Teaching old dogs new tricks: a cautionary tale

I went to an Education & IT Conference on 29 April here in Hong Kong. It was for the full-day and there was cross-section of education researchers from universities around Hong Kong, heads of IT Services for universities, colleges and K-12 international schools and a few others such as the CIO for the International Baccalaureate program. The focus was on how to use technology in schools and what works and what doesn’t work. There was a lot of discussion on the disconnect between what technology skills and equipment students bring with them into the classroom versus what technology a school and/or teacher can reasonably be expected to provide. The word ‘digital native’ popped up many times with various feelings on if they exist and what they may or may not be able to do with technology. Clearly the feeling was that young people are frustrated with ‘how they learn’ and they ‘want to be more engaged’. There were many examples of students using video and audio to create content for assignments collaboratively. There was a need to change the physical setting of the classroom to make it easier for students to interact and collaborate. Many times it was mentioned that teachers needed to learn how to teach using more collaborative processes and not be intimidated by technology. The process of getting teachers to learn more collaboratively among themselves was a theme repeated over and over.

My perspective on learning and teaching is that in the past 5 years I’ve been in student in 3 different full-time learning programmes. I think this is a bit unusual for someone my age. I got the typical mid-career corporate lay-off in 2007 and at the age of 51 I decided I would re-train and do something new. This is a cautionary tale on teaching old dogs new tricks.

I was an unqualified English teacher in at the Beijing Second Foreign Language Institute, 1988-1989, and in Hong Kong at the Sear Rogers International School, 1989-1990, and I rather enjoyed it although I had no idea what I was doing in the classroom. So, in 2007 I enrolled in the Hong Kong British Council Certificate in English Language Training for Young Learners offered jointly with Cambridge University. There were 9 students and 2 teachers. We had a few weeks of lectures and then we started actually observing and teaching. During the lectures we sat at 2 round tables in well-appointed rooms with very fancy ‘interactive white-boards’ which integrated with presentation software, video and audio files. The teachers were sort of OK with using it but frequently complained on ‘how hard it was to use’. We did some observations of real classes at the British Council and they all used the ‘interactive white-boards’. Teachers had a wide range of user skills and techniques. Recently I’ve done some research of the British Council and I notice there is a thread these ‘interactive white-boards’ were expensive and not that well taken up in many cases. I finished the programme and got my certificate and in no-way felt qualified to go-out and teach anyone English. I was mostly just shell-shocked and exhausted. Almost 4 years later I can say that I’ve not made any significant use of my English language teacher training as a teacher. I tutored a few Japanese students the next year when living in Japan but nothing since then. However, this experience gave me many insights into the learning process. Sitting and working collaboratively was very useful for the course whereas the fancy ‘interactive white-boards’ were not that critical to the learning process.

Next I moved to Okazaki, Japan to study Japanese full-time at the Aichi Center for Japanese Studies, more commonly known as ‘Yamasa’. I had been studying Japanese with a private tutor for about a year so I had some back-ground. I was in a class of 12 from 9am – 4pm Monday to Thursday and Friday 9am – 2pm. I also had one-on-one private tuition 3 times a weeks. Ten of my classmates were ‘digital natives’ all under 23 years old. There was one woman in her mid-thirties. It was a very international group; UK, USA, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Sweden, Portugal, France, Korea. Just some observations: there was hardly any technology used in the classroom although we all had laptops in our rooms and used them for some sort of looking up and memorizing exercises. The physical environment was just a big table we all sat around and were usually cold or hot. The Japanese don’t put a lot of belief in making the physical learning environment comfortable. We all got the impression that learning for the Japanese was like ‘going to war’. Many times students said they wished we could just sit by ourselves at desks. We watched videos on a wheeled in TV on a cart occasionally just like I remembered doing in the 1960’s in south Georgia. We used the classic foreign language acquisition methodology of the teacher only using the target language (all Japanese all the time) and the students did role-plays, scenes, drew pictures, made newspapers, wrote letters to friends (real and imaginary), made videos and went on little trips to the post office, the corner shops, and so on. We should have spoken Japanese to each other all the time but really we only did haltingly and just used English because it was the lingua franca for the group. There were tests at least once a day and every 3 weeks a grueling 3 hours examination to test proficiency on what had been ‘learned’. I never did very well on any of these tests or examinations. My classmates were not very interested in collaborative type activities and preferred to simply study and memorize alone in their rooms and then go to the local bar, get drunk and forget they were in Japan. I stayed there 9 months and then left to return to Hong Kong. I will forever be able to read and write a simple note in Japanese and order food in a noodle shop when I’m in Japan. I can’t understand very well at all when spoken to but people seem to understand when I say something. I still wonder why I did this but I do have a feeling it was useful in an odd abstract sort of way. I put this in the category of ‘learning for learning’s sake’.

Next, I returned to Hong Kong and the winds of the global financial tsunami were in the air. I enrolled into the MSc Knowledge Management Program at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. This is a blended learning programme with some face-to-face activities and some online activities. They were using the WEBCT learning managing system (LMS), which I know now to be rather a dinosaur LMS. I liked the WEBCT and it was interesting to read lessons online and then attend the lectures. The course work was frequently group based. The programme was primarily designed for full-time workers to do over a 2 or 3-year period. I did the whole programme in 15 months full-time just because it was impossible to find a job in Hong Kong at that time. Doing group course work required a lot of time to organize physical and virtual meetings, set deadlines and monitor progress. Some of them were very rewarding and some were very frustrating. Simply put, it all depended on the team. I leaned how to use many collaborative online tools that I would never have used otherwise because of the group course work. I did well in the programme and felt that I had really learned quite a lot about knowledge organization approaches and methodologies. I’m using what I learned in the programme everyday now. Learning technology was well-used even if it wasn’t that most up-to-date and sophisticated learning technology available. The emphasis on group learning was far more important and useful than the technology.

The caution is that I really could only learn successfully in a context where it was meaningful for me based on my experience. Using technology was not the significant factor and group collaborative learning was much more important all 3 programmes. Being an English teacher may be useful some day but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do in 2007/2008. Leaning Japanese seemed exotic but the reality was memorizing 3 scripts and hundreds of vocabulary items every week and I couldn’t see any definite end-goal for what I would do with it if and when I learned Japanese. Learning about knowledge management fit into the context of what I had been doing in the records and information management field at New York University, Philip Morris and the HK Chep Lap Kok airport construction project. I learned and could put it into a context of past experience and it made sense to me where I could use this newly acquired knowledge. So if you are going to be an old dog learning something new then I recommend you stay in your field and focus on branching out and widening your horizons in your field. I wouldn’t recommend trying to learn something too radically different because it may not fit in with your view of yourself and you might have a difficult time seeing how you will use this new knowledge.

1 Comment »

  1. david said

    There are so many aspects to technology in the classroom (K-12) and what works but here are a few observations from working in the education sector:

    Through institutionalised practice ground in over the years, departmental requirements, teacher attitude, to name a few, many teachers are resistant to change. Adoption of technology is almost impossible for them as to embrace the opportunities of technology (create, share) requires changing the learning programs that have been used for years. Many teachers dont have the will or time to embark on a new teaching and learning approach.

    Early adopters sometimes get carried away with the technology. See the avalanche of Interactive White Boards and iPads in schools today but are they making teaching more interesting (for the teacher) or learning more effective (for the student)? I see many schools using technology but not to any real benefit to students.

    The push for 1 to 1 computing is on with massive investment in devices and access infrastructure however most kids are already enabled for 1 to 1 computing if only schools would embrace the possibilities of mobile devices in kids pockets.

    I’m a believer that technology, at the very least, engages kids in learning. But schools are a long way of harnessing technology effectively.

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