Sunday, February 26, 2012

Learner autonomy vs teacher autonomy

This week I read articles related to learner autonomy like Thanasoulas' article http://iteslj.org/Articles/Thanasoulas-Autonomy.html  and Samuel Sheu's one http://coyote.miyazaki-mu.ac.jp/learnerdev/LLE/8.1/sheuE.html which I found most informative. However, I gave more thought on the interconnections between teacher and learner autonomy thanks to the conversation of Richard Smith with Andy Barfield found on  http://coyote.miyazaki-mu.ac.jp/learnerdev/LLE/8.1/smithE.html and secondly due to the position I hold, that of a headteacher. Convinced that learner autonomy is by far the most important goal for a school, my main concern now is to find ways to encourage teacher autonomy, given that it goes hand in hand with learner autonomy.  
One needs to consider which aspects of the teaching context are objectively against any teacher autonomy and to what extent and secondly to examine the degree to which teachers are willing to abandon these otherwise strict guidelines in terms of curriculum, preselected books and teaching material, time and type of assessment. To my mind, there are opportunities for a teacher to design, make decisions, use alternative resources without having to account for or putting their professional name at risk. I always believed that the set of rules or guidelines given my the ministry are only indicative of what students need to learn. At no point is there a hint by the law that a teacher is unauthorised to use any material or reorganise the content in a way that better meets the learners' needs. What really matters is the learning outcome, and to me, the strict guidelines can be seen not as a recipe but they are given to ensure that all teachers do at least more or less the same things in all schools throughout the country. By no means does it imply that teachers who feel confident and are capable to move forward are obliged to go by the book. I suppose the system is designed to safeguard the learners from the small percentage of teachers who are not highly qualified in terms of pedagogy __and the system "knows"  how teachers enter this professional sector. Besides the system seeks equilibrium and thus tries to be based on the big number of the average teachers and thus ignores or swallows the small percentage of pioneers. But these two marginal minorities make the difference. Isn't it about time to help the weak teachers and give ground to the gifted ones?

Another aspect of this big issue is the teachers'  reasoning for what they do, what they would like to do and they don't and so on and so forth. One should be able to distinguish the real obstacles from the alibis for doing nothing more that the minimum. Lots of excuses for not integrating technology into the lessons, for example. However, with only one computer a teacher can do wonders. They can totally transform their lessons and not only grasp their students' attention but keep that vivid  throughout a whole teaching period. My colleagues in this course suggested beautiful ideas. Ky, for instance, uses this site www.howjsay.com to improve students' pronunciation,   Luisa used just one video clip  My Cubicle in multiple ways and thus taught vocabulary, critical thinking, listening and writing.  And the list is much longer than this.

I 'm borrowing  John Wooden's quote as cited in Robert's post to end this reflective post:

"Don't let what you can't do, stop what you can do".

Thursday, February 23, 2012

7th week in my webskills journey

I have been working on webskills on a daily basis for seven weeks now trying to make the best out of it. That is to say, I am trying to learn as much as I can before this collaborative learning experience ends and I am left alone to continue learning and implementing what I learn. I am curious to see whether, when this continuous challenge, constant trigger and motivation cease, I will be armed enough to continue, in other words, whether I will be autonomous enough to move on.

This week my anxiety for the success of my scheme to integrate technology into my project at school has come to its peak.  Hardly a day passed last week without my checking the blogroll page on our reading club website:
Until one night, to my amazement, the first URL to an all new student's blog appeared. I clicked on it and I was more than happy that the first blog post of a student was long, concise, comprehensive and in good English. I felt as proud as a peakcock. "This is a good sign" I thought. I immediately commented on her post and sent her an encouraging e-mail. The next day during breaks I did nothing but walk up and down the corridors on the school premises to meet as many students as I could to remind them of what they were expected to do, to find out what their constraints or problems were, to advise them, to help them. What was the result? Those who had not even created an email address did so the very next day, and some promised that they would definitely have the requested content to upload on our site during the lesson. They didnot have a computer at home or internet connection or their parents didnot allow them to use the computer during the week days. I had to reconcile with reality.

Wednesday came and we gathered in our classroom. We were lucky! The ICT teacher was on a sick leave so the lab was at our disposal. Some students logged in and started writing on the site. Once they saw their first post published,  their faces lit up. It was more than obvious. They felt proud of themselves. Some others were still at the point of creating their e-mail account and others, not familiar with keeping a note of passwords and usernames, were struggling to recollect them. Anyway it was clear that we had jumped on the waggon. We assigned tasks for our next meeting and a deadline was given. This time their pieces of writing would be on Google docs, they would share them with me so I could make comments.

Again enthusiasm faded away after we split and the deadline expired with no sign of response. I e-mailed them reminding them of their duty and giving an extension to the deadline. A day later I received my first notification that someone had shared  a document with me. I opened it and I started highlighting parts she could edit. She was there viewing and we started communicating on-line. We were both enthused about this process and we kept on working although it was after midnight. That was my first time to give feedback to a student from home and it was so rewarding for both of us.

The next day I called in to my office a couple of students I happened to meet and I showed them what we had done. They were kind of jealous and promised to send me their work. There is still time. I know they will work on their task during the weekend! Let's see!...

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Reflections on my two first meetings with the students of my school Reading Club

Fascitaned at the idea that a group of 22 students from our school had created a reading club with the intention to reading a modern Greek novel and discuss issues raised in it, I decided to join the teachers who would help the students in the book exploration. My idea was to integrate technology into the students project hoping that in this way their work could be made more widely known to the educational community and a good example for other students to follow. 

When I first met the students, I informed them about my idea and their response was positive. I told them them that we could create a website where we could gather all our activities.  They would need to create an e-mail account so we could communicate more often than our face-to face meetings. They all seemed to be quite interested in trying this out. That was our first short meeting.

The time came for our club to make the first steps into the new venture. We arranged to meet in the computer lab so that students could have access to a computer and the internet. They were guided to open a Google account and an e-mail address. Those who already had one helped the others so in the end everyone had an e-mail address and sent me their first e-mail.

I had already created a website using the  Google sites  and I showed to the students what I had prepared. However, it was obvious that they were not familiar with working on a website. I asked them to create their personal blog where they could post their thoughts, views or reflections about the book and add the URL of their blog on the relevant page on the website. They agreed to do so. However I later discovered that I had overestimated their ability to realise such a task. I should have helped them more or I should have never asked them to do that. That was too much for a start.

On second thought, I would be satisfied if students started writing on the wiki. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Concerns about the project-based approach

What I always found peculiar about the traditional, conventional, teacher-centered teaching and learning was the fact that teachers ask and the students answer. How reasonable can that be when, by definition, the one who doesn’t know asks the one who knows? This reversal of the natural flow of discovering and learning has in a way tortured many generations of learners. And what was the result? Once an individual left school, there was nobody out there to check whether the accumulated knowledge could be fully retrieved. So what’s the point in spending so many hours to develop a skill which is hardly needed? What matters is what a person can do with the knowledge gained and how one can continue learning out of the school environment.
Coming to the issue under discussion, the PBM is alleged to be the key to the problem. And it can really be if applied appropriately. For classes where both teachers and students are not familiar with this approach, to my mind, small steps are required before one embarks on realizing a long term project. Webquests seem to be the scaffolding to the full implementation of projects as they familiarize students with the new approach. The pattern is clear and the product is specified.
But then another issue rises. Teachers are required to be computer literate themselves as projects imply research and research goes hand in hand with having access to resources. A webquest can be designed as a paper and pencil one but even then computer literacy is presupposed on both sides, the teacher’s and the student’s, plus the need for the right facilities, either at school or at home.
"One of the major advantages of project work is that it makes school more like real life” says  Sylvia Chard when asked about the importance of project work.   And she adds: “ we open up areas during the school day when children can speak about what they already know, when they can ask questions, they can express interests that are different from [those of] other children”. And I couldn’t agree more. However, what if most of the children come of educationally poor backgrounds and what they bring to class as interests or experiences are minimum?
No matter what my concerns are, I am convinced though that the project method is far better than other approaches. I agree that after being engaged into conducting research for several times, students become more motivated for and enthusiastic about learning. They develop little by little a sense of learning for themselves and not for others. Learning changes from an obligation to a personal goal. What can ensure that this is achieved, is the gradual introduction of the method starting from the first stages, that is, primary education.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Let's customize our rubrics!

One of this week's challenges was to create a rubric or an alternative assessment tool I might use in a class. This task generated to me some thoughts I would like to put into words.

 It is not always easy for teachers, especially when they have to prepare for many different classes, to design their lessons in detail, that is, to write down the learning objectives, choose the right teaching material, design the process carefully and have a rubric in hand to assess the students' performance. However, all these different elements are closely interelated and they are not such a heavy load of work once the teacher gets the hang of it.

The main idea behind this teaching duty is that all studends have the right of equal chances to education and deserve  teachers who are, above all,  professionals. What is more, a learner needs to develop a sense of self-awareness and self-confidence and   be assisted in their attempt to learn how to learn, which leads to their being autonomous and independent learners. The issue raised here is how a teacher can attain such a ambitious goal. What does a teacher need to know, how can they cope with the new demands?

First of all, I think that teachers should not feel guilty for not having been received appropriate in-service training throughout their career. Second, they shouldn't allow any insecurity they may feel, once they are called to implement a new approach, to hinder their professional progress. Refusing to try out new ways of teaching, or even worse, being up in arms against any suggested innovation is like a deadend. It is surprising to realize that among other professionals like doctors, engineers, and so many others, teachers are the least eager to changing attitudes and the most likely to resist. 

Being a teacher myself, after many years of loneliness in my teaching itinerary, I can now say that a teacher needs a community,  a network of teachers that can drag him/her out of the stagnant waters. The wider the community, the more their chances of being inspired and saved from frustration. In modern days, there are many teaching tools on offer that can take some of the burden off the teachers' shoulders and allow them some time to concentrate on  refining the content of the teaching. 

Such a tool can be found on http://rubistar.4teachers.org/. This site offers a helping hand to teachers who need to prepare rubrics in a short amount of time and of course one can start with the predesigned criteria and then move on, little by little, to customize their own rubrics, depending on the learning activity they want to assess. I used a template I found on this site and I created my rubrics very quickly. It was quite a relief! 

So, let's not reject using rubrics because of fear. The pattern is there for us to follow. Let's jump on the train and start building our own patterns!

Friday, February 3, 2012

"CALL" , "CLIL", "TEL" : the key words of the week

This week I have been struggling to find  ways to integrate  CALL, CLIL and TEL into my teaching without having any of them outweighing the others but all working in harmony so that learners have the optimal educational, technological and language learning. Most of all, I wished to conceive an approach that could strenghten my students autonomy and enhanve their motivation for learning. But what do these abbreviations stand for?

CALL, to start with, stands for computer assisted language learning, CLIL stands for content and language integrated learning and TEL for technology enhanced learning. Viewing each approach in the light of the Greek education reality, I can't help but consider the existing pitfalls for both teachers and students. Suppose a language teacher is computer literate, which is not always the case with Greek teachers, are there the necessary facilities  in their teaching settings so that they can put their knowledge into practice? I am afraid not. Most state schools have nothing more but a computer lab equipped with old computers, some of which are out of order, slow internet connection and in addition to that a not at all flexible timetable which makes the use of the lab by the language teachers hardly feasible. On the other hand, and from the students' point of view, they cannot imagine in what way they can use a computer to meet any learning  needs in the framework of the various subjects they have at school. This is due to the fact that each subject is seen as a distinct, separate learning area and none of the subjects are taught with the project-based method. All the knowledge they are expected to acquire is by default hidden in the books they are given the content of which is interrelated with the content of the educational syllabus. 

Coming to CLIL, to my knowledge, it has not been implemented systematically in my country and a possible reason can be the homogeneity of the language spoken, which is Greek. If it were to be tried out as a method, it would not serve the purposes of enhancing the language competence of people who come of a bilingual family background or live in a country with two official languages. In our case, I regard this approach as a key to increasing motivation for learning a foreign language and improving the insight to both the foreign language and other content areas.

From an economic and social standpoint, the above mentioned approaches seem to be too much of a luxury, since especially this year and for the years to come, the schools are going to be all the more under-funded and families do not seem to be able to afford any update of their technological equipment. 

Under these circumstances, I am to conceive a plan of how I could possibly overcome these difficulties and have my students take advantage of the benefits of these methods and not let them fall behind compared to more economically developed countries. I hope I will come back with a suggestion soon.