Jul 9, 2013


A Quandary

“I am in a quandary and I’m wondering what help or input anyone could provide here.

Last Tuesday I started a new course teaching a group of undergraduates in the Economics faculty at our local university. I am lucky, as this is a group of only 14 students. They are all in their second year and they seem keen and motivated. They all studied English through the school system but have pretty limited communicative skills, which is a very typical situation. I wanted this course to be as student-centred as possible and I felt that we would have the perfect conditions – a small group of motivated and educated individuals. I carried out a needs analysis and it gave the sorts of results that you would expect in such a situation -- they all knew that English would be necessary for them in their lives and careers beyond university but their overriding need was to pass their exams as they could not graduate without having successfully completed the English component of the course.

I explained the benefits of student-centred learning and autonomy and tried to open up the discussion as to how we would carry this project forward. The trouble was that they unanimously shunned the whole concept -- they found it rather intriguing but also rather irrelevant. They explained that they wanted me to decide what to do and they wanted me to take responsibility for guiding them through a defined programme that would lead them ultimately towards achieving their main objective. I explained to them that only they could really know exactly what they wanted -- how could I put myself into all of their shoes? How could I know what interested them most or what would get the best responses from them in terms of their own learning styles? If I was to impose content and modality on them, how fertile and productive would the lessons be?

They politely explained to me that they trusted me - they were sure that I was a good teacher and I would be able to make the right decisions with their needs in mind. I shouldn't worry about ‘imposing’ - that was a completely unnecessary concern, even though they appreciated my good intentions. They were all used to knuckling down and learning and they knew it was a simple fact of life that some subjects were more interesting than others and that some teachers were more interesting than others. Of course, they preferred lessons with teachers who were interesting (and interested) and who made the effort to make boring things a little more appealing.

Their frankness was quite disarming -- basically they told me that I was the expert and that they were happy to be in my hands, especially since I was so obviously interested in doing a good job for them. They were looking forward to their lessons with me and they were looking forward with confidence to positive results and success.
Anyway, as they pointed out, if I wanted to give them autonomy and the freedom to decide how to conduct their course and they had decided to give me the leading role in this, shouldn't I be happy? They had been free to decide to allow me to make the decisions. They assured me that they would be hard-working and attentive and they would contribute as much as I asked them to.

It's a shame they didn't quite get the point -- I'm sure it's down to a very conservative and traditional streak within this culture as well as within their educational system. Nonetheless, this does leave me in a rather difficult position here as I am not used to -- or at least I have never been clearly aware of -- this explicitly declared expectation of me. They all seem bright and intelligent young people so I don't really think they will be like clueless little ducklings just waddling after their mother duck regardless of where she goes.

How can I reconcile my own belief in the advantages and rightness of a student-centred approach with the students’ conscious relinquishing of these rights and responsibilities?”

Actually this is all nonsense – there is no teacher in a quandary, I just invented the whole thing. Yet it does, maybe in a flippant way, focus on the disparity between what students feel they should be doing and what teachers want for them on their behalves.

But how often, even where a teaching programme is not imposed on students and teachers, is there genuine consensus in the classroom? Dissatisfaction with traditional grammar-based instruction, still standard in education systems in many countries of the world, seems pretty general: pretty much wherever you go people complain that they study grammar but they never get to speak. Probably many teachers aren't happy with this either; they would love to be able to give their students a more useful and realistic set of language skills, but more often than not circumstances prevent this.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (this is where physics sounds like poetry) and the last few decades have seen the lingering trend in language teaching to rebel against long-standing academic traditions and against audiolingual language teaching based on behaviourist theory which represented the last monolithic ‘method’, and now largely discarded and discredited. No dominant theory has come to replace it and thus the new ‘method’ is that there is no method. Methods were restrictive and stifling because that is what they had tended to be and, not only did this conflict with the mood of the times, but how effective had they been anyway?

For many modern teachers ‘method’, ‘structure’, and even ‘efficiency’ are ‘bad’ words. For many students ‘unstructured’, ‘unmethodical’ and ‘inefficient’ are equally bad. Does that leave everyone in a quandary?