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Eureka: A talk on language, math and science education
by Jay Gutman
2017-12-02 12:28:15
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In this talk I'll mention the ideas of level analysis and needs analysis, notional teaching and functional teaching, teacher-centered teaching and student-centered teaching, levels of situational awareness in the classroom, the availability of teaching materials, teacher preparation time and teacher development.

efuc01_400Now you have language, math and science education at the elementary school level, middle school level, high school level, university level and graduate school level. Either way let's suppose you're teaching your first class in languages, math or science. The first thing you want to do is get a feel for the individual and collective classroom level. You don't want to do that with a quick test. You want to have several tests that last a week or two, both speaking and written tests to get an idea what the level of the class is.

Some levels are misleading. Sometimes you're told that you're sitting in a class of geniuses yet who seem to lack knowledge of the basics in math and science, or languages. Other times you're told that you have a special needs class yet they seem to excel at science, math and languages. So the idea is you want to test them using three or four different methods: first, a free conversation about the topic. You want to see what the natural propensity is for the students to comfortably discuss math or science concepts, or to be able to use a foreign language. Then you want them to be able to write a broad essay in math or science, or in the language they are studying. You want them to give their opinion on the subject, but also the reveal how much they know about the subject. Those are tests of fluency. Then you want to test accuracy, that is whether they recall the different formulas and are able to use them accurately. Finally you want to test induction and deduction, that is whether they are able to deduct concepts from other concepts. The whole testing period should take one or two, if not three weeks.

During that two or three week period you also want to get an idea of the needs of the students. Now I'm not an idiot. Bullying is common in the world of education, and in some cases if students reveal their needs some nutty professors or teachers will do everything they can to sabotage them. I've worked with such teachers and professors all my life. But if you're a teacher or an academic leader with the best intentions for your students, you want to know what their needs are when it comes to studying math, science or languages. Needs include immediate needs and future needs. Immediate needs include perhaps a project the student is currently working on, a future need usually includes a professional or social need. Either way if the students don't feel the need to study the subject, you need to create a need for them. Either by suggesting professional paths, or suggesting areas of application of the subject which could be of interest for the students.

So the idea is the first two or three weeks of class you want to know what your students' level is, what their needs are, and you want to test that both formally and informally. If they don't have concrete needs you want to suggest concrete needs or concrete applications of the materials that will be studied during the period. You then want to think about whether the material you teach will be notional or functional, that is whether you are giving them a series of facts or whether you are trying to get them to apply those facts in the real world.

An example of notional knowledge in language learning is studying a list of vocabulary words or a list of grammar patterns. An example of functional applications in language learning is to have an actual conversation in the target language with them. I know that in language learning the approach tends to be role-playing and pair-work where the students make actual use of the language. But you also want to mix formal exercises with informal ones, that is have them use the language in unnatural settings but also in natural settings. An example of exercise could be one where you, the teacher, says “imagine I come from the country of the target language and only speak the target language, now teach me about your country or about the host country.” In other words if you're teaching Spanish to native English speakers, you want to ask them to imagine that you came from Spain and that you want them to teach you, in Spanish, how things work in the host country, say in the United States.

In math, the idea of notional learning is to give students formulas and their applications. A functional approach would be to give them exercises where they have to make functional use of the formulas. In calculus and arithmetic you could play games where students have to imagine that they are accountants and have to solve all sorts of problems to make sure the money comes in and everyone gets paid. In geometry, you could have them imagine that they have to build something and guess the correct measurements. In algorithms, you can have them design simple programs for which they will have to create algorithms. Of course, discussions of how they came up with the solutions can be useful, because in the future they will have to explain to their boss or clients how they came up with the solutions and will have to teach them how to make continuous use of the product.

Same goes for science. When teaching notional functions of science, you can lecture students on physics, chemistry, biology or geology. But functional exercises come in handy, as in having students pick there own research area and come up with an area of interest, or by having students solve puzzles or riddles after explaining them how to do so.

Another important factor for the language, math or science teacher is the level of situational awareness in the classroom. I've seen many teachers come to the classroom not sure what page they were at, not sure what materials they had covered through the semester and not sure what the class level even was. That is the basic idea for the teacher is to know what has been done, what will be done in class and what will be done for the rest of the semester. Giving hints to the students about what has been done in the past and where the class is heading is a good idea, along with giving a summary of what will be done in class.

Finally, the main issue for teachers is one of time and one of the availability of materials. I've traveled the world and seen schools where teachers did not have an office, did not have photocopiers, did not have a library or a reference section, where school administration was not sure what book should be covered, in some cases where students did not have textbooks. Let me talk about five countries with different approaches for time for teachers and different material sources available.

First, in Mozambique, there were few sources and there was no photocopier. Teachers had to carpool from home to school and had to take care of complicated private business, as everything is complicated in Mozambique. You get frequent powercuts, and if you need a plumber you have to keep looking. The weather factor is important, and the heat means you have three-hour lunch breaks where you basically doze off. Internet connection is slow and there is little time for professional development. You have a lot of time as a teacher but don't know what to do with it. So you end up having to teach notions rather than functions, and your resources are too limited to do a needs analysis or accurate level testing. As for situational awareness in the classroom, it's hard to keep up with what has been done, and frequent unexpected events means it's hard to plan for the future.

In Colombia, more resources are available and photocopiers are available. But you start teaching at 7:30 in the morning and are done at 4 PM, sometimes 5 PM. Some days you teach 6 or 7 hours, which makes it hard to keep up with student needs and levels. Plus administration tends to be very “hands-on” and you tend to have little room to be creative in the classroom. If you're doing anything other than lecturing, administration won't be up for a lecture on what I described above.

Algeria. No photocopiers means you have to use the board a lot. Class tends to last for two hours, sometimes longer, meaning that you have to pace yourself class and the teacher has to make sure he or she doesn't fall asleep in class before the students do. Plus you often have to wait for about half an hour before you start class, because students tend to be busy looking for chairs. The teacher will rarely have a chair or a table, and problem students tend to get away with slaps on their wrists.

South Korea. Photocopiers and materials are a dime a dozen. But schools tend to be micromanaged and administration can be downright hysterical with teachers, regardless of how much they prepare for class. This means little motivation for teachers to try their best in the classroom.

The United States. Materials are available but student motivation tends to be low. A lot of times no amount of planning can raise student motivation.

These are all problems faced by teachers around the world. Some teachers have to deal with 30 hour a week teaching loads, others have no materials they can use in class, others get hazed by administration on their way to the classroom, making them lose focus on why they are in the classroom in the first place. So these are just general guidelines that are difficult to apply, I'll save an article on school management for a better day.

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Emanuel Paparella2017-12-02 12:52:08
When Matthew Arnold went around as inspector of the schools of the realm he began noticing something that he suspected was going on since the advent of the positivistic approach and the industrial revolution. He noticed that the approach to learning and teaching was less Socratic, humanistic, Liberal Arts, (a tradition going back to Plato’s Republic and Renaissance Humanism) but more utilitarian and functional focusing on the imparting of science and practical useful goals and results which would allow an individual or an economy to grow and prosper and become “successful.” The goal of education was no longer to humanize but to empower. “Knowledge is power” said Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method. That slogan is quite revealing.

In any case , Arnold can be credit with being the first one to analyze in depth the clash between positivism and the Liberal Arts and point to its inherent educational dangers. He coined the famous phrase that “we have forgotten to teach sweetness and light” which of course was promptly derided by all the hard positivists of the time. Alas, the flaw of many educational tracts nowadays is that they continue to neglect to mention the genuine classical goals of education. Perhaps they are now unknown to them. They describe only one side of the coin of education, so they end up with half of the needed analysis.

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