Archive for August, 2010

the use of force

August 7, 2010

The other day,
I witnessed another struggling young mother
completely helpless in the face of her screaming toddler.

She tried to pull him along.
He pulled back, slipped, falling, hit his head,
thus intensifying his screams,
and presumably making her feel all the more embarrassed
and incompetent.

Except anyone who has kids or has worked with them
knows how difficult and common such situations are.

In these cases, I always repress my urge to intervene.
I avoid intervening for 2 reasons:

1. Help from a stranger could be even more embarrassing and unwanted.

2. My help might not work; these sorts of patterns of behavior are rarely changed in 1 day.

However, I usually feel that the problem is quite obvious: No one like to be forced to do things, and the adult in these situations usually resorts to increasing degrees of force.

It’s sad that so many parents don’t realize how easy children are to PERSUADE. They are typically entertained by the smallest trifles, and can usually be convinced that anything is fun with the right attitude. However, adults rarely make things look fun.

Their short attention spans also abet the adults advantage.

The proper approach to tantrums is to find DISTRACTIONS. Find something that looks fun, and get the child to focus on that; give them something to want and give it to them!

Of course, the danger with this method is that it easily leads to spoiling children. They may begin throwing more tantrums to get what they want. Notice however, I didn’t say give them what they originally wanted. Let’s assume that’s totally off limits. Find something that’s fully acceptable, that you can trick them into wanting, and give them that!

In any case, I don’t deny that when kids go too far, they need to be brought in line. There are times when force is necessary. But the less the better.

With one’s children, I advocate choosing your battles carefully. Avoid them as much as possible, and especially in public, where the child may even recognize that they have distinct advantages, and is more likely to be stressed in any case.

Why not give them as much as you can? Furthermore, I would like to believe that children who believe their parents want to give them everything will be more understanding when they can’t.

All too many parents see their jobs as keeping their children from all the bad things they will want to do and knee-jerk react in the negative. They quickly lose their children’s trust. Since kids will still fight for what they want, these parents will live an endless battle.

Often, when adults get into a power struggle with children, they feel they have to prove their superiority. Since beating children has become passé, these instincts often lead to failure.

However, if one remains focused on the practical goal of accomplishing whatever tasks were at hand, then adults should still have the ability to OUTSMART children. Accomplish your tasks by re-introducing them from alternative perspectives that give the child desirable options.

If you’re their ally, and they can really understand why certain rare refusals are really necessary, and if such refusals are typically accompanied with desirable alternatives, then I believe most children can be quite cooperative.


does everyone understand?

August 7, 2010

Scott Thornbury’s blog
justifies the “have any questions” question,
as part of fostering an authentic environment
of honest communication.
This environment of trust may be contrasted to
the dishonest and distrustful environments
that Thronbury’s critics, Alan Waters, in particular,
(Applied Linguistics, December 2009)
seem to accept. Such suspicious patronization of one’s students
is offensive to Paulo Freire’s egalitarian conceptions of education,
and reeks of his ‘banking’ model of education,
where the ignorant students must be coerced into compliance.

First, this discussion seems
to confuse addressing
“is” and “should”.

Second, even the defenders of “does everyone understand?”
seem to acknowledge that a great deal more of investigation
is actually necessary to determine if everyone understands.

To my mind, the most insightful observation
comes from Linda Aragoni,
who brings up the point that the discussion
should not just address purposeful duplicity
for the sake of avoiding embarrassment;
it also needs to consider
the fact that misunderstandings
are often unaware that they are such!

This comment hopefully reminds one that
the conversation should be less about
malicious deception and accusations,
and more about the daunting challenges
to being completely honest.

If one wishes to support Freire’s ideals,
one may prefer to identify loci of deception,
both intentional and unintentional,
and purposefully attempt to eradicate them,
or one may may simply hope to wish them away.

Which strategy is more effective is hard to say,
and may depend greatly on the personalities
of the implementer and of his subjects.

How effective is Freud’s ‘talking cure’.
That depends on who you ask.
What personality factors are relevant to its success?

Does pretending something make it so? Or,
is acknowledging problems the best way to solve them?
I’d argue effective action requires deploying
both these strategies in their proper contexts.

I’d also argue honesty is useful
but not sufficient for learning.

In any case, saying “be honest” is probably
even less useful than “do you understand?”.


August 6, 2010

immersion issues #2

August 5, 2010

The problems of

1.) students being afraid/unable to ask questions


2.) teachers misunderstanding questions and offering unrelated answers
(答非所問, as the Chinese say)

are serious enough in native language classrooms. How much more serious are these problems in a foreign language classroom? Most importantly, what can be done about them?

Travelers in foreign countries may have encountered the situation where they make the mistake of asking for directions in a yes or no format. “Is the museum this way?” Upon hearing “yes”, they proceed, only to discover that the museum is not that way at all. After experiencing such a situation too many times, one may realize that it is better to ask, “where is the museum?” even if one already has some presumption. If the informant answers “yes” to “where is the museum?”, the traveler safely concludes that the informant has not understood and proceeds to ask someone else. From the other perspective, informants who wish to be helpful don’t just answer “yes”; they answer “yes, the museum is that way” so that they can endow the traveler with complete confidence.

When a teacher loses a student’s confidence the educational endeavor is essentially lost. What use is a question if one can’t believe the answer? (there are uses, but not ones the teacher should strive towards!)

While failing to offer any concrete advice, I can only say, I wish that teachers would strive to ensure that they fully understood students’ questions before answering them.

Regarding the first issue, it is often up to the teacher to ask students questions to determine their comprehension and their ability to delineate it. The question, “Does anyone have any questions?” is often useless. Targeted questions may intimidate students but only insofar as they reveal their weaknesses. Shouldn’t that be sufficient indication that one needs to slow down and back up, until students have sufficient basis, and confidence, to ask their own questions?

immersion issues #1

August 5, 2010

One major problem with common implementations of the immersion method in foreign language education is that teachers continue to explain rather than exemplify.

Let me first address reasonable justifications for immersion:

2 major dangers in using the source language in a foreign language classroom are:

1.) Over-use, by both teachers and students, so that the amount of practice actually listening and speaking the target language becomes unjustifiably diminished.

2.) Over-identification of target vocabulary and patterns with source conceptions, such that the student remains uninformed of the way in which target items may slice up conceptions (or syntax) in ways quite different than their source language.

Banning source language in the classroom resolves the first issue, except in so far as some students may then simply not say anything. The question I wish to address is whether it resolves the second issue.

When a teacher hopes to explain A by saying “A means B” in the target language, then this definition is certainly no better than the students’ understanding of B. If the students’ understanding of B is a direct translation into the source language, then the problem of over-identification has certainly not been resolved.

Without dismissing the great challenge of freeing our minds’ from our mother tongues’ assumptions, I would like to suggest that a plethora of examples is a more suitable way to utilize the immersion method to free the student from over-identification.

Concise, comprehensive examples populated with maximally simple (relative to the students’ level) partner vocabulary can help a student identify both syntax and semantics, as well as offering phonetic repetition. Concise simple examples insure the students comprehension. Comprehensive examples should allow the students to recognize where their source identifications may be in error.

Explanations may describe proper social context but are only as good as the students’ familiarity with those contexts (as implied above). Furthermore, they typically fail to demonstrate permissible syntactic contexts and rarely advance auditory familiarity.

Thus, I argue that examples more than explanations provide the benefit that immersion intends to offer.

Finally, regarding the immersion method in general, I would claim that absolutes are for the simple-minded. Black and white demands are primarily justified when one can not trust others to strike an appropriate balance. However, when one’s mind is focused clearly on the goals on maximum target usage and maximum target comprehension, then why wouldn’t one use all available resources to these ends? Thus, I would argue that source language has justifiable usage in the foreign language classroom.