Dec 3: Seminar presented: “Technology-enhanced Writing Instruction: Flipping and Other Strategies”

Co-presented with Ms Jenny Leung

A two-hour seminar organised by OUP for teachers of junior secondary English

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Give teachers all the time they need to do good teaching

In his column in Ming Pao yesterday, renowned teacher educator Chiu Chi Shing (趙志成) talked about a former student who shared with him, on Whatsapp, a recent lesson that she designed, with inspiration from the recent drama series 張保仔. The teacher recalled how everyone, including herself and the students, enjoyed the lesson: “Everyone was learning, and smiling throughout the lesson’. Chiu’s other former students in the Whatsapp group joined the conversation, merrily added other ideas that could further spice up the lesson. Chiu deeply enjoyed that kind of professional dialogue on teaching and learning.
Recently, a primary schoolteacher related to me how she had developed an approach to teaching writing. This was a rather elaborate pedagogical design based on a process approach to writing. The process of designing the various steps involved a lot of pedagogical reasoning, as well as creativity. This would take plenty of time, but obviously this teacher enjoyed the process and she had the students’ learning effectiveness at the forefront of her mind. She then asked me for my thoughts on her pedagogical design.
Instead of commenting on her methodology, I congratulated her on her effort to try something different. To me, every class is different, and every teacher has their own teaching philosophy and teaching style. Certainly, there is an entire methodology literature on the teaching of writing, and one can always draw on this vast literature and make this comment or that suggestion. But the single most crucial factor, to my mind, is the teacher’s initiative in pedagogical exploration and experimentation, because as long as a teacher has thought about a teaching activity conscientiously, the effect will always be better than if he/she had followed the textbook mechanically. Minor adjustments can come later in light of experience gained from actual classroom implementation.
I’ve been calling for this for ages: Good teaching will lead to effective learning, (and subsequently higher assessment scores even if that is our ultimate goal).But to do good teaching, teachers need plenty of time for lesson planning. This is time worth spending, not only because students will learn better, but also because teachers will feel more professional and derive more satisfaction from their work. This sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and meaning, will keep up their drive for what could be a lifelong career!
Let’s get our priorities right, and give teachers all the time they need to do good teaching.

The dream for an automated composition grading engine

One of the ‘drudgeries’ of being a teacher of English, especially being one in Hong Kong, is the colossal amount of composition grading that comes with the job. In most schools in Hong Kong, teachers are expected to grade each and every composition written by students carefully. Grading here involves two tasks: scoring a composition according to a set of criteria; and responding to the composition, very often by correcting each spelling or grammatical error a student has made. With our still very large class sizes, especially in secondary schools, and the frequency at which teachers are expected to assign composition tasks, you can imagine how energy-draining composition grading is for teachers in Hong Kong. Despite calls by academics in L2 writing for more focussed grading so as to lighten teachers’ marking burden, this has not been widely followed in schools. One objection comes from school managers, who fear that focussed grading (as opposed to ‘thorough’, comprehensive, grading) may inadvertently gives students and parents the wrong impression that the teacher is ‘lazy’.

As a former teacher at 4 secondary schools, I understand the plight of teachers. Weekends are not for winding down, but for catching up with the composition grading that has been backburnered. I also know that what is most frustrating for the most conscientious teachers who are willing to sacrifice their weekends for marking compositions is that students keep producing the same errors. Hence, I am in full support of focussed response that prompts students to re-scrutinize their writing. This way, there is a greater chance that they will learn to write better. Granted there will be other errors not in question that will be left out, but learning to write is not a mechanistic process; as long as students keep on reading, and have a strong-enough interest in writing, their writing WILL improve. Teachers’ underlining every error in a composition and correcting it for students will only work under certain circumstances. There is also the question of how best teachers should use their time. For example, what about planning interesting and effective lessons?

As for the alleged objection by parents, this is where we should keep up our professional stance. Instead of succumbing to parents’ layperson  perception that the more red ink the teacher splashes on a student composition, the better (because at least the teacher is ‘hardworking’), schools should explain to parents what IS really best for their children, and this includes how children become good writers.

Anyway, to go back to my main topic, a major talking point in Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) is whether one day, composition grading can be entirely done by computers. My understanding had been that yes there were a couple of essay scoring machines, such as the e-rater Engine of ETS (Educational Testing Services), that had been developed, but they could only score mechanical, low-level, aspects of writing, such as spelling, punctuation, range of vocabulary, language form (e.g., ‘third-person’ singular in Simple Present tense), etc., not to mention the ability to RESPOND to a piece of writing. Six weeks ago, an acquaintance working in publishing assured me, during an informal chat, that the Intelligent Essay Assessor developed by Pearson was a highly sophisticated composition scoring engine that could be put to meaningful use.

I did not have much faith in that assurance, so I put the information aside. This morning, I thought, well, why not just check it out! The technology might have developed beyond my imagination! So I spent half an hour browsing IEA, half hoping for some miracle.

But there is no miracle. It might have made some advances over previous essay scoring programmes, but first, its application is still limited to certain learning situations, and cannot be freely used throughout the entire spectrum of school education; second, it still cannot RESPOND to what students have written, for example, by correcting grammatical errors that students have made or suggesting better lexical choices and sentence structures.

So, this is both good news and bad news for teachers. Bad news because they still have to burn the midnight oil toiling through student composition after student composition. Good news because their job security won’t be jeopardised at least in the forseeable future.

In fact, given the complexity of human language, I wonder whether a totally reliable and valid composition grading engine will ever be invented one day. One only has to look at Google Translator to get a sense of that complexity.

My new publication

Allow me to toot my own horn: I received today a copy of a new book that contains a chapter I wrote:

Sze, Paul M.M. (2011). An online peer observation platform for English language teachers in Hong Kong. In W.M. Chan, K.N. Chin, M. Nagami, & T. Suthiwan (Eds.), Processes and Process-orientation in Foreign Language Teaching and Learning (Studies in Second and Foreign Language Education Series ) (pp. 193-209). Boston: Walter de Gruyter. (ISBN: 978-1-61451-009-3)

Book launch of “News Tales of the South China Sea”

This afternoon, I attended the book launch of “New Tales of the South China Sea”, the official anthology of the Young Writers Award 2010. The anthology is a collection of outstanding entries for the Hong Kong Young Writers Awards 2010.

The launch itself was a simple ceremony. The writer of each of the ‘winning’ entries was invited to read an extract from their winning piece, and asked by the host, Nury Vittachi, how they got the idea for their work. Afterwards, these young  ‘winners’ stayed behind to sign their work for interested parties.

I hope there’re more events of this kind in Hong Kong. I’m sure there are plenty of talented young writers in Hong Kong, whose work we should celebrate.