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How to PASS on knowledge and develop skills: a European project

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A few introductory notes on PASS, a European project for language education Esterino Adami (University of Turin)
The purpose of this paper is to concisely present the main objectives, features and resources of a European project aimed to foster language education and thinking skills for very young learners and their parents, and simultaneously develop language awareness in a European dimension. The project is titled PASS ("Parents as Successful TeacherS")1 and is planned to operate in 2011 and 2012, under the coordination of TA GROUP SIA (headquartered in Latvia) and engaging different countries and associations across the EU. It can be located within a broad context of educational efforts towards the promotion of language teaching and learning, but it is also related to the development of thinking strategies as powerful tools for children in informal environments for processing linguistic tasks in order to acquire language habits naturally. Specifically, the target age taken in account is 4-6 years, i.e. the phase when children are carrying on with the acquisition of what Menyuk and Brisk (and others) term semantax, namely "rules for combining words in utterance to convey different intents" (2005: 12). The project has the purpose to elaborate and create teaching tools that parents can use in their mundane experience with their children in order to introduce and develop the language they wish to pass on them. Given the limited space available here, I will not be able to go into technical aspects and detailed examples, but I will provide a general overview of the project illustrating the broad principles of the underlying. Teaching foreign languages to children - in particular English - has become paramount in contemporary societies for a variety of purposes, and has received much attention in critical debates on educational policies and methodologies (Monti et alii 2009). In the multi-lingual context of Europe, teaching languages plays an important role not only in providing citizens with valuable opportunities, but also with enhancing processes of understanding, integration and self-awareness. Therefore, different types of teaching experiences are supported by local and national governments with the purpose to facilitate language acquisition (Harmer 2001; Scivener 2005; Mehisto 2008). However, this project is grounded on an innovative element, which concerns the combination of language teaching with the developments of thinking skills in the light of a particular typology of problem solving technique called TRIZ, the Russian acronym for "theory of inventive problem solving" ("Теория Решения Изобретательских Задач") and the theoretical orientation of the Thinking Approach (TA). As a consequence, the project aims to introduce language teaching in real life situations and elaborate them through successful thinking mechanisms. Ultimately, PASS is concerned with the promotion of bilingualism by favouring early second language acquisition and development.
The PASS project benefits from the resources, competences and capabilities of a consortium of different institutions, working in the EU and collaborating together through the coordination of the Latvia-based TA Group. These are the nine institutions involved: TA Group and SIA Accio (both in Latvia), Digital Knowledge VoF (Netherlands), Somales and Harry Flosser Studios (both in Germany), Mantra Lingua Ltd (United Kingdom), Associación Catalana de Formacón Polivalent Aplicada Baobab (Spain), Direzione Didattica Pinerolo IV Circolo and the University of Turin - Department of Oriental Studies (both in Italy). The two Latvian partners, TA and SIA Accio, respectively deal with educational services (e.g. teacher training) and integration of language teaching (e.g. English, Russian) and thinking skills (TA Group), and with access to information about children and families through forums and web resources. Digital Knowledge is a company of consultancy collaborating with different structures such as schools and companies. Somales is engaged with the development of teaching materials, but what characterises this organization the fact that it focuses on extra-curricular subjects and skills (e.g. technology or building self-confidence). The specificity of Harry Flosser Studios concerns the educational exploitation of graphic and interactive animations, whose appeal to young learners is significant for increasing motivational factors. As to the publishing context, the project is supported by Mantra Lingua Ltd, the largest publisher of bilingual books for children in the world, which recently launched called the "TalkingPEN", a tool that permits to record the readers' voice. The Spanish partner Baobab is private non-profit association addresses its educational services to a variety of subjects such as children, young people, parents, migrants, ethnic minorities. Finally, the Direzione Didattica Pinerolo coordinates local school services (pre-primary and primary) and is part of the net "Europe and Education", whilst the Department of Oriental Studies / University of Turin has a special interest in linguistic phenomena such as bilingualism, English language teaching in multicultural environments, English as a global language. The PASS project is also supported by the European Parents Associations, the Ministry of Education of Brandenbug and the Turkish Lifelong Learning Centre.
The PASS project adheres in toto to the multilingual campaign of various efforts to support language education and awareness, as well promotion of mastery of second languages from the early age and the endorsement of several European languages, as it takes into consideration several linguistic codes: English, German, French, Italian, Latvian, Russia and Dutch. However, it does not merely represent an attempt to foster language competitions, but rather it highlights the inner acquisition processes that can be stimulated through creativity and thinking. The key element therefore lies in the capacity to develop, and then apply to educational contexts, a problem solving technique (the thinking approach) in the perspective of second language teaching. Let us tackle the two main elements of the project (developing thinking skills and language learning) in more detail. The starting point for the idea underlying the whole project derives from the interpretation of forms of multilingualism across Europe as multicultural sites for social improvement. In today's Europe parents often know at least one foreign language, at various levels of competence, and yet they feel intimidated by the task of teaching their own children the second language. The PASS project intends to capitalize on the parent's knowledge by creating and providing educational tools designed for expand thinking skills and teaching a foreign language, which can be employed in everyday common interactions. Considering that "the ability of language minority children to acquire the L2 and maintain proficiency in their L1 is in part related to the type of support the minority language receives in the school environment" (Montrul 2008: 136), the project wishes to reshape some non-formal - e.g. familiar - contexts in order to enhance language learning and multilingualism - and its possible evolution into forms of bilingualism. By using the materials proposed by the project organizers, parents can expose their children to the second language gradually and naturally, and at the same time help them to widen their thinking capacities. As a matter of fact, "when the development of the cognitive function of language and the vaporization of both languages are assured, bilinguality should be promoted as early as possible" (Hamers and Blanc 1989: 83). The second main innovative aspect of the PASS project pivots around the functionality of the TA approach, namely how using thinking skills can generate positive results in virtually any fields of situation and reasoning. As Zechmeister and Johnson (1992: 289) argue, "without the disposition to engage in reflective thinking, we do not seek solutions to our problems, we remain perplexed by situations in which we find ourselves, and our doubts go unresolved". In this light, we can see how the thinking approach contributes to the exploration of solution for different challenging situations, especially via the application of TRIZ (theory of inventive problem solving), a critical thinking methodology originally elaborated by Soviet scientist Genrich Altshuller. The TA sets up a variety of tools and tactics for dealing with problematic situations as it recognises all its elements, formulates hypothesises and overcomes challenges by means of a "better" solution. To some extent, the TA is close to the principles of Edward de Bono's "lateral thinking", which concerns problem solving strategies adopted through an indirect and creative way grounded on reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may be achieved through gradually logic. As de Bono holds, "thinking is not intelligence, or information, or being right but an operating skill that can be improved. Whatever the existing level of thinking skill may be, that skill can improved if we want to improve it" (1992: 301). The project is grounded upon a series of principles, on the one hand regulating language teaching and learning, and on the other concerning the improvement of thinking skills. Bearing in mind the target age (4 to 6 years of age), all activities designed for teaching purposes are to be structured as playful, light-hearted and engaging for children in order to increase participation and generate motivation. The tasks of problem solving or development of thinking skills are initially dealt with in the mother tongue of child, although a progressively use of the foreign language is encouraged and supported so that language as the means for real communication emerges from the interactions between the child and the parent(s). At first, of course, it is fundamental to focus on the receptive skill of listening, rather than the productive ability of speaking, and therefore exposure by means of stories, video materials, music and other tools plays a chief role in this phase. These user-friendly tools also facilitate the presentation of correct phonological features of the foreign language in question. Not only do children need a constant exposure to the langue being taught, but they also need to work on practice activities, e.g. repeating elements and chunks in order to acquire the foreign language. However, in the learning context the PASS project intends to create language has to be presented not as a mere word bank or chain of lexical items, but rather as the apt combination of phrases and sentences, that a language employs through the paradigms of cohesion and coherence to express meanings and values. Children unconsciously are led to see the significance of language for real communication: parents can make up imaginary situations - which are both appealing to and more manageable for children - for introducing and working with the foreign language, but subtly they underline the pragmatic value of doing things with words, to misquote Austin's theory of speech acts. Learning by doing facilitates the natural acquisition language process for children as language elements are incorporated in and filter through real, often funny or attractive activities. Particular attention has to be paid to correction in order not to break the communicative flow: when a 'gentle' type of correction (hinting, facial expressions, echoing, hinting, reformulation) takes place, this may support the teaching effort of the parents. Speaking a second language and solving problems ultimately constitute key skills for operating in a great number of contexts. Obviously the implementation of this type of approach is not lacking of difficulties and problems to consider, and some important questions have to be considered. In particular, special attention has to be dedicated to the affective mastery of the L2 for the parents involved in the project activities as well as the need for the child to use the target language in the family context. Another significant question arises here, and this regards the quality of the communication process since this has to take place naturally, and must not adhere to artificial, prefabricated patterns. Moreover the affective dimension of the communication acts plays an essential role in the interaction between the agents involved (children and parents). However, if activities are well-constructed and set appropriately, they can work successfully and indeed it should be remembered that it is not rare to find that "teachers and parents usually underestimate the ability of children to think. They also underestimate the ability of children to think about different subjects" (de Bono: 45). As demonstrated by several scholars, early language teaching or exposure, furthermore, favours the ideal conditions for the strengthening of bilingual contexts, considering that "if a child receives linguistic input through socialization before the ages of 6-7, chances of developing a full linguistic system are remarkably good" (Montrul 2008: 263). As the quotation sums up, the recourse to the integration of second language teaching within the frame of common social practices between parents and children bring to light the naturalness and the fluency of language different from the mother tongue, encouraging the inner processes of acquisition of the semantax, i.e. the knowledge of syntactic structures and semantic relations. To see the application of the TRIZ principle, we can refer to a previous European Lifelong Learning Programme titled TETRIS (Teaching TRIz at School, available at, which intends to exploit creativity and innovation for educational purposes, offering tools, suggestions and expertise to professionals, for instance with animated series (TRIZ Tales) realized by Harry Flosser Studios and available in twelve languages, including extra-European or 'minority' languages like Chinese or Farsi. The episodes in the TRIZ Tales, available either online or on non-commercial CD-ROM, exemplify the governing philosophy of TRIZ or exemplify in simple terms the application of the thinking approach: first they identify a problem and then they deconstruct it logically by pondering the pros and cons of the different hypothesised solutions, or the contradictions of the situation. The central character of the episodes ("Nina at schools", "Nina at work" and "Nina at university") employs reasoning and critical thinking in dealing with problematic situations, which in reference to the episodes here mentioned are respectively how to make chocolate candies filled with strawberry syrup, how to make a new laboratory for immersive visualization and how to have all the cover nuts of a huge yacht polished. These situations present problematic characteristics and need to be solved by optimizing times, costs, and other elements: finding a solution implies a pragmatic vision of the real context and the ability to logically contemplate all its components by defining the contradiction to be solved. Once the situation has been clearly defined, then it is possible to apply one of the forty inventive principles which constitute the backbone of TRIZ: Nina, for example, recurs to the option of going "the other way round", namely "to invert the action used to solve the problem", and therefore she draws on creativity as well as argumentation rather than ready-made solutions: "I didn't know the answer, I know how to generate it" becomes her motto. The idea of working on thinking skills for didactic purposes is not new and can be found in other teaching methods: if we consider for example secondary school students, the use of detective stories in language activities is rather salient as they can offer appealing chances to make predictions, hypothesis, judgements, considerations by evaluating and connecting the given pieces of information. In the case of detective stories, the opposition of thinking and logic on the one hand and the linguistic and stylistic features on the other in reality turns to be artificial since "all of these dimensions draw on the same stock of mental abilities, such as abstracting concepts from concrete reality, identifying general patterns, attributing causes, imputing motives, selecting on the basis of one's goal" (Douthwaite 1995: 139). In other words, to deal with and interpret the text - i.e. a written form of communication - it is necessary to activate a set of linguistic and non-linguistic tools and strategies in the cognitive process of understanding. The very same notion informs the general frame of the project because it posits challenges and problems to be resolved through the exploitation of a situation close to the young learner's viewpoint. Parents can structure this type of situation by combining real and imaginary aspects, and therefore tasks may range from the preparation of a sandwich to offer to an English friend when there is no bread, to the making of the details (nose, eyes, etc) for a snowman. Here in solving the problematic situation, thinking skills and language acquisition balance the relation between child and parent, for example via a sequenced chain of questions and answers, in which the child is led to formulate an hypothetical solution and reflect on its potential efficacy, but if the parent can highlight the inapplicability of the solution, then a stimulus to the child is provided, and so the challenge is expected to generate new ideas and suggestions. The language input sustains the link of different pieces of information in order to understand logical ties through reasoning. Two things are worth mentioning: firstly, the TA can be extended to other spheres of life, e.g. professional settings, and not just restricted to educational milieus (see for example Candido 2007), and secondly, it does not coincide with learning a set of prescribing strategies to use in fixed situations, but rather emphasises how the techniques of problem solving can be adopted and adapted in a variety of circumstances, by elaborating and tackling the different characteristics of the problems we wish to solve. In other words, "unless we are disposed to approach everyday problems in a thoughtful way, the strategies we learn will be unused knowledge in a mindless warehouse" (Zechmeister and Johnson: 180). Accordingly, the PASS project aims at offering parents tools and suggestions for developing, adapting and elaborating ways and strategies to work on both the thinking and teaching levels, therefore enabling them to interact successfully with their children (Lewis 1990). The support that parents can offer to their children in the development of their cognitive and creative capacities has been studied extensively in the literature and plays a fundamental role in the pedagogical dimension, since parents can act as the first teachers for their children. This paper has succinctly illustrated the PASS project and its potential educational benefits within a European context, in the light of the apt combination of language education and thinking skill development. The project has real, concrete objectives, but it also offers chances to explore areas such as critical thinking, teaching materials creation, bilingualism, early language acquisition, which in turn affect the project's orientation, procedures, methods and aims. The selection of the 4-6 aged children, for example, is grounded on the cognitivist notion of the maturational process which children go through during this period since "there is clear evidence that development of knowledge in one area of language affects knowledge in another area and vice versa. Children acquire knowledge of language not in bits and pieces but across the board as they mature" (Menyuk and Brisk 2005: 38). The consortium's partners also intend to give the project visibility by launching a sound dissemination campaign, which include events for parents and children, workshops for teacher trainees and in-service teachers, publications in various formats. It is hoped to start spreading the usefulness of the thinking approach in educational contexts and plans, so as to generate interest in this significant tool for effective problem solving and language teaching. In its global structure, the project is socially located and in line with the EU vision for the development of opportunities, growth and progress for the collectivity and the individual as well:
Teaching your children to think may well be the most important thing you can do for your children. They will be growing up to live in a complex world. [...] Teaching your children to think may well be the most important thing you can do for society and for the world. [...] We also need thinking that is constructive, generative and creative. There is also a need for better thinking in disputes and conflicts. The old adversarial methods are slow, wasteful and increasingly dangerous. (de Bono 1992: 301) References
de Bono, E. (1992) Teach Your Child How to Think, Penguin, London. Candido, S. (2007) TRIZ: tecnologia per innovare. Guerrini e associati, Milano.
Douthwaite, J. (1995) "Using Detective Stories for the Development of Thinking Skills" in Associazione TuttoEuropa, ed., Lingua, Linguaggi e Oltre, tuttoEuropa, Turin. Harmer, J. (2001) The Practice of English Language Teaching, Pearson, Harlow.
Hamers, J. F. and M. H. A. Blanc (1989) Bilinguality & Bilingualism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Lewis, D. (1990) L'altra metà del cervello. Genitori, figli e pensiero creativo, Società Editrice Internazionale, Torino. Menyuk, P and M. E. Brisk (2005) Language Development and Education, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke. Mehisto, P., D. Marsh, M. J. Frigols (2008) Uncovering CLIL, Macmillan, Oxford. Monti, A., F. Minetti, C. Rozzonelli and F. Musso (2009) Moving around Languages: Teaching English in the Global Age, Alessandria, Edizioni dell'Orso. Montrul, S. A. (2008) Incomplete Acquisition in Bilingualism, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam/Philadelphia. Moon, J. (2005) Children Learning English, Macmillan, Oxford. Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching, Macmillan, Oxford. Zechmeister, E. B. and J. E. Johnson (1992) Critical Thinking. A Functional Approach, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, Pacific Grove, California. Websites
1 Lifelong Learning Programme - Grundtvig, PASS "Parents as Successful Teachers", Project number 510864-LLP-1-2010-LV-GRUNDTVIG-GMP. ---------------
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