to understand teachers’ true feelings was ‘informal interviews’. The views of a variety of teachers of different levels of seniority were carefully recorded and were found to corroborate the original hypothesis stated at the beginning of the paragraph. Changes in policy which might help to alleviate the problems caused by mass disengagement have also been suggested.
Disengagement is mostly viewed as a natural consequence of trauma or distress of one sort or another and as such, most people succumb to it during, at least, one period of their lives. This feeling of withdrawal may be down to physical and / or psychological trauma such as a major accident or illness, depression, loss of a loved one and countless other reasons. In this sense, disengagement may be temporary and fade as the individual comes to terms with this painful event; whatever it may be. One of the most common current causes of disengagement is, however, the fear of not being able to make a living, not being able to maintain a desired quality of life, and a pervasive fear that one is making a mess of one’s life and wasting opportunities. Needless to say, the latter form of disengagement is, by its very nature, much more long lasting; even permanent as this constant preoccupation will create a serious obstacle to full engagement of all one’s faculties on the job at hand. Although deeply distressing, the afore mentioned causes of disengagement are not the concern of this paper. It is to certain other-imposed causes of disengagement to which we shall turn in an effort to analyze them, observe their workings and suggest solutions. These factors are both valid in all walks of life but the focus of this paper is how they relate to disengagement in language teaching.
The truth about ‘Dreamtime’
You may be forgiven for harking back to the beginning of time according to Aboriginal legend on observing the reference to ‘dreamtime’ but you would be mistaken. The dreamtime that is the center of our focus in the current times begins, for instance, with the sleeper groping his way through a foggy and hostile landscape (bedclothes) towards a shiny round object which seems to be summoning him. The urgency of the said summons seems to pervade the whole grey landscape propelling the sleeper forward. He feels a desperate need to clasp the shiny object and answer the bid to reach out for it. Finally, he achieves his aim, the shiny object, his alarm clock, now switched off, relaxes for the rest of the day; its work done. The sleeper, however, is just beginning: feet locate slippers, arms reach for dressing-gown, legs propel him forwards towards the bathroom where it is hoped that contact with cold water will dissipate the fog and clouds. The almost guaranteed disillusionment pushes him towards the coffee pot, perhaps a cigarette and possibly breakfast after which the sleeper tells himself that he is ‘wide awake thank you very much’; yet is he? Science states firmly that he is by no means firing on all four cylinders and what many of us have known instinctively all our lives is quite true: it takes a good deal more than cold water, coffee, a cigarette and breakfast to ‘wake up’ all the little grey cells. There is only one thing to do when faced with this predicament: to accept, with good grace, that the brain will be fully functioning when it is good and ready and not a minute before; however, many bad habits one acquires in futile efforts to chivvy it along.
Meet the culprits: the cortical regions
Research has proven that on being woken suddenly, our brain stem arousal systems will kick in from the word go, which means that there is no question of failing to locate the slippers, the robe or the cold tap- provided they are in the exact same spots they always are. However, the same cannot be said for the cortical regions; especially the prefrontal cortex, which just so happens to be the seat of all cognitive functions. Given the disengagement of the cortical regions, expecting a modicum of precision in tasks involving memory, reaction time and mathematics would be overly optimistic to say the least. Alertness also being out of the question, it would be perfectly reasonable to suppose that Einstein waited for the said region to come on board before resuming his research as did a lot of other scientists and researchers. Indeed, how many famous scientists have you heard of who made their ground breaking discoveries seconds after leaping out of bed at the end of a peaceful night’s sleep? One great 19th century French writer, very possibly André Gide, inadvertently put this theory to the test on waking up in the small hours crying out that he had discovered the meaning of life. Not wishing to forget his momentous discovery, he leapt out of bed and committed it to paper. Come the morning, he was flabbergasted to see that the notes were absolute gibberish, which proves conclusively that if there are no cortical regions, there are no cognitive powers. Getting back to the science of waking up, this period between being ‘officially’ woken up by the alarm clock and the point when the cortical regions finally throw their hands up and admit to have ‘woken up’ is called sleep inertia and can continue for up to two hours. My brother is a firm believer in sleep inertia, a problem he gave up trying to understand or even fight many years ago. So much so that he introduced his prospective employer at a large international construction company to the issue during his job interview much to the horror of the rest of the family who were apprised of the fact on his return. We were all adamant that he would be turned down and were mildly surprised the recruiter hadn’t shot him on the spot but surprise, surprise: he got the job and from this point on, rolled up at ten o’clock every morning to start work. From this little aside, the conclusion can be drawn that sleep inertia is a badly kept secret in the business world. This brings us to another quirk the human brain has up its sleeve:
Now I am awake, now I am not
If you imagine for a minute that it was the geeks in Silicon Valley who first had the brilliant idea of putting your computers on energy saving mode when they were not required to engage all their powers, you have got another thing coming. The human brain has energy saving down to a fine art switching on and off when necessary and furthermore, remaining off for prolonged periods of time if circumstances warrant it. According to scientific findings, monotonous, boring, routine work will put the brain on auto pilot giving those cortical regions a break. Some, like Bertrand Russell who famously stated that most people would die rather than think, feel this process of ‘now I am here, now I am not’ is voluntary; I would not go that far but I do feel there are certain particular buttons one needs to press to encourage the brain to go on energy saving mode and it is to these that we shall now briefly turn. Monotonous work, such as that on an assembly line, does not require the kind of focus required by neurosurgery, which means that while our factory worker is functioning peacefully on auto pilot and doing just fine, our neurosurgeon’s brain is on overdrive. There are similar instances in all of our lives; especially, in situations involving familiar routines. We sometimes find ourselves thinking back and failing, for the life of us, to remember whether we fed the cat. Chances are we did; especially if this chore is number three or four, for instance, in our morning routine but as the cortical regions felt that under the circumstances, they really didn’t need to get involved, we will never remember. According to an article I read some years back on the BBC website, this “walking dead” mode is totally beyond our control so the best thing to do is to come to terms with it and work round it. If we are to entice those cortical regions to join the game and stay there, we need to get them in a knight and bishop fork but before we do so, we need to meet the players.
Teachers they are ‘a changing’
One of the most frightening changes threatening our globe is the population explosion; a fact which academic institutions such as our own also suffer the effects of. Gone are the days when the whole department, two dozen teachers, could get together, thrash out an issue, reach a consensus, decide on job allocation if necessary and know that everything would go like clockwork. Targets would be met, the majority of students would pass and the stragglers would be dealt with. What is more, everyone would pull together. Those of us who are old enough will remember when we threw up our hands in horror when we discovered class sizes were going up to fifteen. How could one possibly have a language class of that size? If you are beginning to think that all this sounds like a glorified kibbutz or some canton somewhere in the Swiss Alps, you are wrong. A completely democratic and mutually beneficial system like the one briefly described here works because the numbers are small enough for everyone to get together as often as necessary to discuss strategy and amend policies. Panic starts to set in when student numbers soar in to the thousands and drag the number of teachers needed to accommodate such numbers along with them; this is especially true if the resulting bonanza means the taking on of teachers fresh out of college. Add three different campuses at opposite ends of the city to the mix, as in the case of our preparatory school, and you are faced with an intractable problem: how to keep your little universe from spinning out of control. Losing the reins and upsetting the apple cart are every curriculum designer’s worst nightmare and the knee-jerk reaction is a short rein. What this means in ELT terminology is something comparable to the Stalinist target figures where each factory, for instance, is given a target figure to achieve in that particular year. Having been determined by bureaucrats way back in Moscow, the said target figures in the case of The Soviet Union were wildly unrealistic and we know what happened next: corruption and fixing of the books. The choice being a sojourn at the Gulag at the expense of the state, the factory operatives saw no choice but to cast all attempts at transparency to the winds. The results of a very short rein are no different in a large rambling department.
Central control versus ‘individual initiative’ in ELT
Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that the target figure in this case is the number of essays to be written per week and this figure is set at five, the tasks have been centrally designed and printed, excel spread sheets to accompany the writing program have been given to the teachers to fill in and students have been told to put the said essays in their portfolios which are to be checked. The walking dead mode will be momentarily suspended as the teacher realizes that she cannot possibly get all her other duties done to required standards – whatever they may be - provide feedback on essays, demand second drafts in accordance with central demands, if she has students write five essays a week. There is only one remaining course of action: the same one those factory or plant operators working in the USSR took, which in the case of essay correction could involve the following:
- Reading essays but not correcting mistakes hoping that students will have an ‘aha moment’ somewhere down the line through sheer volume of work,
- Not reading the essays at all but just writing some vague comment,
- Not having students write the essays at all and hoping it is not their portfolios that get inspected – after all, one can always tick the necessary boxes on that infamous spread sheet.
The problem of work overload would certainly be avoided but at what cost. Students could continue blithely on, blissfully unaware that their supposed essays are atrocious. Remember that prolonged apathy is contagious and envelopes the whole class in its peaceful embrace. Alternatively but more rarely, they could lose all respect for the individual teacher, who they would see as shirking her responsibilities- the teacher who long since succumbed to the short rein, couldn’t care less, of course. There is also the case of blindly following instructions; blindly being the operative word as those cognitive functions are out of the loop thanks to the disengagement of the prefrontal cortex courtesy of an excessively top-down system of determining the curriculum and the syllabus. The system naturally takes its toll on the teachers who ceasing to focus on the larger picture instead shift their focus to the next ‘target figure’; a state of affairs that sends creative thought and independent thinking – on the part of the teachers and by default the students – out the window; this is assuming checks, controls and penalties are in place as well. For instance, if the portfolios belonging to a member staff were found to be ‘lacking’, she could be sent an official letter appraising her of the fact and warning her that henceforth she would be ‘closely observed and her work would be monitored’. A procedure such as this could instill fear and guarantee cooperation but it could also lead to the said teacher walking out never to return; a definite loss for the establishment. A further worrying consequence would be a completely blasé attitude which basically boils down to “I wash my hands off you”; a line of thinking that signals disengagement on a grand scale. We know what the consequences were for Pontus Pilot – letting someone who deserved punishment go free and sending Jesus to the cross- they will be equally disastrous for the department, which will fall prey to a far reaching domino effect. The innocent victims, the students, will suffer and here is why: Frederick Douglas famously said “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”; the remark was uttered in a different context but the message fits in the case of the students in such a teaching environment as well, as proved by the fact that failures in this system find it inordinately difficult to succeed on the proficiency once they have failed. The reason is obvious: a radical overhaul of every learning strategy they have been taught is the only thing that will get them through, and that takes time. Let us consider a second possible example to further exemplify how the system works.
Let us imagine that a question on a central exam reads as follows: What color is the table cloth? The correct answer in the key is ‘light beige’ yet the student dares to answer ‘cream’. What do you imagine happens? For an individual who has given up all attempts to think and question, this being the natural psychological and biological reaction to extreme central control, the answer is clear: light beige. You may argue until you are blue in the face that they mean the same thing; you won’t get anywhere. You would be forgiven for thinking that students would object when going over papers in class but they won’t; especially when the teacher says the words in the text are ‘light beige’. You must remember authoritarian tendencies are very widespread and the blinkered approach catches on remarkably fast; one whiff and your vision is restricted to the road ahead. Thus, the lesson is learnt: reasoning and extrapolation are out and ‘the text’ and ‘the key’ are in. It is surprising how quickly this modus operandi is accepted and how all consuming it becomes. There is a negative approach to the idea of independence and later, while teaching, to the taking of a more active role in the planning of lessons. The complete lack of effort to develop independent thought and creativity in the students has devastating consequences but more of that later. The reasons are obvious: this is a very comfortable state of affairs; all thinking and planning has been delegated, all the individual has to do is follow the crowd and he will be ‘safe and successful’. This belief is ingrained in our DNA and has survival value but not to this extent, and certainly not in this context. What I am also starting to think is that it is rapidly becoming ingrained as a permanent state of sleep inertia. After all, it stands to reason: why would such an efficient ‘computer’ as the brain switch on the cortical regions if some other sap is doing all the work anyway? This state of mind is reasonably common in the business world especially if misemployment or underemployment is rife but in teaching? I prefer to follow Benjamin Disraeli who famously said “The greatest good you can do for a person is not just to share your own riches but to reveal to him his own”; a view I can’t see catching on with the authoritarian camp. To return to the hypothetical reading test, let us imagine a spoke has been introduced.
Let us imagine for the sake of argument that an enterprising member of the central testing office takes it into her head to examine corrected papers of four or five classes. She discovers, to her horror, that the answer ‘cream’, which to her mind is perfectly reasonable, has been marked wrong. Not being a victim of ‘sleep inertia’ in the all encompassing sense we have been using the term, she hits the roof. She discovers, for instance, that a student who should have got 15 out of 20 has got 5 and emails the whole group in an effort to get to the root of the problem. Not surprisingly, there is very little response; after all, people have just been following the ‘key’. The elevated and unassailable position the key has been designated puts a stop to all discussion and also to all the discussion that goes into the designing of the key. Once a ‘Queen of Hearts’ style modus operandi has become ingrained in the collective brain, the concept of ‘discussion’ goes out the window. ‘In the beginning’, there were meetings after each test, a practice that still continues but with one difference: people no longer attend them like they used to preferring to wait for ‘the key to reach them by e-mail from on high. To make matters worse, those who do attend often arrive not having even looked at the reading task in question and are therefore either unable to contribute to the discussion or come up with alternatives which put the spotlight on their lack of familiarity with the text. A lot of perfectly logical alternatives are never touched on resulting in a seriously imperfect yardstick which then proceeds to wreck havoc on those innocent students who have approached the reading activity with all their cognitive skills in full working order. This they soon discover to be a grave mistake and henceforth, plod along after ‘teacher’ fulfilling Sydney Smith’s prophecy that “A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage”. There is a second scenario: the teachers do come to the testing meeting, seem to listen politely to the explanations presented by our test writer then drift off and seem to correct papers a la mother nature: random selection. It is at this point that any fully functioning test writer is tempted to resort to a triple gunshot murder, which, incidentally, seems like a very rational solution as you can’t reason with zombies. It is quick, simple and effective but it didn’t solve the problem in “The Walking Dead” and it won’t now.
Let us now imagine that the end of the year has approached and the students are about to face the final hurdle: the proficiency. The program has been followed ‘blindly’, no deviation has been tolerated, and morsels of information have been fed to students who ingested them obediently so what could possibly go wrong? The problem is you see that our test writers are not part of this loop in our example and they come up with a first rate comprehension activity which is far beyond the reach of the brain stem or the energy saving mode. Thus, disaster strikes: familiar techniques leave the students in the lurch and they find they can’t make any sense of the text or the questions. “We analyzed texts sentence by sentence” they cry in disbelief staring at the ominous letter F looming large opposite their names. The problem is of course that the test writer wishes them to see the whole forest not analyze trees; the glaring discrepancy between material, methodology and the requirements of the test thus come to the foreground. Collective failure rates soar, the test writers sit scratching their heads and most members of staff seem both livid and mystified, blame is put firmly on the student body who are accused of laziness, not doing any extra work and most ironically, of not using their heads. The syllabus, as it stands, remains ‘completely innocent and under diplomatic protection’ taking up from where it left off the following year; the inevitable state of affairs in any teaching establishment where independent thought and creativity are considered the 8th deadly sin. Naturally, this leads to disengagement par excellence. There is a second possibility: the young teachers who have been on the receiving end of the syllabus as trusting “implementers” are completely disillusioned and feeling let down, they mentally distance themselves from the establishment having decided to “wash their hands off the place”. One member of staff with whom the issue was discussed voiced deep concerns with respect to veering from the designated path. She voiced her misgivings in the context of a discussion relating to how new members of staff might be acclimatized. The suggestion put forward and which she strongly objected to at the time was that the new teachers be helped with the planning of lessons. It was inferred that the reason for her reticence concerning this suggestion was that the new teachers would then develop minds of their own. Dostoevsky was right when he said “The mystery of human existence lies not in staying alive but in finding something to live for”. How sad it is to think that this is denied professionals in a field where passion is so vital. I can’t help but mention another remark once made by a senior test writer and later curriculum designer. What she said went something like this: “The students read the questions, underline the answers in the text without understanding either. I don’t understand how they do it”. I hope the explanation I have provided will help answer her question.
To summarize what has been stated thus far, in all fairness, the immediate fear initiating such an approach is that uniformity will be lost, this will naturally lead to a drop in standards which will, in turn, reflect on pass and failure rates; in short, that the school will go to pot. This deep seated fear leads to the instant creation of a highly centralized syllabus in the form of an excel spread-sheet with every minute detail neatly mapped: grammar, reading, listening, vocabulary and writing are all plotted on to this spread sheet along with page numbers in centrally distributed material for the former four, and worksheets for the latter. Not a stone is left unturned in efforts to address every contingency: enter straight jacket mode. Things don’t end here; there is the gnawing fear that the teachers may not ‘do as they are told’ and we all know what happens then: the circus collapses. So enter more spread sheets, called tracking sheets, with little boxes – not drop down boxes, the similarity to Tetris ends there – where teachers plot every writing activity they do, and not one but two portfolios where students provide written proof that things are going according to plan. It is even feasible to assume that the curriculum designers would ask for copies of any independent material which might find its way into the lesson. Truth be told, a system such as this has immense advantages as far as those pesky cortical regions go as I have tried to explain: they don’t need to wake up at all; they can just curl up and go back to sleep while the brain stem handles procedures; in short, out go fully functioning teachers and in come the zombies – minus the aggressive streak naturally. It must be noted that zombyhood in this sense of the word is a very comfortable and peaceful state of affairs and this is why the phenomenon can be observed in many other walks of life as well. I remember a cousin of mine, a devout Catholic, discussing a book with her priest and asking whether she should read it to be told that he would tell her what to read thank you very much – an exchange very similar to the one I had with the a fellow teacher concerning helping newcomers by providing suggestions pertaining to the planning of lessons. There does remain this gnawing doubt concerning the guidance provided: what if it is wrong, misguided or downright bad? It is quickly dispelled though because apathy has taken hold and disengagement looms supreme; after all no one else seems to care so why should the individual?
To be fair, casting all attempts at central control to the winds and allowing our inner hippy to run riot is no way to manage a large teaching establishment but neither is creating a replica of the office in Kafka’s ‘The Castle’. Despite the best possible intentions, such an attitude is one of the buttons the cortical regions have on speed dial; taking their cue, they take themselves out of the equation. This means teachers will waft in and out of class on their individual hamster wheels, going through the material rather like Google translate. Any material that is covered in this way, however fascinating, is doomed but if it is itself deadly dull as well, the damage is multiplied tenfold. Think Brahms’ Lullaby or Ravel’s Bolero on a loop along with all that fog described at the beginning enveloping the whole class; there is nothing more contagious than apathy. What is worse, we are talking of a disease rather like the Ebola virus or one of those horrible bugs you get in hospitals on occasion. Once it takes a hold, there is no escape; this is true for both students and teachers. The former have a rude awakening come the finals for it has been proved that you can’t learn when you are asleep – the center for cognitive functions has gone sleepy bye – think back to the poor test writer and the teachers at the meeting. The students do eventually have to shake off the cobwebs and get stuck in but the situation is much worse for the teachers who will be facing many hundreds of students until retirement. Old habits die hard and what do you do with a group of professionals who have been placed in trenches like in WW I, told to stay there and have now grown accustomed to the place mud, rats, lice and all?
What should be obvious by now is that excessive central planning as far as the curriculum goes has the danger of killing independent thinking and creativity which are the two factors that bring real progress and success .True, some ideas that are put forward can be seriously wacky but some are excellent. How is one to distinguish which is which unless there is free discussion during which everyone is obliged to listen to each other and everyone is allowed to speak their minds? Just saying “No!” to all discussion under the illusion that anything that isn’t in the syllabus already is bound to be bad recalls the Middle Ages and The Inquisition. This reminds me of a wonderful episode of ‘Yes Prime minister’ where Sir Humphrey Appleby argues that something or rather was not possible because it wasn’t in the minutes no matter what anyone else remembered; very similar to our hypothetical example. An atmosphere of “Deviate from the syllabus as decreed and die!” is hardly conducive to creative thought. There will be some who plough on no matter what but humans are by nature herd minded so most will fall in step and just plod along. The take home point is obvious: a balance must be struck between central planning and creativity but how is this to be achieved?
Edward de Bono and “The Power of Perception”
At this point, we will take a little detour to explore some brilliant research by a very insightful expert: Edward de Bono in order to prove how vital the give and take of opinions in fact is. He writes and I quote:
“The way we see the world – our perceptions of it – determine the decisions we make and what we do. Perception is probably the most important part of our thinking, but unfortunately, most mistakes in thinking are mistakes in perception. Our modern lives – both business and pleasure – are very fast paced and full of action. Often, we confuse action with accomplishment and spring to action without enough thought. We love to take action and see what happens – if it is good, we keep going; if it is bad, we stop and clean up the mess.” (For more information access the website: http://www.debonoconsulting.com/power-of-perception.asp)
Does this sound as familiar to you as it does to me? How many examples of such behavior have we observed in our work places and how many times has it backfired? The ‘mess’ has also sometimes been phenomenal. Combine De Bono’s views with an excessively controlled teaching environment with a disproportionate amount of central planning and our zombies, and it becomes obvious that the possibility of error is multiplied tenfold. Getting back to De Bono, he states that while trying to come up with ideas and solutions to problems, people engage in different modes of thinking. He endeavors to explain this fact with his famous colored hats metaphor in which “the white hat calls for objective information and scientific reasoning, the red hat signifies intuitive thinking, the yellow hat stands for the affective, moral approach, the black hat symbolizes critical, skeptical aspects of phenomena, the green hat implies opportunities, new ways and means, namely creativity and finally, the blue hat consolidates all the others by taking the best of each” Is it possible to claim, hand on heart, that your central planning departments or curriculum designers have been juggling all these hats successfully for years and getting exemplary results?
This is the reason why team work and a much more all inclusive approach bringing together different types of thinkers is imperative. Edward De Bono pinpoints ten powers of perception tools which go as follows and I quote from the same site:
- Tool one; consequences and sequels: look ahead to see consequences of an action, plan or rule
- Tool two; plus, minus, interesting: ensure that all sides of a matter have been considered before a decision or commitment is made
- Tool three; recognize, analyze, design: break a larger concept into smaller more manageable parts
- Tool four; consider all factors: explore all factors related to an action, decision, plan, judgment or conclusion
- Tool five; aims, goals, objectives: focus directly and deliberately on the intentions behind actions
- Tool six; alternatives, possibilities, choices: deliberately try to find other ways
- Tool seven; other people’s views: put yourself in other people’s shoes
- Tool eight; key values involved: ensure that your thinking serves your values
- Tool nine; first important priorities: select the most important ideas, factors, actions, consequences
- Tool ten; design, decision, outcome, channels, action: direct action to the outcome of the thinking or action that follows
Reading through these suggestions by De Bono, one fact becomes immediately obvious: the above isn’t a feat that can be accomplished without team work involving the exchange of opinions, exploration of different avenues and weighing of possible consequences and by team work, I don’t mean a leader and his yes men like in the case of Hitler and his close circle but a wide consensus involving the whole department. De Bono pinpoints different types of thinkers in his ground breaking research, each with their own strengths; what could possibly be better than involving a selection in any decision making and problem solving? With modern technology, speedy and efficient ways of gathering feedback can be guaranteed without the need to drag everyone into the same hall. The master puppeteer approach, though understandable under the circumstances I have already outlined, needs to be watered down in favor of a more all inclusive one in the belief that it will bolster success rates, improve morale, increase creative input; in short, bring the school alive. In response to arguments that this won’t work, I would like to refer to the research conducted by Professor Ali Baykal. In his paper titled “Yaratıcılık İçin Fırsat Ne Kadar Önemli?” which translates as “How important is the role of opportunity in the case of creativity”, he reaches the conclusion that providing a fertile seedbed for creativity and innovative thought will pay off eventually. He does state that expecting immediate results would be overly optimistic but his conclusion is final and unequivocal: in Barack Obama’s famous words “Yes, we can”. A good leader is imperative at this point to get the department to face in the right direction and steer the ship and also pull together with the team members.
Yours is to reason why
One point we should acknowledge at the outset is that some central planning is obviously imperative; what one also needs to remember is that syllabi are planned and written by mere mortals and that they are not scripture. They can be modified, amended, changed or completely discarded in favor of better ones. Ceasing to question and discuss, accepting the syllabus as ‘never changing’ and imagining it can never be improved on or that there is not more than one way to achieve the goal of preparing students for a proficiency exam is hubris. If when asked about the validity and reliability of certain teaching material, the only answer you can offer is that is the way we have always done it – always being say the last 30 years – it means you have a problem; this answer being similar to that of the mother who answers her son’s query with the words “Just because I say so”, it won’t wash. Having established that, stating that the syllabus as prepared and presented never can be nulli secundus , it is necessary to disperse the soporific atmosphere of collective hypnosis.
The wakeup call
One immediate change in policy could be the introduction of monthly tea and talk sessions where one member of staff could make a presentation, discussion could ensue along with tea and biscuits or better still, cake. We had a former director who would never go to a staff meeting without a good supply of chocolate éclairs. He swore that this was a sure way to guarantee a peaceful and productive meeting; a fact I became aware of on catching him ‘chocolate handed’ on the way to a staff meeting. Thinking back, he did get a remarkable amount of work done during his time in office. The first couple of presentations could be made by the 10% who were never hypnotized: the mavericks who would be bursting with frustration and ready to rival St Paul in terms of speeches – who , if I remember rightly, spoke nonstop for three days and someone who was sitting on a wall listening to him fell off and died. Being part of this 10%, I spoke for an hour and a half without stopping as soon as I was given the green light – for which opportunity I owe our current director. The video, “Independent Learning in ELT”, which was shot was posted on the university website under useful videos (see link: http://www.yadyok.boun.edu.tr/video/faydali-videolar.htm).
More socialization could also be attempted in the form of outings, pot-lucks and the like. If the aim is to break the circle of silent acceptance and give people a voice, getting together is a must. The communication need not be limited to the real world; it should continue on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Having broken the silence, the next step should be implementing the policy of a more bottom- up form of management rather like the Japanese ringi system where even the lowliest clerk can express his opinions to the manager. Decisions concerning teaching policy should not be served up to teachers; it should be mapped out collectively. Modern technology enables large, widely dispersed groups to communicate very efficiently allowing for questions to be posed, answers to be collected and votes to be taken. There is no rule stating that decisions have to be made in a matter of minutes; we are not disarming an explosive device; they can take a little longer and be all the better as a result. People are more interested in going the extra mile if they have been paid the respect of being consulted. Team work of this kind often helps institutions to come up with creative solutions to the most baffling questions. The next thing to do is to remember the advice given by that famous Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte: baubles, by which he meant honors. Complimenting people for accomplishments is no skin off anyone’s back and does a world of good: it ensures future loyalty, diligence and good will. Wise is the leader who is aware of this fact.
Altering the physical atmosphere of the school by putting up bulletin boards where people can post questions, comments, suggestions and advice or share ideas would also help towards the establishment of a more connected atmosphere. This atmosphere of communication could be carried on into work by having each class establish a blog or a website where homework and assignments could be posted, students could post questions on a message board and they could even answer each other. Alternatively, cloud could be used to establish a drop box for student essays, which would be written using word with the spell check on. Portfolios composed of sheets of paper to rival Dickens’ Bleak House case files could be consigned to the dusty pages of history along with papyrus as a quaint surface onto which people wrote, leaving their place to cloud and drop boxes where students could post essays which could be then withdrawn and corrected. All essays could be kept in online portfolios; after all, if this system is good enough for banks, secret services, including the NSA, and governments, it should be good enough for schools. It needs to be accepted that the students’ atrophied cognitive skills also need a jolt, and it was ‘the system’ that switched everything off in the first place. Portfolio correcting time at such a university could be terribly nerve wracking. I still remember the extraordinary site of our janitors dragging a huge bin liner filled with portfolios towards a colleague’s car to be deposited in the boot. It resembled a body bag rather than homework and was a truly extraordinary sight in the 21st century. Another friend who was literally snowed under by the dratted portfolios told me over a much needed coffee break how another friend had entered the office and only seeing the portfolios towering above her, called for her friend by name – not being able to see her – and was much relieved when the latter emerged from betwixt the piles.
The need for a centralized curriculum committee is obvious but this does not mean they should or need to shoulder the whole burden of preparing material: this should be an activity that everyone contributes to via their websites or class blogs as in the case of Bahçeşehir University. Treating independent efforts as treason, as is possible in highly centralized systems where everyone guards their own area of influence jealously, is a grave mistake as both the enterprising teacher and the department lose out. If endeavors made by individual teachers are kicked into touch every time, disengagement will take root never to leave. The correct approach would be setting up a drop box where every member of staff could place material they have prepared and tried out for others to benefit from. I have something like this on my blog: ‘Tips from the experts’ where fellow teachers sent in ideas and links they found useful but for reasons discussed so far, it never quite took off. If the project was set up as an institution and if contributors were complimented, things would be very different. You would be forgiven for thinking that all teachers everywhere in the world prepare some extra material to meet the specific needs of their own classrooms but this is far from being the case; a fact I have ascertained through tracking of the amount of photocopying done at our university and my own observations. This could easily change for enthusiasm is also contagious and one has to keep up with the Jones’. If everyone else is doing it, you naturally follow; remember: humans are herd minded. This would only take a few hard core enthusiasts to get the ball rolling; follow this up with ‘baubles’ a la Napoleon in the form of public compliments, posting material on the school website, drop box or blog and the like and Bob’s your uncle. Suddenly, you have a veritable hub of activity with every bee in the hive spurting out contributions to the syllabus. In short, the curriculum designers should welcome contributions from teachers rather than feeling threatened by them; they should encourage individual initiative in the hope of creating a better learning environment. Where is the harm in having extra resources for the students to benefit from and where is the harm in teachers developing their skills in the process? After all, if students can learn to prepare material, teachers certainly can. I have examples of material prepared by individual students posted on my blog and I am proud to say they are spectacular. Some examples are as follows: “Movies or Books? Paper, Plastic or Neither? Nuclear Disarmament: a Dream or a Distinct Possibility? Why Do We Play Games? What is Bitcoin? Gypsies Past and Present”. The enthusiasm with which students did their research and prepared the material fills me with hope for the future: they will never lose the spark now.
To summarize, any measure that gives the silent majority a voice and brings them into the loop is democratic, humanistic, egalitarian and most importantly beneficial to the teaching establishment, the teachers and the student body as a whole. Especially in this day and age when so much learning is both ‘independent and varied’ courtesy of modern technology, persisting in following one age old mode of teaching is not very wise. This doesn’t mean goals, aspirations and targets need to be changed; it is the methods and material by means of which the former are attained that perhaps need to be reconsidered with everyone’s help.
Enter the usual suspect: capitalism and the free market economy
Introduction to the free market starts very early indeed in the modern world: when, for example, parents offer their children cash for doing chores around the house. This is a practice that my generation finds bizarre: when I was a kid, you did things around the house because you were told to, because everybody (meaning mom, dad, grandma and grandpa) did, because “the place was a home not a hotel” and because you got a wallop or a good talking to if you didn’t. We were oblivious to designer labels, Barbie dolls, battery operated cars and all that the modern toy industry throws at parents who, having been ‘deprived’ during childhood, shower their kids with every new toy that goes on the market so that the little angels have everything that Sue or Jim next door has. We were perfectly happy climbing trees, running wild and making mud pies; the modern child needs and soon learns to treasure ‘ accessories to childhood’. He is introduced to consumerism, acquires a taste for showing off and is never ever satisfied. For our generation, shoes were shoes; for this generation, they are Nike or Adidas. This kind of upbringing; i.e., introduction to the free market economy at a tender age, has life changing consequences: the lesson is learnt very early that everything on the ‘market’ can be bought and sold; everything is a ‘commodity’ with a price. For a person who has grown up with an outlook like this, volunteering to be Dean, for example, of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at a state university would be considered deranged – to the best of my knowledge, the post is still waiting to be filled two months later. The pay back being nonexistent, the said faculty member would be much more likely to teach a few hours at a private university – where the pay back would be satisfactory leaving the older generation to shake their heads, mutter “Shameful” and take the reins out of sheer desperation.
You are paying me by the hour sir!
These completely innocent first steps into the world of capitalism proceed to impact every life changing decision starting with career choice. In our country, students are placed in a department depending on the points they receive on a central university entrance exam for which they prepare diligently. Those who seem to be doing well during this preparation period set their sights high: engineering departments, especially those in the top universities, medical school and the business schools of top English medium universities; those who are fair to middling, go for social sciences and faculties of education. Though not always the case by a long chalk, I can go so far as to say that personal preference often has very little to do with the selection of a major. What figures for the majority is job opportunities, possible future salaries and pure luck. So when we inquire of students whether they have managed to enter the department of their choice and they answer yes, what does the question really signify and what does the answer signify? Phrases like “It’s a job isn’t it?” or referring to a day on the job as “the daily slog or grind” and yearning for retirement all point to one thing: vocations are out and jobs are in.
I sometimes wonder whether the younger generation can fully fathom the meaning of the phrase ‘to have found one’s vocation’. It is such a very great pity that this major source of happiness and fulfillment is now lost to many. Nothing gives one more joy and continued sense of happiness than a cherished vocation by means of which you develop as a person, you contribute to your field of interest, and the creative spark is never dimmed. One’s attitude to one’s job is thus a major factor in determining the degree of independent thought, creative insight and innovation. The endeavor is a source of joy not a burden; making contributions and perhaps enabling others to share this feeling are exciting. There is exhaustion sometimes, but the discontentment and despair of the kind experienced by ‘the-would-be-anthropologist turned bank clerk’ is an alien concept. In short, while the lucky few who have found their vocations in teaching are fully engaged and focus 120% on the job at hand, for those whom teaching is just a job and a means to an end, disengagement is the natural state of affairs. Unfortunately, the situation described here is all too common in certain parts of the world and more is the pity as the price we pay as individuals and as a community is very high indeed.
The above situation is beautifully exemplified in two conversations I had with two of my colleagues some weeks ago. In the case of the first, we were discussing ‘disengagement’ and my fellow teacher said the reason was that most people these days had a life outside of work, they liked to travel, to go out of a night and socialize; in short, work wasn’t the end all and be all of their lives. The point is that work is not the end all and be all of life for most people present and past barring the odd workaholic. Everyone needs different avenues to explore in their lives to gain fulfillment and satisfy different needs and most normal people have them. What this fellow teacher was really saying, though she seemed to be unaware of it, was that teaching was not her vocation. The second conversation was very similar in theme: I was told by a colleague that she hadn’t reached the point I had yet as she had a relatively young daughter and a husband. How does having a family prevent passion for what you do? There are many teachers I know who raised large families, had a social life but were also passionate about what they did; families don’t cancel out passion; both can coexist and they do for many. It is blatantly obvious that this kind of disengagement; coupled with excessive central planning and a lot of top down practices, causes the problem to become endemic. This is a grave problem as there are certain professions where one’s chosen field of employment must be one’s vocation and can never just be the daily grind, and teaching is one such profession. Passion always helps but whereas it is optional for some professions, it is a prerequisite for others; school administrations would do well to remember this.
Breaking the cycle
The logical way to break the cycle and win over the teachers and also the students would be to make sure the syllabus and methodology are more in tune with the both teachers’ and students’ real world experiences adding color and variety to the lessons. In the current century, individual learning via ‘MOOC’ or ‘Massive Open Online Course’ and countless informative websites is the norm. Individuals can and do log on to look up recipes, follow the news, prepare their own videos and news bites to share via news channels or YouTube, set up blogs or websites to join in the global conversation, interact with news sharing websites, voice their own views through videos they upload and much more besides. The keyboard is their new best friend and the world is their oyster. Condemning a generation like this to blackboards, stuffy text books and exercise books is a tactical error. The fact that we can’t win this way is quite apparent so if we can’t beat them let us join them and see if we can use ‘their favorite toys’ to further their education. After all, means can always change; the overall principles don’t need to.
The listening material: the sky is the limit
First of all, let us consider listening material. The popular method in our institution is for the teacher to read a lecture out loud at a natural pace while the students try and take notes or answer questions. This time honored means of honing students’ ability to follow a lecture in the way a student should is unnatural, unnecessary and has the danger of getting very tedious. Reading out loud and lecturing are two very different things: when lecturing, the teacher will stop to use the board, ask or answer questions and will most definitely stress key points as he reads; a point emphasized by a friend and colleague in a recent conversation. Our lecturer may have a power point presentation, slides or a video to accompany his lecture. A lecturer is very different from a news reader whose style teachers at our institution are required to emulate. The reason why this system was first established is quite clear: it was obviously better than cassette recorders; why it persists in a world where the dark age of cassette recorders has been left far behind is not. I know teachers of economics who, knowing that such and such an expert was very erudite in his explanation of the law of diminishing returns uses the video to introduce the topic saving his energies for the problem session to follow. Ted.com is full of full of examples of serious academic videos as are countless other websites. This is the future of teaching; real cutting edge stuff; what is to stop us doing the same? Making sure that some of the listening each week is video or documentary based and the rest is supported by a power point presentation and other visual aids would bring both students and teachers on board for the simple reason that it would be familiar and fun. As the term progresses, the students could be encouraged to work as groups preparing listening lessons by selecting videos concerning a theme and presenting them; they could also make their own videos and post them on the class website or blog. Other out of class listening activities could be planned as well after all head phones have become extensions of most young people’s ears. Pepping up the listening activities in the way described could breathe new life into the lesson, motivating the teacher and the students and thus diminishing disengagement.
The reading material; the motto: educational and fun
Second of all, let us consider the reading program. It is unrealistic to expect the modern student and teacher to be turned on by obsolete texts when they have the very latest at their finger tips. The very latest in science and technology, social sciences and art goes viral in minutes. The speed with which information is disseminated is so phenomenal that we need to really stop and think whether the reading material so and so designed 30 odd years ago is still capable of capturing students’ and young teachers’ attention. You may feel it should but if the fact is that it doesn’t and if you are endeavoring to teach this group, you are the one that needs to change. There is no other profession where keeping up with the times is so vital aside from medicine. Modernization of the actual material is only one aspect of the problem; there is another: to go academic or not?
My personal view is that the reading syllabus can become more academic as the year progresses, students become more competent and most importantly, they have learnt to enjoy reading for its own sake but this is not a must. With journals, magazines and websites like Stratfor, Scientific American, Scientific American Mind, Nature, The Royal Society of Arts, Psychology Today and the like, I really don’t see the need for text books. After all, we are addressing the need for reading material of students in an English preparatory school not the physics department for instance. Another advantage of magazine and newspaper articles is that they lend themselves much more easily to reading into writing; an absolute must in my view. Consider the following example: a chapter out of an economics text book titled “Economics, Scarcity and the Fulfillment of Wants” has been presented as reading material to students in prep school with a set of questions, which they can answer having waded through the text with teacher as a guide but a reading related writing activity? I don’t think so do you? The writing activity will come after much more reading has been done in the economics department and not a moment before.
The correct choice of reading material in a syllabus would include up to date texts with a wow factor from a variety of sources. Sources I use in addition to those stated above include the BBC website, daily newspapers in the UK and the US, magazines like The Economist, The Atlantic and Wired, for example. The subject matter needs to be appealing to the age group concerned: one of the most popular ‘level one’ activities on my blog is “The Tetris Effect”, for instance. The material should also lend itself to writing as first, we need to emphasize a holistic approach to guarantee successful learning and second, the recipients and implementers need to see there is some point to what they are doing. Paving the way for transfer of knowledge from the reading to the writing will also help sharpen the cognitive skills the involvement of which will sharpen interest which will in turn, guarantee success on the next reading task. It is obvious that keeping up with the times as far as reading is concerned is an arduous process so what I would suggest is going for texts that have some staying power and avoiding subject matter that will become obsolete too quickly. This is what I have been trying to do on my blog and I have found it works remarkably well. Something else that would help would be having a drop box for interesting texts people find on their journey round the World Wide Web. Others could then select and plan activities to any they find interesting which they could then return so that others may benefit too. The old adage practice makes perfect is certainly true for preparing reading activities as I have discovered for myself as well; before you know it, the school could have an archive rivaling the Leviathan – after all, I managed to post over 500 on my blog to date working alone.
The writing material: the better the input, the better the output
Come the end of the day, when all is done and dusted, a heavy atmosphere settles on the classroom and students groan inwardly knowing it is time to write an essay. Not knowing what topic is going to be aimed at them, they chew their pens and look resigned. Then comes the dreaded topic, the points and the clock in that order; no wonder then that teachers – and students – are ‘disengaged’. Who would blame them? Especially if adult learners are the subjected to soporific titles like “the advantages and disadvantages of living in the country”, which are better suited to twelve year olds, the levels of disengagement reach new highs. Their predicament could best be compared to cabin fever; luckily for all concerned, it comes in small daily doses rather than being prolonged for months. This approach to writing essays is no longer valid even for major exams: listening and /or reading into writing is becoming the norm; it is simply inexcusable in class where teachers are free to lead up to an essay in any number of ways. The essay is where the students ‘give back’ comment and express their own take on an issue, which means it is the last step in a lengthy process and logically, should be fun. Then comes the critical point: what kind of preparation one should make?
The concept of research in preparation for writing stands to reason on all sorts of levels: first and for most, it is the sensible thing to do and therefore, anyone who has undertaken any writing has always taken care to do his research, secondly this is the way the students in an English medium university will be expected to write while working towards their degrees and thirdly, it is immensely satisfying and fulfilling. In order to implement an approach to writing such as this, the topic must be such that it warrants research. How much research do you need to do on whether or not students should have part time jobs? If, however, the topic were the advantages and disadvantages of private security forces, it would be a totally different picture. The research itself should ideally include both videos and reading material to address the needs of different sorts of learners. Such an activity has a down side: it is time consuming to prepare and equally time consuming to write. A student body accustomed to the 40 minute approach to writing will suddenly find themselves spending a couple of days on the task but as they get stuck in and discover how rewarding it is, attitudes will change. What counts is the quality of the resulting essay and the staying power of the information gleaned. As they get more deeply involved in the task, they will become more curious and interested and begin to form their own opinions. When the research is complete, they will be itching to discuss it with someone and then comes the writing task. The input of the research will help lexically as well as contextually to produce a wonderful essay the learning involved in which will be carried on to future tasks. Another thing that will be carried on into future tasks will be enthusiasm and the joy of reading, which will hopefully form a lifelong habit enabling the learner to continue to build on his existing knowledge base.
The curriculum planner’s role in all this is to select appropriate videos and reading material, to do which he has to watch a selection of videos and read numerous texts to ascertain which fit the bill. This is a task I undertake on a regular basis to prepare writing material for my blog with much pleasure; I have grown to love the research and have learnt immensely from it. It has to be acknowledged that it is time consuming, which brings us back to the fact that many hands make light work: faculty members could be roped in to help lessen the burden on the curriculum designer and spread the pleasure. The latter would also help disengaged teachers to become curious, interested and enthusiastic, which was after all one of the purposes of this change of tactic. I have found this type of preparation to be a firm favorite with students, who much prefer it to plain topics. I have also observed with great pleasure the growth of a reading habit, intellectual curiosity and interest in them, which bodes well for the future. The enjoyment they derive from the whole activity is reflected in the material they have produced themselves and I have posted on my blog (http://theproproom.blogspot.com). I make a habit of discussing the topic and their research with the students during tutorials to keep that spark of curiosity alive and it gives me great pleasure to observe how their faces come alive while discussing the issue at hand. The observation also means that I have won and the disengagement has gone never to return.
Zugzwang: bureaucracy is out and passion is in
Zugzwang is a chess term and refers to the point in a game when you know you will be beaten and you have to decide whether to throw in the towel or play to the bitter end. The latter route is unnecessary and unwise so I would like to suggest that we adopt the former approach and indulge in a flight of fancy to help us face in the right direction in the new game we are starting: imagine, for the sake of argument, that Swift wrote a fifth book of Gulliver’s travels which took the intrepid explorer to the land of high tech classrooms. In this land, all the classrooms have videoconferencing capabilities, digital polling and multiple telepresence screens. Let us imagine in this wondrous land, students and teachers can access the universities’ data bases as well as their own data bases from class. Let us also imagine there are interactive smartboards to help allow “real-time digital interfacing with experts and peer classrooms” (Jon Erickson; The Wall Street Journal) around the wondrous land. Let us also imagine that students are equipped with tablets, which, with the necessary apps installed, can serve as ‘textbook’ and ‘notepad’. In this high tech classroom, the teachers have become learning coaches helping students navigate the intricacies of their new world wide classroom. In short, the land is every modern student’s idea of a learning paradise; disengagement? What disengagement?
Naturally, such an endeavor would be extremely expensive but if universities would, at least, face in the right direction and strive towards establishing a more modern classroom which houses more modern technology, a lot of people would be brought on board. Finding themselves in an atmosphere they love and are familiar with, students would also perk up. There is another side to this picture: the whole educational establishment could get involved in learning via technology making the learning experience a global endeavor which also brings people together and promotes peace and unity. The first take home point from all this is this: head your mavericks, for change comes from the bottom not the top. The second is this: put the passion back for there are two categories of professions; those where passion helps and those where it is compulsory as in medicine, where the focus is people’s physical and psychological health, and in teaching, where the focus is helping people to achieve their full intellectual potential. Given that excessive bureaucracy is not conducive to passion and commitment, every effort should be made to put the sparkle back in education. Such an approach would create a wonderful and productive workplace recalling the words of Richard Bach who stated that “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood but one of respect and joy in each other’s life”.
Baykal, Ali, Professor “Yaratıcılık için fırsat ne kadar önemli?”, included in the project titled “Bilişsel ve duyuşsal niteliklerin ölçümünde yeni içerik ve yöntemler”, Boğaziçi University, Department of Education
De Bono, Edward, “The Use of Lateral Thinking”, June 26, 1990, Penguin Books
De Bono, Edward, Website: http://www.debonoconsulting.com/power-of-perception.asp)
“What Tech Innovation Would You Like in your Classroom” the Wall Street Journal