The Five Pillars of Language Evolution – and Why we Mustn’t Neglect them

I’m privileged to say that I’m part of a team of lecturers who is qualifying the first generation of bilingual education professionals according to the demands of recent legislation – yet to be approved – recommended by the National Education Council of Brazil. In this 120h course, our aim is to discuss important subjects about bilingualism, bilingual education, methodology, curriculum, and assessment. I teach Language and Cognition and my very first lesson starts with a quote by Dan Everett:

The greatest technological breakthrough of human beings is language

Dan Everett, TEDx Talk

I thought this would be a fitting start for my group of eager students to (re)consider for a moment the magnitude of the work they do. It also helps everyone rethink the role of language in society and how it is intrinsically connected to how we, humans, have evolved and become more intelligent than any other being on this planet – at least according to our own appraisal.

This blog post looks at five pillars I focused on when teaching this lesson on Brain and Language Evolution. It assumes that there are 5 elements that cannot be dissociated from language learning and must not be neglected in language teaching, even though they might be misunderstood by students and, oftentimes, by teachers themselves. They are:

  1. Grammar
  2. Play
  3. Arts
  4. Storytelling
  5. Reading

History of Language and Brain Development

There are over 7000 languages on this planet. Some are dying out and are expected to become extinct in the next years. Many have already disappeared from the face of the earth. If you look at some of the proposed beliefs to explain our incredible linguistic diversity, you’re bound to come across the biblical passage about the The Tower of Babel and the idea that after the flood, Noah’s descendants became one people with one language who wanted to build a tower to touch the heavens. God decided to confuse their languages and spread them all over the planet.

However, the idea that languages were created – in a relatively short period of time – does not seem to hold water. If we analyze this claim by comparing the tree of languages to the evolutionary tree of life, we’ll find striking similarities. Languages seemed to have evolved just like how every being on this planet evolved from a common ancestor – languages may have evolved from more than one. We can posit that the current configuration of languages is precisely what we’d expect given enough time and geographical isolation – and specialization – according to Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Why have humans developed such incredible linguistic wealth? Why haven’t other animals accomplished this feat? Can we even say that they haven’t? I remember watching an episode of TV series Cosmos hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson on which bees can communicate to their peers with incredible accuracy how to get to a food source by walking in circles and waggling their body inside the hive for everyone to see.

Bees and humans are quite different, though. What about animals that are closer to us from an evolutionary perspective? If you think about other primates, you may want to analyze the interesting case of Kanzi the Bonobo who can use a limited version of sign language and visual cues (on a lexigram) to tell his caregiver Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh what he wants or feels. Most of what he can communicate, though, is connected to immediate needs like what he wants to eat or where he wants to go.

Even though animals can communicate, most linguists would agree that they do not have language. Language has different layers or spheres such as phonetics – human sounds, phonology – sounds of a particular language, morphology – word formation, syntax – phrase/sentence construction, semantics – meaning, pragmatics – meaning in context.

As a matter of fact, there’s evidence to suggest that the very first language homids had was sign language. Since great apes do not have a very sophisticated vocal tract, making them unable to vocalize a wide range of sounds, and based on observations of bonobos, gorilas, and chimpanzees, we can assume that these animals started communicating through body language.

Anthropological and archeological records seem to suggest that the first hominid to speak was Homo erectus. H. erectus has been until this day the longest-living hominid to walk the earth (2.1 million years ago to 300,000 years ago)  and has conquered many geographical locations on the globe (including Europe and Asia, extending on Homo habilis’ feat of conquering most of eastern and southern Africa)

H. erectus was an incredible tool makers and had to be able to build boats to populate the many islands in Indonesia where fossil records were found. The reason why researchers believe they were the first ones to speak is tied to the fact that tool-making technologies had to be passed on to the next generations and communication at sea required more sophisticated symbology. It is also important to note that bipedalism freed H. erectus hands to use gestures more often and that the need to hold tools such as spears may have prompted them to vocalize their warnings and wishes.

Now think for a second about the advantages of being able to communicate efficiently on a range of topics and somehow saving a record of what one has learned. Think about the ability to pass this knowledge to other members of the species. Can you imagine the social and cognitive gains? This knowledge and the skills acquired through this process for hundreds of thousands of years – possibly more than 2 million years – gave humans unprecedented benefits.

Nevertheless, something was needed for this to happen. There had to be something that made language accessible, something that gave it its foundation. This thing was grammar

1. Grammar

Any given “phrase” produced by animals does not seem to follow a logic. If we look at a bonobo trying to say or sign something, their constructions might be like:

me – banana – me – me – want – banana – me – banana – banana

On the other hand, humans have learned to code language using a sequence that makes sense and that combines different items into novel sentences that can be understood by others. If we think about it, grammar – or at least more advanced grammar – is an important foundation of language and what differentiates us from animals since it gives us rules of how to combine our symbols in a way that makes sense and can be replicated ad infinitum. This is the idea behind recursion.

Let’s not get into the debate over a single universal grammar – or if there are other types of grammar – but we can certainly claim that humans have reached an unparalled ability to combine linguistic elements into constructions that can be passed on to other generations and create ever more complex language.

As a teacher you must have heard the following from one – or more – of your students:

I just want conversation classes. I don’t want – or need – to learn grammar

Some student

The problem here is that grammar is embedded in language. We can’t really teach language without grammar. What we can do, however, is to not teach grammar explicitly. Your students might not benefit from knowing the names or labels ascribed to different verb tenses for instance. They do however need to know how to use them and understand that apparently, without grammar, there’s no language really.

2. Play

With many parents watching remote classes due to COVID-19, I get a comment quite a lot. They normally say something like:

That teacher only plays with the kids. He doesn’t teach them anything

Some parent

That really shows how little importance they give to such a fundamental activity in human history. We can see play even in other animals – I certainly witness it daily with my two cats – and that sure means something. Play is the basis of social interaction and serves as a simulation for a number of tasks animals will have to carry out throughout their lives in order to survive. Hunting, escaping from predation, testing their body limits, communicating and negotiating. In humans, as Maria Montessori put it:

Play is the work of the child

Maria Montessori

When we see kids playing, we realize that they’re sharing intention, communicating their feelings and thoughts, setting up goals and rules, engaging in physical and mental activity, collaborating and competing, analyzing others’ behavior, making predictions and decisions and more. As humans evolved, we can be sure that play played a vital role in how we developed language and, thus, our brains.

3. Arts

It is quite common to hear families who have children enrolled in an English course complain about how much kids draw, paint, and dance. If we think about how nature expresses intention and sends messages, we might think about how male peacocks show off their amazingly colored feathers to impress females, or how a type of puffer fish draws intricate circle patterns on the seafloor, or even how some whales sing, and other birds dance to attract the opposite sex or signal danger. Humans are no different. In fact, we have been able to take artistic expression to the next level.

Think about it. There’s evidence that humans could express themselves artistically for at least 40,000 years (cave paintings and sculptures). Many thousands of years before writing – which wasn’t invented until around 7,000 – 6,000 BC – humans used arts to record their stories, their knowledge, dreams, wishes, and daily lives.

Some experts claim that cave paintings, such as the ones found in Lascaux, France are so complex and intelligently designed that cavemen actually invented the movie theater. The projections on the wall as researchers enter the cave with a torch are most impressive and they move telling a story.

4. Storytelling

Again, telling stories doesn’t bode well with some school managers, teachers, and families. Sitting in circles and listening to the teacher read a big book and use props to bring a story to life seem like a waste of time to many. However, we must ask ourselves? How were humans able to secure language from generation to generation without a writing system?

H. sapiens, for instance, is believed to have been around for at least 200,000 years – maybe up to 400,000 years. That means that for the better part of our time on this planet, we couldn’t have kept language alive except for speaking it, and storytelling and mythology certainly played a role.

Gathering around the fire to exchange stories about the day, to tell someone about a new location with fresh fruit, to plan how to get a mammoth the next day, or to wonder about the stars and how it all started gave humans the ability to learn socially like no other animal. It created culture and shared values that allowed us to accumulate knowledge like never before. Arts and storytelling are fundamental mechanisms through which humans have explored and surpassed their creative capacity and further developed language.

5. Reading

I once watched an interview given by Carl Sagan in which he said that reading a book was like having a conversation with people from past centuries, dead for even thousands of years. Once humans were able to write down their ideas, we started building on the experience of others and our shared knowledge grew exponentially.

We can learn languages by reading them. Experts today might not know what some languages sounded like but they have deciphered their secrets and can translate texts in Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, Latin, Old Aramaic, Old Norse and other dead languages. We can also learn about how people taught and learned languages many years ago.

Literacy certainly develops cognition as well. It gives humans access to a wealth of knowledge and the capacity to understand symbology and develop abstract thinking to unprecedented levels. Extensive reading, for example, is connected with benefits that surpass students’ reading ability. It’s also related to increasing vocabulary, developing writing, and improving oral fluency.

Conclusion

Humans are animals. We’re primates and we’ve evolved from a common ape ancestor. As any other animal, our survival depended on some key elements that brought us here today. Moving, hunting, learning quickly from nature, passing on new knowledge to other members of our tribe, building knowledge collectively, creating culture – at least in our case. Our unmatched ability to communicate gave us the edge over other animals. Without language, it’s safe to assume that we wouldn’t have gotten this far.

Any educational system or – more specifically – language course that neglects the pillars on which we were able to build a solid foundation to evolve is deeply misguided. We must strike a balance between novel demands and base our teaching and learning on what has helped us evolve.

There is no language without grammar. Let your students understand that. Tell them that grammar is what allows humans to construct sentences and talk to one another through shared rules at a highly complex level.

Kids – and adults alike – need play to simulate real-life situations, learn to collaborate, set goals, rules, and develop empathy. Games require focus, negotiation skills, they’re engaging and memorable. Let’s use them more often.

Last I checked, teaching English fell under the category of language arts. Despite the movement pushing a STEM-oriented curriculum, we need to make sure schools put the “A” back where it belongs. Particularly for YLEs, when literacy is still being developed, we should see more music, drawing, painting, and acting in classes.

Storytelling has been responsible for keeping language and culture alive. We connect through stories. We relate to the characters and we learn from them. One of the most pleasing human endeavors is to gather around a fire or in a room and listen to funny, touching, fantastic stories.

Reading is a powerful tool. Sticking to the books without resorting to tales, novels, poems – literature in general – means missing an opportunity. Students can benefit a great deal from reading fiction and non-fiction books, blogs, magazines and the like.

It seems to me that these five pillars have given our species the key to unlock our cognitive potential like no other animal. We must embrace them as educators and reflect what they can tell us about who are and what it means to be human. Language is really a tool that allows us to see, interact with, and understand the world. It’s our most powerful weapon. Just think about major setbacks in our History. Authorities banning play, burning books, alienating the masses through language, censoring arts. When we get away from those pillars, apparently that’s when things are going wrong.

References

Corballis, M. C. (2002). From hand to mouth: The origins of language. Princeton University Press.

Everett, D. (2017). How language began: The story of humanity’s greatest invention. Profile Books.

Howard-Jones, P. (2018). Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How You Got To Be So Smart... Routledge.

Schoenemann, P.T. (2012)Evolution of brain and language IN: HOFMAN, M. A., FALK, D. (Eds). Progress in Brain Research, Elsevier, v. 195, p. 443-459, 2012

Sousa, A. M., Meyer, K. A., Santpere, G., Gulden, F. O., & Sestan, N. (2017). Evolution of the human nervous system function, structure, and development. Cell170(2), 226-247.

Making Thinking and Learning Visible: An Empirical Approach to Teaching

Many teachers in Brazil are going back to class this week and a major concern they share with school managers, policymakers, parents, and students themselves can probably be captured in the following question:

How much have students learned in the pandemic?

Perhaps an even more accurate question would be how much have they NOT learned? No matter which one you prefer, before you can answer them, you must at least assume two things:

  1. There are certain outcomes students must achieve in their learning experience;
  2. These outcomes can be measured/ascertained based on certain criteria;

Regardless of what you, dear teacher, might feel, you need to be able to check whether students were successful in getting from the place of “I don’t know this” to “I know this”. You need evidence and that usually means grades (at least in our educational system). There’s a problem, though. Can these numbers (grades) really tell us if our learners were able to accomplish the learning outcomes of their course? Can numerical grades truly measure learning? If not, how can students show their learning to us? In other words:

How can students make their learning visible?

If we think about it for a couple of minutes, we might come to the conclusion that, again, we need to find clues that can help us see what our learners are doing/producing. We might even consider that process quite similar to the scientific method. We start with a question – Are students in fact learning? – then we move on to a hypothesis – I believe this particular student is learning because of their grades – then we devise an experiment – But I suppose the test grades aren’t enough so I’ll ask them to work on a project – then we collect data, analyze, and come to a few conclusions (based on logical thinking, the specialized literature, which should be checked by peers)

All of that might feel quite daunting and you may be very uncomfortable with the idea of being like a scientist. You might even think that this is irrelevant and that you can rely on test grades to assess your students’ learning. What if I told you that much of what we have “learned” is forgotten by the end of the day, the week, or the month? What if you applied the exact same test on your students a few days after? Do you think they’d get the same test results? If things are quite easily forgotten, does it mean they have actually learned them?

Let’s do our own experiment. Go back to your time as a student. Perhaps even a language student. Try to remember a test you took and that you got a very good grade on. Reflecting on that experience now, can you tell me with confidence that you can still remember the concepts your “learned” then? If you took the same test today, would you be able to ace it? I remember getting very good grades in high school. I even got selected to represent my school with some other colleagues in a physics Olympiad because of my grades. The thing is: I’ve forgotten most of it and I’m pretty sure I’d fail pretty much any physics exam today.

Assessment of performance, Assessments of Learning, Assessment for Learning

Naturally, you might say (and I wouldn’t argue) that I haven’t practiced my physics problem-solving skills for decades and that’s why I can’t retrieve most of it. You may even tell me that it’s different with language learning, particularly when you keep using the language long after your classes have finished. You’d probably be right, after all:

Practice doesn’t make perfect but it makes more permanent

I’m not here to dispute that. What I want to raise your awareness to is the fact that in many cases we’re not really assessing learning. Rather we’re assessing performance. Learning and performance are two separate things. You may have learned something well and it will last for many years (yes, it’s possible to unlearn things) but you might fail a performance test. The opposite is also true. How many times have we gotten lucky and done well on a test simply by guessing the answers (this can happen a lot when we use multiple-choice tests)?

The Bjorks (2011), Robert and Elizabeth, a couple who happens to share the same passion and expertise for cognitive psychology, tell us that performance has to do with what can be observed and measured at the time of taking a test. Learning is what sticks with us. It changes our knowledge in a more permanent way and it can’t always be captured by standard testing.

If regular high-stakes tests (summative assessment) normally assess performance, what can we use instead? If standardized testing won’t do, how about using more personalized types of exam?

Think about two test models:

  1. Question with gap and multiple choices – previously chosen by the teacher
  2. Open question: what have you learned in our classes? – personalized, no prompts, no exclusion criteria

Sure, correcting test 1 would require a lot less work. But what if instead of applying many multiple choice tests, we could apply fewer and use more open-ended tests with our students? I suppose this would guarantee that their answers were “better evidence” of their learning, wouldn’t you agree? We can call this type, although still summative, assessment of learning. It does look at students’ work in retrospect, like assessment of performance, but it allows them to create their own script to some extent.

Another great way to think about assessment is by keeping track of students’ learning curve and shift the focus to the process instead of the product. That is concept of formative assessment. It doesn’t really require a single event on which a numerical grade will be given to students and that will determine how much they “know” or “don’t know”. Formative assessment is interested in how learners make progress toward the expected learning outcome (and possibly beyond) and that is the foundation of assessment for learning (AFL). In that sense, we can look at five important characteristics as discussed by Cambridge Assessment International Education:

1. Questioning enables a student, with the help of their teacher, to find out what level they are at.

2. The teacher provides feedback to each student about how to improve their learning.

3. Students understand what successful work looks like for each task they are doing.

4. Students become more independent in their learning, taking part in peer assessment and self-assessment.

5. Summative assessments (e.g. the student’s exam or portfolio submission) are also used formatively to help them improve.

The Cambridge Assessment International Education report goes on and mentions that:

AFL helps in making understanding and knowledge, as John Hattie describes it, ‘more visible’. AFL helps learners understand what excellence looks like and how they can develop their own work to reach that level.

Despite controversies about Hattie’s statistical methods when looking at more than 1000 meta-analyses, how he focused on academic achievement and left out other important variables, and how he chose the studies (click here for a summarized critique of his work) we can say that his work has certainly stirred things up in the last decade by claiming that certain things make learning more visible. What are they and how can we use them?

Making Thinking and Learning Visible

Before we discuss some insights and practical ideas based on the work of John Hattie, let me share a recent experience with you. I was invited by Gallery Teachers to deliver another masterclass (you can find the first one here) and the topic they suggested was making thinking visible. I embraced it and thought of connecting it to making learning visible. I must say I was quite happy with the result (which you can find here) especially because I had a wonderful panelist who, the amazing Neil Harris, who not only helped me think of quite relevant questions but also delivered a brilliant masterclass on assessment of, for, and as learning (which you can find here). If you’re happy with only the Q&A, you can find them below

Now let’s get down to business, shall we? If we assume that learning requires memory and attention and that deep learning takes place upon reflection, we can suggest that thinking precedes learning in many classroom contexts (sure there are types of learning that differ but let’s focus on this one). So we need to understand how to “see” our students thinking to make sure they’re on the right track toward their learning outcomes.

Project Zero by Harvard offers us incredible insights on how we can see our students thinking through a series of questions grouped under what they call thinking routines. If you visit their website, you’re bound to find lots of different routines and resources to help you make your students thinking more visible. I’ll focus on only three here and give you some practical examples:

  1. SEE-THINK-WONDER
  2. CLAIM-SUPPORT-QUESTION
  3. I used to think… Now I think

The first routine can be used to introduce a new topic. Learners might look at a prompt (an image, a video, a short paragraph, a word, a diagram) and start brainstorming things like:

I think it’s a… I believe we can used it for… I think it has to do with… I suppose it’s connected to…

Then they started reflecting on the things they cannot immediately see but would like to know:

I wonder if it can… I wonder where it can be used… I wonder how it can be used in a sentence…

The second routine may help you revise or practice a topic with your students. Think about a lesson in which you’d like to ask them about the past perfect tense. You might ask them to claim something about it like The past perfect tense is used for a situation that happened in the past. You can then ask them to support that claim by providing an example. They might say something like I had studied for our test. Then you could question their example by pointing out that you can’t really understande the difference between that and I studied for our test. You’d be encouraging them to think deeper and refine their answer. They might (and probably should) be the ones who question their own claims from time to time. That state of inquiry could lead them to self-directed study based on their curiosity and willingness to learn more about a particular subject.

Routine 3 is about contrasting what you thought you knew with what you believe you know now. That’s a great routine for you to reflect on how deep your learning is. You might want to use it with your students to revise materials, to encourage them to use new chunks, to help them think of errors they made in the past and use the correct forms, and to get them to self-assess.

How does all of that connect with Making Learning Visible? If we look at John Hattie’s list of things that impact learning based on the effect sizes of over 1000 meta-anlyses (remember the claims of lack of scientific rigor over his analysis), we’ll see teacher efficacy, student expectations, response to intervention, student efficacy, teacher clarity, and feedback (to mention only a few).

To give you more to reflect on now that you’re preparing for your school’s next term, we can focus on feeback (also supported by the works of Yeager and Dweck (2020) and student efficacy (discussed in the vast literature left by the late Albert Bandura (1984). A few simple strategies to make sure you help your students learn more based on everything discussed above are:

  1. Work with portfolios and e-portfolios. That way you’ll be able to follow your students work throughout the semester (you can use Jamboard, Padlet, Flipgrid or Canva);
  2. In remote classes, make sure your students have a “virtual space” to work in so that you can see them doing the things you asked (it can also be Jamboard or Padlet – Google Slides work too);
  3. Help them set their own deadlines and reflect on their work frequently. This allows you to guide them and give lots of feedback;
  4. Feedback is the key really. Be specific. Tell them what was just right, what could’ve been better, what was not good, and how they can make it better;
  5. Give students the opportunity to choose the layout/format of their work. As you’ll see below, not everything needs to be written;
  6. Spend some time working on study skills, goal setting, project management, metacognition and any tool that might help them develop their self-efficacy;
  7. Use low-stakes tests (pop quizzes on Kahoot for instance) to help them remember and reflect on the things they’re learning;
  8. Include peer assessment as much as you can. A fresh look from their colleagues can provide excellent insights;

Here’s my take on it: having worked with students from different levels, I believe AFL does make learning more visible. I can give a few examples from my own groups. I’m a guest lecturer of Language and Cognition at PUC-PR and my students don’t have any tests. They do have to share an e-portfolio and work on a final project for my subject. Their mission is to design a product based on the discussions we had in class (referencing the authors and texts we worked with.

One of my groups decided to create a podcast on managing emotions!

Another group made an amazing infographic about emotional intelligence

One of my students built her dream school based on the principles we discussed on The Sims! How incredible is that?

Conclusion

Learning is a complex phenomenon that cannot be easily measured, especially when we use conventional methods that basically turn everything students produce into numbers. However, we must be able to synthetize what students can do now when compared to when they started their course. I truly believe we can shift things if we start thinking about assessment for learning. That means we’ll pay a lot more attention to each of our learners’ individual paths rather than a snapshot of their learning experience captured on a test. If we do not obsess with a single format or a one-size-fits-all approach, we might get impressive work from our students (perhaps a podcast, an infographic, or a 3D model of a whole school!)

We can certainly benefit from from Project Zero’s Thinking Routines and Hattie’s Making Learning Visible (not without criticism). They offer some insightful and practical ideas of what makes learning happen and how we can “see” it happening before our eyes.

Remember that we need to be more empirical and that means looking for the evidence that our students are actually learning something. If we manage to do that, I believe that assessment can become a more functional aspect of learning as it will not simply get students ready to perform well that day, when they take the test, and get over it. Learning is not about getting your test results with barely any feedback on them, a few times during the semester and be done with it. It needs to be the foundation of learning in an ever-adjusting process of trying things out, getting feedback, trying again, keeping a record, and making slow but consistent improvements over time. Then it might stick with us for the rest of our lives.

References

Bandura, A. (1984). Recycling misconceptions of perceived self-efficacy. Cognitive therapy and research8(3), 231-255.

Bjork, Elizabeth & Bjork, Robert. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society. 56-64.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2020). What can be learned from growth mindset controversies?. American Psychologist75(9), 1269.

Bilingual Education in Brazil – Part 2: History of Education and English Teaching

Adapted from my text for PolicyBristol Blog. Don’t forget to access the first part of this series

“Challenging. The Brazilian Educational System is Huge”

This is written on the website of Todos Pela Educação (All for Education), an NGO that provides information about the Brazilian educational scenario in order to help boost quality and access to basic education.

Brazil has a history of elitism and oppression. Education was used as an evangelisation tool by the Jesuits to convert Indigenous Brazilians in the early colonial years, between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Till this day, many schools are run by religious institutions. In the 19th century, the elite either had the luxury of private tutors or sent their children abroad, particularly Portugal, for their studies while slaves traded in from Africa were not allowed any type of education at all. Black people are still marginalised as a consequence of structural racism.

We can trace the origins of Brazilian current education legislation and structure back to the 1930s and 1940s.  In the next four decades, research and Higher Education institutes flourished but also came the military regime through the 1964 coup. The dictatorship was responsible for the persecution of intellectuals and left-wing supporters, undermining free speech and critical thinking.

A bright future and a sad reality

After more than two decades of an authoritarian period, the 90s seemed to be the beginning of a bright future. Enrolment rates of 15-17 year-old students in secondary education grew from 58.1% in 1991 to 77.7% in 2000 (Costa, 2013).When the Labour Party won the presidential elections in 2002, with Luiz Inácio da Silva (aka Lula) as president, Brazil went through important educational changes. Federal funding for education increased substantially – The Ministry of Education (MEC) nearly tripled its budget and the National Fund for Basic Education (Fundeb) was created. Access to basic education was de facto universalized and reinforced by social programs’ requirements such as Bolsa Família (a state-funded pension to families living under the poverty line provided their kids were enrolled and attending schools as well as vaccinated).

From 2002 to 2010, Brazil saw its low quality educational indexes rise. PISA scores grew, university enrolments skyrocketed, Federal Higher Education Institutes were inaugurated all over the country (almost doubling their numbers), illiteracy levels dropped, and scholarships, research grants, and travel grants were available to many students.

However, still during the Labour Party’s government, the education budget began to dwindle and it has not stopped since. A huge corruption scandal involving the Labour Party undermined its political capital and a massive political crisis grew.

Until today, basic reading comprehension and mathematical skills in high school have not improved significantly and Brazil has figured among the world’s champions in terms of physical violence against teachers.  Scientists have fled the country in a huge human capital flight movement because of the terrible conditions they worked under, often having to buy basic research tools or pay for analyses out of their own pockets.

That’s the sad reality of Brazil. When we look at international rankings, Brazil normally figures right at the bottom. But there’s more. We have one of the highest pupil-to-teacher ratio in the world (32 students per teacher), lowest salaries (comparable to Indonesia), the lowest value for money considering investment vs students’ results according to PISA. In many pre-service teacher training programs, such as the Modern Languages undergrad qualification in Brazil, teachers are not well-prepared to speak English and need to seek further qualification elsewhere.

It’s worth mentioning that our Higher Education entry exams are basically selecting rich teens to attend tuition-free and accreditted universities (our State and Federal universities) and forcing poorer teens to go to paid institutions which are not as good as the public ones. There are, however, affirmative action initiatives to give poorer teenagers access to Higher education. Funding programs and quotas for black people are some examples. Besides that, Brazil has unified its entry exams into a single National High School Exam (Enem) which will allow students to apply for several institutions at the same time. For that reason, most of the Brazilian educational system focuses on preparing students to pass this exam, prioritizing the memorization of general knowledge contents and neglecting more active learning methods (such as PBL).

Languages in Brazil

Brazil has been a multilingual country since its origin. Before our colonization, millions of indigenous people lived here with their customs, culture and, of course, languages. European languages ​​were brought to the territory from 1500 onwards. From Portugal, we receive Portuguese, the country’s official language and spoken by most of the population. However, the successive invasions and migratory waves, in addition to the need for communication with the indigenous people, created an environment in which many languages ​​were used. Today more than 230 languages ​​are present in Brazil.

Over the centuries and the establishment of different education systems, European languages ​​have consolidated themselves as prestigious languages. In addition to Portuguese, those few who had access to education sought to study foreign languages ​​such as French, German or Spanish. In the 20th century, immigrants from Italy and Germany created conglomerates in southern Brazil while Asians (Japanese, Koreans and Chinese) settled in the southeastern region. At the borders, Latin neighbors boosted the use of Spanish. The end of World War II propagated the English language as a language of global communication among peoples.

According to historical records, English, and French as foreign languages started to be taught in Brazil in 1809, a year after the Royal Family fled from Portugal to settle in their colony. For the better part of this period, teachers used the Grammar-Translation method, which emphasized reading classical texts and translating them. It was only in the third decade of the 20th century that the Direct Method was introduced and English began to be taught using the target language. In 1942, a educational reform gave foreign languages more hours of contact in the curriculum, however, between 1961 and 1971, a new reform did not include Foreign Language Learning in Brazilian curricula.

Things changed in 1996 when the Lei de Diretrizes e Bases (LDB) or Law of Guidelines and Bases made the inclusion of a foreign language to the curriculum mandatory in primary and secondary school. In 1998, when the Parâmetros Curriculares Nacionais (PCN) or National Curricular Standards were established, the importance of English teaching was stressed even more. Nevertheless, most regular schools have offered 1 or 2 hours of English a week in their curriculum.

All of these changes, however, did not impact most of the Brazilian population as it should. According to the British Council, in 2014 only 5% of the Brazilian population could speak English at some level and only 1% could do it proficiently. To make matters worse, Education First (EF) places Brazil at 53rd in its English Proficiency Index in 2020, which is considered low and behind other South American neighbors such as Uruguay, Bolivia, Cuba, Chile, and Argentina for instance. That scenario only reinforces that if anyone really wants to learn English in Brazil, they have to either go to a language center outside school or a bilingual school.

Bilingual schools / Bilingual Education in Brazil

The current universe of bilingual schools or schools with bilingual programs is tiny when compared to other countries. The estimates of the Brazilian Association for Bilingual Education (ABEBI) tell us that more than 90% of Brazilian schools have no bilingual solution in their curricula. The last decade, however, has brought an explosion of new bilingual teaching solutions on the market. With the consolidation of English as a predominant prestige language in Brazil and the spread of the idea of ​​English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), that is, the coexistence of several “Englishes” used as a global communication tool, regular schools started to focus on the differential of offering bilingual education.

According to ABEBI, based on the 2018 Ministry of Education (MEC) school census, Brazil (around 3%) lags behind other South American countries such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay (around 8%) in percentage terms when it comes to bilingual education in private schools. This means that to reach the level of these neighbors, Brazil would need an increase of 5%, which corresponded to at least 2000 schools in 2018. Even so, more than 90% of private schools are outside this projection. This illustration demonstrates the growth potential of the bilingual education trend in the country.

Another recent development that indicates that bilingual education will be increasingly present in the Brazilian educational system is the document drafted by the National Education Council (CNE) on the National Curricular Guidelines for Plurilingual Education. The document came out for public consultation in mid-2020 and is still pending approval. It contains the history of Brazilian education, particularly the evolution of multilingual teaching (in border regions, in the case of deaf education with the Brazilian Sign Language – Libras and in regions of the indigenous population), the legal foundations, concepts bilingualism and plurilingualism, bilingual education in Brazil and Latin America, in addition to the relationship with the Common National Curricular Base (BNCC), our own common core.

Final Thoughts and What comes Next

We’ve looked at the History of Brazilian education. It saddens me to realize we still have many structural problems such as lack of funding, resources, proper teacher training and more. Brazil’s history is based on oppression, elitism, and content-driven curricula to help kids and teens memorize contents worked in different subjects to pass universities entry exam. There’s a huge gap between rich and poor kids and how much access they get to good quality education and English classes. The next blog post of this series will discuss the new document that will probably regulation bilingual education contexts in Brazil.


Bilingual Education in Brazil – Part 1: What options are there?

In recent years, an important debate has been taking place on the concept of bilingual education and how it fits in the Brazilian educational system. With rare exceptions until recently, additional language learning, particularly English, was restricted to a few hours of contact a week at a regular school or in a language center outside the school building. However, with the boom of bilingual solutions on the market, in addition to the recent development with the publication of a document to regulate bilingual education in the country by the National Education Council (Conselho Nacional de Educação), what is the situation in this scenario today? What are the differences between a bilingual program, a bilingual school, an international school and a language course? 

This is the first part of a blog series on English learning in Brazil, particularly bilingual education. I intend to talk about the current scenario, historical background, the upcoming legislation, and some of the chosen approaches and methods used in different schools. If you are interested in bilingualism and want to know more about my country’s experience, this blog series is for you.

Concepts and Definitions

Bilingual Education and Translanguaging

First let’s define bilingualism. According to Hakuta (2009), bilingualism is the coexistence of more than one linguistic system in an individual. Grosjean (1982), posits that a bilingual subject is not simply two monolinguals put together. In that case, bilingual education is a broad term that encompasses different modalities of bilingual learning and teaching in different contexts. Megale (2018, p. 5) objectively proposes that Bilingual Education is based on:

Multidimensional development of two or more languages ​​involved, the promotion of knowledge between them and the valorization of translanguaging as a way of building comprehension of the bilingual subjects’ world.

Megale, 2018, p. 5.

The concept of translanguaging, widely used in works on bilingualism and plurilingualism, with authors such as Ofelia García and Colin Baker (2007) and Li Wei (2018), refers to the practice of using the entire linguistic repertoire of the bilingual subject to give meaning to discourse, to communicate with others, which implies a heteroglossic view of language, that is, the perspective that languages ​​do not form independent systems. This means that languages ​​are not stored separately in the brain and that they overlap and intertwine in a natural way (Busch, 2015). A simple example is that of two bilingual speakers of Portuguese and English who can talk using elements of both languages dynamically and in an intelligible way.

Bilingual School

Within this context of bilingual education, we have bilingual schools. The denomination of bilingual school is usually given to schools that:

  1. have the curriculum taught in Portuguese and in the additional language in an integrated way. This may mean taking classes of the same subject in Portuguese and in English, for example, or dividing the subjects so that some are mostly taught in the native language and others in the additional language;
  2. offer an additional curriculum (optional or not), with classes taught in the additional language, which may or may not be connected with the regular curriculum. This additional curriculum is, as a rule, created by the school itself; 

In the first example, schools use CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), which, in short, is characterized by the use of the additional language as a means of instruction for the teaching of subjects in the curriculum. That is, math, history, geography or any other subject is given in English. Therefore, with this approach, both the subject and the additional language are learned. In the second example, the school can use CLIL (or some of its elements) as well as focus more on Project-Based Learning. 

Bilingual Program 

Unlike a bilingual school, a bilingual program is, in general, a service package offered by an unrelated outsourced company without any prior connection to the school. This company is responsible for the elaboration of teaching materials and professional development training based on approaches and methodologies related to the development of bilingualism and the idea of student-centeredness. Therefore, the bilingual program has all the necessary structure, including books, online platform, commercial and pedagogical support, as well as expertise to carry out implementation in any given school. 

It is worth noting that both bilingual and international schools, which I explain in the next section, need to have teachers who are experts in their subjects and proficient in the additional language, since the teaching of these subjects in the curriculum is done in that language. In the case of a bilingual program, the teachers at the school that adopts the program are usually the English-speaking teachers that the school has hired. These professionals undergo a linguistic assessment and, if they have the appropriate level of competence, go through an initial training about the program. They receive constant support from the program’s coordinators (who are normally called advisors, tutors or mentors) and follow didactic-pedagogical recommendations prepared by the program.

In short, a bilingual program is characterized, therefore, by the increment of contact hours with the additional language and by the use of more student-centered approaches, with the inclusion of project-based learning, immersion and CLIL. 

A school without a bilingual program usually has one or two times of contact with the English language in the curriculum during the week and the classes are mostly taught in Portuguese through a more teacher-centered approach. With a bilingual program, the school has an increased number of hours (three, five or even ten contact hours a week) for English classes, which are taught in English in a more communicative way, based on projects and with the insertion of CLIL elements. .

So, can a school with a bilingual program be called a bilingual school? The answer is no, or at least it shouldn’t. Bilingual schools have (or should have), of course, an even greater workload of the additional language and qualified teaching staff both in their subjects and in teaching through the additional language. This makes official Portuguese-English bilingual schools infinitely more exclusive in a country like Brazil, where only 5% of the population has some competence in English according to a 2014 British Council report (these numbers have surely changed but apparently not much).

It’s worth mentioning that the new document drafted by the National Education Council in Brazil labels this modality Extended Curriculum in Additional Language. If this document is approved and comes into force, the denomination Bilingual Programs will most likely stop being used.

International School 

International schools follow the school curriculum and timetable determined by the country of origin. They are like a piece of the foreign country’s territory and operate in accordance with that country’s legislation. A practical example is that of an American school, which works with subjects in English and follows the dates and curriculum guidelines of the United States. This school can offer courses in Portuguese, which can be integrated or not to the regular class time. Students at that school learn what students at a US school learn and therefore have the necessary certifications and / or diplomas to continue their education in the USA. It is worth remembering that Brazilian schools in foreign territories also make up this category.

Language Centers

Language centers are common in Brazil and their range of language options is extremely varied. It is common, however, to find language schools that offer English as their main language and add value with languages ​​such as Spanish and other elite languages ​​(usually European – German, French, Italian, etc.). These schools generally:

  • have their own materials or work with books from major publishers (often international);
  • have a curriculum that is not aligned with the curriculum used in the regular school;
  • work with varied approaches and methods that are different from other bilingual solutions (eg communicative approach and audiolingual method)
  • are physically separated from the regular school; 
  • work with smaller classes (up to a maximum of 20 students)
  • vary widely in terms of teacher training (some hire without previous experience or diploma in the area while others require international certifications)
  • may be associated or not to the government or institutions of countries that speak the additional language taught (such as binational centers linked to the US State Department or the British Council)

These schools usually offer between 2 and 5 contact hours a week with the language, mix students of different ages in the same class, offer intensive classes, holiday courses and classes on Saturdays in addition to occasionally creating agreements with regular schools to use their space to offer lessons in loco. However, the lack of convenience and practicality of having to take children to another place to learn English and then pick them up has given more value to bilingual solutions within the children’s regular school.

Final Thoughts and What comes Next

We’ve looked at some of the possible options for anyone seeking to receive a bilingual education in Brazil. It’s evident that the country offers a number of possibilities that are quite similar to those of other nations. Nevertheless, Brazilian levels of competent English speakers are quite low and millions of people do not even have access to English classes. With the rise of bilingual schools, many public school kids are being left behind since bilingual education rarely reaches those populations. The next blog post of this series will address the history of English teaching and learning in Brazil, access, levels of proficiency, and pre- as well as in-service program for teachers. Stay tuned!

References

Busch, B. The linguistic repertoire revisited. Applied linguistics, v. 33, n. 5, p. 503-523, 2012.

García, O; Baker, C, eds. Bilingual education: An introductory reader. Vol. 61. Multilingual matters, 2007.

Grosjean, F. (1982). Life with two languages: An introduction to bilingualism. Harvard University Press.

Hakuta, Kenji. “Bilingualism.” (2009): 173-178.

Megale, A. H. Bilingual education of prestigious languages ​​in Brazil: an analysis of official documents. The Especialist, v. 39, n. 2, 2018.

Wei, L. “Translanguaging and code-switching: What’s the difference.” Blog Post. OUPblog. Oxford UP 9 (2018).

Metacognition and Learning: What can the Renaissance teach us about how to learn best?

The narrative

It was a terribly cold day in April 2019 and I was incredibly frustrated at my failed attempt to drive for the very first time in the UK. About 10 minutes after I had picked up the car and started driving, I had a minor accident that knocked my left wind mirror off in a very stupid way. To defend myself, I was just getting used to driving on the left side of the road and a big white van was parked on the sidewalk. Since my brain was only getting adjusted to this rather challenging cognitive task, I couldn’t really tell how close I was when it happened. That van shouldn’t really be there.

I put the past behind me and enjoyed the rest of my journey to Liverpool where not only was I going to visit the city of one of my favorite bands, but I was also attending the IATEFL conference for the first time too. Right at the entrance, I bumped into the wonderful Vinnie Nobre, a reference in ELT and one of the founders of Troika, an educational consultancy based in São Paulo. I congratulated him for the enormous success and after talking and watching a few sessions together, he invited me to teach a course at Troika when I returned from my master’s course. I was certainly thrilled, no doubt, and I really wanted to offer a course that would help teachers reflect on their practice.

From coming back to Brazil to getting in touch with Troika and working out the details of the course, considering it all happened in the middle of the pandemic, it took around a year for me to actually teach it. But all the process helped me fine-tune my idea and create possibly one of the most interesting courses I’ve ever taught in my life.

I chose a topic I had been studying for a while and that I felt would make a difference: metacognition. This is the poster Troika designed for my course and I have to admit I simply loved it. They gave me, perhaps unintentionally, the perfect narrative for the course. That narrative was the Renaissance.

May be an image of 1 person
Troika’s poster of my course

I was inspired by the works of Titian, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Rafael, Michelino and, especially, Da Vinci to create the slides of my course, which made reference to the cultural revival expressed through the art and science represented in the Vitruvian Man and in the perfection of Leonardo’s sketches.

The Renaissance was about questioning the status quo and learning about how things worked, particularly the human body, in order to create the most perfect depictions of the human figure on canvas, paper, stone or marble. It was about observation, questioning, and experimentation of different techniques and paradigms.

Metacognition

You might be wondering what the Renaissance has to do with the idea of metacognition. Before we can establish their relationship, let’s understand the term metacognition, which will require us to first think about the word cognition. According to the Free Online Dicitionary:

the mental process of knowledge, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment

what becomes known through perception, reasoning or intuition; knowledge

Free Online Dictionary

A more technical definition is offered by the American Psychological Association:

Attention, use of language, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity and thinking

American Psychological Association

If we think about our language classes at school, we might remember that the prefix meta comes from the Greek and it means beyond or transcending and it’s usually employed to give us the idea of the category within the category. That means that metalanguage is the language of language and metadata means the data about data. In that case, metacognition means the cognition of or about cognition. Since cognition is the object of study for many researchers concerned with our thought processes and how we learn, metacognition has been popularly referred to as thinking about thinking or learning how to learn.

Going back in time a few decades, we find out that the term metacognition was coined and popularized by American psychologist John Flavell. In his 1976 work, he describes metacognition as:

knowledge about one’s own COGNITIVE PROCESSES. Ability to CONTROL, ORGANIZE, MONITOR, ADAPT and REFLECT on one’s own thoughts

John Flavell (1976)

Notice the keywords. Metacognition involves not just learning things but questioning whether the way we learn is the best or most appropriate and regulating how we study. Its main question is:

Is there a more effective way to learn this?

In order to answer that question, Flavell discusses three categories of metacognition

  1. Metacognitive Knowledge
  2. Metacognitive Experiences
  3. Metacognitive Control Strategies

The first one refers to the knowledge people have about themselves and others as well as tasks and strategies. Let’s say someone wants to learn how to play the violin. If they have metacognitive knowledge, they’re aware that people who learn how to play the violin need to have access to the instrument, an adequate place to study (a quiet studio for instance), the ability to read sheet music, a varied routine of exercises with lots of repetition and so on. The learner must also understand how people can learn music and how to play an instrument, that is, some basic universal principles of learning that particular skill, which is quite different from learning something like History. A metacognitive learner should also know how their teacher works and what they expect and, mainly, what works best for themselves. Perhaps they can only practice the violin at night when it’s quiet or maybe they consider themselves an early bird and prefer to do it in the morning.

Brown (1978, 1987); Flavell (1976, 1979)

The second and the third one fall under the category of metacognitive regulation (see image above). They’re about knowing which strategies work best and how to use them to achieve the desired result. That means that only possessing the knowledge of how to play the violin will not make anyone learn it if they are unable to plan their study, engage with the activities and stay on task, and assess whether it is working or not. A metacognitive learner is able to make the necessary adjustments to the process in order to reach the desired outcome. Let’s say our violin student realizes that they can’t practice at night because they’re disturbing their neighbors. They’ll have to either find another time or another place to practice because they understand its importance. They might even make the room where they practice soundproof or purchase an electric violin with an amplifier so that they can hear themselves play through headphones. A metacognitive learner develops regulation mechanisms to make sure they accomplish the tasks they are supposed to and evaluate what needs to be changed.

Metacognitive Cycle (Ambrose et al. 2010)

Ambrose et al. (2010) offer an insightful framework to help us become more metacognitive. In this metacognitive cycle, the first step is to evaluate the task at hand. What many learners do quite often when writing an essay or working on a project for instance is making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. They sometimes don’t read or understand the instructions and overdo the task or don’t do enough. Evaluating the task and what is asked is paramount if they want to be successful. The next step is to conduct a fair assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Students who cannot successfully assess that, can over- or underestimate their abilities and not plan enough time to accomplish the task.

Then comes the approach stage. Different tasks require different approaches and depending on how much time learners have, they might waste too much of it on ineffective or even useless strategies or simply not allocate enough of it to get things done. Students may often just skip this planning stage and go straight to the task without really understanding how they accomplish it the best way they can. Moreover, it’s important to keep track of the most suited strategies according to the task and make sure it all becomes part of the learning routine. Simply thinking about these strategies and not applying them won’t generate positive outcomes.

The final stage is perhaps the most important for metacognitive learners. It’s the stage of reflection and it allows learners to evaluate whether all the other stages were done properly and what worked and what didn’t. Reflecting on the learning process can be quite painful but it can tell us a lot about what might not be working and what would take to change things. Here are some questions that might help:

  1. Was my plan adequate/realistic?
  2. Did I allocate enough time to accomplish the task?
  3. Was I committed/focused when I did the task?
  4. Did I have access to the right materials/resources?
  5. Did I seek help when I didn’t know what to do?
  6. Did I make the proper adjustments when things didn’t work out?

The question then is:

Does being a metacognitive learner pay off?

The research suggests that it does. As a matter of fact, a paper by Zulkiply (2009) summarizes many of the findings of other studies and states that:

recent research has revealed the significance of metacognitive awareness in learning. For instance, learners who score high on measures of metacognition are more strategic, more likely to use problem-solving heuristics, better at predicting their test scores, and generally outperform learners who score low on metacognitive measures. Metacognition has been shown to predict learning performance. Learners who are metacognitively aware know what to do when they don’t know what to do; that is, they have strategies for finding out or figuring out what they need to do. More importantly, research has demonstrated the value of metacognition in predicting academic achievement. For example, greater metacognitive ability has been linked to grade point average, math achievement, and reading skill. In addition to this, studies explicitly show that metacognitive skills play an important role in effective learning that leads to academic success, and that academically achieving students are better on metacognitive measures

Zulkiply (2009)

Da Vinci: a man ahead of his time

When I think of all the things Leonardo Da Vinci created, it simply makes me admire his vision even more. He was undoubtedly a man ahead of his time. And to think that many of his sketches of the human body are still used in medical schools today for their incredible degree of precision. Da Vinci used to go to underground morgues to study human anatomy. Can you imagine what a terrible hobby that was? Spending hours in the dark surrounded by putrid and stinky corpses lit by candles while he drew the most perfect lines. It sure wasn’t easy but his curiosity kept him going.

Human anatomy, by Leonardo Da Vinci (1509-1510) "At a time in history when  few people had methodical… | Human anatomy drawing, Anatomy sketches,  Anatomy for artists
Da Vinci’s sketches of the human body. Retrieved from pinterest

Da Vinci was certainly the epitome of mastery and talent and is revered until today for his incredible contribution. I think he is the perfect illustration (no pun intended) of a metacognitive learner. He not only drew beautiful sketches and painted amazing canvases, but he also designed machines and ingenious devices that were way ahead of his time. A good example is his obsession with flying and how his early 15th-century designs of flying machines are remarkably similar to modern gliders and helicopters (which were invented more than 400 years later).

Leonardo da Vinci - Drawing | Da vinci sketches, Da vinci inventions, Leonardo  da vinci
Da Vinci’s flying machines. Retrieved from pinterest

Naturally, we can say that other Renaissance artists were experimenting on different things, trying new techniques and thinking outside the box. Michelangelo was definitely quite metacognitive when he had to come up with a plan to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Can you imagine how daunting the task was? Michelangelo not only pulled it off magnificently but he also created one of the most fascinating and beautiful works of art the world will ever see. But Da Vinci’s legacy and record really deserve special attention. They give us a glimpse of what this man did and how he thought. He was a questioner, a problem solver and a scientist at heart.

His most famous painting also gives us the perfect illustration of what metacognitive should not be about: procrastination. It is said that Da Vinci spent around 12 years to paint the lips of probably the most enigmatic smiles in the art history: The Mona Lisa. It might have been so because of procrastination or Leonardo’s obsession with getting the smile just right or even a hand paralysis he suffered from. Be it as it may, this interesting mystery gives us some insight into how some things might take a lot longer than what we might expect.

My car accident and Final Thoughts

Da Vinci’s designs and schemes did not have as great an impact on the society he lived in because they were exclusive then and forgotten for a long time. His inventions could have created unimaginable technological advances in his time. The idea of joining science and arts to create amazing work and to rethink the status quo is evident in Da Vinci’s work. His curiosity and obsession to try different things and really think outside the box, analyzing not only the object of his art but mainly how he created his art are more than enough proof of his metacognitive personality.

I wonder now if I was any metacognitive when I picked up the car to drive to Liverpool. The answer is probably no but I did try something new. I certainly watched videos of people telling their experience of driving on the other side of the road. I imagined myself doing it a couple of times before I got the car. I wrote down a few things to make sure I wouldn’t forget them. I definitely drove around a few times to get more confidence while performing the task. But none of those things prevented me from having a minor accident. I hadn’t anticipated that a large van could be parked on the sidewalk for maintenance and the rest is history. Perhaps, if I had thought of that variable and had practiced a little more before driving around 3 hours from Bristol to Liverpool, I would have done better.

In Liverpool, before attending IATEFL’s first day of sessions, as a big Beatles fan, I decided to visit the Cavern Club where the four lads used to play. They were also a metacognitive bunch, weren’t they? Their musical legacy is so rich and innovative that they’re actually a great example of metacognition. The Beatles spent quite a lot of years recording in studio some of the most unusual sounds anyone had listened to because they constantly asked themselves if there were better or more effective ways to accomplish what they wanted. And look at what they gifted the world with!

If you are a teacher working with different subject areas or teaching English in a bilingual context, get inspired by the amazing artists of the Renaissance like Da Vinci, musicians such as The Beatles, or other incredible people who were not afraid to question things. People who understood the object of their work so well that they were able to create new paradigms and invent new techniques. We don’t have to be as brilliant as they were, but it will certainly be good enough for us to learn how learn more effectively.

Around a couple of months after my minor accident, my wife, her sister, and our nephew came to visit me in the UK. We rented a car to drive from London to Rochester, then Brighton, Salisbury, Bristol, Cardiff and back to Bristol. I certainly learned my lesson as I didn’t cause any accidents that time. The irony, though, is that someone hit our back bumper on the way to Stonehenge although I was driving quite comfortably and confidently. I can tell you one thing: it was certainly not my fault.

The lesson here I suppose is that even though metacognition can help you achieve your learning goals and improve your performance, you still can’t control all the variables. After all, accidents do happen.

But the most important lesson I want to leave you all with is the following: being metacognitive requires us to understand a little bit about cognition and how we learn so that we can base our strategies on research and make better informed decisions about which strategies might work more effectively. If we don’t do that, we might cause minor accidents along the way like the one I had. My bias of many years driving on the right side of the road made me misjudge the distance I was driving from the sidewalk. After that mistake, I realized I had to compensate for my bias and really monitor what I was doing. My accident made me more metacognitive and it may have prevented another accident.

References

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Brown, A.L. (1978). Knowing when, where and how to remember: A problem of metacognition. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology ,Vol.1 (pp. 77-165). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Brown, A. L. (1987). Metacognition, executive control, self-regulation, and other more mysterious mechanisms. In F. E. Weinert & R. H. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, motivation, and understanding (pp. 65-116). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906 – 911

Roediger, H. L. I., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249–255. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01693.x

Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(1), 2.

Zulkiply, N. (2009). Metacognition and its relationship with students’ academic performance. The International Journal of Learning15(11), 97-106.

The Origins of Mind, Brain, and Education and its Relation to ELT

There has been quite a lot of buzz around the idea of joining neuroscience and education. Many would claim that neuroscientific contributions have the potential to revolutionise how teachers teach and the impact they have on their learners’ outcomes. I myself have said that on many occasions. However, I currently believe that many of the things effective teachers do are already grounded in evidence (whether they know it or not) and other things might not be in their hands. There is, of course, room for adding a few classroom practices that might yield better results. Let’s take a look at how neuroscience made its way into education, how the science of Mind, Brain, and Education emerged, and what that means for ELT.

Neuroscience applied to education

It was only quite recently, however, that neuroscience became popular in educational debates and started to be referred to as a source of valuable knowledge that could have important implications for learning and, consequently, classroom practice (OECD, 2002; Ansari & Coch, 2006; Howard-Jones, 2010; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). With the quick advancements in neuroimaging studies and the increased number of publications in the field of cognitive neuroscience in the 1990s, many “brain-based” educational forums, workshops, and programmes started to emerge (Ansari & Coch, 2006, Howard-Jones, 2010, Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014).

On one hand, concerns of how dangerous it could be to try to connect neuroscience knowledge and education were being voiced, particularly after the publication of Education and the brain: a bridge too far (Bruer, 1997). Bruer illustrates the concerns by pointing out that neuroscience and education had so little in common that joining them would be an infeasible task. On the other hand, the pursuit of narrowing this bridge continued and an important landmark happened in 1999, when the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) inaugurated the Learning Sciences and Brain Research project with two main objectives: to understand “a) how the brain processes information, and b) learning processes over the individual’s lifecycle” (OECD, 2007).

In 2000, the United Kingdom launched the Teaching and Learning Research Project (TLRP), one of the biggest and most expensive initiatives with the objective of promoting educational research on how to improve students’ outcomes and what impacts teaching. The endeavour involved hundreds of researchers over the course of a decade who collaborated in 90 projects, including how neuroscience could be applied in education (Blakemore & Frith, 2005; James & Pollard, 2011). TLRP’s outcomes have been widely disseminated in educational settings. They include several publications based on evidence from the projects, including two book series on how to improve learning and teaching, as well as a summarised list of ten principles as shown in the table below (James & Pollard, 2011; TLRP, 2015).

Ten principles of effective teaching and learning proposed by the Teaching and Learning Research Project (TLRP)

1. Effective pedagogy equips learners for life in its broadest sense.
2. Effective pedagogy engages with valued forms of knowledge
3. Effective pedagogy recognises the importance of prior experience and learning
4. Effective pedagogy requires learning to be scaffolded
5. Effective pedagogy needs assessment to be congruent with learning
6. Effective pedagogy promotes the active engagement of the learner
7. Effective pedagogy fosters both individual and social processes and outcomes
8. Effective pedagogy recognises the significance of informal learning
9. Effective pedagogy depends on the learning of all those who support the learning of others
10. Effective pedagogy demands consistent policy frameworks with support for learning as their primary focus
Source: TLRP (2015)

The OECD Report and Neuromyths

It is important to mention that in 2002, a report entitled Understanding The Brain: Towards a New Learning Science was published by OECD. This report brought together the discussions that had taken place in three different international forums about child, adolescent, and adult learning, some essential knowledge on neuroanatomy and brain function, including neuromyths, as well as how it all related to education and educational contexts (OECD, 2002).

It’s important to stress here that a neuromyth is a false claim or a wrong and widely held belief about how the brain works. The term was coined in OECD’s Understanding the Brain report (OECD, 2002). Some examples discussed in the report are the idea of a left-brain versus right-brain dominance, the notion that humans only use 10% of their brains, the concept that learning two languages at a time is harmful for kids (OECD, 2002)

The main contributions of this report, besides the call for dispelling neuromyths, were: a) the idea of neuroplasticity, that is, the brain’s capacity to learn and change as a consequence of learning; b) the crucial role of emotions and the environment in learning; c) a better understanding of underlying language acquisition and processing mechanisms; and d) a better understanding of underlying numeracy processes.

The end of this relevant report brought pertinent ethical considerations, such as the caution to avoid using neuroscience as a determinant of good teachers based on their impact on students’ brain, and the concern with the utilisation of brain imaging technology for commercial purposes (identifying students with certain brain patterns and labelling them, for instance) as well as the use of products that affect the brain (drugs) and how brain and technology can or should be integrated.

The report’s main conclusions and recommended future agenda included the recognition of neuroscience and its potential to inform practice and policy; the evidence for the importance of lifelong learning; the need for neuroscience-informed curricula and a better understanding of adolescents’ brains, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dementia; the need for a more holistic and personalised teaching approach (regarding emotional regulation and differentiation as importantly as memorisation);  and the birth of a learning science based on transdisciplinarity. OECD’s project Learning Sciences and Brain Research moved to its second phase focusing on literacy, numeracy, and lifelong learning (OECD, 2007).

The beginning of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE)

It is worth mentioning that the idea of joining the perspectives from neuroscience, psychology, and education (transdisciplinary approach), can have different labels, such as Educational Neuroscience, NeuroeducationEducational Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognitive Neuropsychology, Brain-based Education, Neuroconstructivism, and Science of Learning (SoL) (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014, Weinstein et al. 2018). A possible implication of this great variability is that these areas do not communicate well as they have slightly different focuses and standardisation of their findings may be difficult.

Other important developments in the pursuit of joining neuroscience and education were the creation of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s  Mind, Brain, and Education masters course in 2002, the MBE course at the University of Arlington Texas in 2005, the inauguration of the Cambridge Centre for Neuroscience and Education in 2005, and the launch of the Journal Mind, Brain, and Education by the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES) in 2007, whose main objectives are to facilitate cross-cultural and transdisciplinary collaboration between cognitive sciences and education in addition to creating useful and applicable resources for teachers by identifying sound scientific information and promoting effective educational practices (IMBES, 2018).

From 2002 onwards, MBE became increasingly more propagated. MBE books, articles and more programmes surfaced, as illustrated by two best-selling books Applying Mind, Brain, and Education Science in the Classroom (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010) and Mind, Brain, and Education Science: a Comprehensive Guide to the new Brain-based Teaching (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011). The role of MBE started being discussed in journals (Ansari & Coch 2006;  Fischer 2009; Ferrari & McBride 2011). Moreover, universities such as Johns Hopkins, University of Bristol, Dartmouth, UPenn started offering master’s courses and/or units in this new subject (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014; Ferrari & McBride, 2011). 

MBE’s goal is to bring together contributions from education and cognitives sciences (psychology and neuroscience) to inform teachers, school managers, and policymakers according to the latest evidence on how people learn and how that relates to classroom practice. This goal involves debunking neuromyths as they may have negatives consequences for students’ learning outcomes (Fischer, 2009; Dekker et al., 2012; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). MBE does not make the assumption that any area is better in its own right than all of them together.

Disciplines and Subdisciplines in Mind, Brain, and Education Science
Source: Tokuhama-Espinosa (2011, p. 15)

The big goals of MBE revolve around research, practice, and policy. Research aims at providing information on mind and brain mechanisms, as well as biological aspects of the body and human behaviour, including those that come from social context (as socioeconomic factors and culture) in order to provide sound information on how humans learn in a holistic way. Practice aims at connecting the information provided by research and apply the new knowledge in real learning situations, particularly the classroom. Its objective is to inform and be informed by teaching practices. Policy is concerned with how neuroscientifically substantiated beliefs can translate into frameworks, governmental programmes, and private initiatives to influence the macrolevel of education (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014).

What does that have to do with ELT?

MBE has important knowledge and reflections for educators teaching any subject area or language. The rationale is to simplify, without oversimplifying, the evidence that can be useful in teaching practice and help students learn more effectively. The main principles of MBE are  (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010):

1) Each brain is unique and uniquely organized. Human brains are as unique as faces; 

2) All brains are not equal because context and ability influence learning; 

3) The brain is changed by experience; 

4) The brain is highly plastic; 

5) The brain connects new information to old

Eric Kandel, neuroscientist who won a Nobel Prize, lends another principle:

Learning requires attention and memory

Eric Kandel

These 6 priciples, although quite general, tell us that things like personalisation and differentiation, prior knowledge, and active learning, as well as emotions, beliefs and attitudes about learning are key. Nothing particularly revolutionary so far. 

Watch my webinar on MBE

MBE uses an inquiry-based approach that goes something like this: it looks at a particular classroom practice and asks: is there a theory in psychology that might explain why this is positive for learning? If there is, then the question becomes: is there neuroscientific evidence to support this? If the answer is yes, then we might want to keep doing it. If the answer from both psychology, neuroscience (and educational practice) is no, we might want to revisit the concept and try a different approach. 

MBE’s greatest objective is to fight neuromyths. Here’s an illustration: the learning styles theory. According to Paul Howard-Jones (2014, p. 1, 2):

The implicit assumption seems to be that, because different regions of the cortex have crucial roles in visual, auditory and sensory processing, learners should receive information in visual, auditory or kinaesthetic forms according to which part of their brain works better. The brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound, and reviews of educational literature and controlled laboratory studies fail to support this approach to teaching.


Paul Howard-Jones

That means that, as ELT teachers, we should rethink the idea of labelling students according to their learning preferences since we have robust evidence that a multifaceted approach to teaching, in which we offer multiple representations of new knowledge, is beneficial to every learner. 

MBE also gives us quite a lot of insights about how languages are learned (and acquired). We have been witnessing the rise of bilingual schools and the shift from EFL to ELF (English as a Lingua Franca). All these changes have important consequences for how language centers operate around the world. 

Based on the body of work from MBE, I can honestly say that I do not consider it as revolutionary as I used to think. People sometimes fall for buzzwords and “revolutionary” claims (especially when they have the terms brain-based, brain-friendly or neuro attached to them). A word of advice: be careful. Using neurojargon and promising “you’ll be able to learn anything with five easy-to-follow steps” is probably a hoax. It generally disregards years of research conducted by several peers from around the world by claiming that someone made an incredible discovery and found a secret formula to maximize learning like never before!

I do think, though, that MBE is worth learning about because it’s sober. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary to actually change many paradigms and positively impact learners. After all, teachers and policymakers have been doing the same old stuff based on tradition and are still prioritising types of assessment that do not seem to capture the wholeness of learning and often label students as not good enough. As I mentioned before, I myself have called it revolutionary a couple of times (and it might still slip now and again), but I believe MBE to be quite responsible and cautious. Remember, it doesn’t take much in this post-truth era for the media to start propagating fake news and that means we must be as evidence-based as possible to make sure people have the latest research available in terms they can understand to make important decisions about their lives and those of others.

As any good teacher, I’ll leave you with some research to do. We would certainly benefit from learning how to explore strategies such as brain breaks and interleaving, retrieval practice and spaced repetition, pretesting and prior knowledge activation, self-regulation and mindfulness, metacognition and mindsets. The list also goes on. I’ll let you figure out what else to study and a good place to start would be one of the resources below:

MBE Resources

BRAZ-TESOL MBE SIG – sign up for our event in Portuguese about memory here.

https://www.facebook.com/btmbesig

https://www.instagram.com/braztesolmbesig/

INTERNATIONAL MIND, BRAIN, AND EDUCATION SOCIETY

https://imbes.org/

SCIENCE OF LEARNING EBC

http://www.scienceoflearning-ebc.org/

CONEXIONES PLATAFORMA DE CIENCIAS DEL APRENDIZAJE

https://thelearningsciences.com/?lang=en

MIND BRAIN ED THINK TANKS +

https://www.mindbrained.org/

LEARNING SCIENTISTS

https://www.learningscientists.org/

References

Ansari, D., & Coch, D. (2006). Bridges over troubled waters: Education and cognitive neuroscience. Trends in cognitive sciences10(4), 146-151.

Blakemore, S. J., & Frith, U. (2005). The learning brain: Lessons for education. Blackwell publishing.

Bruer, J. T. (1997). Education and the brain: A bridge too far. Educational researcher, 26(8), 4-16.

Dekker, S., Lee, N., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429-429

Ferrari, M., & McBride, H. (2011). Mind, Brain, and Education: The birth of a new science. Learning landscapes, 5(1), 85-100.

Fischer, K. W. (2009). Mind, brain, and education: building a scientific groundwork for learning and teaching1. Mind, Brain, and Education, 3(1), 3-16.

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2010). Introducing neuroeducational research: Neuroscience, education and the brain from contexts to practice. Taylor & Francis.

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience15(12), 817-824.

IMBES (2018). Home. Retrieved from https://imbes.org/

James, M., & Pollard, A. (2011). TLRP’s ten principles for effective pedagogy: rationale, development, evidence, argument and impact. Research Papers in Education26(3), 275-328.

OECD. (2002). Understanding the brain: Towards a new learning science. Paris: OECD Publishing

OECD. (2007). Understanding the brain: The birth of a learning science. Paris: OECD Publishing

OECD (2017). PISA 2015 Results (Volume III). Students’ Well-Being. Paris: OECD Publishing.

TLRP, 2015. Publications. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20150918022927/http://www.tlrp.org/index.html

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2010). Mind, brain, and education science: A comprehensive guide to the new brain-based teaching. WW Norton & Company.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.

Paper photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

History of Learning and Learning Theories: Looking back to Move Forward

Yesterday was a particularly sad day for Brazil. It was our biggest death toll in 24 hours since the beginning of the pandemic: 1726 lives were lost due to COVID-19. Many families won’t see their loved ones anymore, many friends won’t be able to hug each other when this is over. Many dreams were shattered by this chaotic period we’re going through.

This all got me thinking. It made me reflect on why we seem to disregard (or refuse to learn from) the past when trying to move forward. Why are we trapped in a bubble of our own collective ignorance and keep making the same mistakes? Psychology and Neuroscience might offer relevant insights about this puzzle but we can discuss this some other day.

For this blog post, let us focus on how the concept of learning and education evolved throughout different ages. What can this evolution teach us about what we’re going through today and how can that impact what we value in formal education?

Humans have been fascinated with learning and how it occurs for as long as the earliest civilizations were formed. It was assumed by the Ancient Egyptians and the Greek that intelligence, senses, and emotions were functions of the heart (Wickens, 2015). However, around the 5th century BC, a philosopher and physician by the name of Alcmaeon of Croton, had already suggested that the brain was the seat of the mind, that it controlled intelligence, as well as the senses (Wickens, 2015)

Other Ancient Greek philosophers who lived a century or so later such as Socrates and his disciples, particularly Plato, believed that knowledge was innate and it could be accessed, or brought out, through reflection (Cordasco, 1976).  Maieutics, commonly known as the Socratic Method, posits that the truth emerges through dialogue, or a series of questions, where the presentation of a claim (thesis) is challenged by another claim (antithesis) successively in an attempt to join the opposing views into a more refined truth (synthesis) or discard them altogether (refutation) only to start this process of inquiry again. It can be argued that Socrates gave rise to the early developments of critical pedagogy, although his methods would not become part of educational debates and policy until quite recently (Benson, 2000; Schunk, 2012)

Nevertheless, at the time of Socrates, in other parts of the Western world, such as Sparta and the Roman Empire, and in Asia, particularly China and India, the notion of learning through discipline and obedience was widespread. This notion of perfection through practice, and often penitence, has been replicated by many countries from the Middle Ages to more contemporary times. It was believed that physically punishing students was an effective way to make them learn and instil obedience and respect in them (Cordasco, 1976). For instance, it was only in the mid-1980s that corporal punishments at schools were forbidden in the United Kingdom (Ghandhi, 1984).

It is worth stressing that throughout most of education history, only a few, members of an elite, noblemen and royalty, were allowed to receive and could afford some sort of formal education (Schunk, 2012). These children would most likely have a private tutor, normally a monk, who taught them reading and writing, maths, rhetoric, arts, philosophy, astrology and history. The children of peasants, and serfs, during medieval times, were conditioned by their social status to learn how to farm and help their parents with the crops, and perhaps become an apprentice under the tutelage of a master who taught them a profession. The church was directly involved with formal education in medieval Europe and its main concern was to teach obedience so that the children would grow into adults who conformed to their position in society (Cordasco, 1976; Schunk, 2012).

In the late 17th century until the late 18th century, when the Enlightenment brought the so-called Age of Reason to Europe and America, which promoted the scientific revolution and a break from religious dogma, philosophers such as the Englishman John Locke and the French Jean Jacques Rousseau discussed what education should be like and how children should be educated (Gianoutsos, 2006; Ferrari & McBride, 2011; Schunk, 2012).

Only with the establishment of modern psychology, in the late-1800s, that the notion of joining brain and mind science applied in education started to become a trend. Psychologists such as Thorndike, Freud, Piaget, Vygotsky, Wallon, Pavlov, and Skinner wanted to understand features of children’s learning process through the observation of or experimentation with children’s development and behaviours (and through animal tests), which laid the foundation for one of the bases of the MBE science, that is, mind research. A newly born concern of how children develop and learn took its place in academia (Ferrari & McBride, 2011; Schunk, 2012).

In retrospect, we can distinguish some very influential learning theories that have their origins in psychology. I provide five of them, their descriptions and main authors below.

Learning theories

TheoryDescriptionAuthors
PsychodynamicsChildhood experiences shape our personalities and remain in the unconscious, which influences our learningFreud (1915); Adler (1927); Erikson (1950); Jung (1964)
BehaviourismExternal factors, conditioning, learning as observable behaviourThorndike (1905); Watson (1930); Pavlov (1955); Skinner (1978)
CognitivismInternal processing, incremental stages, prior knowledgePiaget (1932, 1958) Piaget & Cook (1952); Chomsky (1957)
ConstructivismHumans create meaning, not acquire it. We construct knowledge through our experiences. Socio-constructivism: we learn through interactions with othersPiaget (1945, 1957); Montessori (1936; 1949); Vygotsky (1978)
HumanismHolistic learning, individual as a subject, learning is naturalMaslow (1943, 1968); Rogers (1946, 1959)
Source: authors mentioned in table

I do not intend to go over these theories here as I have already written about them in more detail for the New Routes Magazine and even delivered a webinar for BRAZ-TESOL on the topic:

However, I do want to ask a few reflective questions in the light of two (possibly three) of the theories mentioned above. Consider the following:

Many of Freud’s propositions are now considered pseudoscience but he was certainly right about childhood experiences influencing our adult lives. How damaged will kids from this generation be if we don’t reflect on how to provide safe learning environments that actually help them and do not put their lives (and that of their loved ones) in danger?

I wrote about the need for reflection on the school ecosystem here.

If we look at what authors such as Loris Malaguzzi and Maria Montessori proposed (we could even talk about Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf Education), we might realize that education means preparation for life (to quote John Dewey) not academia only and that current formal education, in general, seems to have settled at promoting a fixed curriculum that keeps great distance from students’ real life. Contact with nature, arts, emotions (mental health and self-regulation), essential life skills, empathy and compassion have never been so important, nevertheless, they seem so scarce.

Think about when these theories/pedagogies took shape and became popular. After a period of incredible hardship (Great World War and the Spanish Flu). It’s as if they were created as a necessity to rethink the status quo and provide innovative solutions to an old educational system. Why haven’t we learned much from them 100 years after? Why do we insist on an outdated teacher-centered model that focuses on standardized test results and the job market? Is it something we can change or is the system immutable?

Finally, I’d like to talk about humanism. If we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we’ll notice that we need food, shelter, safety, love, self-esteem and many other things that are directly connected to us as human beings, holistically, not simply thinking/reasoning brains.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology
Source: Simple Psychology website

That tells us something about what to prioritize in education and in society as a whole. However, can we say we have at least tried to use these lessons from the past to reflect on the needs of today and break the current educational paradigm? Can we honestly say that we drank from the source of wisdom left to us by the collective endeavor of human entrepreneurship and ingenuity in order to face this challenge in the best way we could with the least damage possible?

I know. Not everything is up to us. I wish I could say that if we really wanted to, we’d be able to make change. Proper change. The powers that be are set and we sometimes find ourselves in a straightjacket. Nonetheless, what are the lessons we can learn from how learning has evolved and how schooling is set up nowadays? I wrote about a few lessons here that might shed some light on this debate.

I suppose my takeaway is that even though formal education has been reaching more and more people, it is still quite old-fashioned, based on hierarchy/discipline and behaviorism, college/academia-oriented, and that families have delegated many of their parenting responsibilities to schools as they’re always busy. The wheel must keep turning no matter what. In that process, there’s no time to really stop and rethink the things we’re doing.

If we keep moving and don’t stop to learn from the past, someone once said, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes. I wish I could say there’s hope. I wish I could say that we’ll get out of this terrible pandemic as soon as possible and that we’ll change education to suit the needs of our kids as future citizens that are connected to one another, to nature, people who have compassion and can work collaboratively to achieve solutions to benefit the world. However, based on what I’m witnessing, I dare say that History will keep on repeating itself and old mistakes will be made and replicated again an again.

I hope I’m wrong and I hope we learn something from the history of learning. What do you think?

References

Adler, A. (1927). Understanding human nature. New York: Greenburg

Benson, H. (2000) Socratic Wisdom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cordasco, F. (1976). A brief history of education: a handbook of information on Greek, Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and modern educational practice (No. 67). Rowman & Littlefield.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Ferrari, M., & McBride, H. (2011). Mind, Brain, and Education: The birth of a new science. Learning landscapes, 5(1), 85-100.

Freud, S. (1915). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

Ghandhi, S. (1984). Spare the rod: Corporal punishment in schools and the European Convention on Human Rights. International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 488-494.

Jung, C. G., et al. (1964). Man and his Symbols, New York, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-96.

Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being (2nd ed.). New York: D. Van Nostrand.

Montessori, M. (1936). The secret of childhood. B. B. Carter (Ed.). Calcutta: Orient Longmans.

Montessori, M. (1949). The absorbent mind (Vol. 1). Lulu. com.

Pavlov, I. P. (1955). Selected works. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1945). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. London: Heinemann.

Piaget, J. (1957). Construction of reality in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence. AMC, 10, 12.

Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.

Rogers, C. R. (1946). Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. American Psychologist, 1,  415-422.

Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories an educational perspective sixth edition. Pearson.

Skinner, B. F. (1978). Reflections on Behaviorism and Society. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. 

Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology. New York: A. G. Seiler.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2015). Most likely to succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era. Simon and Schuster

Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism (revised edition). University of Chicago Press.

Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

Wickens, Andrew P. (2015) A History of the Brain: From Stone Age Surgery to Modern Neuroscience. London: Psychology Press. ISBN 978-1-84872-365-8

21 Lessons for 2021: A Brief History of our Mistakes

I once heard someone say that it is during times of pain and suffering that we learn the best lessons. I tend to disagree a little because I’d rather believe that:

A smart man learns from his mistakes. A wise one learns from the mistakes of other

Unknown

I said I disagree a little because I can’t really agree completely with the statement above. First because it’s outdated. It should read “A smart person…”. Secondly because many times we need to make the mistakes ourselves so that we can actually learn. At other times, we might not learn at all from our mistakes and those of others and we can be doomed to repeat them. We could also claim that moments of joy, success or bliss are the ones that teach us the best lessons.

The big question is: How can we learn from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others? The first step might be related to recognizing the mistake. This can be hard if we have no one to point that out or a basic reference, a yardstick. But for both our mistakes and those of others, once we’re passed the recognition stage, we can start the one that maybe matters the most: reflection. Reflection requires us to question our own biases and try to understand why we do the things we do and what we can change to do better the next time.

A powerful way to learn from the mistakes of others and reflect on how to do things differently is to pick up a History book. If you’re more of a documentary kind of person, there are many options as well. I love documentaries, but I can’t get enough of books. As a matter of fact, one of the most interesting books I read last year was 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. In it, Harari discusses some of the broad themes (or big issues) that have made humanity what it is, some of the dilemmas we face, and what we can expect in the future. He talks about community, fake news, Artificial Intelligence, politics, war, education, religion, science, you name it. A quite illustrative quote of his book goes like:

Humans have bodies. During the last century technology has been distancing us from our bodies, We have been losing our ability to pay attention to what we smell and taste. Instead we are absorbed in our smartphones and computers. We are more interested in what is happening in cyberspace than in what is happening down the street. It is easier than ever to talk to my cousin in Switzerland, but it is harder to talk to my husband over breakfast, because he constantly looks at his smartphone instead of at me.

Yuval Noah Harari

Harari does have a point and this excerpt seems to suggest something we’ve been sort of aware of for some time but we also seem to deny this reality, feel powerless about it or at least be OK with it. When I say “we”, I’m referring to education and all of its stakeholders. At the same time, the apparent paradox never ceases to amuse me. If we’re becoming ever more tech-savvy, why was it such an enormous challenge for educators to adapt to the new pandemic reality and integrate digital tools into the learning process? What is missing in this puzzle?

So, is there anything we can do to learn from the mistakes that we’ve been making in the last decades? Can we learn anything from the mistakes we made in 2020 while trying to make sure our kids and teens had access to (quality) education? What about English teaching and Bilingual programs? What are some of the valuable lessons we can take from not just our recent mistakes but also from the mistakes of others who seem to be a ahead of the curve when compared to us?

The pupose of this blog post, the very first of 2021, is by no means to provide you with the ultimate list of immutable lessons that will prevent us from ever making mistakes again. Errors and mistakes are important since they often come to us as learning opportunities. My goal here is to point out 21 reflections shared by me and some of the people I follow, colleagues, and peers I admire. I won’t elaborate too much on each lesson, though. I hope you add your own layers to them and share them with your peers so that we can keep learning because I’ll promise you one thing: we won’t stop getting things wrong.

  1. Teachers cannot be replaced by technology (at least not yet and not entirely). The human factor – including physical presence – should be a fundamental part of the teaching-learning process, particularly for young learners
  2. Teachers are the most valuable asset any school has. That also means that promoting a culture of professional development is always an important pillar and one of the best investments managers can make
  3. Using technology for the sake of technology probably works more as a distraction or simply to provide fun than something that might promote effective learning outcomes. If you can’t teach it, don’t tech it
  4. We still need to better integrate digital technologies into schools, though. There’s a visible gap that needs addressing. Either the school does not have the required structure or the teachers do not use (or do not know how to use) the tech they have as they could. It may as well be both
  5. We need to look at schools as resource centers that are not too open (free) nor too closed (restricting) or monotonous. They need spaces for creative thinking, hands-on activities, trial and error, and rooms where they can use computers, coding, robotics and other things. Preferably integrated spaces with flexible seating arrangements
  6. Student-centered approaches allow schools to focus on providing the resources for students’ needs instead of obsessing with content-driven curricula. Content is not such a rare commodity anymore
  7. The teachings of Loris Malaguzzi, Emmi Pikler, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, and Paulo Freie are more relevant than ever. Autonomy, guided and self-discovery, play, curiosity, social interaction, artistic expression, empathy, differentiation and personalization, as well as love of nature need to be at the heart of the learning process
  8. Flipped Classroom and Project-Based Learning need to gain more space and help schools look at subjects in a more interdisciplinary (or even transdisciplinary) way
  9. Blended Learning and more customizable learning environments/experiences are on the rise for good now. That means schools and teachers will have to create and curate content for students to have options when they’re studying asynchronously
  10. There’s no reason to believe that new drastic transitions won’t happen anymore. Schools should expect sudden changes and need to be better prepared for situations like COVID-19 in the future. Managers, teachers, and families have to devise contigency plans. A successful contigency plan has to be more based on the HOW rather than the WHAT. Protocols, processes, and methodologies need to be set in motion quickly so that the school ecosystem can adapt as painlessly as possible
  11. The interactions between education stakeholders have a powerful impact on students’ mental states and, thus, on their learning capabilities. Families, teachers, managers, and students need to understand each other’s roles and realize that their attitudes and behaviors towards learning matter
  12. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is as important as (or maybe even more than) learning content and skills. Without emotional regulation (self and co), and behavior management students cannot learn effectively
  13. Educators’ mental health need to be addressed as well. Schools need to provide teachers with the opportunities to talk about their mental health and with qualified professionals who can help
  14. Educators, students, families, and even policymakers should have a basic understanding of cognitive sciences so that they can make educational decisions based on how the brain and the mind learn. The Science of Learning and Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) should be part of pre and in-service training
  15. Scientific and critical thinking must be at the foundation of teaching. Fake news, science deniers, authoritarian governments are on the rise because education has been failing entire generations that are easily grouped together on social media through algorithms and live in their own bubbles where their cognitive biases are reinforced
  16. English language teaching has been changing and we should expect to see a rise on bilingual education. Therefore, ideas such English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and Content and Language Integrated Learnig (CLIL) should gain more momentum and ideologies such as native-speakerism should lose strength
  17. As bilingual schools/programs grow, private language centers will have to adapt to survive. It might take a few years, but these private schools will lose more and more Young Learners and Teens in 2021
  18. Private language centers should/can rethink how they teach (and attract) adult students as more and more professionals will look for solutions that prepare them for situational/conversational English with very little focus on exams
  19. With many classes going remote due to the pandemic, private teachers, and smaller schools might be able to reach more students than ever (not considering the negative effects of the economy)
  20. Big publishers should start rethinking the layout and content of ELT books so that they can adapt to the blended/remote learning scenario. Many schools may need fewer physical books and want to have the digitized version instead with short videos of every lesson
  21. We will continue to make the same mistakes and maybe very little will change

I’m sorry if the last lesson isn’t that positive. When I look at people’s attitudes in 2020 regarding the pandemic, wearing masks, conspiracy theories about the vaccine, lockdowns and other situations brought to us because of COVID-19, I don’t see a lot of change. To be honest I see many of the same behaviors people had a century ago when the Spanish Flu hit the world and killed millions. The problem is that with all the amazing progress we have achieved in the last 100 years, we should expect people to act differently. We should expect people to pick up a History book and be more “intelligent”.

The big question then is: how intelligent are we as a species?

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change

Stephen Hawking

The man who said that, Stephen Hawking, was certainly intelligent. Having lived a functional life for many years with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), against all the odds of survival, and having contributed so much to science should suffice as evidence of his overwhelming intelligence. His book A Brief History of Time is one of my favorites because I’m fascinated by how the universe and nature work and because he had the phenomeal ability of writing about complex things in such an easy way (mostly through concrete examples of our daily lives).

In Hawkings’ book, he takes us on a journey from Ancient Greek to modern times and how our understanding of the cosmos has changed. He describes how before Copernicus, and Galileo the paradigm was that the earth was the center of the universe. Hawking points out how Sir Isaac Newton proposed his Law of Universal Gravitation in the 17th century and how we still use his formulas till this day. However, it was only in the 19th century that another brilliant scientist proposed something that would add to (and “correct”) Newton’s theories which would allow us to create incredible new technologies such as the GPS. This man was Albert Einstein and his proposition (referred to as General Relativity) changed Physics.

Newton knew, however, that all he was able to accomplish would not have been so if he hadn’t learned from the mistakes and the successes of others before him. He said:

If I have been able to see farther than others, it was because I stood on the shoulders of giants

Sir Isaac Newton

We now know that Earth is not even in the center of our own galaxy, let alone the entire universe. We also know that our planet is basically a sphere with slightly flattened poles (not everyone seems to believe that, though). We also know that the fabric of space-time is warped by gravity and that there’s no absolute time. Time is relative. Building upon the knowledge left by others is how we move forward, how we make progress, how we adapt to change. We study, we learn, we compare, we think, we reflect, and we act. If we haven’t been able to adapt to change, we might not be that intelligent after all.

Our biggest challenge could be that the lack of change, real and profound change, in education. A change that has yet to take place. We might need a complete paradigm shift, not unlike the scientific method and how it works, to learn and implement important lessons from our mistakes and the mistakes of those who lived in different times.

I wonder if 100 years from now someone will write a list of reflections that resembles this one. I hope not. I hope humans in 2121 discuss other paradigms, like what physicists are doing now with Quantum Mechanics and particle accelerators, not whether the Earth is flat or not or if vaccines work. I hope the future educators look at this blog post as a historical account of less modern times and reflect on how they got where they are. I hope they get the same feeling I got when reading about these giants who came before us and did amazing things because they learned from people who had come before them.

I hope Einstein meant that we could be more intelligent collectively. I hope he meant that we would not run out of things to discover when he said:

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe

Albert Einstein

Maybe he meant something else. Maybe I’m wrong about what he meant. I can tell you one thing, though. He was wrong about the universe being infinite. It took him many years to learn that lesson.

May we learn from mistakes and change our mindsets

That’s my hope for 2021. Happy New Year!

What would you change/add to my list? Let me know



Science of Learning Resources to help you with Lesson Planning

If you’ve been following me long enough, you’ve probably realized that I talk quite a lot about the Science of Learning (SoL). I believe teachers and students all over the world can benefit greatly from understanding basic principles of how our mind and brain learn. That’s what SoL does. It looks at research and evidence from the cognitive sciences (neuroscience and psychology) and what implications they might have for teachers teaching in the classroom, for students learning from their teachers or even on their own. SoL can be an amazing tool for anyone looking to plan and deliver more effective lessons.

The purpose of this blog post is to put together some of the resources I’ve created or that inspired me so that you can learn more about the SoL and try to implement a few principles into your teaching practice. You can also try to use them as a student yourself.

The links to some videos and articles are below. Hope they are useful!

We start speaking at around 9:30
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The Importance of Science and Scientific Thinking in Education

Last year I had the privilege of attending an event promoted by the Federal University of Goiás (UFG) with two great references of Brazilian science: Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences; and Ricardo Galvão, former president of the National Institute for Space Research and former director of the Brazilian Center for Physical Research. This event made me think about how fundamental the role of science and scientific thinking is for future generations if we want to avoid the things we’re witnessing today. As teachers and educators, should we engage with this debate or should we “stick to our subject” without judging or questioning our students’ assumptions about things related to science? This post challenges the view of sticking to our subject based on the scenario depicted in these two scientists’ talks.

Ricardo Galvão and Luiz Davidovich. Photo retrieved from abc.org.br

After a brief introduction by the dean and the vice-dean of UFG Graduate Program, both emphasizing the tragedy that plagues Brazilian universities promoted by a government with no commitment to technological research and development, we were delighted with a coherent, passionate, and assertive presentation by Davidovich filled with statistical data, as expected by every good scientist . His slides explored the side that we don’t see so often in non-scientific media.

In short, Davidovich emphasized the predominance of postgraduate courses from public universities in the national scientific production that has global repercussion. He showed the natural symbiotic relationship between the public university and strategic industrial sectors, with examples such as Petrobrás (energy), Embrapa (food) and Embraer (aviation). Luiz emphasized the great challenges of research in the country, with emphasis on the lack and irregularity of funding, obsolete programs, internal resistance and high bureaucratization, little incentive for quality publication, prioritizing quantity, in addition to the “massacre” of young researchers, overloaded with a large number of classes.

Davidovich’s central message was that Brazil is not as bad in terms of science as many seem to believe and that despite the remarkable dismantling in the last 5 years, past governments have also not prioritized the role of the university as much as they should. However, he did not fail to remember that the quality university is the product of a quality educational system and that many changes must occur at the base.

Ricardo Galvão, who recently gained fame for standing against Environment Minister Ricardo Salles in an assertive way in relation to the minister’s accusations that the data produced by the National Space Research Institute were wrong or deceitful, complemented the Davidovich’s speech. The repercussion of this clash earned Galvão the nickname “the old man who is putting out the fire in the Amazon” by an 8-year-old child on the subway.

Ricardo Galvão started his presentation with a slide of an article showing the photo of Ricardo Salles and on the next slide he showed the great problem and danger that we have ahead of us: President Bolsonaro, his pseudo-scientific intellectual guru Olavo de Carvalho and Chancellor Ernesto Araújo. This group, and many other ministers appointed by the president, took conspiracy theories, obscurantism and science denialism as the tone of our national development policy. They deny that the Earth is round, that global warming exists, that COVID-19 is as serious as it is and other debates that have already been settled in the scientific community. They make decisions and justify them based on personal opinion often driven by a paranoid fear of a globalist threat from communists and the political left in general.

To wrap up, Luiz brought Henri Poincaré’s quote that the scientist is moved not by the usefulness of their findings, but because nature is beautiful and pleasant to study. Galvão brought Adolf Hitler’s response to Max Planck when he tried to prevent the fuhrer from firing scientists for political-ideological reasons. Hitler said he would not change his position and that if the dismissal of Jewish scientists meant the end of German science, then they would live without science for a few years.

To hear from these authorities that dialogue is difficult, often impossible with some sectors of the new government and that this has never happened before in their profession, is worrying and frightening. However, there is hope. Dialogue may fail when those who defend science hit back with fury and humiliation. And we are all guilty of that. We hit back hard because of the many absurds we see often. But that makes our listeners go into defense mode. Instead of doing that with hatred, let us try to educate or at least make them reflect. The scientific method welcomes debate and criticism with open arms and its main purpose is to clarify how things work and how they could work better.

As for science deniers who deliberately propagate fake news and pseudoscience, I suppose our best tool against them is an educated population. A generation of students who are educated in the scientific method and understand how important science has been. We also need students to become ethical citizens so that they understand the consequences of using science to do good or evil. The way I see it, we must not remain neutral about things that go against the current scientific knowledge, but we must be careful not to discourage this debate or even shut off our students’ voice and lose them forever. We need to ignite their passion for science.

It’s said that the famous physicist Richard Feynman once lectured in Brazil to a group of enthusiastic students and soon realized that they were brilliant to remember concepts. They could cite definitions verbatim. But when Feynman asked them to apply their deductive reasoning based on these concepts to solve a logical problem, they failed. This anecdote shows us that for the better part of Brazilian education, we’ve been teaching about science and not through science and with it. It may also have to do with the idea that promoting debates where we need to present our ideas based on logic and evidence-based arguments is not something we see in many Brazilian educational settings.

I know what you might be thinking. I’m a language teacher and have absolutely nothing to do with this. My job is to teach language and not challenge my students’ view on things no matter how absurd they are. I hear you and I feel you. And to be fair I have changed my mind a million times about this topic (I might still change my mind). What I do think nowadays is that we have a moral duty as citizens and educators to at least fight off fake news and pseudoscience. We might not always know what science says about this or that, that’s true. But I fail to see how encouraging students or simply allowing them to demoralize or question the scientific community without evidence will do us any good.

What can we do then? Here are some ideas:

  • 1- Use inquiry-based learning at school and promote scientific knowledge in practical ways (use labs, relate it to students’ daily lives and community problems, etc)
  • 2- Ignite students’ love for science. It’s about discovery and curiosity. Not about memorizing definition. In high school when we learned about waves, light and propagation, not once did we go to a lab to see that with our own eyes. We basically had to memorize formulas and I never really saw the application of what I was doing for my real life.
  • 3- Fight off fake news and pseudoscience, but remember to have patience and empathy with those who propagate them. The idea is to keep the dialogue open and not close it so that they won’t have the chance to rethink their beliefs;
  • 4- Be enthusiastic about science yourself. Tell them about the life of famous scientists and artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci or Madame Curie;
  • 5- Acknowledge the immeasurable contribution of science to society. Remind students that science is not just done in a lab, but it is a process that involves all levels of education, particularly universities;
  • 6- Vote for representatives who defend these ideals. Do not give power to people who deny the scientific method. These people can undermine years of scientific progress and affect the minds of poorly educated masses and people driven by their cognitive biases in general;

At the end, Davidovich summed up what I think:

I have always managed to have a conversation with left, center and right-wing governments, but when the logic is distorted, incomprehensible, there is no dialogue

I hope that we continue to have curiosity and passion to discover new things and that we try to understand that science, as a whole, has a direct impact on the economy and human lives. Priority areas must exist, no doubt. But where would we be today if Rousseau had not written the Social Contract? Or if Freud had not given birth to psychoanalysis, which, despite theories considered to be pseudoscientific, brought us to an era in which therapy is normal? Imagine if at the turn of the 19th century, so many scientists had not presented us with quantum theory? Where would we be in relation to computing, space exploration in search of an explanation of our origins? If it weren’t for Einstein and his Theory of Relativity, today we wouldn’t have Uber, which works thanks to GPS that has correction calculations that only became possible because someone dreamed, was curious and researched.

When scientific breakthroughs fall in the wrong hands, we may experience terrible tragedies and setbacks, that is true. We’ve seen it happen before and we’ll see it again. That’s why we need to have ethical principles and lots of caution and debate. Nonetheless, a world without science would send us back to the Dark Ages where dogma is the rule and nothing is up for debate. That’s a thousand times scarier and more dangerous to me.

As Carl Sagan once said:

Science is not perfect. It’s often misused; it’s only a tool, but it’s the best tool we have. Self-correcting, ever changing, applicable to everything: with this tool, we vanquish the impossible

Carl Sagan

Get inspired in Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s letter to Brazil to bring science into our educational system and celebrate the amazing feats of our people here. He ends his letter with:

Countries that struggle the most in the world tend to be those with low education levels and an absence of STEM in their culture. You have the resources and the legacy to lead all of Latin America, if not the world, in what a country of tomorrow should be—in what a country of tomorrow should aspire to. If you embrace and bolster your STEM industries—and the entire tech sector—then the dreams of students in the educational pipeline will have no limit, as they enter a world where rockets are what fuel people’s ambitions as they exit the cave door.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

My only suggestion to Neil is that he adds the A where it belongs. Not only STEM. We need STEAM and research in arts to change our future, just like Da Vinci did. After all, the Earth without art is just EH.