Tasks, projects, tramas, grammar teaching
You have always been an advocate for experiential learning. That means "task-based". But there seems to be confusion about what a "task" is.
Nobody wants to be seen as being behind the times, so there are textbook writers and linguists who have adopted the term for almost any kind of learning activity they write about. But the use of "task" to label an exercise, however good, is a corruption of its original meaning. A task focuses on solving a real problem through language. Once shared and understood by all the participants, a good task creates spaces -for paying attention to content, to form, for language memorization, for motivation, for oral interaction, for personal rhythm, for silence, ...
There was a poem that you sometimes used. We loved it. Was that a task?
I think I know which poem you mean, Frank. And yes. I also loved it and used it as a warm-up in many courses. It's the beginning of a poem by DH Lawrence.
We read it together, but I had previously blanked one word and then asked students to provide their own personal solution for that blank. It went like this:
There is no point in _______
unless it absorbs you
like an absorbing game.
If it doesn't absorb you
if it's never any fun,
don't do it.
When a man goes into his _______
he is alive like a tree in Spring,
he is living, not merely _______.
Each student then recited the poem aloud using their own word for that space. "There is no point in learning ⁄ dreaming ⁄ reading ⁄ living ⁄ loving, teaching..." The solutions were unique and almost endless. There was magic in that with each new word the meaning of the poem as a whole changed and each student recited it aloud as if s⁄he had written it him⁄herself. Needless to say that after a few turns everybody knew the poem and all the expressions it contained by heart, which was also a non-declared objective of the task.
A project is a cluster, a sequence of tasks?
Not quite. Sequence is only one aspect. A novel is not just a collection of episodes. There is something that binds them together, that gives them meaning. And there is a way and a rhythm in linking one to another. Each step in a project brings in a series of tasks, of problems that need to be solved through the use of the language. Whereas tasks are usually teacher-initiated, a project is born from the class as a whole. It requires the cooperation of all the students.
In a short exercise, even in a task, I feel in control. In a longer, student-participated sequence I'm afraid I may lose it.
When you use your wireless mouse or keyboard, change channels on your TV, or when your kid operates a car by remote control, neither he nor you are visibly connected to the machine. It's simply a more sophisticated kind of interaction.
The only tricky aspect is how we turn the class from a conglomerate of people and things into a "system" -creating the right atmosphere and instilling the energy that will make the project take off. Remember that a system is a live entity, much more than the sum of its components. Once generated, all the elements interact, consciously or unconsciously. Any action from you on one of them will affect the whole. It soon becomes second-nature to the teacher to move from direct to indirect control as circumstances demand.
Aren't these difficult concepts and practices?
Not at all, Laura. You simply change your attitude from "teaching" to "doing" or "doing with". That's all. The rest follows. "Simple", however, does not describe the richness of the process and of the effects that follow.
You've also written about "tramas". What's the difference between "Project Work" and "tramas"?
"Tramas" is an almost untranslatable word. It speaks of tapestry, but also of conspiracy, of fellowship, of a canvas on which you paint things, of hard work, ... You say "trama" with a smile and a wink of the eye. As a concept it contained "Project Work" and it was a more comprehensive term to describe a wider reality of current practices in autonomous learning that would not easily be classified as "projects". An added bonus: there was little danger that a publisher picked it up as a poor marketing resource for promoting a traditional textbook, as had happened with Project Work!
Yes, we loved the clarity of this metaphor when you explained it, but it never found much favour.
True, but that was not the point. It was not a methodological recipe but a theoretical model that explained to me what was behind a series of seemingly unrelated experiences happening all over, from Japan to Brazil, Copenhagen or Barcelona, mostly in the areas of autonomous and cooperative learning. I never promoted the term actively. It was a tool. It answered my own questions and helped me analyze certain new developments. That's all I wanted.
Some people are afraid of projects. Others believe that they are fun but do not help language learning much.
If the project is chaos, I would agree with this. But a real project is a negotiated trama. A highly organised form of class, lesson and group management. It's not just moving around and doing things in group. An organised project requires "lots" of input, whether reading or listening, "lots" of output, both oral and written, and this means "lots" of language processing and a hundred times more involvement than in a traditional teacher-fronted class.
Not every teacher can do it.
Again, who says this? All that's necessary is a few calluses on your hands, taking risks and hard work. It cannot be done from the beginning -even in the best circumstances we all develop slowly. We have all started our teaching doing explicit grammar most of the time and following the textbook line by line. Let's not forget that a grammar-based class can be lots of fun. Somewhere I may still keep the old flashcards and prompts I made for my first grammar-based stories eons ago. Some teachers choose to stay there. Some choose to develop other abilities and forms of interaction.
So, how much grammar?
Focus on form is important, and there must be space for it, but not all the time. No more than necessary for the task we're doing. When we insist on explaining English reported speech (3 types + exceptions) or conditionals chapter and verse for weeks, rather than simply use them within a task, we interfere with what is mostly a simple transfer process from our own Latin languages. The learner gets confused with too much unnecessary conceptualisation. Why cut down the whole forest when you need just a few leaves? Better focus on those. Quite often the task grows and the needs for grammar, lexis, style get more complex. Then we supply whatever is necessary for the task in hand.