Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


8 Comments

Summoning the Spirit of the Dodo

Dodo bird on rock

© Chris Franek, 2013

Chris Franek returns with a word of warning to teachers about getting caught up in the speed of technological change.

In a previous post I talked about the infamous dodo bird that mysteriously became extinct in the late 17th century and how we teachers should take care not to suffer the same fate due to our occasional blind love affair with technology. It’s quite funny. My girlfriend often affectionately refers to me as a dodo. More accurately, she calls me a “dodo bird” which is somewhat confusing because I don’t know if she’s referring to an extinct bird or an idiot. I suspect both.

It got me thinking about the evolution of the meaning of the word dodo. As I mentioned in the previous blog post titled, “Is the Teacher Going the Way of the Dodo?” I talked about how the original dodo was the infamous now extinct bird that inhabited a remote island off of the eastern coast of Africa. Over time, that original definition of dodo was replaced by the more modern definition we have come to associate with the word, which as defined by Oxford English Dictionary, is “an old-fashioned, stupid, inactive, or unenlightened person”. Neither definition represents a condition any of us would want to find ourselves in – extinct or being an idiot. However, upon closer examination, I wonder if we should be careful not to quickly dismiss today’s dodo out of hand for fear of overlooking some of its hidden merits. Although our modern dodo may not have been able to save its feathered predecessor, it may paradoxically hold the clues to preventing our extinction as teachers.

I drive an older model car. It’s a car that I have had for many years now. Over the last few years, quite a few people have suggested to me that I should buy a new car. In the beginning, I felt a kind of urgency to do it but over time, I’ve started to wonder exactly why I would want a new car. I’ve always kept my car in great condition and, to be honest, I am quite fond of it. Nowadays, everyone wants to drive a new car, when in reality, an older, well-maintained used car performs the same task – getting one from point A to point B – equally effectively. Often, the argument for getting a new car can be distilled down to the notion that a new car is more effective than an old one. However, although that may be the case in some situations, I believe that in reality, most people want a new car more for the quality of “newness” rather than effectiveness, sometimes to the point of wanting one where having one isn’t even practical. If you live in New York City, for example, it makes almost no sense to have a car.

Technology is the classic case of “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. We’re obsessed with making technology the solution for every problem – sometimes to the point of seeing problems where problems don’t even exist. We claim that the motivation behind pushing technology into the classroom is that it is more effective for the modern learner but in reality, it’s often because it’s more fashionable and new. We live in a society that prizes “the new “and rejects “the old”. Newer is always championed as being better and I think nothing exemplifies this frame of mind more than our obsession with technology. The technology cycle is incredibly fast. You can get a gadget that is the latest “game changer” and within a couple of months it’s already half the distance to obsolescence and relegated to yesterday’s news pile. It’s easy to slowly and insidiously allow ourselves to be hypnotized by the siren call of technology’s manic sense of urgency. Society basically shames us into feeling we have to keep up with technology’s pace or risk being exiled to the island of irrelevance. So are we as teachers “stupid” if we do not board the technology bullet train with unquestioned zeal? Are we just being “old-fashioned” or “unenlightened” if we refuse to get with the program?

Continue reading


24 Comments

Is The Teacher Going the Way of the Dodo?

Dodo bird

Image courtesy of net_efekt on Flickr

In this article, Chris Franek considers the risk to teachers posed by new and ever-evolving technologies.

Is technology a giant meteor that is threatening teachers with mass extinction? Are teachers perhaps like the infamous Dodo bird that mysteriously went extinct from its remote island off of the eastern coast of Africa in the late 17th century?

Dodo – such a funny name. In the contemporary use of the word, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “dodo” as “an old-fashioned, stupid, inactive, or unenlightened person.” This more modern association with the word might have relevant application for the purposes of this post as well; as such a person can also find himself on a path to extinction – be it in the literal or metaphorical sense. I was curious about the dodo in writing this blog post so I did some quick research using our good friend, Wikipedia. One theory about the cause of their extinction centers on the idea that because they lived on a remote island without any predators higher up in the food chain, when they encountered humans, they were unafraid and easily approached. This inevitably made them easy targets for capture and, ultimately, a meal.

I wonder if our lack of fear or respect for technology as teachers (as people in general, really) is a correlation to the lack of fear dodos felt towards humans. Are we teachers being unwittingly preyed upon by our love affair with technology?

In the last decade, there has been an explosion of technological advancements, including wide access to broadband and mobile access to information on an unprecedented scale. Through the popularity of touch-screen smartphones and, most recently, the explosion of touch-based tablet devices coupled with an associated rise in the development of mobile applications or apps, information has never been more abundantly accessible.

Consider this scenario: just 10 years ago, if you had showed up at a restaurant and discovered that there was a one hour wait for a table, it wasn’t easy to search for other nearby dining options. Now, if the same thing were to happen, you could just take your smartphone, open up an app, and quickly find not only dozens of restaurants nearby but also reviews on all of them. Now, with the speed of the new 4G LTE technology, you can actually complete this task much more quickly on your smartphone than you could on your computer using your home broadband. This is where the technology zeitgeist has brought us. Not only is information highly accessible anywhere but it has increasingly been presented in more visually intuitive and engaging ways.

Now, education institutions are racing to catch up to the technology curve. They’re trying to figure out how they can get this technology into the classroom and the learning experience. Often, the results are mixed at best. Education administrators are frantically trying to figure out how to get an iPad into every student’s hands when the answer is getting students access to better teachers. I’m not here to say that technology shouldn’t or can’t play a role in the learning process. However, I am here to say that technology is not the learning process.

Continue reading


5 Comments

Is Language More Like a Meal or a Shake?

ClassroomChris Franek takes a look at why people want to learn a language and who make the best students…

I once knew of a young guy in his mid-twenties who was a former college baseball pitcher. He was obsessed with being fit and was always working out. As an outgrowth of his obsession with being fit, he eventually came to the conclusion that what was most efficient and convenient for him diet-wise was to treat the necessity of eating more as a problem to be solved rather than something to be enjoyed. In his final analysis, he concluded that not only was cooking a waste of time, but eating in general was a waste of time. Why, he reasoned, should one waste his time eating when science had evolved to a place where there existed an abundant supply of meal replacement shakes that were precisely formulated with all of the nutrients the body needs to function physiologically? Not only was it more efficient but it was much more convenient. I suppose my question is, do we really want to reduce eating to being nothing more than nutrient intake?

I am a foodie and an epicurean in that I truly love food. Eating great food is almost a therapeutic experience for me. I enjoy not only the eating aspect of it but I love preparing and cooking it. I love the subtly of flavors and textures that come with not only the immense variety of food but the innumerable ways it can be prepared. To subsist on a diet of shakes is unfathomable to me. Subsisting on not merely shakes, but any type of ‘diet’ based form of eating transforms our relationship with food from one that is incredibly substantive and deeply enjoyable into something that quite the opposite. Our relationship with food has devolved into something that is decidedly unenjoyable, unsustainable, and outright combative in some cases.

I wonder if our relationship and typical experience with learning language has perhaps de-evolved in a similar fashion. It’s very interesting to me to observe what seems to have become a really common approach to teaching language. Many teach it from the premise of reducing language down to being just a collection of dry grammar rules and vocabulary words. As a result, the language student’s experience learning language is often incredibly dry, tasteless, and unstimulating in terms of both the standard classroom experience and even more so with the proliferation of computer-based language learning platforms like Rosetta Stone. The reality is that language is much more than a collection of words and grammar rules. It is tethered to a culture and culture is the collective expression of a group of people. Language is that binding agent by which we can connect to one another and connecting to each other is an innate drive within all of us.

Reducing eating to being nothing more than a problem in need of a solution essentially strips the joy out of eating. It takes something that should be a special time to commune with our food and dismisses it as nothing more than a nuisance to be avoided. In like manner, by stripping cultural context out of the language learning process, we are arguably removing the joy and the life essence out of the learning experience. What is the difference between a person and a corpse? The breath. If a person has no breath, he has no life. He is a corpse. If language has no cultural reference, it has no life—no breath. It is dead.

I think in considering just how valuable and essential culture is to a language, I think we can simply consider what inspires someone to learn a language to begin with. Of course, there are the legions of people who learn English because they feel it necessary to do so in order to create better career opportunities for themselves. While I dare not argue against such motivations, I also don’t feel that necessity is synonymous with inspiration and true desire. People rarely do anything well when they are doing so out of obligation. However, people can do things remarkably well when motivated out of a sense of genuine desire and inspiration. Over the 16 years I have taught ESL, the best students I have encountered were not necessarily those who had the highest IQ or aptitude but rather those who had the strongest desire. Therefore, I would like to, for the sake of argument, toss out necessity as being what I would consider an authentic source of inspiration.

So why would someone WANT to learn a language? Usually, people choose to do things when they are caught by it. In the case of choosing a language to learn, most people don’t throw a dart at a board and randomly select whatever language it lands on. Ironically, however, if you look at the way language is typically taught, you would probably conclude just that. Honestly, what would separate one collection of grammar rules and words from looking any more appealing than another collection of grammar rules and words? Not much really. The reality is that people likely do not randomly choose a language to learn. Rather, they choose a culture to learn. Or to put it more accurately, they are caught by a culture. Why are French and Spanish among the most popular languages to learn? They are popular because people are fascinated and caught by the appeal of the cultures those languages represent. They are caught by the people those languages represent. They are caught by the customs those languages represent. They are caught by the food and the music those languages represent. No one is caught by a collection of grammar rules and words.

In a future article, I’ll comment on what my observations are about how we can kineticize (to coin a new phrase) the idea of including cultural context in language learning. It’s one thing to say that culture should be included while it is another thing entirely to offer suggestion for how to do so.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,458 other followers