Book Review – The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning

Book Review - The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning

Title: The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning

Author: James Paul Gee

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (January 8, 2013)

The Anti-Education Era: Creative Smarter Students Through Digital Learning by James Paul Gee

Before we can be convinced of the need to get smart through digital learning, we need to be convinced of our own stupidity.

The title implies that the book will explain how digital leaning will create smarter students in an era the author terms ‘anti-education’. While Gee does explain that and does it well without much reference to buzzwords in educational technology, what the title (as well as the blurb) does not warn us is that there will be a confrontation of the state of the human being and an uncovering of the failings that we are oblivious to. In fact, Part I of the book, which comprises 15 chapters, is plainly titled ‘How To Be Stupid’, while Part II, titled ‘How To Get Smart Before It Gets Too Late’,  has just six chapters.

In other words, before we can be convinced of the need to get smart through digital learning, we need to be convinced of our own stupidity – and Gee does that by exposing mental comfort stories, the dangerous lack of agency or purpose among members of a community (or citizens of a country), and the damaging consequences of our stupidity, e.g. self-deception, inequality and hopelessness.

Unapologetic and deeply convinced for a smarter and more moral world, Gee writes simply and candidly to question our assumptions about education, the economy and society, and calls us to action: to connect, collaborate and create collective intelligence.

I touch on a few of Gee’s arguments that have struck a chord with me.

First, the bad news

HOW SCHOOLS MAKE US STUPID

Humans have the capacity to be reflective and thereafter embark on good actions. Gee calls this the Circuit of Human Reflective Action. The conditions for smart actions to take place are:

1) Initial mentorship so we can learn from people and experience in specific areas/domains;

2) Lots of prior experience;

3) Clear goals;

4) The actions and goals must matter to us emotionally;

5) There is an opportunity to act in a way that elicits a meaningful response from our community (local/global).

Unfortunately, much of formal schooling is highly passive with students imbibing knowledge without much opportunity to take meaningful action based on what they have learned. The lack of a compelling or meaningful goal of studying and attending school is exacerbated by the focus on testing and gate-keeping examinations. Furthermore, some students have initial mentoring (in the form of parents, out-of-school experiences, etc.) and some have not; nonetheless, “we pretend they are on a level-playing field” (p. 16-17).

WHEN STATUS AND SOLIDARITY DIVIDE US

Status and solidarity are powerful cultural forces that shape our identity and influence our everyday actions. We seek status in terms of respect from others. We also seek solidarity with other in order to have a sense of belonging and being accepted.  Such forces, however, may dull our senses and better judgment when status and solidarity become the only end goals of a meaningful life.

As a consequence, we accept and perpetuate particular world views and actions contrary to empirical evidence and facts, common sense and moral standards. For example, aspiring to own a club membership like your peers when your income cannot support it; indulging in bullying tactics along with your buddies when you know the bullied is distressed. These examples may appear trivial but they scratch the surface of a world beset with social ills and inequalities.

In our limited world of people who we want to like us, and people we want to be like, we disregard more rational thought and action, and more sadly, disregard other humans who fall below our flawed standards of human existence.

Now, for some good news

AFFINITY SPACES FOR ALL

In order to engage our students in more critical and reflective thinking, we need to lead them to an affinity space where a community of learners who share common passions and goals. They may come from a variety of backgrounds and have varying levels of experience and expertise, but by exchanging ideas, opinions and thoughts with one another, the group solution to the challenge is going to be superior to an individual’s effort. “[H]umans think and act better when we do so by getting the help of others and giving help to them” (p. 174).

Such affinity spaces would look like discussion boards and interest groups related to the simulation video game The Sims where players find ways to create objects of their desire such as building their dream house and accessories, as well as the various user-generated communities where players interact with one another.

I do believe that affinity spaces are not limited to an online environment and it is important to have real-life face-to-face connections in any affinity space to encourage authentic relationships among learners.

Exactly how affinity spaces are to be constructed is not the focus in Part II of the book but the end is really the beginning of our conversation of how to make use of our 21st century tools to enhance our student’s thinking, reflecting and doing while creating purposeful goals for them in a diverse and global community.

 

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Are MOOCs the future of learning?

Are MOOCs the future of learning?

With the ongoing discussion of whether MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) is the next revolution in education, I decided to embark on a MOOC myself. My first experience with online courses was not Massive nor Open. It was with the Master of Arts in Teaching program with USC. It was a full-fledged master program conducted via video conferencing which meant real-time interaction with professors and classmates. Having thrived in such an environment, I look to MOOCs with great expectations of lifelong learning without a hefty price tag or any price at all if possible.

My first experience with MOOCs was a shaky one. I can’t really say I fully experienced it since I was never fully engaged with the course. There was one course I did with Open2Study and another with Coursera. Both courses were related to learning and education but somehow there was too much going on in my life in the time I was supposed to complete it. The Open2Study course was conducted at a pace which required almost daily attention that I quickly abandoned it altogether. The pace of the Coursera course was much better but I still couldn’t keep up with the myriad of activities that were going on and felt pretty much a non-student. Without a concerted effort and a “studying” frame of mind, those two MOOCs amounted to a faint memory of videos and catchphrases.

Still hoping for a better outcome with MOOC, I recently enrolled for a Coursera course, History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, offered by Duke University and am now in the fourth week of the six-week course. This time I was more prepared to set aside some time to do the course. The first week, however, went by in the flash and I only caught up with the video lectures in the second week.

What got me hooked was the high quality video production with a friendly and engaging presenter  (Professor Cathy N. Davidson) and useful presentation pointers appearing from the side. It a short period of 10 to 15 minutes, I learned important concepts and got thinking about the implication of technology in education. The videos were stimulating enough for me to anticipate the following week’s materials.

One of the tools used in the course is forums which drive a socially-connected and engaging form of learning. I was not, however, particularly drawn to the forums because I am inundated enough with articles, debates and discussion on Twitter (my daily feed of news and trends). Furthermore, as a non-fee-paying student, I am just not as motivated to devote time and energy to share and exchange ideas with strangers, even if it means learning new things.

Professor Cathy Davidson reviewing guiding principles of the course

To me, the outcome of watching the videos was immediate knowledge. I could watch the videos anytime and in between tasks and gained a lot from a relative short span of focused attention. Forums, on the other hand, required more thoughtful and time-consuming contribution which had a less obvious reward. There was no tangible carrot nor stick to motivate the more socially engaging aspect of the course. I am a full-time working mother with three young children, and this makes me evaluate how worthwhile any pursuit is on an ongoing basis.

 Modes of learning aside, let me move on to what I have been learning so far: 1) We’re teaching like it’s 1992; 2) We need to teach for the future; and 3) Our conception of reality is created through the filter of our own mind and perception.

Pen & paper | Flickr: Loops San

Technology and communication practices have evolved since 1993 but education seems to be largely stuck in the days of pen and paper, individual summative assessments and the like.

1) We’re teaching like it’s 1992.

The significance of 1992 was lost on me until I learnt that the Internet was opened to the world on April 22, 1993. Since then, anyone with an internet connection could communicate with one another, expressing what they wanted, when they wanted, how they wanted. Technology and communication practices have evolved since 1993 but education seems to be largely stuck in the days of pen and paper, individual summative assessments and the like.

Personally, I find this to be true in Singapore. National examinations are in the traditional vein of individual summative assessment of the highest order, to the extent of determining your lot in life (whether perceived or real). In post-secondary institutions, however, coursework is more prevalent, especially at the polytechnic. There is a mix of individual and group assignments, some more collaborative than others, but not quite exploiting the full potential of our current technologies.

One reason behind this phenomenon of teaching like it’s 1992 is the fact that educators have grown up in the world pre-1993 and were schooled through and through in the ways and sensibilities of the time before the Internet. I certainly was. Some are looking forward to the future but many are comfortable and used to the past. Whatever the arguments are for staying put and not rocking the boat, I think there are more compelling reasons to decide that we have to change and act on it.

Digital literacies | Flickr: dougbelshaw

It’s not about getting students through a course on digital literacies, it’s about practising digital literacies in and out of the classroom.

2) We need to teach for the future.

I believe that we need to teach our students digital literacies. The post-1993 generation was born into an Internet world of instant communication and gratification. Having taught such students for the past 5 years, I’m convinced that I am more digitally savvy that most of them. They may have the latest gadgets and apps, but most of the time they are too trusting of the first few Google search results, think that, in fact, Google is the originator of the information, and pay little attention to issues of privacy and ethics.

I don’t think students are mastering how to evaluate internet sources because there is a (wrong) assumption that they are naturally digitally savvy and so teachers pay scant attention to this aspect of learning. To put another perspective on this issue, if there are no grades or tangible rewards attached to being digitally literate, students will not become literate. It’s not about getting students through a course on digital literacies, it’s about practising digital literacies in and out of the classroom.

We can never teach our students enough content for the future, but we ought to teach them how to navigate the future with greater critical analytical skills.

3) Our conception of reality is created through the filter of our own mind and perception.

One major concept I learnt and find so true in all areas of my life is Immanuel Kant’s concept of how our perception of the world is filtered by our own preconceived notions and ideas. If we see our students as well-oiled machines, responsive to instructions and high in productivity, then our approach to teaching and assessment will follow suit. Standardised testing, orderliness and measurable results become drivers of education.

While I believe that such a filter is outdated today and that a new filter of creative and collaborative learners is more appropriate, I feel trapped in a factory of deadlines where incomplete or faulty products or tossed aside. Most of the teaching my own children are experiencing right now is highly segmented, time-bound, and considered a done deal by way of tests. Creativity is relegated to physical activity and art lessons or specific assignments.

True creativity and collaborative practice can only be achieved if they are part and parcel of everyday learning – something I have never experienced in my own schooling experience but a future I hope for my children and their children.

A traditional classroom | Flickr: young shanahan

A traditional classroom | Flickr: young shanahan

An online course can run like a factory if that’s the vision of the instructors. A traditional classroom can be turned into a laboratory of inquisitive minds if the teachers so wish.

So what about MOOCs?

Will MOOCs then be one of the solutions to instill creativity and collaborative practice in learning? MOOC is merely a vehicle. An online course can run like a factory if that’s the vision of the instructors. A traditional classroom can be turned into a laboratory of inquisitive minds if the teachers so wish. Granted that MOOCs has the potential of reaching out to more by using technologies that are innately collaborative in nature (e.g. forum posting, wikis, etc.), the challenge is to make use of that potential in a sustainable manner for a meaningful learning experience.

My own interaction with the current MOOC has been limited to watching video lectures so far. I have not set my mind on anything collaborative but I may if I find like-minded friends or colleagues who believe that it is a meaningful endeavour for their work or personal growth.

MOOCs can roll out its bells and whistles, but the choice is up to us to ride along with the revolution.

Educating Singapore – Moving Beyond Grades

Educating Singapore - Moving Beyond Grades

The latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results have placed Singapore among the top performers among 65 countries and economies who took part in the fifth assessment of 15-year-olds’ competencies in Reading, Mathematics and Science. We came in second in Mathematics, and third in both Reading and Science.

Not only are we in good company with our Asian neighbours like Shanghai (top in all three areas) and Hong Kong (third in Math and second in both Reading and Science), we have shown improvement in results in both academically weaker and stronger pupils. Our Education Minister is reported to be very happy and very proud of the results but I hope Singapore’s stellar performance at PISA will not undermine the need to improve areas such as equity and creativity.

S’pore can do better in ensuring educational equity

Singapore can do better in ensuring educational equity

A recent news report gave a more balanced assessment of Singapore’s PISA results, where OECD Deputy Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher noted that Singapore is “a strong performer in (education) quality, but only an average performer in equity.” Educational equity is defined by OECD in terms of fairness and inclusion – providing all students, regardless of gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin, have similar opportunities to achieving educational potential; and ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all. By that definition, Singapore has progressed very well over the past few decades (from fishing village to global player) and has been considered the “poster child” for educational development (mirroring its economic success story) – see country report by OECD. We have reduced achievement gaps between genders and races, and have refined the process of teaching students according to their abilities.

Nonetheless, the education culture in Singapore is one driven by results of  high-stakes examinations which are the gatekeepers to the next level of education which in turn determine the type and quality of jobs students eventually land. While this is not a culture unique to Singapore, and certainly not as extreme as compared to South Korea and China, such a culture privileges those who have easier access to educational resources (e.g. private lessons, parental coaching, financial support). Furthermore, innovation and creativity take a back seat while grades get all the glory. Despite government attempts to downplay the importance of grades and asking parents to broaden their perception of their children’s success, parents are too pragmatic to give up the paper chase. Exam results continue to be the determining factor at each turning point of a child’s school life.

The Singapore Ministry of Education hails the latest PISA results as an indication that Singapore students “are ready to thrive in the 21st century.” To me, thriving means growing in a supportive environment where students can realise their potential and nurture their talents. To thrive in the 21st century also means having the capacity to change, innovate and look for new ways of doing things. I’m not sure if we can claim that all Singapore students are ready to thrive. Some have more resources to be able to thrive, some have fewer, and many have discovered the best way to thrive is to go to another country where there’s more to school than just getting good grades.

An education system is a product of philosophy, politics and societal values. I don’t believe there is something inherently right or wrong about using exam results to measure success. Neither do I believe that there is a level playing field for all children. What I hope our education system does not do is to reduce a person’s worth to the degree of educational attainment, and by extension, the financial rewards that come from it.

However the education game is being played, we must be critical of our successes and learn from our failures. Doing that will keep my hope alive.

The First Year of Primary School – A Mother’s Reflection

The First Year of Primary School - A Mother's Reflection

My daughter R started Primary One this year. At the beginning, it was exciting, she found most things enjoyable, and I was happy that she adjusted quickly to the environment and found it easy to make friends. As the year wore on, however, the life of primary school unveiled itself to be a mixed bag of things – some good, some bad, some disappointing.

THE GOOD

Faith, Friends & Fun

R’s school is a government school but was founded by Christian missionaries and holds fast to values and principles which I grew up with and which I wanted my children to learn. There is a pastoral staff based in the school and students attend a weekly chapel session. R comes home singing songs she has learnt and I believe her Christian faith is strengthened because of such an environment.

R’s school, despite its Christian background, attracts a mix of races and religions. Having non-Chinese and non-Christian friends has exposed her to cultural and religious differences which I hope will make her more sensitive to the needs of others. Recently,  R’s Hindu classmate invited R and their classmates to her home for Deepavali celebrations. I’m glad R had fun and was able to interact with her classmates outside of school.

R also found several activities in school to be fun, primarily activities that were sports and arts related. She enjoyed badminton and gymnastics sessions, Chinese dance, and speech and drama activities. My girl needs her space to move around and express herself. It’s important that the school has a non-academic programme to let students find and develop their talent. While I wish there was formal training available at the school for music and gymnastics, I know resources are limited and I’m grateful that there are Chinese Dance lessons which R faithfully attends each week.

THE BAD

Books

The weight of the many books – textbooks , workbooks, exercise books – all add up to a considerable burden for a 7-year-old. The haversack needs to be large enough to contain the books, sturdy enough so it doesn’t tear, and padded enough so it won’t hurt the shoulders and back.

The main reason for the need to cart the books to and fro is that R’s classroom is shared with the morning session class (R is in the afternoon session – another contentious point). Plus the fact that there are no lockers for students to use. The school is in the midst of building extensions so that the school can go single session — in 2016. Not sure if there will be lockers or shelving space for books in the future but I hope there will be some alternatives to the book carrying routine.

Weight aside, I wonder how well the books are used. What does my child do with the textbook during lessons? Does she flip the pages, close the book, and then move on to some activity in class? The textbooks  have hardly any activities in them so how does the child interact with the book? Workbooks are, of course, more used to the point of pages being dog-eared.  So why not just have a workbook? Can’t concepts be included in the workbooks? Wouldn’t that make the book worth its weight?

Better yet, throw out the book. English has done away with textbooks and workbooks altogether, focusing on worksheets instead. So why not Chinese and Math? Worksheets are targeted, timely and thin!

THE DISAPPOINTING

Results

Do I already sound like a parent obsessed with grades? I don’t think I am, at least, I won’t use the term ‘obsessed’ but grades are a reflection of how much a student is able to prove what she knows at a given point in time. And at those given points in time called ‘tests’, R proved to be highly competent in English, somewhat average in Math, and hitting the bottom of the barrel in Chinese.

I’m not so much disappointed in her results as I am that she did not reach her potential during those assessments. And to be honest, I am more disappointed in myself for not coaching her to be able to perform her best.

Time was certainly a main factor. R is in the afternoon session, which means not having to wake up too early in the morning. By 8 am, R should be awake. By that time, I’m well on my way to work. She takes her time with breakfast and after that needs her TV fix for the day, for just 30 min or so.

Between 9 to 10:30 am, she might do homework, learn spelling, or if there’s no school assignments, she might pop down to the playground or ride her bicycle. At 10:30 am, she starts to get ready to change into her school uniform, have an early lunch and leaves home around 11:30 am to report for school by 12:20 pm.

At 6:30 pm, school ends and R reaches home around 7:20 pm. By that time, I have returned home from work and finished my dinner. After R washes up and has her dinner, there is a fairly unproductive 45 mins or so of doing homework and other things like learning spelling, doing a book review or whatever tasks scribbled in her pupil handbook. All this with the background noise of her two younger brothers clamouring for attention, and me nagging at R to focus on her work.

By 9 pm, the kids need to be in bed, preferably asleep. By 9 pm, I need some time to myself, preferably in silence. By 9 pm, it’s late enough for all of us.

Such is the daily routine, Monday to Friday.

What about the weekend, you might ask? Don’t I send R for tuition, fill her waking hours with assessment books and makes sure that she’s primed for any test?

I don’t. Sure there are assessment books, and there are more well used closer to tests, but I don’t have a tight schedule of formal learning for my child. I did try a few times, but they did not go down well with R. And I would much rather spend time taking her and her brothers to the library, or run around the playground.

Ah, now I will change, you might think. Just look at her results – R needs tuition, doesn’t she, at least in Chinese?

I’m not sure she does. I think I’ll take her to her to the library more often and encourage her to read more Chinese books.

What about Math? She needs tuition for that. Everyone has tuition!

R needs more focused attention in shorter spans of time, whether for Math, Chinese or English. And that’s what I’ll try to do. And hopefully without the distraction from her brothers.

PAUSE FOR THOUGHT

There will always be the good, the bad and the disappointing in many situations, life changing events and, of course, the long journey of parenting. My journey is on a rocky mountain path but I’m fixing my eyes on the summit – with plenty of lessons to learn along the way.

The Academic Life I Never Imagined

The Academic Life I Never Imagined

The first time I dabbled in a thesis, I was 21 or so. It got off to a shaky start, not helped by the fact I changed my topic mid-way because I had lost passion in the initial topic. And while I was a whole lot more motivated with the newer topic, I had less time, lost focus now and then, and when I finally handed it in, felt I had let myself and my supervisor down. The honours year was disappointing for me and with less than stellar results, I decided to abandon any thoughts of academia, even though I previously thought it was a possibility.

More than 10 years later, after 5 jobs in 4 industries, I finally found myself quite settled in my current position as a lecturer in a polytechnic. I was in my element – interacting with people, particularly young people, teaching and sharing knowledge, and having a part in shaping people’s futures. I also had completed my family and the intense years of child-bearing and nursing were coming to an end. And then I started thinking about doing a Masters. I cannot remember whether it was by instinct or intent (perhaps both), the thought grew stronger and on May 2011, I embarked on the Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) with the University of Southern California.

And so I moved from one intense period to another. Really intense.

The academic experience this time was not just about engaging in ideas with professors and classmates, but juggling work, family and studies at the same time. At times I wished I was singularly focused on studying, especially when it came to completing my Capstone project, a qualitative research paper on language learning and identity. But there was no escaping the multiple responsibilities I had. It meant committing a few hours each evening to study and writing – as soon as the kids went into slumberland, or as soon I could convince them to let Dad or Grandma tuck them into bed while I studied behind a closed study door. It also meant being focused during the precious snatches of time I had. The two years spent on the Master program honed this skill of multitasking, or what I would rather call focused tasking.

I completed my Master of Arts in March 2013 and am proud to say that it was the best academic and intellectual experience I’ve had so far. While I successfully completed my research paper for the program, I considered it unfinished business as I wanted to improve it so that I could have a chance at publishing it in a journal and also present it at a conference. As I learned in a learning theory class, self-efficacy boosts student learning and confidence. What a far cry from my undergraduate ending!

Now more than ever, I see myself as an academic, that is, one who is interested in pursuing the truth of education through the application of research and scholarship. Just to be clear, I have no title that is commonly associated with academics, and neither am I in a position formally related to such work. But the whole experience of doing the Master of Arts in Teaching has opened my eyes to the needs of struggling students, and has rekindled a lost love for scholarship.

I am currently preparing to present my research paper at the 2013 Joint SELF Biennial International Conference and Educational Research Association of Singapore (ERAS) Conference. And so the academic thinking, academic writing and of course, focused tasking, continues. The one thing that is missing though, is the sociocultural practice of discussing ideas and collaborating on projects with like-minded folks. That was one of the defining aspects of my Master of Arts experience and I miss it each time I engage in the solitary act of being an academic, which unfortunately has been institutionalized as a typical and highly legitimate way of being.

Solitary or not, I will continue exploring this academic life that I’m growing into.

My Last Class – Reflections on the MAT@USC

My Last Class - Reflections on the MAT@USC

“Please hold while I confirm your passcode. Thank you. Your passcode is confirmed.” That’s the automated message to the virtual classroom I’ve attended every week for 6 semesters in the past two years. As I attend my last class today, I know I will miss that familiar buzz through my headphones which welcomed me to a community of learners from various continents including North America, Europe and Asia.

I started the Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) with the University of Southern California in May 2011. It is a wholly online course and like many others, I was skeptical of how learning could take place. But as I examined the course program, comparing it to other education-related Master programs I could take in Singapore, I was attracted to the subjects it offered, fieldwork requirements, and the convenience that comes with online learning. I could access the classroom from any computer with camera and mic and for me, that meant not having to travel to and from classes, and being able to go home for dinner, attend to my kids, and settle them down to sleep before I stepped into my study.

Master of Arts in Teaching (TESOL) at USC

The most important part of the program was that it was interactive – real time video conferencing lessons and study group sessions was something that other distance education programs did not offer. (Read more about the Adobe Connect platform that the program used.) While other programs had intensive weekend lessons, the MAT program was paced like a regular program with weekly classes. Like most distance programs, students were required to submit forum postings and term papers, but the MAT program  (as opposed to Master of Education programs) also required students to be involved in fieldwork, observing and video recording classes.

Adobe Connect Meeting Room

Adobe Connect Meeting Room

As I started virtual classes, there were technical glitches now and then but overall, the learning experience was the best I’ve experienced. Most of my schooling experience in Singapore followed what Paulo Freire calls the banking concept where the teacher deposits information into us to be remembered and regurgitated. In the MAT program, on the other hand, true to the impression many have of American education, learning depended on peer discussion and in the process, respecting and embracing the diversity of opinions and ideas. It was liberating for me and I valued and enjoyed every opportunity I had to engage in discussion with professors and classmates alike.

Apart from attending classes, pouring over readings and honing my teaching skills, I spent time with 3 or 4 classmates in study group sessions. In our cozy groups, we clarified our understanding of the readings and concepts, worked on our group presentations, and had fun bonding with one another. Study group was key in connecting me to fellow classmates on a more personal level. I have made friends with kindred spirits and while it is difficult to maintain long distance friendships, I have great hope that we will all meet one another at some point in the future.

As I complete my MAT journey in the Spring of 2013, I have already begun another journey to be a reflective educator and researcher. (Read about my Teacher Leadership Project.) To my professors and classmates, thank you for these two precious years. No goodbyes, just good memories.

Hearing Bonny Norton: Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

Hearing Bonny Norton - Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

UPDATED: May 1, 2014
Watch archived video
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fapiB6zgZUQ

Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

Organised by Global Conversations in Literacy Research (GCLR)

bonnynorton_webinar

It was a rare opportunity to encounter Dr. Bonny Norton from the comfort and convenience of my study, while I was in Singapore, and she in Vancouver. Thanks to the web seminar organised by Global Conversations in Literacy Research (GCLR), I had the privilege to listen first hand to the pioneer of identity and language learning theory. Dr. Norton has researched and written extensively on how individuals have multiple and changing identities across time and space and how these identities influence their language learning.

I didn’t realize Dr Norton herself was an example of multiple identities. As I was hearing her speak, I couldn’t quite place her accent until she introduced herself as a scholar, a white woman in Canada, with a South African accent. The awareness and acceptance of how we have multiple roles and identities feature prominently in her writing. As she explained in the seminar, having multiple identities empowers learners, instead of restricting them to choosing one identity over the other. For Dr. Norton, that meant that she didn’t have to choose being Canadian over South African.

In the seminar, Dr. Norton focused on her work in Uganda where she and her colleagues  introduced digital literacies to teachers and students. The two technological tools they used were the camera and eGranary, literally, the internet in a box filled with millions of digital resources (e.g. wikipedia, educational websites, multimedia documents). With limited infrastructure and access to the Internet and even electricity, students and teachers seized the opportunities to use these newly discovered tools to become better learners, become more respected, and have more power over their learning.

Nonetheless, the limitation of having few cameras and a single computer in a classroom of over a hundred students continue to present obstacles to empowering each and every student. The challenge to overcome poverty and (im)possibilities continues.

Apart from sharing her work in Uganda, Dr. Norton also responded to a few questions from the audience. I asked about how we can create classroom conditions to foster greater investment among students. While much depends on the classroom context including culture and class size, Dr. Norton suggested two strategies:

#1 Students become ethnographers in their communities.

Students write in journals about their experiences in their day-to-day lives in their communities, and share with fellow classmates in the classroom. Through peer sharing, students may find that their experiences are not unique and teachers find out more about their students’ lives. The key is to create a sense of community in the classroom, making the classroom a vibrant place where the teacher helps to develop meaningful relationships among students.

#2 Students speak from positions of strength.

For quiet students who do not participate, teachers can identify their strengths in other areas such as sports or music, and structure classroom activities so their talents come to the fore. By doing so, the student’s identity shifts from being the quiet student to becoming the music virtuoso, for example. Other students begin to relate to that student in a different way and the student is able to speak from a position of strength, rather than weakness.

As Dr. Norton explained at the beginning of the seminar, both the student and community (of teacher and classmates) are responsible for the student’s learning. Thus literacy is a social practice, and the teacher is responsible for creating conditions for positive learner identity and greater investment in learning.

After hearing

After reading numerous research articles by Dr. Norton, as well as others who have based their research on her theories, the personal encounter with Dr. Norton herself  (albeit mediated by one-way video conferencing) has helped me connect the dots. The theory comes alive when the author articulates it and I look forward to many more of these web seminars which build bridges across continents and time zones.

Me, Teacher Leader?

Me, Teacher Leader?

The successful teacher leader is one who is committed to making a difference in the school while the unsuccessful teacher leader is easily defeated by criticism and obstacles.

View Prezi on Teacher Leadership by Sherrie Lee

Teacher leadership is not reserved for the chosen few but a responsibility of all teachers. While school culture dampens the spirit of teacher leadership (Barth, 2001, p. 444), empowering teachers as leaders benefit students, teachers, administrators and the school (p. 445).

Who is the successful teacher leader?

The successful teacher leader is one who is committed to a set of beliefs about teaching and making a difference in the school (Barth, 2001; Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006). She leads by example and thus begins to influence those around her. She perseveres despite obstacles (Barth, 2009, p. 447), claiming victories however small, and does not give up pursuing unrealized goals.

mountainjump

The unsuccessful teacher leader, on the other hand, is not focused in fulfilling goals and is overwhelmed by the daunting workload and critical colleagues. Ultimately, the teacher leader is unsuccessful because she finds greater comfort in remaining in her own classroom than stepping out of her comfort zone (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006).

Flickr: Dead End by Benny Lin

Am I a teacher leader?

The initial years of my teaching career were characterized by the traits of the unsuccessful teacher. I was discouraged by colleagues who believed that leadership was reserved for senior staff and administrators. Their skepticism led me to think that I was better off focusing on teaching rather than leading, and that trying to make changes was a waste of time. For example, I suggested compiling video-recordings of student presentations but was quickly censured for creating more and unnecessary work for everyone. Now as I complete my Master of Arts in Teaching, I am convinced that my teaching career is a unique opportunity to be a change agent.

When I put myself in the position of a teacher leader, I am committed to producing excellent work, collaborating with colleagues, and helping our students succeed. While obstacles are real, I am reminded by Barth (2001) to enjoy “half a loaf”, that is, finding success in “incremental change[s] in the desirable direction” (p. 447). One of my weaknesses, however, is that my enthusiasm and energy can easily wear off, especially in the face of difficult colleagues or seemingly futile pursuits. Nonetheless, I must remember that Rome was not built in a day and that being a teacher leader is a journey in itself, and a rewarding one at that.

 Rome was not built in a day and that being a teacher leader is a journey in itself, and a rewarding one at that.

Problem of practice

One powerful way of developing teacher leaders is through action research where teachers identify areas of concern and begin to take steps to resolve issues to benefit the school community. At my school, the business communication subjects are taken by students with varying English proficiency standards. While all students have received education in English as a first language, there are minority English language learners (ELLs) whose home language is not English and face challenges with using academic language. My action research project focused on this problem of practice and explored student identity and empowerment.

As an emerging teacher leader, I plan on sharing the findings and recommendations of my action research project at department meetings. In addition, the school’s staff development department organizes events where I will have the opportunity to share my research with a wider school audience. Through these sharing sessions, I will need to develop interpersonal skills such as gentle persuasiveness, especially when dealing with experienced yet resistance teachers. As Danielson (2007) notes, “[l]eading change within one’s own department or team may require considerable interpersonal skill and tact [and] the success of such an effort … depends on the teacher leader’s having established credibility and trust with his or her colleagues” (p. 17).

I anticipate most of the audience to be politely lukewarm toward the information I share as the teachers at my school are generally cautious in making changes, especially when there are no immediate and visible benefits. Unfortunately, the issue of student identity and empowerment is one that is complex; it requires effort and time in exploring identity and empowerment issues with students.

Here’s the plan

To counter skepticism among the crowd, persistence is key. First, I endeavor to take up every opportunity within the school, formally and informally, to share the importance of issues of identity and empowerment and how my own action research project benefits students. This entails identifying appropriate platforms to speak, as well as being aware of the barriers each audience brings to the sharing session. For example, if the audience is unfamiliar with terminology, then I will make the effort to modify my presentation in order to be clear, and more importantly, convincing. A teacher leader is committed first to her beliefs and second to harnessing people’s potential to take necessary action.

A teacher leader is committed first to her beliefs and second to harnessing people’s potential to take necessary action.

In addition, I must also show that my work is recognized by other educators, especially those with authority in the education field. Possible actions include publishing the findings of my study in an education or TESOL related journal and presenting my study at a local or regional conference. The process of publishing or presenting requires a keen understanding of the requirements of each, such as intended audience, paper length and writing style. Apart from the detailed requirements, I must also be aware of the approval process be prepared for rejection. As a novice researcher, the best result I expect is to having to resubmit my paper with changes.

Even if I am rejected, however, I view it as a learning experience. I anticipate mixed reactions to my leadership project. Teachers in my school are likely to have varying levels of commitment to address the needs of minority ELLs in our school, even if my study is accepted by a journal or conference. Whatever the outcomes, I aim to be open to feedback and use the experience to inform my next step in leadership. Success in teacher leadership depends on reaching out, modeling for others, and helping colleagues develop skills and understanding (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006, p. 68).

Success in teacher leadership depends on reaching out, modeling for others, and helping colleagues develop skills and understanding.

Never give up, never give up, never give up

Thus my desire is to work with the few who are willing and be focused on student success, without losing sight of the bigger picture of greater student empowerment through the actions and leadership of each and every teacher. Even if I end up being alone in my cause, may I continue taking risks “to provide a constant, visible model of persistence, hope, and enthusiasm” (Barth, 2001, p. 447).

Flickr: Rock Climber by Greg Foster

References

Ackerman, R. & Mackenzie, S.V. (2006). Uncovering teacher leadership. Educational Leadership, May, 2006, 66-70.

Barth, R.S. (2001). Teacher leader. Phi Delta Kappa, February, 2001, 443-449.

Danielson, C. (2007). The many faces of leadership. Educational Leadership, 65(1), 14-19.

ESL Textbook Review

ESL Textbook Review


Headway Academic Skills 3: Reading, Writing, and Study Skills Student’s Book

Sarah Pilpot and Lesley Curnick

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

headway

Headway Academic Skills 3 aims to equip students in higher education with a comprehensive range of academic skills ranging from vocabulary strategies to essay planning in ten tightly packed units. It is an impressive and ambitious plan but will likely cause the student to be overwhelmed.

Description
The ten units in Headway Academic Skills 3 cover the following topics: education and learning, health and medicine, urban planning, natural resources, international trade, history conservation, modern engineering, the Olympics, describing statistics and trends, and communication and technology. Each unit covers academic skills in four main sections in the following sequence: reading, language for writing, writing and vocabulary development. In three of the units, the topic of research skills is covered as well. At the end of each unit is a review section which brings together the reading and writing skills learned in the unit. The main sections generally follow the presentation, practice and production (PPP) approach (Shehadeh, 2005, p. 14), that is, the presentation of specific language items and/or reading or writing strategies (termed “study skills” in the book) is followed by practice through exercises such as gap fill, spotting language features and completing graphic organizers, and finally the production stage where students use the target language and skills with less guidance. The review section itself serves as an overall production stage where students are expected to reproduce the language items and study skills covered in the unit more independently. The appendix contains a word list of the main vocabulary used, complete with word class and pronunciation. There is a separate Teacher’s Guide which contains tests and additional activities but is not part of this review.

Intended Audience 
According to the book summary, Headway Academic Skills 3 functions as a bridge between general and academic English, and can be used either independently or alongside a general English course. While it does not specify the proficiency level of students, the book will be helpful to both native speakers, as well as advanced ESL students who have just begun university.

Strengths and Weaknesses 
The overall goal of Headway Academic Skills 3 is to equip students in higher education with academic skills such as note-taking and essay-writing, as stated in the book summary. However, since the units are content driven rather than skills driven, there is more breadth than depth in the treatment of academic skills. One exemption is reading skills which are adequately explored in each unit, as well as reinforced across units, highlighting strategies related to external text features (e.g. skimming and scanning for information), as well as internal text features (e.g. text structure and signal words). Other skills like writing and vocabulary development, however, are not as well integrated; the language features and strategies are introduced once in the unit but are hardly mentioned again in other units, thus limiting students’ opportunities for developing those skills. Furthermore, the PPP approach, as stated by Shehadeh (2005), does not allow students to develop both accuracy and fluency in using language items as students tend to either end up focusing primarily on form and not fluency or focus primarily on meaning without incorporating the target language at all (pp. 14-15). Thus the lack of integration of academic skills across units and the weakness of the PPP approach undermine the very purpose of the book.

Apart from its main weakness of not providing integrated and appropriate opportunities for students to fully develop academic skills, the book also features topics which may be too impersonal for young adults to identify with. While the topics represent diverse cultures and are appropriate for a higher education audience, the approach taken does not lead students to be personally interested in the material. Activities revolve around the given reading passages or writing tasks with few opportunities for students to provide their viewpoints or creatively interact with the material provided. This lack of personal interaction is reinforced by the largely similar nature of the tasks such as underlining words and phrases, filling in gaps and matching items with corresponding answers.

Despite its instructional flaws, Headway Academic Skills 3 has several strengths. One of them is the use of near authentic materials such as journal articles, news reports and letter to capture the range of expository writing material a university student would likely to be exposed to. Even though some of the materials were probably re-written with a more appropriate level of grammar and vocabulary, it is more important for the materials to be more easily understood while simulating authenticity than for materials to be presented in its original but less comprehensible form, especially for students who struggle with such texts (Flowerdew & Peacock, 2001, p. 185).

Another strength is that the book can be adapted for use with either native English speakers or ESL students. While ESL students would probably appreciate the straightforward and simplified language used, all students will find it beneficial to learn specific reading and writing strategies. For first language students, teachers can consider using more challenging supplementary reading material for students to practice their academic skills.

Finally, Headway Academic Skills 3 does well in having visually appealing graphics and layout. For example, most of the photos used are clear, colorful and informative. In terms of the layout, the different sections are color-coded for easy reference. In addition, important information like study skills and language rules are highlighted in boxes and placed at the side so as not to interrupt the flow of the text. However, one minor complaint I have about the layout is that there is hardly any white space on each page and the limited spacing between tasks and sections. Thus the reader will find it difficult to focus on the text at first glance.

Conclusion 
Headway Academic Skills 3 succeeds in introducing a comprehensive range of reading and writing skills and strategies but falls short in providing integrated and meaningful practice across the units for students to master the skills. While the brightly colored photos and pages stand out, those elements will not be sufficient to engage students. Teachers who choose to use the book may make up for the lack of depth in the coverage of academic skills by being selective about which language items and strategies to focus on. Alternatively, teachers may design their own lessons and use the book’s activities as supplementary material. Either way, teachers should not overlook what is useful in the book for their purposes in teaching academic skills.

References 

Flowerdew, J., Peacock, M. (2001). The EAP curriculum: Issues, methods, and challenges. In J. Flowerdew M. Peacock (Eds.), Research perspectives on English for academic purposes (pp. 177-194). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Philpot, S. & Curnick, L. (2011). Headway academic skills 3: Reading, writing, and study skills student’s book. In L. Soars & J. Soars (Series Eds.), Headway academic skills. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Shehadeh, A. (2005). Task-based language learning and teaching: Theories and applications. In C. Edwards J. Willis (Eds.), Teachers exploring tasks in English language teaching (pp. 13-30). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.