What principles guide your teaching practice?
By Mark Hershey
Mark Hershey has been living and teaching in Asia for over a dozen years. He is especially interested in theories of learning.
I had no idea what I was doing the first time I walked into an English as a second language classroom. On that day I was volunteering to substitute for an absent teacher at a refugee and immigration center. As I faced a group of about 20 students from the Ukraine, Laos, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Armenia, my palms were sweating, my face was sweating, and I even believe my voice was sweating. It did not help much that a week before at the same centre, I watched a teacher conduct a class by merely using a series of hand signals, gestures, and facial contortions. Later, he explained to me that he was using The Silent Way and he swore by its efficacy – ‘the only language teaching method you will ever need.’ I managed to muddle my way through that first lesson using my own interpretation of his instructions. Despite possibly giving a Hmong woman or two a fright with my facial expressions, I think they all got something out of it. I could see the benefits of this method, but as a total system for teaching I did not think it would suit me. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work with another teacher at the centre who introduced me to what she called The Language Experience Method. I had asked her previously if she had used The Silent Way and she said, ‘No, I prefer the Talky, Talky Way.’ This method consisted of having the students draw pictures of their experiences, writing captions for the pictures at whatever level they were at (as simple as a word, as complex as a paragraph). The students could then orally explain their picture stories to other students. The teacher’s role was mostly to facilitate; occasionally the teacher could add one or two grammar or lexical items to the story. Students could also collaborate to add a word or two to another story if one student was at a higher level than another, and if the context of the situation was sensitive for that type of interaction. Before I had even heard the name Lev Vygotsky, I was introduced to a method that was meant to bridge the gap between learner knowledge and mentor competence. This way of teaching was much more suitable to my personality, yet I could see it also had its limitations. One more teacher at the same language centre ran her class like a military sergeant (granted a military sergeant who smiled a lot) as students merely engaged in substitution drills the whole time. I experimented with this method, and found it useful within limits, but did not think that I would use this method the whole time or as the main focus of my teaching.
Around this same time period, I had the opportunity to sit in on a class at a community college. I had a brief meeting with the teacher before, but he did not give me much clue as to how he taught. When he arrived to class he was carrying two enormous suitcases, proceeding to unload the items on some tables at the side of the room: play money, toy cars, skillets and spatulas, wigs, cups, bottles of water, play houses, hammers, wooden boards, nails, and a sundry of many other items. Fairly quickly the class was a whirl of activity, with first the teacher, and then the students, barking orders at each other to give, pour, hammer, drive, shave, comb, pay, receive and do just about every human activity one could think of that could be accomplished with the items in his suitcase. I was to discover later that this was referred to as the TPR method of teaching or Total Physical Response.
Later, when I went to Japan to teach for a language school, I attended workshops that introduced other promising language teaching methods. One workshop was about the Present, Practice, Produce method (or PPP). Teachers presented linguistic or topical input, the students practiced it in a controlled exchange, and then produced it in a somewhat freer, more meaningful exchange. Another workshop was about how all of teaching could be turned into a game. A workshop for teaching children introduced some methods that seemed to employ both game playing practices and elements of the Silent Way. Instructions for teachers were to rely on certain gestures and also to make exaggerated faces to illustrate the various emotions. When I tried this, attempting, as the guide had said, to ‘look quizzical, with an expression of extraordinary wonder and curiosity on your face,’ one little girl burst into tears. As I further progressed in my teaching career, as well in my education, I eschewed certain methods that seemed less pedagogically sound than others. Nevertheless, I did retain elements of many of these various approaches, depending on the context I was teaching in.
My own experience of teaching was to mirror, to some extent, the history of language teaching itself, marked by stumbling, experimental episodes, periods of confidence, with a return to futher stumbling, exploratory searches for better approaches and methods. The wide range of teaching methodologies that were churned out in the past century have included highly structured approaches such as Audio-Lingualism as well as a host of methods falling under the umbrella of Communicative Language Teaching, including Task-Based Language Teaching. In recent years, however, some language teaching theorists and linguists have suggested that the era of methods is over. We are in a phase in the field that liberally borrows from the cornucopia of past and present methods, but is informed by a set of best practices or principles that cut across many of them. In his 2006 book Understanding Language Teaching – From Method to Postmethod, B. Kumaravadivelu presented 10 Macro-Strategies that underpin sound teaching practices from a variety of methodological assumptions:
1. Maximize learning opportunities
2. Facilitate negotiated interactions
3. Minimize perceptual mismatches
4. Activate intuitive heuristics
5. Foster language awareness
6. Contextualize linguistic input
7. Integrate language skills
8. Promote learner autonomy
9. Ensure social relevance
10. Raise cultural consciousness
All of these deserve further elaboration, but in the interest of space I will just elaborate on a few of these that might not seem so immediately transparent.
Facilitating negotiated interactions means ensuring exchanges where ‘learners have an opportunity to initiate and navigate interaction.’ Kumaravadivelu further explains that research results have demonstrated that ‘what enables learners to move beyond their current receptive and expressive capacities are opportunities to modify and restructure their interaction with their interlocutors until mutual comprehension is reached.’
Minimizing perceptual mismatches refers to seeking to bridge the gap between the teacher’s intentions, plans, and goals and the learner’s interpretations of those features. Good practices involve continually seeking out student impressions of lesson plans and guidelines and helping students to narrow the gap between the teacher’s intentions and approaches and the student’s interpretation of those intentions and approaches.
Activating intuitive heuristics is in reference to weaknesses in methodology that sought to explicitly analyse, explain, and instruct the whole of the language system beyond the elementary level, especially before students had a chance to meet and muddle through a practice in the language system. The complexity of the language system renders such an endeavour generally out of reach of the average learner. Results of such teaching have not been promising. A better alternative is to use a heuristic approach, which allows more time in the experience or practice in the structure of the language. As Chomsky says, quoted by Kumaravadivelu , teachers should design classroom activities that ‘give free play to those creative principles that humans bring to the process of learning a language.’ In addition, Chomsky suggests providing a ‘rich linguistic environment for the intuitive heuristics that a normal human being automatically possesses.’ Instead of starting with long lists of rules to explain, it is better to immerse students in the language they are meeting, and let them gradually discover the rules for themselves, with teacher guidance as needed.
Of the strategies presented by Kumaravadivelu, two especially have stood out for me. As I progressed in my own teaching career (and as I engaged in skirmishes with languages like Japanese, Thai or Vietnamese) I came to believe it is especially important to provide opportunities for contextualization of linguistic input. When students are learning grammar or lexis they need access to text or audio materials as references. They also need opportunities to apply and experiment with new linguistic input in the four skills. Additionally, learner opportunities for discovery and experimentation with the language system, before delving into any analysis and explanation, strike me as especially important. I believe students learn more through osmosis and immersion than through examining reams of explanatory texts. Most likely this practice would fall under the activating intuitive heuristics strategy. Another practice I find useful that might come under this heading is the recycling and/or transformation of tasks. In the old Present,Practice,Produce method, and some other methods of teaching that are sometimes called Communicative, lessons are often taught as one-off activities. When I first became acquainted with this method, I focused on creating entertaining activities for learners, with numerous activities following one after the other in a short time period. Of course I would not argue that one should avoid creating engaging materials or that such materials do not have value if they are entertaining. The problem is sometimes one of emphasis and opportunity cost. With the PPP style of teaching, there are fewer opportunities to go in depth into the four skills and to reflect on learning. Recycling of an activity, however (as in TBLT), after the teacher and the class have examined what has been learned in the first cycle, and exploring what (and how much) new grammar and lexis can be introduced again, allows the teacher and learners to bridge the gap between their respective levels of knowledge. Most importantly it allows learners opportunities to notice how they have progressed from the first cycle of the task to the last cycle. Transformations of tasks (such as first having students write a newspaper article on a theme, then turn it into a role play) allows for similar possibilities to witness acquisition of new language. Delving this deeply into the task, however, involves negotiation with the program, one’s colleagues and supervisors, and the institution one teaches for, and is unfortunately not always possible given these various constraints. Admittedly in my own teaching practice, it is also very much a work in progress, and I cannot claim that I am always able to pull it off to a degree I find fully satisfactory.
Arguably, the few points I have outlined above are simply elements of Task-Based Language Teaching. Some would say that TBLT is more of an approach than a method (an approach being broader in practices and principles than a method). If we follow this line of thinking, then it is not that we have entered a new era; it is just that our definition of TBLT needs to more liberally embrace the strategies outlined above.