The Benefits of Being a Guinea Pig

Recently it feels like I have been taking part in a lot of research projects. I don’t think I have, not when I sit and count, but it feels like it. It could be a massive pain in the bum but I actually like it. 
For one thing, other people’s research about teachers and/or teaching is unlikely to align exactly with one’s current wondering about teaching. This is likely to cause one to consider one’s classroom practice, beliefs or CPD process more deeply than before. Another thing is that when you are stating practices or beliefs, you’re making it coherent because you don’t want to be “Well, I don’t know why.” Although I am sure that I have screwed up my face on Skype while searching for answers in the back of my mind. 

Next time you see a survey circulating on social media, why not have a go. Help build our body of knowledge. And help find the figurative lost bit of jigsaw puzzle of your mind from under the sofa. 

The Line Between Hare-Brained and Useful

notebook picture

I’ve had this post going on in my head for a while and probably the catalyst for getting it out of my head and into pixels is Sandy Millin’s Incomplete Thoughts post.

I was having a chat with a colleague yesterday and he said, “I don’t know where you get the time for all your ideas.”

“It’s a massive pain in the arse,” I replied, “because I can’t concentrate on other things when something pops up.”

I don’t know if this leads to a condition of not following things through properly, or even just dilettantism but a few things that have got me going all over the internet are:

Open Badges for Accreditation of Some Kind

This blog being about development (ostensibly, though probably more my own), actually having evidence-based accreditation for continuing professional development (CPD) would be a good thing in a landscape of expensive qualifications, cheap qualifications that mean nothing (20-hour internet TEFL courses) and absolutely nothing at all. ITDi provides this, with certificates available and whatnot, too. However, something that can also contribute to teacher-centred, teacher-led teacher development has bugged me for too long. Open Badges seem to sort if fill a gap in that people sit in webinars for certificates but there’s no real proof that they didn’t just leave the laptop on and play games on their phone. How about an open-peer-reviewed bit of writing that helps contribute to the community? Keep your eyes open at #TBLTChat.

Modular Materials

Again, with my Task-Based hat on (which is a beautiful purple crushed-velvet and Kevlar deerstalker), and my ‘I hate coursebooks‘ T-shirt on, how better to address a gap in materials availability than to actually get cracking and make some through refining them. Think less of a Minimum Viable Product than a ‘actually see if students react positively’ approach.

A Co-Op (ad)Venture

I am still investigating the possibility of sorting out a Tokyo/Kawasaki/Yokohama-based co-op of language teachers. Yes, inspired by Serveis Linguistics Barcelona. Viability? Time, Marc? It’s more the client liason that’s a problem but still something I’m looking into. Sometime in 2047.

Gritty Politti: Grit, Growth Mindset and Neoliberal Language Teaching

Over the summer, while everyone else was enjoying themselves I was ruing the day I decided to look at grit (Duckworth, 2007) for my Master’s dissertation. I decided it’s unworkable so you get to read about it here.

What is Grit?

Grit is so difficult to define that it takes Duckworth (2016) the best part of a book to describe it adequately. Grit is the orientation of short-term goals toward one’s passions and long-term goals. It has also now mutated, taking on Dweck’s (1996) Growth Mindset, Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) Flow, Ericsson and Pool’s (2016) Deliberate Practice and become a behemoth. One is left with the impression that only Duckworth truly understands what she means by the  term ‘grit’. Grit has also been criticised for not being substantially different to conscientiousness (Kamenetz, 2016). Even Duckworth and Quinn (2009) acknowledge that:

Grit is similar to one Conscientiousness facet in particular, achievement striving, which is measured with items such as “I’m something of a ‘workaholic”’ and “I strive for excellence in everything I do” (Costa & McCrae, 1992a). We believe grit is distinct from achievement striving in grit’s emphasis on long-term goals and persistence in the face of setbacks. However, further research is needed to determine the relationships between grit and other facets of Big Five Conscientiousness.
(Duckworth and Quinn, 2009, p. 173.)

Grit does appear to be lauded, particularly in the USA, for being a commonsense approach to teaching and learning. I do not think this is a good thing. The Grit Score, a short, subjective, Likert-scaled questionnaire, is being used by teachers and learners to assess learners’ grit. One problem here is the weight of the scoring and the disparity between teachers’ and learners’ perceptions. When searching the literature I found nothing. The fact that grit is being used as a magic bullet for the school system’s ills is also worrisome when one might consider the least advantaged actually attending school being a gritty act in itself. Yet, it is these children with poverty-caused cognitive overload (Mani et al, 2013) who will be labelled ‘least gritty’. Duckworth has bemoaned this, much like Frankenstein died at his own monster’s hand.

What negative effects are present? Well, we have teachers buying in to a new orthodoxy dressed up as science, where learners score themselves on how they tend to stick with certain habits. If the teacher is scoring them, so much the worse due to the likelihood of other factors making their way into the scores, such as warmth toward the learners of even empathy towards them. This grit then is used to blame learners or anything but the system, including curricula and syllabi.  To me, grit is simply another tool for attacking the poor and the other. They might not be as gritty and it provides an excuse for not targetting financial resources in the classroom, such as teaching assistants, smaller class sizes or taking time to reflect on whole-school issues such as homework, which can effect some learners who may be primary carers. As Thomas (2013) states, “the dirty little secret behind ‘no excuses’  and ‘grit’ is that achievement is the result of slack, not grit.” However, if a lack of achievement can be put down to intrinsic factors within learners, then it provides grounds for ignoring them. 

In language teaching, progress is known not to be cumulatively acquired (Lightbown, 1985) yet when language is assumed to be a skill acquired like the learning of facts, it may appear that there is not enough work being done by learners. In adult EFL, language learning may not be the most important part of a learner’s life; even in ESOL, when learners may have to adjust to living in a new country, community and culture, integrative motivation (Gardner &  Lambert, 1972) may be lacking. To assume that everyone in a community shares the same values of utility is unwise; to assume language learners progress through stages at the same rate, with the same goals and motivational orientations is to ignore literature and evidence in the classroom. 

All of this grit and Growth Mindset then, seems to lend itself to a laissez-faire attitude in the classroom, where what is taught is what is learned, with learners not progressing at the same rate somehow deficient and lacking gumption to catch up. This characterises the grammar syllabus of textbook ELT. However, if one eschewed that, and taught learners English as opposed to teaching English as a subject, one need not abide by or pay lip service to such ideas. 

Grit, Growth Mindset and SLA

There is, so far, no research linking grit nor Growth Mindset and SLA. There is research linking motivation, particularly long-term motivation, to SLA. Dweck’s work thus far has looked at problem solving in puzzles yet it may prove to be useful in decreasing the effects of the frequently observed slump in intermediate-level language learners’ development (find and cite).

Dörnyei’s (2009) work on motivational selves has elements of learners orienting themselves toward long-term goals, expectations of others (such as schools, parents, bosses) and visualisation of what would be a possible worst-case scenario if they did not study. This is, in my opinion, compatible with grit but has the benefit of not being burdened with the unnecessary accoutrements of highly subjective data from questionnaires for groups; it is personal.

Duckworth (2016) also talks about building gritty communities yet what if one is alienated from the community of sees oneself as unintegrated in the target community? Seeing as grit is passion and perseverance for a goal, essentially personal, grit may not be the best paradigm to apply to the EFL/EAL/MFL classroom in a compulsory school setting.

Furthermore, developing grit may be an irrelevance. As Norton Peirce (1995) demonstrates in her work with ESL learners in Canada, learners are driven toward communication when needs arise, whether there may be negative affective factors in the immediate environment. This need can drive learning, with Martina, one of Norton Peirce’s learner-correspondents providing anecdotal evidence regarding problems in a part-time job:

In the evening I asked my daughter what I have to tell the customer. She said ‘May I help you’ and ‘pardon’ and ‘something else.’ When I tried first time to talk to two customers alone, they looked at me strangely, but I didn’t give up. I gave them everything they wanted and then I went looking for the girls and told them as usually only ‘cash’. They were surprised but they didn’t say anything.
(Norton Peirce, 1995, p.247)

Rather than nebulous ideas of how to teach or foster grit, self-regulative strategies (Oxford, 2013) could provide a jumping-off point for more effective self study or use of self-access facilities. Such strategies may foster greater motivation by providing learners with alternative ways of working than their current preferences.

One caveat here is that I think grit should be researched; I just don’t think there is a place for it to be brought into classes on a whim due to TED talks bringing a superficial informative lacquer to a few minutes of distraction.

If you disagree, by all means comment. I would love to know more, having spent ages with this.

References

Csikszentmihaly, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, New York: HarperCollins ebooks.

Denby, D. (June 21st, 2016) The Limits of Grit. The New Yorker. Retrieved August 22nd, 2016 from: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-limits-of-grit

Dörnyei, Z. (2009). The L2 Motivational Self System. In Z. Dörnyei & E. Ushioda (Eds.), Motivation, language identity and the L2 self (pp. 9-42). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

Duckworth, A. L. & Quinn, P. D. (2009). Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (Grit-S). Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(2), 166-174.

Duckworth, A. L. (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House

Ericcson, A. & Pool, R. (2016) Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt.

Gardner,  R. C.  & Lambert, W. E. (1972) Attitudes and Motivation in Second Language Learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. 

Kamenetz, A. (May 25th, 2016) MacArthur ‘Genius’ Angela Duckworth Responds To A New Critique Of Grit. Retrieved August 22nd, 2016 from: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/05/25/479172868/angela-duckworth-responds-to-a-new-critique-of-grit

Lightbown, P. M. (1985) Great Expectations: Second language acquisition research and classroom teaching. Applied Linguistics, 6(2), 173-189.

Mani, A. et al (2013) Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function. Science, 341,(6149), pp. 976-980

Norton Peirce, B. (1995) Social Identity, Investment and Language Learning. TESOL Quarterly 29/1: 9-31. In Seidlhofer, B (ed.) (2003) pp. 236-255. Oxford, New York: OUP.

Oxford, R (2013) Teaching and Researching Language Learning Strategies. Abingdon: Routledge.

Thomas, P. L. (November 10th, 2013) The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement. Retrieved August 22nd, 2016 from: https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/the-poverty-trap-slack-not-grit-creates-achievment/

Further Reading

Sheppard, R. (2016) Grit, Resilience and Conation in Adult Esol

Sheppard, R. (2016) Grit, Resilience and Conation in Adult Esol Part II

Seats for my seats

Seating plans: not the sexiest of topics to blog about but here we are after a 12-week action research cycle. 

12 weeks, Marc? 

12 weeks. 

It’s not a big class but if you follow the Pareto principle that 85% of your problems come down to 15% of what’s on your plate then this class is my 15%.

The Learners

Gambit – a boy that can work well but cannot resist fussing about what others do. 

Iceman –  a boy that thinks he can’t do anything but I’d actually more able than he thinks. 

Nightcrawler – a boy who is very literate and able but cannot sit still. 

Angel – a boy who has sone kind of autistic spectrum disorder. Highly literate and communicative but also highly disruptive. 

Cyclops – a quiet boy of medium ability. 

Psylocke – a girl who is quite able but unwilling to try her best in case she falls short of her own benchmark based on others’ work. 

Ms. Marvel – a girl who performs well in all skills. Confident but occasionally rushes work too much. 

Some things that I found out quickly

The girls need to sit together else Psylocke won’t work. 

Psylocke and Gambit distract each other. 

Gambit and Angel irritate each other for fun but Angel will scream and occasionally lash out. 

Cyclops cannot work near Angel, nor can Iceman. Iceman also cannot work near Nightcrawler. 

None of the  children like sitting alone very much and anyway, they need to practice speaking English as well as reading and writing. 

So, what I did

I used Google Slides to plan my seating each lesson. Often I had one-week notice of absences. I logged any problems and/or changes. Sometimes I noticed huge problems that I had not anticipated, for example that Iceman will work near Gambit, a huge fusspot, but not near Nightcrawler who has a more relaxed temperament. It is not possible to seat Iceman near Cyclops due to Cyclops’ frequent absence. 

Strangely, Nightcrawler and Angel make a good seating combination with Cyclops. Iceman and Gambit tend to relax one another, too. While I dislike the idea of boys and girls not sitting together, I am resigned to the girls need to sit together for affective reasons but bring them to work with boys when possible, often Nightcrawler and Cyclops or Angel. 

Should this really have taken 12 weeks?

 

Well, it was more like nine and then three weeks to see if it was final. While ny final plan is not perfect it is good enough and the best possible solution for me and the children. 

Cottage Industry as CPD


Working as a teacher gives you opportunities to have interesting conversations with people and have fun with language. Sometimes, though, you just feel stuck in a rut and want to change things. This could be the start of something beautiful.

You can look at what you might make better instead of having a moan. Are your materials crap? Make some. Turn yourself into a cottage industry within a larger industry. You might learn a bit about what makes good materials. If you do decide to make your own materials, I recommend Powerpoint as opposed to Word, because you can get your layout aligned more easily. Test your materials and refine them (Eric Ries lays out this process in The Lean Startup as Minimum Viable Product [and you don’t have to sell your products for money. Kudos is currency sometimes]).

You might also do a bit of action research. There is a lot of high-faluting imagery about this but what it comes down to is this:

  1. Have a think about something you want to change or want to understand the effect of.
  2. Think of one thing to change in your practice so you can observe it.
  3. Record it.
  4. Keep doing it for a bit so you know if you are fluking it or whatnot.
  5. Reflect.
  6. Maybe have another go.

This might lead you to new ways of working that are better for you. I would think so. Otherwise you might have other like-minded souls join you. However, some see things like this as too much work, rocking the boat or otherwise undesirable. Do it for yourself, not for gratification from others, else you will never see it through.

If you have a blog, why not show your work?

Stuff I’m working on at the moment is a beefed-up version of my TBLT board, and simple materials that can be used easily and widely for useful tasks. This will be coming up soon. But not very soon, so don’t hold your breath. I’m talking at least Summer.

Why Share Lessons on Your Blog?

I don’t know whether many teachers are really concerned about what goes on in other teachers’ classrooms. I am, but then I’m nosy. I want to know what their cool ideas are. I want to steal!

That said, I’m not indiscriminate. I want to steal good stuff that I think will work with my learners. In that case, why do I have people in my personal learning network (PLN) based in across the world, when I’ve said before that learning can’t be generalised?

Because I want to get ideas about flow. Because an idea that won’t work for me makes me think about why it won’t work and what I need to do in order to make it work. It’s part of the reason I set up the Tokyo Lesson Jam, which is way overdue another meeting (December, when I finish my DipTESOL?), so that I could steal other people’s cool stuff.

For those of us who never get to do peer observations, reading lesson plans on blogs is like a glimpse into another teacher’s classroom. You get to say ‘I wouldn’t do that, I’d do this‘ (in a nice way, not a smart-arsed way). You might even say it in the comments of the blog. You might also see how somebody else solved a problem that you’re working on, or tried unsuccessfully to solve it. The internet is the easiest way to join a community of practice and people are welcoming. People will still say that your stupid ideas are stupid, but they will often say so nicely. They will then give you a better idea. If an idea or method should be rejected, you’ll be told why, and if anything usable can be salvaged from the wreck.

So, yes, even if my stupid lessons wouldn’t work for your learners, it can still be useful provided you give the reasons why it wouldn’t.

Battle the Status Quo in Your Classroom

This is not a ‘smash the system’ post but more to do with dissatisfaction at work. I’m sure everybody has had the feeling of dread that comes of another work day rolling around. For me it was having to repeat the same rubbish based on rubbish books upon which rubbish syllabi were based and imposed on me and my learners (by people with no experience of teaching language). You might not have this problem. For you it might be behavioural issues in the classroom, an incompetent or unsupportive boss, lack of support, or something else entirely.

What can you do?

I think the first step is analysis. What exactly is the problem? Probe this until you get to the root. For me, the books were awful because half the topics were stupid and irrelevant to my life and my students’ lives yet to use the book without the carrier topics often made no sense.

Next you need to brainstorm solutions. Don’t worry about practicalities at this stage, just generate ideas. Once you have enough, shortlist them and try them out (more than just a couple of times if it’s feasible). Document it and be systematic because it might be useful for other teachers (if so blog it, present it or see if your local teachers’ association will publish it). Even small-scale research is research. Try your other ideas, too. I thought about how I could use the books as little as possible. I’d heard about Dogme but it wasn’t until I started my DipTESOL that I came to Task Based Language Teaching, which gave me the option of a different framework within which to use ‘the book’ and ideas about how language might be assessed formatively, that is for planning further learning instead of to put a number on somebody. I still need to pay lip service to some pointless grammar syllabi my students have covered in previous school settings but I don’t do it for the whole lesson in those situations. Anyway, you need to try things to see what works for you, why it works, and even if it works whether it’s the best solution.

If you can’t get around your problem and you can’t solve it you might want to start looking for a new job. First, think about whether your problem is a gripe or a big deal, though. I parted company with s couple of places because I realised they weren’t right for me. Sometimes you can’t do it immediately. Grit your teeth, learn something new and let people know you’re looking for something new. You might also be open to teaching in new settings.

If you have other ideas for fighting the rot, leave them in the comments, please.