EFL Gamification 6: ARGs

This is the 6th post in a series exploring the use of gamification (to use the buzzword) or gameful design (to more accurately represent my intentions) in the teaching of English as a foreign language, particularly in secondary school settings. Earlier posts  dealt with (1) motivation, (2) habits, (3) mechanics, (4) pitfalls and misunderstandings, and (5) turning your course into a game. This post will look at ARGs, or Alternate Reality Games, and for a definition I’d like to turn to Whitton & Moseley from their 2012 book, Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching, the best resource I’ve found for designing this type of game activity:

“ARGs use narrative, community and problem-solving in a game that unfolds over weeks and months, combining the real and virtual worlds. The players work together to solve the puzzles and develop the story themselves through [the interaction with and/or] the creation of artifacts, both digital and real world, and the mythologies that surround the game” (pg. 143).

ARGs are often interactive narratives in the form of a mystery/treasure hunt (see National Treasure or The Da Vinci Code if you are somehow unfamiliar with the genre) and players work together to unravel  clues or collect items. The AR part is that the story is just a story, while the clues are placed in the real world in the form of e-mails, websites, letters, maps, audio tapes, graffiti, or just about anything that can convey information. In the book, Ms. Whitton discusses what ARGs are and  how to set one up, and mentions several examples. She  describes her involvement with the ARGOSI project, the design and creation of an ARG at a UK university. The purpose was to help new students get used to an unfamiliar new city, the campus, and the library system. In terms of process, they first decided on the learning outcomes they wanted to aim for and considered the limitations they had to work with (time, money, etc.); then they drew up the initial concept for the game and sketched out a narrative; next they designed the challenges (puzzles) and created the artifacts (letters, maps, etc.). In some ways, the process is similar to Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter (covered in this earlier post–you’ll need to scroll down a little). Both are organized by narrative. If you have a gripping story, the rest should flow along. For SuperBetter, the story was personal recovery. It is obviously important to the player. For an ARG, the artifacts (and how they fit in the story) will probably be key.

And for language learning, the artifacts are what you’ll be directing your learners towards and so you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions as you plan and create them:

  1. Are they intrinsically interesting? Do they have good ‘face validity’? Do they fit with your narrative?
  2. Are they accessible/doable for your learners in terms of level?
  3. Is feedback built into each task so learners know when they are successful?
  4. Are they in the right mode (reading, listening) for the skills you want learners to practice?
  5. Are they accessible to learners inside and outside of class (web-based, snail-mailed, copied)?
  6. Will interaction with them result in learning? How? And how will you know?
  7. Where will learners interact with artifacts? Will it be homework or group exploration and/or discussion in class?
If we think about the content we need students to learn, it shouldn’t be hard to design the artifacts. You can use textbook language (or even the textbook itself) for puzzles. You can make recordings on cassette tapes  to make clues seem quaint or dated (and so students need to use school players!), and you can create letters and websites using target language that students will need to read and re-read. The only limitations are your creativity and the amount of time you can dedicate to the project. For the sake of keeping appearances real, it will really help if you have a graphics designer or some graphic design skills yourself. But with a few tools (MS Word, for word processing and image processing, Audacity for sound recording and editing, WordPress.org, Edublogs.org or some other blogging service), you should be able to make most of the artifacts you want. Ms. Whitton’s team based their story on the blog of a fictional character. The other artifacts they made and used are available from the ARGOSI website (click the Resources tab). And you can see the blog and game itself at violaquest.org (if/when it is available again–it wasn’t at the time of writing). Other ARGs can also be found online and they may provide you with some ideas for creating your own. One similar to the ARGOSI project, Who Is Herring Hale?, is presented as a case study here. And another ARG, created to raise money for cancer research, can be found here. For something more language-focused, please take a look at the work of Paul Driver, an educational designer based in Portugal. At his website you can find information about his Spywalk game and other “location-based urban games.” There are links to academic presentations and articles and Youtube videos showing the game in action.

 

An important point to consider is learning outcomes. The ARGOSI project had a fairly short and straightforward list. The designers wanted the new students to learn a little more about Manchester and how to use the university library. As a language teacher, you’ll need to decide where to put your focus. ARGs are probably best for introducing learners to content or behaviors. In order to maintain the illusion, novelty and fun of the game, you can’t really add drills or require repetitions of behavior, though if you get the challenge level right, you can get learners to repeatedly interact with the text. In contrast with a game like SuperBetter which could be used to establish positive learning habits, an ARG might best be used to have learners explore resources and language. Of course, you could in your design of artifacts steer learners to all sorts of practice–intensive listening or reading, skimming or scanning, dealing with different accents or genres, etc.). How you design the artifacts and how learners will interact with them in the game are really crucial for pedagogic success. This is especially tricky given that you are trying to balance the narrative and fun with the pedagogy. It all comes down to design in the end. Without a clever story and appropriate-challenge-level artifacts, the game won’t fly; without pedagogically sound tasks with appropriate language level/skill focus/strategy focus, the game won’t teach.

 

To finish here, I’d like to add a few cautionary words (summarizing from Ms. Whitton’s unit on ARGs from her book). You really need to test out your games. Get feedback from everyone you can and plan on tweaking it for all eternity. You also need to have realistic expectations. All of the ARGs mentioned above–funded, backed by unis, and made by teams of talented professionals–were underutilized (to be polite). The Herring Hale game saw only 42 people play even one task and only 12 participants finish the game. Violaquest was similarly ignored en masse. As a teacher you have a captive audience. You’ll likely need to build participation into your course instead of relying on the Field of Dreams approach (if you build it, they will come). That said, one of the most successful (highly rated and attempted by the largest numbers of people) activities/tasks were those that were designed for action–planning and taking pictures and uploading them, for example. These tasks drew more interest, engaged more participants, and got them to collaborate and share more. Make sure you include some of these; don’t just make your ARG a series of puzzles. This may beg the question of whether you want to aim for more of a game with project-based elements or project-based activities with more game-like elements…

 

This leads to the final question of whether it is worth it. If done right, I guarantee  you’ll give your learners an education experience they’ll never forget. But it’ll cost ya. It will take a lot of planning and production time.

 

Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog

 

Photo Credit: Detail from Look at the Map, or Play Some Checkers by Dr. Roy Winkelman,  at http://etc.usf.edu/clippix/picture/look-at-the-map-or-play-some-checkers.html

EFL Gamification 3: Mechanics

This is the third post on gamification in EFL. If you have read the first post on motivation and the second post on changing behaviors, you might be wondering when I’ll get around to actually talking about how to deploy gamification in classes. Well, hold on to your roses for a bit because the over-riding principle everyone needs to understand is that gamification is not a toolbox you fling open to pull out badges and points that you can use to change the motivation and engagement levels of your learners. The key to successful gamification in education is to design it into an educational intervention with clear goals and good understanding of your learners. You need to understand what their motiviation status is, and you need to understand how you can change the behaviors of that group and how much you can get away with. But mostly, you need to wrap your head around the idea that gamification is not coercion; it is helping learners motivate themselves and organize themselves and have fun reaching goals they themselves really want to reach. So in this post I’d like to take a look at how we can gamify something to make it easier to do.

Jane McGonigal is the author of Reality is Broken, a wonderful book on how games can change the world, as well as a famous TED talk presenter. She is also, I might add, not a big fan of the term gamification or what passes for gamification in most quarters. But she is passionate about games, gaming, and gamefulness. What does it mean to be “gameful?” Well, it means “…to have the spirit of a gamer: someone who is optimistic, curious, motivated, and always up for a tough challenge” (from her CDC talk How to Re-Invent Reality Without Gamification, or We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges!, as are the next few quotations). Doesn’t that also sound like an ideal student? And how do we get our learners there? Well, we design for it by “…[creating] platforms and experiences that empower [students] to have the spirit of a gamer in real life.” And how do we start? Well, by remembering that what we are really trying to do is “…empower [students] to get more of what they really want from life..or give them positive powers in real life,” rather than just toss out points or badges, etc. which don’t have any value in and of themselves. In the above quotations, I took the liberty of changing the original “players” to [students]. This is problematic, I know, and if Ms. McGonigal were to read her words altered in this manner, she probably would object because there is a very important difference between players and students: choice. You see, voluntary participation is one of her defining traits for  games, and I am worried that she and many other people don’t see students as voluntary participants. But I don’t think I am wrong in describing high school students as voluntary participants. I know, plenty of students, teachers, and rock songs emphatically disagree with me, I know. But they are wrong. A strong case can be made that just by being in a classroom, students have accepted that they are there to learn or at least subject themselves to experiences that have learning as a goal. Legally, I’m right. Obligatory education ends with junior high school. High school students have elected to be there. They aimed for it, studied for it, and their parents poured lots of money into preparing them to take the tests for it. But they won’t see it that way. And they may balk at a class that is organized with game features and claim that they never elected to be put through that and why can’t they be allowed to have the regular droning teacher who stops droning at the bell. In other words, they still will need to be sold on the idea so they can “volunteer” to participate. Let’s leave it at that for the moment. We’ll have to come back to this topic in a future post.

So, you’ve got the learners in the classroom. Good. Now let’s gamify!  We want them to improve their English proficiency. What does that mean to everyone? Is there a difference between the teacher and the students on that point? If there is, it will need to be addressed.  Then, according to Keving Werbach and Dan Hunter in For the Win, here’s what we do. We define our objectives and delineate our target behaviors. This involves chunking content into manageable pieces. Then we think of feedback loops (how we’ll provide specific feedback for each chunk on our agenda),  and progression stairs (how we’ll show progression or improvement over longer spans of time). While this approach addresses the actual process of learning as it will take place through activities in the classroom, I think it misses an important point: there is no connection here between the content and the mechanics. It is as if any content could be used with these tools. And that is just not the case. There’s no story here. There’s no fun here. There’s no purpose here.

So let’s go back to Ms. McGonigal and motivation. “Games,” she writes in Reality is Broken, “help put people back in control…Progressing towards goals and getting better at a game instills a sense of power and mastery” (pg. 149). This is the same idea that Self-determination Theory posits, as we saw in the first post in this series. For a better, more actionable model, let’s look at SuperBetter, a game she came up with to work on her own challenge.

After suffering a rather severe concussion, Ms. McGonigal found herself suffering from headaches and vertigo that just didn’t get better–not after a few hours, not after a few days, and not after even a few weeks. She began to despair as the symptoms didn’t improve and she was unable to read, write, run, work,or  play games or use a computer at all. When the doctors told her her window of recovery was likely three months to a year, she decided to assert her power and take a greater role in her recovery. She made a game. She called it SuperBetter. She didn’t need a website (though the game is online now), and she didn’t need badges or many of the other trappings of games. But what she did need is other participants. Let me summarize her missions to get an idea of how it worked.

  1. First she created an identity based on a fictional hero whose context she could leverage for her own situation. She chose Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and named herself Jane the Concussion Slayer.
  2. Just as Buffy has allies and foes, she chose friends and family to play the parts of allies who would help her to overcome her condition. These people played the roles of information gathering, tracking progress, advising, monitoring, encouraging, etc. When facing this kind of problem, you need help, she says, and it is easier to ask people to play a game than to help you again and again.
  3. She identified the bad guys, the challenges, that she needed to address one by one. She made a list and prepared to vanquish them.
  4. She identified her power-ups, the fun things she could do to make herself feel better (hugging her dog, listening to classical music–whatever she could do when she felt she was not making progress)
  5. She created a to-do list. She included things she could do immediately and things that she would do as she got better. These improved her quality of life and gave her things to look forward to. Jane included baking cookies for friends and wearing some special clothes out on a date.
  6. Once she had completed the 5 missions above, she kept going with #4 and #5. She had a secret meeting with one of her confidante allies at the end of each day. And she recorded your exploits in an audio journal.
What Ms. McGonigal did was create an alternate reality game (ARG), and a very flexible one at that. It provides narrative structure and social support but allows her–no actually requires her–to put in her own challenges, her own aids, power-ups, escapes, and her own long and short-term goals. “Doing these [power-ups and short-term quality of life enhancers] didn’t require being cured; it just required making an effort to participate more fully in my own recovery process” (pg. 140).
These, I would argue, are the key mechanics of gamification. Let’s give it a try. Rethink the concussion challenge above. Instead of a young woman with an accident or illness, try to imagine some low proficiency high school language learners who have experienced little if any success in junior high school. They could be poster children for learned helplessness. They are in first year of high school and are facing three more unpleasant years of English inefficacy. How might Ms. McGonigal’s approach help them to participate more fully in their own learning process? And then, how could your feedback loops and progression stairs help them to develop and recognize their own efficacy and sense of power and mastery? And yes, feel free to use points and badges and leaderboards, if and when they actually mean something.
Finally, take a look at the About Page for SuperBetter. It tells you very clearly what SuperBetter is and is not. They give you a good idea of the possibilities and limitations of this kind of approach. I know, it is meant for people with illnesses. But I think a similar general approach could be deployed in educational settings as part of a gamification/educational game design/gameful undertaking.

 

Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog

Part 6: ARGs

 

Approaches to EFL High School Teacher Training in Japan

I work (mostly) with  high school English teachers in Japan. These teachers are Japanese native speakers whose proficiency with English ranges from good to native-like. My group has been doing this training for two years now and we are starting to get a better idea of the needs of teachers and the benefits and limitations of training programs. EFL teacher education is both important and challenging. Compared to many other countries, the number of required courses and the amount of pre-service training in Japan is remarkably low. There are almost no graduate teachers college programs, and for example, English literature majors who take only a couple of supplementary courses at university and complete a three-week in-school training session can and do become licensed teachers. As long as such teachers stick to the textbook, they usually have enough subject matter expertise to suffice (with a little preparation). But many such teachers have never experienced communicative language lessons themselves, have not really received much TESOL training (if any) and are likely not confident at all about their own English skills.To reiterate, many, many teachers have limited experience, limited training, and limited subject matter knowledge and skills.

There are structural and logistical problems associated with providing in-service training. At present in public schools, there is often little coordination, sharing, or in-school mentoring or training for English teachers. But that is another topic. Instead, let’s look at what is done in training programs. In looking at teacher training in general, we find three main approaches are being used in Japan (probably everywhere): providing models that also motivate (super teachers!) to demonstrate activities; working on the language proficiency of the teachers themselves (subject matter expertise); and getting teachers to engage in action research. I’d like to talk a little about the benefits and limitations of each one and then talk about our flagship program, which makes use of all three. I don’t mean to suggest that we have managed to figure out the absolute best way of training teachers where others have not, but I think it should become clear that deploying only one approach is unlikely to produce significant improvement.

Motivating models. Common at conferences or on DVD, super teachers (and yes, they are actually called Super Teachers), demonstrate activities that usually illustrate new approaches. There are several goals but the basic idea–in addition to raising awareness  about or teaching techniques or approaches usually connected to some pedagogy–is to get around the isolation of the teaching profession. Teachers generally work alone. If they are lucky, they can regularly observe and discuss lessons with colleagues, but often there are few opportunities to do so, and they may not be surrounded by teachers overflowing with innovations. Super teachers are trusted  near-peer role models who show concrete examples of activities. But there is another benefit of observing these super peer models.   Through them, teachers can see possibilities that exist beyond the walls of their own schools. Most change happens as a result of individuals taking risks. Very, very few schools have more than one or two of these individuals. Individual risk-takers or potential risk-takers almost always feel isolated. Motivating models on DVD or in books  or at very infrequent conferences can feel like a lifeline. There is a strong motivational feel-good aura that accompanies super teachers. But if we consider using them for training, limitations emerge. One problem with these models is that schools in Japan are at different levels of academic ability in addition to having different school cultures, and so wholesale transfer of techniques and approaches is often just not possible. And in the case of many super teachers, although their  performance is impressive and inspiring,  it often feels more like it is the result of their personality rather than pedagogy. In other words, what they demonstrate is often perceived as not replicable. And in any case, it is usually just one part of a lesson. Very often it is the most impressive part, the part that makes them look like super teachers. It’s impressive, but it leaves you with questions about what has led up to this point. Super teachers are important as models, but without detailed explanation (and discussion) about the process and  the approach, they often generate more heat than light.

Improving language proficiency. Research shows that the results of teacher expertise training are mixed. But proficiency with English is very much connected to the confidence EFL teachers have. This year, education boards across the country are pushing for teachers to teach English in English. There is, however, a lot of resistance. At least some of that stems from the fact that teachers are not proficient users of English themselves, either in or beyond the classroom. This is no doubt common in EFL settings. Teachers, it must be remembered, are largely products of the system they are now part of–a system that rarely if ever offered opportunities for communicative use of the language. It was almost all grammar translation and memorization in years past. But the present teachers themselves were successful at it, or they wouldn’t be teachers now. Many of them managed to develop impressive speaking, writing, and listening skills in addition to acquiring huge vocabularies and detailed knowledge of grammar, but it was almost always outside of the regular secondary school institutional English classes they experienced. Their teaching styles, however, tend to reflect the way they were taught in high school. Times have changed, but perceptions of what is appropriate for high school English classes still seem to be lagging behind.  In an age where trips and studying abroad are not uncommon and the rest of the world is just an Internet click or two away, you would think that the outside world would be an ever-present entity enveloping the EFL classroom, but that is not often the case. The notion that even beginners need to start hearing and using language communicatively is surprisingly not that widely accepted. No, let me re-phrase that. It is widely acknowledged but not widely embraced. My non-native English speaking colleagues feel very strongly that improved proficiency leads to improved confidence, more communicative use of English in the classroom, more willingness to take risks, and improved status with learners.Language is a skill. It is observable. So unlike math knowledge or science knowledge, teacher expertise in language (knowledge and skill) is essential for EFL teachers. But just being proficient at English does not make you a good teacher. I have observed many teachers talking over the heads of students in English and then only really becoming comprehensible to them when they switch to Japanese. Providing good input for learners, interacting with them communicatively, and using English to activate and build schema are also important skills. They are easier if teachers are more proficient with the language, but being proficient with the language does not ensure that teachers have these skills. But as far as teacher training programs are concerned, the bigger problem is time. Improving English proficiency takes hundreds of hours. Giving a few hours of writing or presentation skills practice might make participants feel a little better, but let’s not kid ourselves about any bumps in proficiency. If language skills are going to improve, it’ll happen through a concerted effort by the individual teacher who weaves language use and learning into his or her daily life. For training programs, the best we can do is introduce language learning a practice resources and hope participants will find them worth using them for self access.

Action research. John Hattie in Visible Learning for Teachers stresses how important it is to get teachers talking and thinking about learning rather than teaching. Action research seems to facilitate this. It never ceases to amaze me how many teachers just accept the culture of teaching they grew up in and just continue doing what has always been done, never questioning whether it is effective or not. Action research challenges teachers to look critically at what they are doing in a systematic way. For many teachers, it causes a crack in the iceberg of teaching culture they are part of. It is a catalyst for change. But it is a real burden. It is  hard for teachers to understand, plan, and undertake action research in their own classes. It requires experienced guidance and support and quite a lot of time. And time is always a problem. Unlike teachers in many countries, teachers in Japan have a vast array of duties beyond teaching. There are club duties, homeroom duties, event planning and coordination duties, and even sometimes locking down the building at night. Teachers come early every morning, leave late, and come in on weekends and most days during the summer. Long chunks of time for participating in professional development are an impossible dream for almost all teachers. But it’s not only the time. Action research has a narrow focus. In order to see some real improvement, more drastic approach changes are sometimes necessary. Action research is better suited to tweaking activities than comparing completely different approaches.

So which of these three approaches do we take? Well, we combine all of them. It is our view that each reinforces the others, though it is action research that is the key approach. Without it, the others are too easily ignored.  Real change here in Japan can only happen if confident, competent teachers look at the current culture of English education critically, keeping what works and replacing what doesn’t with something  different. This requires critically examining current practice and knowing what alternatives are out there. This mindset develops through action research, but action research by itself is probably not sufficient. In a context where one’s own learning experience is not always a good source of ideas, where insufficient pre-service training is the norm, and there is little time for in-service professional development, maximizing impact of that precious in-service training time is crucial. Just showing a video  of a super teacher or just providing a few hours of English language training will not get you far, though they are fairly easy to do. It has to be the teachers themselves who make the discoveries and the changes. They have to see them, consider and discuss them and process them a little, and they have to feel confident enough to give them a try. This is a long process.

Over the last few years, I have become convinced that our training unit has rather serious limitations. We are too far away from the students. We are too detached from the schools  where our teacher participants are working. Our program runs for ten days spread out over the course of a year. We video the teachers twice, near the beginning and near the end but schedule limitations mean that the process of change mostly remains hidden to us. Although we stay in touch with past participants, there is not really any follow-up. Creating a more resilient community is one of our goals. But in the present state of poor workplace collegiality, the pace of change will be slow indeed. Schools need to make it easier for teachers to share ideas and observe each other’s lessons and provide good feedback. There needs to be more focus on learning, and sharing and implementing ideas that promote learning. Without this, I’m afraid, real effective change cannot spread.

Photo credit: Okinawa Soba. Accessible online at http://www.flickr.com/photos/24443965@N08/2369860061/in/set-72157604292609458/

EFL Gamification 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation.

Gamification is a buzzword.  Gamification is being widely–and often mistakenly–deployed in business situations recently. But because of the haphazard way it is being deployed and the mixed results it seems to be achieving, it is often viewed suspiciously by many in the world of business, and most in the world of education, where the very mention of games seems to suggest an offensive lack of seriousness. There are good and bad reasons to be suspicious of gamification, and it is not surprising that many game designers have hesitations about it.

The main problem, as I see it, is that superficial features of gamification (especially points, badges, and leaderboards) are being applied without enough thought being given to the underlying cognitive and emotional constructs people –customers, employees, learners–bring to any situation. For education, gamification, game design, and user experience (UX) design present an opportunity to re-examine the mechanics and dynamics of motivation and behavior change. Yes, they apply to teaching, including language teaching.

The first post in this series looked at intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and rewards.  My main point was that depending on the type of task or behavior, the use of extrinsic rewards–like many of the the tools of gamification–can help or hinder the development of intrinsic motivation. This is a critical point, but motivation is not the only factor in behavior change. So this post will focus on behavior change and the other factors involved: triggers, ability, and context. Yes, we are still in theoretical territory here, I’m afraid. But I promise to get more practical in future posts.

B.J. Fogg, a professor at Stanford U., is someone you might not have ever heard of if you are an EFL/ESL educator. He does not do research on motivation in education. Instead, his research is in how technology changes human behavior. And his main audience is business people involved in Internet-related start-ups, trying to get people to give their ideas or services a try. EFL teachers are often faced with a challenge that is really not so different from these young entrepreneurs: how do we get learners to engage in specific behaviors, in our case, ones  that we know will help them improve in proficiency? High school students in Japan are limited in the number of classroom hours of English. They are limited by a lack of technology infrastructure in schools. They are limited by the priorities of schools that want more kids to pass certain university entrance exams. That means that a lot of lesson time is spent on teacher explanations of language that is too difficult for many learners in the room, and not enough level-appropriate input is given, and not enough meaning-focused output activities are attempted. One of the possible answers to this problem is in everyone’s hands–mobile devices. But learners have no idea of how to make use of them and teachers are really really reluctant to even try to get learners to do so, fearing accusations of unfairness, steep digital learning literacy curves, and chasms of technology coordination and control issues. And the whole undertaking would require a massive shift in educational culture to begin with. But, ah, if only it were possible…Teachers could flip lessons, focus more on engaging learners in tasks requiring language production, and concentrate much much more on giving good formative feedback on comprehension or skill development in class before  the final summative tests. What I would like to suggest is that by making use of better design–and that almost certainly includes some game design techniques, but will also likely include user user experience (UX) design knowledge–we can increase engagement, push learners toward being more active participants in language learning, create a better learning experience, and hopefully get increased time on task and increased effort, and (eventually) increased target language encounters outside of class. Seriously, who wouldn’t want their classes to be more fun and more effective at the same time?

But before we get into the specifics of how gamification might be able to help with behavior change, we need to look at what Mr. Fogg has to say about changing behavior. There are, of course, other researchers working on habit and behavior change. But I think Mr. Fogg has the easiest to understand and most usable of ideas. As an introduction, let’s listen to the man himself summarizing his work: a short video is available on this page (sorry, the video is not embeddable into this blog).

Mr. Fogg sees behavior change as habit formation. His lab has produced a wonderful  chart that  lists the different types of change by whether it involves starting a new behavior, stopping a current behavior, or increasing/reducing a current behavior. He also distinguishes the duration of the behavior change, whether it is to be temporary (dot), for a fixed period (span),  or lasting (path). For language teachers in Japan dealing with low-proficiency learners (in general, students at ‘lower-level’ schools tend to have poor study skills in addition to poor language proficiency), green span or green path behaviors are what we should be aiming at. Duh, you might say at this point. But wait, because the simplistic beauty of Mr. Fogg’s model starts now. For a behavior to change, 3 things have to be present: a trigger, the ability to do the behavior, and motivation. And the last two, motivation and ability, are trade-offs. That means if you have low amounts of ability, you need to have more motivation. If you have low amounts of motivation (which is usually the case for the learners in our target group), you need to make the behavior steps really small. According to Mr. Fogg, behaviors are always the result of sequences. But you need to think and plan them carefully to be sure they meet certain conditions. That is,  you need to have an appropriate  trigger while you target a doable behavior with sufficient motivation available. Here is another graph that visually represents this.

First, think carefully about the target behavior. Is it simple/easy enough? Do you have a trigger? Because you need one. In the classroom, triggers can be certain events. Set fixed activities in your routines that will act as triggers. One teacher I know has his students get out their dictionaries at the beginning of class for an activity that requires them. Like clockwork, the class starts and the students get out their dictionaries as the teacher writes the day’s three vocabulary items on the board. Target behavior: use dictionaries. Trigger: vocab activity at beginning of every class. Ability: getting out the dictionaries and looking up only three words is doable.  Motivation: the students want to improve at English and the teacher has convinced them that using dictionaries is important.

Think about the current motivation your learners have. Is the behavior in sync with the learners’ goals? If not, you’ll need smaller steps, like in the dictionary example above. Target behaviors in small steps (Mr. Fogg calls them tiny habits). You really can’t go wrong making your steps really really small. Once one is established, you can target a subsequent behavior. An established behavior can  be used as a trigger for another behavior. You can also go the other way and work on the motivation. Explain to learners why a behavior is important. Make the activity more desirable. Or make the behavior more attractive (fun, social, meaningful, etc.). But Mr. Fogg suggests focusing on ability and triggers. Keep in mind that although people will rarely do things they don’t like, it is sometimes the case that people come to like what they do, rather than do only the things they like.

Or leverage a context change. Changes of context are times when humans are more willing and able to lose existing habits or form new ones. So, plan your big changes from the beginning of the school year. Or if you are looking to establish some new behavior, such as pair or group work, reconfigure the classroom seating and move the desks.

Here is Mr. Fogg’s list of patterns for success. These points are well worth keeping in mind as you try to get learners to change behaviors.

“Help people do what they already want to do.”
“Put hot triggers in the path of motivated people.”
“Trigger the right sequence of baby steps.”
“Simple. Social. Fun.” (You must have at least two of these.)
“Harness the motivation wave to make future behavior easy.
“Simplicity matters more than motivation.”

Another presentation of his looks at common pitfalls of behavior change. I’ll embed it below for easier access.

 

Now that we have covered the theoretical ground, it’s  time to look at the actual application of gamification mechanics. That will be the topic of the next post.

 

Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog

Part 6: ARGs

 

 

 

English May Not Be the Right Choice for Everyone

A column in the Daily Yomiuri challenged me. It was by Mike Guest, who writes the Indirectly Speaking column once a month or so. He can also be found writing regularly at ELTNews.com. And I am an admirer of his work and regularly nod my head in agreement. But this one hit something of a nerve. You see, I work training high school teachers. But it is not fear for my job that is behind this post. Here’s the crux of what he said:

“So what do I suggest? I suggest a culling, a streamlining of the system. People who want to study English can and should, but it should not be a national mandate. Those entering fields in which English communication will be necessary or advantageous should. This will mean better motivation, more goal-directed teaching and learning, and better teachers–both Japanese and non-Japanese–since the subject will no longer be so monolithic and all-encompassing, but specialized and localized.”

While there are some things I agree with in the article, I think Mr. Guest is wrong–flatout wrong–in the approach he is suggesting for English education. It is a nice idea, to teach English only to the kids who want/need it. But we don’t know who those kids are. And they don’t either. In my many years in Japan, I have taught thousands of students. I am regularly surprised to find out which of my “unmotivated” students are now working abroad, married to non-Japanese, or using English regularly for some purpose I never imagined. It is not a matter of preparing a few students to go abroad to sell Toyotas anymore. That was 1968. It is a matter of being connected in the world so that you can take advantage of opportunities (information, contacts, needs, trends, etc.) as they arise, when/however they arise. That’s true for Toyota and it’s increasingly true for Taro. For example, one of the biggest groups of people in Japan being thrust into foreign contexts recently are young technicians, often graduates of industrial high schools. Their English education simply is not preparing them for that. They (and their teachers) bought into the idea that they would never really need English, and suddenly they have to try to get dinner, get along with co-workers, learn and explain things, avoid getting ripped off, or try to hook up or find a partner, all in English, at least at first. Do you know how many Japanese are going to live abroad in the future? I don’t either, but the average percentage of foreign-born people in advanced countries is 8% (as of 2009) according to this Economist article that might change your mind on “internationalization.” That means a lot of Japanese living abroad, and a lot of non-Japanese coming to Japan. And let’s not forget trips for business or pleasure. Or the Internet, where Japanese, like anyone else, can join communities of like minded individuals to explore the niches and crannies of unique interests.

As an English speaker, I often forget to thank my lucky stars for the enormous advantage I have because of English. Oh, the places I can go! Oh the people I can meet and then actually talk to, instead of just smiling politely. For Japanese native speakers, and I mean no disrespect to the people or the wonderful language, there is simply nothing similar. You may not find every sign, or menu, or whatever written  in two languages around the world, but if you see one, chances are one of the languages is English. That is simply not the case for Japanese. Try, oh go ahead and try, to find a place in the world where not one person speaks any English. It’s actually hard. But for most places outside of Japan, that is normal for Japanese. So, sorry, but for Japanese people, English is an important window to the world, it’s a Star Trek transporter, it’s a Lingua Franca, a common currency, a skill among skills.

And nobody knows which particular individuals are going to need it, more or less. It’s not fair, and technology is making it easier, that’s true, but that’s the way it is. So, sorry, but English has to be a “national mandate.” But it is at present a shameful national mandate, I agree. I have observed dozens of high school lessons. What is happening now is about as far away from language learning as chemistry is from food preparation. And it is often dreadfully boring. We can point to multiple culprits, but the situation is what it is, and the place to improve it is the classroom. Can it be improved? Absolutely! And right now, all across the country, there are dedicated teachers conducting wonderful lessons and bringing about real change. I’ve met a some of them and I can tell you that change is coming. But it will have to come from both the bottom and the top. And it will take time and effort. You don’t change an educational culture quickly. It’ll happen teacher by teacher, class by class, school by school. Try to find an English teacher who can’t speak English. They used to be common. They’re not anymore. In the future we might just as well ask about how hard it is to find a motivating teacher who puts her learners on the path to competency and autonomy.

As for the suggestion of taking English off the Center Exam, I believe there may be a short-term benefit and a long-term problem with this. My own view is we should tread carefully. The culture of education in Japan in 2013 features a huge emphasis on examinations. Some of the backwash from this is negative, to be sure, but some is positive. Implementing policy to get better backwash rather than no backwash may be a better strategy. I don’t know. And it really is a bigger policy issue that needs to be considered like a single chess move, by thinking several moves into the future.

 

The Flipped Classroom: Interesting (But Possible in HS EFL Classrooms?)

Flipping a lesson seems to mean different things to different people these days. But here is one definition, via Knewton, that makes a lot of sense. Instead of having the teacher convey information/explanations to the learners during classroom time and then getting the learners to practice it later for homework, the learners watch/listen/read the lecture or explanation or teaching part of a lesson at home and then come to the classroom to try it out, practice it, or get feedback on performance. That makes a lot of sense to me. Many teachers are already doing some form of blended learning these days, usually either parking resources on the web or providing learners with options for web-based self-access learning. Flipping a classroom seems to be the next logical step.

Of course, there are issues that come to mind immediately–Internet access inequality, digital learning literacy problems, motivational differences, and (for many teachers) just adjusting to a new way of approaching teaching. But the idea is interesting, the technology is extant, and I believe most learners are very, very ready for this. And the new official course of study in Japan comes into effect for high school this upcoming April, requiring more English in the classroom, particularly more productive use of English by learners. This may be one way of really achieving the directives.

March 25th update: Recently, Blackboard posted the slides of presentation on the challenges of flipping classrooms.

 

Formative Assessment Pt. 5: Owning Learning

This is the final post considering the implementation of Dylan Wiliam’s ideas on formative assessment in EFL classrooms in Japan. The ideas come mostly from his wonderful 2011 book titled Embedded Formative Assessment. You can learn more about Mr. Wiliam from his website or from a BBC documentary titled The Classroom Experiment (available on YouTube: Part 1 and Part 2). Earlier posts covered these topics: 1) Raising Awareness of Learning Intentions, 2) Eliciting Evidence of Achievement, 3) Feedback from the Teacher, and 4) Peer Feedback and Cooperative Learning. This post will look at how to make learners more autonomous. This does not necessarily mean getting learners to do more outside of the classroom (though it can). Often it means just having the learners clearly signal when learning is not happening, and reaching out for resources that can rectify that.

As a parent, I know that the most efficient way of getting my kids to clean up the family room is to do it myself. It’s faster, I can be sure the job is done well, and best of all, no time or energy has to be used for the messy business of requesting, cajoling, demanding, and inevitably, getting angry and/or disappointed. But, as my wife so correctly points out, that’s just bad parenting. It’s also a bad way of going about teaching. Ultimately, it is the learners who have to learn. And they need to learn how they learn and how they can improve that. But it ain’t easy.

One of the themes of Embedded Formative Assessment is to focus on the the cognitive, the task, the goal, and learning,  and take the focus off the emotional, the immediate sense of well-being, and “get the egos of the students out of the learning situation.” For improved autonomy, this entails dealing with issues of metacognition and motivation and Mr. Wiliam does another nice job of laying out the research context. What goes on in a learner’s head is tricky because so many things are at play–and the cognitive/motivational landscape is,  like any good offer you manage to find, subject to change without notice. As Mr. Wiliam summarizes it, it depends on the learner’s “perception of the task and its context, [the learner’s] knowledge about the task and what it will take to be successful, and [the learner’s] motivational beliefs, including their interest and whether they think they know enough to succeed.” Greatly affecting  this is the notion of self-efficacy, the belief that success comes from effort and is attainable. That needs to be nurtured, as I have mentioned before. But Mr. Wiliam is suggesting a wider approach. Everything he has talked about in the previous chapters helps to promote autonomy, by encouraging the learner to focus on growth. Encouraging the transfer of executive control from the teacher to the learner is just another part of it, and if the focus of the course and  the focus of the class  is on learning, on giving and getting feedback that moves the learning forward, then it is easier for the learner to see that as one of her own jobs, too. There are, of course, no “quick fixes.” But Mr. Wiliam provides a few practical ideas for encouraging learners to move toward owning learning. One of the  keys is establishing channels of communication and then promoting their use.

Colored Cards or disks, or cups for reacting to difficult topics.  Mr. Wiliam suggests a few ideas of how to use traffic light cards or cups or disks or marks to signal to the teacher if learning or understanding has happened or not. Creating an environment where learners can use the signals is essential for their success. Part of that involves responding in a way that takes the teacher’s ego out of the equation as well. The teacher needs to react responsibly when learners signal a failure of learning. One idea Mr. Wiliam suggests, illustrates how this can be done to promote autonomy. Let’s say the teacher has just finished explaining a particularly gnarly grammar item like the difference between perfect and simple past tenses. The students signal their understanding using cups/cards/disks. After students hold up red, yellow, or green cards, the teacher instructs  the green card students to help the yellow card students while she gathers the red card students together for further teaching or help. Everyone wins here. The students feel the teacher is responsive. The good learners get a chance to cognitively elaborate, the weak learners get some rephrasing/reinforcement, and the weakest learners get the second chance they need.

Learning Portfolios. For productive skills, have the learners keep samples of their writing or presentations or conversations in a portfolio. This can be done digitally, though that will require some tech savvy on the part of the teacher. The idea is to have a few samples that can allow the learner to see the trajectory of his or her improvement. That sends two very important messages: change is happening (possible); and you make it happen. I’ve done something similar in writing class effectively. I had learners keep their’ first assignments after asking them how long it took them to complete them. Then at the end of term, I asked them to compare their first assignment to their most recent assignment in terms of sentence variety, sentence word length, and time for assignment completion. The results  always showed improvement and caused learners to feel proud of their achievement. I used to look forward to that class every year.

“Reflecting critically on one’s own learning is emotionally charged, which is why developing such skills takes time, especially with students who are accustomed to failure,” Mr. Wiliam says. He is talking about all but a few of the English language learners at high schools in Japan, I’m afraid, where average exam scores are in the 40s or 50s or 60s. Success is usually passing a test and not accomplishing a communicative act, or understanding or performing with confidence. Mr. Wiliam’s techniques can help make classrooms less of a teacher-controlled one-way info barrage. That would be a step in the right direction.

 

 

Formative Assessment Pt. 4: Getting Other Learners Involved

This is the fourth post considering the implementation of Dylan Wiliam’s ideas on formative assessment in EFL classrooms in Japan. The ideas come mostly from his wonderful 2011 book titled Embedded Formative Assessment. You can learn more about Mr. Wiliam from his website or from a BBC documentary titled The Classroom Experiment (available on YouTube: Part 1 and Part 2). The first posting in this series looked at learning intentions. The second looked at eliciting evidence of achievement. The third looked at how and when teachers can best provide feedback to learners. This post will look at cooperative learning and peer involvement in learning. Mr. Wiliam’s point is that when learners are working together and helping each other, they are naturally giving and getting formative feedback.

Real cooperative learning is a little like real communism. It’s a nice idea but in actual practice, too many people just game the system for their own benefit to get maximum reward for minimum effort. Teachers have serious–and well-founded–concerns about the amount and quality of participation that is brought to the group table by all members. Mr. Wiliam’s comparatively short  chapter on activating students as instructional resources for one another approaches the topic with a tone that makes you think he shares at least some of that sense of trepidation. The research is clearly positive, and Mr. Wiliam presents the profound effects that have been found for cooperative learning, if it is done right (which it usually isn’t). Mr. Wiliam explains how it works (motivation, social cohesion, personalization, and cognitive elaboration) and what two elements are crucial (group goals and individual accountability) before ending the the first part of the chapter with a discussion on how many teachers have a problem with pure, uncut cooperative learning (holding everyone accountable by giving everyone in a group the same score as the lowest-scoring member) and then citing stats that show how few teachers are actually making use of real cooperative learning in their classrooms (very, very few). And on that mixed note of confidence, he begins listing his techniques. I’ll get to the techniques I think might work in Japanese high school EFL classes in a moment, but first an educational culture point needs to be addressed.

There seems to be a strong sense that Japanese classrooms are naturally more cooperative because, well, Japanese group culture makes it easier. Mr. Wiliam states the same thing in his book, listing as “proof” the contrasting proverbs of the squeaky wheel gets the grease (US) and the nail that sticks out will get hammered down (Japan). In addition to the book containing  a mistake with the Japanese version of the proverb, I think this generalization is more than a little stereotypical. Anyone who has seen Japanese students “unmotivated” in regular classes come together in a club activity or festival project knows that  group power and individual accountability are impressive but cannot be taken for granted; and anyone who has seen PTA mothers–dedicated, concerned parents all–trying to avoid being elected for positions that require work knows that Japanese, like anyone else I imagine, can go to pretty great lengths to remain uninvolved, despite being a members of a nation known for being responsible and group-oriented. But I don’t want to get on Mr. Wiliam’s back because his main point is sound: we want to get everyone more involved with helping each other because there are great benefits when that happens; and it really matters how you do it.

One idea that any school can use is the “Secret Student.” You can see it in practice in the BBC video. It is a devious bit of peer pressure judo teachers can use to promote better behavior in the classroom and I think it would work brilliantly in Japan. Each day one student is chosen at random as the secret student and his/her behavior is monitored by the teacher(s). If the student’s behavior/participation is good, his/her identity is revealed to the class at the end of the lesson or day. And the whole class gets a point that goes toward some reward (a trip to an amusement park in the video!). If the behavior/participation of the student is unsatisfactory, the identity is not revealed and the class is informed that they did not get a point for that day. This would almost certainly help to improve participation and reduce disruptive behavior (two really big problems in most high school English classrooms). The only problem is what reward can be offered. It would have to be something possible yet motivating.

One technique to get started with cooperative learning is “Two Stars and a Wish.” Students give feedback on other students’ work  by stating two things they like and one thing that they think could be improved. Mr. William suggests using sticky notes for this feedback. He also suggests picking up some of the feedback comments from time to time to teach students how to give better feedback. This last point is important because it is precisely the generally poor quality of student or peer feedback that makes many teachers to unenthusiastic about peer feedback. There are many times in a language course when students are just out and out unable to provide good feedback. But learning how to give feedback well when it is possible to do so is a real learning opportunity that can benefit the giver and (eventually) the receiver. This technique could be used well for anything students write, translate, present, or any time students produce anything in the target language.

One activity that he suggests, “Error Classification,” probably wouldn’t work in a language classroom as he suggests. This activity requires learners to pour over writing examples to classify the errors made. It sounds nice, but it is unlikely the learners would be able to do this at all but the most proficient of classes. And even if they could, spending so much time on superficial mechanical errors  may not be a good idea. Another activity, “Preflight Checklist,” might be much better for student writing assignments. For this activity, students are given a list of requirements for the writing assignment (things like proper format, clear topic sentence, logical organization, subject-verb agreement, or whatever the teacher is focusing on at the time). Another student is responsible for checking the writing and signing off, meaning certifying that the first student’s writing meets all the requirements.

And a final activity that I think would work well in EFL classes is providing a little time at the end of a lesson or section for pairs or groups to discuss and report on what they have learned. This can be a nice student-led review, and a chance for teachers to see what has and has not been grasped well.

To really get the benefit of cooperative learning, teachers need get learners to have group goals and accept the idea of shared responsibility and accountability. This may be problematic in many situations for many reasons, depending on the year, the course, and the proficiency and motivation differences of learners. I have recently observed a class where the teacher was making extensive use of group cooperative learning. Out of six groups, it was working for three but not really working for the other three. For it to work, it seems that some training, some acceptance of the approach, some accountability, and a fair bit of time are all necessary. When it comes to cooperative learning in Japan, perhaps introducing more chances for learners to see, formatively assess, and then communicate that assessment might be the best way to start. Real cooperative learning is hard, takes a serious commitment, and can all be for naught if not done (and embraced) well.

Next: Part 5, Encouraging greater autonomy and ownership of learning.

 

Formative Assessment Pt. 3: Moving Right Along

This is the third post considering the implementation of Dylan Wiliam’s ideas on formative assessment in EFL classrooms in Japan. The ideas were gleaned from his wonderful 2011 book titled Embedded Formative Assessment. The first post in this series looked at learning intentions. The second looked at eliciting evidence of achievement. This post will consider how and when teachers can best provide feedback to learners. This part of the book takes up the theoretical rationale for giving feedback.

Let’s start with a question: is a grade feedback? That is, is it information–meaningful, understandable, actionable information–that contributes to the learning process? Mr. Wiliam says usually it is not. In the language of assessment, there is summative assessment and formative assessment. And grades are not formative assessment. And in Mr. Wiliam’s view, formative assessment is really all that matters.

If we think carefully about it, and Mr. Wiliam has, we can see that there are four possible responses to feedback: the learner can change his behavior (make more or less effort); the learner can change his goal (either increase or reduce his aspiration); the learner can abandon his goal altogether (decide that it is too hard or too easy); or the learner can just reject or ignore the feedback. As teachers, we know which of these actions we want learners to take, but what the learner actually does depends on how he sees the goal, the feedback, the feedback giver, and a host of other factors. Feedback seems straightforward in the teaching/learning culture we grew up with. But it is not. In fact, getting it right is really hard. But before we even try to get it right, a more fundamental mindset change is necessary. We have to understand that much of the “feedback-giving” we have traditionally done as teachers has been a waste of time–our time mostly–and has not contributed to learning. Much of or the “feedback-giving” we thought was so important, turns out to either have negligible effect or even negative effect. Yup, negative.

Feedback needs to “cause a cognitive rather than emotional reaction in learners”. It must “make learners think”, and it is only effective “if the information fed back to the learner is used by the learner in improving performance.” And this is why just giving grades is problematic. Students first look at their grades, then they look at the grades of other students, and they generally don’t even read those elaborate comments you spent all that time writing. Providing good feedback is difficult. It requires breaking down each learning intention into micro-skills, or micro-concepts, or significant units, and then being able to identify exactly what the learner is not doing right and how he can improve. The timing is also important. Performance must be fresh in a learner’s mind and there must be time to make use of that feedback on subsequent performance. The amount is important. It must be focused enough to be understandable and actionable. And learners need to believe they have the power to make changes that lead to improvement. They have to trust the teacher and believe in themselves. These are not givens. Teacher praise of effort (see Carol Dweck, who Mr. Wiliam cites often in this chapter) affects this, but so do task perception and the social atmosphere of the classroom.

For language classes with their combination of knowledge learning and skill building, this is a challenge that will require at least two distinct approaches. For skill building, the teacher must act more like a coach. Speaking, writing, listening, and reading must be broken down into micro-skills and learners need to be given feedback on each one so that they and the teacher get a picture of how they are doing and what they need to improve. Let’s take listening as an example. Mr. Wiliam suggests a chart of micro-skills based on the rubric of learning intentions for the course and a score of 0, 1, or 2 for each. 0 means no evidence of mastery; 1 means some evidence of mastery; and 2 means strong evidence of mastery. Both the learner and the teacher get a good idea of what is being done well and not so well, and the rubric (provided earlier) clearly states the conditions of mastery performance. The teacher can then concentrate on giving advice for improving performance. Let’s say the micro-skills include  genre identification, understanding reduced speech, identifying transition signals, or keeping up with native speed levels. The teacher has ways of checking all of these and knows ways of improving each of them.

For productive skills like conversation skills or presentation skills, the same can be done. In addition, video can be used to give feedback and provide a marker against which future performance can be judged (though Mr. Wiliam doesn’t specifically suggest this in the book). I tried this back in the day of VHS analog video and it worked really well, though it was very difficult to get learners to watch critically and reflect on their performance and think about how to improve it. The original idea came out of work done at Nanzan University in the 1990s by Tim Murphey, Linda Woo, and Tom Kenny (here is a later article explaining how it is done). Recently, with digital video and with every student sporting a smartphone or a tablet, this can be done much more easily. Techsmith has a brilliant app available for exactly this purpose, called Coach’s Eye. It allows you shoot and annotate a video and then share it.

For any kind of written work (translations, example sentences, paragraphs, essays, culture notes, etc., something Mr. Wiliam suggests is providing feedback without the grade. This can be done individually or in groups. For groups of four, for example, essay comments can be handed out separately on four sheets of paper. The four corresponding essays are also handed out and the learners in the group must work to match the comments to the paper. This forces them to consider the comments and it gives them a way to compare their performance on specific criteria against that of others. After that–and this is a critical step–the learners are given a chance to make adjustments to their papers and resubmit them for actual grading.

Mr. Wiliam quotes Alfie Kohn in the chapter: “never grade a student while they are still learning.” This is good advice. It can help a teacher to get into the best mindset to move learning along. Mr. Wiliam provides a strong case for doing this. The differences in learning outcomes between classes that employ formative assessment and those that do not are stunning. Teachers should be coaches, encouraging, developing, and training essential skills for performance. Formative assessment is the key, I believe, to getting teachers to assume a more effective role in the classroom and to building a community of learning. More on that last point when we look at what Mr. William has to say about leveraging peer feedback in the next post.

Next: Part 4, Getting other learners involved.

Formative Assessment Pt. 2: Eliciting Evidence of Achievement

This the second post of a series  considering  Dylan Wiliam’s ideas on embedded formative assessment in EFL  classes at high schools in Japan. Mr. Wiliam is a proponent of assessment for learning, a system where teachers work closely with learners to guide them to better learning. In the previous post, I looked at learning intentions, picking up some of his recommendations and describing how they might fit in EFL classes.  To learn more about Dylan Wiliam, you can visit his website, or read this article from The Guardian, or read his latest book about why and how to make greater use of formative assessment, Embedded Formative Assessment. A BBC documentary of his initiatives called The Classroom Experiment is also available on YouTube (Part 1 and Part 2). Some of the ideas in this post are observable in the TV program and I encourage you to watch it. The book is much richer than the program and I encourage you to get and read it.

In Chapter 4 of his book, Dylan Wiliam illustrates a problem with a nice story. Ask small children what causes wind and they might say it’s trees. They are not being stupid, they are using their observations and creatively making sense of what they see. But it’s a classic confusion of correlation and causation. Your own students would never do such a thing, would they? Oh, yes, they would. They misunderstand, misinterpret, overgeneralize, oversimplify, etc. etc.  probably more often than you think; and it’s your job as a teacher to catch them when they do. By eliciting evidence of learning (or lack of learning), we make it easier for learners to stay on the path of learning. It is important–crucial–that learners and teachers know if learners are on that path, or are veering into the trees (as it were). Very often students manage to achieve the correct answer without really understanding why. But by cleverly using questions and other techniques and attentively listening to learners, we (and they) can get a better idea of how they are progressing. Teachers, aware of some of the common problems learners regularly experience, should give learners the opportunity to make those common errors. This garden path/trap technique is unfair on a test, but is a useful tool in assessment where the goal is to make error salient to  the learner, his peers, and the teacher.

At present, too few of the questions teachers ask in class help to do this. In research cited by Mr. Wiliam for an elementary school class, 57% of teacher questions were related to classroom management, 35% was used for rehearsing things students already know, and only 8% required students to analyze, make inferences, or to generalize–in a word, to really think. For Mr. Wiliam, this represents a good place to make some changes and he suggests things that we do two things at the same time: promote thinking (to see if it’s happening), and increase engagement in that thinking by a larger percentage of the class. These things, unsurprisingly, have “a significant impact on student achievement.”

So how can things be done in language classrooms? Looking at the chapter, it seems that most of this applies to science, history, and math courses, the ponder and wonder courses. Language courses, especially if we have a strong skill focus element as I pushed for last post, seem to require a different kind of learning. But all disciplines are a combination of skills and knowledge. And the techniques Mr. Wiliam describes can be adjusted for different parts of different courses. I will use the terms question and answer when illustrating the techniques, but they could be used for knowledge questions of usage or application of strategies or skill demonstrations of listening or reading comprehension or pronunciation, etc. So let’s get to them. Once again, I am selecting the techniques I think best match high school EFL courses. This is not a comprehensive list and the examples are mostly illustrated by how I imagine they could be used here in Japan. Here we go.

1) The No Questions By Role Rule (my variation of the No Hands Up Rule). Fortunately in Japan we are not oppressed by that small clique of students in every class who seem to raise their hands to venture answers or provide extra comments for almost every question and statement that comes out of a teacher’s mouth. I’ve probably had fewer hands up to answer questions in my 25 years of teaching here than the average North American teacher experiences on a Monday morning. In order to prevent that small clique from monopolizing class (and learning) time, Mr. Wiliam came up with his No Hands Up rule. In Japan, teachers typically go down the role list or go up and down rows picking the students to answer questions. It’s more democratic, yes, but there are similar problems. I’ve regularly observed students counting the questions and students so they can focus on getting their answer to their question right, completely disregarding every other question. What we need is for all students to be engaged in answering all questions. So instead of the roles or the hands, Mr. Wiliam recommends a pot of popsicle sticks, each with the name of one of the students written on it. The teacher asks a question and then pulls a stick from the pot and asks that student to answer it. It forces all students to pay attention and try to come up with an answer since they don’t know when their name will be called.  Of course, variations on this can make it better for your class (see the video for some of these). Adding more than one stick for some special  students is one way, and putting a student in charge of pulling names is another. Another technique is the Pose-Pause-Pounce-Bounce, which can be used along with the sticks. Ask the question, and give everyone a bit of time to think; then choose a student to answer; then ask another student to evaluate the first student’s answer.

Some of you are already shaking your heads. Too many students will answer with “I don’t know.” It’ll be stick after stick after stick of “I don’t know.” What’ll you do then, huh? Well, Mr. Wiliam offers a few suggestions for that, too, because it is essential that all students be brought into the ring of engagement. Get more students to answer and then ask the I-don’t-knower to choose the best answer. Or gamify things a little. Use game techniques like “Phone a Friend“, or give the student two choices and let him or her gamble on the answer. The key point is: keep them engaged and thinking, no matter what it takes, for as long as it takes. Don’t let them slip into drowsy disengagement in the warm sunlight in the back corner of the class. Sleeping students are a real problem in Japan. Sleeping should not be allowed. A policy of zero tolerance for disengagement should be embraced. It’s not easy and it might negatively impact the brighter, more motivated learners for a while, but in the end it is a better approach, Mr. Wiliam argues. Watch the video of  The Classroom Experiment to see some blowback, though.

2) Hot Seat and Waiting Time. In the Hot Seat technique, one student is chosen to answer several teacher questions. Another student is then chosen to summarize or report on what the first student answered. The teacher then gives his or her evaluation. The reason for this is to give learners enough waiting time to process and evaluate in their own heads the answers of their peers before the teacher provides the “correct” answer. Without that waiting time, learners just listen and wait for the right answer from the teacher rather than develop the habit of evaluating ideas themselves. This, of course, can be done with any questions. Be sure to allow enough time for everyone to hear, process, and assess an answer before you,as the teacher, pronounce judgement on it.

3) Multiple Choice Questions For Thinking. Give the learners a set of three, four, or five sentences and ask them to answer a question about them. Which are grammatically correct? Which are academic and which are more casual? Which grammar rules are true? How are the items related? Which one doesn’t belong in the set? Etc. These are all questions that can stimulate pair, group, or whole-class discussions.

4) Variations for No. 3. There are many ways of making use of questions or multiple choice questions or statements for evaluation mentioned in the book. Giving learners cards (A,B,C,D, for example) that everyone can hold up to display their choices can be a nice way of getting the whole class involved in answering. Exit passes are another variation. Each student must write and submit an answer or an opinion on a paper before leaving the class. This forces all students to participate and gives the teacher something concrete in his/her hands.

Many of these techniques are second nature to many teachers, but it is amazing how many do not ever dip their toes in the waters of achievement checking until they are slashing stokes on the the final tests. Making thinking visible has been a buzzy concept for the last few years. One book promotes many ideas for doing so, one of which fits right in with what Mr. Wiliam is suggesting. When eliciting student responses, ask a follow-up question: What makes you say that? This is something I’ve tried successfully in my own classes. It makes students think more deeply and justify their ideas more. Ideas like this are not only effective in L1 content courses. Ideas and approaches like Mr. Wiliam’s  could work very nicely in EFL classrooms in Japan. At present there is a strong tendency for the teacher to just teach, imparting (or so he/she believes) knowledge to learners. Learners are asked to “study.” But aside from memorizing words, or memorizing the text, they usually don’t know what to do. Next year, the Ministry of Education is pushing for all teachers to teach English in English. Mr. Wiliam’s techniques can fit really nicely with that. The techniques listed above could allow for more meaningful use of English in the classroom, more engagement by all learners, and very possibly more learning.

Next: Part 3, Moving right along.