The TALK Learning System
The TALK Alternative
I was at a crossroads in my teaching, at the time I began considering the TALK Learning Sys tem, having just completed my first summer towards a Master’s Degree in TESOL at SIT. In this program, one of the main areas of investigation for me had been student initiative versus teacher control (Stevick 1980). I was soon to begin teaching a new conversation class at Saitama Univer sity with approximately 50 students, and I was in need of a textbook. I knew I wanted to try something radically different which would afford me the chance to explore the aforementioned issues in practice, while helping me structure and manage the classroom within the new and unknown teaching environment at Saitama University.
I had often gone to publisher’s workshops at Japan Association of Language Teacher Confer ences, only to be disappointed by the repetitive nature of the materials, and the patent commer cialism of the workshops. Therefore, when I received an introductory TALK Learning Video (Junge, 1993) from a friend, I was understandably skeptical. The video showed students talking very animatedly in pairs, and emphasized student interaction through the use of the materials, and “self-directed learning.” There was no mention of grammar, which had always been an important focus in my teaching, and this intrigued me. The dynamic communicative activity in the video was impressive, however I couldn’t help but wonder whether the highly-motivated students might be simulating conversation, or be conversing in Japanese and not English.
There were several things in the video which peaked my interest though. The first was the com parison between the TALK classroom and its traditional counterpart. According to the video, a traditional class is divided into two camps: students and teachers. The teachers are the ones who “know, control, and lead.” The students are the ones who “don’t know, are controlled, and fol low.” The implication was that this pattern would be broken in the TALK classroom. The second was the mention of the TALK Learning atmosphere as being similar to a “social gathering in a restaurant or at a party.” In my master’s course at SIT, I had been required to study Swahili, and in my role as a reluctant learner, I quickly came to understand the motivational value of fun and social interaction in the classroom, and that a playful atmosphere is an essential factor in learning a language. The third appeal was the built-in Self-Assessment Sheets in the TALK system inasmuch as self-assessment was something I was contemplating for my classes at that time. Then, while examining literature from the publisher, I also noticed diagrams very similar to the Experiential Learning Cycle(Kolb, 1984)1 which I had learned about the previous summer. However, the fact that each pair of students could choose their own topic, page, and study method from the TALK learning materials, and work at their own pace, independently from all the other pairs in the room as well as the instructor, particularly intrigued me. For the first time I felt like I was faced with a truly student-centered material because, in a class of 50 students, 25 pairs could conceivably be working independently on 25 considerably different, self-directed wavelengths. This reality was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and I decided to use TALK Learning right then and there.
The TALK Learning Set and Philosophy
Of the three TALK Learning levels, I chose to use the intermediate with the hope of covering all bases in my new 50 student mixed-ability teaching environment at Saitama University.
In addition to level, the TALK Learning Set is further divided by topic. The set I selected con sisted of: Relationships, Health, Education, Shopping, and Food & Drink.
Basically, TALK Learning is composed of topical groups of B5 cards which can easily be placed in and removed from a binder. These cards are called “Tools.” There are a variety of Tools in cluding: Dialogue, Feedback, Question, Character, IdeaCue, and Lyric Cards. All of these Tools employ either pictures, topical lexicon lists, cloze exercises, and/or dialog, information, and question gap exercises. Each topic is thus subdivided by Tools. 2
Two other crucial parts of the TALK System are the “Learner’s Guide” and the “Study Tips.” Both are in Japanese for the students’ benefit. The Learner’s Guide provides a basic description of the TALK System and materials. One fundamental aspect in this description concerns the utilization of the “Magic 2” or “Mini-Classes.” These are basically pairs or sometimes groups of three students studying the same self-chosen material. For all intents and purposes, they are a class unto themselves and could be viewed as “cooperative base pairs.” These Mini-Classes, while still maintaining their independence by utilizing the different Tools and Study Tips at their own paces, can join to form “Modules” which are larger group units consisting of 4 to 8 students. This is to encourage cooperative effort where higher level learners help the lower level ones. It also makes classroom management easier for the instructor. Due to my cooperative learning experience at SIT, I was greatly attracted to the cooperative aspects of TALK.
The Study Tips3 are fundamentally the equivalent of the instructions one might find in a teacher’s manual, except that they are intended for the learner to use as opposed to the instructor. It could in fact be called a “Learner’s Manual .” Included in it are literally dozens of ideas on how to use the TALK Tools. The Study Tips are all in Japanese so that the learners can independently access them. In doing so, it creates a kind of L1 scaffolding that truly contributes to a low level EFL language learner’s sense of security. It also takes the burden off of the teacher to explain what to do, and puts all of the initiative and responsibility for how the students learn and at what pace into the hands of the students themselves.
When I first received facsimile copies of some of the TALK Tools from the very helpful and approachable author/publisher Johann Junge, I unfortunately felt they were rather uninteresting, vague, and colorless. However, after reading parts of the teacher’s manual, I began to realize that the heart of the TALK system is not the material, but the philosophy behind it which emphasizes meaning-making through playfulness, experimentation, and creativity. The students are encour aged to explore English conversation through “lateral thinking” (de Bono 1993). Whatever the Tools may be lacking in clarity or allure, the students are quite capable of making up through their own imaginative efforts together in Mini-Classes. Furthermore, it is through these efforts and by using the digestible chunks of accessible language in the TALK Tools that the learners are expected to progress. Within the course of several lessons, once so-called passive students who had previously been spoon-fed knowledge by their teacher/authority figures, are expected to become transformed by interacting with each other via the TALK Learning System into intrinsi cally motivated, active learners. As a result of this transformation, the learners should begin before long to progress naturally and independently of the instructor .
In as much as the learner’s role in the TALK classroom is more active and learner-centered, so the teacher’s role is more self-restrained and reserved. The teacher plays the role of a “facilita
tor” who acts as an observer and a catalyst, helping the learners as needed rather than controlling or hovering over them. The goal is always for the learners to take control of their own learning and develop their own creative learning initiative. Facilitators do not stay at the front of the room, but move around freely, naturally interacting with individuals, mini-classes, and modules. As such, a major part of the facilitator’s job is creating a playful, non-threatening environment.
Evaluation and the TALK Roadmap
In universities, instructors are generally expected to evaluate their students and give grades, the usual mode of evaluation being reports, papers, and examinations. These exterior numerical evaluations often lack meaning for learners because they fail to address the actual subjective learning experience which the learners are having. This is one of the main aspects of the tradi tional approach from which TALK strives to deviate.
TALK solves the dilemma of how to evaluate without traditional testing through the use of “Performance Evaluations” and “Roadmaps.”
The Performance Evaluation is a kind of acting out of what has been orally practiced by a Mini -Class. This Mini-Class performance is evaluated by peers on a Performance Evaluation Form. 4 As the learners are performing for and evaluating their peers there should be a tendency for them to feel more invested than they would in a traditional exam, thus making it a more motivating, meaningful, and memorable experience.
The Roadmap5 is a kind of metacognitive learning log in which the learners are expected to set both qualitative and quantitative learning goals, as well as record and compare what they have actually accomplished each day. One criterion for setting quantitative learning goals is for them to decide themselves how much work they must complete in order to get a grade of A, B, C. At the end of each month they simply total up what they’ve done and can know exactly what grade they can expect. Being that the grades are based on the quantity of work completed rather than the quality, the emphasis of the grade is on motivating the learners to exert effort and take re sponsibility for their learning, rather than judging their own ability. For example, students who have acted out dialogs for Performance Evaluations, would give themselves grades on their Roadmaps based on how many performances they have completed, rather than how good their peer-evaluations were. Thus in a mixed-ability class, all learners can retain the possibility of receiving an A.
In actuality, the amount of time spent familiarizing the learners with the Roadmap and allowing them to choose the various criteria was inordinate. There are just too many choices to be made, not enough classes, and the students are not used to making these kinds of choices. Furthermore, they did not fill out the Roadmaps in a consistent manner. Some of the students greatly exagger ated the amount of work they had actually done in order to get better grades. In a sense, these students were doing exactly what the TALK system is trying do distance itself from; external grade motivation. In order to save as much class time for the English learning experience, I intend to use simplified Roadmaps in the future, with much of the criteria already filled in. The limited remainder can be selected by the students together with their Module members.
The TALK System and Cooperative Learning
To what extent does the TALK Learning approach fit the model of Cooperative Learning de scribed in Chapter Two? Exactly how successful was the use of TALK in the Saitama University classroom? In order to answer these questions, the facets of TALK must be juxtaposed with the various elements of Cooperative Learning. There must also be a discussion of the modifications that needed to be made during the two years the TALK Learning System was used.
The organization of the learners in the TALK classroom is closest to that of cooperative base groups, except that the focus is on pair work. In order to create more of a group cohesiveness, I insisted that the Mini-Classes sit in a “family style” Module seating arrangement with their desks abutting. In that way, I was able to interact with whole modules and enhance classroom manage ment. The learners over the course of both years naturally became engaged in mutual concern, assistance, support, sharing, and encouragement. In most written feedback from the students, the development of new friendships was proclaimed one of the most positive and pleasurable ele ments of the TALK Learning System. Working and doing Peer-Performance Evaluations together correspondingly spurred the development of social skills.
The fact that each pair shared one TALK Tool between them, chose the Study Tips, and created much of the meaning in their practice together encouraged face-to-face promotive interaction and positive interdependance. These were further aroused and reinforced through peer-tutoring and performance evaluations.
Cooperative learning scripts are built into TALK in the form of the positioning of the Mini -Classes and Modules (rearranging the classroom furniture before the facilitator arrives in class), and learners choosing their own preferred Topics, Tools, and Study Tips. Much of my time was spent initially at the beginning of each year getting the students to self-regulate these routines as quickly as possible.
At the intermediate level, there is almost no academic controversy built into the TALK material in the form of content. The exception is a Whitney Houston song, “Saving All my Love for You,” in Tool Seven. It is about a woman who is having an affair with a married man and wants to extricate herself, but cannot seem to manage it because she is too much in love. Subsequent feedback from the students indicates an interest in working with music and discussing adult themes. For some, the TALK material’s content was too simplistic and “not suited for university level students,” as one learner put it.
In a Cooperative Learning classroom, very well-defined assignments with specific deadlines may be given to groups by an instructor. As in the TALK system, they then can be graded through a combination of self, peer, and teacher-evaluation. In the TALK classroom however, there are no built-in teacher-chosen assignments or deadlines. The atmosphere at Saitama University was therefore very easygoing and festive, as at a social gathering. There was therefore less stress, and coincidentally less pressure on students to perform to the utmost of their ability. There was little feeling amongst the learners that we sink or swim together, but rather that we play together. Most students commented in feedback that they liked TALK because it was easy. In the case of some students, I interpreted this to mean “easygoing and learner-friendly.” Unfortunately in too many other cases, I believe it meant, “I didn’t have to do any work.” On the basis of ongoing and written feedback, I believe that the consistent lack of urgency and accountability that I experi enced in the TALK system can be detrimental to the learner. After all, when a “teacher tightens her ‘control’ of what’s going on, she need not cut into the students ‘initiative’; often, in fact she may increase it. Similarly, insufficient ‘control’ by the teacher may reduce or paralyze the ‘initia tive’ of the student. . . . If there is too little (learning space) the student will feel stifled. If there is too much the student will feel the teacher has abandoned him.” (Stevick 1980, 19-20) One exam ple of positive teacher control is where a teacher partially defines certain aspects of a project while setting a flexible deadline for completion. The learners still have the choice and initiative with regard to the how, but they forfeit their control over the when, and part of their control over the what. This sharing of power and the element of possible negotiation with instructor can add an edge of excitement, challenge, and intimacy to the class. Many students appreciate a meaning ful challenge in the form of creating and acting out group skits for example. In feedback, learners overwhelmingly requested more contact with the facilitator, and expressed interest in activities which go well beyond the scope of the TALK Tools.
In TALK, the use of the jigsaw is limited to Mini-Classes, however it is quite different from the traditional version, in which the instructor gives each learner a piece of a puzzle and then the students must all combine and assimilate the pieces to form a unified whole. In the TALK sys tem, the Tools are a catalyst, and the learners are expected to manufacture the pieces of the jigsaw themselves conversationally, much as we do in normal everyday discourse. This mode fits in with research indicating that CL works especially well with higher order problems concerned with abstract thinking (Cohen 1994). Although the TALK content was relatively simple for many of the Saitama students, the process of meaning-making was quite a challenge and an important focus of their learning. In fact, the TALK approach is a tremendous pedagogical and conceptual leap from what Japanese learners are used to in the classroom, so for many learners it took some time to get used to. There are some interim steps described in the “How to Get Started” manual (Junge 1994) which I used the first year, but I found the second year that the learners grasped the process better when thrown into it quickly. An analogy might be entering a frigid mountain lake or a boiling hot spring…something that is more easily accomplished by just taking the plunge. Since the process appeared to be more interesting for the learners than the content, my goal became focusing them on the process.
TALK Learning diverges from Cooperative Learning most in its concentration on accountability. With regards to cooperative testing, there are no built-in written tests in the TALK Set, and written testing and the use of grades to motivate students is eschewed in the TALK manual. As an unobtrusive but observant facilitator, I became aware that many learners spent too much time socializing in their own language, and not enough practicing the TALK Tools, despite my friendly cajoling of them to do otherwise. I tried to have faith in the concept that learning is a natural state which the students would gradually aspire to independently. However I found that when I approached a Module, the learners would quickly react by picking up their Tools and begin practicing, and when I walked away they would just as quickly lapse back into their L1 chit-chat. I began to feel the so-called traditional teacher-centered pressures to focus the learn ers’ attention on their work. Clearly, the learners needed to be made more accountable, and I decided to do an experiment. At the end of one class, I put the students into a traditional seating arrangement, and asked them without looking at the Tools to write what they had been practicing with their partners and collected these. At the beginning of the next class, I announced that at the end of class they would be required to write what they had been practicing without looking at the Tools, and would be graded on it. As usual, I remained in the background observing them and the difference was remarkable. They were no less active or social than usual, however the sustained focus of their activity was now the TALK Tools. Furthermore, the written results were superior. In later classes, I allowed them to write and sometimes discuss what they were writing together, enabling the learners to focus on accuracy as well as fluency through peer-correction and peer -tutoring. The students also seemed to appreciate variety in the methods used to make them accountable.
As previously mentioned, TALK has spoken tests in the form of the peer performance evalua tions. In a recent TALK Update (Junge 1997), a Performance Evaluation was described in which the learners perform what they had been practicing for the facilitator who then writes the evalua tion. I began using the same Performance Evaluation Sheet that the learners used with their peers. The results were encouraging, however some students simply memorized the words and had not worked on meaning, speed, intonation, or gestures, even though these were mentioned in the Study Tips. This gave me the opportunity to interact and work directly with the learners on these problems. The learners became more inquisitive. This was the first time that students requested help with pronunciation for example. With a class of fifty students, it was impossible to evaluate everyone and also spend time helping them. In order to motivate them even more and increase the learners’ interdependance within the Modules, I announced one day that at the end
of class I would randomly choose one Mini-Class from each Module for evaluation, and that the grade received would be the same grade for everyone in the Module. Not only was the practice faster and more furious than usual, but I was also asked a significantly greater number of ques tions. This was the first time that students requested me to check their speed. Furthermore, it allowed me to spend less time evaluating and more time helping the students.
The TALK Learning System establishes well-defined destinations for the learner; an active relaxed and friendly classroom atmosphere, enhanced English fluency, and heightened confi dence and empowerment. There are two distinct but related parts: the TALK Learning Set and the TALK philosophy. The Learning Set consists of Talk Tools, Study Tips, and Assessment Sheets. An integral part of the TALK philosophy is the lateral thinking approach to conversation practice, as manifested in the design of the Talk Learning Set. Use of it encourages risk-taking with relation to errors, and an increase in alternative expressions of meaning and form. The Study Tips are in Japanese, creating a strong scaffolding for the learners to develop in a secure environment. The Assessment Sheets provide both subjective and objective evaluation from all corners of the classroom as well as goal-setting, record-keeping, and metacognitive notation.
Cooperative Learning is another principal facet of the TALK philosophy. Learners work together in Mini-Classes, and to a lesser degree in Modules. This leads to improved classroom manage ment, and greater talking time for the learners. The learners are self-directed and learner-centered boosting learner initiative and investment in the classroom activities. The instructor plays the role of the unobtrusive, observant, and helpful facilitator, moving freely around the classroom.
Finally, the TALK approach stresses flexibility and adaptability, much to its credit. After all, teaching and learning are not about systems, but about people. As such, the facilitator is free to introduce other materials, modes of assessment, and activities. Areas in which I felt it necessary to make adaptations included; increasing the frequency and variety of accountability, having more intensive interaction with the learners, focusing more on Modules as opposed to Mini -Classes, and concentrating on materials, tasks, and projects outside the scope of the TALK Learning Set.
1 See Appendixes B and C, 2 See Appendix D, 3 See Appendix E, 4 See Appendix F, 5 See Appendixes G and H
Both the TALK Learning System and Cooperative Learning in general offer learners the chance to form tightly knit friendships and learning communities. They are thus intrinsically concerned with fostering social skills through interpersonal group work (thought and action). The learners negotiate meaning and activity by interacting with the course material through the group experi ence.
Enhanced classroom management also enables the learner to interact and speak more with the instructor who is for his/her part not focusing solely on the individual, but also on the group. I have found that the language used in these encounters is likely to be more authentic than what would normally occur between a teacher and student. This is because the students are speaking directly to the instructor in front of their small, sympathetic group of peers, enabling conversa
tion to occur more naturally.
Furthermore, Cooperative Learning seems to be especially suited to the Japanese university classroom with its army of false beginners who have a wealth of passive knowledge, but little confidence or experience in using English communicatively.
The TALK Learning System, which espouses self-directed learning and learner self-reliance, is a useful teaching approach in this regard, as it gives the learners the opportunity to use what they already know to teach and learn from each other. However, for TALK to be successful takes effort on the facilitator’s part to:
1. be aware of ongoing feedback from the students.
2. request and pay proper attention to written feedback.
3. find appropriate challenges for the learners.
4. know when to give the learners space to learn on their own, and when to pose challenges.
5. be willing to hold the learners accountable for their work.
6. be flexible and open to change depending on the learners’ needs.
7. continue learning how to teach by reevaluating and revising what goes on in class.
8. be willing to try new things and not rely dogmatically on the TALK materials or system.
I have tried to view Cooperative Learning and the TALK Learning System as just two pieces of a puzzle rather than the whole, and tried to depict some of the other pieces. As with a puzzle, for the pieces to fit, they must be placed together in the proper relationship. It is my hope that the information contained herein has furnished the reader with some new pieces with which to work, and perhaps a few hints as to the interrelationship of the pieces.
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