Learner Generated Materials
Like many of my posts this is akin to a stream of consciousness (though somewhat less haphazard). It’s a point worth noting (as it’s related to my teaching and reflection – and frankly because there is so much crossover I refuse to entirely partition my thoughts on the two modules) that given that this post is part of a portfolio rather than an academic paper, I have allowed myself this style of writing. The process of writing this way affords me the space for discovery. It is through such processes – writing; drawing; dialogue – that my thoughts emerge and develop.
I’ve entitled this post ‘Learner Generated Materials’ as that’s what at the heart of these thoughts. I hope that the reader will observe that the impressions and ideas I express during the process of this piece of writing are integral to the points that I reach.
In looking at how materials writers describe their approaches to materials writing and design in yesterday’s input session, Paul presented the following nine elements for consideration:
I’ll discuss some other areas in another post, but here I’d like to focus on ‘principled’ and ‘frameworks’, which immediately stood apart from the others (a point which Paul later highlighted for discussion). At risk of stating the obvious, our underlying principles are what we believe about how learners learn language, and thus how teachers should teach and what materials should be and do in order to serve these beliefs. Frameworks, based on our principles, offer a systematic plan for how to go about designing materials.
Paul used the analogy of designing an object. I suggested a cup, which he further specified as a cup for a person with a physical disability. Principles are about what the cup should do; frameworks are a plan for how we’re going to design it. The neon-light question flashing in my mind throughout this conversation was ‘exactly what sort of disability are we talking about?’ highlighting the importance of identifying as much as possible about the learner for whom we’re designing materials. How can we design a cup if we don’t know who it’s for?
If we’re talking about published materials here, then of course there’s a need for flexibility. If the cup is designed to meet the needs and desires of one particular user, it becomes unsuitable for others, thus diminishing the market to which it will sell. This element of flexibility in materials is something I hope to explore and learn more about at a later date. In truth I feel I’m not very skilled in this area. So much of what I’ve created has become disposable, not only because of its learner-specificity (see Where Lessons come from). But I need to investigate further to gauge exactly where I’m at and where I need to be going in this area. There’s time for that.
The need to identify users of materials brought to mind the following series of questions:
The first two are questions that I put to the group on Thursday as they occurred to me (the answer to the first being ‘learners’ and the second being ‘teachers’). The third was something Paul asked, which resonated with my liking for a handout-free classroom. My thoughts:
The assignment for my Cert IBET last year was to design a course programme for a group of Business English learners. In truth, I found the task frustrating. I wasn’t teaching a Business English group at that point and so was instructed to create a hypothetical one. Much of the assignment involved describing these hypothetical learners and their needs, and because the materials were for such a specific group of learners, planning was far more time consuming than is realistic or manageable in one’s day to day teaching. Retrospectively it might’ve been more useful had the assignment been to design a flexible programme, which supports an argument for published materials.
On a related note, I’m sure one of the reasons I like In Company as a course book is that it’s more tailored to learner’s needs than General English course books. But of course it’s often easier to identify the needs of Business English learners.
So, returning to the mind map above for a moment – why don’t we need materials? Well I believe we do, because materials provide input. But in defining materials and resources (see The Best Resource Ever?), I would posit that while learners themselves are a resource – and arguably the most relevant resource that we have – the language they generate in the classroom evolves in an interplay with what the teacher contributes into language that we can call input. Just as much as words on a handout, this growing dialogue between teacher and learner, can be termed input.
Let me give an example:
In teaching a Japanese Business English client (one to one) last year, we quickly identified that she needed work on supra segmental aspects of pronunciation and to be able to talk about processes in her work (she worked in a laboratory making and developing mascara products).
The way I approached this was to encourage the client to attempt to describe to me a process in her work, and worked with her to reformulate her output, scaffolding where necessary. This reformulation of output turned it into input, at which point we focused on linguistic form – in particular prominence, chunking and intonation. The point here is that the input was created collaboratively. In Business English, the client brings the business knowledge; the teacher brings the language knowledge.
This is not to say that I didn’t use any other materials with this client. in fact we used a lot of online resources: video clips and webpages to provoke discussion and provide a variety of authentic language input. But the lessons in which we worked with the client’s output, are those which both she and I felt to be the most valuable, and for me are the most memorable. And this isn’t solely for spoken text. I’ve used clients’ emails, power point presentations, e-mails, and scripted as well as recorded telephone conversations.
Which brings us to learner generated materials. Clearly this is an area of interest for me, so I thought I’d mind map some thoughts to see what springs to mind:
In terms of learner generated (as opposed to provided or sourced) materials, this mind mapping seems to have exposed two main areas in my experience thus far. The first falls into the realm of (usually collaborative) projects, an area of ELT I’ve long been engaged with (see Projects, More about Projects, and Project Configurations) in which learners, with support and guidance from the teacher, draw on their own skills, knowledge and experience to create something.
The second works on an output-reformulation model – the collaborative and developing dialogue that emerges between teacher and learner, described above. This type of learner generated material is made far more possible in a one to one setting. A group of twelve General English learners, however, presents more of a challenge in ensuring each learner is given a voice and is fully supported in transforming output into input. Despite these challenges though, I still believe it to be possible, and is an area I’d like to consider and explore in more depth.