We Interrupt this Broadcast…

I recently attended an afternoon of talks at UCC, given by visiting speakers Lee Campbell and Erika Piazzoli, which centered around teaching methodologies for language classes.

Campbell’s interest and research into teaching was partly inspired by his use of Skype and Textwall in EFL classes – which created a different interactivity, where participation was boosted by a virtual wall – and brought him to investigate into ‘performance’ in teaching. The general idea is to create contexts in which the students have to perform in role-play, using what they should have acquired so far in the course. One example is a fake speed-dating session, where participants have to create a new identity for themselves and rate each other. This, and other scenarios, is an alternative route to achieving the usual competencies as laid out in the lesson plan, rather than forming any new skills as such. In fact, as he went on to talk about the liminality achieved in the classroom, through the use of technology and performance, it struck me the extent to which these methods were far out on the orbit of the final marking and grading. Especially speaking of ‘interruption’ – deliberately causing some kind of unexpected scene in the classroom, in the hope that the students are forced to ‘think on their feet’ – the line between what is real and what is a game become blurred, as well as the line between performance and competence. What a great idea – a transcendence of the unquestioned roles of teacher and student, where both collaborate to a sense of theatre in aid of learning.

All through Campbell’s talk I was waiting for a recognition of transactional theory, or some off-shoot of it, where it is often posed that even in our native language we are constantly performing or playing games with each-other. Indeed, Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’ (from his Philosophical Investigations) were a significant precursor to this idea and (arguably) the subsequent disciplines based upon it. To interpret Wittgenstein: our verbal expressions are not ultimately reducible to their literal meanings but are clues to the nature of the surrounding contexts in which they are embedded, or, in other words, the games in which they are only a partial element. As such, the nature of language is better understood as convention rather than something which can be reduced to a calculus. Despite this and a whole delta of similar ideas in the 20th century regarding language and its acquisition, we are still gripped by the idea of the calculus – that language is defined by its theoretical components and hence must be mastered before any meaningful application is to take place. Perhaps instead the theoretical components should be viewed as tools to be applied to situations, scenarios, or games in which we will really learn something. Unfortunately, this ‘something’ (if we imagine it as a singular thing) cannot be codified as easily as the tools by which its acquired, hence our obsession with theory and the recognition that it has been ‘understood’ (or, in Wittgenstein’s own example – that the student can ‘continue the series’ once shown).

Here is an interesting video I came across recently, which offers a more lucid illustration (albeit a particular interpretation) of Wittgenstein’s thought from this period. All of the video is good, but particularly pertinent from 3:58 on:

A methodology like that described by Campbell is interesting because it not only acknowledges the importance of performance and games in the learning of language, but through staged interruptions attempts to further blur the difference between performance and reality – coaxing the student into a ‘real’ scenario where they will have to interact in the language. It is also interesting because it was inspired by the use of technology, which created a kind of detachment in the participants, allowing them to more easily shed their student-roles and enter a liminal state in which they will more willingly and opportunistically use what they have learnt so far.
In earlier posts here, there are similar references to students leaving their typical student roles for something more involved and yet detached – for example creative projects which utilise current music technology and challenge the student to use what they have learnt. ‘Detached’ – because the student generally is required to detach from their usual setting of reading music and ‘getting it right’ to creating something (anything!) – a detachment which is aided perhaps by the game-like interaction of various web technologies. ‘More involved’ – because the student is literally more involved in their own musical education by creating their own learning content and playing through their own creative projects. Collaboration figured highly in my own investigation, in the form of collaborative composition between teacher and student,
Also similar to Campbell, the effect of the technology was enough for me to realise fully that there are other ways to teach. This is testament to the ‘Transformative’ power of technology in teaching – a term important in my own MA thesis from last year, part of which you can view here. However, the technology, like the rules, is yet another set of tools for us to use which by no means encompass what we (as teachers and students) are striving towards.

Here’s a beautiful talk, given by celebrated bassist Victor Wooten, where he discusses music as a language, and how both are acquired compared to how they are theoretically described:

To sum up – I was interested and inspired by what Campbell had to say because I felt it resonated so well with what I have discovered in my own research, despite the differences in context or discipline. There seems to be a trend in thought around education, which is at least partly inspired by the affordances offered by technology, that acknowledges the importance of interactivity and creativity. The idea of a preformed ideal of the perfect state of knowledge or competency displayed by a student in a given field is increasingly under scrutiny as the importance of the creative force in education is better recognised. It may be that advances in technology are accidental to a more broad trend in thought, bringing us out of the darkness of the Enlightenment period (sorry! it was too good a paradox to ignore), but maybe it is how we use the technology which illustrates this better than the technology itself. When discussing ideas like these with a friend of mine involved in business start-ups he rightly summed up a new and important responsibility of the music teacher – to ‘Understand the Shift’ – this is imperative, on a whole bunch of levels!

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