Saturday, June 7, 2014

ELT Forum Plenary - Gabi Lobjová "More Enjoyable, More Effective, and More Focused on the Learner"

Gabi Lobjová starts off Saturday morning with a plenary on motivation and learner centeredness which goes through the fundamentals of what learner centered teaching means and what it brings to our students. Something the majority of us are aware of, but can always use a reminder of. 

Lobjová's plenary starts with a summary of what it means to have a leaner centered curriculum and delves into the issues found in the Slovakian educational system. These are issues that I found myself in France and I have heard from many teachers in other state run educational programs in Poland, Greece, The Czech Republic, Italy and the US (and so on). The issues at the basic level involve how it is perceived by state inspectors and how it fits into the state curriculum. 

Lobjová then discusses the difficulty that teacher find understanding what it means to adapt to student needs. "Yes! If they need to use the restroom I let them!" is not the right idea. 

The differences between learner centered and traditional teaching is highlighted with the above slide that shows that in "Traditional Teaching" the teacher is powerful, the center of attention and students are meant to passively learn the material that is fed to them. 

On the other hand "Learner-Centered" teaching focuses on learner discovery and active learning. They generate meaning and understanding; working through problem solving, participation, experimental activities and doing things actively. 

The research on children and learning shows that we are hard wired to learn by activity and interaction. The human brain is not designed to sit quietly and absorb information that is presented and outlined. This is why in a lecture type setting we so often find students who are tired, distracted or bored. Many teachers use the excuse that kids are lazy, but if we look at their life outside of the lesson we see that they are not lazy at all, but require more active education. 

She moves on to talk about this next slide regarding the role of knowledge. 

She talks about the useless accumulation of knowledge that students stow away and put aside. Students who are taught vocabulary based on a syllabus and not on their interests. She gives the example of a girls only class who are taught about football even though they never talk about football and have no interest in football (she clearly hasn't met my sister, who can talk circles around me on the topic of football). 

For learning centered teaching, the idea is to seek meaningful and relevant vocabulary. These meaningful associations have been shown by cognitive science research to be better retained in long term memory because personalized and meaningful examples stick in the memory of self perception. The same applies to using everyday lives for speaking activities. Again, this builds associations that connect to life outside the classroom. 

We have the advantage as language teachers that we can talk about anything we want. Science teachers have to talk about science, math teachers about math, but language teachers develop communicative competence and we can talk about anything we want (or, more importantly, anything our students want) in our lessons to transmit language points and skill development. 

Adapting lessons, adapting materials and personalizing our class materials is a central role we can play as facilitators to our students' learning. It requires flexibility and willingness to adapt on our behalf but it allows us to be more effective than we would be if we came in presenting grammar explicitly in a completely non-relatable context. 

Having our learners bring in materials themselves makes this even easier. We ensure that the material fits their interests and elicits so much more engagement on behalf of the students. 

Her next point brings up the issue of cognitive involvement. The use of memorization and rules for traditional teaching and the use of affective factors to motivate and involve learners. 

An example she gives is watching a film in a foreign language. When you are making an effort as an observer to watch a film in a foreign language and the film is not very interesting, it is likely you will switch it off, whereas you may have sat through it in your native language. When the film is interesting, it fits into your personal context and touches you at an emotional level, you forget you're listening to a foreign language and the effort of understanding the language becomes secondary to the story and your interest in it. 

She moves on to talk about individual differences and acceptance of different personalities and attitudes in a class. Approaching them as individuals rather than "the good kids" and "the bad kids"

Focusing on positive sides of learning instead of negative aspects helps increase motivation. So many systems (the French educational system comes to mind) focus only on mistakes and never focus on successes and progress. These systems just beat the weaker students down and destroy any chance they may have had to be drawn into future lessons. It also does much to affect their self image which is a crucial developmental factor at early stages through adolescence. 

The above two slides focus on the lack of individualization in evaluation. A common issue when there is any sort of standardized system or national exams. 

She then moves on to talk about the issue of mistrust, fear and shame in classrooms. The development of affective filters due to an uncomfortable negative atmosphere. This is something which also diminishes self confidence and risk-taking. We can do more for our learners by creating a positive and safe environment in our lessons where learners are encouraged and feel comfortable taking risks with language which is an inherent part of language acquisition. 

The final section discusses the role of the teacher in both lesson types. Is a teacher meant to be a facilitator or a director of learning?

By taking the role of facilitator we help our students take charge of their own learning. Sort of that old "you can lead a horse to water..." idea. 

Small changes like asking students to answer each others' questions or to discuss the solution to class issues helps them feel their knowledge is relevant and useful which will help promote their autonomy.

She ends with this slide to sum up her presentation. 

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