Wednesday, August 28, 2013

the method to my pedagogical madness

In an email to a good friend, I wrote the following:

Working with low-level students again is a reminder of the constant uphill battle against the inertia of Korean culture—the built-in aversion to associating with strangers, the deep-seated passivity, the reflexive retreat to silence when in doubt. How in the hell do young Korean girls ever become pushy, outspoken ajummas? I guess the answer is marriage and kids. Taking responsibility makes people more proactive, more authoritative, more confident. I want to give my shy undergrads a taste of what it's like to take responsibility, so I'll be making them teach the lessons out of their textbooks. There's going to be resistance at first, but the first-day mixer exercise was training for what's coming next: after I teach the first chapter of our textbook, the students will take over and teach the rest.

Traditional Korean classroom culture is heavily teacher-centered. I saw this at my old university job, and see it even at my new university job: a Korean professor stands in front of forty students, microphone in hand, lecturing while the students quietly take notes.* All focus is on the teacher. A clearer example of mammalian dominance hierarchies in action would be hard to find. Lecture is priest-centered pre-Vatican II Catholicism, not diffuse, egalitarian liberal Protestantism. I was trained, and firmly believe, in a different approach—one that is ruthlessly student-centered. This approach is, to me, far more valuable for the students than any teacher-centered approach could ever hope to be. Of course, demanding that Korean students comply with the dictates of a student-centered format isn't easy: as I wrote above, the teacher can expect resistance at first. Ultimately, however, this approach forces the passive student into a proactive role, accelerating the much-needed process of maturation.

The goal of Korean socialization is to produce people who fit smoothly within the larger hierarchy.** The goal of Western socialization is to produce functioning individuals who, no matter their respective goals and motives, contribute to the overall cohesiveness of the social fabric. Teaching English therefore means foisting upon my students a raft of Western values, including a Western notion of maturity (i.e., independence, initiative, inventiveness, etc.). That can't be helped: to teach language is to teach culture; the two are inseparable. The mixer exercises that I've been doing with my kids have been causing them no small amount of stress; even the more compliant classes have had some difficulty adapting to, and even understanding, what it is I'm trying to do. One mixer exercise in particular—the one I want to talk about in this post—is crucial for getting the students ready to take on the role of teachers.

The procedure works like this: I make the students count off—one, two, three, four, one two, three, four—until everyone in the class has a number. All the ones then go to one corner, the twos to another, the threes to another, and so on. This has the advantage (from my point of view) of separating the students from the friends they've been gossiping with. Once divided into four teams, the students are given a task—in this case, a topic to discuss or a simple question to ask an interlocutor. I then explain the round-robin format: groups will meet in three rounds; after each round, groups will switch and meet with other groups. In this way, each group will meet with the other three groups. Visually, the round-robin looks like this:

Let's focus on what Group 1 is doing according to the above chart. In Round 1, Group 1 teaches Group 2 and is taught by Group 2. In Round 2, Group 1 teaches Group 3 and is taught by Group 3. In Round 3, Group 1 teaches Group 4 and is taught by Group 4. Basically, whatever material Group 1 is teaching will be taught three times—an excellent way to reinforce learning. And the same goes for every other group.

I've taken our English conversation textbook and divided each chapter up (aside from the first chapter, every chapter is formatted the exact same way) into distinct parcels; Group 1 will be responsible for the first two sections of each chapter; Group 2 will be responsible for the next two sections, and so on. Luckily, the sections that contain spoken dialogue can be taught through the means of "audio scripts" located in the back of the textbook.

No method is perfect, of course, and the above method, which makes the students almost entirely responsible for their own learning, suffers the major drawback of not giving the students an opportunity to hear proper English modeled by native speakers. To compensate for that problem, I plan to review crucial parts of each chapter with the class, after the round robin, so that the students can listen to, and repeat, properly modeled English.

And that's it. That's the method and the madness. I was inspired to create the above format (for all I know, this sort of round-robin activity has been developed independently elsewhere) by the concept of the graduate seminar: such seminars are heavily student-centered, with the professor playing the role of shepherd and facilitator. Overall, I think this approach offers several benefits aside from making the students more proactive and responsible. Among other things, the method combats boredom by keeping the students constantly moving and mixing. It promotes team synergy; as Korean students get used to working with each other, they'll naturally form bonds of loyalty that will be hard to break, and that loyalty will have the side effect of making learning more pleasant. It also obliges the respective teams to meet outside of class (online or in person) to discuss how they will teach their sections, which adds something of a "homework" aspect to the proceedings. I'm hopeful that this approach, once the students get used to doing it correctly, will bear much fruit, and that by the end of the semester my kids will have become methodological converts who are confident, proactive, and most of all talkative. In English, of course.

*I take a very dim view of lecturing as a "teaching" technique. See here.

**As my Confucianism prof explained, in Confucian societies the individual isn't a discrete, atomistic monad, somehow distinct and defined on his own terms; instead, the individual is more a nexus of various social interrelationships, like the knots in a fisherman's net. Who you are is very much defined by where you are in that network. While this dynamic also obtains, to some extent, in Western societies, the Western conception of the individual undercuts the significance of hierarchies and interrelationships.



  1. Intriguing method. Does it apply well to other sorts of English-language-learning exercises?

    Also, what is the instructor doing for these 14 minutes?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. Jeff,

    If you could give me some examples of what exercises you had in mind, I might be able to tell you more. In the meantime, yes, I think the method is applicable to a variety of topics, exercises, etc. Obviously, there's an outside-of-class component in which the students have to plan what they're going to teach and how to teach it, and there's an in-class component in which the actual teaching and mixing are done.

    During the time that the students are interacting with each other, the teacher is mainly monitoring, i.e., making sure the students are on task, speaking only in English, and moving their lessons forward (lower-level kids are bound to get bogged down in directionless, desultory conversation).

    There may be ways to "smarten up" the activity by making it even more specifically task-oriented... I'll have to look into that.

  3. Thinking a little bit further and deeper about this...

    If there's a disadvantage to the three-round format, it's that students don't have enough time for truly deep, lengthy discussion. Because there's a physical component to this activity—the constantly rearranging pairs—the exercises that the students do must be comparatively brief and to the point. I suppose one could lengthen the amount of time in a single round by eliminating the third round altogether, then beginning the next day's session with Round 3, cycling to Round 1 for the second round, and so on.

    An advantage of the round-robin format, though, is that each group is exposed to the other three groups, which makes this arrangement great for well-designed information-gapping exercises or surveys in which each group must poll the rest of the class about some issue.

    For your more advanced classes, a quickie version of the round-robin exercise might be a good, energetic way to start things off before your class reverts to its standard format, whatever that format might be (I know you also prefer student-centered activity). Whether the format will work as well for your lower-level classes is anyone's guess; I'm trying this format as an experiment with all my beginning and intermediate classes. For all I know, I might crash and burn. We'll see.



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