Steps, stages and just getting started.

Why is it so hard to start things ? To make the leap from vision to actually getting on and pushing through the process so it exists. And is it really even harder to do on line or does it just feel that way ?

What am I complaining about ? Having slightly more time than usual (in the sense that last month and this coming month I don’t have language classes two or three evenings a week, which at this time of year I usually would). As a one off that ought to be a good thing. Along with the normal daily list (there is always a list) there is an on-going ‘pro-active, when I get a bit more time and fight back the reactive and urgent tasks’ list.  After more than a month, where in theory I have had at least 6 and actually in practice (considering travel time and the like) probably nearer 10 hours a week I wouldn’t usually have, what have I crossed off that proactive list ? Nothing.

There are two projects that currently go round and round in my head, but haven’t gathered any momentum in reality yet. One is some kind of self access how to prepare for Delta Modules site and the other is the reading that should be behind the research we proposed for one of the ELTER projects. So 40 hours in hand why isn’t one of them finished ? Or at least properly started ?

It’s always easier to do the small stuff. I guess I don’t have to work out what the steps are and most of the smaller stuff has specific and imminent deadlines. I know when something has to be marked and returned by, I know when the tutors have to be standardised by and I know I can’t walk into class on Saturday without a plan (I do still have the iGCSE class, just not a classic EFL class).

Actually that last point makes me think it isn’t how big or small something is that causes it to be more or less difficult to start. It might be how new it is for me (and whether there is a deadline – the necessity of having a plan on Saturdays creates an imminent deadline so it always gets done even though a lot of it is new, writing a blog post should be small, but is always new and there isn’t a deadline, hence the long gaps between posts sometimes).

So why is new difficult ? Because I haven’t previously taken the steps often enough to be sure of what to do first (or how). And those steps work at two levels. When I write the GCSE plan I don’t always succeed in creating steps for them (on any given Saturday morning, some of the activities work well and others turn out not to have had enough steps / support / scaffolding in them for the learners), but that’s because the content (every other week is history, but even the English for the First Language English exam is a slightly different perspective on English) is new for me so I’m not so sure about which of my usual delivery systems will work and how to integrate those two things – the content we need to have covered and the ways of delivering it to them. In fact, a lot of what I believed would be true about teaching a content area is turning out to be so, but as with much else it comes down to time and graft and how much of each of those you can afford or wish to expend.

To do well in the iGCSE history exam they have to remember some facts. They do eventually have to be able to name years, though more often they need to be able to name countries or treaties or alliances or tracts of land or battles,it seems as though the dates on which things happened are not as fundamental as knowing what it was that happened, why and in what order. So rather more than years they have to be able to talk about causes and evaluate judgements (was it fair ? right ? inevitable ? was someone to blame ?). They need a sense of what they need to know (how much of any given topic / string of facts they eventually need to be able to regurgitate and what kinds of tasks they will have to be able to apply that knowledge to), they need to get the bigger picture that any point or event fits into and they have to be able to sort through the narrative of events and make it into a coherent whole for themselves.

Lots of it has parallels with EFL. There is a certain amount you just have to learn (like vocabulary) – which countries were on which side, why, how they all ended up in trenches, what happened at sea and how and why it was important and so on. But a list of facts won’t get you very far unless you can use it in some way, to work out what you think about it, to make it your own. Can I stretch that analogy that far ? The idea that you shouldn’t just be learning vocabulary but have to get on and speak eventually or it won’t ever become your language or the idea that you can’t just read past exam tasks, but have to work on projects or read and note-take topics for yourself and do something with that knowledge or you will have trouble in the Delta exam ? The lovely helpful history site of John Clare seems to suggest that learning about things, being able to talk about them, finding a position of your own is desirable with history GCSE, but that some students do scrape through a grade with a last minute crib sheet and a lot of luck (if you scroll down to basics on this page you can see what I mean).  You could probably scrape through a language exam (and the Delta Module One) with enough cribbing of lists and stock phrases if you were lucky with questions and how you spat that memorised knowledge back out.

None of us wants our learners to start from that position though. It would just not be interesting and with the history as with the language (or the Delta), I keep hoping that somehow during the course they will get a taste for it, for how interesting it is to know things, to understand how they all fit together, to be able to trace causes back or see why something may have come about as it did. I’ve enjoyed reading up the history for this so far (and the extra ways of looking at language, but I begin to see that will have to wait for another post).

TES resources turns out to be wonderful and teachers share on it generously, but a surprising number of them share powerpoints that I look at that seem to just list the facts. I guess as historians they are able to deliver the facts entertainingly, embellished with lots of interesting extras (and I can’t, being only ever a few pages ahead of the group in terms of understanding) and although the group like it when they can keep asking questions about the narrative and trying to make it fit their view of how the world should be, that feels odd. They should be doing the work, not me. And that’s where the steps for them come in. If I’m not going to just tell them what they need to know (and (a) I don’t know enough of it myself to do that particularly convincingly and (b) I just don’t see how any of it will stick in their heads or make sense to them if I did) then I have to work out ways to get the content for the week across. So they need a project to research, facts to order or match, charts to fill in with advantages and disadvantages, ideas to compare and so on. And that’s what takes the time – working out the steps, making materials. I know how to do it for a lot of EFL things because I’ve done it so often before. I know what comparison will trigger the answer I want, what kind of things they are likely to be able to deal with at elementary level, that you may get tangled in the third conditional if you haven’t been made aware of the past perfect. I also have drives full of past matches and stories and tricks and techniques that I can adapt and exploit to whatever the current context is. With history though, they all have to be made from scratch. Rare is the activity that comes up in a TES search that is so structured, that provides the steps. Mostly what comes up is powerpoints with information on, not activities. Though there are one or two history teachers out there who I think have a background in TEFL (phil at ichistory seems to teach in a second language environment – the activities often have the feel of something made by a teacher who spent years using Reward resource packs), or is that missing the point, is it actually about how you think learning should happen ?

Perhaps it is that I try to structure too much, offering things, rather than waiting for them to emerge. Language might emerge in a Dogme like manner, but it is hard to imagine how history would (though even that might just be my lack of experience with it). I seem to have talked my way to the currently ubiquitous controversies of Sugata Mitra, but  I have not yet found a question in history that interests my Saturday morning group enough to excite them to systematic research and presentation when there are so many other things on the web they would like to be doing (playing online games and showing each other bizarre videos on YouTube proving to be the things they do instantly when the pressure to complete ‘work’ is off in a break). I can’t see that they would be more engaged by the question of why women don’t grow beards than they were (or weren’t, though they did answer it in the end) of why trench life in Gallipoli was harder than on the Western Front.

Or perhaps it is  the environment I am working in ? Maybe because the Saturday group are in the Turkish state system they haven’t (they say they haven’t) had much practice in exploring subjects for themselves. I can set small questions and provide them with laptops, but the steps, the questions have to be very clear and without a highly structured ‘slot’ for an answer they tend to write ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or a date or a phrase and stop. So worksheets and projects and setting them up to do things and present to each other works if I do all the work first, make a tightly structured sequence to be followed and then leave them to follow my ‘steps’ to the point where I need them to be. I realise even as I write that down that it is also true of the particularly ‘good’ language activities I use and the more successful bits of Delta sessions, and one of the reasons I have more success with those latter two than with the history is that I do them more often for more of the time and have usually had the chance to go back over things and tweak steps that proved too big, too wild or too unstructured. Even there, I don’t always see what will or won’t work until I have tried it with a group. So in the second manifestation of the comprehension / receptive skills sessions on Module One, I got a lot more of the steps in the right order and at the right level, but didn’t see that (a) getting them to order Cooks ‘levels’ of language (1989:80) had too many unknown elements in it and was going to cause anxiety about the specifics of the differences between the terms when they weren’t familiar with the terms yet, but that (b) getting them to work out if they could map Gordon’s sets of competencies involved in reading (in Hudson 2007:83) onto Grabe’s skills and knowledge resources required for reading would be the single most successful activity of the whole three hour slot as I could hear exactly the ideas and concepts I hoped for being articulated, tried out, tested against each other and applied to the task.

And we ask the teachers to achieve this in LSAs first time (for a higher grade at least you have to get the right steps in at the right level as opposed to just getting them all moving in the right general direction). Though having said that, it is Delta not CELTA so they are often doing it with areas they have been teaching for some time, but most are seeing and therefore trying out things they have not tried out before.

Some hours and several thousand words later and I haven’t even managed to say why I think this is more difficult to do on line. Only to run out of time. On the upside though, I think I have left two steps open for myself to pick up on to make the next couple of posts easier. Can I set a mental deadline and stick to it ?


Cook. 1989 Discourse OUP

Grabe, W. 2009 Teaching and Assessing Reading in Long and Doughty (eds) The Handbook of English Language Teaching Blackwell 441-462

Hudson 2007 Teaching Second Language Reading OUP


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