In my last post I ranted and talked about the state of the languages nation, so here I am going to share some of my thinking into how I think it could be done! Any of the good ideas I have are mainly stolen and at best blended with the ideas of such wonderful thinkers as Derek Wise, Michael Wardle, Darren Mead, John Connor, Ewan McIntosh et al and I must confess that anything that sounds rubbish is inevitably a 100% me, but here we go. The following is the introduction from an essay I am writing which form the basis for a presentation (see the handout at the top of this post) I am giving in Southampton on Sunday (which if you would like to watch it live streamed and probably see me trip over or faint you can tune in here at 9:45am GMT Sunday 13th February). If you think it is interesting, then tune into the broadcast or catch up with the blog post next week.
Languages : Reboot
It is 2011 and we are in danger. By we, I mean those of us who may have an interest in the following ideas; learners and teachers of languages. Danger may seem a strong word, but I do not use it lightly. We are in danger of turning our children off languages. The current government has put in place the English Baccalaureate which will encourage “more rigourous, academic study of language” and like it or not this concept will inevitably lead to a rise on the numbers of language learners continuing to study languages up to the age of sixteen. The great caveat is that if we continue with the mundane, memory based, rote learning and nullifying contexts of the current GCSE, we will lose any sense of developing linguists and we will continue to keep only a very small proportion of those who study a language up to the age of 16 studying languages up to A-level and beyond once they have achieved their baccalaureate. The current government’s plan with the Ebacc is not to develop a new generation of great linguists, it is to create a new generation of learners who see languages as an elite subject which marks the academically bright from the proletariat. This will, in the long run, lead to continuing decreases in the number of languages undergraduates and a languages deskilling of the general population, including those in the business and commerce sector.
Most believe that the cause of the general apathy towards learning a “foreign” language in the UK is the globlish phenomenon. Everyone speaks English so why should I bother learning anything else? To a certain extent this is true but you and I have rehearsed the arguments against this a thousand times in defence of our subject and we know them to be true; intercultural understanding, employability, improved communication skills, the prevalence of the BRIC economies etc. And the real downer about the globlish situation? There is nothing we can do about it. In our ever shrinking world, with all of its inequalities, problems and vast opportunities, you probably can get by on English and we certainly can not halt the growth of English as a global language.
So are we impotent in the face of this danger? I do not believe so. We can change the hearts and minds of our children towards language learning. We do it every day. We work incredibly hard to create engaging and powerful learning experiences in our classrooms despite all of the barriers we may face (reduced curriculum time, learner or school apathy, poor examination system, boring contexts and text books etc). Some of these barriers are not within our power to overcome, yet, I am going to argue and exemplify, we can definitely make moves to re-empower ourselves and our profession, we can make language learning such a rich and holistic learning experience that we are not only developing great language learners but as importantly great 21st Century learners. We can show learners, school leaders and the rest of the educational world that learning another language is not only a fantastic way to develop effective learners but it is probably the best and most flexible tool to develop learners who can “learn, unlearn and relearn”. (Tofler, Alvin)
The models and ideas I am proposing are not revolutionary, they are simply evolutionary. We are now at a point where, although our system of language learning and teaching is not entirely broken (there are fantastic examples of truly effective practice happening every day) our disk drive is fragmented, we have a lot of old and now corrupt data which has dragged our approach to a grinding trudge. We do not need to reinvent the wheel or throw out the baby with the bath water, but we do need to do something to pull together powerful, purposeful pedagogy and ensure we remould language learning into a relevant and holistic learning experience. Ask any ICT technician what to do and he or she will give you the answer “turn it off and turn it back on again”. Well, they are right, it is time for a Languages : Reboot.
It has been lovely, thanks for asking. The break I mean; I have reined back on twitter, have put my blog on the back burner and have been focussing my time on family, friends and writing. So what has cause me to rupture my silence, to burst the bubble of summer fun? Mainly anger and disbelief. I am devastated by the decline in languages in England. I was embarrassed by the front page of the Independent which loomed up from the newspaper stands in my local supermarket yesterday - languages in schools in crisis. Children are not opting to take languages because they are perceived to be hard. This is bollocks. The real reason children are not opting to take languages is because, despite the best (?) efforts of the new secondary curriculum, Links into languages and the exam boards, the current trend in language learning is that of trying to disguise the same old, disengaging (I hesitate to use the word) pedagogy that is boring, transactional, rooted in contexts which the students will never use, vocabulary-list-tastic by making it whizz bang and fun (at least our perception of fun...). Well, for want of a less vulgar expression, you can't polish a turd.
Do not misunderstand me, there are shining examples of innovative and excellent practice out there which put pedagogy at the heart of everything they do, but this is not reflected in the national picture. My proof? Look at the decline in numbers - French has dropped out of the top 10 subjects at GCSE for the first time since 1066. German is faring worse and Spanish has gone up 1%, but 1% of a paltry figure is not a lot. Only 1 in 4 teenagers in this country are taking a language post 14. This is a disgrace.
The not-so-new secondary curriculum is brilliant, in that there is nothing in it, we are not to be dictated to in terms of content which has led to a growth of CLIL (Content Language Integrated Learning) which is being heralded as the Messiah of languages. I think CLIL is a positive move, but I have observed a number of CLIL lessons where History is taught entirely in French or Fair trade is taught in Spanish, however, the history lesson and the citizenship lesson in themselves lacked really effective pedagogy. We are on the right road with CLIL, but we need to rebrand it as CLPIL (Content, Language, Pedagogy Integrated Learning - not so easy to say...)
Do not get me started on exam boards. Ridiculous. I lost all respect for publishers and exam boards when they started getting into bed with each other and branding textbooks as "the only AQA/EDEXCEL endorsed book". In other industries I am sure this would contravene competition laws. The message from this is "buy this book, learn it off by heart and your exam results will go up" which head of department in a struggling school would not do this? The exam needs to be rethought to test skills not content and let them have a bloody dictionary for at least part of the exam where they are dealing with unknown language - reading and listening. We should be examining how learners cope with language, not how much of the vocabulary they have learned.
So let us turn to the sources of language teacher professional development in this country and see what is happening to carve a consistently better pedagogical approach. Well, I was on a nationally rolled out CPD course a little while ago which consisted of drawing stick people in powerpoint and adding voice overs. Some people did not know how to do that so in one sense it was useful to them but I kept asking myself, what is the pedagogical purpose? (I actually felt sorry for the presenter because he was obliged to stick to a script written by someone else). At no point was the reasoning behind doing this activity discussed, assessment rubrics were not mentioned, scaffolding activities were not explored, feedback and feedforward did not come into it. It may as well have been a session on how to make finger puppets without ever mentioning the why. The focus was on (not very) shiny output and little on the input. I might be able to get my students to make vokis, podcasts, talking powerpoints, films and animations but if they are all about asking where the post office is (get a map) or saying what is in my pencil case (get a life) then it is a waste of time. Our children are prolific consumers and,today, creators of media, they can create things we cannot and I am guessing they would never use powerpoint to do it. In all cases, the shiny output is only one part of the puzzle, how best do we input language, link it together, set up assessment rubrics (when will there be a national languages CPD on SOLO Taxonomy?), practice, demonstrate and review learning? En gros, when are we going to get back to the basics of what good language teaching/learning pedagogy looks like?
I hesitate to criticise because I love languages and language teachers. Ne'er a finer bunch of people will you meet, but rather than putting time into crystalising and sharing a new and effective pedagogy and investing in training teachers in situ, we expect languages teachers to PAY to go to evening or residential events, where we roll out rushed off, outcome focussed CPD. It is a disgrace.
I am sorry if this upsets anyone, this is not a personal attack but rather a rally to say we are at rock bottom and we as a language learning community need to really take stock of what we are doing because if we always do what we always did, we will always get what we always got; in this case a crisis.
My dear friend @joedale sent me a link to a TES discussion board about how to use Bloom's/Anderson's revised Taxonomy in the languages classroom. I was amazed by the negative nature of some of the responses that were posted claiming that our language learners could only ever get up to applying on the taxonomy as their language level is not good enough -rubbish say I!!!!
Anyway, I then spent a little time reflecting and wrote this post on the thread in reply...
"Hello! I think there is a little bit of confusion here about what Bloom's/Anderson's taxonomy is for. As Graham rightly points out, it is a generalised framework of higher order thinking skills. It is a way to look at the complexity of thinking a learner is using - however, it has nothing to do with linguistic outcomes and trying to artificially superimpose this taxonomy onto "what they need for GCSE French/Spanish/German etc" is wrong. This approach will lead to the disastrous situation where teachers think that learners can only function at the first three levels in a languages classroom because they do not have a sufficient level of language to write an evaluative essay on veil wearing. Put simply, we are teachers of languages but we should also be teachers of learning. I bet that every teacher here has talked to students about the best way to learn new vocabulary; lists, mind maps, word hooks, look cover spell check etc. By talking to the students about different ways to learn a language and giving them the chance to evaluate which works best for them, we are allowing learners to use higher order thinking skills. At the end of a series of lessons about the perfect tense in French, getting students to create a flow diagram to help others to form the tense correctly is an example of synthesising/creating. Analysing is about comparing constituent parts and deconstructing ideas/language - i.e. the best form of deductive grammar learning (rather than explicit grammar teaching). Evaluation is also about hypothesising - think about pre listening exercises before you attempt a gap fill - "what kind of word might fit in this space?" "a noun because there is a la before it"... Basically I think that we need to differentiate between learning language (memorising words and structures and using them - gets us up to "applying" on the taxonomy) and learning to be a better linguist (analysing constituent parts, hypothesising, bringing together different grammatical concepts to create a piece of writing or speaking which takes us right to the top!) We are doing a huge disservice to our children if we do not get them to think in language learning (something the exam boards do not do) as we are trying to create better language learners, not better exam passers! The entire Bloom/Anderson's taxonomy is applicable to language learning and we should be explicit with the learners talking to them about the different levels of thinking they are using.
As for De Bono's hats - I have an entire Y9 scheme of learning in French based on them! We take the topic of the environment and each lesson is based around one of the hats - Lesson 1; white hat thinking - we learn to use facts and figures about the environment. Lesson 2; black hat thinking - what are the problems to do with the environment? Lesson 3; yellow hat thinking; what are the positive things you do now? Lesson 4; red hat thinking - what are your opinions and feelings about the environment? Lesson 5 green hat thinking; use the future tense to say what you are going to do to be more environmentally friendly. Assessment? A letter to the European Commission - on the writing frame we have a different coloured hats next to each few lines to encourage the students to write a paragraph about each hat, therefore giving different points of view. So where is the blue hat? When I mark the work and give them feedback I am wearing my blue hat to suggest what else they could do to improve their work.
We should not be shying away from things that are accepted as being effective pedagogy and ways of thinking by saying that "you can't do that in languages". We can do anything in languages because, as we all know, linguists do it best."
Any comments or thoughts would be greatly welcomed!
FLIP - Flexible Learner-led, In-time intervention, Personalised. Last year was the first year that Cramlington Learning Village had a full KS3, previously having been only a high school and we were faced with the challenge of starting from scratch within the creative auspices of the new secondary curriculum. So after much discussion and thinking, we decided that the only way to get some truly independent language learning was to get rid of 1/3 of our content. Excessive content is the enemy of effective learning so we decided to make 1 out of 3 lessons a fortnight content free but learning rich! Rather than trying to explain this in text, I have embedded the video below to let you see it in action. I would love some feedback, so please leave a comment!
284 delegates cam along to the 8th annual Cramlington Teaching and Learning conference on Friday - a massive crowd for what turned out to be a fantastic event. I was asked to lead three sessions. The first one was about how we had developed our new KS3 curriculum. This seemed to go down well with the delegates and I have embedded the prezi I used below.
I firmly believe that technology is one of the best ways of hooking children into language learning. The use of blogs to promote creative writing, podcasts, vokis, glogs, video editing software etc opens a whole new world for language learners and language teachers. Despite all of this, I do have one huge reservation with a number of technologically fabulous pieces of exemplar languages teaching - not the how but the what. Why do we think it is still appropriate to be teaching children ten items they have in their pencil case, 14 different types of animals and how to book a hotel room. Most of them don't have a pencil, never mind a pencil case, can look up the nouns they need if they really want to talk about their pets and to be honest very few 15 year olds book hotels in France (and even if they were to do so, they would inevitably book online and simply follow the signs to the restaurant...). Where is the emotional and intellectual challenge in the tasks we give them - especially those tasks upon which their GCSE marks are based. I quote from a religious studies GCSE paper "Explain why Christians believe that both prejudice and discrimination are wrong." Now let us contrast this with a French GCSE question "Role Play - You are speaking to your French friend about your sister - say what her job is, say she is divorced, say how many children she has ask your friend if he/she has any brothers or sisters." Perhaps if we were to further unpick the idea that your sister is another exampe of a single parent struggling in modern society then we could get some thinking going but as it stands, this is factual recall of vocabulary and of no real intelectual or emotional challenge. And we wonder why students do not engage with languages, why, although they do everything we might ask them to they are actually emotionally truanting our lessons. In RE, Humanities and PSHE they are doing sex drugs and rock'n'roll and they turn up to their languages class to be faced with giving directions around a town they will never visit and even if they did visit it they would just use Google Maps on their iPhones to find the directions ...I told you technology was key!
There are tons of excellent resources available to help us achieve this, look at the fantastic resources from plan-ed here . for KS5 material on how girls around the world suffer from war, slavery etc and here, also from plan-ed are a Spanish and French scheme of learning on climate change. Also look at the great videos here from Learning and Teaching Scotland, check out the Allons en Haiti materials I blogged about recently from Action Aid - so much more rewarding for both us and them! So what do you think? Up for taking the new curriculum by the horns and throwing out the old content? As they say in the Corsa ads...c'mon!
For the past couple of years. we have been using the mnemonic un avocat to remind students what they need to include when speaking and writing in French. Initially, I had these printed out as posters on A2 for the classrooms. The next step was to make the poster interactive with short explanations behind it so that students could access it at home. You can link to the interactive version here. Click on the initial letter to get more details and the avocado in the bottom left corner to return to the main page. Have a go and let me know what you think!
I have put together a couple of fun listening activities based around Christmas in French on a glog to be used with my classes. You can download the questions for La maison de Père Noël here and the answers are linked into the glog. As for the irritating Pigloo, you can download the noel gap fill questions here. I must thank the lovely Lesley Welsh who freely shared the pigloo gapfill at her wonderfull SSAT lead practitioners event. If you want to use this glog, the link is http://charte.glogster.com/Noel-Flip-lesson---listening-for-fun/