Friday, August 02, 2013

Researching what constitutes real and meaningful learning in the Japanese EFL Classroom

 Recently, I watched an online lecture by Rod Ellis titled "Micro-evaluation of Tasks," basically he was teaching methods that teachers can use to see whether or not their tasks actually work. You might have noticed that the title of this post does not have the work task in it. My understanding of Communicative Language Teaching or CLT and Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) has changed this past year. CLT is a range of principles about language learning and tasks are a way in which teachers can try enact these principles (Kumaravadivelu, 2009).  Therefore, I am applying Ellis's principles for evaluating tasks to a "communicative lesson." In the lecture, he discussed three perspectives from which a task can be evaluated:
  1. whether students enjoyed doing the task and found it useful
  2. the extent to which the task results in the type of learner behavior that the teacher had in mind when selecting or designing the task
  3. whether the task contributes to the students' acquisition of the L2
For me, number two seems to be the most worthy to investigate. Why? Well,  of course three is what everyone wants to know. Did my lesson facilitate the acquisition of a certain type of knowledge or skill? In my opinion this is difficult to prove because learners show improvement in the pre and post tasks themselves rather than the actual skill being mentioned. Furthermore, by focusing exclusively on techniques that foster the learning of a specific skill or language item, we are missing the big picture. What is the big picture? I think number 2 is.

Dick Allwright's (2003) theory of exploratory practice is very close to what has been in my mind but up to now I have been unable to articulate. Allwright says that rather than instructional efficiency, we should be concerned with the quality of life in the classroom which I interpret to mean that teachers and learners find classroom practices rewarding and meaningful. Therefore, instead of doing research which tries to develop improved teaching techniques, we need to develop our understanding of the quality of classroom life. There is no cause and effect relationship between quality of classroom life and teaching technique, but teachers and learners understanding what quality of classroom life is will benefit them.

This is kind of deep stuff! The past four months, I have recorded 5 classes at the junior high school affiliated with my university. Four of the classes were taught by my students and one by the head English teacher. I used three video cameras in each class. One camera was focused on the teacher and two were focused on a learner each. The learners wore wireless microphones so we could hear their interaction. The point of doing this was basically to investigate "2" or learners' behavior during the communicative activities. The fundamental principle of CLT is that classroom practice be real and meaningful to the learners (Hiep, 2007). Therefore, I wanted to analyze learner interaction to determine the extent to which the communication was real and meaningful to them. This involves transcribing their interaction which is a lengthy process I am still involved in. I also looked at the nature of the activities the students were engaged in using principles from Csikszentmihalyi's (1994) flow psychology. Flow psychology is the study of the mentality of people when they completely devote themselves to a particular activity and even lose track of time. This state of mind is called "flow." I first learned about it in van Lier (1996) and read more about it in Csikszentmihalyi (1994), which, by the way, is a good read. Basically people are most likely to experience flow when the activity in which they are engaged has
  clarity: concrete goals and manageable rules
  flexibility:  it is possible to adjust opportunities for action to our capacities or abilities
  feedback: we know how we are doing in the particular activity while we are doing it
  concentration: we are able to screen out all distractions and focus on the particular activity

In addition to recording student interaction, at the ending of the class, students answered a questionnaire about their experience to help me ascertain the extent to which they felt there was activity had clarity, flexibility, feedback, and concentration. In my opinion, students do not necessarily experience flow because a teacher employs a superior activity. Rather, students experience flow when they perceive that the activity facilitates clarity, flexibility, feedback, and concentration.

At two conferences in August, JASELE and JACET, I will make presentations related to these classes. My goals in the presentation will not be prescribe superior teaching techniques to produce fluent speakers of English but rather to consider 1) What constitutes real and meaningful L2 communication in the EFL classroom in Japan and 2) What is quality classroom life in my particular context. I think these questions are the most important ones to answer. Looking at learner behavior can tell us the extent to which students find the class meaningful as well as provide feedback to the teacher as to whether or not their expectations are unreasonable.  

  • Allwright, D. (2003). Exploratory Practice: rethinking practitioner research in language teaching. Language Teaching Research, 7(2), 113-141. doi: 10.1191/1362168803lr118oa
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1994). The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium. New York: Harper Perennial. 
  • Hiep, P. H. (2007). Communicative language teaching: unity within diversity. ELT Journal, 61(3), 193-201. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccm026
  • Kumaravadivelu, B. (2009). Understanding Language Teaching. London: Routledge.
  • van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the Language Curriculum. London: Pearson Education.