Un-Schooling

The state of education across the world

Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Gavin » 14 Feb 2012, 22:00

Elliott, I think you perfectly described the types you see on Question Time - types which make the programme unwatchable. I am so glad you emphasised uptalk too - an infuriating affectation which just adds to people's smugness and vacuity. Even Fry doesn't like it!
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Mike » 15 Feb 2012, 00:07

Rachel wrote:I still think he has a point about it not being suitable for everyone to be forced to stay in school and graduate at 18.


Definitely. Here in Australia the official school leaving age is still 15 and plenty do leave to go into apprenticeships and so forth at that age, but the government recently (can't quite remember when) put in place measures to encourage kids to stay at school until at least 17 - partly by making the leaving certificate a requirement for certain jobs for which an education in the senior years of high school is actually quite meaningless.

The real reason they did this, of course, was to keep the unemployment figures down.
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Caleb » 15 Feb 2012, 04:12

Elliott: I am disillusioned -- and I've always been inclined towards cynicism or scepticism in everything -- but I also think that my problem is twofold. The first issue is that there are systemic problems with what you can achieve as a secondary school teacher. Even aside from any issues I may have with current my current administration, I rely upon my students' earlier teachers (and parents) having done their jobs correctly (or even being capable of doing so within the confines of the curriculum, the culture of the school, and classes of very mixed abilities). To put it bluntly, my students' previous teachers rarely seem to have done their jobs (and in many cases, I know they're downright incompetent).

I currently have a class of year eight students who have been learning English in school (not to mention outside of school) for 4.5 years. Very few can even translate (from hearing) the eleven basic English colours to (speaking in) Chinese. Even if I ask them, "'Red' de zhong wen zen me shuo?" (How do you say 'red' in Chinese?), many can't respond with "hong se". Forget about colours like purple or grey. Yet the textbooks I am supposed to be using (I don't use the textbooks for the reason that I am just spending a lot of time trying to really solidify material my students should have got when they were eight or nine) cover things such as the passive voice, past perfect tense and all sorts of other things way beyond them. So what exactly have my students been doing for the past 4.5 years, and how do I basically tell people here, be it parents, colleagues, administrators, bureaucrats or anyone else that this entire system is a complete joke? Hardly a way to keep my job, of course. Besides which, would anyone even listen?

Likewise, when I was teaching in the West, I often taught at the upper levels of secondary school and would routinely encounter students whose written work was complete gibberish. Frankly, it wasn't really within the purview of what I was doing to be able to stop and teach them how to construct a logical statement and write it in an intelligible manner. I had a curriculum to get through and somoene else should have covered all that years before me. Of course, I still did my best to do both, but even before I got to commenting upon what the students were meant to be doing in my classes, their essays would be a sea of red ink. At one point, one of my colleagues (the Marxist -- this was one of the areas in which he was very PC) told me to only correct the mode error (mode as used in statistics) because it would undermine their confidence. Yet because they were in their final year of school, I was potentially the last person who would ever do so. Realistically though, how much effect would my conscientiousness have had? The damage had already been done long before they set foot in my classroom. That also meant that in an academic sense, my own classes weren't firing on all cylinders because the students simply weren't up to the task.

The other issue for me is one of a trade-off of lifestyle and income. Australia is a massive rat race now. I simply couldn't live there on a teacher's income, especially since my wife is going to be a stay at home mother. In this sense, I am somewhat of an economic migrant, even aside from how disillusioned I was with the educational system in Australia. The absurd thing is that I earn less than half what I would in Australia, but save more because the cost of living in Taiwan is so much lower.

Previously, I lived in the north of Taiwan for two and a half years. The students are certainly much more advanced there than here, but the whole approach to learning English is still incredibly flawed there. More than that though, I just couldn't live there anymore. The lifestyle is far too hectic and it's just not a nice place to live. Taiwan has the world's second highest population density in the world, and Greater Taipei (of which I was really a part) has about half of the nation's population. Whenever we go back there to visit my wife's family, even my wife can't handle it, and she grew up there!

So, we moved to the south east, where it's much nicer. We live in a small town, surrounded by banana, pineapple, rice and other farms (it's below the Tropic of Cancer). I can see tree covered mountains in every direction. I can do a hike fifteen minutes from my house and see monkeys. It's nice here and it's probably a decent place to raise kids. However, academic standards here are really low (and many of the students come from extremely poor and/or aboriginal families). So, that's the trade-off.

As to tutoring, firstly, people still keep hitting their heads on the same wall, hoping for a different result. They've been learning (or not learning) English the same way for X years and made little progress, yet are completely resistant to trying anything different. There's very much the attitude that the real teaching (i.e. ROTE learning for multiple choice tests) is done by the Taiwanese teachers, while the foreign teachers are there to play games and be silly with kids. Adults (a much smaller market) are heavily focussed on exam preparation.

Then, there is the fact that most people here simply won't pay for quality. They only look at the bottom line. I simply can't, and won't, compete against non-native speakers (Afrikaans speaking South Africans, Poles, etc.), people fresh off the boat and so on who are willing to completely undercut me. I have had times in the past when I have run private classes and made very good money doing so, but such classes are not too easy to come by (I currently have one very lucrative private class). I am the only native speaker for miles around here, but many (not all) of the people here are pretty poor and couldn't afford to hire me.

Before coming to Taiwan, I used to be extremely hard right on economic issues and the free market, but I could write hundreds of thousands of words on why the private sector here is unbelievably screwed up. I don't think it can be understated how incredibly irrational and destructive, yet extremely enduring, a culture can be. Things will have to change here one day, but that change doesn't seem to be on the horizon right now, and when it comes, it won't be a foreigner who does it. Until I actually lived in the developing world, I didn't realise that the reason the developing world is not the developed world is because their societies are dysfunctional. That's very un-PC, but it's the truth.

I've also looked into buying or starting my own language school, but the numbers simply don't make sense. My wife and I are looking at moving to a new house in another nearby town (which is also close to a much larger town) soon, and the house would have several rooms, so we are considering running something out of that (my wife baby sitting, which she currently does, and both of us perhaps running after school classes) because it would have low start up costs, but it's hardly guaranteed to work. I certainly wouldn't quit my job to start it.
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Rachel » 27 Aug 2012, 15:03

Elliott wrote:
The problems of the decline of standards in education and in the general populace are really just a chicken and the egg problem, I think.


I agree, although I think the public service thing has a role in the decline. Parents simply don't appreciate something they don't have to directly pay for. And the public service seems to have an ultra-egalitarian ethos, in that it won't praise good teachers because that would "discriminate" against bad teachers - thus, it seals its own fate.


I was enjoying this thread again and when I read this quote it brought back a memory from school years ago.
It was circa 1990-1, I was 13-14 and we were in a Chemistry class messing about and making a lot of noise. The Chemistry teacher couldn't quiet us down so in the end he starting shouting;
"I'm gonna show you how much I'm earning from this lesson. He then said quietly, "that always shuts 'em up."
He went to the blackboard and wrote out in chalk his yearly salary, divided it by 12 for month and carried on dividing until he had written out what he got for that 1 hour lesson. He got paid 10 pounds for that 1 hour. That was a hell of a lot of money in 1990. Most of us were not rich. It was a state school. It was a bit of a shock. While he was going about the figures and shouting about what he was earning you could hear everyone quieting down. After he finished there was complete silence. Then he started the lesson.

I am not sure what conclusion to come to from this.

I don't think health or schooling free at point of service to everyone provided by big brother government is such a great idea.
The bill of what things really cost should be made clearer.
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Elliott » 26 Oct 2012, 02:25

This article isn't very interesting at all (it amounts to: "the Tiger Mom thing suffocates children, who need some space to find their own talents/interests/motivation") but the comments under it are very good, and are about different people's reasons for home-schooling their kids.
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Podori » 26 Oct 2012, 06:06

Podori is waving the banner of tradition.

I agree with the members who have pointed out that un-schooling (a word that I cringe to write) works like magic if you restrict it to a small population of self-motivated, intelligent children of competent parents. Those children who have, or have been taught, the necessary courtesy and modesty to become independent learners may do well in these unusual schools.

However, I am not taking some of the figures in the CNN piece seriously as indicators of the academic quality of un-schooling, in particular the figure that 90 percent of Sudbury graduates go on to college. Virtually anyone can get into college these days, and graduate with a paper qualification of dubious value. My opinion could be swayed if there were evidence to the effect that un-schooled students were successfully taking rigorous majors at high-quality colleges (not necessarily "prestigious colleges"), but the piece only goes into detail on the college majors of a few students.

I remain sceptical.
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Podori » 26 Oct 2012, 06:26

Elliott wrote:Just looking at the state sector, I know a very intelligent young man of 20 (one of the most intelligent people I've ever met) whose literacy level is equivalent to mine at about age 10. His school and his university have let him think that spelling and punctuation simply don't matter.


Story of my life, story of my life...

I've met more of those deformed imps than I care to mention.
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Caleb » 26 Oct 2012, 07:29

In my education course, there was a tutor who was all for not worrying about spelling, so long as they got their ideas down, and so on. I could write an enormous list of her crazy ideas on all manner of subjects. I was about the only person in the class who ever did battle with her. However, at the end of the semester (also the end of the course), a number of people came up to me and thanked me for challenging her (it's a shame they never supported me in class though).

Anyway, one day, she brought her son to class. He was about eleven. She also showed some of his creative writing or other English work. At the end of the semester, some of my classmates who were studying primary school education (or who had children of a similar age or older) commented that he wrote at the level of a kid two or three years younger.

I agree that homeschooling/un-schooling wouldn't work for many, or perhaps even most, kids simply because of the level of commitment required by parents. That said, I don't believe normal schools are particularly successful for a lot of children either. Back in the day, it sounds like it may have been possible to come from a poor family, but still have done well if studious because the education system had rigour.

These days, I tend to think that unless a child comes from a family that already greatly values education (and probably also has strong finances), he is going to receive a pretty mediocre education at best. The Australian and British systems (where I have worked) are not that different, but I've also found this to be the case here in Taiwan. I wouldn't send my children to any of the schools I teach at, or have taught at, here. One of my colleagues also said the same the other day. Yet I wouldn't send them to any of the "good" schools either as those places are like sweatshops and the kids still often come out knowing nothing of substance (but can pass inane exams).
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Podori » 27 Oct 2012, 07:24

Caleb wrote:Yet I wouldn't send them to any of the "good" schools either as those places are like sweatshops and the kids still often come out knowing nothing of substance (but can pass inane exams).


May I take you up on this point?

I, like you, am a teacher in Asia -- South Korea, to be specific. I have observed the education "sweatshop" and its effects on my students up close. I would not draw exact parallels between the schools of Taiwan and South Korea, because in my observations and from what I have learned from discussing the curriculum with my peers the exams are treated with meticulous care. There has never been a typo on an English exam at my school for the two years that I have worked here, and every question is designed to probe students' ability to understand the meanings of English words, sentences and paragraphs. My school even went a step further this year by giving students a challenging context-based problem. A situation was described, in Korean, and five English sentences were given. Every sentence had roughly the same meaning, but the students had to choose the one that represented the most natural phrasing for that situation. No easy task.

I suppose, against this background, that I want to ask you what you mean by an "inane exam." What is that, exactly?
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Caleb » 29 Oct 2012, 04:11

Maybe I'm misinterpreting what you've written, but it sounds like a straight grammar translation exercise. The trouble with that exercise is that that's still not how life works. Life isn't a multiple choice exam.

Nobody walks into a shop and is presented with a situation where someone asks them the following, and if they get it wrong, too bad, they go home empty handed:

A) May I helps you?
B) May I helped you?
C) May I helping you?
D) May I help you?
E) May I was helping you?

I'm sure the exam wasn't that simplistic, but I believe the point still stands. People treat English (or foreign languages generally) as though it's some branch of formal logic, and then everyone wonders why certain nationalities (and Koreans are definitely in this category) are woeful at languages other than their native language. If there's one thing East Asians love, it's a multiple choice exam and a set of grammar rules that can be memorised and regurgitated. It's the past perfect continuous = pi x r^2 approach. Other parts of the world have moved on. Local teachers in East Asia especially love such things because they cut down preparation and marking time, and also because they can hide behind rules in a textbook rather than actually have to speak or write the language in novel, unpredictable, meaningful ways. I mean, shock horror that anyone would ever expect a language to be used for...gulp...communication. What a silly idea! Everyone knows you learn a language to show how clever you are at passing esoteric tests.

http://www.ielts.org/researchers/analysis_of_test_data/test_taker_performance_2011.aspx

In the academic sphere, Korea appears to be on a par with such luminaries in education as Bangladesh, Jordan, Nepal, Turkey, Vietnam and Sudan, and is handlily beaten by plenty of countries, including Indonesia (a country that I assume spends less on English education, and education in general, and also has no innate advantage, i.e. speaks an Indo-European language and/or was a former British or American colony). It's also worth noting that Korea's overall score was significantly bolstered by reading and listening. They are absolutely woeful at speaking and writing.

In the general sphere, Korea appears to be on a par with such luminaries in education as well...actually, the only two countries with significantly lower scores were Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.

When, despite the sweatshop/hogwon approach, a country is still performing as well (badly?) as Sudan, I'd say it's time to re-evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of the programme.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammar_translation
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_Reference_for_Languages
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comprehensible_input
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Podori » 29 Oct 2012, 07:17

Then I guess an inane exam in your opinion is one which bears little correspondence to reality?

Is that correct?

I should point out, in fairness to the South Korean education system, that they have revamped their English exams. Multiple choice is still used to evaluate how well students can pair an answer to a given question but there is also a written section that requires students to answer questions in their own original sentences (sentences that are based on the grammatical rules and vocabulary that we taught during that term, of course).

My school and many others, I believe quite a majority, also provide English language extra-curricular activities. Students in my school's English newspaper club routinely practise their writing in simple articles. English language speech competitions have become a fixture of the national education scene.

This is perhaps in contrast to your experience in Taiwan.

I would argue that English education system suffers here not because students study so much, but because they have to study everything so much. The study of languages takes years of steady, sustained effort; and as Korean students are often in their private academies for two or three subjects per week, that effort gets broken up. Whatever knowledge of English that a student gains in an extra two hours of study today will quickly be dissipated by his studies of another subject tomorrow.
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Mike » 29 Oct 2012, 08:40

It's certainly true that the grammar-translation approach was still in the ascendancy in the early 2000s when I was teaching ESL regularly. The students we got from Japan and Korea were quite hopeless at spoken expression and not much better at listening. Occasionally I used to run two-week intensive courses (a laughable description - really they were just a mish-mash of very basic communicative activities) with Japanese high school students on two-week exchanges. They had six years of English behind them and could barely put a (spoken) sentence together. Such a language acquisition method is obviously flawed, although for learning Latin and Greek it would be fine!

Caleb wrote:In the academic sphere, Korea appears to be on a par with such luminaries in education as Bangladesh, Jordan, Nepal, Turkey, Vietnam and Sudan, and is handlily beaten by plenty of countries, including Indonesia (a country that I assume spends less on English education, and education in general, and also has no innate advantage, i.e. speaks an Indo-European language and/or was a former British or American colony).


That's not entirely true, in fairness. They use the Roman alphabet for Bahasa Indonesia, which gives them a small but significant head-start. The Indonesian students I taught in ESL days, even the less intelligent ones, had a degree of confidence with the language that the Japanese and Koreans didn't, but from what they (the Indonesians) told me about the way they were taught, it seemed fairly similar to the rest of Asia.
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Caleb » 29 Oct 2012, 11:15

Mike: I don't believe the alphabet is really a significant issue beyond the most basic level. It definitely gives a small advantage in terms of the mechanics of reading and writing, but I such an advantage would be lost fairly quickly. The other issue is that even for two languages using the same alphabet there will be L2 interference with the pronunciation of letters, and so in some sense, a new letter has to be learnt. For instance, one cannot simply read German as one would English. A whole lot of sounds have to be unlearnt and replaced with other sounds. The most obvious example is probably the letter j, which is pronounced quite differently in a lot of different languages.

I think reading is a major issue going from an alphabet-based language to a character based language, but character-based languages have their own alphabets anyway (pinyin or zhuyin fuhao for Chinese, katakana, hiragana and romanji for Japanese). Hangul is an alphabet. I would clearly have an advantage learning Japanese than a lot of people because I already speak/read some Chinese. However, if I ran into the character for mountain, I could have a stab it from Chinese (shan), and I wouldn't be too far off the Japanese (san), except that there are actually two ways to read it in Japanese (the other being yama), which would complicate things greatly, plus of course Japanese also has its other scripts, and the grammar is completely different in Japanese.

Podori: My issue with the way that living languages is taught is that they are often taught not even as purely academic subjects with a huge emphasis upon reading and writing, which I can see would be no problem with something like Latin. After all, people don't really speak Latin. The problem is worse than just that for teaching English or other modern languages though. Often the things that are taught become really abstract ends in and of themselves. They become, in some sense, like higher mathematics. There are uses for higher mathematics, but often higher mathematics is studied at school basically as a mechanism for developing thinking ability, or in a more cynical sense, so certain people can show off how smart they are at something completely divorced from reality.

I think languages should be taught more akin to something like music, art or P.E., but that's probably never going to happen because those aren't subjects for "smart people" and no one can show off in quite the same way (people can certainly show off about those things, but "smart people" don't care in the main). People would think it was absurd to learn to play tennis by studying it in a classroom. There may be some elements that could be usefully taught in the classroom (e.g. sports science), but those are not really that useful for the average person who wants to play tennis (and maybe they're not even necessary for people on the professional circuit).

Yet the reason for one of the major problems with the way curricula for subjects are designed is that they're designed by teachers. Teachers were (especially in Asia), in some sense, the people who were good at jumping through inane hoops for the sake of jumping through inane hoops. In fact, they often really liked that. Then they can't figure out why the average student completely struggles to learn and use another language, despite the fact that people everywhere, for thousands of years, have been learning multiple languages outside classroom settings, without bizarre exams. Humans actually have an innate ability to learn language, and yet the education system in most places actively prevents that.

As for English competitions, I don't know what they're like in Korea, but in Taiwan, they basically mean going and memorising something and regurgitating it. That's not true speech or reading. I could win a competition in Swahili or Urdu if I were given enough time to memorise whatever was being judged. In fact, I wouldn't even need to know what it meant. I guess you know that Stephen Colbert, in a long running rivalry with Korean pop-singer Rain, actually learnt to sing a song in Korean, despite not knowing what any of it meant.

What I would say is this regarding the amount of time involved. The CEFRL suggests that somewhere in the vicinity of 500 hours of instruction is necessary to reach intermediate level (though that is actually quite a high level of language competency that I'd be pretty happy with). Now that's from one European language to another, so we'd expect the number to be higher for other language families (though I'd be extremely interested to see how the Finns and Hungarians do, given that they don't speak Indo-European languages). Even still, if the number were something like 800 hours, at four hours per week (either in school or at hogwons, or a combination of the two), that should mean about four years of instruction. Maybe things are dramatically better in Korea, but I've met lots and lots of Taiwanese (and actually other East Asians) who have had that much instruction but are still absolutely useless. Based upon the CEFRL, they're at best A2, but certainly not B1-B2. Mike's comments would seem to back this up.

Europeans are much, much better at English and I don't think this can be put down entirely to the similarities of the languages involved or using the same alphabet (Russians score higher than Koreans, but use a non-Roman alphabet). I think a large part of it is to do with how they conceive what languages and language learning actually are.

I've actually really struggled with this over the past few years and I really critically looked at the assumptions underlying the prevailing way of teaching English here (which I was also doing), and the results. In the end, I took a different path. I've referred you to Krashen's theories, but I would also refer you to something like TPRS (which is what I have been using for about 18 months now), particularly the work of Ben Slavic (look him up on Youtube). Something that is also really interesting that I would like to look at is Automatic Language Growth, which was also developed out of Krashen's ideas, primarily for teaching Thai to foreigners. I have no experience with ALG (I'd like to check it out in Thailand at some point), but there are some very interesting videos on Youtube.
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Podori » 30 Oct 2012, 00:11

I see what you mean, Caleb. I see parallels here every day.

If you asked me to identify the major problems in Korean English education, they would be widespread information overload and, flowing from this, a perversion of the purposes of English teaching. By overload I mean that the students are studying to much. The result is that students learn the language in the abstract because English is simply another exam subject to them. They learn the grammar, they learn the words, they tick the box come test time. Two distinct but related problems prevent the students from learning English as a means of communication.

Now, this is where I make an important qualification on my remarks. While the practice of language in real world settings has obvious merits, I remain a supporter of the lecture-style teaching of grammatical rules and vocabulary (my Korean colleagues handle this). This is the hard work of teaching that needs to be done, in particular the absorption of new vocabulary, before independent speaking can take place.

Regrettably, the trend here has been for native-speaking teachers of English to use fun or creative activities in class, similar to the activities peddled by progressive educators in the West. The majority of the students do not know enough words to be creative, however; and the games that we are encouraged to play are more babysitting than teaching techniques. The students notice that these classes are not serious and they immediately lose focus -- why bother if it won't help them on their ever-important exams?

Those students who enjoy the fun lessons get to play around for an hour without learning anything while their less interested friends chat or sleep.

I suspect that there is a cultural factor as well. Koreans don't learn foreign languages for the same reason that the British don't: they just don't care enough to put in the effort, despite the constant pressure from the academic system (though academic pressure is an element practically eliminated from Britain). Other things take priority for them.

A Korean friend of mine also told me that amoung young learners there is a common feeling of resentment that they need to learn this bizarre foreign language to advance in society.

So, it is a perfect storm. The students actually have knowledge of English from their traditional-style classrooms, but when they come to the native speaker to practise they are too shy, or they're not interested, or they're hateful, or they don't respect the foreign teacher for cultural/racial reasons: I do battle across a wide front.

Your thoughts?
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Re: Un-Schooling

Postby Caleb » 30 Oct 2012, 03:00

Podori: My major suggestion would be to read Krashen's theories and then look at how certain people have applied those.

In particular, look at this.

There are also lots of Youtube videos of Krashen.

Then, I would look at other things like TPRS or ALG.

Look at these and then look at some of Ben Slavic's videos on Youtube. I actually got his DVDs too, and I'm going to purchase two of his books soon.

There's also a TPRS user group on Yahoo with newsletters (sometimes several per day), where people answer each others questions and help each other.

There are quite a few demonstrations of ALG on Youtube, but it's also worth checking out this video (first in a series) where ALG is explained.

I agree with you that there's a lot of clowning around in EFL classrooms (and it sounds like the same is true also in Korea). It seems like its one extreme or the other in terms of how serious/boring a class is. Yet I think that both approaches come at language learning from the wrong angle. The second (game playing, etc.) is obviously not rigourous at all. We can both agree on that. I don't think there's necessarily an inverse relationship between how serious a class is and how interesting it is. To some extent, I think it's the opposite.

Where the first (heavy grammar instruction) misses the boat is that it really fails on what's called the affective filter (see Krashen). Moreover, it makes two other fundamental mistakes. The first is that it focuses heavily on discrete, conscious instruction of grammar. This is not how we actually learn language except in an academic sense. How we actually learn language is through massive amounts of varied, novel, comprehensible input (the comprehensible part is really important). Our brain then generalises from that input to create internal rules. This is why a native English speaker may not be able to parse a sentence, know the nomenclature for grammatical terms, or explain why a sentence is correct or incorrect, but can still produce grammatically correct sentences. Likewise, a Taiwanese or Korean teacher may have a much better understanding of grammar, but may be completely unable to apply it successfully in either a spoken or written context. Correct output follows from (massive) correct, comprehensible input in a generalised sense. At some point later on, it may certainly be very useful (and maybe even mandatory) to involve more intense grammar instruction, but in my opinion (and based upon what I see with my students), people try to force that upon students too soon generally.

Even for first language speakers, there's a certain order in which we learn language skills, and there's a certain lag time between each. It's basically listening, speaking, reading, writing, though obviously there's a point where they're all in play. Never the less, people have literally thousands of hours of listening before they eventually learn to read and write. Also, of really important note is what's known as a silent period. There may be a very significant lag time between listening and speaking (it can be up to several years even). It is a mistake to think that because a child isn't speaking, he isn't acquiring the language and won't eventually be able to speak. Students arrive at school at the age of five or six essentially fluent in their first language already. They may not have a large vocabulary and they may not use complex grammatical structures, but they are basically fluent. This fluency occurs before direct instruction in things like phonics or grammar, and also before they learn to read and write the alphabet (let alone full sentences and then complete pieces of written work).

The second issue, which is related to the first, is one of an over-emphasis upon correct output as a teaching method. Output doesn't drive acquisition, it is a result of acquisition. Output alone simply can't account for vocabulary size or correct grammar usage for the simple reason that there may be many words or phrases that I, as a native English speaker, have rarely, if ever actually used (i.e. minimal to no output). Yet I can still produce them correctly (either in written or verbal form) because I have had input. Other issues with output, which Krashen discusses, are the affective filter and the monitor hypothesis. As mentioned also, there can be a significant lag time between input and output. My wife is sometimes surprised when I come out with a particular word or phrase in Chinese because she's never heard me even attempt it before. I've been mulling it over, probably unconsciously, getting lots of input in the meantime, and then one day, I can just say it. I don't even know that I can say it, or why, until I've said it.

The real moment of crisis in all of this for me came when I had to teach a class of ninth grade students about the passive voice and I realised that they couldn't even tell me how old they were. So, I went back and administered a simple test with six questions:

What's your name? How old are you? How do you feel? What are your hobbies? How many people are in your family? Who are they?

Very few students could answer more than one question, even in Chinese (i.e. the issue was one of comprehension, not even one of production). Only one or two students in my entire school could answer all of them. I then realised that obviously, if they'd been learning English for up to six years at that point, there was a problem, and I was going to have to go back to the drawing board. I began to suspect this sort of problem before then though .I also ran into some students I had first taught for a few months when I first arrived in Taiwan. I ran into them about eighteen months later at another job and they still couldn't answer basic questions about themselves. This was despite the fact that they'd had about two and a half years of instruction in school, plus about another two or so years of instruction at the major buxiban (hogwon) chain in Taiwan, where I had previously worked. At that point, they must have had something like 400-500 hours of instruction. Likewise, this year, I tested all of my new students. I'm at a new primary school this year. Two of my students there have had three years of school instruction and four years of buxiban instruction, so approximately 800-900 hours or more of instruction. Their English is certainly better than that of their classmates, but given the enormous amount of instruction they've had, it's really sub-par.

Currently, I teach the following students: junior high school (grades 7-9), primary school (grades 4-6 at one school, and 5-6 at another), plus some privates (ages 6-9 in a group).

At the primary school level, what I do is some TPR, and also TPRS. I'm trying to get them up to par in terms of understanding basic input. I base what I teach around their English curriculum, but I do it in my own way and my own order. I've added in some extra things that I think are pretty basic, common structures in the language also.

For the junior high school students, I also include some written work. The incoming grade 7 students this year have very poor English abilities in the main. Some of them I taught last year with TPRS, but many are drawn from other schools. My main emphasis with these students is still going to be input.

For the grade 8 and 9 students, I do things slightly differently. I also do some free writing (based upon what we've covered in the two previous lessons) and some dictation (of the class story from the previous two lessons). Part of why I do that is because they have had at least one year of instruction with me already, so they do have some of the language under control. Part of the reason is also because I believe that they've also had enough grammar instruction from their Taiwanese teachers to be able to handle a slightly more intellectual approach to the language, though I try to rein in the emphasis upon grammar still. Also, they're at the right age in terms of cognitive development where I think they can handle that. I know it would be way over the heads of lots, if not most, of my younger students.

At the beginning of this year, I tested every single student upon the primary school curriculum. Some students I only gave a listening comprehension test to. Others I also gave a reading comprehension test to. Every second lesson, my students do a short listening test. About every eight lessons (twelve for the higher level students), I test them using a completely novel story that uses what they've already learnt. At junior high school, the bigger tests count for part of their grades. At primary school, the tests don't count for anything. I also go through this testing process with current and prospective private students. The idea behind it is to get some sort of benchmark for what they know at the beginning, and then to provide me with constant feedback about the pacing of my instruction. I try to use a lot of formative assessment and my ultimate objective is learning for mastery, i.e. not moving onto a new topic simply because the curriculum says it's week 6 so we should be on unit 3.

Eventually, my plans with this are that I will probably open my own buxiban sometime in the next twelve months, once I have ironed a lot of the kinks out of my method (there's still a lot I need to learn, and it's hard to get training -- I've had some training from a TPRS expert from America who sometimes comes to Taiwan, and I am also thinking about going to Thailand to study with ALG). Does what I do work? To be honest, I don't know, but that's why I am constantly testing my students. I don't think I can really get good, professional guidance and feedback here, so I'm trying to figure out how I can (honestly) measure my own performance. This has highlighted certain issues that I have been trying to solve, so I think it's useful. I guess in another year I will have a much better idea about how successful I have been once I have a lot of data to look at. Part of this move to being more scientific came from a conversation I had with another foreign teacher here who made all sorts of bizarre comments, one of which was that she thinks she is a good teacher because her students like her. In a sense, I don't care if I'm liked or not. Obviously, having a good relationship with your students is important, but that doesn't necessarily tell anyone anything about the quality of teaching and learning involved. It also came from my own level of self-doubt over the past few years.

I understand your concerns about students not taking language learning seriously if it's not directly focused upon exams. That is obviously a problem, but it's also somewhat of a deeper systemic problem and how people regard the purpose of education. Interestingly, two years ago, in addition to the general classes, I also taught the high-level students twice per week at my junior high school. I prepared a mini-textbook for them about fifteen hundred years of English history. I basically taught in English, not about English. It didn't count for anything, but the students were highly interested in it and it was quite intense. Then again, those kinds of students would probably be interested no matter what you gave them to some extent.
Caleb
 
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