Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Dances with English teachers

The spankin' new English Language Institute (ELIS) opened its doors with a conference for whom teaching the language is our stock in trade. Missed the opening day 'cos it was for the important people (so I missed the ex-PM/SM/MM's exhortation that we should teach American) but today they let in the riff raff.

ELIS is off to a great start, identifying and attacking head-on our current troubles with teaching English. All the speakers and masterclass presenters agreed that we don't give enough attention to hone speaking and listening skill because we value the written word more. The reason is obvious: that's where the examinable grades reside. The Master Teachers know spot-on that teaching to the exam is the de facto modus operandi of even language teaching, and while we produce brilliant standardized test scores, the kids emerge from our system intellectually stifled. Ok, that's a bit harsh. My words, not theirs.

But how else can we explain the study process our kids are familiar with? They call it 'mugging', which means rote memorization. Up to JC level and most likely into tertiary education, our kids are hooked on the mug crutch. If they don't mug, they feel guilty for not working as hard as everyone else; they fear they are lagging behind; they have no confidence in what they know. Then there's the other type of mugger who has done his or her share of mugging and is satisfied that there's nothing else to be known, having ascertained the test topics beforehand.

What they lack is the facility to use language for inquiry and academic discourse. Christine Goh identified these language structures, the first as a way to explore information and form conclusions for oneself, while using the latter to present and debate those conclusions with others. Both William Grosse and Karen Yager followed up with different approaches and techniques to teach kids how to ask questions and explore differing views through dialogue in small and large group contexts. Clearly our agenda is not to cover content and be contented, but rather to teach the kids to think using content as the stimulus for learning through talking and listening.

In our current situation, we think of exams as an end-point. We make the kids study this much (and only this much), at the end of which we test them to see if they have got that much; then we pass them on to the next level to be somebody else's responsibility. In this process, we perpetuate the idea that knowledge is finite, and that the knowledge gained at one level has little bearing on the next. As a result, our kids start from scratch at every new level, having to learn so much more content in so much less time. Getting to the university is not something to look forward to. For our kids, it is merely a rite of passage involving great pain and self-sacrifice simply because they don't have the language structures to organize so much more information than they have ever had to deal with in their previous years of study combined.

I like to see exams as a mid-point. For example, at JC level, I want to teach my kids the skills needed to undertake undergraduate research papers so that there is a direct function and application to what the kids learn from me. That way, when the kids take their 'A' levels, the General Paper is 'chicken feed' compared to what they are already capable of. But until exam perspectives change, I face the reality of merely catching 'O' levellers up with the demands of the 'A' Level paper, undergrad research paper be damned.

It's good to know that the staff at ELIS understand my pain. But they have their work cut out for them to shift almost 50 years (and possibly more) of education inertia to meet this new demand for smart, independently thinking graduates who can spearhead research into the realms of the unknown (and take back the jobs now held by expatriate geniuses), when to date we've mostly been able to produce lab techs who are happy enough washing test-tubes.

Too heavy for you? Here are some nice pictures instead:

Marina Bay Sands. How dramatically our skyline has changed in such a short time.

Christine Goh delivers today's keynote address

William Grosse

Karen Yager

Phillip McConnell on humour due to the vagaries of the English Language. He was the closest thing to a stand-up comedian we had, except he telegraphed his punchlines before delivery.

 The 'In Conversation' panel with media personalities/scholars, (L-R) Pek 'Mad about English' Siok Lian, Michelle 'Barbarella, et. al.' Chong; and Nicholas 'No Discernible Alternate Identity' Fang.

And ELIS principal, Wai Yin Pryke with the closing thank yous and acknowledgments.

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