Teaching without Technology: Overview

Dirt floors, but a mic. Kitchen in the background.

This is first in a series of posts about an experience training teachers in an environment with very little technology, and no digital technology.

I have been using technology to teach English since about 1991; earlier if you count materials preparation. But I have just returned from a month of teacher training in Myanmar. Invited by the National League for Democracy and their Education Network, a professor from Tokiwa University in Ibaraki and I embarked on our second round of training, returning after just 8 months, this time for a full month instead of 10 days.

We trained volunteer English teachers, some professional, others only with a modicum of English ability. The system in Myanmar today is reminiscent of that of Japan when I arrived 30 years ago, but on steroids (larger classes, fewer facilities). English is a required subject twice a week from the first year of elementary school, and is a key proponent of the university entrance exams. Since the universities were shut down for so long under the dictatorship, there is a huge pent-up demand. With tourism doubling for each of the last 2 years, and set to double again, there is plenty of opportunity.

Sadly, there is little support for teachers. Besides the large classes, some in dirt-floor rooms, teachers are given a textbook but little training in how to use it. Choral drills are the accepted method of working through the translation of texts, and the grammar exercises. This is only acceptable because the university entrance exams (matriculation) are based on the texts each year.

The defining features of the training for me included

  • Show teachers activities different from the proscribed grammar translation ones
  • Add elements of meaningful communication to classroom interaction
  • Show that pair and small group work are viable alternatives to choral drills

My partner Frank latched on immediately to the idea of using vocabulary cards. The stacks of small flippable flash cards on a steel ring. This was one of the few ideas that may have a chance to change education in Myanmar. More on this later.

My contribution was to show people how easy it is to use audio files these days. Until it isn’t. My biggest surprise was to see that in the 8 intervening months, market penetration of smart phones has skyrocketed. While the Internet is still painfully slow (think 2000 in Tokyo), most people use it for text and talking. While downloading video is possible, you have to plan ahead.

My next project will be to experiment with delivery of audio files to support the government mandated texts, so the students have a native speaker model. This should improve pronunciation. More on this later too.

I found teaching withOUT technology oddly refreshing. Frustrating at times, but also simpler and more straightforward. It certainly has given me a new outlook on what kinds of technology are actually essential in most classrooms, and what kinds are just bells and whistles. More on this later too.

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