Teach yourself - it's what we have to do

24th April 2009 at 01:00

Getting money from your college to improve your teaching is a bit like crossing a swamp in the dark. You need to know the lie of the land if you are going to get to where you want to be. And the one thing you need to understand is the difference between how to teach and what to teach.

Generally speaking, the how presents few problems. Improving teaching is something all colleges want to be seen to be doing. As with most things in FE, though, to maximise your chances you need to make sure you are pressing the right buttons. If your pitch is to succeed, then you need to pay close attention to the latest fads.

Thus, a short course entitled "The integration of IT-driven differentiation techniques into the high-quality delivery of student independent learning plans" will have your head of department drooling and your professional development managers lining up to pin money on you like uncles at a Greek wedding.

What to teach is another matter. The general assumption is you already know your stuff. You might attract some half-hearted interest in updating your practice if you teach a vocational subject, but if it is anything vaguely academic, then it is down to you.

The fact that many lecturers are required to teach subjects outside their original discipline is conveniently overlooked. You know how to teach, so as long as you are a chapter ahead of the students in the textbook, everything will work out fine. You may be teaching them drivel, but at least it is differentiated drivel.

My degree was in English literature. Thus I landed my first job in FE as an English teacher. It was assumed that I could teach English literature and language up to pretty much whatever level was required. No one, least of all me, concerned themselves with the fact that my highest English language qualification was the O-level I took in 1966.

Somewhere along the line, I started teaching the sexier-sounding subject of linguistics. In this (as in swimming) I was self-taught, though fortunately for my students rather better self-taught than in more athletic pursuits.

How, then, do I keep up to date in my adopted discipline? Surely that is what those fabled long teaching holidays are for? So this year's Easter reading was a fascinating work by the American linguist and anthropologist Daniel Everett. It has the intriguing title Don't Sleep, There are Snakes.

In the 1980s, Everett took his family to live in the Amazonian jungle of Brazil. The idea was to bring the Christian God to the Piraha people, who live a life largely untroubled by the outside world on the banks of the Maici river.

Everett never did manage to translate the Bible - his original intention - into Piraha. His exposure to the Piraha language, however, led him to conclusions that challenged many linguistic orthodoxies of the past 40 years. In particular, Everett claims that the culture of the Pirahas is so entwined with their language that it is virtually impossible for an outsider to understand it without getting to grips with the culture.

While not entirely unique, the Piraha language is unusual, to say the least. With just three vowels and eight consonants, it has one of the smallest number of sounds of any language in the world. Like Chinese, it is tonal, so the same word means different things depending on whether the vowel is pronounced with a high or low pitch. Men speak Piraha differently from women, and as well as being spoken it can also be hummed, whistled and yelled.

Not surprisingly, Everett found Piraha extraordinarily difficult to learn. One particular point of confusion came with the word Tii. Pronounced one way it means simply the first person pronoun, I. Vary the pitch and the word means excrement - which could cause confusion in any language.

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