Friday, 11 October 2013

Sometimes I sits an thinks...

I do a couple of hours of English Language Support for undergraduates on Wednesday evenings. I haven't done this before at my present place and so was a bit taken aback last Wednesday afternoon when I picked up my class list from the office and saw that it had something like fifty names on it. I'd expected the usual class size of fifteen or so. I was assured by the centre director that it was unlikely that everyone on the list would show up, and even less likely that many of them would come back after the first week. So this little course is going to be a bit like busking, never knowing from one pitch to the next how many punters will stop to listen.

The allocated room seats 42 and there isn't an inch of wiggle room. The session started with a full house, and seven or so latecomers had to be turned away.

'So, ladies and gentlemen, please ensure that your smartphone is out of sight - preferably hurled out of the window, but at least in the deepest recess of your bag. I am supposed to do something about academic culture, and so have decided to hammer you with 'Critical Thinking'.'

Lecturers are much given to moaning about their students' deficiency in the critical thinking department, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus on what it is, as opposed to much chuntering about its absence. Students are bollocked for not putting their opinions into their essays, then when they write 'In my opinion...' they're bollocked for that as well. I tried to get them to see that they need to have an informed opinion that they can defend with reference to their reading, and when lecturers require of them 'original thinking', they don't mean that Wei Wei Wong, who has chosen 'Styrofoam' as his English monnicker (I'm not making this up) is expected to bring about a paradigm shift in humanity's apprehension of Accounting and Finance, but that he might perceive new links between issues raised in different modules, thereby deepening mankind's joy in accountancy and his own sense of calling to the discipline. Or something.

Well, anyway, after my Powerpoint presentation and a little video, I set a task designed to elicit from them something like the kind of thinking I'd been burbling about. I put a newspaper ad on the screen (EAP = English for Academic Purposes):


In small groups, the students were asked to decide how they could go about verifying the claim.

I don't know how well most of them got on with this, as it was impossible to monitor without an undignified clambering over desks and risk of accidentally kicking people in the teeth. I went and talked to a small group of three Polish girls and a couple of Brazilians, one of each, sitting at the edge of a block of desks.

'So, how would you do this?'

'Yeeeeeaaaahhhh,' whines the lad from Brazeeoow, 'I dunnow, make some experimentsch, make some researches...'

'What kind of experiment?'

'Write an essay,' a Polish girl offers.

'Who? Why?' I push.

'Yeah, see if it improve.'

If what improves? We are getting nowhere fast here.

'How about getting a group of volunteers?' I suggest.

'Yeah, obviously.'

'Do you think there ought to be an initial test to assess the volunteers' level at the start?'

'Yeah, yeah, of course.'

'And wouldn't you need to divide your volunteers into an experimental group and a control group?'

'Yeah, yeah, we know this...'

'And one group gets the EAP tabs and the other a placebo and then after three weeks you administerahigherleveltestandseeifthegroupwhotooktheEAPpillsscoreshigher. Right?'

They look at me as if I have just announced that Tuesday follows Monday and thirty minutes is half an hour. It was obvious how to test the claim. 

These kids had no idea how to approach the question, could not focus on the task or articulate a procedure. Yet when I sat with them and fed them the whole bloody thing, they felt I had presented them with a task too trivial for their attention. They hadn't even noticed that they had contributed nothing at all to the discussion.

Yeah, well. I'm tired and jaded and probably missing all sorts of 'learner factors' and shit stuff like that. Do tell me if you think this is the case.

* © 2008 Garnet Publishing Ltd


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