民間自發的教學改革

(Written on May 7)

昨晚在臉書上分別看到澳門教師自發為配合課改而進行的工作坊,和台灣翻轉教學大師張輝誠老師在彰化舉行的學思達專業分享活動,都很有感動; 作為教師,他們要做好份內工作已很不容易,而犧牲自己大量的時間,目的只希望幫助同工提高教學水平,使行業更專業,讓其他教師更能找到教學的意義和樂趣,這無私的精神真令人敬佩。

我愈來愈相信,由上而下的教學改革,無論這上是政府、辦學團體,或學校高層,所能製造出的效果只會有限;但是只要看看學思達在台灣發展之快,所引發出教師的投入和活力,便可以看到民間自發的教學改革的威力。

政府教育部門在這環節上可以做的,就是提供資源上的支援,並肯定和鼓勵這些活動的策劃人和參加者。香港目前有一班很有心的 FlippEducators 老師,推動翻轉教學,希望這樣的組織和活動能遍地開花,使我們的課室更有生氣,學生更喜歡上學,我們的行業更專業。

What is the biggest gain from a professional development event?

Why is professional development so important for educators, when most of them are terribly stressed out already?

A former student attended a sharing gathering of innovative e-learning educators last night. She reflected on the experience: ”

“… The more intelligent people you meet, the more you realise you know so little. The world is so big and I am so little. You know what you really like when you step into a room with your exhausted body and mind and you leave being energised!”

Teaching can be a lifelong career. How can we keep up our passion and enthusiasm for years? Very often, when we go to a professional development event, it’s not like there is an easy classroom teaching recipe or magical formula that we can pick up and then apply in our classroom the next day. The biggest gain may be seeing other passionate educators (the speakers, and fellow teachers) and being inspired by them.

I still remember attending the talk on peer coaching by Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur 3 years ago, surrounded by hundreds of other energetic university teachers, and how I was amazed that a physics professor could also be so zealous about teaching. So, that’s why I also go to professional development events, as a learner. And here is one on Flipped Classroom I would go to next Saturday, and which I would recommend to people.

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfYhGNCxwV3g9SctUGss9snyGPlVCqAhVW0ZpTkFcZzqdbI0Q/viewform

Learning all the time

A student in last year’s group, who had worked in another profession for a couple of years, reflects on her first month of teaching: “… Teaching is a profession that gives me lots of chances to learn new things!” She has just learnt how to make a submarine and a catapult from a STEM workshop.

In fact, it’s not just first-year teachers who have a lot to learn. Teaching is so multi-faceted that even veteran teachers cannot claim to know everything. It’s a matter of professional attitude. Continuing professional development not only prevents teachers from falling behind, it also prevents them from stagnating. It helps to keep up their enthusiasm in their work.

In the last two weeks, I attended two workshops offered by Apple on how to use MacOS applications. (I bought a Macbook recently.) I was the oldest guy in the classroom; but it was so much fun.

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Being buried in busy-ness

The workshop by CLEAR will start in 30 minutes. But 15 minutes ago, I decided I would stay in my office to work on my to-do list.

I’ve often preached to teachers about the importance of continuing professional development, and as far as possible I have tried to practise what I preach, by taking part in events that will help enrich my professional repertoire. This upcoming event by CLEAR (the teaching development unit at CUHK) fits into my professional interests, and I’d been reminding myself in the last few days about this workshop, hoping that I would eventually find the time to attend it. But 15 minutes ago, I had to give it up, because there were still so many urgent things I hadn’t finished.

This reminds me of the plight of teachers. I’m sure many teachers are keen about professional development, but in comparison, the other one and thousand one things that they have to do on a daily basis, like marking students’ homework, setting test and exam papers, contacting parents, and planning and organising co-curricular activities, are much more ‘urgent’. As a result, professional development is relegated to a low-priority item.

This is not a desirable situation. But unless all of us involved in education, school administrators, teachers, parents, government education officials, re-establish our priorities, we will only be buried deeper in unreflective busy-ness.

Do teachers become more stupid after teaching for a few years?

Once in a while, an inservice English teacher from a part-time course I am teaching would say to me: “Paul, after teaching for a few years, I think my English has not become better. In fact, it has become worse.”

A few days ago, a former student said in an email to me: “Paul, I found that I have become much more stupid after working as a teacher for a few years. All my time is spent on marking and on tedious admin stuff. Though I still want to educate the kids, I really don’t have time to think, reflect, or read up. There is only output, but no input.”

First, the question about deteriorating command of English. This is quite a common perception among teachers, especially when they compare their classroom English with the oral activities they undertook in university: giving oral presentations, and taking part in tutorial discussions. I guess this perception will be even stronger among English teachers in primary schools.

It may be true that English teachers’ proficiency in giving oral presentations and taking part in academic discussions may get a bit rusty due to a lack of everyday use. But skills are skills: think about cycling, driving, typing, swimming, etc. When you pick up a skill again and give it some intensive practice, your previous competence will come back quickly. So I don’t think English teachers need to be overly worried about ‘losing’ their previous oral proficiency.

In fact, they may have improved in other areas of communicative competence through daily use: such as organising the content of their presentations; scaffolding their explanations; getting the audience involved, and providing feedback.

The same is true for academic writing. The last time they wrote an academic assignment might have been a few years ago. But again, it is a skill that can be picked up again quickly with some conscious practice.

On the other hand, English teachers’ language awareness will very likely improve, thanks to occupational needs. When they set test and exam papers, and when they mark compositions, they often have to look up dictionaries and grammar books to check that a certain word or sentence structure is acceptable. In comparison, university students seldom take the trouble to check their vocabulary or grammar, or will simply fall back on language they are sure about.

English teachers need not worry about their English regressing, as far as occupational needs are concerned. But there is another dimension to the issue. Last week, I was interviewing some of the applicants to next year’s MA ELT programme. Two interesting points came from some of the candidates:

  1. We should not settle for a level of subject knowledge that is just enough to meet our occupational needs.
  2. We should love the subject (in our case, English) that we teach.

 

These points are thought-provoking for all of us ELT practitioners.

English is not a dead language; it is evolving all the time. English is not simply a set of rigid rules. What is appropriate (or for that matter, ‘correct’) English depends on a variety of sociolinguistic factors.

If we love the English language, we will be curious to keep up with the changes, and eager to enrich our understanding of real-life language use.

But here also lies the paradox: Where do overworked English teachers in Hong Kong find the time to work on their own English? This is the point that my former student made: There is only time for output, but no time for input.

Creative teachers, creative students

Today was a hugely happy day for me. Two delightful things happened, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. I’ll talk about the morning one in this post.

This morning, four teachers and I spoke at a seminar organized by my Department The theme of the seminar was promoting collaborative eLearning in the primary English curriculum through Web 2.0 activities. The four teachers are Ms Peggy Yau, Ms Bess Wong, Ms Clare Wong, and Ms Janet Law. I opened the seminar with an introduction to Web 2.0 tools. This was followed by experience sharing by the four teachers. Prior to the seminar, I had the chance to preview their PPTs, but didn’t have the time to organize a mock presentation for them. So when my introductory talk was over, I listened to their sharing attentively. This turned out to be a highly rewarding experience.

First, their presentations were showcases of teacher creativity. The technologies, such as wikis, online journals, podcasting, etc., are there, but there are no definite models as to how they should be applied in teaching. The four teachers created and designed their Web-based activities from scratch. The only thing they could rely on was their own imagination and creative power.

Second, the work produced by their students was superb examples of learner creativity. We often complain that students in Hong Kong lack imagination, but the activities designed by the four teachers show that when given the right opportunity, students’ creative ability is fathomless. Those Web-based activities were a stark contrast to the routine accuracy-focused tasks and exercises we mete out to students day in and day out. It is time we asked ourselves whether it was we teachers, and the education system, that were stifling students’ creative potential.

When I was leaving the university after the seminar, this question kept lingering in my mind: Is there any correlation between teacher creativity and learner creativity?  At least from the four sample projects, that is obviously the case. When you see a creative teacher, you will see creative students.

A related question is whether there is any correlation between teachers’ effort and students’ effort. Again, from the four sample projects, the answer is obvious.

For me, listening to the sharing by these creative teachers is a highly energizing experience.

(I’m indebted to those who fought the ghastly rainstorm to come to the seminar. Their support made everything worthwhile.)