“He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”
– Walt Whitman
I am in the third week of a Coursera course on changing the way English Language is taught. So far I have really enjoyed the course content and discussion forums. There is lots of material to read and learn from. This week, I had to read an article entitled, “Destroying the Teacher: The Need for Learner-Centered Teaching“, by Alan C. McLean.
The article, originally published in 1980, is really useful for reflection and re-thinking ways to lessen teacher talk time. Traditionally, students would be thought of as repositories for knowledge. Teachers would stand up at the blackboard and just talk at the students, expecting them to somehow learn and understand what’s taught. There was very little student interaction or involvement in the learning process. I remember my schooldays, some teachers I had still taught like that. These days, however, there is a great shift toward more student involvement. There are all kinds of methods for encouraging more active participation from students. Teaching ESL should not fall behind in this way.
Teaching the English language should not be a separate issue from other subjects. The article says this:
We need to see English as essentially an educative subject, linked to the cognitive development of learners, rather than as something isolated from the rest of the curriculum…. We need to be aware of the educational purposes of English in such circumstances. (p. 32)
Teachers talk a lot. While that is not always a bad thing, it does reduce the amount of time students have to talk and practice their skills. In language-learning, the students must have the opportunity to apply their speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. Their speaking and listening comprehension skills should be given a little more development. Reading and writing are important, but those skills naturally develop with time. Speaking and listening skills allow L2 learners to effectively communicate.
According to the article, learning is most effective when the learners are the initiators of the process. Regarding language, sentence fluency and comprehension increase when learners are more actively involved. Some aspects of language-learning, such as grammar for example, need the teacher for clear instruction. Vocabulary words, sentence structure, and usage should be taught using lectures as well as time for students to discuss topics among themselves.
Here’s a nifty graphic to show different styles of teaching and learning:
- Reduce coercion – In other words, don’t prod or pressure the student to answer with what you want to hear. Instead, allow the student to make mistakes. Only then, can true learning begin with correcting those mistakes.
- Encourage active learner involvement – Let L2 learners know what the objectives are before the lesson begins. Knowing the objectives allow L2 learners to approach the content with a purpose. Use topics related to their interests and needs to get them more involved. Group activities work well for this.
- Let the students examine language before they interpret it – If you have taken a developmental psychology course, or even a basic introductory course, you would know about Piaget’s theory of development. One of the first stages is the “sensorimotor” stage, where children play around with objects. L2 learners should be given time to “play around” with English as they learn. Let them make sounds, pronounce words, digraphs and diphthongs, before they learn the structure. After L2 learners are comfortable with the sounds of English, they are better able to piece those sounds together to form words and sentences.
- Avoid oversimplifying things – While this may seem like a paradox, it is actually more beneficial. Teachers cannot learn for their students, the students must take charge of their own task. Learning a language is a step-by-step process, but the students should be taught to apply their skills to real-life situations. Topics like irregular verbs and plural nouns should be covered early on to help give L2 learners a more accurate picture of the English language and how it is used.
- Learn to value silence – I don’t mean meditate, although that can be very helpful in reducing stress, silent reading time forces the students to actively internalize the information on the page. They utilize critical-thinking and short-term memory skills. If students silently memorize a list of five new vocabulary words, or a short paragraph, a few times a day, their memory retention and recollection skills improve drastically over time.
So, let’s “destroy the teacher” and increase student-centered learning!