education

Daring and doing: the first decade

Professional development is a big deal for us here at the Casa. So much so that we hold our very own yearly seminars, which are attended not only by our local TEFL community but also by professionals coming from different cities and states in Brazil. It is an amazing opportunity to strengthen our “PD muscle” and connect with amazing professionals and individuals from all over the globe. The 2014 edition of the CTJ TEFL Seminar was no different, and yet, it had a special flavor of accomplishment to it, since this year we celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The day began with ESL professor Rob Jenkins‘ plenary on a topic which never gets old – motivation. Rob reminded us of the importance of successfully developing an atmosphere that fosters student confidence, and that we should always be deeply aware of the difference between teaching and learning. That teaching has to be regarded as a byproduct of learning, and that it is our role as teachers to be deeply aware that what may seem to be great, solid teaching may not necessarily result in learning, especially if we find ourselves teaching lessons in spite of the learners and their individual learning styles, cognitive abilities, and unique personalities.

Later on, I had the pleasure of engaging a group of ten fellow teachers and professionals in my Seminar presentation “On wearing two hats: Teaching and responding to writing”. I began my talk explaining how the idea for that session had come up. That it had actually sprung up from a training session I had delivered earlier this year, and from the connections and the contributions made by this group of pre-service teachers who were absolutely motivated to learn more about teaching effective writing lessons, as well as providing effective corrective feedback on students’ writings. I also mentioned the fact that I’d begun blogging earlier this year, sharing with them the one feature of blogging that I appreciate the most (other than the fact that I simply love writing), which is the possibility of connecting with others. It was a very productive session, thanks to the amazing contributions made by my colleagues throughout. We got to discuss extremely important concepts when it comes to teaching writing. The first one is how fostering a sense of audience in our students is critical in actually motivating them to write. The second, the awareness that our students are in a quest for finding their voice and that we teachers need to nurture that.

After a lovely lunch (some delicious feijoada) by the Paranoá lake with a dear friend, I had the pleasure of attending an ever so useful session called “Mobile devices in the EFL classroom: What’s App 101”, delivered/facilitated by fellow teachers Daniela Lyra, Leonardo Sampaio and Paola Barbieri Hanna. The session began with some very pertinent discussion on the topic of cell phone use in the classroom, and how we deal with excessive student texting during lessons, for example. We also had the chance of clarifying any doubts we had regarding the use and the functions of What’s App, followed by some discussion on sensible social media use policy in schools. Daniela Lyra took us through the SAMR model, explaining each of its stages with some practical classroom examples. The session progressed into a more hands-on stage, with each of the facilitators working separately with smaller groups, sharing some extremely engaging activities in which students use What’s App in so many effective ways for learning and practicing the language.

It was then time for the last plenary of the Seminar, a virtual plenary delivered by RELOBrazil EFL consultant Heather Benucci. The title of the plenary says it all: “Care and feeding required: Sustaining your personal learning network (PLN)”. Heather shared with us some smart strategies for building and sustaining a strong PLN, as well as the countless possibilities of achieving professional development goals with the support of a solid PLN. One particular aspect she discussed called my attention. The fact that, after a while, and after you have managed to build a good PLN, we need to beware of the echo chamber effect. We need to try and diversify our connections by finding professionals and individuals who may not have similar views as our own, and from whom we may actually learn new things and broaden our perspectives, stepping out of the comfort zone. Another highlight of her plenary was an amazing video by Derek Sivers. It reminded me of how I felt before I began blogging and building my beloved PLN.

So, I leave you with this bit:

Maybe what’s obvious to you is amazing to someone else.

Ponder that for a while.

Da Aprendizagem Significativa

Para que a aprendizagem seja de natureza significativa, ela precisa ter pelo menos uma das seguintes características: possuir uma forte carga emocional, resultar de repetidas exposições ao objeto de conhecimento e ter o foco no sentido do objeto do conhecimento. Ou seja, o foco está no entendimento do objeto, buscando fazer sentido dele ao buscar conexões entre suas características e informações ou experiências que já possuímos. Isso é fazer sentido do objeto do conhecimento. Dialogar com ele a partir de uma perspectiva própria, a partir de suas experiências e conhecimento já existente. O foco está no processo, e não no resultado, como é o caso de quando estudamos para ter bom desempenho em uma prova, por exemplo. 

Retomo a reflexão proposta por Jorge Larrosa (2002), em que ele propões o par experiência/sentido como uma forma de pensar o aprender. O aprendizado significativo se materializa além da mera recepção de informação e imediata emissão de uma opinião sobre essa informação recebida. Com efeito, Larrosa critica essa postura imediatista e até reducionista do ato de aprender, dizendo que hoje em dia, dado o volume de informação que nos bombardeia todos os dias, desenvolvemos uma espécie de postura parecida com a de um autômato, que assimila e reage à informação recebida de maneira muito rápida, sintética e individualizada, ou isolada dos outros. Larrosa nos fala da importância do se permitir a experiência do conhecimento, experiência essa que prescinde de tempo, de paciência, de abertura e de uma certa passividade, no sentido de que é preciso sentir e observar o que determinado conhecimento faz conosco, ou que experiência ele nos propicia. 

Maturana e Varela (1984) argumentariam que a aprendizagem significativa seria análoga ao processo em que o ser vivo internaliza elementos de seu meio-ambiente, tornando-os parte de si mesmo, metabolizando a informação/conhecimento de maneira a transformar sua própria estrutura. É uma forma de apropriação do conhecimento, em que ele se torna parte de nossa estrutura, garantindo assim a auto-reprodução/renivação/reorganização de nossa estrutura. É por isso que aprender é manter-se vivo, segundo a visão da autopoiese. 

Complexity, Heutagogy and the Role of the Teacher

I have been immersed in readings of complexity lately. I must say it has been quite messy, for I have found myself wandering from one author to another and back to one again, and in the meantime I have also been reading from the resources that my cherished pln has been sharing on all of my online community platforms. While we’re at it (at ‘messy’ that is), I have felt compelled to share some of my impressions and thoughts on the subject of complexity from an educational standpoint, which will hopefully help me make sense of all of the… erm… complexity that I’ve been taking in. Coming and going from the writings of Maria Cândida Moraes to Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela to Edgar Morin has been absolutely amazing. It is a deep dive into the ocean of (seemingly, and I suspect literally, endless) imbrications pertaining complex thought and its affordances in the arena of education.

Moraes’ (2004) Eco-systemic thought drinks from Maturana & Varela’s (1984) concept of Autopoiesis, which implies that all living beings are naturally capable of continuously (re)producing the elements that make up their own selves/structures via interaction with their environment/ecosystem. It is this constant interaction, or metabolic process, which enables the continuity of life. This life-ensuring cycle takes place within living beings, which are open, autonomous, self-organizing systems inserted in larger systems, ad infinitum. Within the living system are its components, and such components are organized in a given way. Organization is another key concept for Maturana & Varela, in that it is the way in which any specific group of elements are articulated or organized, defining the class to which that being belongs, in other words, defining its identity. For Morin (1997, as cited by Moraes), a complex unit or system emerges from the articulation of interactions among the components that constitute that system. Therefore, a complex system is made up of its components plus the interactions among them which re-organize the system, ultimately ensuring the continuity of its existence.

Going back to the idea of systems within systems, Moraes says that life itself may be recognized as a system of systems of systems, where the processes are imbricated and attached to one another. A system is made up of parts which are in themselves systems made up of parts. In the words of Morin (1995, as cited by Moraes) “the whole is in the part which is in the whole”. Therefore, to understand the parts of a whole, an understanding of the whole is fundamental. Similarly, to understand the whole, one needs to understand its constitutive parts. Moraes (2004: 65) goes on to extrapolate that construct, saying:

quotation1

Society as a whole is also within each one of us from birth to death, by means of family conversations, culture, school, language, and the kinds of individual intelligences that prevail in society. The individual carries within himself the different modes of expression of the society to which he belongs. Similarly, the cognitive dimension of the individual is part of the organizational dimension of life. That, in a way, conveys the idea that human knowledge depends, fundamentally, on the relation of the individual with the outside world, of his active engagement with his surroundings. ~ Maria Cândida Moraes

Enter Stewart Hase & Chris Kenyon with their concept of Heutagogy – the study of learning as a self-determined process. According to these guys, heutagogy sets forth a pedagogical model which is in steep opposition to the model informed by teacher-centered learning. In their paper (2001), they explore the theoretical grounds onto which heutagogy is constructed, citing Rogers (1951), who advocates that learning is as natural a process as breathing, and that it is an internal process which is controlled by the individual/learner. Rogers (1969, as cited by H&K) suggests that willingness to learn in an ongoing fashion is a natural disposition in individuals, basing his student-centered approach on some key hypotheses, among which are (1) that learning can only be facilitated, and (2) that meaningful learning depends on how relevant or useful the learning of something will be for the maintenance or enhancement of self. I can see TEFL pros nodding as they read this, since this is an all-too-familiar approach for us.

Hase & Kenyon (2001) situate heutagogy within the scope (and as a development) of andragogy,  in that heutagogical practices have been useful in informing distace education rationale with its self-directed learning notion. It is only natural that self-directed learning be associated with adult learners, in my opinion. It is also among the reasons why online education offers learning opportunitites which are mostly seized by (and therefore catered to) adult individuals. Self-directed learning requires the intensity of commitment and hard work, as well as the acquisition/development of certain skills, such as tech skills, which children or teenagers would not commonly have the discipline/method for, or strength of intrinsic motivation which an optimal learning experience in an online environment generally requires from the learner. That is not to say that children and teenagers are not tech savvy or are not overall motivated to learn. It’s more that they are at a point in their cognitive development and social lives that naturally (and biologically) pressupose a certain level of rebelliousness, of playfulness (both of which might also and very well serve as drive for adult learners, but that is enough matter for another post entirely).

This whole argumentation around complex systems, self-directed learning, adults, children and teenage learners, brings me to the controversy of Sugatra Mitra’s model of self organized learning environments (SOLEs) and a blog post written by Jeremy Harmer on a talk Mitra has recently given in IATEFL 2014. Harmer concisely and effectively put into words what many of us, TEFL pros and educators alike, have certainly been puzzling over. Harmer begins by questioning Mitra’s educational utopia by addressing exactly the notion of self-directedness and motivation in learning.

quotation1

Any teacher with experience knows that it is one thing to put educational temptation in a child’s way (or an adult’s); quite another for that student to actually be tempted.  Mitra’s claim is that this always works, a kind of learner autonomy nirvana. Yet we know this is just not true. Some students try to be autonomous and some don’t. Some succeed and some don’t. In any group different roles are played; not all learners learn equally. There is nothing wrong (and everything right) with discovery-based experiential learning. It just doesn’t work some of the time. ~ Jeremy Harmer 

My point exactly, Jeremy. He goes on to argue that good teaching is about an awareness of one’s role(s) as a teacher. It’s about intervention and mediation. And may I add that it’s also about coaching and nurturing. We teachers are, after all, complex systems ourselves, who are part of the ecosystem materialized in formal education. Learners are also complex systems in constant re-organizational dynamics (learning), not only of academic content or any given subject-matter, but also of what it means to be part of a larger complexity which is the society in which they are inserted and to which they will hopefully contribute in order to implement maintenance, change, or even improvement. Harmer also critiques Mitra’s statement that knowledge is no longer necessary, since all knowledge and information is now available online. Mitra not only belittles the effectiveness and value of the education system, equivalently bellitling the role of the teacher, but he also fails to acknowledge the literally vital role that learning plays in an individual’s life. As advocated in Maturana’s autopoietic theory, living beings are open complex systems that need to assimilate matter/information from its ecosystem in order to reorganize itself, ultimately ensuring the continuation of life. As Harmer so eloquently (and fiercely) puts it:

quotation1

Our knowledge is, on the contrary, the seat of our intuition and our creativity. Furthermore, the gathering of that knowledge from our peers and, crucially, our elders and more experienced mentors is part of the process of socialization. Humanity has thought this to be self-evident for at least 2000 years and though it is the responsibility, perhaps, for younger people to constantly challenge the status quo, still that social interaction between experience and inexperience, age and youth etc is the way society grows and how children become socialized. ~ Jeremy Harmer

Which brings me to the role of the teacher. It is my belief that an awareness of such discussions is part of the role of the teacher. Never before in the history of mankind have we teachers been so intensely challenged to think and rethink, to learn and relearn. It is of the utmost importance that teachers become deeply aware of the complexities of the learning process. Educators have a duty to keeping up with societal change so as to engage such changes critically, reorganizing self to rise up to the challenges that are unfolding. Educators need to be aware that they are mediators of the internalization/processing of information, knowledge, and culture, and that as living beings, and humans for that matter, we do so via affectivity.

To come full circle in this post (which is already too long), Moraes (2004: 69) says:

quotation1

Affectivity is ever nurturing and transformational of living beings. In reality, we internalize all that we need to keep our organization alive, so that we can develop, evolve, and transcend. ~ Maria Cândido Moraes

And there’s that too, human warmth and affection. And there’s also context. Cultural and social context. Educators are sense-makers, learning-experience designers, and contextualizers of learning.

sphere ala escher

Hand with reflecting sphere by Katsuhiro Otomo