Dont buy the Sun.

Dont buy the Sun.
Hillsborough Justice campaign - Remember the 96.

Thursday, 25 February 2010


Faced with an essay titled "Observe a Learning Environment and describe how psychological theory interprets the behaviour you observe" I have decided to write about adult learning. I know that most of my university colleagues will observe children, but I have two objections to this. The first is that observing children has been done to death, and any essay I am capable of writing that stemmed from such observations would reflect my complete lack of interest in child development - it would just be a bog standard review of Piaget, Vygotsky etc etc etc. My second objection, related to writing about children is the children themselves - horrible little noisy creatures. I am glad I was never one of them.

My essay will instead be based on observations of my own class of adult learners as a new teaching assistant. This though, presents some serious problems of its own. For example, 99.9% of the research papers on adult learning appear to include, somewhere in the abstract a few sentences that say :

"Adult learning is an under-researched area. This paper will look at why this is so, and includes a meta-analysis of all the other papers that have looked at why adult learning is an under researched are. Included in our conclusions is that more research needs to be done into adult learning, and that it is an under-researched area."

Cited by 4,201,225.

Thus, guidance from proper academics on how and why adults learn is very thin on the ground. And while this may have the effect of making my essay slightly harder to write, for the essay at least, there are always the old standbys of Wikipedia and cut and paste. This however, still leaves the real world problem of how to help my learners speak, write and read English. You would think that for the joint second best academic in England, this would be no problem. "HA!" you might say to yourself "For the chap who cracked the secrets of civilization, evolution and anthropology in the impressive sixty one page Civilization- Why? trilogy, teaching a group of disparate adults to read, speak and write English will present about as much difficulty as would be presented to a reptilian faced Canadian Prime Minister when faced with a thorny issue such as democracy. He will simply pretend the problem does not exist. Our hero will effectively prorogue the inability to speak English, and carry the day by sheer briliance."

Unfortunately, like some Canadians, my learners are a slightly more complicated bunch than that, and any notions that they might be be fluently debating Platonian democracy in English and Greek by the second week of my lessons were slightly optimistic. The classes are held weekly in a "could be anywhere" beige room within a flaking, failing building near the centre of Hull. In one corner of the room is an ugly stainless steel sink, perhaps left over from a previous occupancy, while on an opposite wall a never cleaned window is painted shut, iron bars on its outside helping the impression that we are in some sort of detention centre. A third wall features a greyish rusting radiator, British style, that either emits intense heat from its upper right hand corner or is off. The carpet's original colour could be any colour between light grey and charcoalish brown, and it is the type of industrial nylon weave that would probably withstand the landing of a 747. Without people, the room is dead, characterless, bereft of anything akin to atmosphere. We scrounged a small coffee table from a junk shop down the street and set it up on the last free wall, just next to the door, with tea, coffee and a bunch of red mugs. Without people, the room is dead, characterless, bereft of anything akin to atmosphere. Then the learners walk in.

The group I work with is smallish - between eight and ten people. The aim is to try to help each class improve, or learn English. But "group" is completely the wrong word to use in describing the people I work with, because there is nothing "group" about them. If fun could be described by diversity, and at the moment I tend to think that it can, then this would be the most fun anyone has ever had - as 'my' group usally spans three continents, a mix of English ability that ranges from 'none' to 'accomplished speaking, no writing', male and female, age range from 24 to 65, educational accomplishment from Professorial intellects to illiterate farm labourer, a completely variable set of motivations and intended outcomes and from every educational tradition imaginable. Furthermore, the language roots are interchangeable, from African born French speakers to Cyrillic Russians, Brazilian Portuguese speakers and pictographic Chinese. And then there's the religious and political differences, and ethnic and cultural variation sthat we all bring to the table. One of the first sessions I ever did was called "Getting to know you" - intended as a fifteen minute ice-breaker. We are, after a month and a half and six sessions, still working through the first page.

The final complication is that the classes are informal. This means that learners turn up with very varying degrees of regularity, and sometimes a person attends only once then they never return. We have no attendance requirements and offer no qualification. And the only probable common ground among all the learners also provides an explanation for the structure of the class. Their common ground is income and this dictates that the classes have to be free. But it does not necessarily follow that free classes have to be without curriculum, does it? Well actually, it does, because education in the UK, like practically everywhere is market based. This means that not only do students have to pay educational establishments, but also, via a complicated system of controls that are all financially based, educational establishments themselves pay Government, or its agencies. Educational establishments pay for accreditation, inspection, examinations, materials, resources. Our centre runs accredited language courses but they cost. A lot. The learners I work with cannot afford these classes and our centre has to "make money" on all of its official curriculum. So the free classes are not, and cannot be accredited.

Nationally, this helps contribute to a very strange dynamic. The UK is actively seeking economic migrants, to come and work in the fields, picking fruit, harvesting potatoes - they are one of the foundations of our low cost food and our construction industry, usually working for minimum wage. Having myself left "home" on several occasions I can attest that it is not the lazy, the indolent, the wasters that emigrate on the whole, it is the brave, the seekers and doers, the people who want something "better". These people are motivated and ready to contribute. And even when immigrants are political instead of economic, notions that 'they' have arrived 'here' for an easy life on the dole - notions once exclusively fuelled by the right wing press, but now actively supported by both (left and right) our major political parties - are, if one knows anything about the UK's Welfare system, ridiculous. The learners I have met want to work, want to buy a house, want to become respectable, want to fit in. So how, once 'we' have lured these people here, do 'we' set about harnessing this energy, this ambition, this enthusiasm? Well one way we do it, is to arrange our educational system so that it is as obstructive as possible to any ambitions of furtherance an economically poor immigrant might have. In many ways, we equip immigrants for failure. There is a bizarre logic, as a nation, in actively pursuing policies that practically ensure that at some point the State will have to support people, then moaning about this. If I was trying to explain this to my learners using one of the many techniques we use, I would ask them to unscramble the phrase "foot shooting in yourself the". It does not just apply to the UK, but any degree of joined up thinking in a country seeking immigrants would include free language classes on arrival.

These complications and ruminations are, however, purely my concern. When the learners arrive at class - on time, every time - they bring their energy and enthusiasm with them, they care little for politics, at least on a personal level. The beige classroom comes alive. Ilona, a regular, a matriarch if ever there was one, and one of a group of beautifully manicured and dressed Polish women, makes coffee for all, and hands Assim, a Kurdish refugee, his coffee, asking expansively "How are you, Assim?". A new learner from the Sudan, Yemet, unpacks pen, paper, dictionary, a cuddly toy mascot (Snoopy), a water bottle and an I-phone before declaring in perfect, unaccented English "My language skills are ok, but I can only read and write Arabic". An elderly Chinese lady is introduced by her daughter as only speaking Wu language, but able to write Mandarin (I think). My lesson plan for today, based on the progress made with last weeks group of learners is "Past, Present and Future Tenses". I look at Mohammed, anew learner and, as I understand it, a farm labourer from Syria who has never been to school and arrived in the UK two weeks ago with an English vocabulary that consists of "Manchester United" and a broad smile. I make a paper plane out of my lesson plan and start improvising.................

Monday, 22 February 2010

Gender Roles

"Next time", I say with a heavy sigh after descending from Mazzer Central, my operations centre AKA my office, "Next time, you are going to have to watch that rubbish and I will watch a documentary about untreatable diseases".

"That rubbish" refers to another disappointing display by The Most Successful Football Club in English History, and while I am defining things I should add that my rather sniffy reference to "documentary" refers, unfairly, to RHB's penchant for watching television programmes that inform, educate and entertain. To me, this approach to televisual engagement completely misses the point of the medium. Television's job is, I believe, to stultify, exagerrate and sensationalize and should be approached with a obsevratory mindset that is pre-disposed to disappointment if, after an hour or so in front of the box, the viewer is in any way, shape or form enlightened by the experience. As with all rules, there are of course exceptions to this - for example, gaining knowledge on the honour codes of various aliens (Vulcan versus Romulan, for example) is an unvaluable life lesson, and comparitive studies in martial arts have proven life saving on many a trip to the supermarket, but on the whole, for me, television is good for two things - stupidty-enhancement and football. Unfortunately, given the recent performances of Liverpool FC, I have been unable to distinguish between these two experimental conditions. Hence, an almost serious commitment on my part to move on in my viewing habits.

And "moving on" is the current meme at Large Mansions. Some of this is voluntary, some forced. The "forced" bit is the ongoing tanking of the British economy. In the First Year of my degree, I paid my way (in part), by returning to the world of exhibitions and display, travelling mostly to Birmingham and London to install trade shows and conferences. The recession (AKA Global Financial Meltdown) hit during this year, and since then, even the occasional work I used to do has dried up completely. The company I worked for had shed workers twice - twenty five percent of its workforce on the first occasion (about thirty people) and recently twenty percent of the remainder. And the snowball effects are beginning to show throughout the economy. On a macro scale, January represented the first January in history that the British Governmnet had to borrow money. This is important because January is the "pay your taxes or go to jail" month, and traditionally in this month the exchequer's coffers are overflowing. On a micro scale, every single tradesperson who helped us build our house has been back in touch wit me asking for work. Two of them want this work "on the black" (ie cash only) because their businesses have gone under. I personally do not know anyone who has not been affected - a very close relative who manages a significant staff has been instructed to "loose" people, a friend is facing the loss of her house due to sudden and unexpected unemployment. Even as a student,I am potentially faced with arbitary and massive increases in the fees I will have to pay at University - the alternative, I am told is that the Governmnet will have to close course and Universities. It is hard to overstate just how dire the potential economic future of the UK actually is. And equally hard to understand, why the word "revolution" is not heard more often in polite conversation.

The "voluntary" part of moving on, is for us, related to the foregoing, in that I am increasingly satisfied that yet again we have, without any planning of any description, made what appears to be a wise decision in sending self to University, (At this point, I should divert slightly, and state boldly that the entire foregoing of this post is not just a very long build up to a heavy handed brag, but did, I believe, have an integrity of its own. Having said that, results of the Christmas period exams are in, and I am riding high at the top of the class on a wave of seventy percent plus marks.) as my venture into adult learning has so far been an unqualified success. Modesty demands that I clarify this statement sufficeintly so that you understand that I really mean that the voluntary teaching I have taken up is an unqualified success from my perspective. It is quite simply the most fun I have had in a very long time.

Unfortunately, the sheer amount of preparation that has been involved has menat a decrease in blog entries, as that old devil time has become very important. YNWA will resume on a more regular basis in the very near future, once I have completed the curriculum I am writing, because there is lots to tell about what happens when you put a group of people from many different countries across the world(some of whom are deeply prejudiced against eachother) and how one can overcome these differences through the medium of crap television and football. But these stories will have to wait, for now. Instead, as a stand by, I have attached to this post, as a world exclusive, the first "mix down" of a product from my studio, the first music I have "released" in fifteen years. This initial mix is very much a draft - a little sketch. Typically artists do not like to release their sketches and working files, but I am confident that so few people read this blog that there will be no deliterious affect on any potential fan base. Those of you who do read this occasionally would have this stuff inflicted on them after a few drinks anyway if we all lived in the same city, so this is just an experiment to make sure the site can support the links. Dont listen to it critically, just let me know if you can open hear the stuff. At the moment, its just in the form of a link to my webpage on Last FM, but later I hope to be able to download the whole thing to this website. You dont have to download the test track, just go to Last FM, and where the track "fire" (could'nt think of anything else) shows, click the little green arrow next to it and you should be able to hear it. Remember, I'm not asking for a review, just want to know its going to work.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Language Acquisition Device

I will be the first to admit that this week's entry is slightly lazy. This is principally because I am pushed of rtime. Deadlines continue to assault like a battalion of penguins returning to shore after a long fishing trip. Most of this is however, self-inflicted. THe exams have come and gone and the external imperatives they impose have been replaced by a set of internal imperatives. The first of these is musical - I have finally purchased (after waiting seven years for the prices to fall to a reasonable level) some computer software that will enable the recording of some music at home. Where, as an aspiring youth, I had to travel to an expoensive recording studio accompanied by a drummer, guitarist, various roadies and a van load of musical instruments to record my musical inspirations, it is now possible to do exactly the same thing with nothing more than a memory stick and a tambourine. At some point in the near future YWNA will have a musical section - you have been warned.

THe other self imposed deadlines arise because of my successful application to teach English as a second language to various people. THe first session was last week, and was temed an observation - a gentle introduction to allow me to obtain a sense of what was involved. Within five minutes of the observation I was standing on a table walking backwards. This was not because I attended drunk, but because incredibly quickly a rapport developed between myself and the very experienced teacher leading the class. The teacher Eileen is brilliant - experienced, practical, loves what she does and is completely no-nonsense. I was not allowed to be a passive observer, but was engaged as a prop, demostrating the meaning of words like "backwards", "driving" "reverse" through the medium of mime.

Eileen also thought I would "do", and because she is no-nonsense she suggested that I take a small group next week and focus on one subject area - a kind of session within the session. THis involves preparing a lesson plan - something I have previoulsy only done theoretically. Foolishly I agreed. So I now have to prepare a lesson plan for next week, and photocopy it. I had one concern, which I expressed, namely that of accent, and whether I would lead my learners astray by mangled pronunciation. Eileen was dismissive "It will do them good to hear such a different accent - it is more real".

I know that accent and dialect is a regular theme of this blog. I fully admit, unashamedly, to an obsession with origin, culture and difference, but in truth, I think our differences are healthy. And my concerns are not entirely without basis, as it I think that my return to this country has been accompanied by a a reconsolidation of my original accent. If the process continues, and this is where this weeks entry gets lazy, I can foresee a time where my accent wil return to where it started. In the full spirit of laziness,I have posted a couple of links to some examples of how I might just sound in three years time. If this happens it will end the career I have just started. Firstly, John Bishop, a Liverpool comedian:

Secondly, Liverpool football clubs captain and vice captain, both LIverpudlians: