8. Learning to Learn

17/10/2015

marblesIntuitively, I’ve always felt that as adults a conscious awareness of how we learn aids learning itself.  For the past couple of years, and especially in teaching exam and study skills courses, I’ve encouraged students to identify how as individuals they learn most effectively and efficiently.

This concept of consciousness in learning has cropped up in various texts I’ve been reading prior to and in the early weeks of the Dip course, and naturally I’ve become more conscious of my own learning and studying habits and techniques.  It’s only in my own reflections that I’ve realised what a mammoth task it is I’ve been asking of my students, as identifying exactly what works for us as individuals is no mean feat.

This post will examine some of my own experiences of studying and learning, and attempt to relate these to my learners and how I can support them more effectively.

Everything isn’t everything

As I go about my work and studies, so many thoughts occur to me in relation to my practice as a teacher.  When I started this ‘blog proper’ (my JadeBlueEFL blog as opposed to the TESOL Dip section) it was with the hope of recording some of these thoughts in order to clarify for myself and reflect on some of my experiences.  It’s been – and continues to be – a process I enjoy.  My reading for the Dip course, however, triggers so many thoughts and ideas that it’s impractical to record everything.

I have a tendency toward thoroughness – when I’m interested in and care about something, I find it hard to relax unless I feel I’ve done as much as I can do, to the very best of my ability.  I think there’s a competitive element to this side of me, although in competition with myself as opposed to anyone else.  Whilst this part of my personality has served me well in many ways, I don’t believe it to be helpful in the context of studying TESOL.  I need to learn to be more selective in several ways: in terms of the thoughts and reflections I choose to record on my blog (I have a list in my notebook four times the number of posts I’ve actually got to writing), and in terms of the reading I choose to do for the course.  I’m aware that trying to do everything will leave me lost in an over-flavoured soup of ideas.

I frequently – and intuitively – advise my learners to be selective in the areas they choose to practise.  Perhaps now I’m becoming more conscious of why this is.

Ambiguity intolerance 

I have mild obsessive compulsive tendencies which lead me to strive for organisational clarity, not only in my surroundings but also in my comprehension of things.

An interesting thing happened this week.  In pre-session reading for the Language Awareness module I completed a task on phrasal and prepositional verbs and found I’d got most of the answers wrong.  I had clearly failed to understand, or at least identify, when a word was being used as an adverb and when it was being used as a preposition.  Naturally this was frustrating and my inclination was to read and study until I felt confident that I’d understood – and normally that’s just what I would have done.  However, in light of how much other work I have on this week, I made a conscious decision to wait until the input session with Simon and allow myself to relax about not-knowing in the meantime.  (I’m still trying to follow through with this decision and avoid delving into the grammar books on my shelf).

I encourage my students to be patient with themselves and to accept that different things take different lengths of time to be processed and understood by different people, for different reasons.

I recognise the complexity of the language classroom and how in relation to methodology there is no ‘correct’ answer.  I can comfortably embrace this fact, although I am drawn to Evidence Based Teaching to offer some more concrete insight into methods and techniques that might be generally suited to most learners (a topic I might* turn to at a later date).  At this point, however, I feel that Language Awareness offers more ‘correct’ answers in terms of grammar, and it’s not enough for me to accept that I don’t know something.  What I can do, is accept that I don’t know it yet.

Mind maps

I started making mind maps a few months ago as a revision tool to summarise some of the reading I’d been doing in preparation for the Dip course and to help me organise my thoughts.

I’ve since used them with learners on a study skills course, in which I began the first session with a brainstorming exercise on how to study.  During class feedback we organised the learners’ ideas onto the whiteboard in the form of a mind map.  This segued nicely into the topic of mind maps as a study tool and we discussed how they could aid study, as a way of organising lexis and vocabulary, for example.  Learners then created their own mind maps for homework and I was heartened to see and hear how much pleasure they’d got from doing so.

Some reflection is needed (both with learners and independently) in order to evaluate the usefulness of mind maps as a study tool, and over the past few months the following thoughts have come to mind:

  • At the English UK Business English conference earlier this year, Kathy Girling delivered a seminar entitled Learn in your Sleep, in which she talked about focused and diffuse thinking – the latter being unfocused and creative. The process of creating a mind map not only enables me to organise information and/or my thoughts, but also allows processing time.  I enjoy the creative element and the colouring and shading part allows my brain time to relax, during which I’m still thinking about what it is I’m ‘mapping’, without the pressure or stress of feeling like I’m working hard.  Oliver Burkeman, writing in an article for the Guardian, refers to an ‘incubation period’ in which ‘ceasing to focus on a project gives your brain unconscious permission to get to work’, suggesting that while relaxing, the brain is processing what we’re learning.  There’s a parallel to be drawn here with my observation above that ‘everything isn’t everything’.
  • Like a complex system, one could ever-expand an area of language teaching to examine its constituent parts in ever-more detail. Mind maps are so much about seeing the bigger picture, and this is where I feel I gain clarity about a topic.  The maps I’ve drawn that stay more clearly in my mind are those that summarise more general ideas about ELT.
  • Active recall, as opposed to passive review, is said to be a principle of efficient learning. In creating a mind map I’ll summarise information and ideas – using primarily content words, for example – making the finished map more readily accessible to refer back to than a written paragraph might be.  More importantly, this means that when I do refer back to a map, I need to actively participate in reconstructing the concept or idea, rather than just passively reading a longer text.

Conclusions

Interestingly whilst writing this post I’ve noticed myself being selective about what I include.  My notebook contains further thoughts about processing time and collecting language samples as a means of studying, but either I’m already more selective than I give myself credit for, or my reflections above are already having some influence.

Here are some conclusions and thoughts to take forward:

  • I think a lot. That in itself is valuable and needn’t all be recorded.  Be selective.   Enjoy the process and trust that the product will take care of itself.
  • See my blog as a process. Revisit ideas and relax about my ‘completion’ tendency – to see things as ‘done’.
  • At the same time, don’t be too strict about editing my thoughts. Sometimes it’s just nice to have a record of one’s thoughts, and when I started my ‘blog proper’ nearly three years ago it was with this in mind.  It has helped me to formulate and consolidate some of my ideas, and although I reject some of my earlier assumptions about language teaching and learning, having a record of them is a valuable part of my developmental process.
  • Recognise the challenge for students in identifying how they best learn. Don’t expect them to find an answer, only encourage them to embark upon a journey toward one.
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