Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Prof. Lantolf’s seminar in Temple University, Tokyo

Participating in Professor James Lantolf's seminar of 12 hours in two days (May 17th-18th, 2008), an opportunity offered by Temple University Japan, was a fascinating experience. The participants thoroughly enjoyed his lucid explanation and honest interaction with them.

The seminar was not a transmission of some established knowledge of the "mainstream SLA" which virtually defies being questioned in many cases. Prof. Lantolf challenged many assumptions of the "mainstream" ideas and through his explanation and discussion with us, he made points very successfully.

Lev Vygotsky says, according Professor Lantolf, "It's easier to assimilate a thousand new facts in any field than to assimilate a NEW POINT OF VIEW of a few already known facts." Professor Lantolf helped us assimilate some new points of view.

One of the basic tenets maintained throughout Professor Lantolf's seminar can be best described by the following remark by Vygotsky.

Education may be defined as the artificial development of the child. Education is the artificial mastery of natural processes of development. Education not only influences certain processes of development, but restructures all functions of behavior in a most essential manner.
p. 88. The Instrumental Method in Psychology, the Chapter 5 of The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky: Volume 4.
For Vygotskyan resources see

In this spirit, equating the natural process of development with the educational process undermines (school) education, for the very purpose of education is to intervene in the natural process artificially and help the development that would otherwise be impossible. Giving knowledge of natural language acquisition to teachers does not make good teachers.

In schools, teachers need both knowledge of theory and experience of practice to help learners successfully. However, theory and practice are not something that are just added up, nor is theory being simply "applied" to practice. Theory and practice are in the dialectic relation, Prof. Lantolf explains as he refers to Adolfo Sanchez Vazquez
and Richard J. Bernstein (Praxis and Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Activity).

It is "Praxis as the dialectic of theory-practice" that teachers need in classrooms.

Scientific concepts in theory make something invisible visible to teachers and learners. If the current emphasis on methodology goes too far, as I also fear too, language education would be very shallow indeed; you just remember words and grammar and use them. There, a notion like "grammar allows users to override lexical aspect in order to bring a specific temporal perspective into linguistic discourse", which neatly explains our creative use of language is non-existent.

Prof. Lantolf explored the issues of language further. To mention only a few of them, he raised the issue of the role of L1 in the use of L2, and demonstrated with a lot of empirical data that we may indeed be thinking through L1 even when we speak through L2.

The issue of externalizing emotions in L2 was also convincing, as I myself know that sometimes a learner can express him or herself in L2 in a way he or she can never do in L1 because L1 is tied with the learner's identity too closely. L2 for this purpose is a clumsy and shallow, but more effective and appropriate medium for learners.
For some episodes and theoretical explanations that are related to this issue, please see my article if you're interested.

The issue of gesture was another fascinating topic. Prof. Lantolf introduced the studies of gesture by Professor David McNeill and demonstrated his own studies.

It seemed to me (and I hope my understanding is not too wrong) that speech and gesture are in a dialectic relation, each complementing and influencing each other to create a synthetic mode of expression of spoken language. The study of spoken language cannot be complete without the study of gesture.

Last but not least, the idea of Dynamic Assessment is not just a technique, but a radical attempt to reconceptualize teaching and assessment to change school education as it should be.

Some of the books Prof. Lantolf recommended are:
Newman & Holzman (1993) Lev Vygotsky, Revolutionary Scientist Routledge
Rieber & Robinson (eds.) (2004) The Essential Vygotsky Springer
Peter Sacks (2001) Standardized Minds Da Capo Press
Peter Sacks (2007) Tearing Down the Gates University of California Press

All in all, the twelve hour seminar was a sheer intellectual joy for me. I really thank Prof. Lantolf and Temple University, Japan for providing such a wonderful opportunity.

Osaka seminar will be held on May 24th-25th.

Below is the introduction to Prof. Lantolf’s seminar written by himself. It was taken from the website of Temple University Japan.

Distinguished Lecturer Series (Seminar 1): Sociocultural Theory and the Pedagogical Imperative

1 credit hour

Since the field of second language acquisition came into its own a bit more than thirty years ago, SLA researchers have wondered about the relationship between the basic research they conduct in an attempt to develop a systematic and scientifically based understanding of SLA and pedagogical practice. Some have argued that basic research does not, nor can it be expected to have, implications for language teaching (see Chomsky 1966). Others (e.g., Krashen 1983) have proposed that it is the responsibility of SLA researchers to try to make the results of their work relevant for classroom practice. Indeed, Krashen and Terrell (1985) developed an approach to language teaching, the Natural Method, based on the claims made by Krashen's Monitor Hypothesis.

More recently, proponents of Skill Acquisition Theory (e.g., DeKeyser 2007), Interactionist SLA (e.g Gass & Mackey 2007), Input Processing (e.g., VanPatten 2007) and Dynamic Systems Theory (e.g., Larsen-Freeman & Cameron 2007) have each discussed the pedagogical implications of their particular approach to SLA. In all of these approaches, however, there is not a necessary connection between theory, research and teaching. One could perfectly well carry out a robust basic research program in any of the models without paying any attention to the world of the language classroom.

In my view, the reason proponents of the various theories, models, and hypotheses have attempted to bring their work to bear on language teaching is because of a deep and long-standing commitment to language teaching, no doubt in some measure at least due to their histories as language teachers. Clearly, this is a good thing. The argument I want to put forth in this talk, however, is quite a different matter. Sociocultural theory of mind, as developed by L.S. Vygotsky his colleagues and followers, including, A. R. Luria, A. N. & A. A. Leontiev, P. Galfperin, and V. Davydov, among others, must, by necessity, be relevant to educational settings.

There are a number of reasons for this, but two, I believe are central to my claim: (1) Vygotskyfs theory emerges from his insightful reading of Marx's writings, and therefore takes seriously the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, the point is to change it;" (2) formal education is the primary site where a specific type of development occurs—development grounded in systematic scientific understanding of the object of study. Given these two points, Vygotsky argues that the true test of his theory does not take place in the experimental setting, but in the world where what he calls "artificial development" takes place. This is the world of intentional, conscious education.

The course will examine Vygotsky's argument with regard to L2 language education. The crux of the argument is that instruction must be based on well organized conceptual (i.e., scientific) understanding of language and that we cannot leave learners to their own devices to try to figure out how the new language is structured and how it functions. This knowledge is available as a result of decades of high quality linguistic and applied linguistic research. Our task is to make this knowledge available to learners in a systematic and pedagogical useful way and to help them make the connection between this knowledge and their own practical activity. Vygotsky also argued that the only good instruction is that which leads rather than follows development. This notion he formulated as the well known, but often misunderstood concept of the Zone of Proximal Development. The course then will consider two general SCT approaches to responding to the pedagogical imperative: Gal'perin's Concept-Based Theory of instruction and pedagogical formation of Vygotsky's concept of the Zone of Proximal Development known in Russia as the Pedagogical Experiment and in the West as Dynamic Assessment.

P.S. In his kind reply to my e-mail, Prof. Lantolf (Jim) also recommended the works of Paulo Freire such as:

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Teachers as Cultural Workers

Pedagogy of Hope

Education for Critical Consciousness

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