[xmca] Reflective Teaching: A Hall of Mirrors?

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Sun Oct 21 2007 - 17:17:06 PDT

Dear Mark:
  Your project sounds interesting, and a lot of fun. I think that I am not in a position to offer direction, because direction requires critical distance: my distance is too great and my criticism too small. So instead I want to offer you a (possibly related) problem from my grad students.
  Background first: South Korea is a SUPERPOWER in elementary school education (that's primary school if you are a Brit or a commonwealth country). If you look at the Project for International Student Assessment (or any of the old Harold Stevenson studies) you'll see that we are not only a superpower, we are practically the ONLY superpower, because other "countries" (e.g. Hongkong, Singapore, Finnland) in the top three don't have anything like our population and they can concentrate far more resources on far fewer children.
  I suppose to most people being a elementary education superpower is a bit like being the world's pre-eminent exporter of basket-weaving or an Olympic champion in marble-shooting. But to me compulsory and comprehensive public primary school is the last truly democratic and truly liberal moment of bourgeois education (and education is the last moment of democracy in capitalist society) so I'm inordinately proud of what we do. My Ph.D. supervisor canned me at the beginning of this month because I wanted to do a thesis centred on elementary education rather than TESOL.
  Yes, our Achilles heel is English language teaching (but it seems to me that TESOL is part of the problem and not part of the solution). In English, Finland, Hongkong, and Singapore have a huge advantage, and this is going to stop us dead if we don't do something about it. Korean parents feel (with some reason) that a child illiterate in English is going to be functionally illiterate in the world.
  So parents are already exporting their children (and sacrificing ALL of what Korean primary school has to offer just for English), and the kids grow up in America without family, mother tongue, or culture (Cho Seunghui, the Virginia Tech gunman, who apparently suffered a severe but selective aphasia acquired in American primary schools and middle schools, was only the most spectacular recent example).
  Korean teachers, feeling the pressure, are opting out of English teaching and having themselves replaced by some pretty seedy untrained foreigners (like the gentleman who was just picked up by Interpol in Thailand for child molestation, or the fellow who claimed to have murdered Jon Benet Ramsay). All of this is entirely unnecessary, because the TEACHING expertise (not the language expertise, but something much harder to obtain) is right here in front of our noses.
  This in itself is a little mysterious. Although we have the finest elementary schools on this planet, we also have the worst universities in the developed world (just look at the professor-student ratio, or any other measure you care to examine). Alas, this very low standard extends to teacher training colleges, my own school not excepted.
  So why are the teachers so good if the teacher training colleges are so bad? Well, it's really not hard to figure THAT out. I read recently that the average teaching career in America lasts less than ten years. But here every elementary school teacher has a job for life, and almost all of them DO spend their lives doing it. So we've got a LOT of experiential expertise that builds up. And then retires so that teachers have to start all over again!
  That's the tragedy: all this expertise is largely UNCONSCIOUS, and because it is unconscious it can't be handed down to the undergraduates in my school or even handed over to colleagues (because while Korean teachers are VERY sociable, they don't usually teach together).
  We have been studying the differences between what teachers say in Korean and what they say in English to try to get a handle on what is going wrong. So on my desk there is a brief transcript by one of my graduate students who teaches music. I look at the transcript and I notice immediately that one teacher initiate is invariably INDIRECT (a suggestion rather than a command or a question) and that there are almost invariably SEVERAL widely divergent responses from which the teacher and the children choose. This means that some answers live and some die, and that by watching which answers live and which die, the children (unconsciously, of course!) will learn not only the right answer but also something about the underlying principles by which answers become right.
  Here's a short example. The teacher is teaching a lesson along the lines of "Peter and the Wolf" or "Carnival of Animals" where the children learn to classify the instruments of the orchestra by hearing a musical story in which instruments indexically suggest different animals. Instead of using a ready made recording, the teacher has them sing a very familiar Korean song from preschool:
  Sanmari gomeun hanjibe isseo!
  Appagom, Umagom, aegigom!
  One house had three bears living in it:
  Poppa bear, Momma bear, Baby bear!
  The teacher plays this on the piano, and they discuss how to orchestrate it for a symphony orchestra.
  T (lumbering around the classroom like a big bear). Seonsaengnimeun chigeum museun gom itjio? ( Now, which bear would you say your teacher is like? [Korean suggestion marker])
  S1: Keun gom! (BIG bear!)
  S2: Appa gom! (Poppa bear!)
  S3: A--appa gomida! (Ah...it's poppa bear! [private speech marker in Korean])
  And then there is some discussion about whether to represent Poppa Bear by a kettle drum or a double bass or a piano.
  Now, when I first saw this data I was delighted, for obvious reasons. Not just grammatically but DISCOURSALLY it's a complete contrast from the tightly bound question-and-answer sessions that make up a typical English class.
  But on re-reading the transcript I grew suspicious. why would the children answer BIG bear? This is not part of the lyrics. Why does the teacher ALWAYS use the same very small selection of Korean suggestion markers?
  So I asked the student if this was really a transcription, and he admitted that it was a reconstruction from memory. And when teachers reconstruct lessons from memory, they "remember" not what they said in class, but rather what they have just written on paper. They give us conscious and not unconscious knowledge.
  That's why Taeyong wrote (in parentheses) that the teacher walked around the classroom "like a big bear" and then "remembered" that the children had used "big bear" rather than "poppa bear" in their reply. Similarly, when Taeyong has to write down what the teacher says, he simply writes down the same suggestion marker the teacher used on a previous occasion, because that's what he's just written down and not because that's what he really said.
  Of course, in real classrooms teachers ALSO repeat what they have just said and repeat their grammar rather than vary it. But they also copy what CHILDREN say and children copy what TEACHERS say, and unless we have a transcription, we miss all this; we only get what the teacher THINKS that the teacher said (or should have said) and we get what the teacher gets from interacting with what the teacher has just written. That is NOT going to give us any access to the real, unconscious expertise that makes this lesson work. It's going to usher us into a hall of mirrors.
  I think this is why LSV was so suspicious of 'think aloud" data and rejected Wundt's whole approach (though of course he was equally wary of a purely observational approach). He understood that very few informants can really see beyond the mirror when they reflect on what has happened.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Sun Oct 21 17:20 PDT 2007

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