Sunday, 12 March 2017

Reality and imagination in learning and teaching

My topic this time is reality and imagination in learning, teaching and testing. It is an ambitious goal but I will try my best.

Having taught people of all ages but mostly children and teenagers, I can say that all age groups, particularly children and teenagers, quite like the challenge of the “imaginary”.

Many course books focus on real-life dialogues and then the students are expected to “create” a dialogue of their own using the model to help them along. What the students typically end up doing is memorising the mould and making slight adjustments to their own reality. There is no doubt that there is some value in memorising whole chunks of language in the hope that they will be remembered and hopefully retrieved when the occasion arises.

However, this is not a product of creativity for various reasons. To begin with, structures and basic vocabulary are there ready to use. When you create, I feel that somehow you search in your mind for the raw material, which is ideas – whatever form these may take in the process. Ideas do not necessarily get conceived in the target language but often in the mother tongue. From then on there is a series of mechanisms engaged to render this raw material into a finished product – written or oral. That is when mother tongue interference mistakes are committed but that is also the stage where the learner will activate whatever appropriate structures or vocabulary items have been saved in their mind.

Often talking about real situations can be demotivating and pointless. I would liken it to real nature as opposed to nature as portrayed in paintings – at one or several removes from reality. Here is a painting which illustrates my point. The painter has recreated reality by fusing a range of hues in nature and enhancing the effect by having it reflected in water.

Corn Field by Samuel Mutzner

 In teaching we often ask children to tell us or write about their weekend or their house or their family. I normally get the response that suits the task: unimaginative and poor in descriptive detail.

We often feel as teachers that more abstract or “unrealistic” themes are not suitable for younger students. However, this is not necessarily so. Writing a story about a cloud has in fact yielded much more exciting projects than writing a story about a dog and provided great opportunities for vocabulary development (scud, hover, float etc). What is more, seemingly abstract themes can lead to questions about the science behind and therefore become the springboard for further discussion and language development. Here is a great website for popularised facts about clouds.

When testing students’ speaking skills, the same assumptions apply as in writing books or setting exam topics. However, what appears to be a facility  may well turn into a predicament. Language production is demarcated by images and questions which require the candidate, often a teenager, to answer an abstract question based on a specific image. Risking being regarded as naïve, I wonder what the point of this is.

The task is complex in a way it won’t be in real life. If you get asked about the advantages of travelling by train or bus, you won’t be given images of them simply because our knowledge of the world makes it redundant. On the other hand, if you are to describe some images, there are so many of them that would make the question worth answering. For example the scene of an accident would elicit descriptive language (crash, drive through the red light, being distracted, impact, severe injuries and so on) as well as speculative conjecture. (must have been speeding, couldn’t have been wearing their seatbelts, possibly, might have been intoxicated)

Are children’s letters to God realistic? The answer is irrelevant. The point is that children have produced some unique instances of humorous or scathing writing as a result. Can the sea speak? Of course it can; and it would be a much more realistic monologue than having to choose which image would be best to illustrate an article about the importance of sport in people’s lives.

What I am saying here is that gearing our teaching to exams or commitment to realistic tasks can be frustrating for both our students and ourselves when there are so many ways of firing students’ imagination and fostering creative writing and oral production.

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