Questioning assumptions about teaching to the test

So often teachers complain about the fact that they must teach so much out of the book so that the students can pass some test. But then in the next breath the teachers complain that the students forget much of what the teachers had to teach and the students had to learn. Then teachers and students say that is how things are and we cannot do anything about it.

But I am suggesting that it is not a fact that teachers and students have to do such a thing.

I am suggesting that teachers may be making assumptions about tests, for example the CET and the
BEC tests, that may be incorrect assumptions. Namely I am suggesting that what is taught in the books may not be what is tested in the tests.

Let’s take these two tests as examples. Although they are two different tests, what I am suggesting is that if we did an analysis of actual CET and BEC test questions that we may not find those test answers in the CET and BEC books.

I feel that all of us as teachers may be holding too many assumptions about our craft These assumptions may be hindering and even harming us and our students causing us to waste time, waste energy, waste teaching and learning
capacity and even waste money.

The implications are tremendous. If you consider the hundreds of millions who take these tests, took these tests or will take these tests, and what could have otherwise been done with this time, energy, capacity and money, it is our responsibility as professionals to be sure about these things.

I suggest that we reexamine all of our assumptions about these kinds of tests and the assumptions that we hold about them.

Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I am wrong. But I suggest that it is a worthwhile effort to ask these questions. This is what I am currently doing with the CET Chinese English Test.


Have students check each other’s tests and quizzes?

How to have students check each others’ test without cheating and “helping” a friend? If a student is checking another student’s test or quiz paper, they may be tempted to change a few answers to help a buddy. What is a simple way to control that.

I like the idea of students correcting each others’ tests and quizzes. I think the more time the students spend on the material, thinking about it, studying the questions and answers, the better they will understand it. So if students take a quiz and never see it again until it is handed back by the teacher, it is not as effective as having students correct each others’ papers.

One thing that works for me is to give students a pen with a special color to use when they take the test or quiz. In my case, I give them all a green pen to use but purple or some other odd color would also be good.

Then when you collect the quiz papers, collect the pens also. I then redistribute the papers to the students so that no student gets his own paper.

Let the students use their own pens when correcting another students’ paper.

Teach the students how to give a score to the paper as well.

Before turning in the papers to you, let the students give the papers back to their owners. This allows the student to see and reflect on their errors. It also allows a way to check the scoring. If there are any mistakes made in the correction and scoring, the owner of the paper will be sure to spot it and can ask you about it so you can make sure the score is correct.

Afterwards the students pass in their papers to you and you can enter their scores into your computer or score sheet.

[Photo: Dave’s students in China taking a quick 9-question quiz using green pens.]

Benchmarking to The Experience Economy

Pine and Gilmore on The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage[1]

The importance of the experience. Seeing how people want more than just a thing or something done. How successful companies have turned their focus to attaching an experience to their product and service more than a simple product or service. Of course, movies and tour operators do this, too. But why not teachers? I think it can really help motivate students if we can embellish the acquisition of knowledge by stimulating their senses, pushing many “hot buttons”.

How I use it: This has propelled me into wanting to deliver experiences to my students, evident in my attempts at “engineering experiences”. I won’t repeat those here.

[1] Pine and Gilmore on The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage:

“Teaching” the words or “immersing” in the words

A teacher is deriding me for my views on the importance of extensive comprehensible input. He says, “I must have missed the lessons on modern language teaching trends, so I am asking some practical questions hoping to update my obsolete views on teaching. Please anyone help me start the new semester after the Chinese New Year holiday as a different teacher.”

This teacher is being sarcastic with us. I understand because I used to feel the same way. I know that the claim that extensive comprehensible input seems in some ways to contradict all of our long-held beliefs and assumptions about teaching. It didn’t make sense to me either when I heard about it. But on the other hand it we can intuitively know that it works because (1) children learn their L1 in the same manner and (2) even you and I add to our English vocabulary in this way. Our language development did not stop when we left school. Additionally, (3) our students and many others are adding to their language without being taught (for example: shit) and not learning what we do teach (for example: mom=she, dad=he). (Photo: My students hanging on every word of the film, “Bruce Almighty”, a Jim Carey comedy but with some intense parts. The film is shown in English with English subtitles only. There are a lot of words they don’t know. BUT, there are a lot of words they do know.)

Let’s take a look at the example that this teacher proposes for use with a mid-intermediate level student. Does it meet the three requirements for extensive comprehensible input?

1. Extensive? I don’t think a student would read very much of this sort of text for the reasons below.

2. Comprehensible? No, not at all.

3. Interesting? I doubt it for two reasons. It is talking about a specific industry problem and it is so incomprehensible that only advanced students would be able to make enough sense out of it to begin to understand it and possibly enjoy it.

This is NOT how to do extensive comprehensible input!

However how would those who really want to teach the vocabulary out of it handle this situation? Here Stefan’s sentence plus the whole paragraph. It is only one paragraph of a four-paragraph article which is dense with not frequently used vocabulary. I have capitalized the text that mid-level and many upper-level intermediate students may not know:

Tourism is now among the world’s most important industries, generating jobs and profits worth billions of pounds. At the same time, however, mass tourism can have dire effects on the people and places it embraces – both tourists and the societies and human environments they visit. We are increasingly familiar with some of the worst effects of unthinking, unmanaged, unsustainable tourism: previously undeveloped coastal villages that have become sprawling, charmless towns. their seas poisoned by sewage, denuded of wildlife, their beaches stained with litter and empty tubes of suncream. Historic towns, their streets now choked with traffic, their temples, churches and cathedrals seemingly reduced to a backdrop for holiday snaps that proclaim, ‘Been there, Done that’. Some of the world’s richest environments bruised by the tourist onslaught, their most distinctive wildlife driven to near-extinction, with wider environmental impacts caused by the fuel-hungry transport systems used to take holidaying travellers around the world and back again.

So would a vocabulary teacher then teach these words?

1. generating
2. profits
3. billions
4. mass
5. dire
6. embraces
7. societies
8. familiar
9. unsustainable
10. previously
11. undeveloped
12. coastal
13. sprawling
14. charmless
15. poisoned
16. sewage
17. denuded
18. wildlife
19. beaches
20. stained
21. litter
22. tubes
23. suncream
24. historic
25. choked
26. temples
27. cathedrals
28. distinctive
29. driven
30. near-extinction
31. impacts
32. fuel-hungry
33. transport

We have 33 words to learn there and that is only one paragraph. After we do the other four paragraphs we may have new 100 words to learn from only one article in one lesson.

How many words can an average student memorize in one day? How many will he forget? Anyone know?

This is exactly what extensive comprehensible input is NOT. But it is also my contention that even those who favor discrete vocabulary teaching will not be successful in helping students acquire this vocabulary. Yes, teachers can “teach” it. But the students are going to feel stupid when they forget it.

This text would be suitable for advanced learners who already know 95% of the vocabulary. For them this would be adequate for their extensive comprehensible input. They would be able to add to their advanced vocabulary but I almost never teach those kinds of students. By the time they reach that level they are learning on their own from any English materials they choose.

Benchmarking to Kahneman’s Peak End Rule

He won a Nobel Prize for his ideas about how a person remembers two things best during a holiday trip or similar experience; the most striking event, be it good or bad, and the end event.[1]

How I use it: Contrary to the impression I try very hard to give you, my classes are not always breathtaking. In fact, they are very often boring. I hate boring classes and do all that I can to make them interesting but we can’t win every time. But from Kahneman I learned to make at least one part of the class and the end very interesting or even exciting.

I may do this with a game, a short film clip that we use for a speaking exercise or a pairwork/groupwork activity that is highly interactive with other pairs or groups (not just sit at your desk). It has to be something that actually makes students forget they are sitting in an English classroom having an English lesson and to really feel they are trying to “sell a holiday package to the moon” or “apply for a job as Spiderman”, etc.

Since I learned the Peak End Rule, at the end of every single class I do three things, (1) try to end with something very active, (2) sum up what we did and learned during the lesson and (3) very important: ask the students if it helped their English and get them to reply to that question. It is something like this: “OK everybody, we’re out of time now! So what did we do today? We learned about making phone calls. We learned ten new words. And we practiced making phone calls and we actually called a hotel in New York! Wasn’t that interesting?! Have you ever called New York before? Haha! OK, did I help your English today?” “YES!” “OK, I’m happy I helped your English! That’s all for today! See you next week!”

Before, many students would leave the class without a firm picture in their mind of what happened. If someone asked them they might say, “Oh, we played a game but I don’t know if we learned anything.” So now I make sure that they leave my classroom with a clear label of what happened, a clear feeling of accomplishment. One, I learned such-and-such. Two, it helped my English. Personally, I know it helped their English. But it’s important to make sure
they know it and say it, too.

Nobel winner Kahneman’s Peak End Rule:

What vocabulary?

What vocabulary do our students really need to know? Book authors and publishers make their best guess based on a world wide selection of corpus but is this the vocabulary your students are going to need?

We used to be dependent on authors and publishers to tell us but the world is rapidly changing and technology is enabling teachers to gain this information with greater accuracy and ease.

By interviewing my graduated students, I found that they often get jobs in foreign trade and have to deal with orders. What is the specific vocabulary involved in orders? (Photo: Visiting my former student at the foreign trade company where she works.)

1. I created my own corpus for “placing an order” by doing a search, selecting appropriate webpages, copying the text and pasting it in one Notepad file.

2. After accumulating what I thought was a representative range of text, I then copied and pasted the corpus into a data visualization tool to generate a Word Cloud [1].

3. I also created a word list [2] that works like a concordance showing different ways these words are used in a sentence.

Using these technology tools, I feel that I have a deeper understanding and greater control over the likely vocabulary my students will encounter and need. I won’t say that this approach is 100% accurate. I will say that for determining my students’ needs it is more accurate than depending on an author and publisher in London or New York.

These are samples from a simple corpus I created. Teachers should develop large and more accurate corpuses for their specific needs.

The future of education?

In almost all cases, our college students are studying and trying to get grades for the purpose of grades and degrees that will help them get a job. For this purpose, employers are going to be the end users of these scores.

Here is something in Fast Company magazine from Sal Khan of Khan Academy on the subject. I wonder what other teachers think about this:

“How would he change education? By turning it upside down. First, he says, we should ‘decouple credentialing from learning.’ Instead of handing out degrees, standardized assessments would be the measure of employee competence. Anyone could learn at their own pace in their own way: in an internship, as an entrepreneur, or at home on the Internet. Then, everyone, no matter how they were educated, would be equal before the evaluation. Additionally, he thinks the assessment could be more meaningful than whatever abilities a college degree actual signals to employers.”

If you are not familiar with Khan Academy, I suggest you read the article and look up more on the subject. (Photo: Salman Khan at work.)

Benchmarking to David Letterman

This was showing for a few years in Hong Kong and we received Hong Kong TV here in Guangzhou. Every night David has to get and hold everyone’s attention. He has developed a routine for holding attention. He does the same things every night but changes the content of those things. First he stands in front of the audience and tells some jokes. Second he sits down and tell a funny story. Third he plays a game with the audience like “Name that meat!” Fourth he introduces Guest number 1 and they chat. Fifth he introduces Guest number 2 and they chat. Sixth a band comes out and performs. He does the same thing night after night but he changes the content of the routine.

How I use it:

Students hate just doing the book day after day. I often have to use a coursebook and have found some fun and interesting ways to use it which I will discuss later. But I have followed David’s example by dividing my class time up into sections and following a “routine of variety”. I often open with a short story of something funny that happened to me or my family.

I’ll then do a warm-up activity that not only involves their mind but also their bodies. (I believe that it is vitally important to really wake them up before beginning any kind of lesson and I won’t usually start until they are wide awake and their minds are churning.) Then we’ll dive into our book for a while. During the break I’ll show ten minutes of an English-English movie, stopping at the most exciting part and inviting the students to get a copy of the movie from me. After the break I may wrest a highly interactive groupwork activity out of the book or may make a speaking activity out of a commercial or film clip. Then wrap up the lesson with a summary of what we did and the magic question, “Did this help your English?”

Flipping the classroom

Currently there are some ideas amongst teachers about “flipping the classroom”. The idea is for students to have lessons at home and do homework in class.

This idea is being attached to Kahn Academy. Salman Kahn has produced a couple thousand videoed math lessons which are freely available and have been downloaded about a million times. Since Kahn has done such a good job of explaining mathematical concepts in a concise and clear way, teachers are letting Kahn teach their students. The students watch the videos at home and then when they come to class they will practice the mathematical concepts with the teacher there to help the ones who need help.

I am currently experimenting with flipping the classroom with my college students. I am using material from ESL Pod. Each lesson consists of the transcript of a short dialog and a 15-minute long MP3. The MP3 begins with the dialog spoken slowly, then an in depth explanation of the new vocabulary followed by the dialog again at normal speed. I would like to talk more about the merits of ESL Pod in another message but right now let’s focus on flipping the classroom.

Each Thursday I assign four of these ESL Pod lessons on a business English theme and recommend that the students do one a day. On the following Tuesday, I will give them a very short quiz on one of the lessons. The purpose of this quiz is just to put a little pressure on the students to make sure that they do the assignment or to find out who didn’t do it.

Then in the classroom, we will do some games or activities based around the theme of the assignments and the new vocabulary we learned. (Photo: Working in pairs, students use the new vocabulary from the lesson they studied at home to prepare and act out a role play with other pairs of students.)

I am currently engaged in a project to visit 100 classrooms to see how teachers teach and how students learn. I am seeing a lot of teaching going on that is identical to the type of teaching that ESL Pod or other resources do. I think that we as teachers should embrace these resources and use them to their full potential but then in our classrooms we should focus on doing what can only be done in person, that is, things like massive role plays and games and highly personal interaction activities.

iPad or iHype?

A teacher was promoting iPads saying, “You can record and publish a podcast or audio to the web from an ipad in your classroom in about half the time it takes a PC to boot up. This kind of speed ease and portability takes a lot of the time wasting out of computer use in the classroom and makes it all run a lot smoother. There’s a lot to be said for that.”

To discuss the Pros and Cons of iPads, it’s really hard to separate the hype about Apple products, isn’t it? I suppose having a computer that starts instantly gives students about a 30-second jump on the day. I’ve been trying to think about iPads and iPhones with a level head and not get caught up in the hoopla. I’ve been checking out all of the iPad users that I come across to see what they are doing and talking with them. I don’t see any of them doing anything with an iPad that can’t be done as well or better on a notebook computer.

The Starbucks is a natural hangout for iPads. You’d expect to find some interesting usage there but what are they doing? I’ve been checking them out. They are:  (1) Watching movies. (2) Reading webpages. (3) Playing solitaire.

It’s kind of comical to see how the screen flips when people inadvertently tip the iPad and they try to tip it aright again.

Although typing is possible, I notice almost no one really tries to do it. I’ve tried it and found it requires much more focus on my fingers whereas on a physical keyboard I am just thinking what I want to say and without looking my fingers work over  the keyboard automatically. I find that I make more mistakes on a physical keyboard if I look at my fingers and think about the keys so I don’t think that’s going to be better on an iPad. Then when people read, watch or play on the iPad they usually have to have one hand to just hold the thing.

I think it’s useful to talk about the Pros and Cons of the iPad. All of those “Top Ten Apps!” stories in magazines just feature either basic programs for word processing or Email or some odd program which might be completely cool but not really needed. They say there’s something like a million apps available now so I have searched those. Either really standard stuff or unnecessary stuff. No “killer apps” that you can’t get for a notebook or smart phone.

He mentioned AudioBoo as a reason to get an iPad but this is available for Windows machines, too.

I would love to buy an iPad if it saved time or could do something that I really needed. Right now it does seem  completely cool but aside from the coolness factor it just seems overhyped. It is all iHype.