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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Der Weg ist das Ziel

Somebody used this line in a seminar I was on recently to talk about the constant state of transformation that companies and organisations throw themselves into in order to reach a seemingly unatainable position of perfection.  In German the phrase was meant to imply that that in place of a goal we had substituted a process, roughly translated into English then the idea is that the journey is the destination.  This is a grand idea in principle, especially for literal travel but is problematic when applied as an operating principal to organistations, allowing of no stability and, by extension, no achievement.  Learning a language is a continuous process its true and the idea of final achievement is self evidently absurd - no-one has final command of a language.  This idea though is questionable in practice, I would guess that most language learners have a defined goal from learning a language for holiday purposes through to learning a language to live and work in a foreign country.  In order to achieve these aims then a language learner essentially needs to be able to absorb words, understand how they connect and deploy the two together when needed.  Nothing more.  As a profession I sometimes wonder if we haven't lost sight of this goal a little.  In place of a language learning goal we have put a series of diverting activities on the road, so much so that it is less and less simple to discern the aim behind the activities.  Instead of being teachers we have become holiday camp activity coordinators obsessed (to a greater or lesser extent) with devising the most entertaining activities for the students.  A course is now littered with gap-fills, comprehension questions, guess-who games, gap-fills, jumbled sentences, crosswords and, of course, gap-fills.  It is not that such activities are not entertaining, if done well and thoughtfully they can be very entertaining, but we are not entertainers, we are teachers.  A huge amount has been written on the seemingly complex relationship and differeing roles of teachers and learners, for me though the essential equation is relatively simple.  A teacher teaches and a learner learns.  In order for these roles to work effectively then they must not run in parralel but in unison.  A teacher's role is to be an expert in the field of (here) languages.  He or she must understand the language they are teaching (intuitively and mechanically) and understand the process of language aquisition (easier blogged than done).  A good teacher, I think, will provide what Dick Allwright has termed learning opportunties and will be ready to exploit these in ways that help the learner to aquire the language.  Authenticity has become a key component of language teaching material in recent years but has not filtered through to the activity construction phase.  Unless we are teaching students who will need to read texts where someone has spilt marmite over every third word then gap-fills are perhaps one of the most pointless activities invented.   Similarly comprehension questions that simply, at best, test understanding of the article in question are, I think, of limited value in that they fail the authenticity standard.  The core activity in classrooms has to be meeting new language, exploring and extending that language, recycling aquired language and then practicing the language in authentic settings (as fas ar is practicable).  What does all this mean for planning?  For me, a teacher should be providing authentic material selected for its L+1 comprehensibility and guiding students to select goal appropriate items to learn and providing strategies for learning and deploying the items.  Instead of a reading exercise that revolves around gap-fill and comprehension questions or matching definition exercises the student should be invited to read the article and highlight unknown words/phrases/structures and then do as they would in their own language - guess from context, check with peers, check with dictionaries amd finally ask the teacher or better verify with the teacher - the essential teaching input now comes in, wherby the teacher must indicate to the student the usefulness of the item, the collocational and grammatical field of the item, alternate meanings and possible ambiguities, contrasting elements and then be ready to design activities that allow the student to use the item(s) in an authentic setting such as retelling the news story from memory, discussing the issues that arise, writing a forum response, twittering responses etc.  The teacher should then store the item for use at a later date (hopefully repeated) when the items range can be explored and learnt.  The teacher should also then advise on learning strategies and be prepared to coach and monitor these strategies as they fit an individual students needs/strengths.  They should emphatically not be spending their preparation time cutting up bits of pink paper and copy and pasting gaps onto articles.  The aim is learning and this is more important than having an entertaining journey!

Rant over!  I could go on but will probably only come across as embittered from this point on!  A couple of caveats to what I have written above;

1. I teach adults, not children, and for teachers of children I fully accept that different rules apply.

2. Motivation is often difficult and hence the need for entertainment.  Yes and no.  Motivation is often a problem but I'm not entirely sure that it's always my problem...If a student is demonstrably learning and feels that they are making progress then my own feeling is that they will be motivated to continue, if not learning or making progress then I am not sure any amount of fun activities will change that in the medium to long term.

3.  I work in the public sector and the pressures to keep people happy are much tougher in the commercial sector.  Accepted, but I think my point above covers this aswell.  Making progress towards the goal will ensure repeat custom more than simply turning up to have a laugh every week.

Agree, disagree, let me know - always open to debate.

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