Today I saw a presentation by Steve Gershon, who is the author of the English Upgrade series which my University uses in its conversational English classrooms.
After the presentation, I was asking a coworker about how much of the ideas Gershon presented would be successful in the classes we teach here. Judging by the fact his University even offers post-graduate courses, I would assume that the student body is perhaps a little more selectively accepted than at the place I’m teaching. That, of course, can make all the difference in the world.
But the question of pedagogy, and my role in using a “new” kind of pedagogy with my studentspedagogy new to them, that iskeeps coming up.
Me, I’m trying to be very careful about how I look at the job of teaching English in Korea. After all, it’s easy to find all kinds of excuses for one’s frustrations in the classroomanything to avoid admitting that maybe one’s teaching skills are less than stellar, right? Still, gauging the variety of reactions to material that one sees from different groups of studentssome loving an activity and getting really into it, others sitting like bumps on a log no matter what you put in front of themI have come to a kind of partial conclusion, which is that I cannot conceive of myself as an agent of pedagogical change here. I mean, it’s not as if immigrant martial arts teachers (like those my friend Marvin once wrote about so interestingly that it stuck in my brain until now)transformed American learning styles into kata-like exercises of repetition in grammar, computer code techniques, and so on.
I say this because the coworker I was talking to said I should do exactly this. It seems to me impossible, beyond quixotic, and in the end absolutely frustrating. If and when things change in a given place and culture, it’s because of the people who live within it wanting to and struggling to change it. I can offer what I have to those who want it, of course, but that’s about all I can do.
For example, I am working a few extra hours a week at a girl’s high school. It’s billed as a foreign language high school, but I think I may be the only foreigner who’s around a lot of the time. Certainly the girls seem to have that, “Oh my God, a foreigner!” attitude about my presence on the school grounds.
Well, after a stellar start, the girls realized that I was actually teaching them new stuff and sank into despondencya big cue which, as another coworker advised me to do, I am taking as a hint. The funny thing is, I think the school itself has no idea exactly what they want from me, what they actually want me to do with those girls. You encounter that a lot, the idea that giving kids facetime with a foreigner will somehow magically help their speaking ability. No textbook, no guidelines, not even a levelling system to make the class group maximize benefit from a limited number of hours with a teacher. Nope: it’s 30 girls in a room with a foreigner, somehow getting an infusion of spoken English.
At some point I finally asked the girls what was wrong. I was told two things: “English is hard,” and “When I signed up for this, I didn’t think it would be an English class.” Well, the difficulty is something you can only simplify so far, and today I’m planning on pushing it down to the bottom and seeing what happens. As for the second thing, I don’t much know what to say about that except, well, here we are and let’s make the best of it.
But there’s a third thing that came up when I talked to the class. You see, I switched to my not-very-good Korean to try and make a point.
“Do I speak Korean well?”
(After a couple of hesitant moments and some urging they finally came out with the honest answer:) “No.”
“Do I make mistakes and say things wrong?”
“Do I try?”
“Do you understand me?”
I asked the girls whether the way I teach is strange to them, and they said it wasn’t strange but it was new to them. They said they usually don’t do exercises in class, so they’re not used to it. I asked how they normally learned stuff in school, and in not so many words, mainly by demonstrating, they told me rote learningrepetition and memorization of “facts” decanted by teacher in order to be regurgitated for examswas the norm. I asked them whether they thought this worked well in learning languages, and they said they thought it wasn’t good.
So I did what little I could; I made sure they understand that, like I make mistakes in learning Korean, their making mistakes in English is fine, good, better than good. I reminded them that if they try, I can help them, but if they don’t try (and if they don’t want to) then I can’t do anything. I reminded them that using a new way to learn can feel strange, but can be good, the way one cannot learn piano
I think the core problem here, though, is a question of role and goals as much as context of pedagogies. Theories of Total Physical Response (TPR) and Response Planning and so on are great, and probably useful to teaching. But when you look at the context of students grappling with not just a whole new language (no matter how long they’ve been exposed to it, it is foreign to them, something they’ve mostly never been immersed in) and in some cases with the (yes, to us, silly) xenophobic reaction of being slack-jawed at being in the presence of a Real Live Foreigner (!), but also with an unfamiliar pedagogy.
After years on end of Listen-and-Repeat learning, it must be as shocking to them to have to do TPR exercises as it would be to Westerners to suddenly be in a language class based completely on rote learning. Such a class would not feel like a class, and students would be frustrated not knowing what the hell goals they’re supposed to have, not having the kind of support to say what they want. My students, likewise, have a sense of what they’re supposed to say, and want to be told what the English equivalent is.
This makes me wonder whether what Ezra Pound said is right, by sad necessity if nothing else:
Real education must ultimately be limited to men who insist on knowing. The rest is mere sheep-herding.
Is this true? It’s certainly true of the students who don’t care enough to invest their time and energy into learningand make no mistake, there are legions of those. Students like that are akin to vampires, they suck away a teacher’s life and strength and they must not be allowed to take too much of a teacher’s energy. Those who want to remain ignorant must be allowed that if for no reason other than that nobody has the energy to change the hearts of everyone.
But then, to the rest, the other students who are either sitting on the fence or interested in English, but frustrated, what can be done? As the pedagogies and roles of teacher and student and goals of the pupils and instructor all swirl about in some space where they cannot be clarified all that wellbecause no matter what is said, teacher-as-facilitator simply isn’t a natural model of teaching in the experience of the students I see, and my expectation of their actively pursuing learning is to some degree an alien sense of what education is and ought to beI think the most important things in a classroom have to be comfort (including the space to make mistakes); mutual respect (which I think a lot of us in my department work at building and sustaining in the classroom, even when we laugh at student antics together in the office); and realistic goal-setting, which given the passive nature of a lot of student demeanour (unsurprising in a rote-learning role) seems to end up being my job.
For me, these days, I’m focusing on making ability to ask, comprehend, and answer questions built out of basic question structures, and making conversations using these questions in order to get information. The one thing I found interesting in the Gershon presentation was the fact that students planning out language tasks seems to increase their performance. So I shall give that a shot too. The problem, however, I think, isn’t so much that students need more time to plan things, as much as it is they need to relax out of the fear of using a wrong structure and just start verbalizing more. I almost feel like not correcting grammar for a few weeks at the start of a new term to get them used to just speaking even when they mess up the structure. Maybe that’d highlight the need to try, instead of students’ the need to perform perfectly on the first go.