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Independence Enforcement

This is week two of #rhizo14 – Rhizomatic Learning – and Dave is asking,  “How can we take people who’ve spent their whole lives believing that this is ‘learning’ and MAKE them independent?”

He explains this a little more in the video intro for the week and places this in the context of his own course, ED366, Educational Technology and the Adult Learner. Even though this course is aimed at teachers, he says that they have difficulty understanding that what happens in institutionalized instruction is not necessarily learning.  (Dave makes a box with his hands and peers through it).


Well, the idea is that you hop from door to door. There are lots of metaphors here… keep to the beaten path, the wolf eats the wandering sheep, and so on. The general mood is of danger lurking – so do what you’re told.

So, to paraphrase Dave, How can we compel people to take responsibility for their own learning?

Teachers are planners and planning assumes control. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do is relinquish control of my class – give them control of their time and their space. I have not been completely successful… but I’m getting there.  I don’t think we can talk about students becoming free until we are willing to set them free.

Dave says that teachers set objectives, assess progress and give direction. How can people believe that this is ‘learning’ – and if they believe it, how can they ever learn anything?

This is interesting. Dave’s ED366 course, according to its course description, is about “the integration of current and future online computer technologies into today’s and tomorrow’s classroom [and provides] an overview of current computer based technology (e.g. multimedia applications, streaming audio, streaming video, online audio chat, online discussion forums, web conferencing, blogs as well as other evolving technologies),” [ ED#366 Revised Course Description ].  A teacher could make a lot of choices here, but Dave’s designed his course to be reasonably unstructured.

I teach English. My course is structured by colleagues who think that learning is the same as covering material in textbooks. They believe that if we cover the material students must learn. If students don’t learn, then it’s because someone didn’t do something right – teacher didn’t cover, or student didn’t do.

I don’t think my subject is much different than Dave’s – it is vaguely contained in a parade of important sounding nouns, but it actually rests on development and mastery of a limited range of skills: we do not stream video, we use video to say something that is worth saying. We do not write to arrange 500 words in 5 paragraphs; we write because we have something worth saying. Everyone has something worth saying.

Coverage doesn’t bother me anyway. I can uncover whatever my colleagues have covered, and by doing this I think we have a chance.

Dave says that making people independent means that they learn how to self assess and self re-mediate. If you are familiar with language teaching then you might have heard of Stephen Krashen. Krashen talks a a lot about self-assessment and self-remediation in the context of language development and literacy.  Krashen’s monitor hypothesis is all about this. One of the techniques he promotes is free voluntary reading. I think it goes like this: to learn to read, you must read. To read well you need to enjoy what you’re reading. To enjoy what you’re reading, you must choose what to read yourself. To read well, you must have no reason for reading other than your desire to do so.  Then you will enjoy reading. You will read, and you will learn.

Krashen has been saying this for at least 30 years. It’s the only thing that works. But education is not evidence driven. This is why you’ve never heard of it.

So, I think we can help people to become free and independent learners but to do this we need to be patient and caring. It can be like re-introducing a wild animal into the bush, after it has been reared by people … like Born Free. (Musical Interlude here)

And it can also be a personal journey, the answer to a call, as with Buck, in Call of the Wild. It can happen with a mentor, or without, but its happening unfolds naturally once we unlearn whatever it is we learned in school.


Cheating as Learning

Last week one of my students came to ask me for his final exam mark. I told him, then he said, “And what did so-and-so get?”

I said, “You’re asking because you copied off his paper.”


“Well, he complained to me about that. I told him not to let anyone copy from his paper again. I can’t tell who’s copied what from who, so you should both get zeros, really.”

He said, “Yeah, but what did he get?”

I work in Saudi Arabia. Cheating of this sort is very common here and I’ve wondered about it for a long time – not so much about the cheating as about the attitude toward it. Students almost expect it, and getting caught is like, well, like loosing a football match.

I also wondered about this as I moved my own kids from school to school. Every year we’d try a new one and all were just about the same: seven weeks of soporific classes followed by a two week hazing of exams, then repeat the cycle.  About two weeks before a new battery of exams, prep started, and the closer the exams got the more kids crammed. Every year in May, following the last day of school – and the last exam cycle, kids poured out of the schools and literally ripped their books to shreds, scattering the pages all over school yards, spilling out into the streets.

Parents whose children struggle in school simply move them to another school where they do better. There are schools where students work hard and get reasonable marks, and there were schools where students do little or nothing and get great marks. Of course, the best schools are those that give the best marks. University entrance officers look only at the GPA, and GPAs are calculated from first grade. I have seen primary school reports with grades calculated to five significant figures after the decimal point. With a granularity of 1/10,000th of one percent, marks would seem to matter, and matter a lot.

cheating to learnIt took me ten years to figure this out. School has little to do with learning. It’s mostly a power game and the GPA is the goal keeper. The object is to score a goal. The rules are customary, arbitrary, invented by committees, by people who are players themselves, by people who don’t understand the game, or care to. Like most traditions, no one really knows where it all comes from. this is just the way it’s always been done.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Our students are players, and they play to win.

Our students are such good cheaters. They collaborate skillfully and easily to overcome any challenge. They co-operate and they help each other. They share what they have, and they contribute what they can, when they can. They are expert learners. I’ve stated marking them on their learning, on their collaboration, and I don’t worry about cheating. I give work that makes them better collaborators, that makes them better learners. They can’t cheat – they have to be players.

Cheating is learning, especially when it is socially supported. Sure, you can cheat alone but that is not often seen here. Local cheaters almost always collude… they co-operate and they collaborate, and they solve their problems collectively. In industry we strive to build these skills.

So, maybe it’s time to mobilize students’ collaborative and co-operative skills to support their learning, to stop policing them and start teaching.

He said, “Yeah, but what did he get?”

“He got a B and you got a B-. The grades mean nothing and I’m not policing anyone. That’s not my job.”


Scientific Humanities

Bruno La Tour

Here’s a new MOOC hosted at FUN – France Université Numerique – and taught by Bruno La Tour.

This looks MOOC quite interesting.

According to La Tour

“Scientific humanities” means the extension of interpretative skills to the discoveries made by science and to technical innovations. The course will equip future citizens with the means to be at ease with many issues that straddle the distinctions between science, morality, politics and society.

For more on FUN and the Scientific Humanities MOOC go check out La Tour at FUN.

This MOOC is in English and runs for eight weeks, 10 February, 2014 to 16 March, 2014. Organizers estimate a 3 hour per week commitment.

For more about La Tour, Science, Knowledge and modernity, listen to this talk between Will Pollard and the Standup Philosopher on SoundCloud


La Tour, B. A Cautious Prometheus: steps toward a philosophy of design

Visions of Students – Ethnography in Action

Michael Wesch and the students of Kansas State University’s Digital Ethnography Research Team produced this video collage about what it means to be a student today. Over 200 submissions went in to this remix.

Here are some excerpts from the voice over:

  • Discovering knowledge is beyond the power of the student, and is, in any case, none of their business.
  • Recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement, and the collection of unrelated facts is the goal of education.
  • One’s own ideas, and the ideas of one’s classmates, are inconsequential.
  • There is always a single, unambiguous, right answer to a question.
  • The voice of authority is to be trusted, and valued more than independent judgment.
  • What students mostly do in class is guess what the teacher wants them to say.


Sounds like not much has changed since the 19th century.

Education is still about power, submission, paying your dues… bricks and walls.

Also check out Wesch’s YouTube Channel.

Grammar and the ESL Writing Class

Kroll, B. Exploring the dynamics of second language writingFrodesden, J. and Holten, C. (2003). Grammar and the ESL Writing Class. In B. Kroll (Ed.), Exploring the dynamics of second language writing (pp. 141-161). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Frodesden and Holten begin with a brief discussion of the construct of “good writing” and then consider the impact of communicative language teaching methodologies on ESL grammar instruction in the 1980s. The authors begin by asking three questions:

  • Is formal grammar instruction useful for L2 (second language) writers?
  • What is the role of grammar in the drafting process?
  • Is individualized feedback on errors in student writing an effective strategy for improving accuracy and developing overall language proficiency?

Three Questions

To answer each of these questions, the authors give a short review of relevant literature published in the 70s and 80s. Major themes covered are a) the dichotomy between theoretical and pedagogical grammar, b) conceptual constructions of error and c) the degree of focus given to form and to function.  They review criticisms of direct grammar instruction attributed to Krashen and Hartwell and others who suggest that formal grammar instruction has a negligible, or even harmful a effect on writers’ emerging composition skills. They point out that these positions were developed within the context of L1 (first language) instruction, and may not be appropriate to L2 (second language) learners, for whom “focused attention to language features is often beneficial and sometimes necessary” (p. 114).

Turning to drafting, Frodesden and Holten suggest that the dominant view of writing as a recursive process unfolding over multiple drafts means that less attention is now given to accuracy. Process writing, they say,  gives a lot of attention the organization of content and often delays editing to final draft stages. They mention that this practice is supported by research indicating that ‘more effective writers’ – in both L1 and L2 instruction – often delay editing until they are at the final draft stage. Frodesden and Holten then say that L2 writers – especially those who are less proficient – do benefit from feedback on both grammar and content throughout the writing process and state that weaker students who do not receive such feedback often produce final drafts replete with errors which they are unable to correct precisely because they lack the formal grammatical knowledge needed to do so.

The authors conclude with a discussion of whether individual feedback on errors contributes to language proficiency. They refer to Truscott’s 1996 paper in which he asserted that “Grammar correction has no place in writing classes and should be abandoned” (p. 361) and explain that this position is based on both theoretical and empirical evidence. They then review a rebuttal of this position by Ferris and Roberts, who claim that empirical evidence – including some from their own studies – shows that students who receive direct grammar feedback are better able to self-edit than are those who received no direct feedback on grammar errors. They point out that explicit grammar instruction and correction

help students notice grammatical forms, focus explicitly on the gap between their output and what native speakers would write, and expose them to language forms that they may not be ready to acquire immediately, but will at some point in their acquisition trajectory, (p. 147).

Frodesden and Holten conclude by mentioning three potential benefits of explicit error correction: 1) students gain an understanding of how their texts deviate from conventions of standard written English; 2) develop self-editing skills; 3) gain understanding of the importance of clarity and appropriateness of written forms.