jueves, 28 de enero de 2016

Poka-Yoke, an error-proof way of thinking and designing our classes
By Flor de María Vila

Beginning a new school year in Peru: We want to make the most out of it without “dying” in the attempt, don´t we? So, why not try a Poka-Yoke mentality to design classes and activities? Before going into the Poka-Yoke thinking, let’s explore a probable familiar situation.

What was our experience like last year?
Last year is gone, but some experiences remain in our memory. Are all of them good? Bad? What did we do that made those teaching-learning experiences successful? What did we do that made those experiences not as successful as we wanted them to be? Has it ever occurred to you that sometimes the “solutions” to those kinds of “problems” are there just in front of us, but we haven´t found the way to use or organize the information in the best way yet? Sometimes, there are inadvertent mistakes that do not allow us to use our resources well enough and that could be related to what we are focusing on: we might be looking at classes from the wrong perspective.

What do we take into account when we prepare our lessons?
We have heard a lot about the pre-existing knowledge with which students come. In fact, it is very likely that in our lesson plans and lessons, we have to consider eliciting students’ previous knowledge at the beginning. This is supported by the contemporary view that learning means that people construct their new knowledge and understanding based on what they already know and believe (1). According to Vygotsky (2), this is extremely important. He introduced the concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)(2)(3), which is the gap between what a learner has already mastered and what s/he can achieve when educational support is provided. Regarding this: What do we know about our students´ ZDP? Do we really know how much knowledge, experience, skills, beliefs, and concepts our students come with? Even more, do we really know them?  How can I prepare a lesson if I do not know who my students are? Just think about this carefully: Would you be able to choose a gift for, let´s say, me without knowing my likes, preferences or anything that could give you a hint on how to select the right one? What details did you have in mind while choosing a gift for some relative or close friend last Christmas?  I am quite sure that you knew something important about that person in order to pick out that gift, didn’t you?
This might be one of the issues we are not considering and is preventing us from having incredible success? Thus, in order to use effectively this existing knowledge, experience, and so on, we must know as much as possible about our students. If we ignore this fact, the outcome may not be what we expect. Here´s what we must consider about our students and know when preparing our lessons: age, sex, cognitive level, learning style, language level, likes, preferences, social and economic background. Furthermore we need to know students’ expectations both from the course and from us as teachers. Then, we will be more prepared to give a lesson. We will be even more prepared to motivate them at the beginning of the class because our decisions will be based on facts and not just on assumptions.

Are we ready now to start working on a POKA-YOKE (4) teaching strategy?
Until now, we have just found out with whom we are going to work. Next step is to prepare the lesson. In order to make sure that there won’t be any unforeseen mistakes and that we are ready to overcome most possible problems, we need to consider the following aspects in the plan. Do you know what a poka-yoke teaching strategy is? This strategy is based on the poka-yoke mechanism, a mistake proofing approach that uses visual signals to make mistakes clearly stand out or become evident. For instance, you may have noticed that when you assemble a desktop computer, it is simply not possible to plug in the keyboard or mouse into the wrong holes of the CPU. That is because the designer used poka-yokes to help the user achieve his goal without possible mistakes. Likewise, teachers can use poka-yokes in their classes to help students achieve their learning goals without getting lost on the way. Thus, we need to make sure of having visual signals that let us identify the mistake, if any, easily. We also need to guarantee that all steps are followed. Regarding any lesson, we need to clearly identify the objective of the lesson; what we need the students to be able to do by the end of the class. Knowing the objective of the lesson may sound obvious, but you would be surprised to see how many teachers act in class as if “performing the activities” were the objective and not the means to achieve a superior learning objective.
Once we know this, we should determine the following based on the self-assessment sheet (5):
  1. Activity proposed and its objective
  2. Resources used
  3. Did the activity help you to achieve its objective? Did it work?
  4. What evidence (visual signal) do we have that it worked?
  5. What should I do to improve this result for the following class?
In addition to this, we should think of the possible problems that may arise.

The poka-yoke teaching strategy implies having the minimum elements to work with a very high probability that the results we expect will become true.
Definitely, there are other factors that affect learning. Even though they are important, they are not more important than students and teachers themselves.

If you liked this reflection on how to make classes inevitably successful, please choose any of the following questions and share your thoughts.
  1. The article gives the example of poka-yokes used in a computer. You can also find a poka-yoke when a computer program double checks with you if you are sure you want to delete a file, thus helping you avoid the possibility that you delete it accidentally. Can you give other examples from everyday life where you find poka-yokes (a design thought to help avoid mistakes)?
  2. In trying to make an activity work like a poka-yoke for students to fulfill a learning objective, which of the following factors is in your experience the most important? Why?
a.       The lesson plan
b.      The teacher’s motivation
c.       The classroom environment
d.      The appeal of the activity to students’ interests
e.      The objective of the activity
  1. Can you suggest other factors, ideas or strategies that can contribute to an inevitable attainment of learning goals in class (just as a poka-yoke does)?
(1)    How people learn (2000) edited by John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking.
(2)    Lev Vygotsky- biography
(3)    ZPD definition
(4)    POKA-YOKE definition

Flor de María Vila. M.A. in Cognition, Learning and Development from PUCP, B.A. in Education with a major in English Teaching. Ms. Vila is currently Pedagogic Advisor and Member of the Research Team at Centro de Idiomas de la Universidad del Pacífico. She is Academic Director of International Contacts (test training & foreign applications advisory) and Relationship Associate Manager for American universities´ MBA admissions officers with International Contacts. She is official Examiner for several University of Cambridge tests, former freelance consultant with Universidad ESAN, experienced speaker on diverse English teaching issues for prestigious institutions, and senior international examinations trainer (GMAT, GRE, TOEFL, IELTS)

martes, 19 de enero de 2016

Why if I speak English well…,
English speakers do not understand me

By Enrique Rojas R.

It happens every time. A very dedicated student of English as a foreign language learns the lexis, the structures, the grammatical rules, the expressions; in addition he manages to demonstrate that is able to read and write in this language, but when they get in a situation in which they have to chat with native speakers, finds it very difficult to understand what they say, and even more grueling trying to make himself understood by them. For heaven’s sake! Why does this always occur?

If one were to learn a language from another part of the world, the first thing we would try to gain knowledge of would probably be the alphabet. In order to penetrate the system of transmitting ideas through words, you have to become familiar with letters, which are the main constituents of terms. Of course, it is also possible to just memorize sounds, to get to know what they mean and become able to produce those utterances. But we will not get to genuinely master a language that way. And it will not be the path we will follow if we are already literate people.

Now, when we refer to the most common western live languages, such as English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and others, we assume that we use the same alphabet for all of them but, is this assumption true? In this space we are going to briefly analyze the case of Spanish and English.

All of the mentioned languages use the Latin or Roman alphabet, which is still the most widely employed alphabetic system in the world, since it is the one used by most of Europe and the areas settled by Europeans. It has its origin in the Etruscan alphabet and it can be traced through Etruscan, Greek, and Phoenician scripts to the North Semitic alphabet utilized in Syria and Palestine about 1100 BC.( Encyclopædia Britannica). The name comes from Late Latin alphabētum, and this from the Greek  ἀλφάβητος : alphábētos, made up over ἄλφα : álpha 'alfa' y βῆτα : bêta 'beta', names of the first Greek letters.

In the first place, it may be convenient to define what we understand for alphabet. Encyclopædia Britannica describes it as a “set of graphs, or characters, used to represent the phonemic structure of a language” adding that “In most alphabets the characters are arranged in a definite order, or sequence.”  The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary depicts it as “A set of letters or symbols in a fixed order used to represent the basic set of speech sounds of a language, especially the set of letters from A to Z.” In both definitions we clearly observe the presence of two dimensions, a written or graphic one, and an oral, that deals with sounds. The graphic individual components are named graphemes and the oral ones, phonemes.
            For a native Spanish speaker there is probably no reason to know that there are languages with no one-to-one correspondence between sound and written symbol, since in our language there is a 1-1 spelling-to-sound correspondence.(*) They are aware that there are some differences in English pronunciation and try to imitate the most obvious ones without suspecting there is a whole phonological system they must become familiar with. As a consequence, they treat English graphemes as if they were Spanish graphemes, conferring upon them the same phonological value. Small wonder it is so difficult for them to make themselves understood by native speakers of English. It is no surprise also that although they can understand their peers’ English, and maybe their teachers’, they do not come to terms with the one spoken by people who have been raised with this tongue.

            So, our suggestion to English teachers is that, right from the beginning, you should convey to your students they have to deal with a different sound system. (See the article Teaching pronunciation, why is it so difficult? in this blog). And, for goodness sake, if you want your students to read (not to mention speak or write) you must teach them the alphabet (all of it) first.

Enrique Rojas. Graduated in Journalism at the PUCP, Peru, Enrique Rojas R. holds a MA in Journalism and MA in Inter American History from Southern Illinois University, USA; an MA in Literature from University of the Americas, Puebla, Mexico, all the coursework for a MA in TEFL at Universidad de Piura, Peru and BA in Education from Universidad Federico Villarreal. He has also obtained Certificates of Proficiency in English both from Cambridge University and the University of Michigan and the Diploma for EFL Teachers from Universidad del Pacifico. He is an Oral Examiner for the Cambridge University exams and has been awarded the title Expert in E-Learning from Asociacion Educativa del Mediterraneo and Universidad Marcelino Champagnat. He has worked as a professor in universities in Peru, Mexico and the United States; as a newscaster and a producer in radio and television stations in the United States and Mexico, and as a writer and editor in daily newspapers of the same countries. He has been in the staff of CIDUP for 17 years teaching English and Spanish specializing in International Exams, English for Business, ESP and Teacher Training. He is a member of the Research Area of Centro de Idiomas de la UP.

miércoles, 13 de enero de 2016

From flashcards to blackboard/moodle: 
A journey into technology

By Zarela Cruz

Flashcards, cassettes, DVDs, overhead projectors, chalk, blackboards, posters, wall chart papers, magazines, newspapers…. Are you familiar with them all? And what about these ones: Hotmail, Yahoo, SMART Board, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp? The shift from the first series to the second one has not taken very long. But you don’t have to get overly anxious: before we have mastered most of the procedures, there will be new ones at hand. So, it is better to begin getting prepared. We are about to start a journey into technology.

The old days
The key component in the old days was a brilliant imagination. Teachers did not have many resources available and had to make use of their own creativity to make the most attractive and eye-catching flashcards ever, buy or design their unique posters, get the most colourful magnets, clips and stationary. Sharing materials with their colleagues was a must, otherwise it would have been impossible to  cover all the angles.

Technology in the classroom
Schools embarked on investing a lot of money on modern overhead projectors and personal PCs for classroom use, projectors and even SMART Boards. The transition has not been that easy since teachers were not familiar with technology. Schools also incorporated the use of institutional emails and little by little a platform of their own. They began training their instructors in the use of the new devices.  
Language schools, on the other hand, invested on modern laboratories, PCs, and software for  their students to enhance their language practice. Then, they adopted the newest technology available provided by Cambridge. Some went further and started to make use of other platforms such as Blackboard or Moodle. At the language center where I work, we use digital textbooks as well, which allow more interactive classes since there are activities that come across quite different when presented on a digital format. Something students really appreciate is having access to written feedback on exercises on the board, so they can make sure they have grasped it.

Class environment nowadays
In language centers students are eager to use their gadgets in class, so the BYOD (bring your own device) approach works well. Besides, they usually have unlimited access to Wi-Fi and love to unearth the requested information. Many times they do contribute with interesting, complementary details. What we need to remind them is that their sources should be reliable and valid, but all in all it is worth to give it a try.

How has education changed?
It is not only a matter of technology. We all are now very conscious of multiple intelligences and dissimilar learning styles. To be assertive teachers, we should include activities for all of the pupils, although not necessarily at the same time. We instructors are expected to get to know our students gradually but swiftly, and tailor our class to their needs, no matter how long our courses last: a month, a semester or a school year.
We should keep in mind that education is not restricted to within the classroom walls any more. Students can work on their own at home, or from any place for that matter, by means of the existing technological devices.
That is not all. We know classes are no longer supposed to be teacher-centered. Conversely, they ought to be student-centered. We, teachers, have switched roles to be facilitators, among other responsibilities we take. Easier said than done, right? In the Latin American Congress of Teaching English for Specific Purposes, held at the Language Center of Universidad del Pacifico for the 9th time, some attending teachers did not agree with this approach. They believed their class management would be at risk. Not truth at all. When we say student-centered we mean that students’ interests need to be taken into account when designing our classes; their participation and contribution should be overtly welcome since they shall be capable to get genuinely and personally involved in the matter and will not be necessarily expected to tag along with whatever the teacher says. In a word: this change should be reflected in a more personal manner of learning.

Online Course Limitations and Solutions
Regarding online courses, some might argue that they are flawed, lacking. For example, a fixed schedule for students to meet the teacher and ask questions regarding the topics covered in class. Another common complaint arises whenever the platform malfunctions preventing students to upload assignments or post comments on forums in due time.
These problems can be easily avoided through brief, clear and short recommendations given to learners at the very beginning of the course. For example, reminding them that even if they have a week to upload a piece of homework, it is advisable to take the time to have it ready at least a day or two before the deadline just in case something goes wrong with the platform. The same applies to material downloaded to study, or the above mentioned comments on forums, even when they are not graded. These  simple steps have proved to be very useful to ensure quality standards.
Regarding time to meet the teacher, and enquire about any doubts, tools such as BlackBoard collaborate easily to allow it. With a user-friendly interface and even a “raise hand” button, this and other similar software provide real–time interaction between teacher and students.
In the end, the superiority or inferiority of online courses relies heavily on every students’ and teachers’ opinion. If they find them appealing, their attitude will most likely lead to better results than those from unmotivated students. However, disliking virtual platforms should not be a reason not to take advantage of the benefits technology offers.

Teaching languages online
The practice of teaching languages online  is expanding quickly. This summer some language centers are offering  100% online courses for teachers as well as blended courses, with about 75% of the course face-to-face and 25% online sessions.  Some institutions have even started offering such online courses beyond their own countries, making it an international experience to learn with teachers and other students from around the globe.

To go deeper into the matter, it would be great to know what you reader think and/or what you have experienced  yourself either as a teacher or a student. Leave a comment and share your experience with us! It is very easy. You just need to have a gmail account. If you don’t, creating one will take you only a few minutes!

21st Century Education vs. 20th Century Education
The Four C's: Making 21st Century Education Happen
20th vs. 21st century teachers

Zarela Cruz graduated from Ricardo Palma University as a translator.  She also finished her master’s studies in Linguistics and took some specialization diplomas in English and Spanish: Higher Education, Virtual Courses Design, and Spanish for Foreigners. She has also completed a number of certificates:  Teaching the Working Adult, Online, Hybrid and Blended Education, among other self-study courses.   During her more than 20 years’ teaching experience, she has been a teacher trainer in Huaraz and Ayacucho and lectured in some Congresses for EFL teachers in Lima. This article is a summary of her workshop at the 2015 Annual Congress at CIDUP.