I’d like to tell you about one student of mine, just #onestudent. She is a 22 year old first semester student in the Graduate School of International Studies at the university I am currently employed at in the modern capital of South Korea, Seoul.
The student, Yeajin, told me she is enjoying most of her classes and her life in graduate school. She said some classes are challenging but the workload is manageable. She is not really sure what she wants to do when she finishes grad school but is thinking about working in an NGO or government agency. From my observations she is a very polite and sweet young woman. She seems hardworking and curious. My impression is that she is bright and thoughtful. She is not extremely outgoing or outspoken but will freely share her thoughts when asked. She is a pleasure to teach. I might be kidding myself but it seems to me that she looks more and more comfortable speaking at length in English every week I see her.
I am not about to take any of the credit for this, though. She is working hard and she has so much English around her and she uses English every day in her life and in other courses. She is taking courses like Global Economics and East Asian Security in English. In her coursework she has classmates from all over the world. She is enrolled in my course called International Discussion, which is a spoken fluency focused course talking about issues of concern to students like Yeajin and her classmates. As above, I think she is making great progress each week. I also think she started out in a good place for these improvements.
I am not an expert on such things but in terms of speaking I think she’d be in the 6.5-7.5 range on IELTS. I am pretty sure her TOEIC score will be above 900 soon if it is not already. I guess she’d have to be nearing in on C1. I think her TOEFL score is just on the verge of being high enough for her to able to study in US university without restrictions. I don’t mean to imply that these mean much of anything (or convey much of anything for that matter) but just want to give you, dear reader, an idea of this student’s level. She can handle complicated discussions and makes her points clearly. Her pace when speaking is not so fast but she is very good when she gets going. It does not require “undue effort” from a listener to follow what she is saying. Mistakes are minor and outright errors are rare. In short, it is easy to understand what she is saying. She is a strong user of English.
I am not sure if anything I have said here sounds very much out of the ordinary or is very exciting. Maybe her English abilities sound right in line with expectations for a student in an English medium graduate program. You might even be wondering why I told you all this, and I am not 100% sure either.
I guess this is where I should mention that Yeajin has never left Korea and is from the most sparsely populated and rural province.
I would say she is higher than her average peer in the grad school in terms of communicative competence even though she is in her first semester. In the first few weeks I found myself wondering exactly why she was so strong at English. So, I asked her. I might have said something like, “Sorry for this strange and direct question but why are you so good at English?” She seemed a bit surprised but calmly answered that she has always liked English and that she reads in English a fair amount (outside and previously to grad school work) and watches lots of TV and movies from the US. She also said some of her high school classes (like science and history) were in English as her school was designated as an international/foreign language school (this not the type with mostly international students, as more than 85% of her high school classmates were Korean). Accordingly, she had more hours of English than the average high school student. Now, she has lots of non-Korean classmates and has weekly private lessons focused on TOEFL with a native (please note the lack of scare quotes here) English speaking teacher.
Another reason I shared this is because I am sick of people talking about how there is such a massive dearth of English in Korea apart from the occasional English class. I am, of course willing to admit that Yeajin is not a typical student but I am not sure if the experts realize that students like her exist. Please kindly note the lack of scare quotes on the word experts. This is the result of a long and contentious internal monologue.
Where were we? Oh yes, EFL. Korea is an EFL situation. It seems to me so many people harp on about Korea being an EFL country or an outer circle situation they fail to see the whole nuanced picture. There is English out there. Just as an example, the young lady next to me in this coffee shop in Itaewon as I write this has just read more than half of a graded reader in the time it took me to aggressively but gently tap out these words. In past
rants posts I have expressed my confusion about terms like ESL and EFL and have also offered up some newer categories that might be more accurate and telling. What is my point? Maybe something about relying on labels like EFL too much. Yeah, that and not assuming students need to go abroad to improve their English or to have access to English.
There are a good many ideas out there about what it takes to be a good English teacher and I’d like to share some of them here.
How can anyone just point out the important factors in teaching English in just a few hundred words?
I’m not sure if this can be done as I intended it to be but I will try.
Student-centered learning is key. Many T’s are all about the TTT (teacher talking time) which should be reduced. Aim for 20%.
I+1 is also an incredibly important factor. We need to make sure all our lessons are pitched at this level.
Students work better when their affective filters are reduced. This is something teachers need to be concerned with.
Teachers also need to be sure they are empowering students. Students work better and learn more when they are empowered.
Of course, just doing the above is not enough. Lessons need to be planned appropriately. Proper scaffolding at each stage!
The stages of the lesson need to follow the correct frameworks and have the interaction appropriately planned for each section.
All the above is important but doesn’t really mean anything if we are not eliciting creativity from students, which we should do.
Let’s be clear, in the 21st century it is the responsibility of teachers of all subjects to foster creativity in all students.
But we need to be sure to consider students’ different learning styles and multiple intelligences or it will all be for naught.
Unless we create lessons that match the unique needs of all our learners we will be wasting our time and theirs.
Learners are all different. Our lessons need to match their styles and intelligences plus wants and needs and moods and more.
Learner’s needs must be considered and we must also ensure that we are developing their critical thinking skills. This is a must.
Students need to be given tools to succeed in the modern era. We should remember most of our students are digital natives.
However we do it, as teachers we need to be sure that we do and remember everything listed above and make them a priority.
I hope and believe I have offered some useful ideas and starting points here.
Though, if all the above fails you can just flip the classroom or employ gamification.
In response to a previous post of mine, “Stories about aims on the board,” a friend brought the LOLs when she suggested I state the aims at the start of my post. I thought about doing so for this post but no “by the end of this post, readers will be able to” came to mind. I suppose my personal goal is simply for me to share the stories, which might, in turn, help readers sharpen their thinking on this topic. Or not. It was fun for me to think about these stories and how the have impacted my thoughts on getting and responding to feedback from students. In any case, I hope you enjoy the stories.
(I do apologize because I think some of these stories have been mentioned already on this blog or in various places around Asia)
- In a previous job the end of term evaluations were really a big deal. As much of a big deal as Ron Burgundy. These evaluations were among the primary determiners of teachers being able to stay employed at this particular institution. One term, I decided I would be sure to get a perfect score in the only question on the survey that was not subjective or based on the opinion of the students. Or so I thought. Question 5 dealt with the teacher being on time for the lessons and I endeavored to be in the classroom 5 minutes early and ready to start exactly on time. However, my score on Question 5 was not perfect. This results of my experiment were not exactly surprising to me or my peers but they were very interesting. It became even more interesting when a colleague who was, shall we say, not so concerned about starting on time got a higher average score on this question than I did. Very interesting indeed.
- Another classic feedback story for me in that particular institution was when I got nearly perfect scores (on every question) from one group. I knew that I hadn’t done my best and I was not very happy with my teaching or my attitude with this particular group. To my mind I deserved the poor scores which I felt certain I would get. I was shocked when I saw the very high numbers from this group because I felt I had failed them and myself. After I got over my surprise and tried to figure out what had happened, the most reasonable explanation for the high scores was that one student in the group, the oldest and most influential student, was in my class the previous term and we had a very good relationship. I remain convinced to this day that he persuaded his classmates to give me high scores. This was based on my relationship with him and my good work the previous term but not what I did with that particular group. What a strange way to evaluate teachers.
- I once killed a man with my disclosure about not reading end of term official feedback.
- In my first few months as a teacher trainer I was faced with a predicament. My colleague was a new trainer too, and he was also new to Korea and there was a learning curve about Korea and the teaching and learning environment and everything else. To make matters worse before we started the job we were told there would be a curriculum for us to follow. There was no such thing so we were pretty much making things up as we went along. The course was supposed to focus on a mix of English and Teaching skills and knowledge. My colleague decided to do a strand on pronunciation, which included learning the IPA including sounds that were particularly challenging for Korean students (and as it turned out Korean English teachers). There were some complaints about this strand. The complaints went to me and my colleague but mostly to the training center admin. We had a meeting with the director and she encouraged (read: demanded) him to stop the strand. I didn’t think it was proper to change in the middle based on “hallway feedback” from just a few participants. Regretfully, I was not assertive or convincing enough and he acquiesced to the encouragement.** When we got the final feedback for the course (which humility almost prevents me from mentioning won a national award) the most frequent feedback was that we should have kept going with the pronunciation strand. Most noteworthy for me was a comment that went something like, “I didn’t even really like the pronunciation thing but I think you should have kept going. You are the trainers and if you decided it was needed then we should have respected your thinking and gone along with it. I was very disappointed we didn’t complete this strand.” Although it was not an ideal situation I felt like it was a very valuable learning experience in many ways.
- At the same training center six months later the training center director grabbed my arm in the hallway and said that there had been complaint about something or other. I asked her how many complaints had been received. She said 3 (of 33). I said with a smile, “Great, only 3 of 33! We need to keep on doing exactly what we are doing. We are collecting feedback weekly and hopefully these issues will come up at that time. Thank you very much for the concern. I think we can surely handle this as a group. Thanks!”
- In that same course my colleague and I collected feedback using different colored papers and we were very impressed with the level of detail the participants gave. I think this was based on the fact we had done it before and that participants knew we valued the feedback and were very willing to consider what they had written and possibly make changes. I also think our feedback on previous feedback was useful in helping participants see what sort of feedback was useful for us. I didn’t necessarily agree with all the feedback we received but it gave me a glimpse into the minds of the participants. It might be pure speculation at this point (quite a few years later) but during the course there were some questions about certain projects we asked participants to work on. Spending 20-30 minutes on the theoretical background for what we were doing (and helping participants see that TBL wasn’t something we just made up) seemed to dramatically increase buy in. I was very pleased we got the feedback relating to their confusion and was very happy to have the chance to address it before it was too late.
- On that very same training course the most common comment in the end of course feedback was about how impressive it was for the trainers to sit down and calmly discuss the feedback we had received and to make changes based on it but to also explain why we weren’t making changes and to share new ideas for participants to get the most out of the course. I think one example was about participants wanting us to correct their journals for grammar mistakes. This was very far from our intention with that component of the course and we said we wouldn’t do that. We did say that we’d be happy to correct 10 sentences a week from each participant on sentences they weren’t sure about. From reading the comments at the end of the course I got the impression the participants were happy to be heard and happy to have their requests dealt with in such a way. This fits in very well with my idea of such feedback as a starting point for a conversation. Some of the teachers remarked that they’d love to create such channels of communication with their students.**
- In my current place of employment they ask me if there are any students I’d like to prevent from completing the end the term official feedback. I can’t prevent any student, just the ones that didn’t come to class enough. I was fascinated by this question the first time I received it. I think I have actually only “banned” one student from completing the survey (he actually literally never came to class). This policy gave me something to think about but I think in principle I agree that it’s better to get feedback from the students that attend class.
Thanks for reading. I do hope it was mildly entertaining and/or gave you something to think about. These stories are sort of related to my upcoming presentation at JALT, which I mentioned in my most recent post. Any comments or stories welcome.
*I have always regretted not being more forceful day and it was a valuable learning experience which has caused me to be a bit more eager to speak up in such situations and a lot more eager to use whatever capital I have developed.
**This was like music to my ears but I realize it is not always easy or comfortable to do so. I think in some places requesting such feedback can be taken for weakness or as the teacher not knowing what she is doing. This is unfortunate but I don’t think it means it’s impossible. The example that always springs to mind is pairwork. There are many places where pairwork is outside of the norm but I think many teachers believe in it and work at it and implement pairwork in their classes. Surely this is not always 100% comfortable for those students unfamiliar with it but teachers push through. Why? And why can’t they when it comes to feedback? Is collecting feedback that much more uncomfortable for the students? Is there another reason at play here? Maybe teachers don’t value feedback or don’t hold the belief that it can be beneficial to them and their students. If that is the case, I can’t really argue with the belief. What I can partially argue with is the cop out that collecting feedback will be uncomfortable and should then be avoided at all costs. Well this note is turning into a mini-rant so I will stop there.