Teacher Independence

By Peter Viney

Every few years we see new 'buzz words' dominating English Language Teaching, and the buzz words for the 1990s have been learner independence. Half the talks at recent international conferences have been on this topic. The enthusiasm for learner independence has led to significant changes in the way that courses have been developed, and most of these changes have had a positive aspect. We expect a course nowadays to have a learner training element, in which students are not only exposed to a variety of learning styles, but are encouraged to test out a number of techniques for themselves. It would be difficult to find a 1990's course which failed to address reference skills, and to provide practice in using dictionaries and grammar books. Teachers have become aware of the necessity for encouraging guessing skills - a far cry from my schooldays where my French teacher's favourite command was 'Don't guess!'. We are aware that students have to develop their own strategies for vocabulary acquisition, and in particular discarding techniques. This means learning not to waste time learning the things that you don't need to know! Of course this has to be based on student choice - if the teacher ever says to a class 'You don't need to remember that word,' then she or he is ensuring that every member of the class will remember that particular word for all time. Teachers and students alike now expect to find comprehensive reference sections at the end of coursebooks. After all, you cannot practise the skills of an independent learner unless you have access to reference materials. At the minimum, they will need a grammar reference section and vocabulary index (which should preferably contain phonetic explanations in IPA). There should be opportunities for self-checking, ideas for developing learner diaries and a variety of materials which not only accommodate different learning styles, but which also address the varied interests of different people.

I feel that the move toward learner centred materials has had a major effect on the way in which we teach and on the way in which course materials are developed. However, as with all such changes in approach we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater (to borrow Robert O'Neill's phrase). We have to look at how ideas for learner independence came about, and we will find that much of the original research took place in other disciplines rather than in language teaching. Theorists have painted a picture of the ideal maths class, in which the teacher sits at the front of the class as a consultant whilst students work at their own speed on self-selected work cards. This idealized maths class is a largely silent place. Quiet classes often appeal to school administrators, but we can readily see that they are inappropriate for the teaching of languages. In most disciplines the teacher uses language as a medium for conveying knowledge - knowledge about mathematics, or history or geography. In a language class the reverse process is taking place. The teacher is utilizing knowledge of the real world (everybody knows what a hamburger is and what you do with it, or that Michael Jackson is a singer) in order to contextualize and activate language. As a result language teaching has a unique place in the curriculum, and language teachers have a unique role. If you accept this thesis, you will wish to accept the advantages of learner training materials without setting yourself the goal of becoming the consultant in a near silent classroom. Perhaps you will go on to compare your situation with that of your students and perhaps you will than wish to have more independence and choice about the way in which approach materials.

I believe deeply that the teacher of English who neglects the possibilities of video is disabling the students. Think back to your first experiences in a foreign country. No doubt you will have found that the absence of visual clues made comprehension of the foreign language more difficult. We all find it easier to communicate face-to-face than to attempt to communicate on the telephone. When we cannot see the person we are speaking to we lose all the help that context, setting, facial expression and gesture can give us. Video restores these missing elements, which is one of the reasons why Karen and I became so committed to including video as an optional but integrated part of our course materials. However, when we started researching the ways in which video is used in the classroom, we realised that there was an enormous discrepancy between the ways in which different teachers would use the same piece of video material. Some would exploit a six minute video sketch in one lesson. Others would consider that a double lesson was necessary in order to extract the maximum value from the material. Yet others would devote three or four lessons to the same sketch. We realised that teacher independence - teacher choice - was the most important thing we could provide in materials for the teacher in the video classroom. We came up with three alternative lesson plans for each episode of our early videos so that we could provide this choice.

We think that we succeeded in providing the teacher with a new degree of independence and control over the materials in the video classroom. The logical conclusion was to extend these principles to the design of general course materials. We concluded that there were ways in which the teacher could be provided with guidance which was full and detailed without being prescriptive or narrow. As with learner independence materials, there are a number of ways in which teachers material can be developed so as to give the teacher choice and the ability to adjust the focus and exploitation of basic materials in a way that will enhance the students' own independence as learners. In this way, teacher independence is a vital factor in any attempt to provide an arena in which students can choose their own learning styles. There are several pre-requisites:

    • The Student's Book needs to be designed so as not to prescribe one single teaching approach. This means that there will have to be a comprehensive Teacher's Book which gives alternative routes through the material. If everything that is expected of the lesson is shown in print on the student page the teacher may lose credibility if she or he chooses to deviate from this path.

    • Where materials include a great deal of cultural information, the teacher should be provided with notes in the teacher's materials. In Handshake Teacher's Book we gave the teacher cultural notes in blue ink. When the teacher explains the information to the class, two important things happen. First the teacher has to explain in her or his own words, which exposes the class to less controlled comprehensible input. Secondly, the information comes from the teacher, not from the book.

    • There has to be material which allows the teacher to adjust timing and pace. There need to be Workbooks or optional materials to slow the pace for less competent classes, as well as more challenging activities (suggested only in the Teacher's Book)which allow the materials to be used at a more rapid pace.

    • The material has to let different learning and teaching styles co-exist. The Teacher's Book should provide mechanical activities such as drills for those who want to use them and detailed question sequences for the tired and busy teacher. It should provide an outline lesson plan, but should also allow for totally different approaches that miss out the mechanical activities. These approaches might shift the skill balance or might adopt 'fringe' teaching techniques. Teachers (like students) should be encouraged to try new and different things, whilst having the lifeline of a more straightforward approach to fall back upon.

    • Every course book writer sweats blood over the chosen teaching sequence, and any responsible writer will have recycled vocabulary, expressions and structural items in subsequent units. However, it would be extremely arrogant to believe that the selected teaching sequence will be ideal in all situations. Teachers will want to re-order units or skip units in some situations. That is why a continuing story is anathema to us and why we ensure that every unit is short, discrete and complete within itself. The teacher is therefore free to select and re-order. If you believe that students should be able to negotiate their own syllabus (though I feel that in most situations they would be better served by trusting to their teachers' expertise), then such units give you every possibility of doing so.

    • Some materials should only appear in the Teacher's material. This might mean question sequences, drills, games, transfer activities or projects. The rationale is that material which only appears in the Teacher's book will always be fresh - reading ahead won't have given the game away - and will also appear to come from the teacher and be personalized to a particular class on a particular day.

    • Responsibility has to go hand in hand with independence. If every teacher simply taught what they felt like on the day, it would be impossible to achieve desirable progression, recycling and logic in a course. Believe me, course design is a time-consuming and elaborate process. The teacher has to be able to trust the course to have looked after these elements. It should provide a framework, and you have to accept that it will take considerable time and effort to create a different framework from scratch. As any jazz musician will tell you, you need to have the scales before you can improvise.

So, in conclusion I would hope that teacher independence will go hand-in-hand with efforts to enhance student awareness of the number of learning styles which are open to them. 'Buzz words' are easy to make fun of, especially when we might have heard rather too much of them. As teachers, we have to ensure that we never swallow any idea whole until we have thoroughly tested it for ourselves. Nevertheless, language teaching has undergone significant changes as a result of the heightened interest in learner independence. It would be foolish to ignore these changes during the coming decade, just as it would be foolish to pretend that video will not be an absolutely central part of classroom teaching in the twenty first century. It would be sad to continue ploughing through the same lesson plans year after year without at least trying some of the alternative approaches on offer. At the end of the day, each teacher has to make the best out of her or his own teaching style and personality. I have seen teachers who are extrovert, enthusiastic and noisy followed by teachers who are reserved, quiet and sympathetic, then followed by traditional disciplinarians. Twenty years ago I might have felt that one style had more to offer than another. Nowadays I am aware that wildly different teaching styles can be equally effective. The ball is in your court. The buck stops with you. (My apologies - I'm not generally a believer in using too many idiomatic expressions!)

Peter Viney


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