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Meanwhile, in the Balkans: An Intercultural Survey on Teachers’ Satisfaction with Online Teaching

in Teaching

It’s not a secret that ELTABB, despite being based in Berlin, is an international organization. So it’s only natural to ask, “How are teachers dealing with the online classroom as our new normal in other parts of the world?” Let’s find out – with a little help from Slobodan, one of our members from Bosnia.

It’s the end of June and teachers, students, schools and semesters are all slowly winding down. In the next school year, new adventures and challenges await them all.

Now, it goes without saying that the school year 2020/2021 is probably the strangest one in modern history. What will happen in the sphere of education starting September and the new school year, is anybody’s guess. A few days ago, a friend asked me about the conditions in schools and the mood in staff rooms in my region. I told her I’d look into it – here is what I found out:

Most teachers really want to be back behind the desk.

It wouldn’t make for very good reading if I stopped there; that’s why I’ll give you the whole story…

The Online Survey

So, to find out what teachers really think and how they feel about the situation, I decided to take advantage of online networking. I made a Google forms survey with some questions about experiences of:

  1. shifting to online lessons
  2. doing short(ened) lessons
  3. returning to the classroom and so on.

It didn’t seem enough to research only how people in my country felt.

That’s why I asked for help from my online connections – teachers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia.

The Numbers Paint A Picture

After all being said and all questions being answered, this is what they think and how they feel:

  • A decent 42% of the respondents is around the golden middle concerning the need to shift to online lessons during the previous schoolyear, with roughly 25% saying their students managed it well and they tried to make the online lessons a memorable experience;
  • When it comes to the overall experience of teaching online, 10% said it was great and would do it again which is countered by 10% of respondents who said it was horrible and they wouldn’t repeat it; the rest is nested in the middle with a mild inclination toward the positive end of the scale – all in all, a positive response;
  • During the (now previous) school year, all of the respondents did shorter lessons; the great majority doing 30-minute lessons instead of 45-minute lessons;
  • Directly tied to the previous question, the majority (roughly 80%) would rather do short lessons in the future than go back to teaching their students online.

The Overall Result

The questionnaire finished with a strong 50% of respondents wanting 100% classroom work – nothing done online in the future at all; doing an occasional lesson online and having a hybrid approach with online collaboration activities got around 20% each, and 10% would like to keep on teaching fully or mostly online.

What Teachers Say About Teaching Online

Despite the number of online-enthusiasts being rather low, let’s not forget the comments given by the teachers as responses to the question of whether doing lessons online has brought any benefits to the teaching/learning process.

The most memorable ones include:

Happily Ever After?

What to say about all this? The overall impression is that most teachers went through a tough time and they weathered the storm but are not buying an umbrella for the future.

 A few, however, are ready and willing to embrace this new medium through which so much already operates on a daily basis – as for which group will have the last laugh, only time will tell!

In the meantime, I am continuing to collect links and bookmarks for some useful online sites and/or services. How about you? What do you think? How much of “online” should be kept in education?

Give us your thoughts and ideas in the comments!

***

Boost your Online Teaching with Brain-Friendly Slides – Here’s How

in Professional Development/Teaching

When teaching online, you probably use slides to some extent. Making slides is easy — just add a text box and an image, right? In his May workshop, Ákos Gerold shared what makes slides brain-friendly – and it is not what you see most people do.

Imagine you are giving a presentation. You show a slide with five bullet points, each followed by a short sentence. You discuss the topics listed in the bullet points. But, to see if your audience is paying attention, you sneak in a completely unrelated sentence.

A few seconds later you check to see if anyone registered the odd sentence that should have stood out. Instead, most of your listeners won’t believe you said something unrelated until you play back the audio that you secretly recorded. When they hear your unrelated sentence, their jaws drop. They realize that not only did they miss the unrelated sentence but probably most of what you said.

I do the above each time I teach presenting slides in a brain-friendly way – it helps demonstrate what is wrong with the typical use of slides in every industry, including education.

Multi-tasking is a myth

Neuroscientists have proven that the brain cannot pay attention to more than one source of information at the same time. When we show slides and speak, the visual almost always wins over the auditory.

The result is that our audiences and students are unable to hear most of what we are saying while absorbing visual input.

Switching is detrimental to learning.

When they finish reading, they will shift their attention back to us. But the next slide will hijack it again.
Such switching is detrimental to learning.

So what can we do about it?

Make it as easy as one, two, three…

Whenever possible, reduce the amount of visual input in each slide to what can be absorbed in two to three seconds.

This roughly translates to an image and up to three words. Make sure you use the exact words from the slide and synchronise what you say with when those words appear on the screen. Such little and synched visual information will not distract your learners’ attention from your verbal message but support it.

How can you know what words are on the next slide and how can you synchronise perfectly? By using presenter mode in PowerPoint or Keynote, which allows you to see the current and next slide along with your notes. When sharing your screen in Zoom or Teams, only share the part of the screen with the current slide.

The green frame shows what part of the screen is shared in Zoom.

Keep it short and sweet

Say goodbye to bullet points and full sentences. Making them appear all at once will introduce visual stimuli that take longer to absorb than two to three seconds.

Instead, break down bullet point lists into separate slides for each point, reduce the text to its essence and synchronise when delivering.

If it is important to explain the link between the bullet pointed pieces of information, e.g. because they are part of a system, then keep them on the same slide. Just make them appear one by one as you introduce them and grey out the ones you are currently not talking about. Again, the text on each slide should be shortened to its essence.

Tips for longer texts

When you need to show visual information that exceeds what can be absorbed in two to three seconds, e.g. longer text, follow a three step procedure.

1. Before you click to the detail-heavy slide, say:
a) what you are going to show
b) how long the students will have to read it, and
c) what you will do afterwards.

Example:  “Now, I will show you a short text about X, I will give you a minute to read it and then we will focus on some of the sentences which demonstrate a grammatical point we will deal with today.”

2. Stop speaking, they will be unable to hear what you are saying while reading anyway, and show them the slide.

3. After the announced time is up, briefly repeat what you will do next and then do it.
Example: “Let’s look at some of the sentences which show us how the Y grammatical structure is used.”

Then click to the next slide, where everything but the sentence(s) which you wish to analyse is greyed out.

Brain-friendly slide design tips

Add a related image whenever you can. — Tested 72 hours after exposure, the retention of the content of a presentation that used only text in the slides is 10%. This number climbs to 65% if the slides include black and white images and up to 85% in the case of colour pictures.

Do colours matter? — Due to its resemblance to a large, shiny object, a light background attracts more attention to the slide than to the speaker. Respectively, the opposite colour combination gives the latter more prominence. Thus, a dark background with light letters is often better.

To share, or not to share, that is the question. — You may often start sharing your slides at one point in the class and then never stop sharing till the end, relegating yourself to a small screen in the corner. But humans connect with other humans, not slides. Therefore, whenever possible, exit screen sharing to facilitate connecting with you students.

As you can see, most widespread slide practices are unfortunately not aligned with how the brain works. This is because they are based on what we see in printed media. But magazines, newspapers and books are very different from presentations and online teaching.

***

To find out more about what makes presentations brain-friendly, check out my website, YouTube channel or LinkedIn page.

Workshop Review: “SMART PRACTICE – Using Cognitive Science and Coaching Tools to make Learning Stick” with Marcela Harrisberger

in Teaching

At her excellent Inter-ELTA workshop in April, Marcela Harrisberger invited us to approach teaching and learning from a neuroscientific angle. Drawing our attention to the bigger picture, she shared what a teacher can do to ensure that the how of learning is tended to just as much as the what.

First off, Marcela stated an obvious but underrated fact: information is not the same as knowledge. Absorbing information is relatively passive and automatic. Knowledge, however, comes with regular practice and application of what has been learned.

Information is not knowledge.

Besides, the brain routinely hijacks learning – because its main function is to separate the wheat of necessity from the chaff of ornamental bric-a-brac. With its limited working memory, forgetting redundant information is a basic survival mechanism. Keeping you safe and sound: high on the agenda. A critical discussion of Plato’s allegory of the cave: not so much.

Thus, in order to convince your brain that what you are about to learn is important, it requires constant nudges and reminders to bypass the “spam” filter and allow content to finally be stored in the long-term memory.
To really master a skill, an ongoing routine and practice is key.

You need your students’ permission

From a neuroscientific perspective, it is the learners’ job to do the learning (i.e. nudging the brain). That’s right –  your students hold the power over whether they learn from you or not. It’s the teacher’s job to provide information, learning strategies and to be a go-to-person during the process.

As a consequence, you can only help your learners succeed if that’s something they really want and allow you to do. Marcela pointed out that a student can easily waste loads of money on weekly lessons through neglecting their own personal learning routine.

Why motivation is overrated

Since our brains operate in perpetual energy-saving mode, there’s a simple factor to consider: If you wait until you feel the kiss of the muse, you may end up waiting until the cows come home.

Fun fact: cows enjoy the great outdoors.

That’s why Marcela suggests just taking action anyway and building a routine that cuts through the Monday morning feels.

So while motivation is essential (especially in the beginning), through regular practice, learning easily becomes a habit that doesn’t require constant self-motivation.

Mind the forgetting curve

With the brain’s tendency to weed out irrelevant details, information generally has a short shelf life. This is called the forgetting curve, and it sets in almost immediately whenever we learn something new.

In fact, Marcela pointed out that, according to the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, 20 minutes after a lesson, the brain will have forgotten 60% of what you’ve learned. After a day or two, this will amount to 75%, with the rest gradually fading out over the following days and weeks.

Bummer? Absolutely…but there is something you and your students can do about it!

Stop forgetting – start reviewing

The best countermeasure against forgetting is to prevent it every time just before the forgetting curve strikes.

Thus, the best way to go about this is reviewing learning resources at specific intervals. Marcela suggested a minimum of three reviews, while highly recommending doing four:

  1. First review: right after the session
  2. Second review: 24 hours later
  3. Third review: one week later (or a little sooner)
  4. Fourth review: one month later (or a little sooner)

As learning resources, well-crafted notes taken during the lesson are the most effective (e.g. notes of new words, pronunciation tips, aha-moments).

More tips for staying on track

To boost learner motivation, Marcela gave us three catchphrases that make it easier to stay on target:

1) “Where attention goes, energy flows.”

Since the brain likes efficiency and can’t really juggle two things at once, it’s best for learners to focus on the process and not on the outcome of their efforts. If part of their attention is in “waiting for results” mode, it will be harder to make progress. Just tell your learners that if they follow the right strategy, success will naturally follow.

This goes hand in hand with appreciating baby steps. Constant small improvements will quickly add up. This is also known as “the 1% rule” of tackling challenges – making little changes counts, even if they just seem to make up 1%.

2) “What gets scheduled gets done.”

While good intentions are noble, they are sometimes not enough to ensure that we actually get things done. Therefore, Marcela recommended for learners to schedule their reviews. A practical way to schedule your reviews is to do it right after the very first one (the one immediately after the lesson).

3) “What gets measured gets improved.”

Another way to keep motivated is to document your progress on paper. For this, you can print out a one-page yearly calendar and check off the date after each reviewing session.

Your progress isn’t what you’ve learned, but that you got the review done.

This will give you the satisfaction of visual progress and a sense of accomplishment. You’ll be looking forward to the next review.

Tips for the classroom

If you want to know what can be a game changer in the classroom, take Marcela’s advice and turn the regular student-teacher dynamic upside down.

Focus less on stuffing your learners’ brains with knowledge.

Instead, use retrieval practice to pull out of your students what they already know and remember. If they are self-conscious about speaking, tell them not to worry about it, but to just fire away and talk to you and each other.

 

Don’t think – just talk to me.

One easy exercise to do regularly is to ask your learners what they remember from the last lesson. Other ways of retrieving knowledge are quizzes, gap-fills, and interrupting the lesson to give your students time for writing down everything they remember from the last 20 minutes.

Conclusion – SMART learning is a smart idea

Some of the key takeaways from Marcela’s workshop were that smart learning isn’t all about perfect lessons plans and transfer of knowledge. Rather, it’s about eliciting knowledge from your learners at regular intervals, shared responsibility and building a brain-friendly learning routine. That way, learning becomes more effective, motivating and enjoyable.

Recommended Reading

Free materials for retrieval practice: retrievalpractice.org

Atomic habits by James Clear:  https://jamesclear.com

Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning by Pooja K. Agarwal and Patrice M. Bain: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/42450467-powerful-teaching

“Next Stop: Northern India. Other Countries, Other Teaching Customs?” An Intercultural Conversation

in Teaching

Liz MacGarvey, formerly Director of Postgraduate Teacher Training at Liverpool Hope University, now consults widely on English teaching. Vaibhav Khulbe teaches English, German and Hindi as foreign languages in McLeod Ganj, Northern India. Here, they discuss the similarities and differences of teaching languages 5,000 km apart.

Editor’s note: Fun fact! Did you know that ELTABB Founder John O’Dwyer has also studied Hindi?

A Conversation Between Teachers

Liz MacGarvey

Liz: We’re both language teachers, but my main area of work is teaching English to native speakers; yours is in teaching Hindi to adults and in teaching German to Indian children. So I’ll start by asking you, which presents the greater challenge?

Vaibhav Khulbe

Vaibhav: It’s difficult to compare the two. In school I teach German lessons of  about 40 minutes to students aged 5-13. Here in McLeod Ganj I teach Hindi to individuals who are mostly travellers who have chosen to learn Hindi so that makes it easier.

School students aren’t as dedicated so I just present interesting content and hope that it filters through while they enjoy the class. German is not one of the core subjects so the kids can afford to take it easier  – they end up learning more because they feel less pressure. 

Liz: You’ve reminded me of a paper I once read by a linguist called Stephen Krashen. His theories around second language acquisition really interested me, especially the affective filter hypothesis which talked about the need to reduce learning anxieties…

Anxiety reduction definitely plays a big role. Young kids don’t even realise they’re learning; they’re just enjoying participating. I’m fortunate enough that in all my teaching, there’s less pressure on the learners.

How Learners Learn

Liz:  You are my Hindi teacher and have commented on differences in the way my friend and I learn. Could you expand on this and about different learning styles more generally?

Vaibhav: People learn languages in different ways. Constantly listening to language helps some. For these, simply listening to the radio goes a long way – they like to focus on communication, rather than reducing the language into a set of rules.

Then there are learners who wouldn’t feel comfortable unless they had systematically written down such rules – and of course many stand somewhere between these two types.

Liz: Do you find it easy to accommodate these different learning approaches – have you hit on useful strategies?

Vaibhav: Not being unidimensional in your teaching is very important. Offer different activities so that students can learn in a way that feels comfortable for them.

Presenting your class in a way that appeals to all learners is of big concern for a modern teacher.

Perhaps the biggest challenge today is the availability of language on the internet. How your students feel emotionally – how involved  they are in your class – has probably become the main role of the teacher in face to face lessons.

Presenting your class in a way that appeals to all learners and makes it challenging is of big concern for a modern teacher.

Liz: We tend to categorise children as faster learners of languages – is this your experience in general?  

Vaibhav: Not necessarily. Maybe in certain conditions they are faster, like when they are living in an immersive environment, rather than the classroom. They also have fewer inhibitions and are less conscious of making mistakes. 

As for directly teaching language, adults tend to have an advantage: they are more apt in dealing with concepts. The more mature a student is, the easier it is for them to organise information categorically and recognise language patterns.

Learn Smarter, Learn Faster

Liz: Are there things you’ve observed or tried that speed up the learning process in adults?

Vaibhav: Motivation. Provide your students with interesting activities, and they will learn. With very young children, if you use a game requiring levels and passwords, they get very excited and want to reach the next level. If an animal is the password, they will really want to learn it to succeed.

Simple activities make things interesting.

I think this is similar for adults. An activity such as designing an advert can be done very simply, right now in the present. This provides immediate motivation, as opposed to language goals which might be years away.

You are bringing them out of the academic world into a practical situation with immediate results. Such simple activities make things interesting and take away that focus on distant future perfection.

Liz: You’ve reminded me of how often I used role play when I was teaching English to the Tibetan students in TCV [Tibetan Children’s Village]. They had a presentation to work on and they knew they would have to come out and entertain their friends. 

Yes, but sometimes with young kids, while the ones performing are learning, the others get too excited waiting for their turn! But certainly as they get older it works because everyone is involved in some way… I suppose what I am saying is that it’s important everyone should in some way feel rewarded.

Lego or Literature?

Liz: Do you think there is a place for literature in the early stages of learning? Or should we concentrate first on the fundamental building blocks of the language?

Vaibhav: In terms of motivation, literature can certainly help. All human beings are, I think, interested in stories and as they read aloud they can learn language incidentally, as a by-product. So I think literature can go a long way in keeping students interested. 

I remember hearing an eminent critic, the late Barbara Hardy, talking about narrative as  “a primary act of mind”. *

Yes, I think storytelling is a very fundamental activity, almost at the same level as perceiving three dimensional space and moving through time. It is very primitive indeed. It is also much less of a burden on the memory as you don’t have to remember the individual details. Once you know the overall stories things are covered in a beautiful way which make the journey downhill rather than uphill – it flows and we follow with it.

Mother Tongue Twisters

Liz: Is it easier to teach Hindi, your mother tongue, to travellers in India or German to Indian children?

Vaibhav: There are advantages to both. I’ve been teaching Hindi for a long time and have learned what works but initially there were things I found hard to explain. The answer in my head was often “Well that’s how it is!” Now, with experience, I can present it in an organised way that can easily be received by the students. Most of those I teach also know English so I can draw parallels between languages.

The biggest challenge is that here in India, I am completely out of touch with spoken German. Because of this, my knowledge of day-to-day language use is less. In terms of grammar, though, it was easier at first because I could repeat explanations that I had recently learned. That was different to teaching Hindi.

Our mother tongue is a filter through which we look at the world but sometimes it’s hard to look at the filter itself. 

Zooming into the Future

Liz: During the covid pandemic we’ve been doing a lot of teaching on Zoom. Do you think it offers any advantages to teachers of language?

Vaibhav: For my part, I think face to face is much more enjoyable – with young students it is definitely easier to keep their attention in-person – but online has many advantages. For small groups of adults especially, Zoom works well.

Many people are now learning languages in this way and the fact that you can easily check things while learning and record the session is especially helpful. 

Liz: Well I think Zoom might be here to stay…. Thank you, Vaibhav, for your insights into language teaching – and for being my Hindi teacher.

***

—–
*Tellers and Listeners. The Narrative Imagination. Barbara Hardy.

One Year of Teaching English Online: The Good, the Bad and the Not-So-Ugly

in Teaching

Most English teachers are yearning for the real-world classroom and treat online teaching as a hurdle that must be overcome… And yet, despite the obvious difficulties, I feel there is a lot to praise about online teaching.

In the last year, as ESL professionals, we’ve all had to go through something of a baptism of fire. Whether we liked it or not, we suddenly found ourselves whisked out of the classroom and locked up at home, teaching all of our courses online. Gone were the paper printouts. Gone was the whiteboard. Gone were body language, mingle activities and textbooks.

And in their place, only one thing remained (for most of us, anyway).

Zoom.

But today I come to praise online teaching, not to bury it.

When I return to the classroom, I won’t just be mourning the extra hour-and-a-half each day I lose to commuting, but I’ll be missing a whole suit of fantastic tools we all have at our disposal – let’s examine why online teaching is something to be celebrated!

Whiteboards

I’m going to start with the whiteboard… Zoom’s whiteboard isn’t great, but I prefer it to its physical counterpart! If you run out of room, you can easily move and edit components, or flick over to a second page (the small ‘+’ at the bottom-right). If you’re using Windows 10, Microsoft Whiteboard has unlimited canvas space and the ability to post pictures and videos.

You can share links, your students can add their own content and use the board for homework. There are also browser-based alternatives such as WBO and Mural.

Virtual whiteboards don’t just replace the features of their physical counterparts – they offer many more:

  1. Your students can write simultaneously.
  2. You can paste videos and websites.
  3. If you prepare whiteboards in advance, you can later edit and organise in-lesson notes into something worth keeping and email the results to your students.

Presentations

With screen-sharing, it’s easier than ever to give presentations – no more relying on a smartboard or projector! Microsoft Sway allows you to quickly make snazzy presentations. Google Slides gives you more control over design and can be supplemented with the Pear Deck addon. With this you can ask multiple-choice questions, or ask (anonymously) if anybody is struggling. Students can even draw their responses, for more fun engagement.

Presenting with Prezi

For something more swish, many teachers use Prezi – and once again, these presentations can be shared with pupils afterwards, so they don’t need to frantically scribble notes the whole time.

Tests

Even tests are now easier – and more fun! Kids (and many adults too) groan and delay when you give them a paper test. But the same test online using Kahoot or Quizizz? They will yell out their answers, dance when they win and demand to play again! These websites will also mark the tests and present you with statistics. No more printing or marking!  You can even integrate photos and videos to supplement written English with spoken.

Yay for “Ctrl+Z”!

Similarly, LearningApps offers dozens of different types of activities, including pelmanism, gap-fill, crosswords and wordsearches. It takes a few minutes to make your own, but then you can save them and reuse them, see completed statistics, give them as homework and edit them. Again – no more printing, cutting-out and laminating. No more carrying round and losing packs of cards!

Rooms

OK, I’ll admit a little defeat here… The internet doesn’t replicate meeting each other in an actual, physical room. However, that is changing! Spatial.io is geared towards education and business, and tries to replicate the sensation of sharing a room. If you want something less overwhelming, CozyRoom offers a simple cartoon world.

You can place furniture, point things out and move around – volume is based on distance to the person speaking. Mingle activities are possible again! If you fancy something a touch more powerful and professional, there’s Spatial.Chat – this even allows you to post pictures and videos, so you can replicate your favourite ‘art gallery’ activities.

Of Mice or Men?

I’ve adopted a technique that one student nicknamed ‘Mouse Teacher’ (after the rodent, not the gadget). I keep my camera and microphone off at first, giving new students only a few pictures that describe me. They then have to guess as much as possible about me before properly ‘meeting’ me for the first time.

I can still communicate through on-screen annotations, but this way they talk more, I talk less, and we have a thought-provoking introduction:

  • “He is under 40 and creative, by the way he types.”
  • “He doesn’t speak, he’s a mouse!”

With some of my classes I’m now a mouse for most of the lesson, noting errors in a separate window before pasting them onto the whiteboard for correction. Students have said they really enjoy the opportunity this gives them to talk together, and they don’t look to me for constant guidance.

Conclusion: I, for One, Welcome our New Robot Overlords

Of course, teaching online has its disadvantages – but so does any medium. For me, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages – and some of my students have been pleasantly surprised with their online lessons. It seems like we’ll be stuck online for a while yet – so let’s stop seeing screens as an obstacle, and rediscover the sense of wonder the internet once offered!

This post has offered a variety of suggestions for within-lesson tools. If you want something to help with a ‘macro’ approach, check out Slobodan Kelecevic’s article on digital tools from the earlier days of lockdown.

***

08.07.21 Update:

One of ELTABB’s members has suggested this impressive-looking collection of online teaching tools! Check it out, and let us know your thougths in the comments!

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