April 11, 2006

The Herald today - a few words of caution

There are a few things in today's Herald report concerning languages and new technology which are great. There are several things I am not happy about. Such is the journalist's lot when a story is to be had, and even when there is no story. Let me show you what I don't like and then please do leave comments after the post. I may not be able to reply as I have to be in France for a family bereavement (I'm writing this in the airport):

  • Most 'typical' modern langauges lessons do not, these days, revolve around teacher and textbook. Some do, but most typical lessons are taught by vibrant teachers with a passion for learning and engaging their pupils, using interactive whiteboards, some using digital video, some already getting kids to create digital audio.
  • There's nothing wrong with rigidly structured school exchanges. You're well off if you manage to keep that kind of collaboration going. Emma Seith's got the wrong end of the stick, when I told her about MGS's looser foreign collaborations that still worked. Just another way of doing things, not better.
  • None of the new technologies I talk about it key in the engagement of learners. The teacher is. A good teacher without these tools will engage students. A poor teacher with these tools will still bore the kids rigid.
  • Languages in Scotland are not in crisis. I even told her that explicitly, based on what we are told by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education.

Journalists do need good stories. I feel that Seith has missed the good story in here, or at least buried it in paragraph 11. New technologies do get students oozing enthusiasm for languages. But you cannot use them all the time - they'd end up being just as boring as textbooks. It's not the technology that's going to make the difference - it's the teacher.


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Ewan, I agree entirely. Much of the report has missed the point. It's not about the text messaging, the blogs, the digital video or the podcasts: it's about how these techniques and strategies are used by the teacher to engage the students, and to facilitate and enhance their learning.

I'm quoted in the article as saying "Technology is so much a part of pupils' lives so why not try to tap into that? At the end of the day if we are increasing the time they think about of in a foreign language we are achieving our aim". I didn't say those two sentences together! Firstly, it's not only about "achieving our aim"! We are constantly being told as a nation (both Scotland and the UK) that we're not good at learning foreign languages. However as Jane Renton recently said, we're not on a level playing field with the rest of Europe where young people live in a multilingual society and much of their experience on a daily basis is in a foreign language. Crucially, they associate the foreign language with their enjoyment through the films they watch, the music they listen to, etc. What we've tried to do through PiE is something similar: give the students a valuable learning experience and have fun at the same time, sometimes using technology, and sometimes relying on other methods.

For anyone unable to read the article there's a scan on the PiE site.

(and the PiE site can by found at www.pie.org.uk)

(and the scan should be available by the time you read this!)

I've not broached this topic with my parents - both teachers - for I know they'll have the same response. The TEACHER is what makes a difference!

BTW - saw this -http://www.chalksite.com/- and thought of you!

I've never yet seen an article that reported what anyone in education said accurately. I suppose the secret is that journalists are not educators - they like big headlines dealing with simple ideas. All I can suggest is that (1) you work only with people like Liz Buie of the TES who know a lot about education and (2) as we do in East Ayrshire, you write the handout for the journalist yourself. I'm remembering what Ian Boffey used to say: <>

And the missing bit is:

J'écris toujours moi-même mes documents authentiques.....

Well said, Ewan. Another journalist who hasn't researched the subject properly!

I wrote the following in Module 1.2 at the ICT4LT site (http://www.ict4lt.org)under the heading Section 3: 3. How effective are new technologies in promoting language learning?

In the end, however, the effectiveness of ICT hinges on the individual teacher. Angela McFarlane, Professor of Education and Director of Learning Technology, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, sums it up:

What we do know, whether from personal experience as teacher or learner, or as the result of 20 years of research into the question, is that ICT has an impact on learning, for some learners, under some conditions, and that it cannot replace a teacher. We know that a key factor in impact at school level is and remains the teacher, whose role in managing and integrating the ICT-based experiences learners have with the rest of the curriculum and culture is vital and probably always will be. Times Educational Supplement, ICT in Education Online, 26 April 2002, p. 17.

A quick afterthought about the UK not being "on a level playing field with the rest of Europe":

Amazon's recently reported move from Slough, Berkshire, to Cork, Ireland, is due in part to Amazon failing to find suitable local staff who can handle customer services enquiries in European languages. Ireland shows up in the 2005 Eurobarometer survey as having a higher proportion of its population (41%) capable of conversing in a language other than their mother tongue. The figure for the UK as a whole is 30%. Scotland's figure may be better.

I am not surprised about the recruitment problem in Slough. The language departments of its local university, Thames Valley University, were closed in the late 1990s.

BTW, according to the 2005 Eurobarometer survey, in the expanded EU German is now more widely spoken than French. English (34%) is the most widely known language besides the mother tongue followed by German (12%) and French (11%). The figure for Spanish and Russian is 5%.

In my opinion technology sometimes might encourage pupils to learn new things just as much as creative teacher can. The only thing is that with all technological developments witnessed by our society human interaction between teacher and pupils is just as much important and can be hardly substituted.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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