Quite often when we think about anything related to the 21st Century, including teaching, we think of the use of technology, gadgets and the internet. We feel we must have Smart boards, tablets, online classes, video sharing, social media, and the list goes on and on. But what every teacher must remember is that his main working material consists of brains inside living organisms labeled as learners, students or pupils.
I’ve just finished studying a book published back in 1997 but with ideas still relevant today for every language teaching professional: Psychology for the Language Teacher (CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS) by Marion Williams and Robert L. Burden.
Undoubtedly some advances and finds have taken place in psychology and the human science of teaching and pedagogy over the past 20 plus years, but some things never change and must be remembered, reviewed and implemented. Sooner or later we will stop referencing to “21st century” and just say ” Teaching”.
The book presented 10 key points on Language Teaching, this first part of my post will work on the first three items:
1. There’s a difference between learning and education.
Learning: the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.
“these children experienced difficulties in learning”
Education: the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.
“a new system of public education”
A quick look at these first definitions present a great distinction between both processes, which intersect in many areas … both involve receiving knowledge or instruction, but a key distinction is that learning involves the development of skills through experience.
Joi Ito beautifully summed it up: “Education is what people do to you. Learning is what you do for yourself”
Here it is graphically represented:
Now that we have the distinction we can move to the second point.
2. Learners learn WHAT is meaningful to them.
I can try ad nauseam to inculcate in my students the state capitals of the US, the beautiful wording of the Declaration of Independence, the Scottish Calvinist values, etc… but they will not profit from that if they don’t see a purpose or meaning in that. I always ask my students at the beginning of their course about their goals, current activities, hobbies and dreams so that the lessons may be geared towards intrinsic motivation resulting in effective learning. I’m not saying that students
who live in the favelas in Rio should only be taught vocabulary about getting water from a well or snorting glue… (yes, yes, it’s just an example, don’t get up in arms about it) They must learn based on their reality and context but also from that point the teacher can and must build a path where learners will be introduced to a better way and a broader world.
3. Learners learn IN WAYS that are meaningful to them.
I love reading but if my student is interested in speaking “only” I must adapt the course so that any reading they do is impregnated with the spoken language – it can be an interview, a novel rich in dialogue, even part of a play … as long it’s language relevant and appropriate to their level. If they like movies, or sports, let them search and learn about what interests them. Here again Language is a tool not an end unto itself.
Writing is really important for learners to process and review their language acquisition but instead of asking them to write a 500-600 word essay (unless they’re preparing for an exam where such activity is required), why not have them write a business related email? Or even a text message including abbreviations, emojis and shortcuts?
Please, bear in mind that my students are adults who have already gone through their academic process and now need English or Spanish mostly for employment purposes and career advancement opportunities. Actual Fluency in English will be a plus for any CV or Résumé in a non-English speaking nation. The point is that it must be true not just wishful thinking; hence the person’s awareness that they are no longer “students”, but “learners”
Cheers. Happy learning.