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Small-group work

Most educators agree that human beings learn better by doing than by listening. The

most effective lectures, therefore, will also get the audience involved in doing

something actively, even if it is only a thought exercise. By this logic, practical handson

small-group seminars ought to be the perfect pedagogical tool.

But again, it's not so much the tool itself that makes the difference as how you

use it. Many small-group exercises and discussions are just as boring as sitting in a

monotonous lecture. Students given a boring task to perform or topic to discuss in

a group will quickly shift to more interesting topics, like their social life; or, if forced

to stay on task, will go through the required steps grudgingly, resentfully, and thus

superficially and mechanically, learning next to nothing. For small-group work too,

therefore, it is important to take into consideration how the brain functions:

1 Variety. Variety is the spice of life for good physiological reasons: when things

don't change, the brain ignores them. Traditional teachers have begun to

blame television for young people's short attention spans and need for constant

change and excitement; but it really isn't television's fault, nor is it even a

new phenomenon. It is a deepseated human need, part of the brain's

evolutionary structure. A classroom that uses lots of small-group work will

only be interesting and productive for students if the nature of the work done

keeps changing. If students are repeatedly and predictably asked to do the same

kind of small-group work day after day (study a text and find three things to

tell the class about it; discuss a topic and be prepared to summarize your

discussion for the rest of the class), they will quickly lose interest.

2 Collaboration. It might seem as if this should go without saying: when students

work together in small groups, of course they are going to collaborate. But

it is relatively easy for one student in a group to assume the "teacher's" role

and dominate the activity, so that most of the other students in the group sit

passively watching while the activity is completed. This is especially true when

the group is asked to come up with an answer that will be checked for

correctness or praised for smartness: when the teacher puts pressure on

groups to perform up to his or her expectations, their conditioned response

will be to defer to the student in the group who is perceived as the "best" or

"smartest" — the one who is most often praised by the teacher for his or her

answers. Collaboration means full participation, a sense that everyone's

contribution is valued — that the more input, the better.

3 Openendedness. One way of ensuring full participation and collaboration is by

keeping group tasks openended, without expecting groups to reach a certain

answer or result. The clearer the teacher's mental image is of what s/he

expects the groups to produce, the less openended the group work will be;

the more willing the teacher is to be surprised by students' creativity, the

more they will collaborate, the more they will learn, and the more they will

enjoy learning. Openended tasks leave room for each student's personal

experience to emerge — an essential key to learning, as students must begin

to integrate what is coming from outside with what they already know. When

the successful completion of a task or activity requires every student to access

his or her personal experience, also, whole groups learn to work together in

collaborative ways rather than ceding authority to a single representative. (All

of the topics for discussion and exercises in this book are openended, with no

one right answer or desired result.)

4 Relevance. Group work has to have some real-world application in students'

lives for it to be meaningful; it has to be meaningful for them to throw

themselves into it body and soul; they have to throw themselves into it to

really learn. This emphatically does not mean only giving students things

to do that they already know! Learning happens out on the peripheries of

existing knowledge; learners must constantly be challenged to push beyond

the familiar, the easy, the known. Relevance means simply that bridges must

constantly be built between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the

unfamiliar, the easy and the challenging, the things that already matter to

students and the things that don't yet matter but should.

5 State of mind. This follows from everything else — part of the point in making

group work varied, collaborative, open-ended, and relevant is to get students

into a receptive frame of mind — but it is essential to bear in mind that these

things don't always work. An exercise that has worked dozens of times before

with other groups leaves a whole class full of groups cold: they sit there,

staring at their books, doodling on their papers, mumbling to their neighbors,

rolling their eyes, and you wonder whatever could have happened. Never

mind; stop the exercise and try something else. No use beating a dead horse.

There are many receptive mental states: relaxed, happy, excited, absorbed,

playful, joking, thoughtful, intent, exuberant, dreamy. There are also many

nonreceptive mental states: bored, distracted, angry, distanced, resentful,

absent. The good teacher learns to recognize when students are learning and

when they are just filling a chair, by remaining sensitive to their emotional

states.

6 Multimodal experience. It is often assumed that university classrooms are for

intellectual discussions of important issues — for the spoken and written word.

Drawing, singing, acting, dancing, miming, and other forms of human

expression are for the lower grades (and a few selected departments on

campus, like art or theater or music). Many university teachers will feel

reluctant to use many of the exercises in this book, for example, because they

seem inappropriate for university-level instruction. But the brain's

physiological need for multimodal experience does not disappear after

childhood; it continues all through our lives. Studies done on students'

retention of material presented in class have shown that the more senses a

student uses in processing that material, the better s/he will retain it (see

Figure 8). The differences are striking: students who only hear the material

(for example, in a lecture), retain only 20 percent of it. If they only see it (for

example, in a book), they retain 30 percent of it. If they see it and hear it, by

reading along in a book or rereading lecture notes, or if the lecture is

accompanied by slides or other visual aids, they retain 50 percent of it. If in

addition to seeing it and hearing it they are able to talk about it, in class

discussions or after-class study groups, retention goes up to 70 percent. And

when in addition to seeing it, hearing it, and talking about it, they are able to

do something with it physically, act it out or draw a picture or sing a song

about it, retention soars to 90 percent. Undignified? Perhaps. But what is

more important, dignity or learning?

Some teachers may find these "shifts" in their teaching strategies exciting and

liberating; for others, even a slight move in the direction of a more student-centered

classroom may cause unpleasant feelings of anxiety. To the former, the best advice

is to do whatever feels right: use the book as a springboard or muse rather than as

a straitjacket; let the book together with your students and your own instincts lead

hear see hear hear hear

see see see

talk talk

do

Figure 8 Channels of learning

Source: Adapted from Irmeli Huovinen's drawing in Vuorinen 1993: 47

you to an approach that not only works but keeps working in different ways. To

the latter, the best advice is to try this approach in small doses. Teachers can use the

book more traditionally, by having students read the chapters and take exams on

the subject matter, with perhaps an occasional teacher-led discussion based on the

discussion topics at the end of every chapter. But the true core of the book is in

the exercises; it is only when teachers let students try out the ideas in the chapters

through multimodal experiences with the exercises that the book will have its full

effect. If, however, the exercises — and the "less academic" classroom atmosphere

that results from their extensive use — arouse all your suspicions or anxieties, teach

the book mostly traditionally, but let the students do one or two exercises. And

keep an open mind: if they enjoy the exercises, and you enjoy watching them enjoy

themselves, even if you are not convinced that they are learning anything of value,

try a few more. Give the exercises a fair chance. They really do work; what they

teach is valuable, even if its value is not immediately recognizable in traditional

academic terms.

All the discussion topics and exercises presume a decentered or student-centered

classroom, in which the teacher mainly functions as a facilitator of the students'

learning experiences, not as the authority who doles out knowledge and tests to

make sure the students have learned it properly. Hence there are no right or wrong

answers to the discussion topics — no "key" is given here in the appendix for teachers

who want to use these topics as exam questions — and no right or wrong experiences

to derive from the exercises. Indeed I have deliberately built in a tension between

the positions taken in the chapters and the discussion topics given at the end of

the chapters: what is presented as truth in the chapter is often questioned in the

discussion topics at the end. The assumption behind this is that human beings never

accept anything new until they have tested it against their own experience. The

assumption that facts or precepts or theories can or should simply be presented as

abstract universal truths for students to memorize is based on a faulty understanding

of human neural processing. The brain simply does not work that way.

Tied to this brain-based pedagogical philosophy is the progress in Chapters 5—10

(and in Chapter 11 backwards) through the three phases of Charles Sanders Peirce's

"duction" triad: abduction (guesses, intuitive leaps), induction (practical

experience), and deduction (precepts, theories, laws). The idea here is that precepts

and theories are indeed useful in the classroom — but only when they arise out of,

and are constantly tied back to, intuitions and practical experiences. The second

half of the book integrates a number of different translation theories — especially

linguistic, functional, descriptive, and postcolonial ones — into an experiential

approach to becoming a translator by helping students to experience the steps by

which a theorist derived a theory, or by having them redraw and rethink central

diagrams to accommodate divergent real-world scenarios. Everyone theorizes; it is

an essential skill for the translator as well. What turns many students off about

translation theory, especially as it is presented in books and articles and many

classrooms, is that it tends to have a "completeness" to it that is alien to the ongoing

process of making sense of the world. The theorist has undergone a complex series

of steps that has led to the formulation of a brilliant schema, but it is difficult for

others, especially students without extensive experience of the professional world

of translation, to make the "translation" from abstract schemas to practical

applications, especially to problem-solving strategies. The wonderful thing about

the act of schematizing complex problems visually or verbally is the feeling of things

"locking into place," "coming together," "finally making sense": you have struggled

with the problem for weeks, months, years, and finally it all comes into focus.

Presented with nothing more than the end-product of this process, however,

students aren't given access to that wonderful feeling. Everything just seems "locked

into place" — as into prison.

In this sense theorizing translation is more important for the translation student

than theories of translation as static objects to be studied and learned. Our students

should become theorists themselves — not merely students of theories. This does

not mean that they need to develop an arcane theoretical terminology or be able to

cite Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel, Benjamin and Heidegger and Derrida;

what it means is that they should become increasingly comfortable thinking

complexly about what they do, both in order to improve their problem-solving skills

and in order to defend their translational decisions to agencies or clients or editors

who criticize them. Above all they need to be able to shift flexibly and intelligently

from practice to precept and back again, to shuttle comfortably between subliminal

functioning and conscious analysis — and that requires that they build the bridges

rather than standing by passively while someone else (a teacher, say, or a theorist)

builds the bridges for them. This does not mean reinventing the wheel; no question

here of handing students a blank slate and asking them to theorize translation from

scratch. All through Chapters 6—10 existing theories will be explored. But they will

be explored in ways that encourage students to find their own experiential pathways

through them, to build their own bridges from the theories back to their own

theorizing / translating.

Seventy-five percent ofteachers

are sequential, analytic presenters

that's how their lesson is organized . . .

Yet 100% of their students

are multi-processors

(Jensen 1995a: 130)

* * * * *