Data-driven learning: learning from assessment

The process of converting valuable spoken corpus data into classroom materials is not necessarily straightforward, as a recent project conducted by Trinity College London reveals.

One of the buzz words we increasingly hear from teacher trainers in English Language Teaching (ELT) is the use of data-driven learning. This ties in with other contemporary pedagogies, such as discovery learning.  A key component of this is how data from a corpus can be used to inform learning. One of our long-running projects with the Trinity Lancaster Corpus has been to see how we could use the spoken data in the classroom so that students could learn from assessment as well as for assessment. We have reported before (From Corpus to Classroom 1 and From Corpus to Classroom 2) on the research focus on pragmatic and strategic examples. These linguistic features and competences are often not practised – or are only superficially addressed – in course books and yet can be significant in enhancing learners’ communication skills, especially across cultures. Our ambition is to translate the data findings for classroom use, specifically to help teachers improve learners’ wider speaking competences.

We developed a process of constructing sample worksheets based on, and including, the corpus data. The data was contextualized and presented to teachers in order to give them an opportunity to use their expertise in guiding how this data could be developed for, and utilized in, the classroom. So, essentially, we asked teachers to collaborate on checking how useful the data and tasks were and potentially improving these tasks. We also asked teachers to develop their own tasks based on the data and we now have the results of this project.

Overwhelmingly, the teachers were very appreciative of the data and they each produced some great tasks. All of these were very useful for the classroom but they did not really exploit the unique information we identified as being captured in the data. We have started exploring why this might be the case.

What the teachers did was the following:

  • Created noticing and learner autonomy activities with the data (though most tasks would need much more scaffolding).
  • Focused on traditional information about phrases identified in the data, e.g. the strength and weakness of expressions of agreement.
  • Created activities that reflected traditional course book approaches.
  • Created reflective, contextual practice related to the data although this sometimes became lost in the addition of extra non-corpus texts.

We had expectations that the data would inspire activities which:

  • showed new ways of approaching the data
  • supported discovery learning tasks with meaningful outcomes
  • explored the context and pragmatic functions of the data
  • reflected pragmatic usage; perhaps even referring to L1 as a resource for this
  • focused on the listener and interpersonal aspects rather than just the speaker

It was clear that the teachers were intellectually engaged and excited, so we considered the reasons why their tasks had taken a more traditional path than expected. Many of these have been raised in the past by Tim Johns and Simon Borg. There is no doubt that the heavy teacher workload affects how far teachers feel they can be innovative with materials. There is a surety in doing what you know and what you know works. Also many teachers, despite being in the classroom everyday, often need a certain confidence to design input when this is traditionally something that has been left to syllabus and course book creators. Another issue was that we realised that teachers would probably have to have more support in understanding corpus data and many don’t have the time to do extra training. Finally, there may be the issue with this particular data that teachers may not be fully aware of the importance of pragmatic and strategic competences. Often they are seen as an ‘add-on’ rather than a core competence especially in contexts for contemporary communications when it is largely being used as a lingua franca.

Ultimately, there was a difference between what the researchers ‘saw’ and what the teachers ‘saw’. As an alternative, we asked a group of expert material writers to produce new tasks and they have produced some innovative material. We concluded that maybe this is a fairer approach. In other words, instead of expecting each of the roles involved in language teaching (SLA researchers, teachers, materials designers) to find the time to become experts in new skills, it may sometimes be better to use each other as a resource. This would still be a learning experience as we draw on each other’s expertise.

In future if we want teachers to collaborate on designing materials we must make sure we discuss the philosophy or pedagogy behind our objectives (Rapti, 2013) with our collaborators, that we show how the data is mapped to relevant curricula and that we recognise the restrictions caused by practical issues such as a lack of time or training opportunities.

The series of worksheets is now available from the Trinity College London website. More to come in the future so keep checking.