Remembering to remember

I often struggle to remember the names of my students, especially in large classes. Like most people, using my visual and spacial memory helps. Classes with fixed seating arrangements are out because you want students to mix partners. Attendance lists are frowned upon at the institution I am currently working for.  This had me in a bind.

So Khushi suggested something that I have in fact done: Students formed study groups, made name tags, and I took a photograph of each group holding up their tags. Looking through the pictures I now see myself walking around the room that day to where they were sitting that lesson. Finally, names are starting to stick.

Josua Foer summarizes the technique of the Memory Palace, arguably the best way to memorize individual, unconnected items in sequence by connecting and associating them with 3-D navigation through an imagined scene. He mentions that ancient orators used this topographical technique to learn their speeches by heart, and points to the connection between “topic” (and topic sentence) and “topos”, or place.

The entire art of memorizing is to make items meaningfully connected. But more still, as Foer says about the techniques of the Memory Palace, “They work because they make you work. They force a kind of depth of processing, a kind of mindfulness, that most of us don’t normally walk around exercising. There are no shortcuts.”

Finally, he points out the essential importance of memory,  namely that our lives are the sum of our memories. So we need to process deeply. We must remember to remember.

What psychologists are saying about how technology affects us

Speaking about “The Secret Powers of Time”, Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo (famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment) explains how various perspectives of time – past, present and future – influence our actions and relationships. There are six main orientation time zones:

  • Past: Past positive (nostalgic), or past negative (regretful)
  • Present: hedonistic (seeking pleasure, knowledge), or fatalistic (“It doesn’t pay to plan”)
  • Future: resist temptation for future benefit, or geared to reward after death (both build on trust or expectation)

Catholic nations are more present and past oriented, while Protestant nations are more future orientated.

He says we are going through a time revolution. Children are naturally and essentially hedonistic and present-oriented. What schools around the globe do is to give them a past or future orientation (depending on the predominant culture). Now computer games are increasingly keeping children in their present-hedonistic state, rewiring their brains, so they will be bored in the analogue classroom. Games are indeed addictive, and “all addictions are addictions of present hedonism.” School and education is all about delaying gratification, but present oriented kids will not relate the messages to themselves and their future. I hear echos of my father talking about “instant gratification” as a key element of hedonistic pop culture back when I was a teen in the 1970s.

Philip Zimbardo (2008): The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. Free Press.


Sherry Turkle, professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, writes that mobile devices are becoming the vehicle for intimate relationships, as robots take on responsibilities previously born by friends and family. The instantaneous, engineered response is in fact allowing us to flee from conversation, which takes effort in terms of time and patience, and hence requires us to build those essential skills.

“Most of all, we need to remember — in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts — to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another.”
Sherry Turkle: The Flight From Conversation, NYT April 21, 2012

Sherry Turkle (2011): Alone Together. Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books.

Hasan Elahi: FBI, here I am

“The Visible Man”, Bangladeshi-born American Hasan Elahi, says that he was mistakenly included on the US government terrorist watch list — “and once you’re on, it’s hard to get off”. (Wired) In response, he has dedicated his work to surveillance culture and has put the minute details of his life and travels online. See his website and engaging and thought-provoking talk on TED.

If you’re learning English, don’t watch the video here, though; watch it on the TED site instead, where you can follow this, like most of the talks, in the interactive transcript. Click on any part of the transcript, and the video plays that part. If you’re practicing listening comprehension, keep the section very short, listen to it several times, and try to repeat his words with the same emphasis to get a sense of the way the speaker stresses some syllables (the stressed syllable in the words that carry meaning), and unstresses all the others. The TED talks, along with the fantastic English Central, and for everyday topics, Video Jug, are great for self-study listening comprehension.

Goldie Hawn’s MindUP

I find NLP and yoga are great techniques to stay grounded and to be able to tap into your inner resources. In the process of rethinking how these practices feed mindfulness and connect to learning, I’ve stumbled upon a great project: Goldie Hawn, is into strengthening focus in school children, running a project that came out of her experience of post-9/11 America, as attention-deficit issues, depression and over-medication were noted to be on the rise. She’s created an agenda dedicated to bringing children happiness, enlisting the help of neuroscientists and positive psychologists to create a school curriculum called MindUp, helping children get in touch with their feelings, aiming to create a classroom of happiness. It’s a 15-lesson curriculum, including focussed breathing, attention, relaxation and awareness-building. Children are taught how their brain works; that when their mid-brain is overactive, their prefrontal cortex (the executive function) is blocked off and dims. In order to open up for learning, children need to be able to quiet their mind, which controls their cortisol levels, and they learn the necessary techniques to do so. In addition, they are taught empathy and pro-social behavior, which helps them balance their emotions and find their place in the universe. They learn that acts of kindness cause their system to emit dopamine, making them feel good. So overall, then, the curriculum entails:

  • Focus: 1. How Our Brains Work; 2. Attention; 3. Awareness: The Core Practice
  • Senses: 4. Listening; 5. Seeing; 6. Smelling; 7. Tasting; 8. Movement I; 9. Movement II
  • Attitude: 10. Perspective Taking; 11. Choosing Optimism; 12. Savoring Happy Experiences
  • Mindful action: 13. Acting with Gratitude; 14. Acts of Kindness; 15. Community Action

She and Dr. Dan Siegel, who has developed a concept of self-understanding and tuning into others that he calls “mindsight“, presented the program at TEDMED 2009. For more, see the MindPU site.

Recent write-up in the Huffington Post

Published materials for the curriculum

Pronunciation of words

Part 1: Individual words

In English, words are rarely pronounced the way they are spelled. Here, an online teacher, Melanie (American), provides short video lessons, between 4 and 10 minutes each, contrasting and comparing words that many speakers of other languages find difficult in English.

    • Video 1: said, suit, clothes, recipe, mountain, famous, virus

Note: Most English words with “ch” are pronounced “tsh”: chief, charming, channel. However, in words with a Greek stem the sound is often “k” (archaeology, chasm, hierarchy) and in loanwords from modern Romance languages it’s “sh” (chute, cache, machete)

Part 2: Individual sounds

Now study sounds that many Germans in particular have trouble making. Getting “v” and “w” right is particularly important to avoid misunderstanding. Practice “minimal pairs”, or words that are the same except for that one sound. Also watch closely how a native speaker makes them, and mouth the sounds yourself, exaggerating the movements your mouth makes. The new sounds must become a habit. The more practice, the better. Watch the two embedded videos to get started.

    • Video 8: “hierarchy”: pronouncing the American rhotic r

Part 3: Phonemic chart


Learn to distinguish sounds using this chart, which is built around the geography of your mouth. Tools:

Note to teachers: It’s well worth watching Adrian Underhill‘s teacher training session – 1 hour

To teachers: I posted this on Moodle for self-study (see screenshot of the top part of the web page). For those of you using Moodle with college students and thinking about how to layout a page, here’s food for thought: Pages load far more slowly when videos are embedded in them, and wifi connections at universities may be slow. I make long pages rather than many short ones, since users prefer to scroll down to check how much there is, which means a lot of data is being loaded at once. So Not to try my students’ patience, I didn’t embed most of the videos, just provided a link. I actually only embedded them here and there, after I saw my (impatient and honest) husband just check the first couple of links, which go to very similar videos, so he missed the more entertaining ones in the second half.

So we might think about embedding one video to raise interest, adding that short intro and a reference to study time needed, and then just link to the following ones beneath. I’m also wondering in retrospect whether it was a good idea to start with Melanie’s videos, as good as they are, since talking heads are more eyecatching and engaging.

In this case, I didn’t add any tasks for practice. This is just reference to self-contained online lessons. I’ll use them as resources to follow-up our face-to-face teaching, or to have something there for the students who only come in to class periodically (this is an ongoing, supplementary, not-for-credit open learning environment for a group of 100 PhD students).

The sequence may seem backwards from an in-class  didactic point of view – Adrian Underhill starts with the phonemic chart – but since this is self-study, I thought starting with mispronounced words was less likely to alienate learners.


Teaching pronunciation using jazz chants

Carol Graham trains teachers how to use jazz chants to teach pronunciation. They’re great energizers and get learners speaking faster than they can think – one of the elements of fluency.

I’ll be doing some jazz chants in the telephoning part of a compact course next week, first giving them some jazz chant minis (see below), and then having them notice stress patterns as we start using each phrase (i.e. finding the onset and tonic syllables, trying out how the meaning changes when patterns change). Carol Graham says it’s very difficult for non-native speakers to put together jazz chants, so if they do discover rhythm patterns on their own, going as far as making their own chants, that’s very impressive.  Anyway, I’ll give them short chants, like these:

  • Hold on, __ I’ll put you through. OK, I’ll get back to you.
  • I’ll fax it to you. I’ll give you a call. I’ll call you right back. No, I’ll wait for your call.
  • Let me see if he’s in. I think he’s gone out. He’ll be back at 1. Shall I have him call you?
  • I’ll make sure she gets your message. Let me see what I can do. I’ll make sure she calls you back. Let me read that back to you.

I like having learners get up and clap their hands or snap their fingers, or do arm movements to go with these.

Vicki Hollett recently made a lovely jazz chant video that includes karaoke, for the language of making appointments here.


Question: Can you learn from a robot?

I had great fun last week, exploring what it is like to talk to a chatbot. It was Shelly Terrell who originally put me up to it, advising me when I was gathering ideas for a Spotlight Magazine article edited and coauthored by Jo Westcombe on ways English learners can use the Internet. I spent the better part of a day and evening experimenting, trying to figure out how chatbots make sense of my input, wondering whether or not our exchange sounded “human”, and thinking about whether I’d want students of English to use chatbots to develop their language skills. My findings will go online as a language exercise to supplement the article on Tuesday, and I don’t want to jump the gun here, but I’d like to share some of my impressions of the process with you.

What I’d like to know from you: Can you learn from a robot? Have you ever “interacted” with an inanimate system to improve technical and/or life skills? What sorts of skills do you think robots could teach? And would you enjoy using them in place of a “human” teacher?

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