The winner of the 2013 Macmillan Education Innovative Writing Award at the British Council ELTons, Teresa Ting, tells us about her work, her motivations and the importance of winning the award.

Teresa Ting

What was your reaction to winning the Macmillan Education Innovative Writing Award?

Well, I was already very pleased to have been nominated and really didn’t believe I would actually win! The fact that Macmillan, along with international EFL expertise such as the British Council and Cambridge ESOL, chose my product, related to biology for the IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education), is very revealing of how the EFL environment is, once again, at the forefront of education. It shows that EFL experts think in a very transdisciplinary way and realize that language learning is most effective when learners are doing something with that language.

I have to give special thanks to my colleague and friend, Virigina Basile, who is an English teacher here in Cosenza, as she encouraged me to send in my materials for consideration.

What drove you to write your own materials?

The unit I submitted for the Awards was about the human heart.  So, let me tell you about how that unit came about …

As I have a degree in biology, in 2001 I was asked by a local high school to “come teach science – use English and use CLIL”.  I had no idea what CLIL was at that time. At the first oral test, after the students readily listed all the structures of the human heart, I asked them a very important question which relates to the fact that blood containing oxygen never mixes with that containing carbon dioxide (well, it shouldn’t!) and the students did not know the answer. They could list details about the heart but had totally missed the core concepts of what the heart does. I realized that the learning called students to engage in LOTS – lower-order thinking skills – but never called upon HOTS – higher-order thinking skills. So, I started looking at why what we were doing was not calling upon HOTS and that led me to write my own CLIL product.

Tell us about your teaching caeer

As well as having a degree in biology, I also have one in psychology and ended up progressing to a PhD in neurobiology.  As part of that, I taught functional human neuroanatomy at the local medical school. That was my first teaching job: teaching students how to look at a patient’s language, behaviour, motor movements and decide where the brain damage was – there was no MRI back then; you had to find it through clinical diagnosis.

My PhD research, however, was on learning and memory in rats. I would put electrodes in rats’ brains and see how various chemicals and toxins affected their motivation or take slices of their brains and see if these chemicals changed learning and memory formation on a microscopic level.

I then moved to Italy and began teaching English to Italian university students. Of course, just because you speak a language does not mean you know how to teach it. To start with I was a terrible English teacher! So I went to the UK and got myself an MA in EFL so I could do a better job. And that was a great move because then I started to understand how learning is such an intricate in individual process: no two learners are the same! But, no matter what happens, whenever learning does happen, it happens in the brain. So, here I am, back in the brain, this time with human brains. The only problem is I cannot put electrodes into my learners’ brains and I can’t slice into them, unfortunately!

What have you learned from your time as a teacher trainer?

I have learnt that teachers are very hard-working and they are very responsive to useful information. So, in my CLIL teacher training, I start with the set of CLIL activities on the heart. The trainees learn about the heart very easily, through collaborative learning with their peers, by solving problems and without my explaining anything through teacher talk. The trainees also work on their own literacy, e.g. writing academically. 

I have had physics, economics, history and even carpentry teachers learn about the heart – after all, if teachers can’t learn about the heart through activities that students are supposed to use, then the activities aren’t useful, are they? So, when they see that CLIL activities work, then I tell them about why they work. This is where I bring in the research data from neuroscience. This is fun – as any information about how the brain works is fun to listen to. However, there is a good body of research that clearly tells educators about how the brain does not learn, and these research findings provide the scientific basis for why CLIL, done well, works well.

What are IGSCEs and why are they important?

For me, as a teacher using CLIL, developing CLIL materials and training CLIL teachers, the IGCSE curriculum provides a benchmark for where our CLIL materials should go and what the learning objectives of our CLIL materials should be. Until now, a lot of the upper secondary CLIL learning materials have been a bit of history here, a bit of biology there, and that is not how content teaching progresses. For example, the topic of photosynthesis is covered over several lessons and might bring in chemistry and physics or even mathematics, geography or geology into the picture.  As my CLIL colleague Phil Ball from San Sebastian says, “Content learning is sequential and follows a progression.” 

When I teach general English, I do not, for example, teach colours in the past, present and future tenses. I use the tense to talk about different content – my favourite shop today, food tomorrow, movies the day after tomorrow. So, I think the IGCSE or any other content benchmark should be considered when developing CLIL materials that we expect content teachers to be able to use. After all, if we are going to be using CLIL in content lessons – as is the case in Italy – then we cannot sacrifice content for language. I want my surgeon to know her anatomy and I don’t care if she doesn’t speak any foreign language!

What advice would you give to aspiring authors who are thinking about entering the Macmillan Education Innovative Writing Award?

The great news is that this is a body of far-sighted judges. They really mean ‘innovative’ so, even if you have the wildest idea, if it really does work to achieve the learning objective you propose then it has a chance. So go for it!