Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mouth shut & maladjusted

It is initially the very title of Donald Finkel’s book, How to teach with your mouth shut, which attracts one’s attention. The contents, I am discovering, stir considerable debate. Last year, we formed a faculty group to explore reducing the amount of lecturing in our classes: “I talk too much,” one of colleagues said, launching the movement; “I want to talk less.” So we began by reading and discussing Finkel’s book and the exchanges have been lively. In my Language Teaching Practicum, we have been reading a couple of key chapters (Let the students do the talking and Refuse to teach) and discussing possible applications to language education.

In addition to an equally lively debate, there was, to say the least, a certain amount of skepticism. In general terms, students don’t like the idea of an instructor who abnegates so much authority, leaves too much decision-making to the students, sits down on the job. In more specific terms, they see the language teacher as responsible for providing input, especially to beginning level students.

Then something interesting happened. As we began to watch recordings of my students’ lessons in peer coaching sessions, we came across instructional problems to solve, activities and techniques to vary or improve.

And repeatedly, the response was for the teacher to talk less, to do less, to get out of the way, to keep her mouth shut.

In one case, we thought that the teacher might step aside and let students do the writing on the board. In another, that the teacher might sit down and let students take centre stage. In another, that the teacher should not hover over learners in small groups, but find a way to slip completely into the background and allow them to struggle to express themselves without the supervision and prompting which they quite possibly find stifling.

I have written in a separate post about Jose Antonio Bowen and the Teaching Naked concept. In one sense, the clothing items the teacher discards are visual and technological: Bowen wants us to stop hiding behind Powerpoint slides and other devices and engage students directly. Here – and possibly the next step – we are looking at the shedding of verbal outfits: becoming observers and listeners, sitting rather than standing.

I am tempted to connect the naked teaching with one’s mouth closed with the Buddhist idea of nirvana, when the self is snuffed out and the cycle of birth, death, rebirth once and for all interrupted. When the teacher lowers her own flame, she becomes the pilot light, just big enough to ignite the main blaze. If this sounds a little extreme, perhaps a suitable modification lies in Herbert Kohl’s notion of the suspension of the ego, which he discusses in chapter 11 of his Growing Minds (Harper Torchbooks, 1988). Kohl calls on teachers to separate their ego, their self-esteem, from their students and lessons. By quieting their own need to succeed, to be totally in charge, they give themselves the time and space to observe their learners and identify relevant interests, learning styles & strategies, preferences for certain activities and materials, and so forth. By keeping quiet, we hear the students’ needs and urges and ideas and opinions. Kohl provides several instances of lessons which went awry, but were rescued when the teacher didn’t take it personally, but reflected quickly on the new circumstances and adjusted accordingly.

An educator’s ego, however, is not always to be suspended. Outside the classroom, there are other considerations. In his collection of essays, I won’t learn from you, Kohl describes the idea of “creative maladjustment,” which for him had its origins in a speech given by Martin Luther King at U.C. Berkeley in May, 1958. I quote at length (for one thing, MLK is not a speaker one should ever abbreviate):

Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word. It is the word “maladjusted.” Now we all should seek to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things.

[From: I have a dream: writing and speeches that changed the world, Ed. James M. Washington, New York: Harper Collins, 1992, page 33.]

Kohl proposes that in the same way, we should insist on remaining maladjusted to any form of inequity, injustice or just plain nonsense in education: “creative maladjustment consists of breaking social patterns that are morally reprehensible, taking conscious control of one’s place in the environment, and readjusting the world one lives in based on personal integrity and honesty . . .” (page 130). Some of these acts of maladjustment will be minor, almost daily occurrences; others will be more significance assertions of will, requiring “determination, faith that people can be wonderful, conscious planning, and an unshakable sense of humor” (page 130). He describes teachers who challenge preconceptions and insist on placing the best interests of their students above all else as “nonprofessional with joy.”

Putting the two together, we have a picture of a restrained teacher in the classroom, respecting students, observing them carefully to pick up on ways to help them, and giving them the time and space to find their own voice. And a vocal campaigner outside the classroom, patiently and tactically working the system, engaging and cajoling administrators and other stakeholders to get the very best in resources, the most positive of learning environments for students.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Performing on one buttock

Benjamin Zander plays the piano and talks about eyes shining with wonderment at the power and beauty of music. As he illustrates the development of a young pianist, he reaches the stage where the player, totally absorbed in and moved by the music, leans her whole body to one side. “Playing on one buttock,” he calls it. Zander then recounts the experience of an entrepreneur who had heard him use this phrase during a presentation and then returned to a later event and informed him gleefully that his business was now operating more successfully because he had figured out how to run it “on one buttock.”

Whatever that means.

These days I am trying to figure out what one-buttock teaching might be like. To assist in this search, my students get to watch the Zander speech and then keep a sharp eye out for the phenomenon.

My hope is that we may not be able to define it, but we shall know it when we see it.

Horizontal segmentation: no perfect syllabus

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point, gave a TED speech about Howard Moskowitz, the extraordinary psychophysicist, and his impact on the food industry. Moskowitz invented the concept of horizontal segmentation: that the key to satisfying consumers is providing a sufficient number of distinct choices. “There is no perfect cola or perfect spaghetti sauce,” Moskowitz would say. “There are only perfect colas, perfect spaghetti sauces.” This is why today we can inspect the shelf of pasta sauces at the food market and choose among meatball, traditional, zesty, garden vegetable and so forth. In taste tests, consumers tend to cluster around these different types. If we only offer one or two varieties, even of the highest quality, consumer satisfaction will average between 6 and 6.5 on a scale of 10. When given meaningful choices, closer to their particular preferences, respondents will move to an average of between 8 and 8.5.

Which is the difference between feeling ok about what we eat, and feeling really happy.

I find this remarkably helpful as a basic principle of curriculum design. Boosting satisfaction and relevance for learners comes from providing meaningful choices. At the level of the syllabus, this suggests that one way to characterize needs assessment is the identification of how a particular learner population groups around certain topics or skill areas or outcomes. There is no perfect syllabus, in other words: only perfect syllabi. The various flavours will available through a menu of topics, projects, and/or materials. Successful courses must contain significance elements of personalization, learner-centredness and choice.

This variety will also be available at lower levels of planning: most lessons will also reflect choices through such devices as workstations or specialized groupwork. In jigsaw reading, for example, teams form around a text of choice and become experts in that material. The confidence and enthusiasm from mastering interesting material drives the sharing process as expert team members mingle with those from other groups to compile complementary material as the basis for solving a problem or pursuing a project.

So, it turns out, curriculum design is not about putting together one rigid plan to be followed by all, but rather composing a flexible catalogue of choices, with some training and direction for participants to make well-informed selections.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Performing admirably

In the latest Star Trek movie, young Spock is asked at a moment of crisis by the very alluring Uhura, “Is there anything you need?” This question is accompanied, incidentally, by a look which suggested that he could have asked for just about anything.

His response is memorable: “I need everyone to continue performing admirably.”

I have been wondering: what might be the meaning of “admirably”? My old Longman’s dictionary gives admirable as “worthy of admiration; excellent,” while admiration is “delighted contemplation of something worthy or beautiful; esteem, respect.” Since the concept clearly has something to do with being watched (one thinks of the Spanish, mirar, to look or watch, as well as the more obvious English admire), Spock might therefore be interpreted as calling for his shipmates to be always performing tasks as though they were being observed closely and critically.

In order to do so, you must know what it means to be so observed: in our case, for your lesson plan and its execution to be watched closely and assessed in detail. For a full realization, one must also have the experience of being the observer: what is involved in watching a language lesson closely? What is involved in seeing a language educator facilitate a lesson, and interpreting the events through a critical lens?

Introduction to Classroom Observation involves the latter, learning to observe closely. The Practicum embraces the former, being observed. Together, they provide the whole observation experience, including the opportunity to reflect upon every facet.

So I wish this for my students: may you select worthy objects of observation, so that all your experiences may be of “delighted contemplation.” And may all your own observed lessons be both worthy and things of beauty, thus arousing nothing but delight, esteem and respect in your observers.

May we all continue performing admirably.

Three little things

Our summer vacation took us to Seattle to visit our older son, Patrick. Our downtown base was linked with a southern suburb and the bakery where he works by Rainier Avenue. On the several trips up and down this artery, we passed the announcement board (marquee?) in front of Franklin High School, and noted the following pithy advice:

Go to school

Do your work

Be nice

At first glance it may seem obvious and a bit simplistic. But I soon heard echoes in other sober reflections from a variety of sage sources.

“Go to school”

Rightly, perhaps, this is the first piece of advice: “Perseverance is the very hinge of all virtues,” wrote Thomas Carlyle in a letter to his brother. Perseverance has been neatly defined by none other than Newt Gingrich as “the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” This quality is seen, I sense, more often in nature than in politics: “A diamond is a piece of coal that stuck to the job,” wrote Michael Larsen. Also known for sticking to the job are drips of water, as in Lucretius’s observation that “dripping water hollows a stone” and Sa’di’s maxim that “drop on drop collected will make a river. Rivers upon rivers collected will make a sea.” Even creative show business types stress the importance of attendance: Woody Allen wrote that “eighty per cent of success is showing up.”

And Bob Hope noted of his career; “I have always been in the right place at the right time. Of course I steered myself there.”

“Do your work”

Albert Einstein placed work very prominently in his equation for success: “If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play; and z is keeping your mouth shut.” Margaret Thatcher also stressed that talent and having a clear goal are not enough for significant achievement: “What is success? I think it is a mixture of having a flair for the thing you are doing: knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose.” Many such thoughts are neatly summarized in the anonymous comment that the dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.

But perhaps my favourite quotation on this topic is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in his journal:

“To every reproach, I know now but one answer, namely to go again to my own work.

‘But you neglect your relations.’ Yes, too true, then I will work the harder.

‘But you have no genius.’ Yes, then I will work the harder.

‘But you have no virtues.’ Yes, then I will work the harder.

“Be nice”

This reminds me of Willy Loman’s line: “The man who makes an appearance [which sounds again like “Go to school”], the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.” Clearly, creating personal interest includes taking an interest in others. As Alice Duer Miller put it: “Good manners are the technique of expressing consideration for the feelings of others.”

Francis Bacon echoes the famous metaphor of his contemporary John Donne, putting it this way: “If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them.” As Sarah Orne Jewett put it,“Tact is a kind of mind-reading.”

Alexander Pope stresses that being nice starts with being comfortable with oneself: “True politeness consists in being easy one’s self, and in making everyone about one as easy as one can.” This use of the word “easy” is very similar to another British comment from the eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift’s “Good manners is the art of making those people easy with whom we converse.” From the same time and place comes this comment from Samuel Butler: “it is tact that is golden, not silence,” although Disraeli later wrote that “Tact teaches you when to be silent.” Or how about this very thorough account from J.G.Randall, who explains tact as “a number of qualities working together: insight into human nature, sympathy, self control, a knack of inducing self-control in others, avoidance of human blundering, readiness to give the immediate situation an understanding mind and a second thought. Tact is not only kindness, but kindness skillfully extended.”

One can only hope that this powerful combination of empathy and self-restraint is both taught and modeled not only at Franklin High School, but in any educational context.

The Franklin High tryad reminds me of Garrison Keillor, who has a similar three-part urging at the end of each day’s Writers’ Almanac on NPR:

Be well

Do good work

Keep in touch

There is clearly a good deal of overlap, and we might try melding the two lists by interpolating a few details, something like this:

In order to shew up every day, you need to take care of yourself, eat, rest and exercise appropriately.

If you do that, you will be in a position to always do your best work.

But your success also depends on the collaboration and support of your colleagues, so stay close and treat them well.

Which, I fancy, is not a bad recipe for success, not only in academic contexts but in professional and social environments as well.

Which tempts me into one final stretch, the arena of relationship advice. When considering possible partners with whom to share your life, consider this little check list:

Are they willing to admit they don’t know everything and to always keep learning ?

Are they prepared to work on the relationship while continuing to do their own work of personal growth?

Do they take care of themselves, in all senses, from the dietary to the spiritual?

Do they continue to communicate (including listening) even in the difficult times?

If you get three or four affirmatives to these interrogatives, then hold on tight to the individual in question, for you have found someone of whom the authorities at Franklin High School would surely approve greatly.

I know I would.