25 years of bilingual education continued and Peer Instruction

At the risk of becoming repetitive I’ll say it again, having a chance to talk with your colleagues about content and approaches in the classroom is something of a luxury in education. Too often we find ourselves swept along by the school year and meeting up with your colleagues is simply to agree the necessities of the weekly business of organisation and planning that are needed to keep our educational boat afloat.

Having said that I now find myself for the second time in two weeks writing about opportunities that have come along and provided discussion opportunities and inspiration from gatherings organized by the European Platform, the bilingual education organization here in the Netherlands.

As part of their celebrations for 25 years of the bilingual approach being part of the educational scene here the European Platform organized a gathering of teachers and school leaders at the Beatrix theatre in Utrecht. This time though, instead of having to provide content I was able to sit back and listen, a situation that the longer I work in education, the more I seem to enjoy!  Although to be honest the most important part of the day’s presentation for me was not quite so much simply listening, but actively thinking along and discussing. The reason for this is that we had Eric Mazur as our guest keynote speaker.  Mazur has made his name as the developer of the ‘flipping the classroom’ approach, although as he explained later he prefers ‘inverting the classroom’, I guess maybe physicists don’t flip, but prefer to invert.

His presentation was both entertaining and informative, showing how his PI (peer instruction) approach works. In doing so he got a very diverse group of educators engaged and discussing thermo dynamics, which as an art teacher was not what I expected to be doing with those sitting around me in the theatre. This of course was the point, with good instruction and approaches that are designed to engage and activate the learner our education that we offer will become more effective. It is obviously not the only answer or strategy that we should be applying in the classroom, but certainly has a place and left pondering how I will be able to apply similar approaches.

Afterwards there was the chance once again to discuss with others the implications and uses of what we had seen, and as it turned out for me and my two colleagues attending also the opportunity to quiz Mazur himself further on what he had spoken about.

If you are interested to know how Peer Instruction works, take a look at this video:

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25 years of bilingual education in the Netherlands

The Netherlands isn’t the only place in the world where you can encounter bilingual education. There are many countries where, for varying reasons, this approach of teaching is used. It offers an array of subject areas taught in a non-native language for the learner. The aim is the speeding up and adding an extra depth to language acquisition. It is a broad approach that has its strength in immersion in the target language for the large of every school day.

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What is certainly true of the Dutch language experiment with secondary education is that it very definitely no longer an experiment. It is now established and embedded widely across the whole country with around 130 secondary schools offering the bilingual approach and pilot programs in primary education underway.

Yesterday the European Platform, the organisation that oversees and coordinates the bilingual schools, marked the occasion with an afternoon of presentations and reflections on the project so far, and a look towards the future. It seems a healthy future, as one of the contributors pointed out, many educational initiatives come and go, but the bilingual star in the Netherlands seems to continue to rise.

One of the reasons for this success might well be the fact that it is largely a bottom up initiative, starting with schools who decide that they want to join the process, rather than an organisation (or government) telling schools that they have to join. It remains a branch of education that is peopled by teachers and school leaders who want to be involved.

My own bilingual experience goes back fifteen years. In a sense I was in the right place at the right time. I arrived in the Netherlands in the early 1990s and five years later got my teacher training qualification just at the moment that the bilingual train was really starting to pick up momentum. I left the course and walked straight into my first bilingual teaching job. I was a rare commodity, a native speaker of English, qualified to teach a subject other than English (art in my case).

In the meantime, now twenty five years on, there probably aren’t that many teachers in the country who have taught as many bilingual classes as I have. My ‘native speaker’ credentials mean that I don’t ever have to teach a Dutch language art class, a benefit of working in a large bilingual department. If there is a weak link in the whole set up within the schools it is that the quest for native speakers to join and strengthen the departments is a constant hunt and not an easy one to be successful in.

I wrote two posts ago about the enthusiastic meeting I chaired for the European Platform of bilingual art teachers. They were a group of people who by offering to teach the bilingual classes have in effect said, yes, “I am prepared to do more than just teach my subject content, I am prepared to take on more and teach a language at the same time”. It says sometime about the mind-set of my Dutch colleagues who take this step, it is a fairly thick extra layer on top of regular classes. I have this too of course, but with the extra luxury that it is my first language, but like it or not, I am to a significant degree a language teacher.  Having struggled hugely at school with French and German, and yet now being able to speak Dutch fluently, I am also an example as to why immersion is the best method of language acquisition.

I don’t remember this bit at teacher training

As a parent of teenage children I am only too familiar with that feeling you get when they want to go into town without you for the first time or they are going to go on a school trip to Amsterdam and are going to be given a hour of free time to explore. You are kind of excited for them, but at the same time anxious.

That’s the parent’s experience with their own children. A teacher’s experience (with someone else’s children) can at times be somewhat different.

Teacher training teaches you about your subject, about didactics and, if you are lucky, about classroom organization. It doesn’t teach you much about the burden of responsibility you sometimes feel for other peoples’ children and the finer points of crowd control. The importance of these last two points was brought home to me recently on a five day school trip I went on.

In short, we were travelling from the Netherlands to Oxford in the UK by bus and boat. Staying in a sports an education complex and on one day making a trip into Oxford for a tour, a boat trip and some shopping.  It all sounds quite nice so far, until I mention that our party of children was 135 twelve year olds…..yes you read it right! I should point out that I was one of a team of ten staff members, but that is still an awful lot of little faces to count!

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Looking back, the trip went very well, mostly only minor problems of homesick children to deal with. But there is always in the background that weight of responsibility I mentioned at the start, coupled with skills in crowd control. On no day did I feel these factors more than on our day in Oxford.

135 excited twelve year olds in the busy Oxford city centre for the day.  I word be lying if I didn’t say that I felt a bit stressed by the responsibility at times. At the end of the day we amassed the whole group again before heading for the bus park, head counted again and then once more, just to be sure, before making our way through the packed streets in the drizzle just as it got dark. Our sprawling crocodile of children of children being shepherded by myself and my colleagues.  If you have ever watched one of those films of huge clouds of birds swopping through the air together, the overall mass of the flock constantly changing…..well yes it was kind of like that, except perhaps the birds are a little more in control of their situation than it felt we were.

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You know you are doing something exceptional, or possibly crazy,  when you notice people stopping in the street to watch.  On their faces a mixture of disbelief and pity.  One couple stopped to watch and as I passed simply said “how many?”,  “135” I said, the lady said nothing, simply stared with mouth open, and the man laughed and “good luck!”.  When we got back to the buses, it was time for the umpteenth head count of the day, 135 onto the bus, on more count once they were all sitting down, 135 again. We could leave with the whole flock.

A chance to talk with colleagues…..an educational luxury

The fact that I haven’t posted anything for a month tells me something very clearly, I’m working my way through a very busy period. Weeks are flying by towards Christmas and schedules are packed with countless activities, preparation, planning, plus of course simply giving lessons. Most people who work in education will recognize this.

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We encourage our pupils to reflect on their activities, to learn from their successes and failures, but as a teacher there often seems so little time to step back and think about what we are doing, and even less time to do this with colleagues of our own subject area.

The value of such an opportunity was made clear a week ago by an annual meeting I chair of art teachers, teaching in bilingual education in the Netherlands. On the agenda, with the twenty-five other art educators present were three main points:

  1. CLIL – the bilingual teachers educational mainstay of Content and Language Integrated Learning; that is to say, how do you teach the content of your subject whilst simultaneously teaching a second language (English in my case).  As coordinator I am expected to throw some good CLIL practices into the group.
  2. Digitalization in the art room
  3. Resources – Where do we draw our ideas and inspiration when developing new material

I’ve been doing these meetings for a few years now and find it a tricky balance to strike between leading the meeting and trying to get discussion going (between a group of teachers who don’t really know one another). I prepared some material but went into the meeting hoping that the others present would be open and willing to contribute.

Was I nervous? Well maybe just a little bit, but I certainly didn’t need to have been, what a fantastic meeting we had. Three hours flew by. What a luxury three hours of open and constructive discussion felt. So often I sit in meetings crammed onto the end of the school day with colleagues who are worn out and, let’s be honest, wanting to head home to get on with some marking, pick the children up from school, do the groceries….etc. But this occasion was different, rarely have I sat in on a discussion session with such a group of people wanting to participate, share and learn….all together.

I left the meeting feeling invigorated and enthusiastic. It was three hours of pure subject content and there is perhaps a lesson for all in education. There is a time and a place for meetings concerning planning and organization, that’s important stuff. But don’t let it dominate every meeting….it is the love of the content that brought many of us to education in the first place and it is engaging with content that recharges our batteries.