Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Xmas Event 2015 - report on Rakesh Bhanot's talk

 A Winter’s Tale

Rakesh began by wondering why he had been invited to ‘perform’ at the TESOL Macedonia Thrace Christmas Event; was it because such gatherings traditionally involve a bearded old man carrying goodies to distribute to the assembled folk?

Indeed, he did have some, what may be loosely termed, ‘pedagogic goodies’ in the form of quotations from well-known educators garnered in his 40+ years of teaching (ELT) in various parts of the world. To these, he added a couple of acronyms (A.S.K. and D.I.T.O.W. – see below) that he has devised, and presented a very informal interactive session designed to be provocative as well as thought-provoking.

The first speaker of the evening, Sylvia Guinan, had given a slick demonstration of several ways in which modern technologies can foster friendship in the classroom, but Rakesh eschewed technology completely by taking off his shoes and perching himself on the side of an armchair to share his thoughts in an atmosphere akin to sitting by the fireside on a cold winter’s evening.

“No one is a beginner in a second language”, he announced, quoting Harold Rosen, and reminded us that (in the words of Paolo Freire) “the best way to educate people is to ‘start with what they already know’”. Some of what Rakesh shared may have been self-evident but, again, he had yet another quotation from a famous Englishman, Dr. Johnson, who claimed that “people need reminding more often than instruction”. He began by asking us to think of well-known movies that deal with education such as Freedom Writers, Good Will Hunting, Kes, To Sir With Love etc., and what messages such films convey about good teaching and learning.

The thrust of the talk was that ‘teaching is a species of friendship’ – a theme also touched upon by the previous presenter - and that we, as teachers, need to focus on the emotional as well as the cognitive development of our learners; something Rakesh summed up in the phrase ‘teaching below the neck’. He underlined the need for inner cultivation - that is the development of more emotional/ humanistic learning environments even in (perhaps especially in) an age where there is increasing use of technology in the classroom.

To be emotionally educated, i.e. to have an educated mind/body, consists not only of having the right quality of learning materials that are connected to the head, but also to the heart. This means that both teachers and students must jump out of their comfort zones and try out new and “risky” paths in accomplishing higher educational goals.

What are these goals? In trying to identify the more lofty goals of education, we need to start by considering ‘what is LEARNING’? This is often defined in terms of achieving KNOWLEDGE and SKILLS. However, is there more to learning than these two narrow aims? Rakesh offered us the acronym A.S.K. whereby he defines LEARNING as ‘change is Attitude, Skill and/or Knowledge’. He challenged us to consider how often we include changing students’ attitudes in devising or delivering our curriculum. How often do we build-in the idea of changing students’ attitudes into lesson planning? How often we consider addressing issues of social justice in the classroom? Even if we are constrained by government policies, by the requirements of exam boards, by course books etc., we can and should find time to deal with broader social issues in the classroom and not always focus on the narrow requirements of the test at the end of the course. Yes, this will require teachers to take risks, and to try out new ways of teaching, but taking risks offers the possibility of enriching the teaching/learning experience for all concerned.

At one point, Rakesh asked to make a visual representation of what teaching/learning looks like; to draw a doodle of what is happening when teaching/learning is taking place. Some of these images are presented below.

These show how teachers vary in their perception of what teaching/learning consists of and how these differences may be relevant in being/becoming more OR less effective as a teacher. Draw your own doodle and A.S.K. yourself what it tells you about you as a teacher.

In addition to the idea of A.S.K., Rakesh offered us another acronym: D.I.T.O.W. This stands for do it the other (or opposite) way. He began by posing the following conumdrum. Two people are standing in a desert facing opposite directions. There are no mirrors or cameras but the two people can see each other. How is this possible? Most people imagine that the two people are standing back to back but if they both turn around and face each other, then they can see each other and are still facing opposite directions. Rakesh used this simple analogy to show that much of what we do in the classroom – based on traditional practices – may not always be as effective as we would like to think it is. Sometimes, by doing things the other/opposite way we may be able to achieve better results and to increase student motivation. For example, rather than asking students to complete a crossword puzzle by solving the given clues, why not give them a completed crossword puzzle and ask them to devise their own clues? He offered other examples of DITOW, e.g. invite students to write questions for a reading comprehension text rather than mechanically answering questions given in the course book.

A second quotation that Rakesh shared from Dr. Johnson goes as follows: “an educated man (sic.) is not someone who has all the knowledge but someone who knows where to look for it”. To this end, he shared two websites that may prove useful to teachers and teacher trainers. The first one is http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/ - the site of The British National Corpus, and the second www.businessballs.com – a gold mine of all kinds of resources for ideas especially if you teach business English.

Rakesh finished by reminding us that many of his suggestions are likely to prove challenging but that unless we take risks we are not going to be able to teach ‘below the neck’; we are not going to educate the whole person. In the words of Aristotle, “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”

By Vassiliki Mandalou

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