Mediating mediation

Posted: September 11, 2022 in learning outcomes, learning theory, practical ideas
Tags: , , , , ,

This post is a piece of mediation – an attempt to help you understand the concept of mediation itself. In order to mediate this concept, I am engaging in an act of linguistic mediation, helping you to understand the language of the discourse of mediation, which may, at times, seem obscure. See, for example, the last sentence in this paragraph, a sentence which should not be taken too seriously. This is also an act of cultural mediation, a bridge between you, as reader, and the micro-culture of people who write earnestly about mediation. And, finally, since one can also mediate a text for oneself, it could also be argued that I am adopting an action-oriented approach in which I am myself a social agent and a lifelong learner, using all my plurilingual resources to facilitate pluricultural space in our multidiverse society.

Mediation has become a de-jour topic since the publication of the Companion Volume of the CEFR (North et al., 2018). Since then, it has been the subject of over 20 Erasmus+ funded projects, one of which (MiLLaT, 2021), (funded to the tune of 80,672.00 € and a collaboration between universities in Poland, Czechia, Lithuania and Finland), offers a practical guide for teachers, and which I’ll draw on heavily here.

This guide describes mediation as a ‘complex matter’, but I beg to differ. The guide says that ‘mediation involves facilitating understanding and communication and collaborating to construct new meaning through languaging or plurilanguaging both on the individual and social level’. Packed as it is with jargon, I will employ three of the six key mediation strategies to make this less opaque. These are streamlining (or restructuring) text, breaking down complicated information, and adjusting language (North & Piccardo, 2016: 457). Basically, mediation simply means helping to understand, in a very wide variety of ways and in the broadest possible sense. The mediation pie is big and can be sliced up in many ways: the number of categories and sub-categories make it seem like something bigger than it is. The idea is ‘not something new or unknown’ in language teaching (MilLLaT, 2021).

What is relatively new is the language in which mediation is talked about and the way in which it is associated with other concepts, plurilingualism and pluricultural competence in particular. (Both these concepts require a separate mediating blog post to deconstruct them.) Here, though, I’ll focus briefly on the kinds of language that are used to talk about mediation. A quick glossary:

  • facilitating collaborative interaction with peers = communicative pair / group work
  • facilitating pluricultural space = texts / discussion with cultural content
  • collaborating in a group – collaborating to construct meaning = group work
  • facilitating communication in delicate situations and disagreements = more group work
  • relaying specific information in writing = writing a report
  • processing text in writing = writing a summary

See? It’s not all that complex, after all.

Neither, it must be said, is there anything new about the activities that have been proposed to promote mediation skills. MiLLaT offers 39 classroom activities, divided up into those suitable for synchronous and asynchronous classes. Some are appropriate for polysynchronous classes – which simply means a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous, in case you were wondering.

To make things clearer still, here is a selection of the activities suggested in MiLLaT. I’ll spare you the lengthy explanations of precisely which mediation skills and strategies these activities are supposed to develop.

  • Students read texts and watch videos about malaria, before working in groups to develop a strategy to eradicate malaria from a particular village.
  • Students do a jigsaw reading or video viewing, discuss the information they have come across and do a follow-up task (e.g. express their own opinions, make a presentation).
  • Students read an article / watch a video (about Easter in another country), do some ‘lexical and comprehension activities’, then post messages on a discussion forum about how they will spend Easter.
  • Students read a text about Easter in Spain from an authentic source in Spanish, complete a fill-in-the-blanks exercise using the information and practising the vocabulary they learned from the text, then describe a local event / holiday themselves.
  • Students read a text about teachers, discuss the features of good/bad educators and create a portrait of an ideal teacher.
  • Students read extracts from the CEFR, interview a teacher (in L1) about the school’s plurilingual practices, then make a presentation on the topic in L2.
  • One student shows the others some kind of visual presentation. The rest discuss it in groups, before the original student tells the others about it and leads a discussion.
  • Students analyse a text on Corporate Social Responsibility, focusing on the usage of relevant vocabulary.
  • Students working in groups ‘teach’ a topic to their group members using figures/diagrams.
  • Students read a text about inclusive writing, then identify examples of inclusive language from a ‘Politically Correct Bedtime Story’, reflect on these examples, posting their thoughts in a forum.
  • Students watch a TED talk and write down the top five areas they paid attention to when watching the talk, share a summary of their observations with the rest of their group, and give written feedback to the speaker.
  • Students read a text and watch a video about note-taking and mindmapping, before reading an academic text and rendering it as a mindmap.
  • Students explore a range of websites and apps that may be helpful for self-study.
  • Students practise modal verbs by completing a gapped transcript of an extract from ‘Schindler’s List’.
  • Students practise regular and irregular pasts by gap-filling the song ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’.
  • Students practise the present continuous by giving a running commentary on an episode of ‘Mr Bean’.

You could be forgiven for wondering what some of this has to do with mediation. Towards the end of this list, some of the examples are not terribly communicative or real-world, but they could legitimately be described as pedagogical mediation. Or ‘teaching’, for short.

Much could be said about the quality of some of the MiLLaT activities, the lack of originality, the (lack of) editing, topics that are already dated, copyright issues, and even the value of the activities. Was this really worth €80,000? However, the main point I’d like to make is that, when it comes down to classroom practicalities, you won’t find anything new. Rather than trawling through the MiLLaT documents, I’d recommend you splash out on Chiappini and Mansur’s (2021) ‘Activities for Mediation’ if you’re looking for some ready-made mediation ideas. Alternatively, take any tried and tested communicative classroom task, and describe it using some mediation jargon. If you do this, you’ll have the added bonus of practising your own mediation strategies (you could, for example, read the CEFR Companion Volume in a language other than your own, mentally translate into another language, and then amplify the text using the jargon from the CEFR CV). It will do wonders for your sociolinguistic, pragmatic, plurilingual and pluricultural competences.

Now that we have mediation etherized upon a table, there is an overwhelming question that cannot be avoided. Is the concept of mediation worth it, after all? I like the fact that mediation between two or more languages (Stathopoulou, 2015) has helped to legitimize interlingual activities in the ELT classroom, but such legitimization does not really require the notion of mediation. This is more than amply provided for by research into L1 use in L2 learning, as well as by the theoretical framework of translanguaging. But beyond that? I’m certainly not the first person to have asked the question. Bart Deygers (2019), for example, argues that the CEFR CV ‘does not truly engage with well-founded criticism’, and neither does it ‘refer to the many empirical studies that have been conducted since 2001’ that could have helped it. He refers to a ‘hermetic writing style’ and its use of ‘vague and impressionistic language’. Mediation, he argues, would be better seen ‘as a value statement rather than as a real theoretical– conceptual innovation’. From the list above of practical activities, it would be also hard to argue that there is anything innovative in its classroom implementation. Mediation advocates will respond by saying ‘that is not what we meant at all, that is not it, at all’ as they come and go, talking of North and Piccardo. Mediation may offer rich pickings for grants of various kinds, it may seem to be a compelling topic for conference presentations, training courses and publications, but I’m not convinced it has much else going for it,

References

Chiappini, R. & Mansur, E. (2021). Activities for Mediation. Delta Publishing: Stuttgart

Deygers, B. (2019). The CEFR Companion Volume: Between Research-Based Policy and Policy-Based Research. Applied Linguistics 2019: 0/0: 1–7

MiLLaT (Mediation in Language Learning and Teaching). (2021). Guide for Language Teachers: Traditional and Synchronous Tasks https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/project-result-content/2d9860e2-96ee-46aa-9bc6-1595cfcd1893/MiLLaT_Guide_for_Teachers_IO_03.pdf and Guide for Language Teachers: Asynchronous and Polysynchronous Tasks https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/project-result-content/3d819e5a-35d7-4137-a2c8-697d22bf6b79/Materials_Developing_Mediation_for_Asynchronous_and_Polysynchronous_Online_Courses_1_.pdf

North, B. & Piccardo, E. (2016). Developing illustrative descriptors of aspects of mediation for the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR): A Council of Europe Project. Language Teaching, 49 (3): 455 – 459

North, B., Goodier, T., Piccardo, E. et al. (2018). Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Companion Volume With New Descriptors. Strasbourg: Council of Europe

Stathopoulou, M. (2015). Cross-Language Mediation in Foreign Language Teaching and Testing. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Comments
  1. awolloshin says:

    The last tongue in cheek suggestion made me laugh out loud and nearly spit out my tea.
    Great article and so clear. Thanks.

  2. James Thomas says:

    Great post, Philip. Thanks for prompting me to critically evaluate “mediation”. Yes, I read your post on “critical thinking” :-). I quite like the CEFR’s reframing of the the four skills into their “four modes” especially in its contrasting of interactive and solo skills competence. I’m pleased to learn that mediation has become a de jour topic and that many well-known activities can be thus labelled. That it is not innovative is hardly surprising: there seems to be plenty of mermaids singing, each to each, fulfilling the human need to “cause progress”.

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