An Expe[r]iential  Activity (and additional thoughts)

Hello there. Let’s try something different. Okay. I am going to ask you to write something but first I want to give you a chance to think about the topic.

Assuming you are involved with teaching (if not thanks for reading and sorry you ended up here or, Hi mom). I’d like you to tell me about your plans for professional development for the rest of the summer (with the additional assumption that such things as seasons are still relevant). What are your plans for your development as a teacher? If you don’t have any (which is completely fine), why not?

Ready? There is just one catch. I’d like you to write your response without using the letter “R”. Please give yourself a maximum of 10 minutes to answer and try to write a paragraph or two about your summer plans, especially as related to professional development. Again you cannot use any words that contain the letter “R” which means you might need to find some other ways to say things. I know it’s not so easy. Good luck! Go!

How was it? How did you feel? How did you handle this arduous task?

I borrowed/adapted this activity from a course that I have been working on for around two years. The course, Content-Based Instruction, is offered to teachers around the world and funded by the US State Department as part of the OPEN program.

On the CBI course this task comes in Module 1 and participants are asked to write (without the letter R) about their personal goals for the course. It’s intended to give a meaningful experience and a reminder of or introduction to cognitive load. Participants are then asked to reflect on the experience. They are asked how the awareness gained from the experience can help us be better CBI instructors. They then are also asked to share their personal goals with the group without “the” R restriction.

Many participants report that they felt frustrated and stressed while doing the activity. Some suggest that more scaffolding would make the task easier. Some mention that it gave them powerful insights on how to change the assignments they give students. Some participants say the task gave them empathy for students.

The general consensus from course participants tends to be that the task is awesome and memorable. I also like this activity very much. I do. I think it’s a nice chance for participants (who are generally very strong in English writing) to experience a challenge like this and to be given a nice example of cognitive load. I also think the activity can serve as notice that this course might be a bit different than previous courses (with the emphasis on learning from experience and reflection on that experience).

Somehow, sadly, this activity reminds me of a workshop when the presenter asked us (mostly L1 users of English) to fill our mouths full of candy before delivering a self-introduction in order to replicate the challenges our students might face. Aside from being a choking hazard something felt very off about this activity and I am sure I didn’t gain the intended insights.

As above, I like the “No ‘R’ quiz.” But, at the same time, sometimes participants’ response to it gives me a tinge of discomfort. Let me try to explain why.

Sometimes participants will highlight the quiz as one of the most important and eye-opening experiences on the course (fine so far) and will then say something like, “I cannot wait to do this with my false beginner middle school students studying general English!” I think the quiz is great for teachers who are already good at English and might forget what it’s like to be faced with such high cognitive load requirements. I think it’s not so great for the majority of students who know all too well that it can be a struggle to write in English.

I find it a bit challenging at times to try to dampen the enthusiasm for this particular quiz with its particular rules because I want participants to value the experience and keep it in mind for their own teaching. What I truly want is for participants to think about what sort of experiences they could embed in their courses and classes that are tailored to their own students’ levels and needs.

When participants seem very (or indeed in my eyes overly) attached to this quiz I try to help them consider why it was noteworthy to them and how it might just be another hard task in a long line of hard tasks for students. I try to highlight how the intention behind the quiz was to give a clear example of cognitive load and to provide fodder for reflection. I argue that while their students might not know the term cognitive load they are likely intimately familiar with the concept. I sometimes mention that the early placement of this activity early on in the course and the fact it was quite novel add to it’s perceived importance. I suggest this is something they can keep in mind for their own classes.

Even though I’d prefer that participants not over-generalize the value of this activity I feel a bit like a wet blanket when I try to help them see my perspective that while it was a useful activity in this context it might not be so in others. How might you handle this?

Thanks for eading!

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