Tag Archive: TEFL

brainThe final section of case studies in Oliver Sacks’ ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’ is called ‘The World of the Simple’.

The first of the four essays examines the case of a young woman called Rebecca who, because of a number of physical and neurological handicaps, had spent her life being branded as a moron.

Sacks admits that he also initially regarded her as little more than a “broken creature” and something of a hopeless case. The neurological tests he carried out only served to confirm her retarded state. But when he saw her outside the clinic, he formed an entirely different impression.

He witnessed her instinctive and serene response to nature then later observed that when she danced or performed in theatre workshops she exhibited none of the awkwardness and clumsiness he had assumed was her permanent condition.

All this forced him to question how such subjects are judged; he wrote: “I thought, as I watched her on the bench – enjoying not just a simple but a sacred view of nature – our approach, our ‘evaluations’, are ridiculously inadequate”.

Reading this chapter made me reflect how the same inadequacies Sacks described can routinely be found in our educational institutions. For instance, standardized testing in schools is,at best, only a measure of one aspect of a young child’s intelligence. Continue reading


erinAlthough they must pass an exam to show they know English at an upper intermediate level, attendance on my 50 hour language courses for  these Italian university students is not compulsory.

In practice, this means that for the first few lessons around 70 come to the classes but then the numbers tend to dwindle. I count myself fortunate if, by the end of the course, the class size is still in double figures.

When I started out, some ten years ago, I took this drop out rate to be a sad reflection of my limited teaching ability. Now, I realise that even if I did a song and dance act every lesson,  the decline has to be accepted as inevitable. Students have heavy programs to follow and, rightly or wrongly (I would argue the latter), English is generally regarded as a luxury rather than as an essential subject.


This student reaction (from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) is what I wanted to avoid.

In consequence. those that remain tend to be those whose linguistic knowledge is weak and are desperate for any tips on how to pass the exam,  or else they are among the select few who are already at a decent level and want to learn more.

The mid-way point of any course is potentially the  dead zone. It raises the dispiriting prospect of grinding on with grammar drills or ‘realistic’ listening comprehensions that hardly anyone understands.

This year I decided to take the bull by the horns and try something different. The primary motive for this was to preserve my own sanity and I also hoped that the knock on effect might be to generate a modicum of interest among my loyal students.

I pitched the idea that each of the remaining lessons should be built around movie clips and this met with a positive response. I have, of course, used such material in the past but I have never previously undertaken to select a different title for consecutive classes. In this instance, it means I will have to choose a dozen different films. (Was I making a rod for my own back, I wondered!). Continue reading

In a meeting at work yesterday, one of my colleagues, a techno sceptic, asked the question: What’s the difference between e-learning and online resources?

This is good question which gets to the heart of one of the main problems surrounding blending learning at the University (Bologna) where I teach English as a second language  – the general lack of enthusiasm by students to engage with online material.

I have come to the conclusion that one of the principle reasons for this apathy is that the resources are viewed merely as no different from exercises in grammar and vocabulary based text books. The fact that they are online doesn’t instantly make them more attractive.

I don’t think flashy graphics are the answer – I believe the only way to motivate students is to introduce an interactive dimension to the tasks.

All this essentially means is the old-fashioned pre-digital idea that the teacher actually looks at the work the student does and gives some constructive feedback. In other words, instead of completing exercises in a virtual void, the work will be checked and help show the instructor where the students’ strengths and weaknesses lie.

This obviously means more work for the teacher in setting stimulating homework tasks and giving feedback in a way that is more personalised. For too many,’Blended learning’ is regarded merely as a straight division between frontal lessons and online material. Instead, the latter should consolidate and build on the work done in the classroom rather than covering topics that the teacher hasn’t got time for.

A new born digital native.

A new born digital native.

One of the texts from week one of the MOOC  – E-learning and Digital Cultures  is Marc Prensky’s influential 2001 essay Digital Native, Digital Immigrants in which he wrote that “today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors”.

One of the posts in the course forum linked these ideas to the following video showing K-12 children, i.e. kids in America from kindergarten (K) to 12th grade (12).

The unequivocal (utopian?) message is that new technology equals creativity and that classrooms without computers cannot hope to engage ‘digital natives’. This is exemplified by the little girl in the video who holds up a paper full of handwritten text, then picks up a flash card which says: ‘How will this help me?’ Continue reading

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