Let's Make the Horses Drink
You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink [proverb]
Or can we? This little proverb seems to be an underlying reality in our experience as TESOL teachers nowadays. It is well known that new technologies and new communicative tropes, mainly social media, have impacted our world and, consequently, teaching in current times has had an enormous amount of technological tools developed for that end. However, there is also a constant feeling for many teachers that most digital work seems ''pegged on'' and basically an afterthought, focusing more on entertainment or as an ''extra'' to enrich the classes. Additionally, the perception that students don't really engage with our extra-class work is also a common thread in conversations among teachers. The experience I'd like to share with readers is one in which such technology is not simply complementary but actually an essential part of teaching and/or building rapport with students. Engagement was my focus (to varying results) but much was learned about the process. So, this article might help a novice teacher as a backdrop when planning a more digital-focused class, while the experienced teacher would benefit from reading this essay and contrasting their teaching with other points of view, thus also enriching their teaching experience.
One of the most powerful mental frameworks in our profession as educators is Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning in Action. A taxonomy is basically an organized structure in which a hierarchy of cognitive processes is ranked and expressed through measurable (assessment-prone) verbs which indicate optimum cognition processes. It was developed by Benjamin Bloom and a committee of educators, and has served as a compass in teaching ever since. It places the educators' objectives within a frame of work in three domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. From there, it details the kinds of objectives and actions that could guide our teaching, and logically, our assessment of students' learning.
It needs to be stated that a more holistic approach to teaching includes work within all three domains; however, this article focuses on the Cognitive domain due to the nature of our most immediate work as TESOL teachers. I do recommend, however, a deep reading of the other two domains, for their contribution to the learning process is essential and need focus, too. Yet, for all intents and purposes, the cognitive domain is made up of six skill levels that the teacher needs to consider when planning the blending of digital and traditional teaching. Being a hierarchy, these skills are ordered from lowest to highest order of objectives, and it is important to realize that there is a certain amount of skill required in the lowest order to move up to the next order less problematically.
The cognitive domain is formed of the following six skills:
- knowledge of specifics (memory of learned materials)
- comprehension: demonstrate understanding of facts and ideas by organising, comparing, translating, interpreting, giving descriptions, and stating the main ideas
- application: using acquired knowledge by solving problems
- analysis: examine and break information into parts by identifying motives and causes
- creation/synthesis: builds a structure or pattern from diverse elements
- evaluation: present or defend ideas by making judgments about information
These skills build upon the previous, as can be inferred from their nature. Thus, we can immediately notice that our digital tasks must know very well what they're there for. The skills needed have to flow hierarchically and not leave any step empty, for they build upon the other. Each skill brings with it a series of "verbs" which are better suited for the processes that need to be developed and/or acquired, so using the proper ''verb'' (i.e. command/task) is essential. One common mistake that is made in developing digital activities is skipping (or not considering) one of these rungs in the ladder, and asking students to perform tasks that are not naturally conductive to proper learning. Therefore, a more attentive reading of the taxonomy (especially its more contemporary remixes) is fundamental.
Figure 1: Categories in the cognitive domain of the revised Bloom's taxonomy (Anderson et al. 2000)
Tools and Instruments
The simplest dictionary definition for "tool" reminds us of what we are working with: a TOOL is anything used as a means of accomplishing a task or purpose (in: dictionary.com). This very simple line is the essence of this article: the tool is a MEANS and not an end in itself, which has been one of the most common siren-call in our field. Many unsuccessful teachers attack the tool (digital landscapes) as the end in itself, and not as means to get to the end (learning). This has probably contributed to the amount of horses that refuse to drink the water, once led to it. Many tasks designed by these teachers lack a reason to be; they are simply spaces to work, without much of a purpose, basically colourful animated nothings therefore missing their main goal, the spirit that would animate the learning in such spaces.
Having said that, and keeping in mind that it its the purpose that animates the tool, the teacher may then analyse what are her options when it comes to digital work. Granted, there is an infinite number of apps, sites, and programs which can be used to foster learning, but one doesn't NEED to use everything, but whatever tool is chosen must be in synch with the proposed task and level of learning. There is a diversity of tools for us teachers, and any teacher who feels the urge to go digital will find their favourite tools. In my experience, a very good starting point is the Google suite, as used by educators.
Google has developed a large number of instruments which can be used by a teacher when properly developing digital activities for her learners. All of the elements in the Google environment are free and the only necessary item in using them is a valid e-mail account. Thus, here is step zero: make a Google account for your teaching. The reason for this is that in current times a teacher must take into account all the elements of privacy and personal-life representations. It has been my experience that keeping things separate (you, the teacher, and you, the human) allows for more control of your work elements and also for your own privacy as an individual. One does not need to adopt a robotic stance in the ''teacher'' profile, but the possibility of controlling the registers is a very welcome element on the long run.
From their Google account, teachers are able to use all the elements of the suite in an organised and centralised "drive" (= a virtual disk drive from where all the work can be sent and to which students' work gets sent). Also, the Google account (expressed mainly via a Gmail address) allows the teacher to integrate all the Google suite elements almost seamlessly, making it easier and quicker to navigate through many different tools without the need to input passwords at every turn). The Google suite allows teachers and students to share written texts (Google Docs), spreadsheets (Google Sheets), photos (Google Photos), presentations (Google Slides), videos (Youtube), etc. As they are integrated in one domain only, our work as teachers gains a multitude of directions which otherwise would take loads of work to make it proper were we using different programs or sites to switch from one aspect of the task to the other. So, it is essential that a teacher who wants to digitally seduce their horses into drinking be aware of all the underlying work that must be done beforehand. I'd actually consider this step one: build and familiarize yourself with your Google Account.
BLOOM AND TOOL
The real challenge for teachers, thus, is to use these aforementioned tools within the teaching/learning praxis in a way that fosters the development of the learners' process. To do so, the teacher needs to take into account a variety of elements, of which the most important ones are:
· what do I need to teach? (syllabus, point in the course, topic)
· which taxonomical steps will I ask students to perform?
· which instruments are better suited for this?
We can clearly see that when one is about to go digital for a task planning is the most essential step. The teacher must know fully well what she is going to do, how she's going to reach that goal, and which instruments are the most suited. Not doing this will reduce the impact of the task, and will basically leave students with the impression that they are just doing more of the same, albeit digitally. There is much more to digital work than simply the content, as it has been made clear. At this stage, the teacher must reflect on what Kathy Schrock points out as an essential point in task design: how much are we really ''going digital'' and is this digital approach really diverting from the traditional approach?
However, there is a constant in any kind of digital work: even though the first step seems a bit obvious, there is a twist to it. Bloom's taxonomy is one of skills, which see content as a vessel for the development of said skills. So, at this point of the planning process, teachers must have this detail very well established in their strategizing. The "learning" of facts (aka remembering/recalling) will always be the first rung of the ladder. So, most, if not all tasks will start there. Identifying and interpreting will be at the start, and one should never ignore this one fundamental step.
Ms. Schrock has also developed an excellent table of resources for various Apps (all systems), Google Apps, and Web 2.0 Apps that work in tandem with Bloom's taxonomy. For the intents of this article, I focused on the Google Apps, for the reasons previously listed. Her table was my main compass in navigating these waters this semester.
Blooming Google in Action
At this point of the article, I believe the best strategy is to bring forth a couple of examples of my working with these concepts in order to make it clear to the reader that this approach in no way brings any kind of difficulty of extra work to the educator. The digital approach was certainly very successful when dealing with these cases.
In one of my advanced groups, the theme of the unit was technology and its impact on people's daily lives. Having presented the vocabulary in the book in a more traditional way, I wanted the students to be able to incorporate that vocabulary into a more sophisticated analysis of the theme. I first prepared a small vocabulary "quiz" online using Google Forms, the results of which I used to assess if students were at least aware of the vocabulary (I worked in a posto avançado, which meant we didn't have immediate online access, so this was done at home). This took care of the ''remember'' skill level. From there, students were asked to choose one of the words/concepts and try to read more about it from Google News (or just a plain Google search, organized by date). After this step, I asked students to write me an email or a Google Doc on how they felt that technological element would impact their lives in the future. This allowed me to assess their writing and their argumentative skills. I also asked them if I could share their writings with other students. Due to the fact that I didn't have Internet access in class, I printed a few copies of a few of the writings, and used them in class to spark debate. I was impressed at how natural the vocabulary arose in the speaking moment in the classroom. A simple task was able to incorporate many of the skill levels posited by Bloom, and the fact that student generated content was the backbone of the class not only made the debate lively but more importantly sparked students' interest in participating when I did this the second time. The rate of participation in the second attempt at the activity was 150% larger.
2. Teens/ Vocabulary/ Structure/ Disasters
I had a teens group who were studying natural disasters as their theme. As homework, I told them that they had to watch a Youtube video (immediate glee) and write down on paper all the vocabulary words they had studied and that they could hear in the video. We checked it in class, went over the vocabulary once more, and then focused on a disaster that is familiar to us: floods. The follow up piece of homework had them searching online (in Google/Google news) for information on floods in Brazil. I asked them to find information on the year, number of victims, and where it had happened. From there, I asked them to draw (on paper, or digitally) the images we would use in a newspaper report about a flood. Each student would be responsible to come up with an ''interview'' with flood victims. As a group, we came up with the questions (I made an offline Google Doc with their questions as they generated them, and then I proceeded to send the said Doc to the students for reference). They used the target grammar structure both when building and when answering the questions. After that, we wrote a ''report'' on a flood in Brazil, with images and all. It was interesting to see and be able to assess students individually, as they each produced English in different levels, and were not hidden by their classmates' performances.
The Engagement Issue
The point that seemed as the most challenging one was: I'm offering all this, why aren't they participating with the enthusiasm I imagined? With time, and with some reading, I was able to understand a few points related to that, and they are mainly divided in two fields: relevance and representation.
Relevance comes from the points that I have espoused throughout this post: what exactly are we doing? Are we going truly digital, or are we just using technology to substitute paper and pencils? You see, there's an enormous difference between these two points of attack. Simply transforming strips of paper into digital equivalents is a waste of potentials, but it its perhaps our first approach with technology. Going digital implies more than just substitution, for it brings other praxes to the table, and we don't really work digitally as we work manually. Students are highly sensitive to this, and they KNOW how it works. There is nothing inherently ''wrong'' with using technology as a substitute, but the teacher must have it clear in their minds that what they're doing is this, and they should be forthcoming when that is the case. I worked with "this is nothing different than what you've done before, but with technology" at times. However, there were lots of moments where "this is something you wouldn't be able to do in class before" and THOSE were the moments they treasured.
The second point is one of representation: there is a natural rejection of students to anything that remotely smells of school (attention: this is true mostly of teen students due to the fact that adult learners of TESOL have different motivations and goals, making them less reactive to the homework/life dialog). When a teacher thinks she will get full engagement because students LOVE gadgets, apps, sites, etc., she might be in for a unpleasant surprise: they will not come if you build it because IT LOOKS LIKE SCHOOL. Here is where the "cool" factor comes to play. Teachers can't simply have the luxury of not being actualised. Teachers who work digitally must be prepared to awe students, surprise them and even give them memes, songs, virals and videos WHICH HAVE NOT REACHED THEIR PEAK YET. For example, working with a 2 week old meme can actually smell of pre-history for these youngsters who are online all the time. I, particularly, try to imagine what things will my students WANT to share with their friends and classmates. Therefore, being current (actually, avant-garde) when it comes to memetic trends is of utmost importance.
In students' digital ecosystems your work cannot standout as something stiff and school-like. It must integrate English into their ''timelines'' naturally and with relevance in order to foster sharing and pride. Just imagine what your students would be willing to place in their Facebook timelines as a current measure, and you will start to find your way in the forest of digital TESOL. In other words, our work manifold, but our Mecca is that ONE ''Facebook post" students would be proud to have in their timelines. With that in mind, your students will certainly Bloom into English.