Why Aren’t They Learning Anything???
Trying to answer the question “how come my students aren’t improving their English more effectively?” is a source of endless fascination to me. It allows me to look in every corner of the accessible universe for explanations and solutions. Remembering that in every structured learning encounter “the values and actions of the teacher must interact with the values and actions of the learners, with unpredictable results” (Johnston, 2003, p. 130), I understand that how we learn to react to one another’s ‘moves’ determines what we learn during our time together.
Raise your hand if you noticed that Johnston’s words describe all encounters among humans?
If we understand language as an ultra-complex tool that can only be acquired through actual use, we see that the language classroom is only useful if it maximizes the potential of students to use the language (tool) that they would master (acquire). In Dick Allwright’s exploratory practice framework, language teaching professionals try to negotiate and sustain the quality of classroom life for particular groups of students that maximizes their language proficiency gains. In other words, the teachers job is to optimize the quality of students’ interaction in whatever language they are learning. This optimization emerges from negotiation with individual students, making any kind of progress at all in this area comprises my career as a language teacher educator and language teaching professional and is the motivation behind finally launching this website.
Negotiating Social Position = Identity Negotiation
I am fairly sure at this point that the posts in monster/mirror will usually include observations about the relationship between distributed power and interaction in learning contexts, for example this one about darts, smoking, and learning. In his 1998 book on Mediated Discourse, Ron Scollon summarized the view of numerous linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists (any more ‘ists’?) when he wrote that
“any social encounter …has as its first … and … ongoing highest priority to position the participants in the social encounter in relationship to each other” (p. 33).
I come back to this quote from Ron often, because it reminds me that the only thing that all of us are doing all the time is an identity construction dance with everyone and thing in our environment. Because 1) we only learn something while we are doing it and 2) We are always doing something, and 3) while we are doing it we are always negotiating our position at that site of engagement, thus analyzing interaction at this level tends to reveal the most useful data about what we are learning.
Embarrassing True Confession
A year ago, midway through a semester with a group of novice first-year university writing students, I got them team-writing a paragraph on “Rules for a Good English Class” – listing rules they recommended and the reasons for those rules (midway through a semester – about time, eh?). I was expecting responses like, “we should speak English as much as possible because we’ll learn more English that way”, and “we should not use cellphones for personal reasons (especially in hangul) during class because we stop learning/using English.” Instead, the reasons the students produced (without exception) were on the order of “because Teacher cannot understand us (in the L1)”, and “it is rude to the teacher (using phones = stop paying attention in class).”
Kapow! I had forgotten (or never bothered) to negotiate a classroom culture with my students. Until otherwise adjusted, the highest priority of my students’ work in this context usually has nothing to do with learning language. My highest priority is a position/identity that facilitates their language learning, but theirs is keeping their teacher happy. I had failed to understand that they were far more interested in saving my face (perhaps a social practice that has historically led to academic rewards?) than in learning anything, and they had gained the upper hand in this negotiation, which meant the majority of them could not be improving their English proficiency.
Every element of the context of my interaction with students, and of theirs with each other, affects the quality of our lives in our classroom, whether online or in a shared physical space. Among other categories, physical, institutional, visual, cultural, temporal, technological, verbal, intellectual, and moral elements determine the power structures, the identities constructed and reconstructed through our interaction, which in turn obstruct or construct the possibilities for my students to interact in the L2.
Johnston, B. 2003. Values in English language teaching. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Scollon, R. 1998. Mediated discourse as social interaction: A study of news discourse. New York: Longman.