Aha!

Where I’m coming from.

Why have I developed these what I consider adventuresome booklets and video clips for language teachers and their students? The short answer: to encourage you to try unpredictable, exciting and perhaps dangerous activities in your classrooms so that they become scenes of adventure.
Here are a few longer answers. I am a passionate advocate and practitioner of learner-centered education. The most powerful learning takes place when we are in charge and seek answers to our own questions, whether we are learning languages or ways to teach languages, or anything else. The usual teacher centered classrooms that follow mandated curriculums and use textbooks that are forbidden from dealing with taboo topics such as premarital sex, drugs, bullying, etc. not only fail to excite learners but in fact turn them off.
I also want to bring to a wider audience student-centered activities I have seen teachers use over the years. In addition, sharing techniques teachers I have worked with have found useful for examining their own teaching and the effects of what some might consider crazy activities might encourage teachers to feel freer to experiment, to be less homogenized and marginalized.
Like you, probably, I believe that advances in any field require questioning accepted assumptions. To the extent that we accept claims from others and follow the usual rather than examine claims, practices and results, we restrict our growth and do not reach our potential, causing our institutions and society to stagnate and become ineffective and unsatisfying. And, it seems to me that the practices and goals of our education systems, including our ESL/EFL teaching, have become increasingly fixed and limited and are in dire need of analysis. As the number of pathways open for distinctive teaching activities shrinks, standardization and homogenization sets in. This can only lead to less boring teaching and learning rather than stimulating classes. When Nobel Prize recipients are asked how they made their discoveries, they all say, “I ignored everything I had learned and started fresh as if I knew nothing.”
In many teacher preparation programs, the bulk of the time is spent reading articles, writing reports and listening to lectures about what others have done. “Learn from the experts” is a common refrain. Useful as these assignments might be, we can learn more if we ourselves analyze what our students and we do and we try activities the standard texts never consider much less advocate. By comparing the results of what we usually do and outrageous practices in our own classes, we can discover the extent to which what we believe is efficient and effective in fact produces the outcomes we desire. Doing this in an open and playfully experimental, yet thoughtful, way can lead to more exhilarating learning for the students and for ourselves. Ignore experts! Your students are the experts.
So, I present ways for you to pose some outrageous questions and to create teaching practices with a free spirit of adventure based on your analysis of the activities and student participation you see in your own teaching. This will enable you to better understand how and in what ways what you do influences your students’ participation, learning and development.
And because we discover more by doing, I am now going to ask you to begin doing activities right away, rather than continue reading.

Task number 1

As a first step to predicting why I chose the sound Aha! as the title for these materials, write words and draw sketches (with your students, if possible) that come to your mind under a written version of the sound after you say or read it. (It is best not to read/look further until you have done this. Otherwise, what other teachers and students have thought will limit your ideas and possibilities.)
Here are words and images other teachers and students associated with Aha! Any surprises? Are any similar to yours or your students?

Aha!

• Discovery
• I get it.
• Connecting the dots
•How I feel after an adventure
• A light bulb with exclamation marks
next to it:!!!!*
• A basketball net with a ball falling
through it
*Images to be added representing these descriptions.

Though there was a wide variety of comments and sketches, most were similar to these. Aha! (“Now, I get it. I have seen something I had not seen before.”) symbolizes how people respond after they are bewildered when faced with the unknown or unexpected to discovery and judgment by projecting what they know. Some were confused by the sounds and found it difficult to assign meanings to it.

Task number 2

Complete John’s Introduction—Incomplete Information Version—below by filling in each blank with a letter. As you do this, notice any Aha! moments. Do not go on to the next page until you have done this. If you ask your students to do the same activity, you can compare your thinking with your students’.*

John’s Introduction—Incomplete Information Version
= <=
A_ y _ _ k _ _ _ , m _ n _ _ _ _ _ J _ _ _ . I _ _ _ b _ _ _

i _ C _ _ _ _ _ _, I _ _ _ _ _ _ s , t _ _ h _ _ e o _ t _ _ C _ _ _ _ _ _

+
B _ _ l s b _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ t _ _ m _ _ _ t _ _ n _ _ e o _ a j _ _ z

m _ _ _ _ _ l.

*Here as elsewhere, I suggest engaging students. But I find it awkward to write, “have your students do the activity also” each time I ask you to do one. So, I hope that after you do the tasks, as a matter of course you will have your students do the same ones and ask for their reactions just as I ask you for yours. I often present students’ comments as well as teachers’ comments.

Task number 3

Silently read this Complete Information Version, and if you had your students do Task 2, have them do the same.

John’s Introduction—Complete Information Version

As you know, my name is John. I was born in Chicago, Illinois, the home of the Chicago Bulls basketball team and the name of a jazz musical.

Which version did you find more adventuresome, engaging, memorable, or challenging, and easier and less frustrating? What enabled you to fill in the blanks—Aha! moments—and which blanks did you find the most puzzling? If you had your students do Task 2 and 3, ask them the same questions. If you understand your students’ first language, invite them to write their reflections in their first language so the depth of their insights will not be impeded by their lack of ability in English. To what extent did they find the various tasks empty or full of adventure?

0-1 This video clip shows people discussing how they were able to complete John’s Introduction—Incomplete and Complete Information Version.

You heard some of the people say they were helped by the word order, knowledge of what people say when they introduce themselves, linkers or structural words (in, the, of) stock expressions (As you know) and experiential information (having seen Michael Jordan play basketball or the movie Chicago).
Experiential information of course can mislead. An Irish teacher initially wrote Cork, Ireland. And some students who did not follow basketball or movies had many blanks unresolved, though fewer than those who tried a version without the e at the end of h _ _ _ or an l and s at the end of B _ _ l s. Complete words can mislead as well. When some read the Complete Information Version aloud, they pronounced Illinois with a final z sound. These examples each show that what we think we know is sometimes wrong.
You also saw that some shared their feelings of frustration. They said that they preferred reading the 28 word introduction in the Complete Information Version with all the words spelled out, with no picture of a basketball and with no symbols for words: + for and, = for is and <= for was. Some said they would first ask students to read the Compete Version and then do the Incomplete Version. But others said that though the Incomplete Version was at first very puzzling, they found completing it rewarding as well as memorable. Some commented that though the Incomplete Version was at first very puzzling, they found reading the 28 word introduction in the Complete Information Version, with all the words spelled out, with no picture of a basketball and with no symbols for words: + for and, = for is and <= for was, uninteresting.

Describing precisely discrepancies between what we want to do, say we do, think we should do, and actually do and comparing results

Many books and discussions about teaching focus on wooly, positive sounding terms, such as positive feedback, scaffolding, recasting, high expectations, form focused learning, independence, communicative, rather than on actual language and gestures we use. They also claim a one to one relationship between what they advocate and success: “If you use communication activities (whatever they are) students will learn to speak naturally.” Over time, the jargon and claims can begin to sound like ads or slogans and soon become so overused and generalized as to be meaningless. Even when the words are defined, each person may interpret and enact them differently, and they end up hiding much more than they clarify and inform because they and the promised results are removed from actual interactions and the actual results they are meant to describe.
Of course, when I use incomplete and complete and student centered learning, they have the same range of meanings and drawbacks as any other words. But by providing a range of contrasting examples illustrating each separate term, we can make the problem less acute. For example, if I had printed the first 3 letters of each word containing blanks in the Incomplete Version rather than just the first letter, it would be less incomplete. And, if I had put images of a map showing Chicago at the tip of Lake Michigan, the red bull that is the symbol of the Chicago Bulls, and a basketball in the appropriate places on either version, the information provided would be more complete.

Task number 4

Try your hand at this version and write any insights you got about patterns of spelling or word order.

John’s Introduction—Less Incomplete Information Version

As you k _ _ _, my na _ e is J _ _ _ . I was bo _ _ in Chicago, Illinois, th _ hom _ of the Chic_ _ _ Bulls ba _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ t _ _ m a _ _ the n _ _ _ of a j _zz musical.
As people complete this version, some realize how frequent the letter e appears and that sometimes consonants are the distinctive features that help us understand, as the two z’s in j _ z z.
To have students fill in the blanks in the Incomplete Version you started with and then compare their partially completed versions with each other is another way to make it less incomplete since each person will notice different clues and will bring different experiences to the completion of the puzzle.
As you match comments you and others make with what you and they do and say as precisely as possible by analyzing to what extent they match transcriptions of exchanges that take place in your classes, you will discover discrepancies between claims and reality. Matching clarifies meanings of commonly used terms and thus both prevents us from just glibly using the terms as if they signified only one thing and focuses our exploration on actual practices and results. I emphasize exploring the extent to which what we see and hear in our recorded classes fits and does not fit the jargon in our field rather than the on the jargon itself.

I also urge you to generate your own words to represent your ideas for use in understanding your teaching rather than to only use those presented in the books and articles written by others. But most critically, I strongly recommend that you try to find out both to what extent an activity you use in your teaching has and does not have, say, high expectations for the students.
To check such a claim, you have to seek examples where you do and do not have high expectations and then compare the results—both what students are able to do and their feelings about what they have done.
Matching what we and our students do with claims about positive results and with actual results prevents us from saying the often-heard comments, “It worked” or “It didn’t work”—two of the most limiting suppositions in discussions of teaching. As we observe what we actually do and the results, we realize that It can refer to many activities or aspects of activities, and worked and didn’t work can refer to many different outcomes.
One of the reasons I intersperse video clips with text is to show how difficult it is to describe precisely the activities we do and the hundreds of communications that take place in even one lesson based on our memory. Another reason is that seeing and hearing what we and our students do over and over (which is made possible through recordings) reveals discrepancies between what we teachers and our students want to do, say we do, think we should do, and actually do, much more than written descriptions based on our memory can. To understand what our students and we actually do, I think it is crucial for our students and us to confront/ examine/ show/probe such differences and explore ways to make them more consistent with each other.
By looking and re-looking at excerpts of audiotapes and videos and using transcripts of sections of our classes, we are better able to see and hear what really happens. Then we can try to bring our teaching closer in line with our assumptions, the results we desire, and our students’ needs. We can also compare activities based on preconceived notions with alternative activities and so question the results of the claims and practices of both.

Three teachers’analysis of small changes to increase student-centered learning and increase understanding of how we learn

The central goal of the scientific method is to try to disprove what we think is true—to reject the null hypothesis to use the technical term. But the bulk of studies in education in general and language teaching in particular all too frequently try to prove their claims rather than reject disprove them. Unless we ask how what we think is helpful might be harmful and what we think is harmful might be helpful, we will learn nothing.
Here are some exceptions to the rule, examples of analyzing and re-analyzing data from transcriptions or recordings of classroom activities. They also illustrate ways to move towards student-centered learning, for both you and your students.
While listening to a tape of a lesson, teacher Vanessa Burton noticed she said “Very good” after each response. She had read that praising students, by saying words like “very good” is generally considered positive feedback. So initially she thought that she was doing what she should be doing.
After listening a second time, she said, “I thought I was giving positive feedback by saying ‘Very good’, but hearing it again, I noticed, for the first time, that I said it even after incorrect answers. I made the comment so frequently that I wonder if the words meant anything.”
As we discussed what we heard, and examined and re-examined a one-page transcript from the class, Vanessa wondered aloud, “How was my positive feedback not necessarily positive, maybe even negative? Was I perhaps doing a dis-service to my students?”
This is an example of questioning how what we think is good might be bad, how our ideas are not necessarily true. Another example would be questioning how what we think is bad might be good.
After our conversation, Ms. Burton asked her students to listen to a one-minute section of the recorded class and write down what they heard. Only a few students wrote Very good, even after listening a few times. When Vanessa asked, “Why?,” some said they had not heard it. Others said that “Very good” was said so frequently that it seemed unimportant. No student used the terms praise or positive feedback in the discussion.
James Desmond had read that students answer questions with more words if they respond after a 10 second pause than after a 1 to 3 second pause. But a few students in his classes always answered as soon as he stopped speaking. So Jim asked his students to write down his questions and their responses and to turn their notebooks over, when they finished. Then, he called on students by name: “Ali, please say what you wrote. Maria, your comment. Okon, I’d like to hear what you wrote.”
When Jim counted the words in each spoken response, he saw that there were twice as many as usual. He also noted that students who rarely said anything did so, probably at least partially because the few who usually responded had to wait until he called on them.
When Mr. Desmond asked his students how they felt answering his questions the alternative way, he heard many Ahas! Here are a few—some translated from what they said in their first language.

• “Previously I never answered any questions because I always missed a few words and so did not understand the questions. Writing the questions helped me understand.”

• “Juan and Fatima always raise their hands to respond while I’m still trying to digest the questions. There are 5 to 10 students who always respond while the other 25 of us say nothing and keep quiet.”

• “I used to think that I could learn to speak only by speaking. But I have to be able to listen and hear what is said before I can say anything correctly. When I tried to write your questions, I could only write a few words.”

• “I thought that you said ‘You like spring?’ But when I compared what I wrote with Cecilia, Rashida and Jose, I realized that you said ‘Do you like ice cream?’ It helps to match a written version of what I hear with others and with the person who said the question or comment.”

Textbook instructions often ask students to underline words they do not understand. During one visit, I saw a teacher named Aya Suzuki, instead, ask her students to cross out the words they did not understand. In another class, I was bemused to observe her tell the students to underline words they did understand.
After doing the latter, Ms. Suzuki’s students said that they were astonished to find out how many more words they knew than they did not know, which was as a result of this small and easy to execute change in the task.

Some final thoughts about observing what we do

Vanessa, James and Aya said by seeing and hearing with their own eyes and ears what they and their students did and said, they not only became more actively involved with their teaching and more autonomous than reading research reports or methods books for suggestions and advice about others’ classes. They also learned that prescriptions did not have the results they promised.
As they watched and listened, they also realized that much of what they did and said in their classes must have been out of habit and outside their consciousness, because before they watched and listened, they had very different perceptions and memories of what they were doing and saying. And they found discussing their actions and the results in relationship to the in-words was more valuable than just using them to discuss their lessons in a very general, superficial, one-dimensional way.
When you analyze your usual and alternative teaching activities and compare them trying to find out what seems to be more effective, you only have to listen to or view a 2 to 3 minute recording. Vanessa, James and Aya said that seeing and hearing very short segments of what they and their students did was as important as making the changes they made. And since they saw ways to alter what they had done while they analyzed the short excerpts (stop saying “very good,” write the questions first, underline what you understand rather than cross out what you do not understand), they were able to plan their next lessons at the same time. So, the time it took to analyze their teaching, by matching terms representing their ideas and claims with the activities, which they initially thought would add to their busy schedules, in fact often decreased the time they usually used for planning. Also, these changes were easy to try because they were often simply the opposite of what was usually done and were small.
Many articles about observation describe what the authors consider complete observation programs in which they schedule one observation per term. Because of this common practice, you might assume that when I presented only one vignette from the three teachers, I think one observation per term should be the norm. To me, one observation per term is as meaningful and effective as no observation.
Can you imagine any experiment in any other field where you compare treatments and look at the results say two times per year? Would producers of yogurt or other milk products check the quality of their products only twice a year? What about cars, TVs, cell phones? Not only are products checked regularly but also the people who produce them regularly discuss ways to improve the quality of their products, the efficiency of their production and the satisfaction of their customers.
Ditto for coaches who video games and practices. They watch and analyze them immediately after each game and practice, over and over again, not once each season.
Teachers I have worked with who were actors or playwrights said that they have found it helpful to think of transcripts of lessons as excerpts from a play, a soap opera, a mystery story or any other drama. “How could I make this scene more or less frightening? How could I add humor to these lines? How could I cut the length of each player’s lines?” In short, how could I adjust the lines slightly and cause large changes in the audience’s (students’) experience–results?
Consider playing with your lines and your students’ lines as if you are a playwright or actor who wants to compare the power of the audience’s responses to alternatives! Keep in mind how authors consistently move beyond the conventional, the accepted, the orthodox, the mundane to create scenes, poems, stories that produce so, so many Ahas from us.
(I have told many teachers, students and parents that counting the number of Ahas I hear from each student is a better indication of what they are learning than giving tests and then assigning grades of A, B, C, etc. A’s mean nothing if there are no Ahas!)

0-2 Teachers simultaneously planning their lessons based on desired results discovered by analyzing transcripts their students produced.
At the beginning of workshops, I often write the following on the board. Though this is the end of the introduction to the booklets, it is the beginning of the workshop-like activities in the subsequent booklets and video clips. So, I would like to give you the same suggestion.
believenothingisaybelievenothingyouread
ratherobserveandtranscribemomentsfromyour
classroominteractionsandinterprettheminmanyways
Following these rules, you can incorporate T. H. Huxley’s* sage advice in your teaching and learning.

“Sit down before what you see and hear like a little child,
and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion,
follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads,
or you shall learn nothing.”

*T.H. Huxley, 1825-95, self taught zoologist, interpreter of Darwin’s ideas, medical doctor, Leader of the Royal Society, etc.

Measuring clarity and comprehensibility

The 4,000 or so words you just read have a Flesch Reading Ease of 66% and are at the 8th Grade Level.
0-3 Here is a video clip of teachers talking about Flesch Reading Ease and Grade Level and how these measures can be useful.