Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Wires crossed

I collected some homework yesterday for the colleague who had set it the previous day. She had given the students ten or so half-sentences which they were required to complete with their own ideas, probably using connectors such as because, however, although, and that sort of thing. To make the task totally foolproof, she had given the class her own examples for each sentence. On receipt of the homework, she found that most of them had simply copied out her examples, and handed them back to her.

I sometimes think we ought to have a rubber stamp made, one that reads ‘what was the fucking point of doing this, then?’, and you'd see this in red ink at the bottom of the screwed-up exercises and 100% plagiarised essays we will be receiving over the coming three months. Most of these students are graduates in their own countries. Surely they cannot imagine we are setting them tests of penmanship? If they do not imagine this, what the hell is going through their minds as they copy out the teachers own words to hand back to her? Buggered if I know, but a lack of congruence between the minds of teachers and students is not uncommon. Here's an example.

In the mid-nineties I used to teach a group of nurses at a large private hospital in Athens. We had only two hours a week and they never did any homework, so progress was two steps forward and ten steps back. The proceeds of the enterprise contributed to my rent, but otherwise it was pretty pointless. The nurses naturally wanted to learn the names of the parts of the body. We did parts of the bloody body every lesson for weeks, and every week it was news to them. Imagine the strain on the creativity when you have to come up with a new way of teaching the same vocabulary items every week for a whole term. Labelling pictures, untangling anagrams, attempting crosswords, listening to invented dialogues between nurses and the halt, lame, bedridden, constipated, poxed and scrofulous, sticking labels on one of those creepy plastic teaching dummies that come equipped with functioning lungs and catheterisable snatch… they did the lot, and every week with the same sense of discovery. Every week the same reminder that the ten things on the end of your feet are, for medical purposes at least, ‘toes’, not ‘toys’. I deserved twice the money I actually got for that, no false modesty there.

Anyway, one day I had taught a number of phrases such as:

take a pulse
take a temperature

give an enema
give a bed-bath

and one or two others with another verb that I no longer remember. To round off the lesson and recap on the new vocabulary, I gave the ladies a task sheet on which the verbs GIVE, TAKE and the third one appeared at the head of three columns, and the nouns pulse, bed-bath, temperature, and so on appeared in a separate box in random order. (Can you have random order, or is that a contradiction in terms?) The aim of this bog-standard exercise is for the students to match the nouns with the right verbs, although I never terrified my nurses with abstruse terminology like noun and verb, as it would have freaked them out. Well, I set up the task, did one example for them, and asked them, in pairs, to get on with the matching. Silence. Bafflement. Then argument. They had no idea what the hell I wanted them to do, or why. If I had asked them to pair up and remove their partner’s appendix, their confusion could scarcely have been less. I repeated the instructions and these became, as usual, the subject of heated and noisy debate in Greek. I went behind the screen to where the plastic lady lay on her bed in eternal rigor mortis, and shouted ‘fuuuuuuck!’ before emerging to try again. But it was no good. The task made absolutely no sense to anybody and so we ditched it and went home.

I thought a lot about that bloody task, the like of which I had done with younger students a million times, and why it had fallen flat on its arse. I decided that since these ladies thought not in terms of verb-noun collocations but of seamless physical actions, they saw no sense in my splitting up the words, jumbling them and then requiring them to sort out the chopped up bits and pieces. Fair enough. If only that had occurred to me at the time I could have re-elicited all the phrases using mime, and we’d all have left earlier and happier. I don’t really think I would fancy having to mime ‘give an enema’, but you get the point. Chopping up language is my cabbage patch, not theirs.

So, yeah, sometimes we make assumptions about students’ knowledge of language and teaching methods, and we forget that they have no reason to see the matter in the same way as we do. I still have not managed to work out why a group of graduates imagined that they were required to hand in stuff they had simply copied from the board, though.


As the TEFL Tradesman points out in his comment, I'm showing my starry eyed innocence here, innocence that even fifteen years in Greece didn't manage to extinguish. The reality of education in the Arab world is depressingly described here. I did know this, but thought 'no, not my students!'


Fionnchú said...

Copy & paste indeed. At my school we have about given up on closed-book exams, as we transfer to a top-down pre-fab system of "consistent course delivery" on-line. The proviso of a timed exam is still there, and limited by our setting it as such, but memorization erodes as bookmarking supplants it. I cannot believe I had blue books and total recall for my entire education, compared to now. We assume the students will sneak in flash drives and share pre-fab answers as this practice spreads, but our deans fail to accept our predictions.

vilges suola said...

We still have sit-down no-dictionary don't-dare-cheat tests every five weeks. We have to invigilate these strictly, as somebody will always try to copy someone else's answers. It feels very odd to have to superintend adults like this. The other day I heard the course director talking to a student 'well, you haven't passed that test because you cheated didn't you, hmmm?' He was about 35...

Argentum Vulgaris said...

Random order does seem to be an oxymoron.


vilges suola said...

And yet a progression is inevitable due to the linear nature of print. Fuckinelle. We get deep on 'ere, don't we?

The TEFL Tradesman said...

You assume too much, matey. A lot of the 'graduates' that I have taught have done nowt more intellectual than copy down notes from boards and memorise them, in order to regurgitate them during a test or exam. And if they can't do that, they'll happily try to cheat.

Sad, but very true!

vilges suola said...

Yes, I know... I suppose I just hoped they were a minority. You'd think after 15 years in Greece I'd have cottoned on by now.

Where do you teach, by the way?


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