Follow-up to "students study but don’t learn English"

Here is a response to my earlier post:

> 1) Take no responsibility for their own learning

– Expect to “be taught” by sitting in a room with a native speaker teacher – in the same way they expect to get a sun tan by lying in the sun. Don’t realize that only THEY can learn – teacher can’t make them (only help them). Dick Allright, my former MA tutor wrote the following rhetorical question as the title of an article a few years ago: “Why don’t students learn what teachers teach?”

> 2) Don’t use TL for communication

> 3) Use Japanese for all “real” communication.

– Thanks to the bad example of many (not all) Japanese teachers of English. Tim Murphy, when he was at Nanzan Uni, got his trainee teachers to experiment with using more English in their classrooms. They wrote largely positive reports about the results and Tim published them as a booklet call “The Medium is the Message” In other words, you have to teach by example, not by telling students one thing and contradicting yourself by your actions.

> 4) Don’t ask questions, you’ll look like a fool or a show-off

– And don’t answer questions voluntarily for the same reason

> 5) Study English as knowledge for exam.

… instead of trying to develop skills for self-expression / communication

– Are afraid to make mistakes – instead of accepting them as a natural part of learning (if there are no mistakes, it’s too easy – they already know it), and trying to devise strategies for eradicating them

– Waste time & effort and subject themselves to unnecessary mental stress by comparing themselves with others / decrying the “poor English”

, instead of just focusing on improving on their own (previous) performance. Should “think positive – not negative”. Should realize that stress (trying too hard, feeling self-conscious, trying to be hinders or learning. Relaxing (without nodding off!) aids learning. [I didn’t mention this one but should have].

– Don’t realize that they can learn a lot from each other – sometimes a more effective strategy than learning from the teacher. Again, Tim Murphy recommends the use of “near peer role modeling” The teacher isn’t a good role model – especially if a gaijin – because (s)he is like a god in terms of English proficiency compared with students, but other students who are learning successfully demonstrate that learning this confounded language is really possible.

– Don’t realize that learning through communicating in English – using a few standard phrases habitually time and again every lesson (see the short list on the card (English for classroom communication) is a brilliant way to combine use (real communication) with study or practice

(asking about the language, practising it). They need never waste time in silence during a lesson, because they don’t know what to say / how to say it / don’t understand what someone said. All they have to do is say they don’t know / don’t understand and then ask a question. But they’re trained not to take this elementary step.

I couldn’t agree more with your comments below. My favourite explanation of the ridiculous mismatch between university “teaching” content and stuent capability is to allow the prof to preen and show off his superior “knowledge” – useless though it may be….

I think (never done any research to prove it though) I spend about half my time working on this knotty problem – trying to break down the counter-productive sub-culture. I also teach a couple of seminars where this is the main focus of the course (how to learn – or teach – a FL). The biggest difficulty is that one’s colleagues tend to persist in reinforcing the very habits one is trying to break. So unless one can get through to a significant number of them and make them allies, most of the students will never be able to break free – though some do each year. Fortunately I do have some open-minded colleagues who themselves are interested in fostering educational reform, so I haven’t allowed myself to get discouraged so far.

Maybe we can start lobbying group for this?

Friday Oct 15th

Down with the flu at the moment, I have some time to update this blog.

First period. The 1 truly “autonomous” class I have, with autonomy as a stated goal from the beginning of the course. A colleague and I developed this class together, and we each teach a section of it, at the same time, next door to each other. Students sign in in the classroom of the teacher they’re signed up with (up to 9.30, after that the sign-up sheets are removed), but after that are free to go to either room, or even to another part of the university. We have many different materials available: about 15 videos with worksheets (mostly authentic materials); English songs on cassettes and MDs and 2 players, each with a headphone amp with 5 headphones each, and worksheets for each song; a file of role-plays and short skits for acting out; an SRA reading lab with reading cards and answer cards; a couple of packs of flash-cards; a “crazy eights” card game; some simplified readers (a sample of the 100 or so we have in the library); some picture books, some with simple questions; and a real live native speaker to have conversations with!

Students are required to keep a record of what they do each week, filling out a simple form (this has been revised for the second semester), including the title, type of material, how they used it and a comment on its usefulness as a language-learning tool.

In today’s class, I decided my job would be to go around and talk to students about what they were doing and why. At the end of the first semester, I attended a 5-day seminar on autonomy led by Henri Holec, and came back with lots of ideas. In particular, I realized that we had done pretty much what Holec had done initially: opened up the materials to the students and say “go to it!”. However, autonomy had not happened: students did not know how to choose, and so chose purely on whims, whatever looked more interesting (packaging), or whatever seemed easiest and meant the least work. Holec pointed out that autonomy does not mean “freedom of choice” in the sense that students can do whatever they like, but rather reasoned choice, in that they should be able to give a reason for what they are doing. Being able to give a reason shows that they have understood something about their own objectives and what they need to reach their goal.

Borrowing from Richard Smith’s experiences in Tokyo Gaidai, I decided to be more “interventionist” this semester.

However, I did not get very far with this! I soon discovered that students were not able (or willing) to say why they had chosen particular materials. Some said, because they had not used this particular material before, or because they just wanted to do something different from last week. Some were quite unable to give any reason at all. One young man was obviously irritated by my questions: why all these questions? he muttered under his breath? Leave us alone to get on with it!

I therefore reduced my questions and just observed what groups were doing. One group was using the Crazy Eights card game, but not as a game, but as flashcards: 1 girl would pick up a card and the others would read the word on it (it’s a children’s version of crazy eights with colours and categories such as sports, vehicles, insects, animals, etc). Sometimes they did not know what the word meant, or how to pronounce it properly. Then they asked me.

Another group used flashcards. One girl held the card up to the group and the others had to guess the sentence that is written on the back by looking at the picture. Some of them were easy, but some were more problematic. I pointed out that within the pack there were several categories, such as “adjectives”. In any case, they seemed content merely with single-word answers, rather than sentence-level answers. Also, they assumed that the “aim” was to say the sentence on the back of the card. It did not occur to them to use the picture as a prompt for, say, conversation, or discussion. The aim is to get the “right” answer. Once you’ve “got” the answer, you’re done! Another example of the “studying, not learning English” syndrome, I think.

One group are doing a reading card together. This is the first time I’ve seen this. This group is always together, and they are a pretty highly motivated group. They had chosen the same reading card and were each answering it individually. I heard no discussions at all.

One group of 4 boys was listening to a song, and checking the answers. They spent a long time listening to one song over and over, and even asked me to listen to one bit where they thought the answer sheet was not correct (they were right, which delighted them!). I asked them if they would listen to the same song again next week, or at some future date, and see if they could “listen” better? Would that be useful? They seemed to think so, but maybe they were just being polite?

Japanese students study English; they don’t learn it

Last Sunday, I attended a presentation in which the speaker pointed out, Japanese students study English, but don’t learn it.

I listed the bad habits I could remember:

1) Take no responsibility for their own learning

2) Don’t use TL for communication

3) Use Japanese for all “real” communication.

4) Don’t ask questions, you’ll look like a fool or a show-off

5) Study English as knowledge for exam.

I asked a class recently to list all the “ingredients” they think they need in order to learn English. “Study” was one, and I was able to get on my hobby-horse about that! “Teacher” was another and it got quite interesting when I asked WHY you need a teacher? “To teach”. “What is ‘to teach’?” “Oshieru”. “And what does that mean?” “To teach”. After going around that merry-go-round for a while, I eventually suggested what I thought he (they) meant: to teach means to explain. The student who had proposed “teacher” seemed to agree that that’s what it meant.

Of course, this makes sense: if English is always a difficult subject then the teacher will always be needed to “explain”: like the priest who must act as (self-appointed) intermediary between God and human beings. My son, now first-year of senior high school, showed me his English textbook: full of complex sentences that even HE has trouble with, like this one: “Will it cause a big change in our understanding of human history, or will it be nothing but “smoke”?” which they must translate into Japanese. There are teachers who choose deliberately difficult texts at university (for instance) because they want to challenge the students intellectually (they say); another reason might simply be this habit of teaching/learning; a further (more cynical) reason might be to justify their position as “sensei”. University entrance exams are another example, I think, of this mentality: the entrance exams usually include texts which are far too difficult for the students. No matter. While no-one has ever given me a clear answer as to why, I sense that part of it is the validity, the “look” of the exam: it has to look hard, difficult. If it were easy (i.e. using texts of a level of difficulty commensurate with the language ability of the students taking it) people would look badly on the school: “is that the level of the English professors at that school? Don’t think much of that!”

What I’m working on now is challenging and changing this habit of study which is “hard” and which necessitates an intermediary expert. At the same time I want to stop them handing over responsibility for their learning to me. Simply pointing out the study/learn disctinction will help, but they’ll still be left with their 6-year-long habit of handing over all responsibility for their learning to the expert. What I’m doing now is exposing students to English using different texts and media of a level of difficult that is well below the entrance exams and more like what they can handle with little or no help, then giving them different activities to do with these materials, followed by a “self-reflection” report in which they include “what did I learn?” I don’t explain things (unless asked) nor do I set comprehension questions. Another thing I do is ask students what they want to do, but most of them are unable to answer this question yet, for a number of reasons. Eventually, I would like to be simply the provider of (or pointer to) sources of English (EFL or authentic), and let students get on with interacting with it.

Today’s classes

This morning I hung back from trying to negotiate with students: I just went in and told them what to do. Why? Low energy this morning (a bad night’s sleep). Why does it take more energy to do something different?

In the first class, I had students write down as many words/phrases as they could remember. But what I really wanted them to do, was think about how they could remember words or things they had learned; is it useful to be forced to recall them? Would it be more effective if they did this themselves? Or cooperated with a partner? These are some of the kinds of cognitive tools I think would be useful for them, tools they need in order to take charge of their own learning. These are the kinds of things that normally they don’t have to think about because the teacher does it for them.

It is partly a problem of language: they cannot understand what I mean if I just explain the above in English, and I did not have the Japanese ready.

In Tuesday’s class, I had given them a number of conversations about Japan (copied from a textbook that is now completely out of date and out of print, but which I have found quite useful over the 20 years or so since I first came across it (tho there is an updated version now available): 新・文化比較の英会話

I gave them a choice about which conversation they used for learning English. I then asked them to create a kind of quiz or game using the English in this conversation. (We had previously created some vocab cards using blank business card sheets and pictures of vegetables; they then used these cards to play a game like the Japanese “karuta”). They had not been able to do this, because they did not understand what I meant by a “quiz” or “activity” (at least, that was my explanation of their blank-faced looks and lack of movement). So I had given them 2 suggestions: cut out the lines of the dialogue, shuffle them up and give them to the group next door to re-arrange/re-create the conversation. Another suggestion was to cut some words out, then give the cloze to the group next door, or to cut all the words out and have another group re-construct the dialogue.

This time I had them use the conversations in a different, more obvious way: say it with a partner, memorize it, then record yourselves saying the conversation. (Unfortunately, my Walkman MD recorder ran out of batteries about 2 seconds into the first pair’s performance!). Instead of recording them, I just went to them and listened to them saying it. Several groups asked why I wasn’t recording them. Did I notice some disappointment? One of the reasons for having them record themselves was to introduce the possibility of using a recording of yourself as a way or step towards evaluating your speaking ability. However, I was unable to present that possibility, or that question, to them today.

I then suggested they make some changes to the conversation they had just performed: change the names and places to personalize it.

Another activity we did was to brainstorm Japanese autumn dishes, then (making use of the vegetable vocab cards we’d made the previous class) to list their ingredients. They then used the cards in pairs, each taking it in turns to pick up a card and ask their partner a question using the vegetable on the card. As they had seemed stumped by the vagueness of “make a question USING the vegetable on the card”, I had elicited some staple sentences and written them on the board, e.g.: “What dish can you make with/using ….?”

Finally, I had asked them to make a record for today, by listing what activities they had with what materials, and to include a comment about the usefulness of what they had done, seen in the light of their goal of improving their ability to speak in English about things Japanese.

I also set them a homework question: “What do you need to learn English?” As they wrote this down on their record sheets, I did not collect the record sheets, so have not yet read their comments.

Until now the quality of the comments/self-reflections, call them what I will, have been pretty useless: “I want to be able to speak better in English”, that kind of thing. I think it is partly the way I ask the question, or my explanation of what “self-reflection” can include. I translated “self-reflection” as “hansei” in Japanese, and I noticed that what I get are a lot of pretty negative, or rather self-deprecatory or even self-flagellative, comments! Is this what is expected from a Japanese “hansei”? Like the self-reflections that were “expected” from people in China during the Cultural Revolution?

It was only this afternoon that I finally got the kinds of self-reflections I have been looking for, and the reason for that was that I finally took the time and trouble to be a great deal more explicit about what I was looking for:

“I want you to think about the activities you are doing”, I said (in Japanese). “I have introduced you, in these classes, to different kinds of activities and different materials. We have used the video/movie (Chicken Run) in a number of ways: watching only; watching and making notes on the story; summarising the story in English; reading the transcript; matching the lines to the characters that say them; transcribing the Japanese subtitles (not translating); repeating the lines after the DVD and recording our repetitions onto a tape; listening to that tape. In the light of your goal, of your English learning, what do you think of these various activities? How useful (or not useful) are they? Which ones do you like?”

After a class in which we had done most of the above (this week I had given them a 1-page transcription of about 10 lines from the Chicken Run movie which we are watching, with a blank column on the left where they are to write in the name of the character that says those lines, and a blank line underneath each line of dialogue where they transcribe the Japanese subtitles; I had also had them listen, read and repeat each line of dialogue, recording their voices onto tape, then listening to themselves), I asked them to email me their “self-reflections”. I have read them, and will translate a few here later.

Tuesday’s classes

So, with all that reading, how’s it actually going in class? One conclusion I’ve come to is that a negotiated syllabus, or perhaps more inclusively, a participatory approach (see Adult Esl/Literacy from the Community to the Community: A Guidebook for Participatory Literacy Training), is vital when it comes to trying to develop or support autonomy in Japan. This is the same conclusion reached by Richard Smith (see Learner Autonomy Across Cultures)

A participatory approach is proving more difficult than I thought. First, it involves changing my 20 years of teaching habits: faced with a classroom full of quiet students who don’t want to speak up, and who ask nothing better than to be told what to do, it’s easier to make them jump through hoops rather than face the silence. I once observed a Japanese colleague’s class (he’s a teacher of education, not English): the thing that struck me the most in his class was that he was prepared to wait. He told me he’s prepared to wait several months if necessary, in order for them to make up their minds and say something, contribute to the class.

Another difficulty is mechanical or procedural: how to invite students’ participation? Especially when they’re not used to being asked? In the one “autonomy” class I have, I noticed students coming in, and asking, “What are we doing today, sensei?” It should be ME asking THEM! So in another class later that day, when I was feeling particularly tired, I started the class by asking them, what shall we do? Students slowly began making various suggestions, none of them to do with English. Eventually I got impatient and returned to the textbook we usually use. The following week, I asked the same class the same question, but this time added the condition that it must have something to do with English. One girl suggested “playing house” in English, but seemed to get no support from her classmates, so she abandoned it. Again, as there seemed to be no other suggestions, I played “teacher” and made one: strategic interaction, a role-play with conflict. They went at it like hammer and tongs, like a competition! There were 8 students. They made 2 groups, and each group chose 1 “player” to play the role. I set the rules: each player could call “time out” at any time to get help from their team, or even to change players. They kept at it long after I’d lost interest and was wishing they’d just call a truce, make a compromise! They kept at it for an hour.

Autonomy, critical pedagogy, collaborative development and more

I’m now reading in a number of different fields: autonomy and language-learning, critical pedagogy, participatory approach, collaborative development. There are a number of common elements in these different fields. One of them is the importance of dialogue. A vital element in autonomy training is self-evaluation/assessment and self-reflection, i.e. having students think about what they are doing, as without this they are unable to make future decisions about what to do, which materials to use or how to use them. The teacher’s role is to act more like a counsellor, asking questions rather than telling, and helping students get clearer about their aims and purposes.

Dialogue is also important for teachers. Tim Murphey in the AYA book suggests that teachers who regularly discuss matters of education, teaching, learning, SLA, etc., with colleagues, including questioning their own motives and beliefs, tend to provide a higher quality of teaching for their students.

Critical pedagogy involves being willing to question sacred cows and absolute givens. The critical attitude is difficult to maintain alone, and seems to be helped by dialogue with others. The same seems to be true of collaborative development, which involves consciously creating dialogue and agreeing to a certain strategy which seems to be very similar to that of the counsellor as mentioned above. (CD then could be a good way to help develop teachers’ listening and counselling skills for autonomy training).

In MI, Tom Hoerr, principal of an MI school, stresses the vital importance of collegiality. Without it, he says, attempts to introduce MI in a school are more or less doomed to failure.

Collegiality, which I think is another way of describing the kind of dialogue between teachers I mentioned above, perhaps a synonym for collaborative development, is also stressed in a plenary speech given by Mary Rane at Dublin’s IATEFL Dublin conference in 2000 on the topic of curriculum change or development. Rane sees curriculum development as being impossible without pretty intense discussions and dialogues between colleagues on basic matters such as educational philosophy or vision. She insists teachers have to make an effort to enter into such discussions, even with colleagues they do not personally like or get on with, if meaningful curriculum change is to occur.

There is a section in the Chaos Theory book that my colleague quotes in a forthcoming paper(Briggs & Peat 1999: 74 ff), which deals with group discussions and the work of committees. This is the link I was talking about between Chaos Theory and what my colleague and I are up to. I see all these elements as being interconnected: the discussions that my colleague and I have about teaching, learning, autonomy, critical pedagogy, etc, and the actual class that we collaborate on; our attempts to introduce curriculum change in our department; collegiality and collaborative development (or lack of it) in our department. I think that it is not a coincidence that we are trying to introduce autonomy in our classes and that we have an ongoing dialogue about autonomy, teaching, learning, etc. It is also no coincidence that our dialogues involve a questioning of sacred cows; it is important that we do so because autonomy (at least the most interesting version of autonomy, the “radical” one) requires this from our students. Not much chance of us getting them to do this, if we’re not doing it already, eh?

Participatory approaches in ESL

I happened on an interesting article on the web while searching for references to Auerbach, an author referred to frequently by Alastair Pennycook, for instance: “The students were given semiscripted dialgoues into which they were supposed to interject different details. The topic was calling plumbers and electricians to get things fixed. Again, nice contextual work, but I would have liked them to be more conflictual. When I call a plumber, they don’t say, “Yes certainly, I’ll be there at 6.00.”….So they need tougher dialogues. A number of people have developed materials based on a more difficult world than the insipid vision of collaborative ESL texts (see Auerbach and Wallerstein, 1987; Goldstein, 1994).” ( Critical Moments in a TESOL praxicum p 339, in Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Norton & Toohey, CUP, 2004) (more info here )

A Google search brought up this: Transforming the Cultural Studies Curriculum in Partnership with Students, by Cheiron McMahill.

This was very interesting, but left me thirsty for more details on HOW: what procedures did McMahill use, how to introduce the topics, the approach, etc., etc. So I looked up some of McMahill’s references, beginning with Auerbach because the TESOL Quarterly is in the uni library.

One of the Auerbach references is to Putting the P back into Participatory in TESOL Quarterly, 27, 543-548. In it I found this: “On the one hand it is heartening to see that participatory approaches are coming to be accepted as cutting edge rather than fringe views and that the field may even be on the verge of a paradigm shift. On the other hand, I am uncomfortable when the term participatory is used loosely to describe any approach that claims to involve learners in the shaping of curriculum goals or classroom processes. Often, the terms participatory and learner-centered are equated despite the fact that they have potentially different ideological implications, the former focusing on social transformation and the latter on self-realization. Although participatory pedagogy is rooted in a social change perspective, its inherently political nature is often obsured. As Edelsky (1991) says, “Buzzwords and movements not only can promote change; they can prevent it” (p. 161); my fear is that this may be the fate of participatory ESL.”

This is an interesting forerunner to Edith Esch’s comment (previously referred to); although she is writing about autonomy, the sentiment is the same: “Over the past thirty years, the radicalism of the concept of learner autonomy as promoted by Bertrand Schwartz, Yves Chalon and Henri Holec (1981, 1988), seems to have been gradually emptied of its substance. Practitioners appear to be unable to avoid the ‘fossilization’ (Little, 1991: p.1) of the concept in attempting to implement it in insitutional contexts. The debate about the aims of developing learner autonomy has been forgotten, to give way to shorter-term targets, and problems of management and the implementation of organizational principles, like self-access and other techniques, have been brought to the fore instead….Meanwhile, the concept of learner training, which has been closely associated with learner autonomy (Holec, 1980; Ellis and Sinclair, 1989; Dickinson, 1992) seems to have been merged into that of study skills.” (Learner Training for autonomous language learning in Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning, Benson & Voller, Longman 1997).

Leaving aside for the moment the question of why it’s important to hang onto the radical element of learner autonomy, I want to look more closely at participatory approaches in ESL. A google search on “participatory approaches” ESL brought up an overview of the subject: Freirean/Participatory Approaches.

“Among adult educators in the United States, Freire’s ideas have been adapted to fit diverse learners and educational contexts. The primary revision is the notion of “emergent curriculum” (Auerbach, 1992), where learners identify their own problems and issues and seek their own solutions. Teachers, freed from doing extensive research to identify problems for learners, become facilitators of class discussions and activities, and learn along with the class.”

Auerbach’s article in the TESOL Quarterly 27 suggests that this approach may not be suitable for students in Japan: “The key tenet of participatory education, based on the work of Freire (1970), is that marginalized people (such as immigrants and refugees in adult ESL classes, who often have the worst jobs, if any, and the poorest housing conditions) will only be able to effect change in their lives through critical reflection and collective action….Thus changes in teacher-student roles are not an end in themselves but a rehearsal for changing power relations outside class.”

Links between Critical Pedagogy, CD and Autonomy

To tie up the threads from the last post:

I think there are connections and similarities between CD (Collaborative Development), Critical Pedagogy and Autonomy in language learning.

First, there is the fact that the AYA writers chose to collaborate on their anthology, and some are actively engaged in CD (and mention it in their articles). Some of the contributors also included excerpts from their dialogues/emails with their collaborator(s) in the body of their articles, and some even brought this exchange to the forefront.

Tim Murphey suggests in the AYA book that teachers who have an ongoing dialogue with colleagues about teaching, learning, language-learning, etc., tend to be better teachers. Without looking at the evidence, my experience and instinct would support that. The AYA book is an excellent example of teachers doing just that.

The kind of dialogues that Tim Murphey means, and which is so well exemplified in the AYA book is not just an exchange of information, but a dialogue that involves a constant questioning of assumptions, givens and attitudes. Collaborative partners, dialogue partners question and help uncover hidden assumptions and points of view in each other. This attitude on the part of the “teacher” seems crucial to critical pedagogy (see Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning referred to previously, especially the final chapter, the one by Alastair Pennycook).

Autonomy, as I mentioned in the previous post, has several radical elements, or perhaps I can say that there is a radical version of autonomy, and various non- or lesser radical versions (see Edith Esch’s chapter in Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning by Phil Benson and Peter Voller (Longman 1996)).

And it seems to me that this radical element is connected with, supported by, the questioning, critical form of dialogues entered into by the contributors to the AYA book.

Losing the radical element

Edith Esch, in a chapter in Benson and Voller’s 1997 book on autonomous language learning, suggests that some practitioners of automous language learning (ALL let’s call it, eh?) are losing sight of the radical element in autonomy, whether by accident or design.

I was reminded of this when I read Nunan’a article in the same volume, and again when I read Steve Brown’s article in AYA! (2003) on stereotypical views of language learners and of autonomy (ALL). Steve’s article seemed to me to touch on something important, but I felt he hadn’t quite got to the nub of it. Dick Allwright’s comment on the article re-inforced this impression, especially his doubt about the effectiveness of Steve’s questionnaire.

This prompted me to reflect further on what the radical element of autonomy is (or was). I begin to see several radical elements, basing myself on Holec’s 1981 definition of autonomy as the ability to self-direct one’s own learning:
1) it challenges the accepted notion of learning, namely that it is the product of teaching
2) it challenges the accepted notion of a teacher, namely someone who knows (an expert) transmitting information to someone who doesn’t know
3) it challenges the accepted role of teacher as a transmitter of information and/or knowledge
4) it challenges the accepted role of teacher as central to the learning process
5) it challenges the accepted notion of learner as someone who is incapable of learning without a teacher, who is not central to the learning process

These challenges came about as the result of a number of crucial discoveries of theories in the field of learning, psychology and in particular SLA (for details see Holec 1988).

An important aspect for me in developing my understanding of autonomy has been having the opportunity to exchange ideas, bounce ideas off of other people, especially people who are equally interested and ideally more experienced than me in ALL. The first major opportunity came when a new colleague joined Tezukayama University. He was the first full-time colleague (and I include the Japanese staff in that) I could really talk to about teaching, learning and EFL (as well as a whole bunch of other things like music and love).

The second major opportunity was the Les Brunets seminar on autonomy, led by Henri Holec himself, and hosted by Turid Trebbi of the University of Bergen, Norway, in July 2004. This led me to read a lot more about autonomy, including re-reading things I’d read 4-5 years previously, and to discuss them with my colleague.

A third opportunity was less directly, through reading the AYA book, JALT’s Learner Development SIG’s collaborative effort. This introduced me to the idea of Collaborative Development.

It is this idea which I now think is central to the radical-ness of autonomy.

One major lesson I learned from the Les Brunets seminar was the power of negotiation: the teacher’s role in developing autonomy is more like a psychologist/counsellor, helping the “patient” find their own solution to their own problem. This process includes discovering (with the patient’s help and participation) how the patient sees the problem. This is what is important; not the expert psychologist’s view. The psychologist’s role (I’m referring here to what I know of Gestalt psychology) is to help the patient re-frame the problem. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

In a similar way, the teacher’s role in helping students develop autonomy is to ask them questions, to find out how they perceive their needs and wants, how they think those needs/wants can be fulfilled, what materials or methods they think are necessary or helpful.

A story to illustrate. Turid told of a boy she was talking to about what he wanted to do in English class. He said, listen to songs. She then asked him what exactly he would do. He said, translate the songs into his native language. Turid doubted the value of this; it sounded like an activity the boy came up with because of his past experience of foreign language classes, i.e. an outdated method based on now superceded understandings of SLA. But she said nothing, allowing the boy to find his own way. Some time later she met him again and looked at what he had done. He had pasted the song lyrics on 1 side of the page, and on the other written his own translation. But then he had gone further, and marked arrows here and there on both pages. Looking closely, Turid noticed the arrows pointed to grammatical elements, and illustrated discoveries the boy had made about English word order and syntax. Turid had learned a valuable lesson: her decision to override her initial instinct to dissuade the boy from his chosen course of action had been a good one.

The point I’m trying to make here (I think!) is that there are teachers who have reached a stage of humility, a stage where they realize that although they know a lot, it is the learner who needs to discover rather than be told, and so the teacher’s role becomes one of a counsellor asking questions that seem pertinent but in the spirit of exploration rather than teaching or guiding.

It is this spirit I feel is absent in the writings of Nunan and some others. It is this spirit I feel is present in the writings of Holec, Esch and others such as John Holt.

This spirit of humility, this decision to “teach” by exploring together with students, not as a clever technique but because the teacher has come to the understanding and realization that this is in fact a better way to teach; the understanding that the teacher’s knowledge cannot be most effectively transferred directly, but instead can be put to best use by helping the learner to learn, to discover, is key, I think.

It is similar to the position of some people in the field of critical pedagogy. It is highly illuminating, for instance, to compare some articles in AYA (e.g. Andy Barfield’s) with, for instance, Alastair Pennycook’s chapter in “Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning” (Norton & Toohey, 2004). There is the same questioning, the same “skeptical self-direction” (Barfield, 2003: 53).

The questioning approach is supported, I think, by the collaboration between people, both in the projects and action researches, and in the writing process, and later in the post-writing (the critical comments inserted after each article in the AYA book). This collaboration seems to me a natural extension, or rather a counterpart, to the back-and forth exchanges between teacher and learners in, what are to my mind the most interesting and impressive, examples of language advising or autonomy “guidance”.

The above perhaps also explains my instinctive suspicions of the various “learner training” ideas, including those of Joan Rubin, Wenden, Chamot, Uhl, Robbins and the CALLA gang. The idea of “learner training” immediately suggests a trainer or leader or teacher who knows. How different this is to the attitudes of Holec, Esch, Benson, Barfield, Pennycook: they know they don’t know and that they need to discover. We don’t know how language is acquired, so we need to discover the process. Perhaps the process is unique to every learner, in which case we need to discover it, or help each individual discover it, on an individual basis.

Not long ago, my colleague commented on something he’d read in Robert Kiyosak’s book “Rich Kid, Smart Kid”. Kiyosaki wrote that he had learned to be humble when teaching or giving seminars: “If I think I know more than the students, then I know I’m in for trouble” (or words to that effect). My colleague’s comment was, if he doesn’t know more than his students, what’s he doing leading the seminar? I think I can now answer the question: Kiyosaki may know more about finance and about money, but he doesn’t know more than his students how to learn about this. I think this is what Kiyosaki was talking about.

Many years ago, I practiced Aikido, and did some research on the founder of modern Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. One of the things that struck me about him was how he was always discovering amazing things. He did not seem to be a man who set out to master supernatural powers, they just seemed to come to him. Those who knew him, at least towards the end of his life, seem to agree that he was a humble man who maintained a sense of wonder and of discovery. A master swordsman once challenged him to a duel (Ueshiba was always getting such challenges). Finally, Ueshiba assented. They were both in the dojo. The swordmaster was ready, but Ueshiba took up no defensive stance, and did not even pay much attention to the other. He pottered around his dojo, watering some plants, re-arranging things, humming to himself. The swordsman was completely nonplussed and found himself quite unable to raise the necessary agression – how could he attack this old man who wasn’t even looking at him? Instead of being angry that Ueshiba wasn’t giving him a proper challenge, he recognized the superiority of the other, and asked Ueshiba to accept him as a student.

“Don’t look into the eyes of the other; don’t be influenced by the intention of others. I don’t look into the eyes of others. I simply put them all into my belly. Then agressors fall all by themselves. That’s the best way.” He also said, “We should leave everything in the hands of God.”

I’m still not completely clear why I have put in here these quotes and anecdotes of Ueshiba, but I feel they are relevant in some way.

Perhaps it comes down to the old adage: the fools think they know, whereas the wise know they don’t know and try to learn more. We (SLA researchers, EFL teachers) simply don’t know enough yet about how language is acquired to be able to lay down the law to learners. Lots of practice is obviously necessary, but what kind of practice depends on many variables that the teacher does not know: the purposes of the learner, the past experiences that have moulded the learner’s attitudes, motivations and beliefs.

Perhaps it is time to jettison the word “autonomy”. I’m beginning to feel it is getting in the way.

A Japan-based native-speaking English uni teacher rambles about teaching EFL at university


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