Interview with Carmen Amerstorfer
A GLIMPSE INTO PROBLEM-BASED LEARNING
Carmen Amerstorfer has taught a wide range of students from around the world and all walks of life over the course of her career. Recently she has been working on problem-based learning and implementing global skills in the classroom. In this interview she talks to us about her experience with teaching abroad, student centred classrooms and how she envisions the future of teaching.
Your teaching experience stretches over many different levels of education, from kindergarten to university. Which did you find to be the most challenging and which one was the most rewarding for you?
I think my youngest student was just under three years and the oldest one was almost 80, so age wise I think I’ve covered a wide range. I think challenging is when students aren’t really motivated. For example, when I worked in the Netherlands, we did courses for companies, and people were made to take English classes by their employers. If the motivation doesn’t really come from the people themselves then it can be a bit of a drag sometimes. It was very rare that this happened. Most of the time, my teaching experience has been really rewarding. Working with small children was amazing because they’re so intuitive and excited about everything and I really love that. You get so much back from them, and the reactions are immediate, they don’t think about it, so they just say what they think right away, and I found that very nice.
Of course, the teaching was different too. You could play games and sing songs and have fun with them in a more childish way. At university there are many rewarding moments as well and overall, it’s a rewarding experience too because you can see how people grow, how effort pays off and how sustainable the learning gains are. With university students you can notice all these things regarding the progress and their learning growth. Usually they choose their subjects, and the place they’re in, they have freedom to select courses and that also affects the motivation and makes everything a rewarding experience.
What are the main differences regarding teaching style between those different levels of education?
I think you can do fun things with adults too, it’s just a different kind of fun. It has to be a bit more sophisticated and maybe less childish. I guess at university or working with adults in general, I wouldn’t sing songs anymore, but I know there are people in similar situations who do that, for example Tim Murphey at Kanada University in Japan. At university, students really expect a different kind of instruction. They need books to study and clear guidelines, so everything is a bit more serious. Also, assessment is quite different. University students know that at the end of term there is usually some kind of assessment which you don’t really have in kindergarten, for example. Kindergarten students don’t have to write term papers.
You’ve spent some time teaching in China. Tell us a little bit about your experience there.
I moved to Shanghai, China in 2005. I actually applied for a teaching position at local Chinese schools but when I arrived in Shanghai, it turned out that the company that organised these contracts was really fraudulent, so it was a bit scary. On the very first day they collected everybody’s passports and I said “Well, I’m not willing to give you my passport before I have a contract.” I knew they needed the passport to apply for a visa. I said, “First of all we need to have a contract and then we can talk about the technicalities of arranging the visa.” Everybody else who arrived on that day gave them their passport, so they were kind of blackmailed into teaching for them under horrible conditions. They had to teach at five or six or seven different schools and Shanghai, even at that time, was massive. You would need almost two hours to travel from one end of the city to the other. They had to work, day and night, correcting home assignments and all sorts of things. I’m so glad I didn’t fall into that trap.
I was kind of stranded because I liked the city and the cultural experience immediately, so I set myself a deadline of two weeks and said if I find a job and an apartment within two weeks I’ll stay and if not, I’ll just tick it off and go back to Austria. I found a job at an international kindergarten very quickly and I also had two interviews in two different international schools, and both offered me a job right away and so I stayed. Finding an apartment wasn’t a problem at all. Teaching in a kindergarten was a new experience for me, I had only taught at university before I worked at the kindergarten. It was very different, but it was lovely from the first day on. I had a group of about 16 two- to four-year-olds and we were three adults with this small group. There was a Chinese teacher who barely spoke English when I arrived, but her English became amazing within that one year that I worked with her and we also had a helper who took care of changing nappies, going to the bathroom, washing hands and things like that. She didn’t speak any English, so we communicated mostly through gestures and I learnt quite a bit of Mandarin in that one year.
In kindergarten things are very repetitive so every morning you sit together in a circle, and you talk about what day of the week it is, all the different colours and counting and all sorts of things. I figured out that Mandarin, vocabulary wise, would be manageable because some of it is very simply structured, from what I can tell. So, for example, instead of having a separate word for every day of the week you’d say “Day 1, Day 2,..” and so if you know the word for “day” and the numbers one through seven you know all the days of the week.
Overall, that was a whole different experience, and the cultural experience was amazing. I didn’t have any formal language instruction in Mandarin, but I was, very soon, able to give directions to taxi drivers and knew how to say a few things and I learnt how to haggle for prices of fruit and vegetables and a bit of basic vocabulary. I didn’t learn to write anything, and I could read maybe 30 Chinese characters, but I also didn’t make an effort to learn reading or writing. I was pretty bold at that time, I just tried things like holding a conversation and sometimes it worked really well and other times I noticed that my conversation partner just smiled and nodded. I knew that my message hadn’t been received but I appreciated the politeness.
Your current research focusses on problem-based learning. What exactly is problem-based learning?
Problem-based learning is, in my opinion, a very cool teaching approach for teaching adults in higher education. I learnt about it when I was a teacher at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. It has a number of basic ground rules, it’s very student centred, so the teacher has a rather passive role during the class meetings and is there to provide support as a resource if the students really need help.
Of course, if something dramatic happens like the students behaving disrespectfully, then the teacher would also step in. Normally, what happens in problem-based learning is that students get a scenario, a description of an actual situation that could happen in their professional real life and then they have the opportunity to figure out how to solve the problem, whatever it may be. They do it in a team, there are different roles students can take during class meetings. In every session there is a chairperson who is the discussion leader and who also makes decisions together with the team, of course. Then there is a scribe who is kind of an assistant to the chairperson, who makes sure that the discussions don’t go over the time limit and takes minutes during the class meetings and then shares those minutes afterwards with all participants. Problem-based learning works if the students understand that they are a team and that every team member has to participate actively and do something. They have to arrange little tasks for themselves and then students can volunteer to do those tasks and bring back new information to the meeting that follows. Then they can see if the answers, the individual people found, will lead to a solution of the problem.
You have to take responsibility. It’s not the teacher who tells you what to do, it’s the team who decides how they are going to go about solving this problem, what they need to solve it and who can take care of the individual steps. So that’s problem-based learning in a nutshell.
How has teaching and the relationship between teacher and student changed since you went to school?
I think a lot has changed in teaching methodology and teaching style, which is a very personal thing to the teacher. I remember when I was in grammar school, I had a very traditionally thinking English teacher and her teaching methodology was very grammar-based so we would get grammar rules, we would have short sentences where we would define what is the subject, object, verb etc. and then we would have to change the tense. It was just grammar exercises without any connection to reality. It was very detached from context. We just had to study vocabulary lists by heart and were tested on them. However, even when I went to school this was quite rare, I think. A lot has changed since then, everything is a bit more student centred, topic based, practice oriented and more communicative and I think that’s an important development.
What are the most important teaching strategies you’re exploring and developing to make teaching and learning a more pleasant and productive experience?
At the moment, I’m actually trying to integrate global skills in my teaching. I’m trying to leave a lot of responsibility to my students. I’ve been doing a lot of project work in my courses, where I tell my students what the expected outcome of the project is so students can work together in teams, cooperate, and take responsibility to achieve what they are supposed to achieve. I find that it doesn’t always have to be a term paper or an exam for assessment. I think that students can also present the results of a project by designing a website. There are many free templates online, so they don’t have to pay for anything or learn how to program. I don’t take anything for granted but in a team, students usually figure out how to do these things very quickly. I presume that this is more fun for them than writing an academic paper, which, of course, in some of my courses they still have to do.
However, in some classes, the one on “global skills”, for example, it would be contradicting the purposes of the course and its topics if I demanded a term paper at the end. I think it makes more sense if the presentation of the project is online, on a website that is their own and a product they can share with other people.
I try to incorporate other cultural experiences in projects. Last semester we had two groups, one of which planned an excursion to Newcastle in Australia and the other team planned an excursion to Gainesville in Florida. I have friends there at the university and they were the group’s contact people, so the students could actually do interviews with them. In the reflection of this project, we thought that maybe in the future, we could get students from those universities involved, rather than the teachers being the only contact people. I always try to think of something that I believe students would enjoy doing and that’s meaningful and practical for their careers.
You have organised excursions to a school in Upper Austria to open future language teachers’ minds to a new teaching method. What is the Dalton method of teaching?
It’s not actually a new method, it’s rather old. It was published in 1922 so that’s almost 100 years ago and its founder was Helen Parkhurst, and she was also a teacher who worked together with Maria Montessori but it’s not quite clear how the two of them influenced each other, the literature is a bit vague about that.
The Dalton methodology focuses on three basic principles: freedom, self-reliance, and cooperation.
Freedom means that students get to choose a lot of things, they have options, and they can make their own decisions. For example, you could give them an assignment and a week to fulfil the tasks that are included in the assignment. The students are then free to decide when they want to do the assignment, so the timing is up to them. Which leads to the second principle, self-reliance. They are in charge of the learning progress and of the outcomes as well. The third principle is cooperation so it’s really important that students work together to achieve whatever there is to achieve within a certain assignment.
There’s a handful of these schools in Austria but there are many more Dalton schools in the USA, the Netherlands, which is where I learnt about is in the first place. I was just blown away because even kindergarten kids applied the Dalton method. They had a chart on the wall with symbols and they got tasks, so the kids could decide when to do their tasks and when they were done, they could put a little sticker on the noticeboard. At the end of the week, they looked at the chart to see that everybody had finished their tasks. When I saw that it worked with 3-year-olds, I thought I just had to find out more about this.
The school in Upper Austria is really cool, I love it, and I discovered it before I started my PhD. I just went there on an open-door day out of interest and attended a presentation by the two core teachers who organise the Dalton classes, it’s a really small team of teachers who do that. It’s very popular among students and parents, I know that the waiting lists for the Dalton classes are really long, and they’re only allowed to open a limited number of classes who teach in that student centred way. It’s cool, literally, because the abbreviation means cooperative open learning, COOL.
I’ve been taking university students there for many years and so far, I think everybody liked it a lot because the school then also opens the classroom doors. We could go into the classrooms, observe students while they’re working on their Dalton assignments, when they’re working together in teams and we could also interview students during break time and during COOL lessons because students decide for themselves if they have time to talk to us or if they should use the time they have because the deadline is coming up. The team of teachers there always welcomes us with open arms, and they always prepare presentations and situations where students and teachers get together in a room and we, as outsiders, can interview them all together and ask lots of questions.
Do you believe it can be applied to all pupils?
I think, no. It always depends on the individual. There are people who need guidance, who need to be given a more solid framework, to have stricter rules or a different kind of assessment. I think it doesn’t work for everybody but then, it’s not mandatory for everybody. If we really wanted to be philosophical here, then we could question other teaching styles or methodologies that are applied in Austria and how they’re not ideal for all students but nevertheless students have to do what they’re told in certain situations. In the Dalton school that I like to go to on excursion, it’s the parents who decide together with their children whether they would like to apply for a Dalton class or a regular class, so nobody is forced to do it. In very rare cases, students figure out after a few weeks or months that this isn’t really working for them and then they can still change to a different class.
What did the students who participated in the excursion think of this method?
Hmm, we would have to ask them that. We did feedback afterwards and if I remember correctly, it was all quite positive. I don’t remember any negative comments off the top of my head now. What I do know for sure, though, is that the students who attend Dalton classes are in high demand on the job market. Especially in the regions around the school, the companies are keen to have those graduates because the students are self-reliant and can take responsibility, they’re really confident, not afraid of speaking up and they’re great team players because they learn all these life skills in the Dalton methodology.
What do you believe is the future of teaching? How do you envision teaching will take place in the future?
I think what’s becoming more and more important these days are global skills. For example, creative and critical thinking skills, that you don’t believe everything that you find on a random website, that students learn how to be critical about the sources they use and the things they see on the internet. Also, cooperation and communication skills, those are the skills that people need to learn. I think that our school system and the curricula will have to adapt to these changes and much of that is already happening. Students in school will be trained or educated to become self-reliant actors in a society. They have to become social actors and they have to learn how to take responsibility for the planet, respect for other cultures and so many things that aren’t yet written down in our curricula. I think we’re headed in that direction. In Great Britain, for example, Oxford and Cambridge University Press are already doing a lot of work in that direction. They’re already producing schoolbooks to integrate global skills. That’s where I see myself as well, that’s why I’m already integrating global skills in teacher education at the University of Klagenfurt because I believe that it’s going to be an important topic for our future English teachers as well because global skills are more easily integrated into language teaching than into other subjects.
In the past year and a half online-teaching has become a necessity. How did you deal with this new teaching mode?
I think I dealt with it the way many teachers at the University of Klagenfurt did. In at the deep end. You just have to switch from what you’re used to, to pure online teaching. Whatever people were used to at the point where the first lockdown happened is individual. Some people already integrated online teaching in their courses, so they had more experience with online teaching than I did. I have to admit that before this global crisis I wasn’t really into online teaching, but luckily problem-based learning works really well online, as well as in person. Everything was online all of a sudden, so we, the team of three teachers who teach problem-based learning, did some research about it and looked into students’ perspectives. Everything was positive overall, of course there were a couple of comments that were not so great, but the overall situation has been very demanding and tiring because it has been going on for so long. I think that learning about online teaching is going to turn out as an advantage for many teachers because I can imagine that there will be more of it in the future. Either policy makers will demand it more from teachers or teachers themselves will say “Actually, this is working quite well for me, and I would like to integrate it more in my own teaching.”.
You have hosted several conferences throughout your career. Would you share some of your best and worst experiences in connection to that?
It’s always great to get people together, this is the basis I’d like to start with. I think the Covid situation has confirmed that. At least for me, personally. I love getting together with people who do research in the same areas, or have the same interests as me, and just talk about ideas and projects. It’s always good to get the perspective of somebody else. It could also be someone who hasn’t got anything to do with what I’m interested in, and I’d still be interested in their opinion. Conferences are a great place for such exchanges. So, I would say that the exchange with other people is the best thing about conferences, and I guess that’s also why we organise them.
As for the worst experience, I was really nervous when I did the opening to the first international conference. I was still a PhD student then and I was so nervous. I knew that the people we had invited to the conference were globally well-known scholars in the area of language learning strategies, and I was this PhD student who was also interested in this topic but had no experience and only little knowledge on this topic. People told me afterwards that they didn’t notice how nervous I was until I told them that I forgot the last slide because I was so nervous. Being aware that you’re nervous just makes you more nervous so I think that was the worst experience. The closing talk at the end of this two-day conference was very relaxed. I felt very comfortable because by then I had talked to almost all of the participants and they were all very friendly. It’s a very friendly community in strategic language learning and it doesn’t matter how well-known certain scholars are. In the strategy field everybody is really supportive of each other, I know that there are other research areas where that is not the case so I’m giving credit to my international colleagues.
We also did smaller conferences and those are, in my opinion, better to attend because you don’t have such a large selection of parallel sessions and you can really focus on certain things. Also, if they don’t go on for so many days it’s also an advantage for me because the energy doesn’t drop. They are also easier to organise, so, from an organisational point of view it can be a bit stressful sometimes if things get too big.
Carmen M. Amerstorfer is a senior scientist and teacher educator at the Department of English at the University of Klagenfurt. She has worked at educational institutions in Austria, the Netherlands, and China and taught learners of all ages. In her current position, she applies a problem-based learning approach to her EFL teaching methodology courses. Her research interests include learner-centred teaching, strategic language learning, and features of psychology in language learning and teaching.
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