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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Alternative Language Testing for Effective Learning

Paper published on MATE 34th Conference Newsletter , January 2014 Tangiers - Morocco

With the advent of the communicative approach to language teaching, student- centeredness and learners-autonomy have become two main touchstones around which the whole teaching-learning process revolves and upon which a language curricula including assessment are being designed. On this basis, if learners‘ autonomy is defined as the ability to take personal or self-regulated responsibility for learning, which would predict academic performance, as Bonson and Voller (1997) defined it, an efficient language assessment model, accordingly, would be the one that provides students with learner-centered feedback on their task performance, promote autonomy and encourage responsibility for learning. A good language test should also increase students‘ intrinsic motivation and engagement in their learning process. Thus, the purpose of an efficient language test is not supposed to merely discriminate between good and poor learners: who should pass or fail a given learning level. Rather, it is meant to 1) inform language facilitators about the strengths, the weaknesses as well as the needs of learners, 2) foster learners‘ learning responsibilities, 3) lower students‘ affective filter and anxiety, and more importantly, 4) enhance learning outcomes.

By incorporating these four objectives while designing a language test, testing becomes an interactive process that involves different elements, allowing learners active participations in the whole testing process, and not simply requiring them to perform the task of reproducing correct answers during an evaluation. A test, according to the dynamic approach, may take different alternative formats, including students’ portfolios, group projects, presentations, and peer and self-assessments among others. On the one hand, by engaging learners in these form of interactive assessments, instructors will not only gain insights about the learners‘ language proficiency level, but also collect data on the learners‘ meta-learning strategies of different language macro-skills (speaking, reading, writing, listening, and understanding), and together with learners, teachers will identify the weaknesses and strengthen of each and every learner both independently and within the group; and thus determine the next learning steps and outcomes. On the other hand, having the chance to participate in the design of test formats and procedures, learners will develop a long-lasting appreciation of assessment, for they no longer perceive it as a moment of anxiety, humiliation, and judgment, but rather a constructive part in their learning journey that informs them about the best ways to become responsible for their learning, and be equipped with the most effective cognitive strategies.

Because of their pivotal roles in the success or failure of any learners‘ language learning experience, teachers can play colossal parts in alternative and dynamic assessment. Poehner and Lantolf (2009) argue that teachers should cater for continuous assistance during interactive assessment for the sake of promoting autonomous learning. Put differently, teachers should encourage students to jointly carry out activities that help the latter stretch beyond their current capabilities. Teachers, in this regard, simultaneously play the role of instructors and assessors, who also encourage learners‘ peer and self-assessments. By so doing teachers contribute both in changing the traditional practice of evaluation in their classroom settings; and in altering their learners‘ perception of assessment into positive attitudes. Finally, an efficacy of a language test depends heavily on understanding the needs of learners, the purpose for which the test is designed, implementation procedures, and clarity of test guidelines and instructions. Of course teachers are not solely expected to understand these elements; they are required to inform about and explain them to students, as well. Studies have shown that learners‘ motivation and performance during evaluation phase gets higher when clear objectives and step-by-step instructions are provided.

To conclude, the field of testing is gaining wider landscapes in modern language didactics due to the complexity and importance of the process, along with the advent of contemporary schools to language teaching such student-centered and task-based approaches that locate learner-autonomy in the core of the learning process. As one of the practitioners and advocates of these models, I do believe that an efficient test in language learning is the one that is set to assist both learners and teachers alike to determine the weaknesses and strengths of the students for the sake of underlying the learners‘ needs upon which the next learning phase will be planned and designed. Accordingly, teachers need to be informed about and make their learners also aware of the multifunction and formats of modern language testing, putting so much emphasis on formative assessment. Alternative and interactive assessments should be given an integral part of teaching, intertwining with, if not replacing, traditional form of assessments. Indeed, if we define language as a means of communication by and through which human being communicatively perform both societal and survival tasks, it follows, then, that testing should help us learn how to perform those tasks successfully in an emotionally and psychologically safe environment.

Is there Room for Innovation in Moroccan Educational System?

Paper presented at MATE 34th Annual Conference in Tangiers-Morocco , Jan, 2014

While developed countries are now finalizing a holistic approach and working strategy to institutionalize and standardize the status of Youth Work and Non-Formal Education Sectors, Morocco is still striving to devise an appropriate formula to heal the ills in its rather formal educational system, which suffers from long lasting vertebral handicaps, both structurally and philosophically. Within the MENA region, Moroccan budgetary spending on education is classified second after Saudi Arabia; yet, neither the quality nor the outcomes of the system do yield half of the highlighted goals; or meet the expectations of Morocco‘s educational community. In the realm of this predicament, can we still speak of innovation in education, at large, and in language teaching in specific in Morocco?

 If developed countries, with their outstanding educational systems, are busy trying to proactively engineer innovative solutions for both existing and yet-to-come handicaps, related to their educational system, can we, in Morocco, and in the MENA region, claim that we are striving the same endeavor, and on an equal footing? If we believe we are, the answer, in my opinion, triggers two conclusions: we are either lying to ourselves; or we are confusing innovation with other exercises, such as reformation, repairing, reconstruction, or even “bricolage.” Few decades ago, innovation might have meant different things to different communities.

With the advent of the speedy and savage information and communication technology, however, those societal and cultural differences are on going shrinkage, leading the way to an internationally and intercontinentally standardize educational system that does not leave much room for any lexical or ideological ambiguities. Yes, indeed, we are living in an era where geography matters less face to time, and where time is much more exponential than ever. Geography reached its demise upon the foundation of the 21st century third most populated country: Facebook. Available in more than 70 languages, with an average of 845 million active users per a month, FB today is the third largest country, behind China and India.

We are living in an exponential time wherein more than 31 billion searches are done on Google every month; two and a half million books are published every month, and the total number of phone messages sent and received every day exceeds the total population of the planet. In English language, there are now more than 540.000 words, which is five times as many as Shakespeare‘s time. The amount of technical information is doubling every two years, which means that for students starting a 4-year technical degree, half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated when they reach the 3rd year. Thus, to claim that we are innovative means that the speed of our educational system positively correlates with the speed of the technological and communication development; and to say this implies that our educational system already incorporates all these ICT intelligences.

 The fact, however, is that we have not managed first to make an effective use of what has already been innovated for us to improve the performances of our educational infrastructures, the productivity of our human capital, the efficacy of our managerial approaches, the teachability of our curricula, and the leadership, if any, of our students. The journey to an innovative educational system, our educational system, should first start accordingly by measuring the distance between where are standing now and where we want to go; because if we do not know where we are going we might end up somewhere else; and that place might be less pleasant than where we are now.

Second, we need to develop a working strategy based on concrete goals, guided within a determined timeframe, managed by well trained and well equipped human capital who are not only masters of theories, but also skilled at operationalizing thoughts into measurable actions. By human capital, I do not only mean educationalist and teaching communities, but more importantly experts from all walks of life. This, in itself, might be another challenging task for a society, as Morocco, which prides itself for giving birth to millions of good players, but is still sterile to deliver one, but, good team. Indeed, cross-sectoral collaborations and horizontal partnerships among the public and the private sectors, along with civil society need to synchronize their goals as well as their visions, and work for long-term synergies.

If educational system in Scandinavian countries tops international classifications, it is because these societies have embarked on two main convictions, which they have worked hard meticulously to actualize. On the one hand, their educational system includes various public, private, and civil society players who collaborate horizontally. On the other hand, their philosophy of education pursues a social constructivist approach that puts the system in service of the learner, and not the other way round. Third, and finally, we must train ourselves on accepting “CHANGE”, and start perceiving it as a normal, or indeed, as a necessary phase for the healthy life cycle of any social constituent. Because, in my opinion, innovation in education is nothing but an invitation to the collective imagination to bridging the gap from a life cycle stage to another; innovation in education, in this regard, is not a luxury but the rite of passage that ascertains the progressive transition of knowledge in such away that responses to the socio-economic, political, artistic, and aesthetic aspirations of a society.

 In conclusion, virtual education institutes such as Stanford, MIT, EPIC, among others, are pondering about ways and means for preparing students, in the near future, for jobs that are not yet existing, using technologies that have not been yet invented in order to solve problem we do not even know are problems yet. These students will not have to be physically in the USA, nor will they need to have thousands of dollars to sponsor their studies. All that they will need is a technological gadgetry and Internet access. In Europe, the EU’s research and innovation funding scheme Horizon 2020 has received €70 billion between 2014 and 2020 –Erasmus+, which supports student exchange programs between European universities. It also includes, for the first time, funding for staff, students and researchers to travel outside Europe and a pilot European Master’s Loan Guarantee Facility, which will provide loans at favorable rates for students pursuing master’s study in another European country.

Within the Erasmus+ framework, more than four million people will receive support to study, train, work or volunteer abroad, including two million higher education students. Both the American and European examples reveal that education and innovation in education are and will always remain precarious field of significant importance that cannot be solved by virtue of the Ministerial decision, but rather by virtue of a sustainable collaboration of different stakeholders, because “it takes a rock to blink a river in a pond; it takes quark to make a tsunami, and it takes a collection of educated people to make a change”

The Itinerary of Civil Society in Morocco

The presence of civil society as an active political body within Morocco’s institutional tissue dates back to more than two daces. Although it is difficult to verify the exact number of CSOs, in the country, it was estimated that there are over 100,000 registered associations (Bohdana Dimitrovova, 2009). Up to the early 1980s, the Moroccan society was characterized by a sprit of community life under an absolute political control of the State. But the political and economic model followed back then proved to be sterile. The State’s traditional strategy of equilibrium, which consisted in the creation of relays, the recuperation of powers emerging at the base, the globalization at the top and the practice of state clientage, proved to be inadequate. State clientage has led, in a context of shortage of resources, to an overcharge of demands and a crisis of lawfulness of the state. Additionally, the increasing exclusion of young people from economic and political life has constituted the grounds for a radical and violent dispute between the people and the ruling body. Furthermore, limiting the political participation to the notables and docile elites has not been able to accommodate the presence of a middle class in full expansion. (Zef Bonn, 2005).

Faced with these vertebral handicaps, the State had no options other than devising new political and economic strategies that would synchronize with the regional as well as the transitional fast rhythm of economic and social transformations, besides the opening up of the world market and the economic liberalization. In 1979, Morocco ratified the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights; freedom of association has since become a constitutional right (Kausch, 2008a). In 2002, new legislation was adopted to facilitate the use of foreign funding by Moroccan CSOs (for details see Khakee, 2008). Furthermore, international pressure coupled with financial support for CSOs has promoted an agenda focused on political and civic rights: e.g. human rights, women’s rights, freedom of the press and association. Consequently, in a process that could be termed as ‘boundary setting’, the state has had to re-regulate state–civil society relations by defining the political spheres assigned to state and civil society actors. This dynamism gave birth to the associative life in Morocco, providing a new public space, which structured itself around the promotion of citizenship with autonomous social actors behaving as political forces. Since then, hundreds of associations in defense of the rights of man, women, young people, Berbers, civil liberties, political associations, fight against corruption or fight against aids and economic development issues mushroomed, and now, they have gained national and transitional recognitions.

 This recognition came as an outcome of the fast growing number as well as quality-performance of civil society organizations, located in different geographical locations; both in the urban as well as the rural zones of the country. Moha Ennaji, for instance, talks about two categories of civil society organizations in morocco: the first type includes all the organizations that provide socio-economic and educational services and material supports and filling the gaps left by the state in social and economic development: such as education, health, building schools and health centers in rural areas and villages. The second type features mostly human rights associations that strive to foster “democratic culture advocacy”. Zef Bonn’s model (2005) talks about three different categories: 1) business association, 2) labor unions, and 3) political parties. On the one hand, Labor Union, Zef argues, that regardless of its long existence and experience in militarism, is still ineffective dues to its old dated ways and means. Syndicalism in morocco started as early as the beginning of the French protectorate (1912). It witnessed a structural reform in the mid 1950 when the Moroccan unions decided to align the Nation’s oppositional movements, giving birth to the first union (Moroccan Work Union) in 1956. Since then, their presence has gained more space, diversity, and affiliations in political parties.

However, Syndicalism in Morocco has not been able to step out of its traditional operational framework. According to Zef:

  “The Moroccan unions’ way of working is largely delayed in relation to the demands of the moment. Their attachment to syndicalism of the fifties and sixties doesn’t prepare them to hoist themselves to the level of decision-making. Their managements are not yet ready to use modern tools and methods. They act in the logic of a primary force report without reference to modern methods.” (Zef Bonn, 2005, P.11) 

 On the other hand, the associations of entrepreneurs emerged as an independent economic power in the Moroccan public sphere in the 1990s due to the linearization and privatization process the States ventured into. Later on, they have constituted an autonomous centrality within the economic life. The third type, political parties in morocco, can be localized under three blocks: 1) the “States’ parties”: the existence of these dates back to the period of the French protectorate. They have old tradition, and are equipped with organized structures, such as economic commissions, social commissions, and institutional commissions, which allow them a unique proximity to the monarchy and an active participation in the political debate.

The second type is the “occasional parties”, created by administration during electoral periods. They are known for their managerial competency since they get first hand information about the social and economic realities of the country due to their close position to the administration. Finally, there is the “unrepresented parties: These are the advocate of the social rights of the rural side population. There are also parties of the two extremes: the extreme left and the Islamic parties. Whether in business association, labor unions, and/or political parties, feminist movements in Morocco are omnipresent in all of these public spheres with various degrees of influential performance. There are more than 30 women’s rights organizations in Morocco. Some of them deal with the political and institutional emancipation of women, others with socio-economic issues such as education and poverty, others with issues related to civic rights, and the list goes on. Founded in 1985, the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc, ADFM), one of the leading and oldest feminist organizations, assigns itself the mission of protection and promotion of women’s human rights as universally recognized. Nowadays, the most persistent voices are expected to come from civil society.

At the same time, the maintaining an exclusive link between civil society and the democratization process often leads to a dichotomous, if not a violent confrontation, relationship between the state and the civil society; and it is not always easy to maintain power balance while surviving this dichotomy. With all its limitations and constraints, civil society has helped Moroccans, in general, and women, in particular, in gaining back some of its civic rights. Yet, it would be misleading to attribute the origins of this reform solely to civil society. Many believe that the democratization potential of Moroccan civil society is very limited and clearly defined within the ‘public spheres’ boundaries that are chartered by the States. In other words, unlike its theoretical usage in some Eastern European States where the concept of civil society has often been associated with the analysis of opposition to non-democratic states to foster political liberalization and lead to increased civic participation in the public sphere (Gellner, 1994; Hirsch, 2002), in Morocco, civil society and its oppositional role is tightly controlled and often guided by the omnipresence and vigilance of the State. So, oftentimes, members of civil society can only be permitted to resist the State’s totalitarianism to an extent that would save the face of the former and project a brightened image of the latter outside its geographical boundaries.

Working under such a condition renders the productivity of this institution very limited and rarely extraordinary. There are some voices that see nothing coming out of the civil society, but an extension to the State’s institutions, since they both echo the same discursive strategies. Bohdana Dimitrovova (2009), for instance, argues that large segments of Moroccan society, that do not accept the status quo imposed by the political elite, are shunned by the makhzenian structures, are excluded from the public sphere. Nevertheless, empirical evidence suggests that the possibility of dialogue within this normative public sphere where “a fair balance of interests can come about only when all concerned have equal right to participation” (Habermas, 1999, p. 72) is rather limited. These politics of exclusion and inequality are diametrically opposed to Habermasian (1999) notions of the public sphere in which the dialogue between the state and civil society is based on mutually accepted ethical principles. The oppressive character of the Moroccan public sphere has important consequences for the actual functioning of civil society.

It is agued here that civil society does not always adhere to the principles of ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’, and that it can be subject to political patronage and competition. Another difficulty with Habermas’s somewhat idealistic notion of the public sphere is the elitist nature of Moroccan civil society and its weak social impact. Scholars such Denoueux and Gateau (1995) have pointed out that many Moroccan CSOs are linked more to the State than to the real concerns of society, which raises the question of who the civil society actually represents. The elite character of mainly urban CSOs and their distance from the reality on the ground has generated widespread skepticism of ‘active’ or responsible citizenship through community involvement All in all, both history and performance the Moroccan Civil Society has walked reveal that the organization has come a long way; and yet, “The challenge facing these organizations is to establish themselves as forces for innovation and to encourage the state to change policies that are detrimental to Moroccans and their democracy. Indeed, the state in Morocco relies on these organizations to implement policy and help meet the needs of the public. Giving them the space to operate independently would help civil society have a genuine partnership with the state.” However, the tasks of these organizations in their efforts to fosters channels of cultural diplomacy with and across nation remain challenging as long as the country does not show a bold political readiness to work hand in hand with these NGOs in an context of mutual trust and respects.