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.”

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