Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Lie to Me

(Hat tip: Nadhir Moghli.)

As a teacher, are you average, better than average or below average?

A survey of college professors at the University of Nebraska found that nearly 100% of the teaching staff thought they were "above average" as teachers, according to this 2006 article. A mathematical impossibility. If there is an average, most of them should be around it, not above it. 

The article discusses how self-assessment can be flawed*, but what I wish to focus on here is a different matter.

"Average, below average, above average teacher"? Those terms presuppose a comparison or even a competition among teachers! 

Why should we be going against each other? There are perhaps instances when it may be necessary for management to choose a teacher over the other (promotions and bonuses spring to mind), but for most intents and purposes, doesn't it make sense for a school to want as many effective teachers as possible? Wouldn't a reality of 50% of average teachers -- with a few the worse, and a few the better -- be bleak and saddening for us all?

Is this how you see your teacher's lounge? 
(Source: TABMathletics)

Instead of comparing a teacher against the whole teaching staff in a norm-referenced approach to teacher evaluation, it would be a lot more interesting to adopt a criterion-referenced approach, i.e. to agree upon a set of criteria to assess teaching ability and then evaluate teachers -- via self-assessment or any other form -- against those criteria. In other words, dropping the idea of average for the concept of standard (below standard, up to standard, above standard). After all, I could be the "best" teacher in a group of ineffective teachers and still be ineffective. And the opposite is also possible: I may be the "worst" teacher in a group of super teachers and feel terrible about myself, when in fact I am an overall effective teacher with huge potential for improvement.

In short, numbers lie. Especially averages. And when it comes to teacher evaluation, it is in the interest of the students that we try and be as fair as possible in depicting the reality of their education.

I'd love to know your opinion on this. How do you think teacher evaluation should be conducted?

*In all fairness, the article ends with what I believe is a great message: "When we accept the proposition that we’re not as good as we think, we’re already considerably better than we were." I wholeheartedly agree with the author in terms of how perception can skew our judgment, how we shouldn't see teaching as a single-trait competence, and above all how we must be committed to constant professional development. What I don't buy is the idea that we should be averaging teachers.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Just run with it!

Hat tip: Elmer Neves

(Source: Everywhere! But I got this one from here.)

You have seen these British vs. American English posters. Perhaps the coursebook you teach is full of those tables. You may have even drilled those differences, as I sure did more than once. And you might have acted as if reality were exactly like that: neatly divided somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic.

Don't get me wrong: those colorful posters are useful to some extent. Even though they considerably narrow down the spread of English around the world, at the very least they introduce the concept of linguistic variation in the L2 classroom. But as that cute 7-year-old famously asked, "Is this real life?"

(Source: BusinessInsider)

What you see here is the map for rubber-soled shoes one would wear for athletic activities. You know, these: 

(Source: SneakerNews.com)

According to our British vs. American English poster, to no fault of its own (I'm sure you've seen this repeated time and again), Americans call those shoes "sneakers". Well, judge for yourself: on the map, blue represents "sneakers". Red is for... *drum roll*... "tennis shoes". 

Does anyone else see a red flag here?

In terms of percentage, "sneakers" does have a slight advantage over "tennis shoes" (45.50% v. 41.34%), but it's hard to stand by the claim that "sneakers" is THE term used in the U.S.. "In the U.S.." That continental country. That's a loooot of people. A few of them (0.23% in the survey) even prefer the so-called "British" word "trainers"!

(Not that a small country such as England would necessarily be more homogeneous. On the contrary!)

I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir: we all know that languages are alive and kicking, and that they vary. Through time, across regions, across social classes or ethnic groups. Yes, of course we know that. However, are we allowing this knowledge to seep through to our classes, or are we helping fuel the myth of English as a language with 2 monolithic standards? 

I understand there are pedagogical reasons not to overload students with different words for the same object. Teach me a word, I'll learn it; teach me 10, I'll forget all of them. But is that all there is to it? Or, if variation is the spice of language, are there other obscure reasons for such a bland diet?

Click here for:
The original survey
The colorful maps
The BusinessInsider article with funny comments about the maps

Update (June 7, 2013): Ben Zimmer has commented on the maps and survey. As usual, a great read!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Testing times

Even those of us teachers who don't like taking exams (dare I say that's 99% of us?) end up administering a lot of tests throughout our careers. But here is where the danger lies, as this ubiquity of testing may make us take it for granted.

For instance, if duty calls, many of us will blithely use tests to decide on learners' courses of study: fail, pass, revise this, study more of that. In other words, we often act as if all tests were really good representations of a student's current proficiency level.

On the other hand, I've noticed that, as soon as teachers change places and take tests as candidates or students, they tend to see raters, invigilators or test developers as big bad wolves. Let he or she who has never complained about a test cast the first stone!

A paradoxical view, that's for sure. But perhaps that duality is right to some extent: tests are certainly useful, but at the same time they have the potential for misuse and unfairness. In short, tests can be both the beauty and the beast.

"Tale as old as time", "bittersweet and strange", testing is "certain as the sun", 
but is there a "beauty and the beast" quality to it?

To my mind, the double-edged sword nature of testing derives from the fact that, no matter how "objective" tests claim to be, they are necessarily full of value-laden judgements. They're ideological. At the very least, they presuppose a view of
(1) what constitutes the target language;
(2) what constitutes learning a language;
(3) what is acceptable evidence of language learning;
and so on, so forth.

And that's all well and good if we think it through, feel comfortable with the embedded values and know how to keep them when we are writing and grading/rating tests. But do we?


I'd love to know your take on this. How do you feel about testing and being tested? What do you take into consideration when writing and grading tests?