Tag Archives: talking taboo
A giant playground for giant kids?
In an age, where financial wizards, bankers and business persons are called “players” or even “global players”, top manager or market-leading companies “key-players”, and an almost bankrupt company “is suddenly back in the game”, one is inclined to speculate about the origin of these voguish words. The latest coinages are “theatre” to describe the battlefields in Afghanistan, and “decompression time” – just like after a pleasurable dive in some exotic place – to explain the short time soldiers spent between a season (in keeping with the idea of leisure time) in a “theatre” to chill out before returning to their home countries.
What may be the causes of these ever-present and verifiable symptoms? Playing computer games indiscriminately may be one. Excessive game playing in language education and often, as a result of this, a lack of seriousness may be another. But in what way may other educational tools such as computer software, which all too often appears to be still in its beta-stage, with error messages popping up most of the time, generally contribute to fostering a rather lax attitude? In what way does this affect the pliable minds of the young when they grow up with imperfect hard and software? Do these mistakes, errors, flaws, faults or whatever we may chooses to call them, take on a different meaning and we come regard them as natural, unavoidable occurrences? And how does an all too easy-going attitude generally impair our ability to predict, analyse and pre-empt problems? How do games in language teaching mould the characters of learners or students? How does a generation fare when it has grown up with computer games and lots of “gaming experience” in and outside the classroom when they enter the job market?
Developmental and educational games in foreign language education
How effective are they? That would obviously depend on the sort of questions one is prepared to ask. My criteria have not changed over the years:
How much time is spent on playing games? What do I get out of them in terms of quantity and quality? How many contextual phrases and other meaningful, contextual fragments, and synonymous expressions etc. have become part of my active vocabulary? And, if no hand-outs are provided, have I had a chance to copy down those words, phrases or fragments or even entire interesting sentences for future reference to work with at home in my own time instead of relying solely on the elusive spoken word in class?
One of the most useless games in language learning I have ever taken part in was about 25 years ago. What was the point of cutting up a newspaper article, distributing the clippings to the students, making them read out the snippets and having them put the newspaper article in its original sequence? Not one single new word was discussed and not one single definition was given from this difficult and otherwise suitable article from the London Times. And what bearing has this sort of exercise on the acquisition of a foreign language, of what goes on in our minds when we want to increase our vocabulary? I would expect to find this sort of game in an assessment centre to test participants for characteristics like leadership qualities or their ability to fall into line in a hierarchical set-up but not in a language class. Incidentally, none of the participants complained about this novel idea of doing vocabulary work and I am not sure how many were aware of this and preferred to suffer in silence.
Another high-light was when a native speaker of English handed out about 15 idioms, in this case pertaining to one group – duly cut up –, asking the class to match the definitions with the idioms. No hand-outs were given to us and I had to hurry to copy down those three idioms I did not know. What a waste of precious 45 minutes! I almost forgot to mention the fact that students were supposed to discuss their viewpoints among themselves with the “supervisor”, or rather holiday camp animator, exercising utmost restraint all the time. I was under the impression the supervisor was having a good time in abiding by the rules of a theoretical model which, together with peer editing, group discussions and any other forms of error swapping, fosters a kind of “local linguistic inbreeding” and deludes learners into thinking that they are learning Standard English.
In order to give students an opportunity to pass away the time in the class room, text book publishers changed the format of many text books and made them unnecessarily larger, catering for a need learners did not know they had: full-colour editions of text-books with lots of empty space to scribble onto. Although the latter can be fun, too, especially when you are the ambitious type and design your own Rorschach tests. I guess that the print normally used in, for instance pocket-book sized text books, would make them balk at reading altogether, or in other words, it would remind them of „serious work or study”, which seems not the fashionable thing to do and above all, do not hold any promises of “fun”. It is no surprise to see these books with cartoons in adult education and I wonder, how many trees could have been saved in the past 30 years.
One result of “creative” games may be that games help to make anything which is uttered “ingrained”. Yet, little control of “quality input” is exercised due to the nature of games. Evermore games are invented as if the novelty factor were the decisive criterion. One sometimes gets the idea that there is a never-ending competition of inventing ever new games going on among educators while the number of games really useful have long been exhausted. A native-speaker friend of mine who had worked as a teacher of English in Hannover for several years told me that weekend seminars for teachers were held on the North Sea coast for the sole purpose of learning new games for use in the classroom. It must have been great fun for the participants, adult-sized-kids as it were. One has to concede, however, that useful games may have their place in pre-school education.
Only recently, an acquaintance of mine who has no formal teacher’s training told me that he had volunteered to host a discussion group for migrants. The fun-factor was important, he had been given to understand. And the most important thing was to just make the participants talk without talking too much himself, he told me with a smile of resignation. He had been admonished not to interfere in the free flow of ideas exchanged among the participants only to find that his charges conversed in a mutilated, difficult, hard to follow and often incomprehensible Pidgin sort of German. As a result, he sat there all the while, reluctantly nodding in agreement the gibberish emitted from eager, yet incompetent mouths. They did not know otherwise.
No wonder that he threw in the towel out of frustration after about four weeks. It was simply beyond him why it was perfectly acceptable to subject learners to bad language, to bad model-sentences, to bad snatches of speech, to bad pronunciation, to bad collocation, to very bad grammar and to an extremely poor vocabulary and style. In fact, so bad, no parents would subject their children to it, if there native-tongue were concerned. And he concluded that, up to a certain level, one would probably find this in almost any classroom you might care to visit. I hasten to add that “bad” is used here, of course, in a sense of “a strain on the interlocutors, hard to follow, difficult or even impossible to understand.”
As we have seen, playing games and other modern methods can be fun for the learner and be the source of great hilarity to the critical observer. It would be remiss of me not to mention one incident when native-speaker text book authors wanted to have some fun too. On a work-sheet containing idioms and colloquial expressions to be imparted to eager students, wanting to learn idiomatic or natural English, it said with great pedagogic conviction: “You may sound odd if you use them”. Printed by the publisher, mind you, not a hand-written note by some disillusioned teacher. Not a word of criticism was heard at such balderdash. I, however, presumed to disagree, suggesting that it was not a very encouraging remark to put on worksheets to be distributed to students of English, especially not since the copy was taken from a text book published in England.
You would expect this sort of comment in support material for Basic Global English, which is, according to its inventor Dr. Joachim Grzega, not suitable for communication with native speakers of English. Generally, learners think that UK and US English is taught here in Germany throughout and many pupils and students would be very disappointed to learn if “Basic Global English” and its somewhat older relation “Globish” were introduced on the sly through the back door.
“Use your own words”, said in a minatory voice, as if it were an offence to use newly acquired vocabulary is another rule straight from “The Book”. Using ones` own words must be more fun, I concluded, because of the implicit “seriousness” (equals absence of fun) inherent in building up a large diction. By implication this rather arrogant instruction means: don’t take the trouble to employ those words you might have just learned, if I had not prevented it, that is, do not enlarge your vocabulary, do not increase your power of thinking.” It is common knowledge that every single word is a tool to do your thinking with, the more tools you have at your disposal the more powerful your thinking will become. Conversely, reducing and limiting one’s vocabulary would be a retrograde evolutionary step.
The following example is about a foreigner who made other peoples` words his own and who did seem to get a certain degree of fun out of it. When I was about 14 years old, I met one of the so-called “guest-workers”. He was Italian and must have been about 40 years old. Apart from his open-minded relations with Germans, which was very unusual at the time, I was struck by his excellent German. He spoke with great precision, had a large vocabulary, impeccable grammar (hold your horses, I know what you are thinking) – that is, qualities contributing to clarity. In the course of our talk, he pulled a notepad and pen out of his pocket and asked me about the meaning and spelling of a word I had just used. He then wrote the word into his notepad with great precision and care. Oddly enough, it did seem like “fun” to him and I asked him, what else he did to improve his excellent German. “It’s great fun listening to the radio. I like reading newspapers as well, not the tabloids, though”, he told me with great conviction.
As to the taboo word grammar, I once met a German who was a very fluent, a fast talker with a large vocabulary. All the while he was churning out his words, he seemed to have great fun. But not those interlocutors of his who took an interest in what he was saying and did not just nod him off in the right places without understanding much. My complaint may not be politically correct but listening to him was a terrible strain because he made so many grammatical mistakes that they were actually an obstacle to comprehending what he was trying to say. According to the doctrines of the modern pedagogy, he must have been a one-off because “The book” says that with time and practice, mistakes will disappear. With him, they had become ingrained – a fact that is frequently overlooked. Now I dare ask a bold question: if you say something grammatical wrong over and over again, how can it ever become right?
To most questions posed at the outset of this post, I can offer no answers. And those I offer, tentative as they may be, probably fall short of general approval. The moderate use of games in the classroom can be useful, especially as a break from long hours of learning. However, in most cases games are time-consuming and yield little measurable results. As to the problem of how a game-playing “culture” may affect society on a wider scale in terms of its brainpower and economic performance, ex-chancellor Kohl put the dilemma very succinctly about fifteen years ago:
“Germany is a huge amusement park”.
One is inclined to add now: operated by professional teenagers.
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Group work at universities: a peremptory demand by industry and commerce
In 1982, when I was a guest reader at Hannover University, I was struck by the so-called “group work”. The way it was done did not make any sense to me. The answer to this riddle I got straight from the horse’s mouth, when I asked a native-speaker lecturer about it. She had been a witness of the times, saying that industry and commerce had asked all universities to implement group work in order to better prepare students for their future jobs. The curricula in all disciplines were obligingly changed in a rush and no-one has ever bothered to look at the way group work is actually done.
Putting the cat among the pigeons, I will start my discussion with a rather contradictory sentence I found a few years ago in the classified ad section of a broad sheet newspaper:
“Employees of the sales department have the opportunity to prove themselves on their own in a highly competitive market while aware that success can only be achieved as a team.”
I must confess I am guilty of palliating the rather harsh sounding German original, which is:
“As employee of … you are an individual fighter in a highly competitive market…”
This statement reflects the whole fundamental dilemma of “group work” as it has been practiced in preparation for occupational and professional careers all over the world in schools and universities for more than 30 years. However, in the mid-seventies – shortly after the implementation of group work in schools and universities, a devastating study was published in the “Harvard Business Review” by two scientists, purporting that in the business world or in management starting at supervisory level, hardly any work was done in groups in the way it was practiced in schools and universities.
The most striking difference between theory and practice is that at schools and universities, groups are peer groups, that is, group members forming a group are all of the same rank, trying to solve problems in a “democratic” way. Interminable discussions often go on in round-about ways about incidental issues. In foreign language classes, error-swapping becomes the most notable of all activities and, together with peer editing, group discussions and game playing contributes to a phenomenon I have dubbed “local linguistic inbreeding”. In task-oriented group work, none of the group members has the formal authority to assign tasks, follow up on them, discipline laggards, and evaluate the individual group member’s contribution to the project work. The role of the professor or teacher is in most cases reduced to handing out the task to the group and making sure that only the target language is spoken throughout with some of these teachers engaging in the latter with a kind of pathetic rigour. The group will then divide the task and sort out the details among themselves without further follow-ups or close supervision by the professor or teacher, giving spongers ample opportunities to reap the benefit of the groups` achievement without ever doing a single stroke of work at home. Conversely, in class, some basic grasp of core issues and key phrases enable them to pass themselves off as diligent and expert students on the subject without the professor ever noticing.
Group work is often used in assessing leadership potential of participants or their ability to get along with people in assessment centres where it has its justified due place. However, in the day to day operation of companies, subordination rather than creative contributions is more likely to be expected from the individual group members or staff.
Apart from this, in the real world, there is always a manager or department head in charge whenever he or she calls a meeting for any purpose. This superior head of department has the formal authority to give direction if not plain orders. Subordinate group members, to use this term for the sake of comparison, have a predefined area of work for which they have been hired and are solely responsible for. Tasks are assigned by unconcealed instructions by the group member of the highest rank and not by discussing endlessly who is going to do what and how it should be done. Every single subordinate group member has to rely on him- or herself when it comes to accomplishing a particular task with the exception of the odd non-committal peer consulting.
Following-up on assigned tasks, controlling, and final evaluation of the individual group member’s contribution is done by the manager by virtue of his formal authority he has been invested with. He ensures that only the individual is finally held responsible for the quality of any work assigned to him or her rather than punish the group summarily for the poor performance of one or two underachievers. Conversely, high achievers do not need to share their success with those who do not merit it.
I think that it was rather the communication skills managerial and supervisory staff need in meetings which had been mistakenly dubbed “group-work” way back in the seventies. To me it is not surprising that no one ever seems to have questioned “procedures”. Maybe it is to do with the “authority-syndrome” and I cannot help thinking of Dr. Fox, the actor who had been hired to deliver speeches which did not make any sense without anyone noticing.
Today, you find group work in both schools and university across the board in all disciplines. Not surprisingly, also in foreign languages. It is the mainstay of the Communicative Teaching Method or CTM is group work and plays an important part in Dr. Joachim Grzega`s artificial and mutilated invention, namely his Basic Global English method. For the past three decades, almost everything is done in groups, be that discussions, joint writing of texts of any kind or communal text appreciation; cooperative poetry analysis or collective grammar and vocabulary exercises. What the heck have group-work and the ensuing discussions with non-native speakers of English got to do with the acquisition of a foreign language when there are much better role models and methods around?
There are other downsides to group work, as well. For instance, when doing work in a group that requires your utmost attention, you may get distracted by frequent and often superfluous interruptions or overbearing interferences. Or oneself feels obliged to consult the other members of the group for the sake of asking a question or the opinion of the others just because this is what is expected of you in group work. My observations made over many years seem to confirm my assumptions.
In order to illustrate my arguments, I can give a few examples from the vast storehouse of my experience. The daughter of an acquaintance of mine had been a straight “A” student for four consecutive terms. When she could no longer put off attending university courses which required her to do group work, she was alarmed, fearing that her good performance might be tarnished by a mediocre “B” grade the group might receive for the plain fact that spongers, less interested and also average students might bring down her impressive performance. Fortunately, it did not turn out that way in this instance, but the following example is a convincing case in which a teacher was unable to judge the individual group members` performances because most preparatory work had to be done at home.
I remember a case when a professor made some deprecating remarks about one of our group members. She wrongly assumed that the student in question had hardly done any work while in fact the student was the key player in that she had prepared all the nitty-gritty work of research and summarized her findings expertly and handed them to two spongers on a platter. If I had not had the chance to point out that it was in fact that very student who contributed to the group’s success the most, the student’s final evaluation would most likely have been downgraded because of this mistaken perception on the part of the teacher. Go-to guys sometimes remain behind the scenes out of modesty, as in this case, which can lead to devastating assessments by professors and teachers. Oral activity in the classroom is not necessarily an indicator of a group member’s true contribution to the work of the entire group.
Another example is the case of a group of about ten people, which had been formed impromptu during a literature class at university. One student was to hold a short lecture on the outcome of our discussion on a set of questions, which proved to be a sort of “mission impossible”. Nevertheless, no-one realized this. The student in question was to take minutes of the individual contributions to the group discussion while guiding the group through a set of questions. Then, she was to analyse her minutes on her own for a couple of minutes before presenting the consensus ideas to the whole class. No one realized that she presented her own ideas prepared in some detail at home against said set of questions.
During the group discussion, she would steam-roll across all ideas which deviated from those she had prepared. After a couple of minutes of refreshing her memory, she read her notes off three closely written pages – those notes she had entirely prepared at home. None of the arguments put forward during the group discussion by participants – some of these differed widely from hers – was mentioned in her oral summary to the entire class. Since ideas on literature tend to be highly subjective, no-one actually realized that the excellent lecture she delivered was solely her work, her very own analysis. If someone else noticed what she had actually done, he or she kept quiet with the professor beaming as she had gone by “The Book” and “made the group talk”. You cannot blame the student who delivered the lecture, resolute as it was. If your marks or evaluation were dependent on this “sort” of group work, would you have done otherwise?
Peer editing is another common group activity although in this case it is done on a smaller scale, namely in pairs. There is no denying that your non-native editor may spot the odd awkward passage or the odd mistake. But in most cases, he or she may not be very helpful in remedying fundamental short-comings. Rather, error swapping among the non-native participants is more common. If the students are lucky, a native speaker teacher checks and prepares the text so that it can be saved on your “brain-hard-disk-drive”.
Generally speaking, there is a dangerous implication in the failure to recommend native-speaker editing in that language students are made to believe that their English is a native-speaker-like UK or US English and does not need editing.
To revert to the two distinguished scientists who had established that group work did not actually happen in companies in the same way it was done in the classroom: their finding did not surprise me at all. It coincided with my experience that the only time two or more heads of department ever worked together on a joint project on equal footing was when it came to organising the annual Christmas binge party.
Come to think of it: What might Sigmund Freud have said about the educators` preoccupation with “group work”? I would not be surprised if he had diagnosed “group work” as a sort of sublimation, the sort you would think he might be interested in.
There is no trick to being a satirist when you have so many people working for you.
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