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1. Welcome Back?

I had intended to write that April Fool's Day was, perhaps, an appropriate time to launch Wise Hat News, but somehow I didn't quite complete the newsletter in time and then I managed to lose the first part of it, so here it is, late before it has even begun.

I'm not sure how many of the sum 120 email addresses this is being sent to will 'bounce' and I wonder how many people will be surprised to receive it?

Those of you who remember Now's Co-operative Newsletter may well remember the fancy formatting. The online version will remain formatted but the email version will be text.

Those of you who remember Now's Co-operative Newsletter will also probably remember my constant cajoling for contributions. No more! Contributions, questions and comments remain very welcome and will influence the appearance of Wise Hat News, but don't expect me to mention them. I'm writing Wise Hat News for myself. Let's hope it's enough...

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2. Curriculum Conundrums

One looks with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.

The great thing about a curriculum is that it provides structure. It is something from which plans can be made. It offers students a clear map of the material. It provides stability and security.

The terrible thing about a curriculum is that it provides structure. It stifles creativity and spontaneity. It locks teachers and students into a timetable that can become a treadmill. It reduces the need for listening and careful observation. It deadens and it dulls.

Consider - without a curriculum the teacher will be able and perhaps required to truly engage the students. The teacher will be able to create and select material designed specifically for the students. The needs and wants of the students will naturally come before the material since nothing is predetermined. The teacher will be bending towards the interests of the students rather than attempting to bend the students towards the interests of the curriculum.

It's a lot of work and can often feel like reinventing the wheel. Moreover, it can be very demotivating when there are no clear targets and nothing to aim at and it's very easy to roll that reinvented wheel into a bog since there is no road to mark where you are going.

Whoops, I've been jumping from one extreme to another. Perhaps there is 'a middle way'. Perhaps it's possible to develop a 'non-curriculum'. This sits well with my belief in 'non-teaching'. But what would a non-curriculum look like and how would it operate?

First I believe such a curriculum would be 'non-linear'. To lean on French film-maker Jean-Luc Goddard's remark about stories every course should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

The curriculum would be made up of chunks or puzzle pieces. There would be no set order to decide which piece would be picked up and used first. Pieces could be chosen by the learners and also presented to them randomly. In this way learning would be more game-like and learners would be encouraged to make their own connections about the material.

To take this idea further each piece could be a game or activity. At all times learners would be exploring or playing with the material - i.e. using the material rather than studying it.

Three howls of protest echo in my head. Actually, the first is more of a whimper - what's the difference between this chunk idea and the unit approach found in traditional text books? The second is louder - what criteria are used for creating a chunk? The third is vociferous - how is this practical! Let's examine each in turn.

The difference between chunks and units is size and execution. When I think about a chunk I'm thinking about a very small amount of information. Units are on a much larger scale. A chunk may require practise to be 'internalised' by learners but it is very discrete. A chunk would contain at most two concepts, and preferably only one.

Usually a chunk will require only a few minutes to practise. A lesson (or session?) would contain many chunks. Movement from one chunk to another would be done in a game-like fashion. For example, a list of activities could be put on the board. These could be numbered and a dice thrown to select one. Alternatively they could be ordered according to agreement by the learners.

I've already started to answer howl number two. Existing text books, provide, of course, very useful criteria from which to create chunks. A non-linear curriculum will cover similar content but the way it does so will be different. Chunks will be focusing upon the concepts underpinning the language, rather than the language itself. Information will necessarily be presented in smaller digestible bites. Yum yum.

Hoooowwwww! Hoooowwwww is this practical? How can a teacher prepare for such a class? Doesn't it mean having the whole course immediately to hand? Isn't it confusing and unsettling for the students? How can knowledge be built upon? Isn't the teacher abdicating responsibility to chance?

The secret is in the structure. At any given moment only a certain number of chunks will be available. To return to the jigsaw analogy, perhaps the teacher will pre-sort out the corner and edge pieces, holding back the middle pieces until later.

Once the number of chunks is controlled the process is easily manageable. The teacher determines which chunks are available in any given lesson. To help learners and the teacher perhaps chunks could be colour-coded. The class moves from red chunks through yellow chunks to green and blue chunks in a rainbow of learning.

I've been thinking about non-linear curriculums off on and on for years. I remember when I first saw Finding Out and the pages with pictures of games. Children are encouraged to work out what is happening for themselves. I imagine an entire text book like this. Children would choose a page, and discover a game to be played or an activity to be done. Language would be assimilated through the game or activity.

I haven't created a text book yet but I'll shortly be conducting an experiment using some of these ideas. As part of the experiment I'll be dividing some children's classes into the following sections (in addition to any beginning or ending we might have):

  1. New Word Time
  2. Gameshow Time
  3. Worksheet time
  4. Story Time
  5. Out of the Hat Time

The sections provide structure. Within each section choice will exist. For example children will be able to choose which game they use to learn new vocabulary. They will go through the worksheets at their own pace. They'll be able to choose which story we will focus on. The final section will see us selecting games by drawing cards out of the hat. I'll decide what cards go into the hat.

I'll let you know what happens.

I wonder about the structure being too tight. I also wonder about making sure that some part of the class time is unaccounted for. I believe having 'empty time' is important but I'm not sure how to fit it into the above structure. By empty time I mean more than a couple of minutes slack to account for sections over-running their time. I mean a solid chunk of time unaccounted for. Another time.

3. Reports

Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk.

"It was too funny so I couldn't remember any English"
"Let's play together again"
"You are good at speaking English"
"Use American English, it's easier"
"Use more Japanese. If you have any questions we are happy to help you."
"Why did you have that bird?"
"OKOFFABC SOS I QRSUFQ"
"I didn't understand but I enjoyed it because everyone else was laughing"

These are just some of the comments received from elementary school children after visiting their schools to give demonstration lessons. While I've taught at kindergartens for several years until last month I'd never been inside a Japanese elementary school. I was keen to discover whether it was possible and practical to conduct classes entirely in English and in particular, whether non-competitive games would work with large groups. Some time ago I was told that competitive games were a necessity inside elementary schools. I found that they are not. Class sizes varied from around 20 students to 130 (an entire grade in one room!). I team taught, so I'll switch to using 'we'.. We taught over 1,000 children in all grades. Most classes we met only once. We used roughly the same plan each time for each grade but went into greater depth with older children. It was fun and exciting and if anyone wants to know exactly what we did then ask and you shall know.

Curiosity Cured the Cat was a presentation given at JALT Junior, Shizuoka, Saturday, 24th November 2001. You can read about it by clicking here. Handout included.

Multiple Multiple Intelligences was another presentation given at JALT Junior, Shizuoka on Sunday 25th November 2001. You can read about it by clicking here. Notes included.

Oops, perhaps the above should have been below...

4. What's New

Wise Hat underwent a major update on and around March 24th 2002:

  1. Each major section now has it's own introductory page.
  2. There are 7 game ideas listed (two new?)
  3. There are 6 articles/reports (three new)
  4. There are 7 songs/chants (one extra has been added)
  5. There are 2 stories (one new).
  6. There are 2 stories (one new).
  7. There's a new worksheet section with 2 phonics worksheets.
  8. This newsletter!

5. Wise Hat On Tour

Following on from the demonstration classes in Gosen, Niigata we'll be visiting some schools in Tokushima just before Golden Week and Tokuyama just after. I'll be giving presentations in Tokushima on Sunday, April 28th and in Hiroshima May 12th. Then May 19th will see me in Fukui and May 26th in Iwate. I just need to find out exactly where...

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Nothing worse could happen to one than to be completely understood.

(Quotes this issue by Carl Jung)

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