Offsite

I have learnt a new word. A noun. Offsite. As in, hey everybody, good news! next week we’ll be holding an offsite.1167px-Giovanni_Bellini_-_Saint_Francis_in_the_Desert_-_Google_Art_Project

If you work for a company that likes to think in units of ‘team’, the chances are you will have experienced, or been grimly threatened with, an offsite. If you were lucky, it was a bit of go-karting or paintballing, the chance to let off some steam and settle some scores in a neutral environment. If you were unlucky, your manager will have taken time and trouble to think about how best to optimise the take-homes, and come up with some group puzzle-solving, with perhaps a trust fall and a round of Kumbaya.

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Giovanni Bellini – St. Francis, on an offsite

Trust fall is also new to me. Someone I know – actually, the person who taught me the term offsite – told me that on one occasion she was expected, in concert with her team, to catch one of their team mates from a height of a couple of metres. This is the trust fall. She said that it was problematic. They caught him all right, just a bit of a splatter of limbs, a few bruises; but it might have been better, she argued, to have a female member doing the falling and more male members doing the catching. They suffered no permanent damage, but the team suffered a mild degree of team trauma (team trauma is a term of my own).

The problem is that team spirit, in the words of Steve Archibald (of Spurs and Barcelona), is something only glimpsed in the aftermath of victory. Things usually get done just fine, even if nobody likes anybody else. And, conversely, white-water rafting will be more fun – and more team will seem to be built – with people you already like.

But what do I know? My only ever offsite was a jolly to Thorpe Park theme park. We had strawberries and champagne, and then made ourselves sick on the rides. It didn’t beat any team-working ethics into us (I can barely remember who I went with), but it was OK. We were, after all, off site.

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Sticking to the Script

We sometimes like to get our students to learn scripts. These could be simple functional scripts covering day-to-day needs (at the carwash, at the fishmonger, on the funicular railway etc.), or they could be more professionally oriented, more loosely arranged, more a sequence of prompts than a script to be memorised. But learning a script generally feels like sound practice, building a little trellis around which we can drape relevant functional language.

And social psychology would seem to bear this out. Ellen Langer and Robert Abelson conducted a series of experiments in the 1970s the results of which seemed to indicate that we all use scripts, all the time, whether conversationally or behaviourally, or, indeed, professionally.

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We interact according to stereotyped event sequences.  The customer service operative who has a prepared script is only a formalised version of what we do in every workplace. While we like to think of ourselves as spontaneous conversationalists, much of our life is in fact spent selecting and rehearsing pre-existing scripts.

Using a script can be both liberating (it is quick, it is efficient, it is often effective) and limiting: limiting, because grappling on the margins of our scripts is how we carve out fresh scripts, and how, just occasionally, we make new discoveries, however humble.

It can also be perilous when an interaction veers off script. Hopping from one agreed and scripted interaction (talking about the weather, for example, or the weekend on a Monday morning) to a wholly different one (opening up about a pet bereavement, say, or episodes of mental illness) can be very destabilising. Still more so for a non-native speaker, when not only the emotional or social form is disjunctive, but also the vocabulary sets used to frame that form. Each time we change script, we force students to call fresh communicative sub-routines.

And so while in this enlarged sense, I use scripts all the time in class – I very often tell the same stories, for example or I exploit material in the same way, or I set up activities fully knowing the stages they will go through, the problems that will arise, and the byways that we might or might not take – going off script creates sometimes the most memorable, sometimes the most challenging, and not infrequently the most incomprehensible segment of any given lesson.

Which leads me on to the pleasures of incomprehension, but to discuss that here would mean veering off script, so I will leave it for another post.

Collaborative Overload

I like to see my students quietly getting on with a bit of work. Perhaps looking in a dictionary from time to time. Making a few notes. Looking out of the window. These all strike me as probable signs of productivity.

And signs, too, that I am successfully managing their collaborative overload, a term I am delighted to have learnt from the Harvard Business Review.

Various bits of ‘research’ have determined that the emphasis on collaboration and teamwork in organisations has reached a zone of insanity (I paraphrase) wherein workers are forced against their will to spend the majority of their time interacting with their co-workers. The more you interact, of course, the less you actually do, and, if you are an introvert, the more you suffer.

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It is a bad business probably signalling the end times. I speak from experience. Teachers of English as a foreign language are especially prey to the fallacy that students must be engaging with each other in order to be learning a language. We put them in pairs and small groups (we love small groups) and get them chatting and worry if they don’t chat enough. But if I’m honest, all this runs directly counter to my experience of language-learning, where a significant proportion of my time was time spent alone – reading, memorising, processing, writing, even drilling myself on pronunciation. For adults, learning a language, perhaps counter-intuitively, is not a particularly social practice.

Or perhaps I just think so because I have strong (off the scale?) introversive tendencies. Another article I read yesterday suggested that introverted high-school teachers are far more likely to quit the profession than their extroverted colleagues, because, very reasonably, they can’t stand how much time they have to actually spend with other people, not so much in class (which, in fairness, they signed up for), but between classes – the emphasis on collaboration and teams outside the classroom is denying them the time they need to recharge.

For a social species, I am forced to conclude, we have a strong line in misanthropy.

Twilight at the Museum

Tonight is the annual Twilight at the Museums, where the consortium of Cambridge museums stays open to the witching hour of, um, half past seven.

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Never mind. It is a nice idea, a little transgressive (museums are day-time places designed for rational enquiry), and a little magical (museums are repositories of significant objects in talismanic arrangements which, viewed by night, etc. etc.).

And what better emblem of this marriage of the rational and the arcane, the cerebral and the eerie, than William Herschel’s telescope, at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. 

William Herschel was the great Germano-British astronomer (and musician – he was in his youth a notable composer and performer on the oboe) who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781. He also identified various of the clouds of dust in the Messier catalogue as star clusters, discovered in turn over 2,400 deep-sky objects which he identified as ‘nebulae’ (many of which would later and more properly be identified as galaxies by Edwin Hubble), made a systematic catalogue of binary stars, and discovered various small moons of Saturn and Uranus.

He also designed and made his own telescopes, so-called Herschelian telescopes, over four hundred of them, the largest with a forty-foot focal length and a 49.5 inch primary mirror. He gave one of his creations to his sister, Caroline, and she went on to discover various heavenly bodies, notably eight comets.

In truth, Hershel’s connection with Cambridge was nodding at best. He was born in Hanover, lived in Bath, and died in Slough. However, it was the acquaintance of a former professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, the Rev. John Michell, made through their shared musical interests, which stimulated his enthusiasm in astronomy. And the Whipple has one of his telescopes. So I’m claiming him.

Getting Wrong

I have been known on occasion to get it wrong. As a teacher, I mean, not as a human. Humans always get it wrong. Teachers, having super-human attributes, only sometimes get it wrong. They give exercises that are too hard, or too easy; they confuse students with over-complex tasks and instructions; they provide too much information, or too little; they bore their students, or terrify them, or forget to show up, or wrap up early. And so on.

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The root of much of our error is level. Level is a messy business, hard to define. The Common European Framework (B2, C1, A2 etc.) is so broad as to be almost an admission that greater precision is impossible. Experienced teachers (and at OISE we are all hyper-experienced, it goes without saying) can match students to a band, usually by a process known to psychologists as intensity matching. Intensity matching allows us to compare such disparate phenomena as crime and colours (in psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s words, ‘if crimes were colours, murder would be a deeper shade of red than theft’), or pleasure and volume – experimenters have asked subjects to raise volume knobs according to their estimation of the pleasure they would get from eating various foods, for instance.

Intensity matching is what psychologists refer to as a System 1 operation. The capacity to match intensity over a spectrum of different things is intuitive, automatic. Thus in assessing level we are falling back upon our experience, our intuitions of our students; we pick up on tiny signals and amplify them. We know, or think we know, what are students are capable of or not capable of.

But to repeat, we get it wrong. The only hope, in our fallen state, is that from time to time we can salvage something of value from the wreck of a lesson – a general rule, a nugget of vocabulary, a sense of what remains to be done. Or an understanding, on the part of students, of what a System 1 operation looks like when, as so often, it goes wrong.

Wasting Time

I wonder how much time I spend these days not wiping the board? Latterly, everything is projected in a sort of modern-day clanking smoking Heath-Robinson technical adventure, and I haven’t written on the board in over a year (give or take the odd illegible scribbled table or timeline). So, no writing, no wiping off. Time saved.

But how much time? I was watching a snippet of the movie Up in the Air with my students earlier in the week, in which George Clooney has perfected his packing and airport drills. When his new partner arrives with luggage to check, he asks her how much time she thinks it takes to check a bag. She says, five or ten minutes. No, he replies, it takes thirty-five minutes, and if you fly 270 days in the year as he does, that adds up to roughly 160 hours, or seven days, give or take. Seven days spent checking luggage.

 

The average American, I read on the Internet, spends six months of his or her life waiting at traffic lights. Here in Britain we spend 40,000 minutes, or twenty-seven days of our life, waiting for trains or buses (which doesn’t seem that bad, in fact) and six months standing in queues. I have no idea how long my students spend rummaging through the piles of dog-eared papers we keep throwing at them, but it’s a lot.

So, I am striking off in the opposite direction. Not wiping the board saves me, I estimate, 45 seconds per lesson, which at a couple of lessons a day works out as, very roughly, six hours a year.

That’s six fat hours per annum I can spend doing other things. Logging into and out of computers, perhaps. Or more photocopying. There’s never enough time for all the photocopying I want to do.

Triphthongs

Cambridge, we learn, is not quite as posh as we thought. The University, that is, not the town. The town is more or less the standard mix of the Bash Street Kids up one end and Walter’s softies down the other. But the University has long been a finishing school for Lord Snooty and his fellow assorted toffs and toffettes.

No longer, though. The university now takes over 60% of its undergraduates from non-public schools. This places it well down the list of public-school-heavy educational establishments, behind Oxford (needless to say), Durham and Bristol, among others.

Since public (i.e. private) schools currently educate an estimated 7% of our youth, and 14% of our sixth-formers, this does not represent a crisis for privilege, exactly (and anyway, there’s always the Royal College of Music or the Royal Agricultural College if all else fails). But it does mean that we’ll be hearing fewer triphthongs when we’re out and about.

A debate rages on the Internet as to whether English is a language of triphthongs or only of diphthongs. A diphthong, as my students are only too well aware, is an elision of two vowel sounds; unlike a pure vowel sound, diphthongs require a considerable movement of the tongue and other mouth parts to produce. Thus the vowel sound in high is really a movement from /a/ to /i/, or the sound in toy is a movement from /o/ to /i/, and so on.

A triphthong (if it exists) is a more acrobatic version of the diphthong, a three-way movement of tongue and jaw and lips and the rest. But does it in fact exist in English? Some will tell you that the vowel cluster in words like power or idea or fewer are essentially triphthongs; others (probably Americans) will classify the words as merely polysyllabic.

But it all depends what you mean by English. There is a version of English, now sadly somewhat endangered, favoured by the cream of public-school-educated twittery, which will essentially lose the intrusive /w/ sound in power (although, is it intrusive if it is written into the word?) and string out the vowels like the lingering drift of a fine wine. Pronounced thus, flower power would amalgamate into two extraordinarily long and clotted syllables.

We should be able to look to poetry for some help here. What poets make rhyme, or scan, tells us a lot about how they might have expected to pronounce them. Thus Keats’s ‘but on the viewless wings of Poesy’ must separate out the vowel sounds in Poesy if it is to respect the metrical scheme of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Keats was, by Lord Byron’s account, a bit of a barrow boy, so that makes sense. On the other hand, he was also a Romantic Poet (i.e. a bit of a weed), thus flower in ‘I cannot see what flowers are at my feet’ must be triphthongised, to some extent, if you are going to squeeze it into the line.

The jury is out, then. Not that anyone is judging you on how you speak, of course.