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Discourse Analysis in the Classroom?

Discourse analysis in the classroom?

I think that, at best, discourse analysis in class will be fragmentary and inconsistent because this field cannot be/ is not adequately covered in realistic teacher education, and at present it is under-represented in teachable materials or accessible methodology.

As a practical example I would like to examine some materials I wrote a couple of years ago for a coursebook on a unit on politics.

I had included a manifesto for a US state-level green party. At the time I found that the text could form the basis of work on all of the following:

  • Clear and eye-catching headings.
  • We + ‘power’ verb • Careful and effective use of will, must and should
  • Appropriate adjective + noun collocations
  • The ‘three point’ technique of persuasive discourse

Is this discourse analysis or merely a collection of grammatical and lexical exercises pertaining to the text? Is there a difference? Feeling that, despite the analysis of certain grammatical, lexical, and discursive features, it was maybe too undisciplined, I looked again at the manifesto to apply to it a structural analysis.

I found that this was actually rather straightforward and simple. If we look at the first four points the structural form is highly repetitious and only actually comprises of two moves: let’s call them ‘claim’ (Cl) and ‘proposal’ (Pr). This is consistent throughout.

1.(Cl) Every human being deserves a say in the decisions that affect their lives and not be subject to the will of another. (Pr) Therefore, we will work to increase public participation at every level of government and to ensure that our public representatives are fully accountable to the people who elect them. We will also work to create new types of political organizations which expand the process of participatory democracy by directly including citizens in the decision-making process.

2.(Cl) All persons should have the rights and opportunity to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment. (P) We must consciously confront in ourselves, our organizations, and society at large, barriers such as racism and class oppression, sexism and homophobia, ageism and disability, which act to deny fair treatment and equal justice under the law.

3. (Cl) Human societies must operate with the understanding that we are part of nature, not separate from nature. (Pr) We must maintain an ecological balance and live within the ecological and resource limits of our communities and our planet. We support a sustainable society which utilizes resources in such a way that future generations will benefit and not suffer from the practices of our generation. To this end we must practice agriculture which replenishes the soil; move to an energy efficient economy; and live in ways that respect the integrity of natural systems.

4. (Cl) It is essential that we develop effective alternatives to society’s current patterns of violence. (Pr) We will work to demilitarize, and eliminate weapons of mass destruction, without being naive about the intentions of other governments. We recognize the need for self-defense and the defense of others who are in helpless situations. We promote non-violent methods to oppose practices and policies with which we disagree, and will guide our actions toward lasting personal, community and global peace.

Ok – so no big deal. But would this way of looking at the text have changed the way I would have approached the materials? I think so. I had included an ‘insert the heading’ activity. It isn’t a particularly taxing activity, maybe useful for developing fast scanning skills. It may have been better to have jigsawed the ‘claims’ and ‘proposals’ and have the students match them back together. This would be slightly more taxing but also serve to loop the structural form to the students without, as it were, preaching it.

It would also help on this small but important point: each ‘proposal’ sentence starts with we will, we shall or we must. I had covered this in Subtle uses of must, should and will, but didn’t know how to term this feature other than ‘verbs of power’ (something I was hoping my editor would improve upon). It is obvious now that I should have called this feature ‘we+ proposal verb’. This seems like a tiny point but shows to me how approaching the text from the viewpoint of discourse analysis rather than a purely lexical standpoint can subtly alter and inform such decisions. Whereas I previously would have searched a text for lexical and grammatical features I will now take a slightly different initial view and look first for patterns in the form and structure of a text.

Natural Online Learning Is Just Natural Learning

Online Community Enthusiasts Vancouver Gathering June 14, 2012

I posed the question of what constitutes natural online learning to an open space session during  a SCoPE event at SFU recently.

What emerged to me was an over-arching and very simple commitment – that good practice is good practice. Good practice physical equates to good practice virtual.

Easy then. Well no.

Is non-virtual educational delivery based on concepts of best-practice or is it based on doing things (or constructing things) the way things have always been done, generally based on models of minimizing cost and maximizing impact necessary once but that have long since shifted?

Ok. Example. Lectures. A lecture as a method of disseminating information was simply the best format before the invention of the photocopier, let alone the blog. Since then, serious questions needed to have been asked about the role of lectures in education to justify and plan for their inclusion in a programme. They may still have a role, but the relationship of that role within a menu of subsequent delivery options changed and a reconstruction of their value was and maybe still is required.

Creating learning for online environments is not a niche area but an opportunity to re-evaluate the nature of the delivery of education as a whole and explore not only the relationship of the physical to the virtual but also the nature of perennial good practice within the changing landscape of new modes and efficiencies of delivery.

More on natural learning design in the next post…


Learnbase and Music BC Collaboration!

Music BC and my Learnbase are excited to announce a non-profit collaboration to create an online-learning resource to guide young musicians in how to successfully engage with the music industry.

The goal of the resource is to help ease young musicians through the transition from the garage to the limelight.

Content for the initial learning modules will be arranged and filmed by Music BC at the Peak Performance Bootcamp and will feature presentations by leading industry luminaries along with commentary and advice from young professional musicians. The site will grow as new content is captured at subsequent Music BC learning events.

BC learning tech firm Learnbase is donating the use of their innovative new online-training platform and the skills of their learning-design and production team to craft the material into interactive learning modules. The site will enable learners to receive recognition for successful completion of the individual modules through the awarding of Open Badges.

The site will launch with five initial themed modules in November, and will grow from there!

The resource will be available to Music BC members, and for a small subscription to anyone, anywhere who is interested in learning about how to succeed in the music industry. The site will also offer free access to economically disadvantaged youth groups in BC.

A Permaculture of Online Learning

I’ve been trying to identify a ‘natural’ approach to the design and facilitation of online learning. That is, how does learning most naturally take place in real world and how would this look within the emerging sophistication of the web? The stumbling block is that we have barely been able to answer this question pre-web anyway as we have learned (or not) to our cost.

I recently stumbled upon David Holmgren’s Essence of Permaculture and was grabbed by how well his twelve Permaculture Principles can be used to help formulate a framework of intent for online learning.

Here is a very initial brainstorm around each of the 12 principles and I see this as a living document. There is a collaborative google doc here if you would like to add, question, challenge and share.

1 Observing and interacting

Making time to stand back and watch, or listening to those who do. Interaction is fluid and ongoing, never fixed. Change comes through independent, heretical and long-term thinking. All conclusions are subjective and contextual. Discerning what is natural from what is simply present.

2 Catching and Storing Energy

Increasing the velocity of content by amplifying peer moderation and input. Making archives of peer and mentor input channels that flow from course to course. Embedding cognitive strategies to enhance the impact and memorability of input Integrating learning with parallel commitments to action.

3 Obtaining a Yield

Embedding rewards that encourage and motivate and create positive feedback loops. Ensuring the rewards have real, lasting and recognized value.

4 Applying Self Regulation and Accepting Feedback

Clearly stating boundaries and expectations. Encouraging, and responding to, honesty. Observing, interacting and listening. Continually simplifying the learning environment. Continually increasing intuitiveness of the program. Continually maintaining the relevance of the program.

5 Using and Valuing Renewable Resources and Services

Making learning, action, accountability and connectivity a core focus of, and not an addition to, time spent online. Maximizing the impact of this time through cognitive reinforcement strategies. Designing online learning for inclusion not exclusion.

6 Producing No Waste

Maximizing of intuitive and connected design to direct learner to topic and task. Avoidance of cognitive overload. Keeping of topics and tasks relevant and requiring the minimum.

7 Designing from Pattern to Details

Questioning of  ‘ADDIE’ approach. Exploring of shared needs. Designing platforms that embed a universal, natural approach to learning design. Fitting of content to platforms more than vice-vera.

8 Integrating rather than Segregate

Embedding of all that is needed within the minimum possible pages. Minimization of need to leave the site or window. Embedding of note fields and discussions within tasks not elsewhere. Enabling of access to insights of students and mentors is parallel courses. Archiving and access to insights of students and mentors in prior courses. Archiving and access to insights of students and mentors in future courses.

9 Using Small and Slow Solutions

Agile design and education business models. Designing platforms for growth and adaptation. Increasing universality of platforms for allow more time and focus for content creation.

10 Using and Value Diversity

Employing and engaging with the array of learning styles and intelligence types. Enshrining Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition. Peer negotiation and moderation of course content. Having peer observation, analysis and creativity at the heart of the program. Assessment elements based on contribution and sharing.

11 Using Edges and Value the Marginal

Allowing for recognition of nonconformity and daring within the learning process. Expectation of the trainer to be challenged. Develop and encourage overlap with and borrowing from other courses/subject areas when assessing learner responses. Encourage application of course to action.

12 Creatively Using and Responding to Change

Seeing things as they will be. Seeing that the agility and adaptability that allows for small-scale change ensures greater higher-order system stability. Making time to stand back and watch, or listening to those who do.  

Working with First Nations Language Preservation

At the recent AIM Summer Institute we were honored to have in attendance Marianne and Ronald Ignace, SFU linguists, anthropologists and educators, based in the Shushwap language/ geographical area of interior BC. They were attending on the recommendation of Yukon linguist/educator Daniel Tlen, also in attendance. Towards the end of the Institute they met with AIM co-founder Matt Maxwell and me to discuss the possibility of adapting the AIM curriculum for First Nations Language education. I was expecting a conversation dealing with ‘ifs’ and ‘coulds’ but we immediately got to the ‘whens’ and ‘hows’.

This is a powerful core team with a huge amount of experience in both linguistics, education, and simply making things happen. Initially the work would be done with one key language, perhaps Shuswap or more, more probably, Southern Tutchone, a language common to both Daniel and the Ignaces.

Of course we would not be able to simply adapt one of the existing story/plays but must seek find a story integral to the language in question. We gave some consideration as to whether there is a common theme or story so that the resulting course can be more rapidly and economically iterated to other languages. While we discussed key themes it was not clear yet where this would be possible.

The key thing now is obtaining the funding to make this possible. There are several avenues to explore. However I have no doubt that this is the start of something incredible. Later in the night as Daniel and I swapped between the ukelele and a guitar at hand, singing whatever came into our heads and drinking a few bottles of Sleamans, I had even less doubt.



Open Badges – Visual Design and Semantic Minefields

With all the great work going on developing an Open Badges Infrastructure, at Learnbase we thought we’d take a minute to play around with what a badge might actually look like. Given the metadata implicit within a badge, we kept the visual simple – merely the issuing organization, the ‘course’ title and an at-a-glance image. I’m British and the designer that I’m throwing ideas around with, Meghan Draper, is Canadian and we quickly realized that the term ‘badge’ covers different semantic ranges in our respective dialects. In North American, ‘badge’ seems to conjure scouting, military, outdoorsy images – the kind of thing more often sown on to a uniform. Does Mozilla’s metaphor for the badge organizer as backpack mean you store them inside or sow them on the outside? (By extension, the latter?). Anyway – in British (or as Microsoft etc call it, ‘International’) English, a badge covers the whole semantic range rather imprecisely – everything from a scout badge to a button to a pin. Compare the first pages of two searches on Bing for ‘badges UK’ and ‘badges US’. They give us a nice little visual representation of the respective semantic fields. No prizes for guessing which is which…


So the first open badges we mocked up with were  based somewhere right around  the middle of the UK badge semantic field…aka the US button:

But something didn’t feel right – as I am sure you you can see. The whole point of a button is that it is cheap and fun – something for a political slogan, a band, a smiley face. But not something with a sense of gravity, import, award and reward. Not something to be treasured … no matter how much metadata is attached!

Then I started thinking of a little box of badges that I still have from high school – amongst them my ‘Prefect Badge’. This badge in N.American dialect would be called a pin, i.e. metal and enamel.

METAL AND ENAMEL! So shiny and gorgeous that they almost had an edible quality, something I was proud of  in spite of my aloof young proto-hipster self, and that I treasured cos of how they looked as much as what they signified.

Anyway, Meghan got it right away and shot back an email with these attached…


We also mocked up what these could soon look like in Linked In and Google+


Dealing with Difficult Customers

I just facilitated a short communication strategies course for working professionals for a business training firm.

The second day was a dream with real discovery of attendees’ communicative bottlenecks, uncovering of Johari ‘blind spots’, and some real and actually quite thrilling transformation.

The first day was blighted by an attendee who, well … , we all breathed a sigh of relief the next day when the attendee didn’t show up. I have seldom seen such an extreme example of the Johari ‘turtle type’ (totally no interest in listening or sharing thereby being insulated from self-reflection and change).

This turtle type also helped to bring back to me a core realization in dealing with difficult people, be they customers, clients, students or anyone in a difficult communication context and this clarity became a central feature of input on the second day. It was particularly relevant to the customer-care angle, but true really of any situation. Primarily this concerns how poorly resolved confrontation can be reflected upon, learned from, and how it can form the basis for positive change.

Simply put, this is the goal of a harmonious solution as opposed to the merely victorious. In any situation that involves confrontational communication, should we not seek the best solution for the other, not one’s self? It sounds obvious, but resisting at some level the urge to fight back or score points is a true art. This may mean giving in to the others demand, or it may mean compromise, it may mean agreeing to disagree, or it may mean showing the other that they are mistaken without achieving this with the glee of cruelty or condescension.

The key here is how to reflect on confrontation that has been unsatisfactorily resolved. How to learn from this and not merely brood. The tendency is to blame the other (which may or may not be justified), and to think about how we could have been the victor, or at least how we could have scored that brilliant parting shot. This creates a vicious circle of resentment and further negativity.

What if we channel that energy into considering how we could have changed our behaviour to make the other party happier with the outcome (compromising without undermining our basic values or ‘mission’ of course). This helps us to ‘see’ ourselves, and is not just a matter of what we may have said differently, but how we could have smiled, stood, sat, intoned.

This reflection pulls the carpet from under our anger and resentment, allows us to consider that there may indeed be ‘their view, my view and the right view’, focusses our imagination away from reframing one inharmonious solution into another, and instead provides learning opportunity, chance for incremental change and a more useful frame to access next time around.

I am sure this is all NLP 101, but only became clear to me, and my workshop attendees, yesterday. And by the way, what should I have changed in my behaviour with our ‘turtle’? I honestly have no idea with this one. I don’t think I could. However, I’m still pondering how… rather than wasting my energies searching for that dazzling but futile ‘what-if’ parting shot.

The Beauty and Absurdity of Duolingo

Fascinating talk by Luis von Ahn on TED.

I had no idea about the scope of CAPTCHA, or rather RECAPTCHA, in helping to interpret text in printed sources too old for Optical Character Recognition to accurately decipher. So all the time wasted typing in those wobbly words presented to you when trying to authenticate something on facebook et al is actually contributing to a collaborative interpretation of text in old sources beyond the scope of OCR and that actually requires the human touch. And makes use of all the lost time involved in typing in those authentifications. Incredible.

The concept is being reapplied to language translation in a soon to be launched site, Duolingo (currently beta) with the idea that automated translation of written language (yes, we are taking language here, not old print copy) is good, but not that good. The tech, so Luis explains, is fifteen to twenty years away from pragmatic accuracy. And so ‘recapchta’ will manifest in this new site launch that will help people learn languages via the process of translation. In the process the submitted translations, or rather an algorithmic amalgam of these translations, will help to ‘translate’ the as yet untranslated vastness of the www. The claim is that the learner site will both teach learners language AND translate the web. Luis shows a translation via beginner learners using the pre-launched beta site that pretty much matches that of a professional translation. Amazing.

Now note that this does not mean that any one beginner learner can match that of a professional translator, but that, as with the old print interpreting RECAPTCHA process, the code can amalgamate a group response to frame the final attempted translation. This in itself is beautiful coding and worthy of much praise.

But as a language-learning approach? Luis claims that the learners of the test beta site ‘learn it as well as the leading language learning software.’ Meaning Rosetta Stone. If you are not familiar with Rosetta Stone, it certainly is the leading software in terms of sales and marketing. Pedagogically it is bog-standard communicative language teaching sans teacher. Take any good human-taught language teaching course from, say, fifteen years ago and it attempts to model the experience. So to claim to rival Rosetta Stone is of interest, but hardly a breakthrough in language pedagogy.

The claim is also blissfully free of real evidence or citation. It’s a TED talk.

In 1855 Pedro Carolino’s published a translation-based textbook English as She is Spoke, an early hint at the perils of approaching language pedagogy via translation, and the grammar- translation method as a workable methodology was thoroughly discredited in the 1950s. It did suit and benefit some learners, but the vast many failed to learn during the long hegemony of the approach.

Now Luis is one smart cookie. His endeavor is certainly creative and possibly noble, but as far as learning is concerned it smacks of the hubris of techy triumphalism and ignores the last forty years of applied-linguistic and pedagogical research. His loudly applauded claims that the ‘business model’ is sound in that it is $500 cheaper than a Rosetta Stone course is laudable in that Rosetta Stone is very much an emperor with no clothes – or rather all clothes and no emperor. But there is so much more to actual language teaching that a) Rosetta Stone and b) tech in general…as yet.

Online or computer-based language learning has to date never come close to what can be experienced in a good language teacher’s classroom. Luis ‘business model’ can be perhaps applauded if Rosetta Stone was the only alternative. But it is not. The human experience is still vital to learning a language. As with Luis’ prediction that accurate automated translation is fifteen to twenty years away, it would seem that at least the same would apply to online, non teacher-based language teaching.

As Mark Twain said of English as She is Wrote, ‘Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect.’ We’ll see how this applies to Duolingo. Though I must admit, it does sound like fun.

Do teachers act on the findings of educational research?

Do teachers act on the findings of educational research?

The divide between research and application was brought home to me recently in a 2 day meeting in which a discussion of the role of grammar played a large role.

On the flight I lapped up parts two and three of Ellis, only to find that many of the issues raised were irrelevant to the practical nature of what we were discussing – a revision of a coursebook series. Ellis’s excellent discussion of the factors affecting the learnability of grammatical structures that had seemed so me, while on the plane, so central to what needed to be at the heart of the meeting, dissolved rapidly once we got down to business. There were too many debatable points – to many tastes to satisfy, and too many other considerations weighing down the agenda.

The final stage of ‘SLA Research and Language Teaching’ is vague, with no real workable conclusion drawn. The most frustrating thing throughout is the rather global use of the term ‘teacher’ which I would suggest could be more stratified.

Certainly I have found that most teachers do not actively seek out research – they would rather spend valuable time seeking tasks and activities and resources. But I think Widdowson’s talk of ‘deep mistrust’ is also overstating the case. It’s more a question of prioritizing time use.

What is perhaps missed is that between the researchers and the ‘teachers’ there is a middle ground of roles that, while still in the teacher camp, can and actually do serve to connect the two poles a little. That is the strata of teacher trainers, materials writers and editors, resource and methodology book writers and department managers not too handcuffed by admin. Along with this are the teachers whose articles regularly appear in more practical journals and blogs. And I think that this is where the findings of academic research do filter through. And it is perhaps this group to whom researchers should aim and target their findings.

So teachers may not always have a clear view of where an activity has come form – but the coursebook writer probably has, or the observer giving class feedback, or the trainer guiding the teacher in a certain direction. For example, I was a couple of years into teaching before I heard the term PPP (practice, present, produce long since out of fashion in theoryland), but the coursebooks I had been using would have all too well represented the approach in my lessons. I am brought to mind of Michael Lewis statement that he was ‘pissed off’ because the lexical approach was not filtering through. That is probably true if you interviewed most teachers who would not have read the main books on the subject, but are likely familiar to the collocation exercises that have become increasingly abundant in teaching materials.

It is filtering through even if that filtering includes dilution.

At the same time a number of teachers do attend conferences. More often that not it is the academics who have the plenary presentations. But I think there is an expectation on the part of teachers that they will be the ‘servicers’ of academic research via prescribed approaches represented in materials.

With regard to action research, there will always be a small core of teachers who see this as a natural part of their classroom role – but it won’t come out of nowhere and here I see the department head role as being vital to promoting small scale action research projects, stimulating interest and facilitating meetings to discuss findings and implications.

Canadian Educational Spending within US Context

Canada’s primary market, Ontario, would rank 13th in terms of government educational spending if it were a US state. Canada as a whole would rank third after California and New York.