Showing posts with label neuroscience. Show all posts
Showing posts with label neuroscience. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Interaction and Learning: A reflection between the mediator teacher, the students and the knowledge

Albert Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn”. We all know who Albert Einstein was, but why would he say those words? It is easy to understand when we look at it from a practical perspective. Teaching is not as powerful as creating and finding real opportunities for our students to develop their own knowledge. This is true for all kinds of learning, including English language learning. Among all the skills and contents to be learned, there is the facilitator teacher. Students of English benefit from a teacher-mediated focus on specific language forms, for example. 

Why is this true and what are the factual supports for that statement?

The reason why students of English benefit from a teacher-mediated focus is highly related to how our brains learn. It is interesting to notice that, according to James Zull, deep learning occurs when there is a sequence of experience, reflection, abstraction, and active testing. Whenever we are lecturing, we are not providing our students with the challenge to go through all these stages. To create opportunities for them to learn and deeply acquire the language, for example, is to have them experience it, reflect upon this experience, hypothesize and finally test their hypothesis in an active way. That means that they are doing the job, not us. What Einstein tried to say is that teaching is about exposing knowledge. Learning is about creating knowledge. 

However, if students can create their own knowledge, why would they need teachers?

Students need teachers because although awareness and ability are developed autonomously, there must be an interposing between the communication environment and the students. Only by designing favorable circumstances for the students to interact, they are able to learn. In an attempt to explain the language acquisition, Krashen has stated that it happens through interaction in an environment where the learner has lots of comprehensible input. However, as Vygotsky theorized, the language input must be one step beyond the learner’s proficiency stage. Both, Krashen and Vygotsky agree with the fact that the teacher is a mediator, and the teacher’s role is to provide this favorable learning environment. 

So, how can teachers deal with this situation?

In fact, teachers deal with language acquisition and mediation situations all the time. EFL teachers are not different from that. When EFL students are learning specific structure and use of language forms, for example, their focus might not be the language study itself. According to Harmer, it should take place in a lesson sequence. It is the teacher’s responsibility to design a lesson that supports all the learning opportunities, including the ones related to language forms. However, these opportunities are better designed when covered through interaction-based activities. That means that, although the lesson includes language forms, the structures are presented, practiced and produced along with well-designed activities that prioritize interaction.

            A good example to illustrate a situation where a language form is being comprised in a lesson sequence is the following. Last year, my group of adults was learning how to make questions with the verb be. They did not know that they were learning about this because the focus was not on the questioning itself, but on the fact that they had to know about each other's information in order to fill out a survey. Their objective was to complete the sentences:

____________ is married.
___________ is single.
 _____________ is an architect.
 __________ and __________ are from Rio. Etc.

In order to complete the sentences, they had to interview their classmates. To get the right answers, they were supposed to invert the be sequence and form questions. Although they were not aware of the syntax rules for question formation, they could follow a model and apply the logical conclusion to all the sentences. For example, the model on the board was:

Are you married?

With only that model, they could produce all the other questions, practice the new structure and grasp the rule by themselves. There was no deductive explanation and the focus was not on the structure, but on the task.

Every learning process benefits from a facilitator teacher that creates real opportunities for learning to happen. Being a facilitator means making appropriate stimuli available for interaction to take place. It is only by mediating the interaction between the content and the learner that deep learning takes place. Mediating knowledge is helping our students go beyond their proficiency stage. Although teachers may focus on specific structures, the lesson objective must be interaction. It is the teacher’s role to design effective lessons that build an invisible bridge between the structure and the students’ communication in class.

Juliana Canielo de A. Benedetti

Read more:
Jeremy Harmer ( 2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching.
James E. Zull (2002) The Art of Changing the Brain.
Stephen D. Krashen (1987) Principles and practice in Second Language Acquisition
Lev S. Vygotsky (1987) The collected Works

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Art of Designing eTasks

There are at least two different ways to help teachers who are designing iPad activities with students to evaluate the tasks they create. The  SAMR  model helps a  teacher/task designer become aware of what stage the task falls into in terms of the use of tech.  The Bloom Taxonomy applied to apps helps teachers think about the kind of questions we ask students and how we should vary the tasks we offer. By delivering the workshop From Image to Deep Learning, I started to understand that  teachers can also look into the learning cycle as a whole, and how the human learning brain works to promote deep learning. The ideas I share here were inspired by the book The Art of Changing the Brain, which is a must read for any educator willing to take a look into the biology behind learning.

In the workshop, I asked the audience how to teach questions with does to teens, and develop tasks having the learning cycle in mind. After a quick debriefing, I showed a simple iPad activity I carried out in class of 11-year-olds, talked about my take in the lesson, and expanded on why I think this task pleases the learning brain. Now, I post my ideas here to help me reflect on my practice, having the learning cycle described in the aforementioned book in mind.

I showed students a quiz about a famous person I knew they would be interested in. Students took the quiz, and I inductively helped them notice how to make questions about a third person`s likes and dislikes. Then, I asked them to gather information about a celebrity they follow to make a quiz of their own.
I was afraid that I`d have no pictures to work with on the following class, but to my surprise, students had bought the idea and had pictures and lots of information to work with. I was ready to go, so I set the iPad activity and monitored students. Here is what two pairs produced using a wonderful app called visualize.

In the art of changing the brain, Zull talks about phase 1 - concrete experience. In this phase, there is activity in the sensory cortex, where we receive, gather and begin to process the visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory information. Phase 2 - reflexive observation, seems to describe an activity that takes place in the integrative cortex. It is time to connect sensory images to prior experience in one`s neural network or schemas. In class, passing from phase 1 to phase 2 might take time as learners need to relate new information to what they already know. We cannot rush. We must allow time for thinking/recalling as well as time to reflect upon the learning experience.

In the activity I proposed, my students were exposed to a visually appealing quiz about a person they were genuinely interested in, and took the quiz themselves to find out how much they knew about the person. As I see it, students went through stage one and two of the learning cycle before we started the second part of the activity.

In phase 3 - abstract hypothesizing, the front integrative cortex is at work. Students start to prepare to do something with the recently acquired knowledge. In the iPad activity, I asked students to get the information about their favorite celebrities and start to put it in the format of a quiz for the other students in class. And by asking students to make these quizzes to communicate their recently acquired knowledge, teachers allow students time to test their hypothesis and think. In phase 4 - active testing, students shared their quizzes, and by doing so, provided peers with concrete experiences, so the whole class was back to phase 1. Learning becomes cyclical and on going, and hopefully they will remember the language point long after the day of the test.

In conclusion, instead of asking students to pay attention, it is better when we can engage students in tasks in which they  are supposed to reach outcomes, or ask them to look at the topics from different angles. Instead of sitting still, learners could be asked to move around to see the details. In other words, by making learning more concrete, we might reach concrete outcomes.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

What do You Think? Questions in the EFL Classroom

“What do you think?” For most students, there is no question more enervating than this one. In reality, Fernando is thinking about Natalia’s rear end, Leticia is thinking about red shoes, and Amelia is wondering if her hair should really be so pink. The teacher is referring to the North Pole, to a week in the desert, to a flight to outer space. “What do you think?” Think what?!

Teacher In Classroom

Let’s get more specific. Look at the paragraph on page 94. “Most people start a diet on the first day of the week.” So, asks the teacher, on what day did Mary probably start her weight-loss program? Monday, teacher. Great! Is that enough thinking for the day? How many minutes are left in this class, anyway…..
Is it hot or cold in the Amazon? Hot, teacher. Is Florida north of the equator; yes or no? Yes, teacher. What do you think about the architecture in Brasilia? Think what?

Questions that are too broad or too narrow are really a dead-end with regard to inducing extensive thinking or communicating. “Thinking” is usually best fueled by substance, in the form of reasoning, figuring out, relating to experience. For example, among the classes which are a requirement for people wanting to obtain a driver’s license, there is one session devoted to small-group discussion of contentious traffic situations  described by the teacher on printed handouts. In this case, “what do you think” sparks a heated exchange between persons who have experience these or similar situations, who know others who also have, whose speculations and opinions are percolating with reciprocal mental energy in the buildup of accelerating reactions among the participants. This is thinking.

Yes/No questions, queries which ask for a fact or statistic, all have their place in classroom work, in the daily constructs of communication. But they do not usually result in the extent or complexity of thought – hopefully, expression – which the teacher has in mind when he envisions students in the process of interested reaction to stimulation of thought. Some questions inspire furtive, repeated attention to the movement of the minute hand on the clock on the wall. On the other hand, effective thought-provoking strategies can open up fields of mental/verbal exploration that will result in looks of surprise and slight frustration when the bell rings. Already, teacher?   

Katy Cox

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Image Conference

The image Conference, Organized by the BRAZTESOL Brasilia team was a perfect combination of keynote presenters, great atmosphere and interesting, colorful, dynamic sessions. Workshops  were delivered in 45 minutes. I was not sure at first I would like my session to be so short, but I enjoyed the format as a participant because I got to see much more, and as a presenter because  Denise De Felice and I had to do our  best to be concise and efficient in our delivery. 

Here is a peek of some of what happened in the conference.

From Images to Deep Learning

 A Whole Brain Perspective

A new bridge between neuroscience and language teaching is being built, and teachers today can learn more and more about the learning brain. Images, videos, and games have always been explored in the language classroom in different, creative ways, but teachers  are now becoming aware of how tasks affect the brain biologically, how emotions trigger or hinder the learning cycle, and how knowing all that can help teachers design more engaging tasks. Many of the ideas here were inspired by the book The Art of Changing the Brain.

Play with the images to to create a story.

Listen to the story and check how different they are.

We asked participants to reflect on what Hamilton`s problem was by showing a series of "why" questions. It was very interesting to see the "why" technique in action. The audience starts to feel the power of brainstorming as one more "why" on the slide projects the impression that the group needs to keep collaborating, thinking to reach a high order conclusion.  

Here is what the audience said

He was asked to do what he couldn`t do.
He was not motivated enough
He was too passive
The kind of exposure he got was always the same
He never got a chance to actually be a more engaged student
because of the way he had been exposed to input, he became too passive
He never got the chance to actually be a more engaged student
because of the way he had been exposed to input, he became too passive.

Ham`s problem according to The Art of Changing the Brain.
"Ham`s mind was in the past, it depended on sources outside himself, and thus he had no power. He had no control over his own learning.
I am not saying that he didn’t need information or that he should abandon his television programs. Experience and information are necessary parts of learning. They are the raw materials for it. But by themselves they are not enough; they are about half of what it actually needed.
The structure of the brain tells us this. There is a part for receiving, remembering, and integrating information that comes from outside. And there is a second part for acting, modifying, creating, and controlling. If we are to learn in the way that transforms, we must use both of these parts of the brain. 
"Ham needs better communication between the back and the front of their cortex, between temporal cortex and prefrontal cortex. But since the prefrontal and temporal cortex are so distant from each other, you might wonder if the connections between them are strong. Maybe it isn’t so easy to keep balance. Maybe the front and back parts of our brains don’t talk to each other much.But, again, the actual physical structure of the brain gives us new insight. In fact, some of the most obvious wiring in the brain is designed exactly for this front/back connection.
You could confirm this yourself with the simplest of dissections of one of the cerebral hemispheres. If you were to gently slice open the top of one hemisphere from front to back and a few centimeters from the midline, you would see large tracks of fibers running along from back to front. And if you dissected carefully, you would find four major bundles of nerves that carry signals between front and back.We can also see this bridge in the learning cycle, as shown in the illustration below. It carries us over the line that separates the experience and reflection part of the cycle from the abstraction and active testing part. Data enters learners through concrete experience where it is organized and rearranged through reflection. But it is still just data until learners begin to work with it. When learners convert this data into ideas, plans, and actions, they experience the transformation I have described. Things are now under their control, and they are free of the tyranny of information. They have created and are free to continually test their own knowledge."

A concrete example

A Practical Example
Concrete experience
Abstract hypothesis
Reflective observation
Transformation line

Reflecting back

Compare the two tasks below and reflect on what happens in the learners` brain. Which task engages students` brain more deeply?

Task 1 - look at the images and create a story. Compare it to the actual story.

Task 2 - Listen to the story and put the illustrations in order.

Our point - there is nothing wrong with the tasks, They are just different. It all depends on the teacher`s objectives. Task one helps to engage more areas of the brain as compared to task 2, which may help to promote deeper learning.

Here are some posters we can ask students to make. Having students  manipulate language and images to create  posters engages the learning brain more deeply than just showing students a poster that someone else created.

What can you do with a chair?
What other purposes, other than teaching, can you use a chair for?

After delivering this workshop, our aim is to keep thinking about the learning cycle and tasks can engage the learning brain more deeply.

Thanks Denise De Felice for being my partner and inspiring change in me.
Thanks Cleide Nascimento for illustrating the story.
Thanks Katie Cox for lending us your storytelling expertise.