Tuesday, 17 November 2009

New advice for the Michigan ECPE speaking test

We have been preparing students for the November ECPE speaking test and with greater experience we have now put up some newer advice to help students avoid some of the pitfalls of this overly complex interview. We have also managed to get our hands on a copy of the DVD produced by the Hellenic American Union. That provided a few valuable insights into how the Greek authorities (at least) think the interview should be conducted.

click over to the fullspate.net site to see our advice for the Michigan ECPE speaking test.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

EFL and German Romanticism

Goethe's book "The Sorrows of Young Werther" is a great read for solitary types who like to ascend rocky peaks and look down through the wind-swept cloud at the grey urban sprawl and its ant-like inhabitants, but does it have anything particular to say to the teacher of English as a foreign language? We think it does.

At one point in the story Werther meets a man - a prince in fact, but his royalty is irrelevant here - who represents a type of person that he finds particularly objectionable. Here is a little quote:

"I am sorry to hear the prince often speaking of things he has merely heard tell of, or read about; when he does so, he adopts the point of view of the one who presented the matter to him.
"I am also disturbed to find he values my mind and abilities more highly than my heart, which is my only source of pride, and indeed of everything, all my strength and happiness and misery. The things I know, anyone can know - but my heart is mine and mine alone."

In the face of a stultifying impersonal Reason Werther is a great spokesperson for the individuality that comes with a profound emotional engagement with the world. Knowledge is a thing of great value, but what a devastating observation he makes: "The things I know, anyone can know."

Goethe wrote that in 1774. Perhaps the world has moved on in such a way that Werther's critique has lost its relevance? I think not. Although all the details have changed, the phenomenon that caused Werther to despair remains.

What often disturbs me when talking to teenagers is the way they seem to have become sucked into a culture that is cut off from what, for the Werthers of this world, has real value. There is a tremendous indifference - a tremendous inclination to just shrug the shoulders when asked about things that should be occasions for a passionate response.

What irritated Werther were those who mouthed conventional ideas and those with an excessive reliance on book learning. The litmus test for Werther (and the other Romantics) was the response to nature (or Nature). Those fettered either by convention or Reason had no real feeling for the beauty of nature - as illustrated by the vicar's wife ("a fool who affects to be learned") who orders two magnificent walnut trees to be felled because they blocked the light by which she read.

Our televisual culture is very different from that of the vicar's wife and that of the eighteenth century aristocrats who imposed such a strict geometry on their gardens, but it fetters no less. The virtual and the manufactured come to replace the real. The boys spend hours and hours and hours shooting numberless pixelated enemies and end up utterly numb and deadened when the issue of war is raised. Others are so transfixed by iconic values that the entire non-iconic world - including the brute reality of our mortality - just disappears from view. Sometimes I despair that these people are lost to a much greater extent than the vicar's wife was.

Elsewhere Werther says that both adults and children "wander about this earth in a daze and...do not know where they come from or where they are going, act as rarely as they do according to genuine motives..." Has that daze not become even more pronounced? And do we not have a perfect correlate for the "glittering misery" of the eighteenth century aristocracy with its "greed for rank" and "awful people cooped up together" with "the most wretched and abominable passions, quite nakedly displayed"?

One indication, perhaps of the distance between then and now: At one point Werther meets a young mother and afterwards writes in a letter to his friend, "whenever my mind is tottering all the tumult is soothed to quiet by the sight of a creature like this, living in the small daily round of her existence in a state of happy tranquility, getting by from one day to the next, seeing the leaves fall and thinking nothing but that winter is coming." It is not difficult to imagine such a person in the eighteenth century. It is impossible to imagine her living now.

The numbness is probably worse now, or if not worse, no better. However, the great thing about the English classroom is that it presents wonderful opportunities for reviving what remains of genuine feeling and the vestiges of individuality.

An awareness of how terribly fettered people are by convention (especially the convention of our vacuum-packed pop culture) should prompt us to avoid what Wether would call a dreadfully scholarly approach. Even in the midst of the most mundane exercise in English grammar we need to find opportunities for students to express themselves, and when they just parrot the inanities of others they can be prompted to think again.

It would be nice to do this on a towering hillside at the head of a magnificent valley, but, in any case, the attempt to present the values that have been lost has to go hand in hand with an opening up of the iron bars of convention. It is that labour of the negative that the English teacher is ideally situated to undertake since the English classroom is a lovely place for some serious talking - but a kind of talking that challenges and that might just make it possible to open up, if only ever so sightly, the vacuum packaging on the nihilistic culture of pop.

At the same time there is that need implied in the first quote from Werther to avoid creating the impression that the mind should be the only source of pride. Students must know that their emotive engagement with the world matters. This can be made clear not only in class discussions but also in written exercises, with marks given for personal expression and exploration, rather than just for vocabulary, grammar and a robotic use of topic sentences.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

A More Platonic Education?

Some of Plato's ideas were - to be frank - a touch crazy, but he did say some things about education that are worth remembering.

One concerns the stories that kids ought to grow up with. In Book Two of the Republic Plato says that education should begin with stories. He considers the stories that kids are being told and he is concerned. It is 380BC and kids are being told stories about gods fighting each other, of Cronos being punished by his son, of Hera being chained by her son, of Hepaestus being hurled from heaven by his father. No, stories like these should not be told to the young, who must only hear what will "dispose them to virtue."

What would Plato say now? Doubtless in most families there is a short period of Platonic protection with carefully chosen bedtime reading, but all too quickly kids come under the influence of a culture for which "virtue" is a word from a dead language. The real concern, of course, is not to cultivate children - to give them the most appropriate sentimental education but to make money from them. We could criticize Plato's insistence that philosophers ought to plan the education of children, but surely the decision to hand the process over to businessmen is all the more dubious.

There is a big difference, though, between Greece in the fourth century BC and our situation today. For Plato it would have been a fairly simple matter to control what young people were exposed to. The stories were not lying around waiting to be read. For children to hear them a real flesh-and-blood adult had to consent to tell them. The culture was still largely an oral culture. How very different things are now that at the flick of a switch kids have access to the worst being peddled by the merchants of our (anti)culture.

In Book Three of the Republic Plato goes on to consider the way children imitate. He imagines two different kinds of story-teller. One is moderate. When narrating the words and actions of a good man he will not be ashamed of imitation to add colour to the story, but when "the good man is overcome by disease or sexual passion or by drunkenness or some other misfortune" he will tell the story plainly, without imitation. By contrast, a less moderate story teller will imitate everything to arouse the audience as much as possible and the performance will have very little straight narrative. Plato says that if a poet of the latter type wanted to enter the city and tell his stories, he would be sent away.

Book Six has some of the most interesting ideas. Despite his apparent authoritarianism, Plato insists that nothing will be achieved if lessons are made compulsory. "No free man must learn anything under complusion like a slave...Nothing learned under compulsion stays in the mind." And education must begin in play. Although we have learned the lesson about play, we are still a long way off from seeing the wisdom in the rejection of compulsion.

But Plato is not against compulsion in all things, just in the education of the mind. He thinks that there must be a period of physical education - perhaps two or three years - and that will be compulsory. Here he is not thinking of work in the fields but of the athletic training for leaders who will also be able warriors.

Even more controversial is Plato's comment about war. "Boys [are] to be led even into war, as observers on horseback and, wherever it is safe to do so, they should be brought close and taste blood..." How very different this would be from the pseudo-experience offered by virtual warfare.

The timeline for Platonic education is striking. The basic moral, mental and physical training is meant to end at the age of 20. For the more able a period of secondary education then begins. Plato is rather sketchy about the content of this but he insists that people will not be ready for what he is really aiming at - a training in the philosophical arts of argumentation - until they are thirty. The political life of the city (today's nation) rests on sound argumentation, but no one under thirty can be expected to argue in a reasonable way. "When youths get their first taste of reasoned discourse they take it as a game and always use it to contradict. They imitate those who cross-examined them and themselves cross-examine others, rejoicing like puppies to drag along and tear to bits in argument whoever is near them." So what Plato calls a training in dialectic only begins at the age of 30 and is to continue for another five years.

At the age of 35 graduates are to enter political life, where they are expected to serve (albeit reluctantly because they have come to love education and the life of the mind above all other things but they recognise they have a duty to perform) - and serve for 15 years. This, though, is also education - gaining experience of the world - and for Plato the total process of education cannot be considered to be finished until the end of this period, at roughly the age of 50. And then? They are ready to start work, albeit sporadically. "They will spend much of their time with philosophy, but, when their turn comes, they must each labour and rule in public affairs." Finally, after having done their duty in helping to rule and educate "they will depart to the islands of the blessed."

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Bad exam questions

We have been busy preparing students for their exams and while doing so we have been struck by some rather dubious exam questions. One of the most dubious is the following, which appeared in the May 2007 B2 exam from the University of Central Lancashire (question 45).

Millions of people are living in poverty, ___________ all the
modern technology in the world.

A. despite
B. because of
C. although
D. unless
One student insisted vehemently that the answer was B, and he wanted to show us one of his school books which apparently puts at least part of the blame for poverty on modern technology. But the answer key from Lancashire says he is wrong. Millions of people are NOT living in poverty because of modern technology; they are living in poverty despite the technology.

Is it the comma? Is that what is really being tested here? But I don't remember coming across a B2 course book that enabled students to understand the finer points concerning the use of the comma, and surely this is not an appropriate topic at B2 level, where the emphasis ought to be on competent communication and not on literary niceties.

The prize, though, for the most dubious exam question goes to one that cropped up in an apparently official preparatory course for the Greek B2 English exam. One very strange exercise began by giving candidates a definition of an oxymoron, supplemented by the example: "a deafening silence", and then asked students to look at a series of quotations to identify which of them are oxymorons. One of the quotations was the following:

If you fall and break your legs, don't come running to me.
According to the key this is an oxymoron. I fail to see anything oxymoronic about it. But that is not the issue. I am all for the Greeks organizing their own English exams, and I would even support a more "protectionist" exclusion of some of the more questionable foreign exams, but I don't think it is a good idea to ask students to spot oxymorons when they should really be given opportunities to show how well they can communicate in English.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Education for...Peace?

Surely no one would object to the idea that it would be good to squeeze a few activities into the curriculum to promote peace. But once we see that our students are basically good and peaceful individuals who sit obediently at their desks is there really much left for us to do? Of course it would be good, and fun, to organize a "Poster for Peace" competition, for instance, but since our students are already so good and peaceful and obedient, aren't we really preaching to the converted?

There is reason to think, though, that the goodness, the peacefulness and, above all, the obedience of our students are part of the problem, and if this is so, there may be something for us to do as teachers that is not just a matter of preaching to the converted.

As a way into this line of thought we might recall the research of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo1 - certainly not recent research but arguably still very relevant. They looked at the way ordinary citizens - all of them apparently good and peaceful and obedient individuals - behaved when given a social role which encouraged them to take actions causing suffering to others. In Milgram's experiment the volunteers agreed to act as teachers using electric shocks supposedly to improve the memory of a student whose voice (whose screams) could be heard from the room next door. The "teachers" had their instructions from an authoritative-looking scientist in a white coat, and they were told to punish incorrect answers by pushing a button administering the mildest electric shock, then increasing the level of the shock for each successive incorrect answer.

Most volunteers made some objection when they first heard the screams from the adjacent room, but when reminded of their agreement to complete the research and when assured that if anything went wrong they would not be held accountable, they dutifully continued following their instructions, applying larger and larger electric shocks.

Interestingly, before the experiment Milgram asked a number of psychiatrists to estimate the proportion of the experimental subjects who would agree to keep increasing the voltage to a level that was clearly marked as lethal. The estimate was 1% - a figure equal to the assumed proportion of pathological sadists in society. What Milgram discovered, though, was that 65% of his volunteer teachers agreed to keep pressing the series of buttons, despite the screams (which eventually ceased), all the way up to the one marked "450 volts Danger XXX", and no one quit before they got to 275 volts.

The findings of Zimbardo's famous prison experiment at Stanford University were equally disturbing. When given the opportunity to become prison guards he saw otherwise good and peaceful and obedient citizens turn into brutes. Some of the volunteer guards did not sink so low and were obviously unenthusiastic participants in the brutality, but not one of these "good" guards tried to stop the inhumane actions of his colleagues.

The main conclusion for Milgram and Zimbardo was that social roles in institutions like prisons and the military can easily persuade "good" citizens to ignore morality and become willing accomplices in the perpetration of evil. Zimbardo went on to argue that social factors – what he called situational determinants – are ultimately responsible for more of the evil in the world than the aberrant impulses of certain individuals.

For teachers, whose power to change institutions is miniscule, the research might set off a different line of thinking. These institutions, these social systems that cause misery and suffering to others, can only work if individuals give in to the pressure to ignore the moral issues. Clearly the agreed aim of a more peaceful and more humane world requires more individuals who refuse to give in, who have the strength to insist on their sense of morality. In that strength, in that resistance and that insistence there is a cluster of virtues – virtues quite different from the veneer of goodness and peacefulness and obedience; and as teachers, perhaps there are a few things we can do to help cultivate those virtues.

The virtues at issue here were nowhere evident in the experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo, but there are examples in real life. Joseph Darby, for instance, was the soldier at Abu Ghraib in Afghanistan who took the brave decision to blow the whistle on the abuses there. Even though he now has to live in hiding, he apparently has no regrets. "It was a moral call," he said in one interview. "It had to be done."

In one of his later essays2 Zimbardo referred to Joseph Darby as an example of what he called heroism – the heroism of those who refuse to be either bystanders or accomplices as they insist on a bright line between good and its opposite. Now, is it outrageous to suggest that our education for peace should really be an education for this kind of heroism? In a world organised for war isn't it imperative that we promote, ever so slightly, the virtues seen in the heroes who blow the whistle and speak out?

An education for heroes

How might this be done? Actually, there is nothing new here to describe. All the steps that need to be taken are already implemented by teachers, perhaps for other reasons. For instance, some teachers like to involve students in framing class rules at the beginning of the year. For some teachers this will just seem like a sensible thing to do, but it might also be a small step on the road to heroism.

One of the disturbing observations in the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments was the way people just accepted "the rules of the game" as given and beyond question. A classroom or school environment where the rules are made an object of negotiation and where the students themselves have to take some responsibility for their framing might encourage students to go beyond that naïve acceptance; and there is no need for this to stop with the initial framing of classroom rules.

In a similar vein, students can occasionally be allowed to play the role of the teacher or the examiner, and perhaps follow this with a brief discussion of the experience.

In the English classroom opportunities also need to be found for students to enjoy judging and defending those judgments in public. In writing activities, for instance, students can evaluate each other's work and discuss both the evaluations and the criteria used in making them. With experienced writers in exam classes it is particularly interesting to let them make their own evaluations of official benchmark essays before comparing their assessments with the official grading.

In every English lesson we come across descriptions of situations in the lesson material. There is ample scope here to pause briefly and ask students what they would do in such a situation (assuming that students are familiar with the second conditional), followed by the request to explain why. From one perspective this is just good oral practice, but for those concerned about an education for heroes this is good practice in being accountable for one's actions and learning to live more responsibly.

Another idea that is not at all new: teachers exercising self-restraint and, from time to time, choosing not to be the authoritative source of knowledge. Some of us delight in feigning ignorance, pointing students in the direction of dictionaries and grammar reference books and the like when they have a question. We also refuse to spoonfeed and discourage parroting, especially when it comes to essays. The students must come up with their own ideas and must find a way both to evaluate and develop those ideas. And why stick to the absolute minimum essay length required by the examination board? There are moral grounds – not just linguistic ones – for insisting on depth; and depth requires length. At an advanced level the same good moral reasoning bolsters the examiner's (amoral) insistence that essay writers "explore some of the complexities" of the matter in hand. The students' thinking (and not just their language) needs to become nuanced, and therefore more frequently peppered with phrases like "although," "having said that," "it has to be admitted that," "to a certain extent," "and yet," and "seen from the perspective of."

Of course, what goes on in the English classroom can only be a tiny contribution. Children need to do many, many other things, such as lying on a hillside on a sunny day with their eyes closed listening – really listening – to the songs of birds, and then perhaps going to the same spot after sunset and looking – really looking – at the vast expanse of the abysmally black night sky. There is a long sentimental education that cannot be advanced in our classrooms, but as language teachers we may be in a privileged position to influence the more intellectual powers of critique and judgment that could make the difference between a good-hearted accomplice and the kind of moral hero prepared to speak out for peace.

1 For a good summary of Milgram's and Zimbardo's research see http://www.sonoma.edu/users/g/goodman/zimbardo.htm
2 Franco, Z., Zimbardo, P., The Banality of Heroism. Greater Good, Fall/Winter, 30-35, 2006.