Mar 05 2014
Hi, my name’s Tobias and I’m the new English tutor here at Emerson Willard. My job is mostly to extend students’ writing ability and go beyond what they learned in the primary course. By now they hopefully have a functional level of spelling and grammar and so I focus on a combination of revising these basics to find problem areas, and trying to get the students to write. That second part is actually most of the program.
I learned to be an English teacher in Prague, at the Edua Languages TEFL course. My trainer there, an American, was talking about the basic approach required to help people learn English. Most of his student teachers were already university graduates, and some of them even had master’s degrees in certain disciplines, and so most of us thought of ourselves as able speakers and writers of academic English already. But John asked us, “If you were a baseball coach, would you get up in front of your team and say ‘Look how many home-runs I can hit?’ Or would you try and get the players swinging the bat for themselves?”
Most of the task of being an English teacher was eliciting content from the students, while maintaining an actual language goal in mind for them to develop. Maybe that day you wanted to work with them on the difference between “had had” and “had,” or difficult verb tenses like “will have been.” Whatever it was, the important thing was being able to engage the students and get them thinking about the language goals you had for them.
After gaining my qualification as an English teacher I promptly went on to never work as a TEFL teacher, ever again. I’d given several practice lessons throughout the course of the four week program in order to gain my qualification, but after that I eventually left the country and came back to New Zealand. Apart from that brief stint in the TEFL world, I’ve also worked as a physics demonstrator and a private tutor for university students. As a physics demonstrator, my job was to show university physics students how to perform experiments and then to help them when they had trouble and mark their work when it was done. As a private tutor I spent most of my time with students from Saudi Arabia, going over their written essays and finding the obvious mistakes and opportunities for stylistic improvements, while at the same time helping them with whatever course material they were struggling with. This often involved taking the subject matter from their prescribed texts and processing it into bite sized chunks to help their comprehension during test preparation.
In all of this and the course of my own academic studies, I’ve found that the most powerful revision and memorization tool is the essay. The process of writing an essay requires not only the recall but the organization of a disparate array of facts and concepts to form a coherent and easily readable argument. The essayist must take items scattered throughout their conceptual space and render them into a one dimensional string, putting one word and one paragraph after another. At the same time they have to exercise theory of mind, and understand how the reader will approach the text they’re creating, how to make it engaging and comprehensible. They need not only to present the facts but get a point across, and there are few other techniques which bear these complementary features.
This isn’t just my hunch, either. A 2011 study, published in the journal Science showed that using essays as a form of retrieval practice was one of the strongest techniques for encouraging the memorization of information, out-performing rote memorization or more modern techniques such as mind-maps. This process required that students write an essay based on material they had learned and that in the act of writing they attempted to recall what they had studied, rather than looking it up again. This meant the essay writing acted as a form of retrieval practice, and the process of manipulating the information as well as actively recalling it helped to cement the information in the learners’ brains while also establishing rich connections to multiple areas due to the necessity of fitting the information into a logically structured text. This wasn’t limited to the arts, either, as the original study was carried out with students a week after reading brief passages about scientific concepts.
The surprising applicability of tools from the English department in studying scientific topics is of particular interest to me. My academic history covers a wide range of topics but right now I’m working on a degree in English and mathematics. The double major isn’t just because I’m a glutton for punishment but because the interdisciplinary approach has always been attractive to me. The areas that interest me the most are the so-called formal sciences, the overlapping set of disciplines including linguistics, mathematics and philosophy from which more specialized areas are developed. At the core of all this are the questions of how information works, how it can be communicated and how it is understood, from which such disparate areas of study as psychology, computer science, physics, and language all draw much of their theoretical underpinnings. Some of the deepest and most intractable unexplained problems in science today are the questions of consciousness, cosmology and comprehensibility. In short, what is the mind, why is there anything and why does any of it seem to make sense? These questions, esoteric as they may seem, are all related by concepts drawn from areas such as information theory and abstract mathematics, and the most recent and promising answers to many of them come at times from unexpected quarters. The current consensus in physics, for instance, is moving towards the ideas of the “mathematical universe,” the universe as an abstract mathematical object, and the holographic principle, the idea that our apparently three dimensional world is really the projection of a two dimensional space.
These developments are as exciting as they are intriguing, and I hope to be able to convey something of my passion for knowledge to my students. Another interesting development is that student-directed learning is one of the most powerful educational paradigms, in that when allowed to direct their own course of study students tend to learn more than when a course is imposed upon them from above. While my approach involves a fair amount of simply pushing the student to achieve a greater level of understanding and fluency in their writing, I also hope to be able to engage students’ interests from a wide range of subject areas and find topics which appeal to them, using the process of learning to write as an opportunity to learn about other concepts as well.