Let them know why they are really there

I should probably warn the reader in advance that this is the schizophrenic type of post I occasionally come up with here on my blog. The thing is that I feel that the effort I put into pretending that my students and I are in the classroom in order to learn about our interests, hobbies, dreams and desires puts me under unbearable pressure. Not that this never happens - we do share our experience and I truly believe that we are interested in one another's opinions - but it's hard to deny that it's not why we are primarily there. 

In the past I strongly believed that in order to help our learners learn an L2 effectively, the instruction should replicate the way L1s are learned. I haven't dismissed this belief completely; I'm still convinced that L2 learning should resemble L1 acquisition as much as possible (for example, the focus should be on collocations and chunks, not grammar). However, I can no longer ignore the fact that while small kids acquire their L1s through genuine communication, in an L2 classroom, learners only pretend to do so. 


This notion makes me feel pretty frustrated at times. I guess it must be due to the deception omnipresent in an L2 classroom. On the one hand, I try to be the facilitator who listens patiently and attentively to what the students have to say. On the other hand, although I do listen closely, I’m ready to strike treacherously by giving a student a poor grade whenever I spot a certain number of mistakes. Thus what I actually do is punishing my students for their genuine attempts to express their personal views. 


I don't think other subject teachers share my concerns. In maths lessons the kids know that they are there to learn to solve equations. In history classes the students are supposed to learn facts about the past. Normally, the teacher is the intermediary - she possesses the knowledge and passes the facts on to her students. In a way the matter is outside the student and the teacher - it's out there to be tampered with. I don't know how to put it accurately but I feel that we English teachers tamper with students' psyche rather than the matter because the things we need to teach them can only be taught vicariously - through extracting experience and feelings from our students' minds. Yes, this is what I feel communicative teaching does. 


Now I'm not saying that it's inherently bad. My point is that we CLT teachers sometimes treat our students as best friends. The truth is, however, that we can change into the worst enemy any minute. We behave as though we were friends because we want to encourage an open and honest communication environment. In other words, we need to make our students speak and write in English to make sure they are learning the words and grammar someone else invented and used before. Thus we imperceptibly creep into their inner worlds. Then, all of a sudden, we abuse their trust by judging and assessing their performance. For example, we subtract points for Michael's incorrect choices of vocabulary and grammar while he is trying hard to express how he feels about gambling, which is the message we explicitly asked him to share with us when we were pretending to be his friends. 


Although we can't change the schooling system and its ways of assessment in a day, we can change our approach to teaching English. I wonder if we ever include the following type of objective into our lesson plan: By the end of the lesson the teacher will have learned about the students' most favourite clothes items. More often we state something along these lines: By the end of the lesson the students will have practised the second conditional and wish clauses. We form language-related objectives before the class but later on, for some inexplicable reason, we pretend that we are primarily interested in the content of the messages we hear or read. 


That said I believe that each minute of the lesson our students should be aware of the fact that they are there to learn the language and we are there to help them achieve this goal. Let's stop deceiving the people we truly care about. We are not friends chatting at a café. In an English lesson, the content of a statement is equally important as the language a student chooses to use to communicate the message - I dare say the latter is even more important than the former. Thus it should not cause embarrassment when, for example, I occasionally stop two students in the middle of a dialogue. They should know that I do so in an attempt to draw their attention to a persistent error which makes the message impossible to decode. For me as a teacher it's important to make sure the learners learn to express their view intelligibly and correctly. This is the ultimate goal of my teaching and this should be obvious.


I’m writing this post because I noticed the other day how amazingly liberating it felt when allowed myself to say this to my students without a shadow of guilt: "Look, I suspect this may not be the topic everybody is crazy about but you know, we've spend some time discussing it in order to learn some useful, high-frequency vocabulary." I was excited to see that my students, those challenging teens, acknowledged my somewhat apologetic words with an understanding smile. Perhaps I’ve finally managed to make them interested in the language itself, so now they don’t actually care about the topics a great deal. I’m pleased to see whenever the progress my students are making is more important to them than some amazingly engaging topic of a conversation class. I'm not implying that I don't consider suitability and relevance of an issue I choose to introduce, but it helps a lot if we all know why we are there in the first place - to learn the language.