Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Testing, Testing (Part Three)

(Edited 22.6.11: for grammos, typos; deleted two, pointless parenthetical statements; added content for clarity; updated related links.)

Related Reading:

My complaint: I’m a literature and theory guy. I focused on practical linguistics and ESL/EFL during my MA because I was teaching composition and rhetoric and working in two writing centers attended by many foreign students. I wanted to learn how to better address their needs. And I’m a nerd who likes thinking about language and thought. My practicum was a chance to study the science of language rather than the philosophy of language.

I’ve yet to see much practical linguistics put into practice in classrooms, in curriculum. In Korea, contemporary English education fails the majority of students. I know that students at my school could study a little harder, but when I look at them and my work, I have had to conclude that I have no support and they have little. It’s my opinion that because wealthy and privileged Korean elites continue to succeed in spite of the poor English education policies, the failure is ignored.

As we know, public education is criminally underfunded. The Seoul agency managing enough English teachers to populate a small town is operated by a small and overworked staff. What can they actually do but manage? Training is non-existent. Peer evaluation forbidden. Teacher development restricted to a chosen few. That there are thousands of teachers in Korea and no conferences, no retreats, is shameful and a sign that most of the teachers aren’t professionals, but travelers using Korea for one of two things: a break from life back home or to gain a year of experience before entering the job market back home.(I’m always willing to criticize lazy teachers, but it’s mostly the self-promoting idiots who so often pretend to represent teachers in Korea who I’m really pissed at—the scheming white capitalists. The link is only one example. A horrible writer with a horrible blog who often and naively writes horrible things about teaching and teachers.)

Many professional NSETs in Korea appear only too happy to aid the Korean government to further ghettoize english education in support of their careers, leaving Korean students of English in the lurch. When I call my peers unthinking, scheming capitalists, I’m being provocative. Many of my colleagues care, but we’re in the minority here. It’s the same everywhere: many teachers find it easier to be cronies for corruption in exchange for job security. No matter how awful the teaching conditions, the treatment of students, or how low the quality of education become, these folks will find a way to be satisfied to be working in the front of a classroom telling people how to think and what they should know. They aren’t teachers, they’re possessors of knowledge. They don’t teach, they teacher. It’s doing something without action. They’re not teaching, they’re teachering.

I should stay on focus: The successful students are privileged, the ones who have lived in English-speaking countries, or the ones who have a knack for language. The students who need the most help, the kids who struggle, are ignored. I suppose if we look at the problem from an economic perspective, Koreans can argue (President Obama and his administration do) that their education system is successful because the education business is booming, the standards appear high, the competition is tough, and consumers have many highly valued choices. None of that has anything to do with languages and learning, of course, but it’s nonetheless true. Objectively speaking, Korea’s rigorous public and private educational system should be a success.

Education, in Korea as in the USA, is more easily accessible for the most privileged students. Students at my school are poor and don’t get nice classrooms, nice labs, a well-maintained school, good food, access to the best hagwons—nor do they get to travel. English, for them, is something they learn about in Korean and it’s confined to Korean culture. As a result, English is a cultural mechanism that more or less oppresses each of them. This is in direct opposition to how English language is sold to the students: as a means of future liberation.

Koreans do not really understand English language culture and are consciously stubborn about learning how to incorporate that culture in its English classes and wider society. Or is it Korean culture? There is something called 한류 (hanryu) that illustrates how Koreans see the world via their own culture and its distribution and representation around the world, and it might serve us well to think about that when talking about complex cultural problems Koreans and their foreign colleagues confront. Anyway, the text books here are a joke. They are boring and meaningless and very poor approximations of white English-language culture. I’m not a prescriptivist, but no real attempt is made on a daily basis to properly implement English language, even in a Korean manner. The attempt is to use English in Korean—that’s very different.

In spite of these difficulties I think there must be something we can do as teachers to improve a bad situation. Moreover, it’s likely from the teachers and students where the most useful and meaningful innovation in classrooms and curricula will erupt into the wider discourse. The governments and industry professionals are nothing more than market forces. Administrators are aspiring capitalists. They aren’t teachers.

I was thinking about all this while testing my students for the second time this year.

What the students do know about English: In three years, I’ve learned that students know how to take cues form their Korean teachers about English, know how to speak about English in Korean using English vocabulary pronounced in Korean, know how to read English texts and answer multiple choice questions about what they’ve read, know how to listen to English and guess correctly what’s spoken and what it means. That’s what they learn in their regular classes. In other words, that’s what they learn without my presence in the classroom. The students know what it means to have English explained to them and this helps them recognize patterns they’ve studied when they take standardized tests, more often than not, yet be unable to hold a regular conversation. It’s a common complaint among English teachers: Why can they perform well on tests yet are unable to participate in simple conversations?

Students learn to successfully take English exams; they do not learn everyday English. If you go to YouTube, you can see that what many teachers think is useful everyday English education is teaching idioms in an entertaining manner. This would be useful education if the average student understood the basics of English syntax and usage, but the average student does not. Even the most advanced Korean students often lack an ability to use simple transitional elements in their speech and writing. Why? Because students learn English through repetition and memorization. It’s all very thoughtless. They memorize lists of words and patterns for phrases by repeating lists and patterns over and over. I do believe the idea is to get English to as many people at once in as short a time as possible. The result is a country using English in Korean. The result is awful English, awkward English, too-complicated English.

I try to teach my most advanced students to study English differently and to learn to use it by owning it. I developed my method as a writing teacher, but found that when tutoring Korean and Japanese students, it worked for addressing their speech as well as their writing. “Owning it” is rather vague, I know, but this is a blog after all. Allow me the space to flesh it out. My students are not only uncomfortable with English because it’s difficult and oppressive and tied to their futures like an anchor. English is difficult because they use it as a foreign instrument. They are taught that This does not belong to me.

I’ll put it into a Korean classroom context. They way we teach English promotes difference and denies that English and Hangukmal do the same thing, are used for the same purposes. The way we teach English promotes information over meaning, based on a standard of correctness. Nothing in English, in Korean classrooms, is in context with everyday life. That's a problem. We know we’re not doing right by our students because we know understanding how to present ideas in English means understanding that English speakers and Hangukmal speakers differently represent similar ideas with language. It’s not a simple matter of translation. The arrangement of the languages is different. To speak English well is to understand the languages and their different arrangements as much as it about knowing vocabulary and the parts of speech.

It’s more complicated when we consider how teachers talk to students. One of the most common instances occurs when a teacher attempts to solicit a response from students. Foreign teachers often resist—I have witnessed this—representing their requests in English in a manner most common to their Korean students. (As I said, it's always out of context.) This is the most significant aspect of my teaching experience that I wish to explore. The failure for the teachers, coteachers, schools, administrators to work on encouraging Koreans to be bilingual (I don’t know a better way to put it right now) is a real problem. The other-ing of English alienates English students and instills a power relationship in the classroom that alienates both teachers and students and cultivates an oppressive hierarchy in the classroom that favors the most privileged students and those fortunate enough to have a natural knack for languages.

The resistance teachers encounter and implement in classrooms cultivates a distance from the students and produces a vertically organized classroom with the teacher located at the top and with the most, if not all, power. I’m strictly opposed to this classroom formation. Confronting my resistance, embracing a bit of discomfort, and attempting (in my case) to find a way to use English in the classroom in a way my students can understand it, that is presenting my students with useful English that a Korean can comfortably use as well begins to produce a space where English conversation can occur without the oppressive, insistent force of The Test or A Grade. (I’m not only modeling, I’m leading while inviting as my comments invite an attempt. I am attempting as I want them to attempt. This disturbs the traditional power structure in the classroom as well and destabilizes the students’ safe distance from their teacher.)

The Speaking Test: The following is just a quick example of one way I’m approaching thinking about teaching according to my experiences proctoring conversation tests. In my test, I’m asking students simple questions like: “What happened at the beginning of the story?” They can often answer in strings of nouns and verbs. If the story is about a tired boy who refuses to get out of bed, for example, most of my students can say without too much effort, “Boy…bed…annoyed…sleep…alarm…off.” If I insist, “Try making a simple sentence. Use a noun and a verb. I know you can do it.” If they have studied, they can often say something like, “Boy is sleep. (Long pause.) He is turn off alarm. (Long pause.) He is annoyed.” Only a small minority of students can organize ideas and events into useful sentences.

There are many interesting things about the students’ answers that illustrate how a Korean student sees the English language itself and how the students think English should be used. Or, students consider how to say something in English and they navigate the known differences between English and Korean and then add words they think are necessary. This is a problem for NSET (Native Speaking English Teachers) who know nothing about Hangukmal, Korean language culture and everyday Korean speech. The English-only approach to language education is a failure for many reasons, but for this reason it’s most useless. We do not encourage students to understand both their languages, Korean then English, in relation to each other. It limits learning.

If a student wants to talk about the table with the computer and apple on it on the other side of the classroom, they will quickly translate “computer,” “apple” and “table”. They will make use of the verb “To be” and often as a linking verb, whether or not it is required. My students have the most trouble using prepositions and adverbs. As a result, the simply don’t use them at all. As in my example above, I get a lot of sentences similar to “Boy is sleep” and “He is turn off alarm”.

The problem for me, their teacher, is not that I must now create a lesson where I get them to repeat sentence patterns over and over until they get it right. The problem is to resist teaching as their benevolent leader who insists upon correctness and to help them find a comfortable and logical, a meaningful approach to English usage that they can understand well enough to begin using at an intermediate level that, with practice in conversation, will lead towards mastery.

I’m beginning to learn how to do that. But as I implement my method in classrooms, I’m confronted with two problems: lazy and fearful teachers who’d rather stick to the traditional plans in spite of the literature they read in school that supports my approach, and oppressed students who insist that education means receiving deposits of information from their teacher each day that are organized into lists and bullets and that come with directions explaining exactly how to think about the work to be completed.

On testing culture: Students can score high on TOEIC but can’t use basic English to answer a simple question about daily life and/or simple opinion. For the teacher, it’s frustrating. For the student, it’s humiliating. For the education programs in Korea, it should be embarrassing. But it’s not. Why? Hagwons are set up to teach to tests. In the three years I’ve been here, it’s obvious that hagwons are used in conjunction with the traditional education to such an extent that Koreans seem to believe one can’t exist without the other. This is, in fact, the effective privatization of public education. It’s already happened here.

The better students do on tests, the more profit for everyone. It’s a very simple model. Public schools are set up to form a ranking for potential college entrance. I don’t really see any other focus from junior high school to graduation.  Americans wondering where they stand on the standardization of public education in the United States should get to know Korean public education. It’s enough to make you want to kick Arne Duncan in the nuts and tar and feather Michelle Rhee.

The students who perform well on my two-minute conversation test are not really much smarter than the other students. But they know how to use English to say things. I don’t know where they get that knowledge, but with research I’m sure I could find out. I’ll tell you one thing: they didn’t get it at their expensive hagwon and the skill was likely not attained in English class. Show me two kids who excel at a hagwon, I’ll show you ten who don’t. Remember, I’m not talking about test scores. Hagwon and public schools have shown they can consistently produce high scores on standardized exams. Schools have to use vicious, future-determining curves in order to rank students because too many can consistently achieve the highest scores in each class, even at the lowest ranked schools.

So what’s the point of my two-minute conversation test when, no matter my critique, the ranking is much more important? This is why I’m suffering the issue so much, at such a length. There can be no other goal for me than to help individual students recognize that they have the capability to use English for themselves regardless of their scores on tests and rankings in school, regardless of their hagwon experiences. When I return to teaching after I defend my dissertation, I’m going to figure out a more focused manner to address the problems I’ve raised. Maybe I can find funding to conduct real research?

No comments: