Expectations vs. reality

We would like to share with you our initial expectations and ideas about our three year project and, for comparison's sake, the reality. We also offer some solutions to the problems for you to consider in your own contexts.

Assembling a team

Expectations

To be able to organize a multidisciplinary course, it is necessary to set up a team consisting of ESP language teachers and science field specific teachers, who are willing and able to collaborate to meet the stated objectives. In our case, we are a team of specialists in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geology and geography working with ESP language specialists.

Problems

Most of the scientists we addressed were involved in their own research and were not in a position to participate in our project. This self-selection considerably narrowed the choice. Moreover, some of the scientists were strong individuals – creative but dominant. The fact that not everyone was a team player made communication at times awkward. Apart from that, there were too many teachers (14), and it was very difficult to coordinate them, especially when we didn’t know each other that well.

Solution

Have a core team and employ others as visiting experts or consultants. Make sure that everyone's abilities are being tapped and their contributions are respected. Encourage diversity. Obtain regular feedback from the teachers and course creators. Do not keep poor performers on board. Train staff where necessary.


Modes of thinking about teaching and language

Expectations

We wanted the course to be based on a multidisciplinary approach (six disciplines) and diversity in terms of gender, age and professional experience of the teachers, so as to foster different approaches to problem-solving. The collaboration between the language and science teachers would involve the preparation of communicative and interactive teaching materials.

Problems

It emerged that there was a considerable gulf between the approaches to teaching adopted by scientists and linguists. Some science teachers failed to understand the importance of correct language structures. Scientists focus on their research problems and the subject they want to explore, while language teachers are more interested in the form. Furthermore, some scientists are not used to discussing problems with students, as they see their role as imparting information in lecture formats.

Solution

Science teachers needed constant reminding that one of the major aims of the course is language improvement, and that they cannot deny the importance of correct language structures. Finally, we managed to achieve a balance between form and content. Ultimately, both sides benefited from mutual sharing.


Balance of science and language

Expectations

We wanted to achieve a balance of the scientific part of the course, which involved analyzing the topic through the lens of the specific disciplines, and the language part, which involved the use of appropriate, discipline-specific language during this process.

Problems

In the first pilot course, some scientists believed that students should receive detailed background information to be able to understand the problem. There was then less time for language practice. Students also complained about the missing balance of disciplines as the topic was more suited to biology or chemistry than to other fields.

Solution

The input of information was reduced to focus on the necessary facts and relations from each discipline concerning the problem of cyanobacteria; lectures were reduced and replaced by interactive exercises practising the discipline-specific language.


Specialist teams and mixed teams

Expectations

We wanted the students to work in field specific teams, in which they would investigate the issues in more depth and then share their knowledge with the others.

Problems

We expected the students to be confident in presentation skills, since this forms a part of their standard language training, however, they were not able to communicate the message to the other scientists in a simple and comprehensible way.

Solution

Most of the work was moved from expert to mixed teams, which at the same time enhanced interactivity. If students do not realise that they are failing to communicate with their audience, it is the teachers' responsibility to provide them with strategies for doing so. It is not enough to practice and rehearse presentations. Once the students have the linguistic strategies, they can be given more practice in talking about the topic in a simplified way, relevant to the target audience. In any environment, teacher input and student practice is essential. Without both, little progress can be expected.


Blogs

Expectations

As far as the blogs were concerned, students were expected to share their ideas on the course, their personal opinions, comments and experiences without too much teacher involvement. We wanted this to be a venue for an unstructured reflection on the content of the course, materials, and teaching methods.

Problems

Students were not used to reflecting on their own work, and they were not willing to participate on their own without supervision. Perhaps it’s a culture-specific skill, and the Czech education system is not one that encourages reflective thinking.

Solution

For this to work properly, it is important to induct students into reflection. This requires the motivation for doing so, and its potential benefits. Students also need the linguistic structures in which they can embed their views. Only then can they feel some degree of confidence in posting to a blog. It is then necessary to monitor and control the blog regularly, respond to students’ contributions. It is enough for one teacher to be responsible for this section.


Homework

Expectations

Part of this project involved having students work partly online. The e-learning resources were used mainly for pre-reading tasks, (reading about a specific topic before it would be tackled in class) and for follow-up activities.

Problems

In the first run of the course, there were too many of these online assignments and they were not equally distributed throughout. The instructions were not always clear enough, which meant that the students were not sure what to do and when. Consequently some students failed to meet the deadlines. The open-ended tasks often required detailed feedback, but the students did not reflect on it.

Solution

We decided to minimize open-ended questions in e-learning. Teachers became more organized, gave clearer instructions, set firm deadlines, and each teacher was given specific responsibilities and duties. Allocating one group of teachers to this makes it more coherent and structured.


Timing

Expectations

The weekly sessions were timetabled to last 100 minutes. Students were also required to spend several hours completing assignments outside of class.

Problems

Timing appeared to be one of the most serious problems. Due to the large amount of activities and information provided to the students, it was difficult for the teachers to keep to their time limit, especially in the first run of the course, which was frustrating and looked unprofessional.

Solution

It was necessary for us to reduce the amount of content, and each lesson segment was rehearsed with the other teachers acting as students and giving feedback to the lecturer: timing was one of the important criteria. These demo sessions were very helpful.


Syllabus content

Expectations

Given the vast potential of this project, we wanted to include as much as possible in the courses: presentations by science teachers, language work prepared by language teachers, abstract writing, presentation practice, videoconferencing, etc. In fact, the students experienced videoconferencing with some Finnish colleagues, discussing cyanobacteria as a world-wide global problem.

Problems

The problems with overcrowding the syllabus have been alluded to above.

Solution

The simplest solution is often the best. After the first run of the course, we reduced the variety and range of activities, including the videoconference, in attempt to provide more quality and less quantity.


Our motto today is less is more.


© LANGUAGE CENTRE, MASARYK UNIVERSITY, Brno 2014 | Print version with ISBN | Česká verze | 9411 visits