Saturday, April 09, 2016

Substance and theory

There are few places I feel more comfortable than the classroom, in the front that is. And despite a job with lots of potential to stay in the office and do a lot of cerebral stuff, to save another department's bacon, I've found myself deep in the classroom again for half of my working time teaching a course that should never. It swung into being just two weeks ago and will go on for another 13 weeks. Since it wasn't to be, it's almost impossible to give it to anyone else as it was only a framework. It's not all a sacrifice on my part. It being a course overseen by the qualifications authority, I've learned a lot about what is entailed in official courses that grant stamped certificates. That was one of my objectives.

The course itself has the not-so-simple goal that a passing graduate should be able to go into a tertiary level classroom with the English language capacity to succeed. Moving students to this level is something that conceptually is a big part of my company's reason for being. (Or shall I say "reason for buying" because it was an acquisition?) Moving students to this level is a big challenge if you think the difference between the usual requirement for university study and what university study comprises. IELTS, the main tool for testing academic English readiness, students should be able to write a 250 word structured essay, not 1000 words as in a normal course assignment; listen for particular words but not for whole meaning; listen to native speakers and not, say, south Asian intoned English; to read three articles in an hour rather than 10 pages as expected reading in a night. I'm a proponent of IELTS as a test but I knew this course wasn't going to be like preparing students for that.

It was almost accidentally that I stumbled though on some interesting ideas. While finding interesting listening on education, I let the class listen to a TEDtalk by Angela Lee Duckworth called "The key to success? Grit". Students, though reasonably smart, found it hard going. It didn't help that over half thought that the key to success was "great". To summarise Lee Duckworth's message: Neither IQ, nor social intelligence, nor health, nor good looks really predict success; only another characteristic, grit, predicted it. What is this non-technical sounding "grit"? It's the passion, perseverance and stamina to continue at a task, not just for an hour, not just for a day but for years and years. It's a nice sentiment and listening task to do at the start of a challenging course. It'd be great for everyone to have a little grit to get to this big goal.

While I was pacing around watching them listen to the recording, I was thinking about grit. Prior to teaching this course, I was teaching another group of students wanting to pass an in-house proficiency test analogous to IELTS that would allow them into our sister company's mainstream courses. However, most of them lack the foundation to make any impact on the test. They are a mixed bunch with some very smart young people, all Chinese, almost all between the ages of 17-23. There are two or three who in my estimation could learn and pass the test in the short time but they almost all lack exactly what Lee Duckworth mentions: grit. Even though the all would rather study mainstream courses, none of them takes the opportunities to learn, or to address the weaknesses that prevents them passing the proficiency test.

For a formative test two days ago for the new course, I randomly chose another talk this time on youtube, Carol Dweck's "Developing a growth mindset". (What I didn't notice at the time even with multiple relistening is that Lee Duckworth cites Dweck.) A growth mindset is another concept to explain the same issue of why intelligent, capable people don't succeed in learning things well. Simply put, a growth mindset is the belief that you can become a better learner with effort and challenge. That doesn't sound like brain science but there is a lot of implicit suggestion in the way that we teach and the way we praise that gives people the subconscious understanding that challenges measure us rather than grow us. Difficulty embarrasses us rather than enhances us. Of course, in another field like exercise no one would question that increasing difficulty would increase the gain (to a point).

In the group I have a namesake who is my best example of a lack of grit and negligible growth mindset. He is smart enough to learn how to pass tests; give him a grammar test and he can get it mostly right, and more accurately than anyone else. Give him a list of words and he'll look them all up in Chinese and remember them. But give him something he's not familiar with and he has no patience. In probably the most obvious situations, an Argentine didn't know what a "wedding" was so I asked my namesake to explain it. He thought for a moment and smiled embarrassed. And I asked him again, and he said he knew the meaning but couldn't say it. I told him that the Argentine needs his help and I need to know he knows it. But he didn't say a word. This is someone with conversational fluency, knows the words "get married" "special" "day" "church" "kiss" but maybe not "bride" and "groom" but he couldn't even start, or take the risk with others watching of doing the wrong thing.

But while these nice terms "grit" and "growth mindset" assume their way into my lens of the world, I remind myself of some of the base intellectual values I have. Do these really correspond to the substance of the world or are they just part of an interface of theories that could be an illusion for the workings underneath? Regardless two of the more gritty students in the newly started course enjoyed both listening tasks despite the difficulty and it rounded off a good start.

In another case of theory becoming substance, my final hurdle for something grand to hang on the wall was overcome with the acceptance by Trinity College of my diploma portfolio. The grades were hardly anything to show off but as a body of knowledge and experience, I'm utterly proud. Many courses might rubber stamp a capable practitioner's experience but I can say that I learned a lot from the process of the course and even through the trials of the portfolio that lasted for over three years. The rubber stamp is a nice addition and one that gives me credibility to be what I am in the teaching world. Perhaps what all good teachers need is a growth mindset, that all of the classes improves us all, that all of the gritless students pushes us to be more engaging and inspiring. And that we seek further knowledge about the theory and substance of how the mind works, how the mind might fail to apprehend and how success in learning finally prevails.

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