12 March 2012

Learning, Teaching & A Quest for Balance

Having recently attended the TESOL Arabia conference, the role of learning and teaching has once again, been on my mind. Despite all the enthusiasm for pair work, group work and basically, the current focus on collaborative learning, learning itself is still very much a lonely process - lonely, in the sense that no matter how much collaborative work is done in class, it is up to the individual him/herself to actually learn, to process new information and to be able to apply it. 

There may be many approaches to learning; after all, learners will follow the approach they are trained in by their teachers; teachers, in turn will teach according to the way they were trained, often not considering that perhaps their teacher training program did not cover all there is to know in the field of education and that being an educator means to be a constant leaner as well. 

Learning. An individual process, and one that requires time, patience, dedication. Learning also requires discipline, for example, the discipline to attend classes, the discipline to do revisions, and the will to achieve. 

One characteristic which I sometimes see among younger generations is the demand for instance gratification. Learning is not always instant. It can be frustrating and non-linear. So where does this leave teachers?

In his plenary, Jim Scrivener raised the pertinent question of where is the learning? That was in regard to language learning; I ask the same question in regard to all learning. It often seems that yes, teachers perform classroom rituals that they learnt on teacher training courses, classroom management techniques/approaches that are in vogue at a certain point in time, and that yes, learning is supposed to be fun. Nevertheless, there needs to be a balance. A balance between the elements of "fun" and how learning in fact requires effort and responsibility from the part of the learner. Again, I must refer to Jim Scrivener's talk when he pointed out how today teachers far too readily give "unearned praise" instead of feedback. Keith Folse  also touched on the role of the teacher by making a distinction between being a teacher and a facilitator - a teacher being someone who knows the answers, and actually teaches, rather than "facilitating" exploratory learning by the learner. 

This does not mean that one should go back to the translation method - though again, although I myself do not practice that approach, I find that immediate translation in a lesson will often help. On the one hand, by asking students what a certain word is in their language, will cut down the time where students are lost in translation and on the other hand, also validates their culture and language. Language learners may be learning a foreign/second language but do have knowledge of language. As in all things in life, there needs to be a balance; there are moments when dictionaries are helpful, and other moments when cross-checking a word in L1 is more appropriate for the moment. (obviously I am referring to classes where all students share the same mother language/L1). 


More than discussing whether it is useful or not to use translation in the language classroom, there is a need for balance and a re-consideration of the learning process. Despite being ver much in favour of digital activities in the classroom, there are moments when they are not always necessary. Digital literacies are part of the general literacies that students need to have today - but  not the one and only.  Using digital tools and platforms should be engaging, involve critical thinking and enable the development of other skills as well. However, the learning process is still up to the individual who will process or not the information. Moreover, not all learning takes place at the same moment nor at the same pace. Some learners, as all educators know, will need more time and practice. 


So where does this leave me as an educator teaching a foreign language right now? 

Where I have always been. In that space where I seek balance; a balance of talk and silence, of actively engaging with my students, of standing back and letting them proceed with their tasks, giving positive, constructive feedback when earned and yes, calling their attention when they certainly could do better. Learning does not exclude fun, yet learning also requires time and effort. 

Is it possible to find a balance between the two? How do you find your balance between lessons which are more playful and lessons which require  a more serious focus? 

Lastly, with the need for balance in teaching approaches, I leave you with another infographic which I find interesting for English language learners. 

15 Grammar Goofs That Make You Look Silly
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