It’s not about the technology

The topic for my e-learning seminar presentation at the University of Hong Kong yesterday for teachers of primary English was:

“What, Why and How to Flip Your English Language Lessons”

This is what I said in the last two minutes of my presentation at HKU yesterday:

“…… So, why flipped classroom?

Last Saturday, after the e-learning seminar for secondary school teachers, I asked my co-presenter, Ms Jenny Leung, what she thought about our flipped classroom project, and the sharing seminar.

Jenny said, ‘Now I’m more certain why I want to be a teacher.’

I asked Jenny, ‘Why are you more certain now that you want to be a teacher?’

Jenny replied, ‘Because I can design good lessons so that my students will learn better, and I can share my experience with other teachers so that they can help their students learn better.’

So, you see, at the end of the day, it’s not about the videos, it’s not about the technology. It’s about how to help students learn better.

And doing their best to help their students learn better – this is what GOOD TEACHERS do.”


The degradation of teacher education, in the name of competition

One teacher-acquaintance undergoing inservice teacher training is not entirely happy with the quality of the training that he is receiving.

I started off as a lecturer at one of the former teacher-training colleges (sub-degree level), which later amalgamated with the other three teacher-training colleges to form the Hong Kong Institute of Education (I left the college before the merger, and joined CUHK in 1991). The teacher-training colleges had only one aim: to train good teachers. All lecturers were former teachers in local schools, and they went about their work with a sense of mission: to train generation after generation of professional and competent teachers. Unlike today when teacher education is supposed to be ‘reflective’, teacher training in those days could cover very micro skills that could range from how to write on the blackboard, to how to use a teacher’s voice, to how to deal with the class clown. Student teachers on Teaching Practicum had to be observed teaching in the classroom for a total of 18 lessons before they could get their teacher’s certificate. In comparison, the content of teacher education programmes around the world today seem to move farther and farther away from real-life classroom concerns.

But I personally would say the quality of teacher education was better in those days. From the mid-nineties when the academia became more and more competitive, schools of education around the world began to shift their priorities. The work of schools of education is not assessed by the quality of teachers that they nurture, but, like in any other academic discipline, by the number of papers faculty publish in first-tier academic journals, and the amount of competitive research funding that they are able to pocket. Today, even HKIEd is not exempt from this unhealthy trend (of forgetting one main reason for our existence). I would say that the quality of teacher education, and consequently, the quality of teaching, in many places have actually gone down in the last ten years. And all this degradation in the name of competition. We compete for the sake of competing. We have forgotten what we should compete for.

Learned helplessness

In the Saturday MA class three weeks ago, I played a three-minute video clip that showed how a former student-teacher set up a speaking activity in a Primary One classroom. The student-teacher, Hope (invented name), was having her Teaching Practicum at a primary school when the video was taken, and I was her methodology tutor as well as practicum supervisor. Hope had been managing the speaking lesson superbly, and when she started to set up a milling activity for the class, I took out my handy video camera, and recorded the scenario. Watching the clip again during that class three weeks ago, I kept thinking what a talented teacher Hope was. It was the first teaching experience in her life, yet she was so proficient with classroom routines, and taught one successful lesson after another.

Three days after that class, I received an email from Hope. Hope reported that she had had a lesson observed by her panel chair and principal the day before. The lesson didn’t go well, and according to the panel chair, the principal was quite negative towards the lesson.

Well, other teachers might not mind that very much. But Hope would: I have been keeping in touch with her since she completed her teacher training three years ago, and I know how much she cares about good teaching.

Lesson observation is a common activity in schools today, but it is important that we put it in proper perspective. What is the purpose of lesson observation? What can happen to a lesson when it is taught to be observed? How should observers approach a lesson observation?

I recall those scenes in hospital drama on TV where a doctor is observed performing an operation by other doctors. I admire the medical profession for this practice (even though I have no idea to what extent this is really happening in hospitals). I think this is a wonderful example of professional development.

Often I would compare these hospital scenarios with peer lesson observation in our field. When I do this kind of comparison, I often wonder: Compared with a doctor performing an operation under observation, what are the chances that a teacher being observed will be able to produce her best performance? Which scenario is under more control of the observee, a doctor operating on an anaesthetised patient, assisted by a team of specialists and nurses; or a lone teacher facing a class of 35 energetic or aloof students? In the operation theatre, the doctor can map out each act to the smallest detail in advance. In the school classroom, the teacher cannot fully predict the students’ mood or their ability or previous knowledge.

Even with the most thorough preparation, and years of experience, a lesson can still go wrong, or end up as a mundane one.

This is why, in my view, we should never equate a teacher’s performance in one lesson with her general teaching competence. Moreover, we should never forget that classroom teaching competence, albeit probably the most important one, is only one of the attributes of a good teacher.

And we need to remember that evaluation of performance is only one purpose of lesson observation. The other purpose, which to my mind is an even more important one, is professional development: professional development in terms of promoting a spirit among staff of improving one’s teaching on an on-going basis. “We care about good teaching; we will continue to strive for excellence in teaching; to that end, we can always learn from each other through lesson observation, and we are happy to open up our own classrooms to visitors.”

This is the kind of culture that I would like to nurture in a lesson observation project that I am currently involved in as facilitator. This project, called the Learning Circle, is organized by the Tuen Mun District Education Office. At the moment, there are 5 participating primary schools, with four to five teachers from each school. All the participating teachers are qualified and experienced teachers of English, and the  Learning Circle has only one aim: professional development. Members of the Learning Circle visit each other’s schools for lesson observation. Each lesson observed is followed by a post-lesson discussion. In my role as facilitator, I have been emphasizing to the teachers that the purpose of each lesson observation is not to evaluate the observee’s performance, but to learn, and if the lesson does not turn out to be a good one, which can be the case, to use the observed lesson as stimulus for self-reflection.

I have to admit, though, that this change of emphasis may not be easy for all the stakeholders, since the evaluative ethos is still pervasive in schools (especially in primary schools, I would venture to say). It might even be more difficult for school administrators to accept this perspective since much of their work involves evaluating. Consequently and unknowingly, they might be undermining teachers’ initiative in striving for excellence on an ongoing basis.

Take the case of Hope. She finished her email to me with this lamentation:

“It seems that no matter how hard I try, I won’t do well.”

I wrote back to Hope to ask her to clarify. Did she mean that (a) no matter how hard she tries, she will not be able to satisfy the principal, or (b) no matter how hard she tries, she won’t be able to teach well?

Hope replied: Both.

Which reminds me of the term in psychology: Learned helplessness.

I have a good knowledge of Hope’s teaching competence. That particular lesson may not have gone well. But what’s the big deal! The important thing is that Hope is able to keep up her zest in teaching, and to keep improving. Those of us with the power to influence teachers’ work, such as teacher educators, school administrators, and government education officers, etc., must guard against smothering teachers’ passion and self-confidence.

Reflecting on my own teaching …

As a teacher educator, I often ask teachers to reflect on their work, in order to nurture reflective practice. Tomorrow, I’ll be doing this again, only this time, I’ll be on the receiving end.

The university’s CLEAR (Centre for Learning Enhancement and Research) will be producing a DVD for a number of former recipients of the Vice Chancellors’ Exemplary Teaching Award to share their thoughts and experience with other members of the university. I, along with a few other former recipients, have been invited to a video-recording session which will take place tomorrow. CLEAR has sent me a few questions to chew over before the videoing. The following are the questions, and my thoughts at the present moment. Of course, as it will be an interactive conversation, what I’ll be actually saying may be different from what I’ve put down here. But the writing itself will be useful reflective experience for me:

1.  Can you tell us about the most successful teaching strategy you have? An example of a strategy that works almost all the time would be great. How do you know this is successful in terms of student learning?

I guess I must have accumulated a bag of tricks or strategies over the years, but honestly, there isn’t a particular strategy that stands out in my recollection. If I have to put my finger on one particular strategy that I consciously employ, and if passion counts as a strategy, then that will be my strategy. My students are pre-service and inservice teachers, so to me it’s not enough that my students find my teaching efficient and effective. If I may call it a mission, then my mission is to inspire my students to be good teachers themselves. And to fire up their enthusiasm for teaching, I need to throw myself into my teaching. I guess you can call it walking the talk, or practicing what you preach. I guess that under the goal of showing passion in my teaching, I AM applying a variety of teaching strategies, but probably unconsciously. So interestingly, it’s often from students’ feedback after a course that I realize I have used certain strategies. Like last week, a former student said to another former student on Facebook that I gave out punctuality stickers to encourage students to come to class on time. Another former student mentioned that I made a point of turning up well in advance for a class to chat with the early arrivals, so as to acknowledge their effort, and to find out more about them.

2. Is having fun essential to good teaching? All the time? Some of the time?

This isn’t an important consideration when I plan a class session, though I do keep an eye out for moments when students can have a bit of fun. I don’t deliberately incorporate fun into a lesson; I don’t do fun for the sake of having fun, because I think that can backfire. There’ll always be students who have a more serious temperament, and they might think you’re wasting their time if you put in too much fun, as it were. But having said that, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of our students, and picture what it’s like for them to sit through a two-hour or three-hour lecture. Hence, if variety is the spice of life, then fun is the spice of teaching. So, when I design a task or an activity for a class, I always look for possibilities of adding a bit of fun to the activity. Like last Monday, I was teaching the student-teachers on my CALL course how to create online surveys or polls, and the rationale was that polls are an effective way to give students a sense of involvement. I asked each student to create three polls which would be taken by their classmates, and I allowed them to use gossipy or frivolous items such as How often do you go to Lan Kwai Fong; Which is the best canteen on CU campus, etc. Immediately they became excited about the task, and afterwards they became even more excited in taking the polls created by their classmates. Yes, they had a bit of fun, and I’m pretty sure this was also an effective learning experience for them.

3.      How are your assessment tasks designed to ensure students focus on learning important knowledge, skills and values?

I give out detailed instructions about the assessment tasks at the beginning of a course. I actually tell students which class meetings will most correspond with which assessments. Then throughout the course, I remind them from time to time the correspondence between the assessment tasks and the class sessions. If it is a major assignment, I give out a checklist which sets out the detailed performance indicators for each grade. I also put exemplary assignments from previous years on WebCT for them to refer to. Overall, I try to avoid over-emphasising assessment because I want students to learn for the sake of learning. But I don’t dismiss the role of assessment in motivating students and in helping them to stay on track.    

4.      Can you tell me about how your teaching has changed over the years? Can you give one example of a significant change in your teaching?

Recently, I noticed out of the blue that I’d been making less and less use of PPT in my teaching. Previously, I took a lot of time to create PPT presentations. I even took time to learn the special tricks like adding in animation effects, inserting sound, and so on. Each year, I would revise and improve on the PPT files made in the previous year. But I’ve noticed that in the last couple of years, I’ve been spending less and less class time talking students through my PPT files. Instead, I would either ask students to view the PPT which I’ve put on WebCT themselves, or sometimes I would turn the content of a PPT presentation into a pre-class quiz, put it on WebCT, and ask students to attempt the quiz before class. In other words, I’ve been cutting down the amount of lecturing, and in its place, I use more tasks and activities which students will try in pairs or in groups.

In other words, I’ve been shifting my teaching approach from transmission, which means typically lecturing, to a more task-based orientation. One example I like to cite is that when explaining the design of the Hong Kong English Language curriculum for schools to student-teachers, I used to do it through lecturing, explaining to them how the curriculum was configured. Now, what I do is that I take 30 terms from the official document, put each term on a label, and have students work in groups to produce a mind map which they think will represent the most logical curriculum for English language. When they’re done, I ask them to compare their mind maps, and to explain the logic behind their mind map. My rationale is that working through tasks will enable students to engage with the content knowledge more deeply and meaningfully.

The Last Eight Days

Last Monday, I had lunch with a few professional colleagues from a publisher. During the lunch, they remarked that some of the teachers they were working with on a curriculum project did not seem to have a wide enough repertoire in the methods of teaching writing. They wanted to know more about the training of ESL teachers in Hong Kong. I gave them a quick overview of the ELT methodology training in the 3 major teacher education programmes: the B.Ed., the PGDE, and the MA. I expressed my view that of the three programmes, the MA has the highest effectiveness from a teacher education perspective.

This is because the methodology course on the PGDE is only comprised of 50 hours, and this is far from enough even for scratching the surface. The B.Ed., a four-year fulltime programme, has a lot more contact hours, but as the student teachers have little real-life teaching experience to reflect on, they are often more concerned to complete the course requirements than to chew over the teaching methods they are introduced to. In any case, in my view, given our university-based, theory-laden, teacher education curriculum, there is a huge chasm between their theoretical knowledge of ELT methodology, and their competence in the informed and proficient application of methodology in diverse classroom settings.

But the MA is a very different programme. Almost all the participants are qualified teachers who have some teaching experience already. They have to pay exorbitant tuition fees out their own pockets. Their main motivation for enrolling on the MA is professional development. They generally take their studies seriously. That is why in my view, the MA is the most effective programme in terms of teacher education.

I also find teaching on the MA the most intellectually satisfying. I don’t have to start with the basics, and can delve into the more intricate concepts and issues right from the start. My own observations and insights will easily resonate with them. In class, they tune in more deeply, because they can bring the teaching ideas back into their classrooms and try them out immediately. Being used to working in teams, they mix with their fellow participants more readily. They are more sociable, and will not shy away from casual chats with me. Being experienced, they have teaching ideas to share with me and the other teachers. They concentrate more in class, and take part in the class activities actively. Very often, the only difficulty I have with class activities is not how to motivate them and get them to start, but how to stop them. Their assignments reveal much more critical thinking, and are often the culmination of much classroom experimentation. In terms of attitude, they generally take their studies more seriously than undergraduate students. They will make a point of notifying me in advance if they are not able to come to the next class.

And all this is despite the fact that as teachers of English, they are already overworked every day of the week, and are uncontrollably exhausted when they come to class in the evenings or on Saturday mornings.

Sometimes, I wish my undergraduates could sit in on my MA class meetings for once. They would then perhaps conduct their studies with more initiative and zest.

And interestingly, probably because as teachers they understand that good teaching does not come about easily, they are generally more appreciative of my effort. In comparison, undergraduates are more demanding when it comes to evaluating a course and their teacher. Of course, I’m not blaming my undergraduate students. It is just that, like they say in Chinese, you have to become a mother yourself one day before you can fully understand the difficulties involved in becoming a good mother.

For some of the teachers in my MA Listening and Speaking course, they are now coming to the last 8 days of their entire Master’s studies. I wish them all the best, and I hereby pledge that unless I will be away at a conference, I will attend their graduation ceremony in December. As for the Year One people, pump up your energy for the final assignments, and then do something to reward yourself during the hard-earned term break.