Thursday, 4 August 2011

Teachers in Turkey, Part 2 - “The X Intersect of Language Teaching” by Aaron G. Myers

The second post of the ‘teachers in Turkey’ series doesn’t come from a teacher as such but a language coach, Aaron G. Myers, who lives and works in Istanbul. I first interacted with Aaron through Twitter when he tried to access my blog but couldn’t due to BlogSpot being banned in Turkey at the time. Thankfully, the ban didn’t last long!

I asked Aaron to contribute to the series because I was interested to find out more about his work as a ‘coach’ and what that entailed. He replied with the following post in which he shares ideas for getting students to learn and think more independently. It’s a very interesting read with plenty of food for thought - please share your comments at the end!

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X marks the spot - Image by pangalactic gargleblaster and the heart of gold

My experience in Turkey has been that of a language learner and as a language coach. As a learner, I have been able to pursue Turkish as an independent, self-directed learner and found it to be a rewarding and empowering experience. My Turkish is not yet where I want it to be, but I have the tools and the knowhow to get there. As a language coach, I have had the privilege of working with both Turkish nationals and expats to help them become independent language learners themselves. It is from these two perspectives that I write today.

I remember reading a parenting book a few years back that gave the illustration that as parents, we begin the journey of parenthood with complete control of and responsibility for our children. In the first year of our child’s life, they are dependent on us for everything. If we were to score the relationship of our control to our child’s independence, we would be at a 10 and they would be at 0. The goal of parenting then is to help our child grow and to one day be independent, i.e. employable, marriageable and responsible adults. And so we take steps over the course of their childhood to hand over more and more responsibility so that they might learn to be independent. We begin to move toward the X intersect. The X intersect is that place in childhood - somewhere between fourteen and eighteen - where our child moves from being mostly dependent to being mostly independent. It is also the place where we move from being “parent as boss” to being “parent as guide.” As parents we create safe ways for our kids to practice being independent so that they are prepared for the real world.

But what does parenting have to do with education? How does this have any relevance on the EFL classroom? My experience over the last few years has caused me to think that in teaching English, we ought to be working to bring our students to the X intersect - that place where they move from being mostly dependent learners to being mostly independent learners. Teachers in turn will need to move from being mostly “teacher as boss” to being mostly “teacher as guide.” In this way we can empower our students to become life long, independent language learners.

Before I explain what this might look like in a real classroom, it should be said that the age of students will in many ways dictate the level of independence to which we can bring them. Elementary age students will not be ready to be independent learners. College age students will. Somewhere in between those two is the place of the X intersect.

Level of language is also a factor to be considered. Krashen reminds us that “beginners are much better off in well-taught language classes. Good language classes will give the beginner the comprehensible input that the outside world will supply only very reluctantly.”[1] They need the teacher to be the boss, their main source of input and we cannot expect beginning English language learners to become independent language learners. They don’t yet have the necessary skills. But, as Krashen continues, “The goal of language classes is not to bring students to the highest levels of competence. The goal is to bring students to the intermediate level.[2] Once students are at an intermediate level they will have the necessary language skills to access the opportunities available to learn the language.

Finally, it is important to understand is that this is a journey taken one step at a time. Just as we wouldn’t shove our eighteen year olds out the door having never given them the opportunity to learn responsibility and independent living, we shouldn’t think that we can make our students into independent learners over night. It will take time and patience. In Turkey, it has been my observation that the idea of independent learning is about as foreign as I am. Everything in the system conspires against this kind of thinking. Private language schools flourish because of this. Teachers are given a high level of respect. It is this respect, this place of prestige within Turkish society that makes teachers the most likely candidates to be able to effect any lasting change.

There are a few components that when implemented will lead to the X intersect. The first of course is that teachers need to continue to teach content, to give student’s comprehensible input and opportunities to learn the language. Students must be brought to the intermediate level. Slowly however, students need to be taught about comprehensible input and language acquisition and then given the tools, resources and knowledge to learn language on their own. Demonstrations of independent learning strategies, of how to access the Internet and tap into other resources will be important. Modelling and assisting will be invaluable parts of a typical lesson plan. In the end, success will be measured not by what happens inside the classroom, but rather by what happens outside the classroom and into the future as students take ownership of their learning and continue to progress long after they have left the teacher’s side.

Another component that fosters ownership and independent learning is the connection of learning to the here and now heart issues of the students. As language teachers we have a great advantage over the other disciplines. Biology teachers are restricted to the topic of biology. Math teachers follow the linear route from addition to multiplication. History teachers are stuck in history. Whether or not the students are particularly interested in biology or math or history doesn’t really matter. This is not to say that these subjects are somehow unimportant. My son isn’t particularly fond of math, but I am not particularly concerned with what he is fond of in this matter. He has to learn math. It is an important life skill.

As language teachers however, the world is our oyster - or rather our students’. There is no topic that excludes opportunities for language learning. Students with a teacher as guide can find podcasts, YouTube videos, movies, TV shows, games and much more in English. The 71,908 articles in the Simple English Wikipedia could be a great place to begin. Connecting our students’ English language development to their passions will go a long way in providing the motivation they need to become independent language learners. Speaking about life in general, Erwin McManus said, “We need to both aspire and accomplish. Without a vision for your life, without a sense of purpose, you will begin to die a slow death.” If we cannot help our students find vision and a sense of purpose for learning English, their quest to learn the language will almost certainly die a slow death.

As I have lived in Turkey, I have made it a habit to ask parents how their children are doing in English class. Unless they have the money for private schools, the response is usually the same. They feel their kids are learning very little. They wish there was something they could do. They feel trapped, knowing that English would open doors for their children but not knowing how to help them. The third component then is to also empower parents in the process. Give them hope that there is much they can do at home to help their kids. Make a handbook for parents. Give a one hour workshop. Make a list of online resources available. Make a website dedicated to presenting these resources with summaries of how to use them in their native language. These are a few small steps to help parents understand that it is not just the teacher’s job to teach their kids English.

If these three components - teaching how to learn language, connecting learning to real life and empowering parents - can be implemented, we will be well on our way to creating a classroom where the teacher moves slowly into the role of a language guide as students become independent self directed learners. If we can do this well, if we can move our students toward and through the X intersect, our legacy won’t be one of students who have learned some English. Our legacy will be one of students transformed and empowered to be life long, successful learners of English.


[1] Krashen, Steven. 2003. Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. (page 7)

[2] ibid

imageWritten by Aaron Myers. Aaron believes everyone can learn another language. You just need a little help. That’s why he writes The Everyday Language Learner and why he has developed the free Ten Week Journey. He wants to get you started on the road to language learning and then give you the tools to keep going. Get started. Don't stop.

You can also follow Aaron on Twitter: @aarongmyers

8 comments:

  1. Dave,
    Thanks for allowing me the chance to guest post. I am hoping it will spark at least some discussion here in the comment section.

    Aaron

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  2. Hi Aaron,

    Thanks again for this great post. I am also looking forward to the discussion. :)

    "In Turkey, it has been my observation that the idea of independent learning is about as foreign as I am" - I love this line as it has rung true for me as well! I try to foster an environment in my classes where the students feel secure enough to experiment with the language and are more aware of how they learn. I constantly ask them to assess themselves and reflect on what they got out of the lesson/week of lessons. Although they are only 10 years-old, it is important to get them started in that direction rather than having it all thrust upon them at an older age.

    Your comments about engaging and empowering parents also struck a chord. Too often, they are too distant from the learning process. I fully agree that they need to be brought into the cycle to encourage and further develop autonomous skills in their own children.

    Thanks again for contributing to the series!

    Dave

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  3. I found this post really interesting - thank you Aaron!

    I think the most important point you put across here is that the road to autonomy begins with the learners themselves. In most cases, teachers try to implement learner autonomy without explaining to students how important this actually is. In Spain the attitude is very similar to that in Turkey, and there is also a general need/wish to be spoonfed by the teacher. Your parallels with parenting demonstrate how rdiculous it is for adult learners to expect to be "spoonfed"! However, unless the teacher actually gets students to realise how much potential they have to improve their English on their own, they will never really stop wanting the teacher to provide everything on a plate for them (with the meat already cut up into bitesize pieces!).

    It is no easy job, but I do think that talking to the students about language acquisition may be the starting point. Once they are convinced that independent learning is crucial, they will already be on the right track.

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  4. Dear Dave,

    Thanks for creating a learning&sharing platform for teachers in your blog.

    Dear Aaron,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights regarding language learning. I did enjoy the simile you made between parenting and education, and I must admit I couldn’t agree more.

    Sometimes, we, teachers, can be carried away and have either higher or lower expectations. We might either overload our students with large amounts of information or treat them like babies and spoonfeed them. However, it is crucially important to treat students according to their level and set our expectations accordingly. As you mentioned, we need to take the role of an input provider at low levels, but then become a learning facilitator as students’ language level improves.

    The level and the amount of input we provide also matter. I think, what Krashen suggests regarding input (i+1) is the best form. Beside giving right amount of language input at right level, we also need to consider strategy training, and gradually train and encourage our students to become autonomous learners so that they can survive on their own.

    I believe, only if we become aware of the true nature of teaching and learning process can we assist our learners more and help them become better language learners.

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  5. Aaron, a thought-provoking post that I agree with for the most part, although as a graduate and lover of history I wouldn't have said that teachers of the subject are 'stuck' with it. :-)

    I'm not as well-versed with my Krashen as I should be so it was an very interesting point that you raised about the goal of classes being to get students to an intermediate level. This raises one of two questions I have for you:

    1. Advanced classes exist so how would you define their role in a learner's progression? I think this is a difficult level to handle because, like you, I think that students should be more independent at higher levels. In fact I would almost expect it to be a natural transformation based on all of their learning so far. However, I tend to feel that some advanced learners will come into class and expect the same drills, the same treatment and the same structure that they have had in all their previous classes. This presents a problem in so far as the teacher seeing their role as one of nurturing independence, yet the students sees the teacher's role as nurturing English.

    We don't water the base of a tree, but some trees still expect us to.

    2. This is perhaps a little off topic. You refer to yourself as a 'language coach'. I was wondering what that is exactly when compared to a teacher or a tutor.

    A great read Aaron, thanks for sharing.

    Dave, I'm really enjoying this series of guest posts so far but then again your blog in general is always a great place to visit for something interesting to read.

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  6. Oh, and I forgot to post this.

    http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2011/04/02/when-you-thought-i-wasn%E2%80%99t-looking/

    This poem, while written for a parent, certainly spoke to me as a teacher in terms of our position of influence and how all our actions are watched with critical eyes.

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  7. Hey all,
    Thanks for creating a great conversation. It is fun to see and hear other's experiences. I'll answer Gordon's questions as best I can:
    I guess first I need to clarify that I beleive Krashen was talking mainly about high school foreign language classes when he said the goal should be to get them to an intemediate level. But, I guess I think that regardless, one thing that should be happening when students do get to that intermediate level is that we should be creating a course (especially at the university level) that is not so much concerned with teaching language as it is with teaching how to learn a language independently. Does that make sense? Before I came to Turkey, I was fortunate to take a two week intensive course that taught my wife and I all about how to learn language on our own. It was intense, filled with practice of different techniques, activities, and drills and after it was done, we felt empowered to come to Turkey and learn Turkish on our own. Empowered. That is the word that describes best how we felt. Empowered to learn with or without a classroom. Empowered to learn from our neighbors. Empowered to evaluate how we were doing. A large part of the class was an exposure to tons of new activities and methods, but a big part was a mindset shift from a teacher directed to an independent learner mindset. I think this is the number one need at the university level. It could be a semester course. I could be a month long intensive. Are advanced classes still needed? Probably and certainly in specialized fields, but even those could probably be turned over more and more to the students to direct for themselves with a dedicated teacher/coach to help them maximize their learning potential. And that is a lot of what I do as a language coach. I don't teach any language. What I do do is help people understand how to learn the language for themselves. Part of this is pointing people to resources. Part of this is helping learners set goals and plan to reach those goals. Part of this is helping people evaluate how things are going. And part of this is just helping with motivation. But every one of my clients is different and has different needs. I guess a lot of my thinking with all of this comes back to the old, 'Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime.' By empowering learners, we free them from their dependence on the teacher and turn them into lifelong learners. I am not entirely certain how this all will work or should work, but I have this vision for a better way. How we get there, I still haven't completely figured out.

    I hope all this makes sense.

    Aaron

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  8. Thanks again to Aaron for sharing this post. ı think it's great that you are openly discussing your evolving thought process and understanding of language learning in this way. After all, it is not so much the conclusion we reach that matters but how we got there.

    Esen & Gordon - thanks for your comments on the series so far. I'm glad you have found it to be of interest. A new post is coming later this week!

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