More soul-searching

I’m discovering that trying to encourage students to create their own education may not always work. What if, by my efforts to introduce autonomy, instead of reducing the stress and anxiety, I’m adding to it? Instead of making English more accessible and more interesting, I was making it more difficult and remote? Would I spot it? Or would I be so enamoured of my belief that learners construct their own knowledge that I would doggedly pursue my chosen course regardless? I saw a (similar?) evangelism at JALT National: people who believed strongly in the implicit value of authentic learning materials, and were puzzled by students’ apparent lack of enthusiasm. So, will they continue to push their “product”, or will they be willing to listen to what their learners are saying, even if that means using EFL materials instead of authentic, adopting whole-class teaching instead of group/pair work? Teacher-directed teaching instead of student-centred learning?

My next task in this week’s autonomy class, will be to observe what students are actually up to. How many are goofing off? How many are actually doing any work? What about those who didn’t show up? Can I find out why not? I have a sneeking suspicion that all is not going as well as I’d like to think; student dissatisfaction may be higher than I like to think.

What prompted all this soul-searching, then?

At the end of last semester, students handed in their portfolios. It was then that we discovered how they had understood what we were expecting: it was worse than we thought. The great majority (90%) had simply not done what we considered to be sufficient work. Although we had resisted (actually, I had resisted) the idea of a quota (so many song worksheets, so many video worksheets, so many reading cards, etc), we found ourselves lapsing into simply counting how many activities students had done in the first semester, based on their own records. Some students had, during the whole first semester (13 sessions of 90 minutes each) only completed six or so song worksheets. A song worksheet takes about 20 minutes to do, max. Working hard, a student could theoretically do 4 in one class, ok say 3. Three times 13 is….

Many had not kept adequate records; they had not filled out a log for each activity. Some even had kept no records at all, claiming they hadn’t realized they were supposed to do so. Some lost their papers (or said they had). We have an SRA Reading Lab and many students use it (a choice I’ll return to in a moment): they pick a reading card, answer the comprehension questions, then check their own answers. A few students had quite blatantly taken both reading card and answer card at the same time and copied out the answers without bothering to read the card.

At one point I caught myself making excuses for these students: they don’t really like English, they pretty much have to be here but they didn’t CHOOSE the English Department; they are not academically oriented; schools traditionally nurture only those who have verbal-linguistic skills and punish those who don’t, so let’s give these non-verbal-linguistic students a break, etc, etc.

One of the final straws for me was when I heard about a colleague’s success with a notoriously “difficult” student. This student had managed to fail our class 2 years running. He would show up irregularly and always late, never had any books or papers or even a pencil. He was charming and funny and a great story teller, and he never did a stroke of work. He was also in another teacher’s class. This teacher did not subscribe to our politically correct doctrines about letting students make their own choices, or set their own objectives or follow their interests; he decided everything. He made no allowances for non-academic students: he set assignments regularly and gave quizzes every class. His class was hard work (not perhaps by US or UK standards), and he did not apologize for it. His attitude was, it’s tough, but no pain, no gain, and they get a sense of accomplishment at the end of it. Not only is our “enfant terrible” still in this guy’s class, but he is rarely late, he does the work and he is set to pass the course. Clearly, at least as far as this student is concerned, our colleague is doing something right that we aren’t. And how many other students who are merely muddling through at the moment, might do better with a more structured approach, with more guidance, with more, dare I say it, “teaching”?

I see many of my own students are confused by my attempts to make them responsible for their own learning; they don’t want to and/or are incapable of setting their own (language-)learning objectives (and this may partly be a result of their low level of English ability; more advanced students DO show interest in picking up the reins, and are able to act responsibly). I had soon developed an antipathy to “learner training”, a form of autonomy that developed in the US particularly, and pioneered by such as Anita Wenden et al. It smacked of teacher-control masquerading as autonomy. But I’m now moving in that direction myself, as I think the kind of freedom and choices I’ve offered my students have left many simply confused and bored: unable to understand what I’m on about, and having nowhere near enough either English ability or confidence or maturity to make their own choices regarding materials or even objectives, they simply putter about aimlessly, and quite a few give up and just go through the motions, hoping to convince me that they are actually working when in fact they’re doing nothing of the sort. Not working (neither studying nor practising), they don’t achieve anything, which feeds into a vicious cycle of apathydisrespect (towards both me and themselves) and irresponsible behaviour. I’m now experimenting with some form of training – very teacher-controlled – and I’m embarrassed and disgusted to see that it seems to be working. Damn!

7 thoughts on “More soul-searching”

  1. Cleve, I’ve been reading your recent blog entries with great interest. Dick Hardt’s tour de force presentation was highly entertaining, even if I understood about 20% of it! And the article on Bill Strickland was an inspiration. Thanks for posting (and visiting here). Isn’t it fascinating how “new” and “revolutionary” ideas can eventually become a new orthodoxy, which people learn to question at their peril. It can be refreshing speaking to Japanese teachers, because they simply don’t buy a lot of the new orthodoxies…

  2. Thanks, gami. I think yours is good advice. I will follow it. In fact, my colleague and I were discussing this tactic just this afternoon.

  3. “it’s whether I’m too attached to my teaching philosophy that I might be overlooking evidence that it isn’t working”

    Oh my goodness thank you for that. If only more teachers would have the courage to question their own dearly held assumptions.

  4. I thought that trying to excourage to creat their own education will not work well in our university. Many students will not study if they do not have assignments for next class. (Students have many homeworks each class. They have to do a part time jop.etc…)I thought that your idea is great, but you should make deadline and minimum requirements. If you put a lot of appropriate pressure on your students, they have to do thier work well. I think that even if you put pressure, you will be able to encourage students to creat their own education.

  5. Thanks, JH. Altho on re-reading, I realized my post sounded depressed, actually I’ve been energized by this discovery. What is buzzing in my bonnet now is the idea, not that “university students are by nature unmotivated” or “different strokes for different folks”; it’s whether I’m too attached to my teaching philosophy that I might be overlooking evidence that it isn’t working. Am I willing to be flexible and provide the structure or whatever it is students variously need, or will I cling to my beliefs? Don’t miss the next exciting episode! The bottom line for me now is my students’ achievement. I strongly suspect many of them are underachieving, and I wonder if I’m not perhaps conniving in that, having absorbed the university culture that seems to be the norm in this country

  6. Marco,
    Don’t get down. Different students have different learning styles. Some need structure and others do not.
    Also, I think it is difficult to encourage students to create their own education at universities. Why?
    1) Students pay money to acquire the skills they will need to get good jobs and expect to be taught.
    2) Many students have experienced teacher-centered education throughout their lives and they have a belief that teacher-centered instruction is what education is and anything else is something different. One class will not change students minds. I think that we, as learner-centered teachers, have to respect students’ beliefs and compromise.

    So, structure cannot be abandoned all together, especially in large classes.
    Having students choose their own areas of pursuits but giving them deadlines, minimum requirements etc. appears to be the way to go in my very humble opinion.

    Changing the subject, I enjoy reading your blog and plan on introducing it to my advisees this week.

  7. I am a teacher-in-training – and I found your post absolutely fascinating! I am not sure as a mid-fifties guy having worked in the corporate world all my life that I buy into some of the techniques I am being taught… sometimes reality is divorced from the classroom – in any case, your comment is very much appreciated…

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