Monday, December 22, 2014

Do students like it flipped?

If a teacher "flips" a course, obviously that teacher believes it is a useful thing to do. Rarely would a teacher go through the work to completely revamp a course without thinking it is to their students' benefit. But, what do students think?

Personally, I received an overwhelmingly positive response. Anecdotally, I had three students mention how much they liked being able to watch lectures at home, skipping ones they already knew, and reviewing areas of difficulty. Another students mentioned that he used the online lectures to review before tests, and the usage logs bear this out.

In addition, there were some great comments in the evaluations*. Some of those comments (the more instructive and exciting are listed below:

  • The Moodle videos that Matthew prepares for his students as a review are very helpful. Even if we miss a class we can understand them.
  • This teacher is really good. He do a lot of activities to practice all the topics and to involve all the students during the class.
  • I have had class of listening and speaking with Ms. Showman before in the last term, and I did not like so much, but I always notice your effort and interest in class. Now in Grammar and Writing I love his classes. Also it is important to say that his videos in moodle are SO helpful and great. I am learning grammar as never before. And he is so kind and patient with our questions. Your organization is amazing.

Of course, not every student connects well with a given method. Below is a criticism** of the method and, I suppose, me:

  • The teacher explain most of his ideas using Moodle website by uploading videos. I think it is better to explain the lecture materials inside the class, an that help us understand and ask some questions that could help us. I think the teacher try to escape from the questions that students could ask during the lecture. There is no interesting because there is no questions, ideas, and interactions during the lecture, and that because most of lecture materials that we study are online.

My reaction to this: I need to make the purpose of a flipped class even more explicit. Given that my class was questions-focused, given that I began every lesson by eliciting their questions, given that I assigned homework with the instruction that students were to write down any and all questions, I find it hard to believe that the student thinks I try to avoid questions and interactions.

That said, I know I can also make adjustments to make it clear that questions are not only welcome, but necessary to our class. I will need to be more explicit when explaining that the whole point of online lectures is to maximize time for questions and inquiries.

Onward we go!

Evaluations are done anonymously and without course instructors present.
** Two administration aspects not related to flipped instruction were omitted.

Coming Soon: My own reactions

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Flipping it

This past term I made a decision to "flip" my classroom.

I wasn't thinking about "flipping" when I did it. It was something I simply fell into.

A day or two before the term started, I was daydreaming about how my grammar lessons could be delivered more effectively. Between the cognitive psych research I read and my own experience of giving in-class introductions to grammar concepts, introductions that didn't seem all that useful anyway, I thought there must be a better way.

Suddenly it dawned on me that I had both Moodle and Blackboard at my disposal. I had Google Drive/Docs, which I was already using for in-class activities. I knew how to shoot videos from my laptop and Moto X, which I'd already been using to create materials for Listening/Speaking class. Everything I needed was quite literally at my fingertips.

What if I made short videos of the grammar lessons and hosted them on Drive? What if I posted all of these in Moodle or Blackboard? What if I wrote online quizzes to both (a) ensure students were interacting with the materials and (b) assess which points students were having difficulty with before ever entering the classroom? What if I focused in-class attention on those points? What if in-class grammar lesson time was focused completely on students' questions, practice, and quizzing? What if I never lectured at all?

It's not my personality to do something little-by-little. I'm not one to say "If I have time, then...".
No, if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it.

This was a busy term. If I wasn't prepping materials or marking homework or grading assessments, I was writing and shooting videos and writing hundreds of quiz questions. In the end, however, I had a course that excited me, excited (most) students, and left me satisfied. Over this winter break, I will be reshooting some vids and I'll be revising some materials, but as a whole it was a great experience.

Coming Soon: Reactions, both my students' and my own.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Life: Unplugged

Why you should unplug, was posted on Edudemic exactly a month and a half ago. (The infographic can be seen below.) While I fault the article for not revealing the sample sizes or demographic data, the data is still sobering.

Some people see the data and recognize that at least some parts of it ring true in their own lives. Many other people (perhaps even the majority) see the data and think, "I'm not like that". The truth is that most of us are average. Despite what we think about our behaviors and responses, the vast majority of us are decidedly average. Which means that no matter what you or I think about our plugged in lives, we should generally assume that we fit the general trends, like average people do.

I personally have a contentious relationship with technology. Some of this is on display in past articles such as this, this, and this. On one hand, I love the convenience of the cloud and Evernote and online research and Moodle. On the other hand, I see how easily I can get distracted by the interactivity, I see how the fallacy of multitasking affects my work, I see how easy it is to be absorbed into things I don't need to be reading or viewing or listening to. Not bad things, mind you, but things that bring no benefit to my life or to the lives of others.

Computer technology is here to stay and will have a place in more and more arenas of life. How we use it is important. When we use it may be ever more important.

How plugged in are you? Are you due for an unplugging? Do you see yourself in any of the statistics?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Monday, June 02, 2014

College at its best?

A few weeks back I read this post by Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan. In the post she wrote:
College at its best is about taking the time and the chance to find what you’re passionate about—from a major to a profession to a cause to a place in the world, and the list goes on. It’s about taking control of your experience and education (in the broadest sense) to make it what you want it to be—not what you think someone else thinks it should be.
I've been thinking through these ideas ever since.

You see, some of the ideas resonate within me, but others hit a nerve or two. Some of the ideas do both. Unfortunately, I've been having difficulty putting words to my reactions.

Is this college at it's best?

I'm very pro vocational colleges. I'm very pro trade schools. I'm very against what too many colleges and universities have become: glorified trade schools where people go to train for jobs.

I'm very pro creativity. I'm very pro critical thinking. I'm very against the idea that merely expressing one's thoughts is the final goal in itself.

I'm very pro diversity. I very pro freedom of speech. I'm very against the mob rule that has become the modern concept of inclusiveness, which is neither diverse nor freeing.

So in that vein:
  • Shouldn't college at its best involve training young minds to think?
  • Shouldn't college at its best involve a pursuit of higher standards for self, for others, for the world?
  • Shouldn't college at its best involve the developing the rigor needed to push into new frontiers?
  • Shouldn't college at its best involve challenging ideas and having one's own ideas challenged?
  • Shouldn't college at its best involve learning to disagree academically and with civility?
  • Shouldn't college at its best involve listening to others who may be smarter or wiser than yourself?
  • Shouldn't college at its best involved being humbled?
  • Shouldn't college at its best involve more than just what you want it to be?
Maybe college shouldn't be all of these. Maybe Curzan is correct. Maybe her thoughts don't conflict with these other goals as much as I think they do. Maybe I'm simply thinking too specifically about her intentionally vague admonitions.

Nevertheless, college at its best is more than what I thought it should be when I was there, and I would guess that it should be more than what many of today's students think it should be as well.

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Friday, May 30, 2014

Teachers are (or should be) role models

I'm my own worst critic. OK, I don't know that that's true, but I know I'm constantly critiquing myself. I'm often genuinely surprised when people find what I do valuable or inspiring or helpful.

There are many reasons for my potentially overly self-critical disposition. Perhaps one of the strongest reasons is the sense of responsibility I have in the knowledge that, life it or not, I am a role model. Teachers are role models.

Teaching reveals this. Having children of one's own makes it even more clear. My actions and my words, planned or spontaneous, kind or cruel, set the tone for classes, weeks, even terms. The way I live is part of my teaching, whether my students or my children. It's more true than people realize that actions speak louder than words.

I'm aware that what I eat sends messages. I know that how and where I spend my "free time" sends messages. I realize that what I post on online is not innocuous.  I'm aware that how I interact with others, in reality and in virtual reality, sends messages. I know that how I spend my money matters. I realize that what I indulge and do not indulge is not simply a "personal decision" without social effect.

I also know how severely I fail to meet my own expectations. I'm am probably more aware of my folly and failures than I am of my successes. With my children even more than my students. Sometimes it seems that every loss of temper and every poor example is indelibly engraved in my memory. That's obvious hyperbole, but it's more true than than saying I recall my successes.

I don't always cope with this pressure well. I'm too hard on myself, I always have been, which arguably leads to more errors in judgement. Nevertheless, I press on knowing that I set out to change lives, and change lives I will. I step forward in faith that students will somehow acquire what is important and will graciously ignore or forget my mistakes. We live not for ourselves.

Are many of you like this? Are you aware of the importance of the examples you set? How do you maintain perspective?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Monday, May 26, 2014

Math skills vs. Reading skills [infographic]

Is reading more difficult than math? Could it be?

I've too often heard people complain that math is hard or that they hate math. I've always found it sad. Over the years, I've gotten the impression that I'm a rare breed: someone who loves both math and language, and I'm endorsed to teach both.

I hear people say that they don't like reading. Usually they mean books. But I rarely hear people say it in the way that people complain about math. Does that mean reading is easier? Does that mean people have a better grasp of reading than mathematics? Not necessarily.

Edudemic recently posted "Which is easier: math or reading?" It looks at the numbers and gives a convincing argument that students in the US are having much more difficulty learning to read than learning math. If accurate, this would be a huge problem, as the vast majority of the world's academic, technical, and otherwise useful information is in written form. Poor reading skills creates an almost impenetrable barrier to further learning.

Read the article, and peruse the infographic below.

Math is Hard, But Reading is Harder
Image source:

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Reading aloud is an ageless activity

Story time at the Ketchikan Public Library, Ketchikan, Alaska (From 
When was the last time you read aloud to someone?

When was the last time someone read aloud to you?

As I read "Why reading aloud to older children is valuable", I thought of my step-mother. Like me, my step-mother loves to read, and she loves to borrow books form the library. Unlike me, however, she checks out a lot of audiobooks.

You see, my step-mother must commute 30+ minutes to and from work every day. I'm sure that one some of those trips the radio is tuned to a favorite radio station. On many days, however, a book on tape is the entertainment of choice. I can recall many time: her sitting in her car in the driveway several minutes after arriving, finishing up a chapter in her audiobook.

I also thought of myself. I don't borrow audiobooks, though perhaps I should. I do, however, listen almost exclusively to NPR. Don't laugh; in an average US city or town (i.e. not metroplex), it will have more diverse and interesting programming than almost any other radio station. There's music. There are interviews. There are even stories. I love listening to stories.

People have always enjoyed listening to stories. It's common across the cultural spectrum. When with friends, people tell stories to one another constantly: stories about friends, stories about ancestors, stories about their weekends, stories about their children, etc. We are a story-loving species.

I agree with all the ideas mentioned in the article. Reading to students' listening levels, modeling, "broadening the menu", the power of shared words, etc. are all important to learning, important to academic and emotional growth. But there is another reason: It's simply enjoyable.

Do you read to your students? What do you read?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Monday, May 19, 2014

The demise of pleasure reading

There have been many reports recently with headlines such as "Why don't teen read for pleasure like they used to?" or "Why aren't teens reading like they used to?" or "U.S. children read, but not well or often: report". Most of the articles seem to reference this article from Common Sense Media.

The statistics, quoted from Common Sense Media, are not encouraging:
  • 53% of 9-year-olds vs. 17% of 17-year-olds are daily reader
  • The proportion who "never" or "hardly ever" read has tripled since 1984. A third of 13-year-olds and 45% of 17-year-olds say they've read for pleasure one to two times a year, if that.
Two of the articles linked above also delve into reading proficiency. Did you know that only about 1/3 of fourth grade students read proficiently? Or that another 1/3 read at a below basic level?

As a citizen of the US, this concerns me. As an educator, a language educator no less, this concerns me. As a father of young boys, the oldest of which (2 years 8 months) loves being read to, this concerns me. As an individual who tries to set aside at least a little time for reading every day, this concerns me.

Most of the articles are fairly quick to single out rising rates of media usage as the primary culprit. Rates of television viewing have remained basically stable, but computer and handheld device screen time has risen precipitously. Most articles also mention, however mostly in passing, that screen time could be spent in reading activities.

I would also point to digital (visual) media as a primary culprit. Between watching a video and reading a story, watching videos has a lower cognitive load than reading, and people tend toward lower cognitive loads when they can. Watching videos is more immediately gratifying than the slower process or reading. Together, this is a near death sentence for pleasure reading.

People are quick to bring up the examples of the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games, forgetting that these phenomena were not primarily a victory of reading. These were primarily social movements, drawing people in because all their friends were reading them, not due to an intrinsic interest in reading. It's that intrinsic interest that defines pleasure reading.

While many young people are reading via social media and the like, I would be loathe to call this pleasure reading. That type of reading only builds language skills for that arena: social media. The language used among peers does not readily transfer to the skills needed to comprehend or appreciate texts of fiction, non-fiction, biography, science, technology, etc.

It is popular today to hear people talk about "digital literacy" and to make trendy assertions that today's students are simply different and have different "learning styles" than students of the past. Reading, however, still does and will form the foundation of an educated society. Reading needs to to be a primary concern of parents, educators, and society as a whole.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Friday, May 16, 2014

If I were a high school guidance counselor

This kid thinks nothing of getting his hands dirty, so why should you?

This week I read an article rehashing a Facebook interaction between Mike Rowe and a fan. What Rowe said reminded me of something I've been telling people for the past few months. IN the interaction he wrote:
Stop looking for the “right” career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. 
Returning to the US without a job was difficult. Returning to the US knowing that jobs I could look forward to in the US (using my background, skills, and interests) would make breadwinning much more difficult than in China made it even more difficult.

I've since found a job teaching. I'll some be back to teaching ELLs and doing what I love to do, but my wife and I have to watch our spending very closely, much more closely than when doing the same job in China.

When I arrived in the States, I considered a career change. Some options were on the more administrative side of education. The most intriguing, however, were more "blue collar". I love working with my body, and careers like CSA farmer, welder, electrician, HVAC tech and others really began to stand out.

So why didn't I opt for those? Were they "beneath me"? Not at all! Did I think they'd be boring? I never thought about that (and no). Simply put, I didn't pursue one of those careers because I have a family to take care of and didn't/don't have the money or time to re-skill.

This experience led me to rethink how I've led my life. In turn, this experience got me thinking a lot about how I would counsel young adults, high school students specifically, considering their futures.

"Follow your dreams!" "Follow your passions!" "Do something you like." That's what we tell people. That's what young students hear. I think we do our young people a disservice when we talk like that. If someone can follow dreams and passions, of course that is wonderful, but people that really do have dreams and deep passions will follow them whether we tell them to or not. It's the voice of reason and rationality that students need.

If I were a counselor today, how would I counsel young people? First, I would ask, "Do you have a calling? Do you have something you think you were born to do?" If the answer is yes, I'd keep asking questions to make sure they really do, not just think they do. If no, I would tell them to find something they can do (i.e. ability), something they can bear (i.e. not suicide inducing), and something that makes money. Then I'd tell them to save their money well.

Am I a materialist? Am I just out for money? By no means. Here's how I see things as a 35-year-old man: In the absence of a profound calling to a vocation, in the absence of a deep driving passion, go for the money. If you can do it in a white collar job, do that. If you can do in in a blue collar job, do that. Save that money. Why? So that when and if you discover what you really want to do, when and if a passion arises, you will have the financial resources to support yourself (and a possible family) while you re-skilling or doing whatever needs to be done to get that new career off the ground.

I'm glad I'm a teacher. It's in my blood. I'm not sure I would actually enjoy doing anything more than I enjoy teaching. I'm glad teaching found me. It pays the bills. But if I would want to leave it, there are few avenues open. Give yourself options.

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Life's hidden curriculum

Fayetteville, Arkansas. That's where I live now. That's where I will soon begin working. Teaching. Doing what I love to do.

At the zoo: playing, laughing, learning.
I haven't posted regularly over these past few weeks. Road trips to look for an apartment in Fayetteville, preparing to move from Texas, actually moving to Fayetteville, setting up a new home: it's been more than time consuming. I've honestly (ashamedly?) thought little about education over the past few weeks.

But perhaps that's not entirely true.

I do in fact think about education all the time. My sons', specifically. Not about where they will or won't go to school; not about whether we will or won't homeschool (though homeschooling is my present hope, if for no other reason than to ensure my sons learn Chinese from their mother). No, it's not their future, specifically, I'm thinking about, but rather their present. I think about what they're learning right now from me and from my wife.

What do I say to my children? How do I say it? What attitudes am I projecting, and what attitudes are they perceiving? What messages do my reactions send? What are they learning in my interactions with them? What are they learning as they observe me interacting with others? What are they acquiring, as if by osmosis, about good and evil, right and wrong, invaluable and valuable and worthless?

And what about our students? These same questions apply. We must not forget that while we desire students to learn the material of a given subject, be it mathematics, English, Chinese, or sciences, students inevitably learn about life through their teachers. What messages do our reactions send? What do our interactions demonstrate about our concern for them (or lack thereof), about their value, about what is good?

What messages do we want them to understand? Does our practice transmit those messages?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman.

Friday, April 25, 2014

What I look forward to

At the end of May I'll be in a classroom again. I'll be teaching again; formally, that is. By that time seven months will have passed since I was last in a classroom on a regular basis. I'm a bit nervous. Surely I'll be a bit rusty, and I may need to somewhat regain my "teacher legs" (legs that stand for 6+ hours a day). But there are so many things I'm looking forward to. Here are ten that I think of most often (in no particular order):

  1. Smiling students
  2. Unsmiling students
  3. Working with other language professionals
  4. Getting to know more than 100 new individuals
  5. Hearing the accents of students from around the world
  6. Learning about different cultures through my students 
  7. Discussions of linguistics
  8. Diagnosing errors (Interference? Incomplete learning? Mental slip?)
  9. Developing strategies to assist students in their language learning
  10. Answering students questions during office time

This is an incomplete list, but nevertheless a list of some things I'm looking forward to.

Whatever your occupation or vocation, what are some things you look forward to when you go to work?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Monday, April 21, 2014

The ORIGINAL common core

The Common Core is obviously a divisive subject in the US today. It's definitely been overly politicized and probably over criticized. In a world as grey as ours, to think social issue is completely black or white is incredibly naïve.

The Common Core State Standards are imperfect, to be sure. I for one do not want increased standardized testing, which seems likely under CCSS. I am also a proponent of literature, something deemphasized in the CCSS. But are they as bad as opponents charge? Is it really a case of social experimentation?

Perhaps the better question might be this: Since the demise of classical education, what isn't social experimentation?

How many of you recall learning Latin (or possibly Greek) in high school or university? I'm too young to recall that era (though I did study a year of Greek during university), but it was not long ago that such was the standard.

Two or three years ago I read Who killed Homer: The demise of classical education and the recovery of Greek wisdom, which was the first time (other than the first day of class in Dead Poets Society) that I ever thought about how it was once the norm for students to labor over Latin declensions. Recently, while reading The story of ain't: America, its language, and the most controversial dictionary ever published, I was reminded of this part of US history. What ever happened to Latin in schools?

Like the United States itself, modern educational theory informed by Dewey is a social experiment. Montessori schools and charter schools are social experiments. Homeschooling in it's present-day form is a social experiment. Pretty much anything not considered classical education are social experiments. As some point out, classical education is possibly still superior to any modern alternative.

Why is virtually no one clamoring for classical education? Why is no one up in arms demanding a return to obligatory high school Latin classes? It seems no one wants the original common core: Latin, Greek, and mathematics.

I'm not asking anyone to support the Common Core. I'm not asking anyone to oppose the Common Core. It may be good to remember, however, that education since the 1960s (at the very latest) has been one reform after another, one experiment after another. Unless we plan to go back to classical education, let's have everyone take a breath and get some perspective: People decried the loss of Latin, yet students have continued to be educated.

The Common Core is imperfect, as is any education theory and all education methods, but it is no more than the downfall education or society than was the loss of Latin class. (Though, I'd be in favor of bringing that back, too.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Learning through quizzing

This morning my son was eating toast with peanut butter as part of breakfast. I asked him, "What shape is this?" He didn't feel like answering. (It was a triangle.)

Have you ever noticed that we ask constantly questions like this to young children? What color is the car? What shape is a basketball? Where did we go yesterday? What is this vegetable? We ask questions, lots of questions. Why? To test them? To check their learning?

As it turns out, research shows that quizzing or testing is one of the most effective learning strategies. There has been a lot of analysis done, but here is a video summing it up. The most relevant discussion begins at 3:30 and the most pertinent comments start at 5:47.

This morning it dawned on me that we almost instinctively do this with our own children all the time. We review the alphabet or shapes or colors every few days as opportunities arise (distributed or spaced learning). We ask questions that require retrieval/recall (testing). We switch topics and activities (interleaving). Instinctively, we do this with children. What causes us as students and learners to so often abandon these strategies as we grow up?

Is it that we're lazy, so we don't want to make flashcards?

Is it that we want to  independent, so we don't want to work with others and quiz one another?

Is it that we're undisciplined, so we just want to wait until the night before?

Is it that we're ignorant, so we just do what others do?

Is it that teachers have taught us poor strategies?

I know I want to make sure my students know which strategies are more helpful. I want my students to know that how they study a crucial factor in learning. I need to help students develop effective study habits.

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Friday, April 11, 2014

What exactly is a good (or great) teacher? (Part 5: Closing thoughts)

A good teacher is hard to define. It is even more difficult to develop formal evaluation protocols. Over the past few posts, I discussed evaluating teachers based on their ability to inspire. I've discussed evaluation based on students' test scores (a very prevalent idea today). Student evaluation of teachers has been touched on, as has teachers' own test scores and academic performance.

We've also seen how all of these fail to truly and fully evaluate a teacher.

What else could be looked at? How about peer evaluation? How about changed lives of the students? How about a continuum based on the number of students who fall asleep in class? There are strengths and weaknesses of every conceivable method, though some methods would be stronger than others.

What qualities do we look for in good teachers? The following is a list of some qualities I would want for my own children and for my students:
  • a sense of duty to the students
  • the willingness to let students explore
  • the readiness and ability to reflect upon their own practice
  • the courage to make mistakes
  • the humility to say "I was wrong"
  • competence in their field
  • a love for reading
  • the willingness to be unpopular (with students or peers) it improves justice
  • a desire to refine their craft through study, research, and acquiring feedback
  • a love for learning
  • a belief that passion for learning is more valuable than orderliness
  • the hope that students will achieve
What would you add to this list? What would you take away?

Other posts in the series:
Part 1: Inspiration?
Part 2: Test scores?
Part 3: Student evaluations?
Part 4: Grades and scores?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Monday, April 07, 2014

What exactly is a good (or great) teacher? (Part 4: Good grades?)

This is part four of my series examining various criteria the public, teachers, administrators, government officials and others seem to mention when answer this question: What is a good teacher?

There's no universal standard by which to define a good, let alone great, teacher. There are no universally agreed upon measures rubrics or checklists. Can we simply say we know a good teacher when I see one? We can but shouldn't.

Today's topic is an identifying construct: University grades and scores on teacher training exams.

Are good teachers those with the best grades?

My wife and I have discussed the difference between what Chinese consider a good student and what I consider a good student. For her (Chinese, also a teacher), a good student is one with good grades, and the best student is the one with the best grades. For me, a good student will usually have good grades, but I look more at motivation, diligence, and those traits that lead to success, not the success itself.

I wonder if this is true for teachers, as well. Or perhaps any profession, for that matter.

A few weeks back I was looking into getting my teaching license in Texas. Regardless of my experience or my existing endorsements listed on my Iowa license, I was told that I would have to take a battery of exams: one for teaching in general, one for my mathematics endorsement, and one for my ESL endorsement. Eventually I found a job in Arkansas, so I've put the Texas licensure on hold.

It got me thinking, however.

Exams can be positive
In some ways, the exams are surely positive. Obviously, you'd want to ensure teachers know their subject areas. A math teacher should understand math. A biology teacher should understand biology. Also, especially in elementary education, you'd want to make sure teachers have all the basic skills of math, language, etc. needed to instruct students.

On the other hand...
A teacher may not be able to recite or even identify Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but is it needed to realize hungry children, sleep-deprived children, and children in unsafe home environments will have more difficulty in school? A teacher may not be incredibly familiar with Howard Gardener's multiple intelligence theory, but is such explicit knowledge necessary to a teacher experienced in looking for their students strengths and engaging them in those ways?

Does an ESL teacher have to remember Stephen Krashen and his input hypothesis, or is it enough to know that students need to get comprehensible input, even if that term is also unknown? Does an ESL teacher have to know the term scaffolding if they've been doing it since before the term hit the mainstream? An ESL teacher may not know the term recasting, but he or she may recast successfully 50 times a day.

Back to the initial question
For those who pass these exams with the highest scores, does that imply that they are the most qualified candidates?

High school and university and graduate school: I was a good student; I worked hard, and I earned relatively high scores. At the same time, school came relatively easy to me. That's not to say that everything was easy; rather, it just never seemed like the struggle it was for some of my classmates. Does that mean I should be a better teacher? I don't think so.

Could teachers who struggled to learn be more aware of the difficulties students may have? Could the teachers who've had to work harder to develop learning strategies be better able to help students develop learning strategies? Could teachers who themselves needed more personal attention from their teachers be more willing to give personal attention to their own students? Does high performance in academic training neccessarily translate into effective teaching in the classroom?

Football players with great performances at the NFL combine don't always become great (or even good) NFL players. How many great NCAA basketball players have become NBA draft busts? Likewise, brilliant med students don't always make the best doctors or surgeons, and there have been plenty of business failures made by mediocre and great business students alike. I assume the same is true of teachers.

There are simply intangibles that refuse to be assessed by exams, but these intangibles can make or break a teacher. These intangibles separate teachers who are more and less effective. Perhaps these can be taught and learned, but tested? Not as of yet.

Other posts in the series:
Part 1: Inspiration?
Part 2: Test scores?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Friday, April 04, 2014

What exactly is a good (or great) teacher? (Part 3: Student evaluation?)

This is part three of my series examining various criteria the public, teachers, administrators, government officials and others seem to mention when answer this question: What is a good teacher?

There's no universal standard by which to define a good, let alone great, teacher. There are no universally agreed upon measures rubrics or checklists. Can we simply say we know a good teacher when I see one? We can but shouldn't

Today's topic hits a different note: Positive (or negative) student evaluations.

Are good teachers those whom the students like?

This seems like a good criterion. If students like a teacher, surely that teacher is doing a good job, right?


Obviously it would matter why the students like a specific teacher. Does the teacher inspire? Does the teacher excite the students about learning? Does the teacher transform what might be dull material into something students look forward to learning? Does the teacher help students exceed their own and other's expectations? Does the teacher help students feel successful and/or be successful? Do the students know this teacher cares about them?

Obviously these characteristics would be be excellent indications that students have identified a great teacher. However...

Does the teacher give little homework? Are the teacher's tests easy? Does the teacher teach a blow-off course? Does the teacher show videos and movies that entertain the students but may do little to educate them? Does the teacher 

How did students evaluate the teacher? Were surveys given? Were interviews done? Were responses anonymous or not? Where responses confidential, or were students being "supervised"? Were the evaluation tools accurate? Did the tools ask the questions that got to the root of why students liked or disliked a teacher?

Can we assume that the students (as a whole) evaluate well? Were tehy reading questions carefully? Were they putting thought into their responses? Were they rushing through checking boxes just to finish? Were they vindictive after the teacher called them out or challenged them more than they'd otherwise prefer? Student may have felt they learned a lot, but can they be sure they actually did (see p. 61)? Could students confuse teaching ability with their own enthusiasm or distaste for the subject matter?

All said, I do think there is great promise in students' evaluations of teachers. But there are some major concerns along the way.

Other posts in the series:
Part 1: Inspiration?
Part 2: Test scores?
Part 4: Grades and scores?
Part 5: Closing thoughts

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Monday, March 31, 2014

What exactly is a good (or great) teacher? (Part 2: Test scores?)

This is part two of my series examining various criteria people (e.g. the public, teachers, administrators, government officials) seem to mention when answer this question: What is a good teacher?

As I said previously, there's no universal standard by which to define a good, let alone great, teacher. There are no universally agreed upon measures rubrics or checklists. And saying "I know a good teacher when I see one," is woefully inadequate, at least with regards to official designation.

Today's topic is a contentious one: test scores.

Are good teachers those whose students get the highest test scores?

Almost any teacher would say absolutely not!

It seems government leaders think so.

The general public seems to lack consensus, as well they should, being caught between propaganda machines.

Let's ask some questions:
  • How high would those test scores need to be for a teacher to be good? Would the evaluation be based on what the scores were before that teacher began teaching those students? Would it take into consideration yearly variation of students? Would evaluation take into consideration regression to the mean? (I.e. Excellent years are most likely followed by less performance, and terrible years are most likely followed by better performance.)
  • Given that poverty is one of the best predictors of academic success (see references below), would the test score litmus test control for poverty?
  • Should a good teacher be able to teach well regardless of the school and regardless of the students? That is, should a teacher in a poverty-stricken urban school be able to teach equally well in a wealthy suburban school? Should teachers be required to teach in both so as to "prove" they're good teachers?
  • If a teacher is consistently able to get students to attain the highest test scores in a school or state, but that same teacher destroys the students' desire to ever study the subject again in the future, is that a true success? Is that a good teacher?
  • Are the best teachers those who teach students to pass the tests or to understand the content? (I hope there's no debate over that question.) Could both be done?
  • Who should make the tests? Educators? Administrator? Education policy makers? Academic organizations? Universities and colleges? Government leaders? Here's an idea: What about having business and industry create exams to test for life and job preparedness?
  • Who is to say the exams are written well? Should teacher or students be punished for poorly written or designed tests?

I am not a proponent of increased testing. That's an understatement. I don't really like testing at all, as a student or a teacher. Only two tests ever really motivated me. One was the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) Chinese test. But, even that was born out of a love for learning Chinese. The other was an oral exam in a contemporary Chinese society during university. The novelty of an oral exam was simply intriguing.

More often than not, however, I felt as if exams got in the way of actually learning new material and new skills. I just wanted to learn. As a teacher, I just want to teach.

Other posts in the series:
Part 1: Inspiration?
Part 3: Student evaluation?
Part 4: Grades and scores?
Part 5: Closing thoughts

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

References (from Krashen)
Ananat, E., Gassman-Pines, A., Francis, D., and Gibson-Davis, C. 2011. Children left behind: The effects of statewide job less on student achievement. NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research) Working Paper No. 17104, JEL No. 12,16.

Baker, K. 2007. Are international tests worth anything? Phi Delta Kappan, 89(2), 101-104.

Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential:  Out-of-School Factors and School Success.  Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit.

Krashen, S. 1997. Bridging inequity with books. Educational Leadership  55(4): 18-22.

Zhao, Y. 2009. Catching Up or Leading the Way? American Education in the Age of Globalization. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

Friday, March 28, 2014

What exactly is a good (or great) teacher? (Part 1: Inspiration?)

What is a good teacher? With all the debate over how teachers should be evaluated and compensated, perhaps it's important to remember that there's no universal standard by which to define a good, or even great, teacher. There are no universally agreed upon measures, rubrics, or checklists.

It's not enough to say "I know a good teacher when I see one." Recall the proverb: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Over the next few posts, I'll discuss a aspects that could potentially be of use. Today's topic: inspiration.

Are good teachers those who inspire?

I commonly hear people remark that good teachers inspire their students. Is this a good measure?

How many kids would a teacher have to inspire to be considered a good teacher? 1 out of 100? 1 out of 10? At least 5% per year? A full 100% of the students?

Should the results of that inspiration be taken into account? Do we assign greater significance to those teachers who inspired people like Bill Gates over those who inspired some woman working full time at a supermarket and a second job at a hotel to support her family? What if the inspired student eventually became a homeless drug addict? In any of these cases, inspiration happened, but the end result differed.

Do we assign greater significance to teachers if they inspire those from less ideal social backgrounds? Is it more important to inspire students of certain economic backgrounds? Do we assign greater weight to those who inspire students of disadvantaged racial or ethnic groups? Should we assign greater weight to teachers who are able to inspire students of a racial or ethnic background different from his or her own?

What if a teacher inspired only one student his or her entire career? Would that be considered a god or great teacher?

What if that one student was Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Helen Keller?

What if that one student was you?

Other posts in the series:
Part 2: Test scores?
Part 3: Student evaluation?
Part 4: Grades and scores?
Part 5: Closing thoughts

Follow me on Twitter: @MatthewTShowman

Monday, March 24, 2014

Teachers need high-quality feedback

During university I changed my major to education after becoming enamored with the process of learning and acquisition I saw in children. I've been a teacher ever since. All told, including teacher training, I've probably spent over 9000 hours in the classroom, and hundreds of others in one-on-one tutoring and the like.

I don't consider myself an expert teacher. I'm always learning more about my craft (an impetus for taking this course as well). Neither, however, do I consider myself a novice teacher.

I can't speak for people of all countries, but here in the US it seems like open season on teachers. It seems increasingly common to blame teachers for the problems in US education. It seems increasingly common for people to say teachers are just people who can't do other things well, so they teach. It seems many people think they could teach just as well as any teacher in today's schools.

Some of this criticism is surely justified. There surely are many poor teachers.

Yet as Kahneman describes, people with lots of experience teaching are really the only ones who really could have adequate expertise. Teachers who've spent 20,000 hours in the classroom, for example, would in theory be much better judges of what makes for good education. Better than students, parents, legislators, etc.

Perhaps the weakness, however, is that teachers do not often get rapid, high-quality feedback. They may know a lesson "worked" or not, but may not have time to inquire of students why it worked or didn't work. If teachers are too busy, they may not have time to reflect on those lessons that went well or went poorly. Teachers rarely have other teachers observe their classes to provide feedback: perhaps once or twice a semester, and that's being generous. Standardized tests give the illusion of teacher feedback, but that's really an availability heuristic, not a true measure of teaching effectiveness.

I wonder if more feedback (welcome or not) would be effective for bettering teaching quality. I wonder if it would be valuable for teachers to be observed by colleagues on a daily basis. What other ways could teachers get rapid, high-quality feedback so as to increase expertise?
Any thoughts?

Follow me on Twitter: @MatthewTShowman

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Could we stealthily help students be happier?

Do you ever wonder how we think? I do.

I've been completing the lessons from Think101x: The of Everyday Thinking from edX. I've also been reading through the suggested textbooks: How we know what isn't so by Thomas Gilovich and Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman. I've just finished the coursework and readings for week 3. There is so much to process; it's really quite astounding in every regard.

However, three recommended additional video posts (TED talks) have got me thinking about the concept of happiness and how schools do or do not or could help students' happiness. Perhaps it sticks in my minds because my 7-year-old nephew remarked Sunday that he hated school.

Below are the Think101x recommended extra video posts:

TED Talk by Dan Gilbert on The surprising science of happiness: "66% of the students choose to be in the course in which they will ultimately be deeply dissatisfied... because they do no know the conditions under which synthetic happiness grows."

TED Talk by Daniel Kahneman on The riddle of experience: "We really should not think of happiness as a substitute for well-being; it is a completely different notion."

TED Talk by Dan Ariely who asks, "Are we in control of our own decisions?": "The option that was useless in the middle was useless in the sense that nobody wanted it, but it wasn't useless in the sense that it helped people figure out what they wanted."

I'm not sure whether it's the educator in me or sheer curiosity, but theses are some of the questions that began to come to mind as I watched these videos and as they connected with the ideas already in my mind from the readings and Think101x course content:
  1. How can students understand that getting what one wants is not a determinant of happiness?
  2. Does giving students more options and more choices actually decrease their happiness?
  3. Would students make better food choices and be happier with them if their options were reduced?
  4. Should we not allow people to change their minds? Should we make more decisions irreversible?
  5. Could lessons be rewritten or redesigned or reorganized in such a way that students remember the lesson in a more positive light and are, thus, happier with their lessons?
  6. Do we tell students to do what makes them happy or teach them to do the things that will statistically lead to greater happiness, regardless of what they believe about the future?
  7. What implications does Ariely's discussion of organ donation have on the way we design exam questions, seek volunteers, etc.?
  8. Are students and teachers (regardless of what they say they think) more comfortable when decisions are made for them?
  9. How often do policy makers and curriculum designers choose more extreme positions simply due to having too many choices?
Feel free to chime with any of your thoughts. And check out Think101x!

Friday, March 14, 2014

US complaints of Chinese students: Discrimination? Legitimate? Both?

This will be my last entry on research by Mollie Dollinger summarized in an article entitled "Survey of Chinese Students at Indiana University Reveals Challenges of Integration" on TeaLeafNation.

I continue to think through two questions I first posed last week: How well do Chinese students adjust to university life in the US? What do they feel about their experiences?
Students also cited barriers between themselves and American students when they were asked to work in groups for class. They frequently reported that the first few times participating in the group was a stressful experience for them, as their American classmates often criticized their English, so some students thought that American classmates did not believe they added value to group projects, which ultimately made it difficult for them to participate actively. One student explained that it wasn’t only his classmates who treated him differently but also his professors. He said, “I see the professors joking with the American students all the time. But they never joke with me before or after class. They ask me where I am from, and when I say China they say okay, and that’s the end of the conversation.”

There are some disappointing aspects going on here.

Observation: If true...

If it is true that Chinese are being selectively ignored or marginalized by professors, that's a fairly damning critique.

If American students are unfairly criticizing Chinese students' English and are simply unwilling to work with them, that too is a sad state of affairs.

Questions: What else could be going on here?

Could there be other ways to look at this?

Though I have known many Chinese with excellent English, I have also know many Chinese who just want to "go abroad" and don't want to "waste time" improving their English, so long as they can pass the IELTS or TOEFL and be accepted by a university. Could some students' (and perhaps their families') impatience result in having English abilities that contribute to these criticisms?

Did the American students really think the Chinese students didn't add value or was is merely the Chinese students' perception?

Given the nature of collectivist society, and the fact that it's more important to look after each member of the group than it is to make sure each person contributes well or equally, could the Chinese students have been ill-prepared for the demands of individualist society group work?

 “I see the professors joking with the American students all the time." Really? All the time? I also wonder who initiates these joking conversations? Do the American students initiate or do the professors? Also, given that humor often doesn't translate well across languages and cultures, is it possible that neither the professors nor the students know how to joke with each other? Rather than disliking the Chinese students, could professors be avoiding such interaction out of the embarrassment or the discomfort of not knowing how to interact with them?

Final Comments

Some of the aspects noted here remind me of why I advise most Chinese students to enroll on preparatory programs before studying in the US or UK. I don't mean language preparation only, but rather programs than include courses in mathematics, economics, sciences, etc. I believe that except for a few students who have excellent English and fairly advanced social skills, the benefits of such programs far outweigh the benefits of getting abroad quickly.

Programs such as USPP and IFY (both Kaplan China programs for which I've worked) and others engage students in fairly rigorous academic work while also helping students learn the study habits and interactional requirements of US and/or UK educational culture. And it's all done in English. I'm a strong advocate of such programs. It's also why I suggest that US universities foster more relationships with these types of programs, rather than focusing on agents alone.

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Monday, March 10, 2014

False friends

This week I continue to think through two questions I first posed last week: How well do Chinese students adjust to university life in the US? What do they feel about their experiences?

Again I'll  discuss observations and ask questions based on research by Mollie Dollinger summarized in an article entitled "Survey of Chinese Students at Indiana University Reveals Challenges of Integration" on TeaLeafNation.

On the other hand, self-segregation is common. One Chinese student reported that after making friends with Americans freshman year she had decided to pursue friendships only with Chinese classmates.  She said, “I was close with my roommate freshman year, she was from America, but after freshman year ended she never called me anymore.  She was actually quite fake.  My Chinese friends and I don’t act fake towards each other, we understand the way to treat people.”

Oh my! There is so much here!

Observation: over-applying experiences

Of course, if a person decides to pursue friendship with only classmates from ones own background (in this case ethnic and cultural) it will be difficult to build friendships with people from other groups.

It's an unfortunate characteristic that human nature/the brain is such that individual, anecdotal situations get applied to a broad spectrum of situations. The Chinese girl here mentioned only the situation of the roommate. Perhaps there were other situations as well, but these were not mentioned. It is a mistake to to base opinions of all American on an experience with one roommate.

Observation: rose-tinted glasses

"My Chinese friends and I don’t act fake towards each other, we understand the way to treat people.”

This is hyperbole on a grand scale. There are "fake" people in every society, and by nature we are more inclined to identify the "fakeness" of people from other cultures. This is because (a) they are foreign, which is always suspect to the brain; (b) we tend to hold biases against other groups, whether we realize this or not; and (c) we often simply do not understand people from other cultures very well.

Perhaps, although the Chinese girl thought she and her roommate were close, and American roommate may have known that the relationship was not close. Cultural cues may have been missed by the Chinese student.

On a personal note, I would venture to say that I've met more "fake" Chinese friends than I have "fake" American friends. This is not because Chinese are more "fake", but rather because I've spent most of my adult life in China. Thus, by pure virtue of time, number, and proximity, I have met more false friends.

Of course, it could also be true that I didn't know how to read cultural signals very well. Chinese in China would know to avoid certain "friend" situations that I may not have known. Therefore, I made false friends that they may avoided more adeptly.

Comment: differing understandings of friendships

A major aspect I see between the lines here is a differing understanding of friendship between Chinese and American students. I touched on this in a previous post "Why don't Chinese hang out with other people?".
The Chinese view of friendship carries with it obligations and duties that would make most Americans uncomfortable. [Americans] might even conclude that Chinese friendships are superficial and selfish. (Indeed, even the words obligation and duty in English carry negative connotations.) In contrast, the lack of these obligations in US friendships likewise cause Chinese to often conclude that US friendships are superficial and selfish.
When the Chinese students remarks, "My Chinese friends and I don’t act fake towards each other, we understand the way to treat people,” she is using her cultural understanding of friendship to assess Americans. Likewise, by saying Chinese do know how to treat one another, she is making a statement based on a Chinese understanding of friendship behaviors.

There are both weaknesses and strengths in the way Chinese and Americans view friendship. These views are fundamentally different but neither incompatible nor irreconcilable. However, blanket statements and judgments won't help us work past these differences. Engagement in needed.

Final Questions

Chinese and international friends:
  • What do you find difficult about building friendships with Americans?
  • Have you encountered "fake" friendships in the US? Why do/did you consider them "fake"?
  • What do you think Americans should understand about your view of friendship?
US friends:
  • What concepts about US friendships do you think would be important for international students to know before beginning their social journeys in the US?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Friday, March 07, 2014

Do politics really divide Chinese/international students and American students?

I started with two questions Monday: How well do Chinese students adjust to university life in the US? What do they feel about their experiences?

Today I'll continue to discuss observations and ask questions based on 2012 or 2013 research dane at Indiana University with regards to Chinese students and their levels of integration into campus life. The information was done by Mollie Dollinger and was summarized in an article entitled "Survey of Chinese Students at Indiana University Reveals Challenges of Integration" on TeaLeafNation.

When asked why they believed American students did not invite them more often to participate in campus life activities Chinese students cited possible political differences between China and the United States responsible for the underlying tensions between the two student populations. For instance, one student was quoted saying, “People are always asking me how I feel about Taiwan. They tell me that Taiwan is not China. I never say anything back. I am not political, this issue doesn’t concern me, so why is everyone asking me about it?”

Question: Really?

People are always asking? Really? Did this really happen? Could it have happened once or twice, and now the student assumes it is common?

Question: Assumptions?

Perhaps I am out of touch with current university students. Are today's university students really so politically sensitive that they don't want to hang out with Chinese due to political tensions? Could this be an impression based more on the impression Chinese get while in China?

Could it merely be an excuse for not getting involved in US life?

Comment: A legitimate complaint?

Granted, I am not living on a college campus, so I don't want to bring too much of my own expereince and assume it as universal. However, my wife has now been in the US for five months and here friends are almost completely local residents. Not once has anyone asked her a question about Taiwan. Not once has anyone even mentioned Taiwan to her. I find it hard to believe that people are "always" asking the quoted student about Taiwan.

Comment: political life in the US

The student said, "I am not political, this issue doesn’t concern me, so why is everyone asking me about it?"

This view likely became ingrained in China. People generally avoid discussing politics, especially anything that criticizes the government. In addition, as a culture that values harmony, people tend to avoid contentious issues if possible. Conflict is more uncomfortable for Chinese than it is for a typical American.

I don't know if this student's comment is representative of other Chinese students. Nevertheless, I'd like to remind my Chinese and international friends of a few things to know about US culture:

  1. As we are a voting society, political questions are common topics of conversation.
  2. Again, as we are a voting society, we don't generally think of politics as "not concerning us", even if we aren't very interested.
  3. Politics and activism tends to be strong on US university and college campuses, so you are probably more likely to face these topics on campus than you would be in general society.
  4. Political debate is a what could be called an American tradition, or "traditional American culture." It's in our history and in our blood.

Final Questions

Chinese and international friends:
  • Do you find that US college student often ask you political questions? What are your thoughts or feelings when this happens?
  • Do you think political tensions are a major reason for American students to give fewer invitations to international students?
  • What do you think could be the major reasons American students may give fewer invitations to international students?
US friends:
  • What would you add to my list of things international students might need to understand about US political culture?
  • What could our campuses and programs do to teach international (and domestic) students how to engage in healthy, respectful, productive debate?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Monday, March 03, 2014

Chinese students in the US: It's an adjustment.

How well do Chinese students adjust to university life in the US? What do they feel about their experiences? In 2012 or 2013, research was done at Indiana University with regards to Chinese students and their levels of integration into campus life. The research, done my Mollie Dollinger, was summarized in an article entitled "Survey of Chinese Students at Indiana University Reveals Challenges of Integration" on TeaLeafNation.

The article is already a bit dated, being from July 2013, but it is still quite relevant. I'd like to take a few days to make observations from the article and ask some questions.

"According to this survey, Chinese students confirmed that many have few or no American friends and are often unaware of campus life activities such as sporting events or extracurricular clubs.  Instead, the surveyed Chinese students often reported spending their free time involved in Chinese Student associations or Chinese Christian events."

Observation #1

Having few or no American friends and being unaware of campus activities may be interrelated. That is, being unaware of campus activities would likely lead to fewer friends.

I'm not sure how many Chinese students realize that the onus is on them to be aware of activities and clubs and such. Unlike China, where activities are often announced and promoted by head teachers or department heads or both, where activities are often done as a class and organized by the class monitor, being completely responsible for their own social life is something for which many Chinese students are not prepared.

Observation #2

Spending most free time with Chinese student groups would likewise lead to fewer interactions with American students.

It obviously more comfortable for people to spend time with others who have the same general habits, worldviews, and ways of doing relationships. People have to be intentional.

My wife is a homemaker. She doesn't have the rich opportunities to meet people that university students are blessed to have. Yet she's meeting people. She attends a local mothers group. She meets people at the library during kids reading time. She's been invited to and attended a women's retreat. She doesn't expect that people will do things like they do in China. She spends a lot of time asking questions and learning to enjoy how American women do things. If she, a mother of two children, a woman who is not yet able to drive in the US, a woman who spends most of her time at home can meet other woman and form productive enjoyable relationships in three months, surely students on university campuses can as well.


  • What can the international student services (ISS) do to better keep international students informed  and aware of campus events, clubs, etc.?
  • What can ISS or teachers do to better prepare Chinese students about how to take more responsibility for their own social lives and to generally help them understand the social scene on US campuses (and how it differs from the social scene of Chinese campuses)?
  • What if anything can be done to help Chinese students step out and learn to enjoy how things are done in the US, rather than focusing on Chinese student groups?
  • Could more extensive training in cross-cultural skills (e.g. learning to ask questions and be a learner in social situations) be of value to these Chinese students in the US?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Friday, February 28, 2014

Grammatical nit-picking

See this photo and others at The Huffington Post.

I was conversing with a young professional in academia a few days ago. The topic related to and English program, no less. A question was asked; by whom, I do not recall. Out came a wonderfully grammatically "incorrect" phrase:

"I'll try and find out..."

For those of you who may not see the problem. The "correct" form should be, "I'll try to find out..." Think about it: Was the speaker going to try something and find out something? No. The speaker was going to make an attempt to do something: try to do. Yet the try and form is quite widespread, and few notice it when used in conversation. Therein lies the problem which leads to the topic of this post: Does focus on "correct" grammar during assessment disadvantage English language learners (ELLs).

Of course grammar is a necessary component of language assessment, and I have called a "grammar nazi" more times than I can count. Nevertheless, one must keep in mind that "correct" grammar is not always a matter of rules but of conventions. That is, English includes many grammatical conventions that do not precisely correspond to rules. Often these are referred to as exceptions. Or in this case, what native speakers say and understand in actual practice is different from what is considered "correct".

Take double negatives as an example: "I don't want to pay no taxes."  Today we would say this is grammatically incorrect. Yet in English's distant past it was acceptable. Yet even today, despite the a fact that the grammar and the semantics reveal a logical contradiction, people use this type of structure, and no one misunderstands the intent.

Does any one misunderstand this grammatical error? From

Why then do we penalize ELLs for the same errors?

I've seen speaking assessment rubrics that have grammar components such as "near native-like use of grammar" paired in the same grade band with "virtually error-free usage". So which is it? Are ELLs to be assessed based on native-like speech, which is commonly filled with grammatical inconsistencies? Or should ELLs be assessed based on grammatical precision, a standard to which we rarely hold native speakers?

What are your thoughts about grammar and assessment for ELLs?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Libraries produce economic gains.

When facing budget shortfalls, public libraries are often among the first to be put on the chopping block and receive cuts in funding. This is a mistake. The economic gains of public libraries as a whole often far surpass the spending needed to maintain them.

Did you know...

  • In 2011, spending by Texas public libraries totaled $544.9 million, but economic benefits topped $2.407 billion? That's $4.42 return on investment (ROI). [1]
  • The University of Illinois determined that it's library expenditures in 2006 resulted $4.38 ROI, which was based on the entire library budget. If only collections expenditures were considered the ROI would've been around $12. [2] 
  • A 2009 report from Colorado (using data from 2006) looked at eight library systems, chosen at random, from metro and non-metro, urban, suburban and rural communities. All libraries showed positive ROI, the lowest being $428 and the highest being $31.07 (an outlier). The median ROI was $4.99. [3]
  • A 2004 report out of Florida calculated Florida public libraries' ROI at $6.54. [4] A 2010 report estimated the ROI at 8.32! [5]
These are just a sample of the plentiful data you can find floating around cyberspace. Check out the Illinois Library Association as a resource to start your own search.

I like libraries for what they are, but the economic gains are nothing to sneeze at.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: A little book of language

Speaking of the library, I recently checked out A little book of language by David Crystal. Last week I finished . I found it a great and quick read, very conversational and accessible in language and tone. The inner jacket of the books begins like this:
"With a language disappearing every two weeks and neologisms springing up almost daily, understanding the origins and currency of language has never seemed more relevant. In this charming volume, expert linguist David Crystal proves why the story of language deserves a retelling."
Aside from the incredibly poor use of the word prove, I have to agree with the assessment. It is indeed a charming volume, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Crystal covers a broad sweep of topics. The book opens with several chapters discussing the language development in children. Crystal then segues into the basic elements of language: spelling, grammar, accents, etc. From there he moves into a variety of language topics. Some of my favorite chapters were 21 Language change, 22 Language variation, 26 Etymology (a topic that always intrigues me), and 31 Language at play.

Despite the variety of topics and a tendency to jump from one topic to another, A little book of language does not come across as fragmented. There are mini "sections", for example chapters 27 and 28 discuss place names personal names, respectively. Crystal also does a great job of pulling the chapters together, reminding readers ideas already mentioned and hinting at what's to come. The overall effect is one of great scope and cohesiveness.

A little book of learning is not an overly academic read. Unlike previous Crystal texts, such as Language death, I can't imagine it being used as a university or college textbook, unless in an introduction to linguistics course. For those with a linguistics or language education background, there will be few, if any, major conceptual revelations. At best you might acquire some trivial yet captivating facts.

To whom then would I recommend this book? First, this is a great introductory text for those flirting with interest in linguistics and language-related topics. It's full of great information, and yet because of the brevity of each chapter, readers are left not only captivated, but also desiring to learn more. Second, for those of us with linguistics and language-related backgrounds, although there may be little in the way of new concepts, the Crystal's love of language shines through in in his writing. The prose is engrossing, and if you've lost a bit of your passion for language learning, language teaching or language study, A little book of language will likely reignite that flame.

"This is a 'little book' about language. But language is a big subject. None bigger, to my mind. It's the Mount Everest of subjects. I suppose that's why I find it all so fascinating." (David Crystal)

Stars: 4.5 / 5

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Libraries = accessibility and possibility

“I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” (Ray Bradbury)

There are unfortunately haves and have nots. It is an inconvenient truth. As much as Americans tend to maintain the image of the self-made man or woman, i.e. the person who worked hard and became successful, the statistics show that upward mobility is increasingly a fantasy in the US. Rags-to-riches stories, while inspiring, are increasingly rare according to socioeconomic data.

In today's economy, access to information is essential. Knowledge truly is power. Libraries offer a place where those who cannot afford to buy books, who cannot afford a computer and internet access, or who cannot pay for tertiary education can access the information, ideas, and skills essential in a knowledge economy. Libraries are hubs of accessibility.

Children born into poverty are known to have less access to reading materials. Krashen (2004) noted that they tend to live in neighborhoods with few bookstores (if they could afford the books) and under-resourced libraries, and they attend schools with poor classroom and school libraries. Children born into low-income households often start formal schooling with a "word gap", in part due this limited access. Hart and Risley (1995) found that 3-year-old children from welfare families had an average vocabulary size of 525 words, compared to 746 words for children from working-class families and 1116 words for children from professional families! Recent research from Stanford has shown that 18-month-old toddlers from disadvantaged families already have a vocabulary gap of several months.

Libraries can and do make a world of difference. The key is access. Krashen, Lee and McQuillan (2012) make a compelling case for the positive effects well-resourced school libraries in addressing the negative the effects of poverty on student learning. For disadvantaged adults who want to work hard and change their lot in life (the American dream), public libraries are essential sources of information, both printed and electronic. For low-income parents of small children, libraries may be the only place to access books to read aloud to children, a major step in children's linguistic and educational development.

Yet for all this, people in poverty often have the worst library resources. More affluent families with the ability to purchase books and ebooks and internet access often have the best, even if they don't really utilize them. Even great ideas like BookMooch require internet access of some kind.

Let's make sure books get into the hands of those who need them. Let's make sure children (who do not choose the families they are born into) aren't punished for simply being born into the "wrong" family. Let's make sure communities and schools have libraries, good libraries. Donate books you don't need. Work to start libraries in communities without. In an age of budget cuts and discussions about how to spark job creation, let's not be so short-sighted as to deny the resources people need to prepare themselves to be the entrepreneurs and visionaries and job-makers of the future.

“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” (Walter Cronkite)

Hart, B., and Risley, R. T. 1995. Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Krashen, S. 2004. The power of reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, and Westport, CONN: Libraries Unlimited (second edition). 
Krashen, S., Lee, S.Y. and McQuillan, J. 2012. Is the library important? Multivariate studies at the national and international level. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 8(1): 26-36.