Recently, I spent all Sunday morning helping my 13 year old daughter study for an exam.
Now don’t get me wrong I am more then happy to sacrifice a Sunday morning to help my daughter study… However, nothing makes my blood boil more than sacrificing a Sunday morning (or any morning) to help her study:
- Something she doesn’t understand because it hasn’t been explained to her (and what’s more is told she doesn’t need to understand it only memorise it)
- Something which is totally beyond her and irrelevant to her at this stage in her education and possibly forever depending on what career path she takes…
- Something that by her own admission she will have forgotten by next week (as she neither understands it nor the reason for learning it)
So what was it exactly that she had to study?
The mode and manner of articulation of Galician consonants (in Galicia, the Galician language has co-official status and 50% of schooling here is, in theory, in Galician)
Ok, pronunciation is important and sometimes it’s useful to know where our tongue is and what it’s doing, what shape our mouth is making, or if we need to stick our teeth out or not when we make certain sounds (especially the more problematic ones.) I get that, that’s why you’ll quite often find my efl students making all manner of exaggerated facial contortions. They won’t be able to tell you what a voiced bilabial or labiodental stop is but they will know that the difference between a /b/ and a /v/ sound is all to do with where your teeth are and what your lips are doing at the time. What I don’t get, however, is what the purpose of memorizing that table was. Surely the task was more than to regurgitate the information my daughter so conscientiously memorised (without understanding and soon to forget), in an exam? It seems not…
A couple of days later, I coincidentally came across a great article on this topic. On ESLarticle.com, Willy Wood (educational consultant and expert on how the human brain learns) discusses the importance of relevance and emotion in the classroom to achieve high standards of learning, Use Relevance and Emotion to Intensify Attention and Learning
“You want motivated students? Provide them with interesting, relevant content and make sure they know why it’s relevant to them.” (Willy Wood)
The article talks about the ideal situation for learning, when meaning and sense are both present; the information is important to students (relevant) and they understand it. If students neither care about nor understand what they are supposed to be learning, high standards of learning will be difficult to achieve.
The author points out that meaning can be present without sense (our students find the material relevant but difficult for a variety of reasons; inappropriate level, poor teaching…) or sense can be present without meaning, students understand the material, however, they see little relevance in it and thus don’t engage with it. In this situation he talks about the importance of framing relevance. As teachers we not only need to make sure our students understand what we teach but also see the relevance of what we are teaching them; how it is important or interesting to them. The result being higher levels of engagement and achievement.
He also discusses the importance of emotion and how we can use it to help engage our students, especially when relevance is difficult or impossible to frame. This is when the way we teach something can determine whether our students engage with it or not.
Some teachers have the luxury of being able to decide the content they teach, the rest of us, constrained by curriculums and/or textbooks, don’t always have it so easy. However, there is sometimes a tendency to blindly follow what is set out for us and not put into practise those critical thinking skills we want our very own students to display. Does a 13 year old really need to know if the /b/ phoneme is a voiced bilabial stop? Does anyone need to know (or be tested on) this unless they are going to enter the field of linguistics or be teaching pronunciation? Is it surely not enough that our students know what ridiculous face they need to pull in order to make that sound? If you do find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having to teach something similarly uninspiring to students, Willy Wood’s advice about framing relevance and adding emotion to your teaching is indispensable.
Those of you who are lucky enough to choose the content you teach and test or assess, avoid any blood boiling by making it relevant and worthwhile…