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Language Teaching, Levelling, and a Foreman’s Worries

I’ve already written to exhaustive posts about this subject, but I have finally found the way to express my thoughts on certain elements of a program change we’re just starting in on, where I work.

I’m going to use an analogy here.

I’m going to propose that sometimes, teaching English in Korea can feel like working as a foreman for a construction company where you are given all the tools to work on the upper floors of a building, all the plans for these upper floors, and arrive at the building site to find the basement foundation hasn’t yet even been poured.

Even though you have none of the tools you need, even though your plans are for the upper floors, you are somehow supposed to just kind of “make it work”, and when your work crew shows up, it turns out they assumed the work today would consist of clearing the land, not even pouring foundation (let alone building upper floors). Now, there’s nothing wrong with the plans for those upper floors, there’s nothing wrong with the land, or the work crew, or the building tools, or the foreman; it’s just that all the expectations of each are not matched, and that problem can only trace back to people you’ve never, ever met, the administrators and desk-holders in the construction company, who are saying into the phone from their office off in somewhere-else land, “Look, just make it work,” without any idea of what it is to build upper floors of a building, or lay foundation, or clear the land for a project. And you know, you need to do a good job because people want to live in apartment buildings that are not going to collapse on them because they were shoddily built.

And I think an education is like a home in that way.

Sure, sometimes it’s much better than that. I have a class I taught at 8:30 this morning and they were a joy to meet; it’ll be my first energetic, interested, and, heck, responsive, non-zombie-like class at 8:30am, which is a big incentive for me to make sure I sleep well and do a good job on the class. I am so incredibly happy about that 8:30 class.

But sometimes I wonder just how I am supposed to use the materials for a class designed explicitly for advanced students, to teach people who need to make a concentrated team effort to figure out what, “Next time… on Thursday” means. I wonder whose idea it was to let kids who cannot speak even a few words of English into courses offered for the most advanced Freshmen, and to offer those courses in high numbers to departments which consistently produce (and, due to the admissions system, consistently admit) students whose English is largely not up to a level needed for such a course? Probably someone who has never studied or taught language, and has no idea how it’s supposed to work. “Just, you know, make it work,” is the message that comes down the pipes from the people who hired the work crew under confusing auspices, who hired them for jobs they’ve never done before, who let them believe they were clearing land instead of pouring foundation or building upper floors. And the. “Make it work,” message comes down the pipes to me (and not only me) after being translated a couple of times, and I look up from my plans for the upper floors of a building, to a gaping hole in the earth, and then I look over to the beams, and the conspicuous lack of any kind of pouring concrete, and I wonder how I’m going get anything done at this work site.

It all boils down to effective course-levelling, if you ask me. No change in program can work unless the fundamentals underlying the program are working. If the fundamentals aren’t working, then surface changes won’t really “work”, they’ll just exacerbate the problems or minimize them. Unfortunately, in at least one “pilot” course(*)—a course inherently more difficult than a regular conversation course, which is full of the lowest-level Freshman students I’ve ever met—going on at the University, I see a potential for the former, rather than the latter. Which is not to blame anyone specifically, but rather to say that I think the problems which, if eliminated, would bring the most benefits to students, are not problems that program changes can bring about, until the extant administrative problems are solved.

But levelling is a problem of inter-departmental politics, and not just where I work; this is a common university problem, at least in Korea, and it somehow seem to be intractable—or, at least, most of my friends teaching at Universities in Korea face this kind of problem. Which is too bad, because the student loses out, in the end, and I hve a feeling that when the student loses out in this way, the organization risks losing out in the long run. I would rather be a little more certain of accruing benefits instead of doing potential damage, contributing to the building of apartment blocks that are uninhabitable. So, yes, I am making do, but… that means concocting the foundation for a building with the wrong tools, with people who didn’t know they’d be doing that work. It’s a really dicey situation, and I cannot say how well it will work… except to say the obvious, which is that it will not.

(*) I call the course a “pilot course” because I hope that it’s been introduced on an experimental basis, to be canceled or modified if it seems not to benefit students, instead of on a permanent and unmodifiable basis regardless of actual results. Nobody has told me this, but I hope that program changes are focused on student benefit and thus not set in stone but related to empirical results.

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