Consideration of Affect does not equal Humanism

Still on the SearchEnglish trail. Recently, I’ve been examining my own beliefs about teaching. What are the principles I believe in? Why do I believe in them? Are they working? If not, why not?

My colleague and I are heavily involved in curriculum change, and so we have been making various proposals regarding curriculum, course titles, teaching practice, and so on. Our proposals are based on our philosophies of education, and making these proposals has, in Socratic fashion, prompted us to become more aware of just what our philosophies are.

I used to think I believed firmly in a humanistic approach. However, certain things were definitely not working in my teaching, and reading All Must Have Prizes made me aware of the pitfalls of a humanistic belief, or perhaps of any unexamined belief.

I began to pay more attention to what was actually going on in class: what I did, what students did, all the idiosyncracies, not just the “activities”.

If practices and approaches based on a humanistic philosophy have value, that value should be demonstrable, not just a matter of belief or personal preference. This is easier said than done. Some might say, a classroom filled with happy, active, talkative people busily working on different cooperative projects would be a sign of success; others might say it was merely chaos, and would describe a quiet room with people leaning earnestly over books and paper as their sign of “success”, or point to test results, or the amount of error correction which takes place.

So I’m now examining what theoretical support there is (or isn’t) in the fields of learning and particularly second language acquisition for what I’m doing in the classroom. One element is the importance of affect, so I was interested to read this article:
Consideration of Affect does not equal Humanism:

Well documented (even ‘scientifically’ so) in a very ample literature, both in our field and in many others, the role of affect is not the bone of contention…. [the bone of contention is] the world of humanism, an eclectic mix of beliefs and techniques that are justified by reference to the importance of affect. An acknowledgement of the importance of affect and encouraging students to sing ‘My Bonnie lies over the Ocean’ are not the same thing….The argument, let it be repeated, is not about the role of affect in language learning or teacher education. The argument is about those risible practices whose claim to respectability needs a little more consideration.

An earlier article in the same journal and on the same subject, The Jackendoff “Skeptic” on Humanistic Language Teaching, made a similar argument, defending humanistic teaching by pointing out the confusion that exists in the minds of many who both agree and disagree with it (author Jane Arnold uses Jackendoff “skeptic” to mean something like the devil’s advocate):

many critics of a humanistic, affective focus on language learning seem to enjoy criticizing more than exploring and dialoguing about the issues involved. What often seems to be going on is that these critics have preconceived notions that they want to prove at all costs, so instead of really reading “mainstream” humanistic authors, they read into them what they would like to read…
Supporters of humanistic language teaching (HLT) with all their emphasis on affect are forgetting the real business of their profession: language learning. Attention to the emotional side of learning is an important part of a holistic approach; but HLT practitioners are very aware that to be concerned with the whole person is not to be only concerned with the emotional side but rather with all sides of the learner. It is inclusive where its critics’ approaches are often exclusive of all but cognition. What Damasio (1994) has shown in neuroscience is that reason is compromised if emotion is not brought into the picture. HLT emphasizes including the affective side, not to exclude cognition but because in many approaches affect is what is missing and needs, therefore, to be added to the already existing cognitive focus in order to optimize language learning: “it is not a question of lowering standards for students’ cognitive development, but of recognizing that it can be very beneficial for teachers to choose to focus at times on affective matters also” (Arnold, 1998:8)….
Obviously, an English class is not going to be based only or principally on special “humanistic” activities. Even a cursory reading of Moskowitz (1978) makes it very clear that these activities are designed to be supplemental to the main teaching programme…

Arnold points out the desirability of demonstrating the validity of humanistic teaching, but also the difficulties involved.

Stevick (1990) advises coming to an understanding of humanistic language teaching by using Popper’s method of critical thinking as a model. According to the Popperian paradigm of scientific investigation, theories should be testable and conceivably falsifiable. However, even Popper recognizes that not everything is as well-suited to his critical method as the physical or biological sciences are. Some areas of thinking may be “criticizable though not testable” and an idea may “have some explanatory power even though… it is difficult to test” (1976:151,187). When dealing with human behaviour, and language learning is a very good example, not everything can be accounted for by theories and methods which can be proved empirically…
The questions empirical research traditionally asks are not always appropriate for the answers that affective teaching can provide. If one holds a transmission view of the learning process which takes knowledge as “something that can be parcelled and transmitted in a linear fashion”, then perhaps those types of questions might be appropriate; however, in a social constructivist view “learners are all individuals who will bring a different set of knowledge and experiences to the learning process and will make sense of the world and the situations they are faced with in ways that are personal to them” (Williams, 1999:12).

I found the distinction between “affect” and “humanism” or “humanistic teaching” useful, as is the awareness that “humanistic teaching” may by now be so clouded with concepts and preconceptions as to be losing its value as a term.

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