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One of the most enjoyable and inspiring books I have read this year has been Sir Ken Robinson's "Out of our Minds"  and my ref...

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Lifelong learning

My classroom days of language teaching in secondary schools date back to the days before league tables and SAT targets, back to the 1980's. My objective as a language teacher, whether my students were high flying enthusiasts or reluctant "I 'ate French" types, was to find whatever ignited their interest and engage them in the sort of activities that allowed them to experience the power of using the language of another culture. For some that meant song, others written word, drama, cookery. In one year 8 class where I was teaching modal verbs the students had to decide what I could or couldn't do - amazing how quickly you can find infinitives with that incentive :) We used GRASS databases to report and record lost property and used the CD-ROM package Granville to visit France for an hour or so in our rural Warwickshire IT suite. All a long time before the internet was available almost everywhere.

Without the pressure of producing a fixed number of A-C grades, I would reflect daily, weekly, annually on the nature of the progress of my 1,000 or so students (several of whom remain in touch to this day). I learned from my mistakes, their mistakes and their triumphs as all teachers can. I saw that those who were motivated only by the grade could nonetheless be won over to the intrinsic reward of self improvement by finding their own connection to the language. Not all of them became French enthusiasts of course, but many became more open to foreign culture and more still had a better understanding of their own language and identity. That, I have always considered to be my role : to light the blue touchpaper of their interest, even if the urge to take off only happens years later. 

In my current blended learning context, it is clear to me that the same varied diet, the same crafted combination of experiences informed by student interest and enquiry can ignite engagement and passion. Our Institution Wide Language Programme welcomes students from all disciplines and they are undertaking language learning for many and varied reasons - they may be motivated by the need to amass credit, the desire to build on school language learning, the awareness of language as a useful skill in a competitive jobs market... Our VLE facilitates the provision of resources giving instant feedback such as quizzes and online games, consolidation and extension can be provided through video, slides and more. I can to some extent use the reporting to see how these are used by individuals and use that to inform my planning for our face to face sessions. Using these tools I can reach further beyond the classroom walls, connect my students with native speakers of the language they are learning and they can access these opportunities from their room or even on the bus! 

It is my role and my responsibility to offer a range of "ways in" to my students. I ensure they have a chance to find the experiences that will move them from a focus on grade or badge in the short term to a deeper approach through fostering autonomy and control of their learning. Ultimately how they respond and connect will be their decision, conscious or otherwise. It will be influenced by all sorts of factors, some of which are beyond my control. I can provide the conditions for learning and encourage intrinsically motivated exploration of my subject area, ultimately the learning is up to the learner. 

In my online courses I try to close the psychological distance between us through a series of activities which provide immediate feedback and encouragement. After all, they are my guests in the online space, I need to acknowledge their presence and make them feel at home. I found Gilly Salmon's 5 stage model is a very useful tool for designing effective online communities:

5 stage model of online development. Gilly Salmon, 2001.

As a co-learner working alongside my students with access to a wide range of real language use, I must ensure that they venture in, gradually moving beyond their comfort zone if they are to experience the many opportunities for learning that await them. 


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