* * * TESL-EJ Forum * * *
The Role of the Teacher, the Role of the Learner, the Role of Technologies: Finding Balance in the Classroom
Karen Stanley, editor
The fact that you can find a definition of “teacher” in a standard English-English dictionary is deceptively straightforward.
As we move through different trends in education, we talk tabula rasa, empty vessel, sage on the stage versus guide on the side, student-centered/teacher-centered, independent learners, cooperative learning…we wander through the role of textbooks, of visual learning and kinetic learning and oral/aural learning, of the internet, of computer programs, of drilling, of interaction…we talk about communicative approaches versus memorization versus translation versus suggestopedia…In fact, we often talk as though all these things could exist separately and independently of each other, as if learning itself can be delineated clearly, as if there is such a thing as a single definition of a teacher.
Not that this has to be bad. Sometimes we need to name things and define them in order to make them manageable, and sometimes we need to prescribe limits in order to decide when and how to make exceptions to those limits. Even if no single tree fits the precise definition of *a* tree, it still helps to have a definition to hang onto. There is a reason why I look up words in the dictionary, and why I have two long shelves of dictionaries in my home.
But defining a teacher becomes more complex than defining a tree because we carry along with us different cultural ideas and expectations, products of our age, our education, our experience and our own preferred learning styles. All of this is embedded in our genetic predispositions (just to include nature versus nurture in all this), and still we wind up with no clear answer to our own questions: What is a teacher? What does a teacher do? Do new technologies change the dynamics of a classroom? What *is* a classroom? Who and what is a student?
How do we find the balance that best allows us to teach and to learn?
The following discussion from the TESL-L email list on ESL/EFL classroom pedagogy looks in particular at the role of the teacher as it emerges through the new technologies we are encorporating into our lives, and at the same time revisits older questions of the role each of us plays in the learning process. Those contributors whose email addresses are listed welcome comments on their ideas.
Dave Kees <firstname.lastname@example.org>
In [a January 2, 2003] New York Times … article “Professors Vie With Web for Class’s Attention” … we learn how some professors find themselves competing for the attention of their students with the many offerings of the Internet that students access from their notebook computers.
Some professors complained, “‘This is an addictive thing that hurts the students themselves,’ said Ian Ayres, a professor at the Yale Law School who opposes much of the Internet’s entry into the classroom, saying that computer use is rude and that other students are ‘demoralized’ by seeing their peers’ attention wander.”
However some, like Professor Mallek of American University, were challenged to make their classroom teaching even more interesting. “He suggested that it might even be making him a better teacher. He takes the threat of losing his students to e-mail and online newspapers as a challenge to keep lectures interesting and lively. ‘As a professor,’ he said, ‘if you are not productively engaging them, they have other opportunities.'”
My students don’t and can’t have notebook computers in class. But they usually have a few things handy like magazines, novels, mobile phones, CD or MP3 players and homework from other classes. I believe that today’s students are more capable of multi-tasking or dividing their attention than students of the past. But if we want their full attention it is best to compete for it rather than demand it. I would like to know if other teachers have a similar opinion.
Dick Tibbetts <email@example.com>
University of Macau, China
I agree with Dave Kees that there is a degree of competition between teachers and the internet. The Chinese learners I teach tend to see learning as absorbing information and they have been quick to realise that the internet is an extensive, exciting and interesting source of information often presented in a more accesible manner than the lectures of the average university lecturer.
But as a language teacher I see the most important parts of learning as learning how to process and utilise information. I think this is where we teaches score over the internet. The internet gives much more than it accepts. Interaction with a web page is still not as immediate or satisfying as interaction with people. Teachers want to help, most teachers want to know about their students’ lives, thoughts, opinions. The web page does not really care, however much the Java expert tries to humanise things. If you don’t believe me, try and spend an evening chatting to Bonzi Buddy.
This personal communication is a bedrock of language. No native speaker attempts to communicate with a mass audience without years of practice in person to person and small group communication. Coping with an audience that does not immediately respond is not easy. It demands experience and knowledge of audiences that cannot as yet be gained via the internet. Even ICQ and chatrooms do not give the depth of communication and reaction that let language learners know how their contribution is being received.
Charles Nelson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
David Kees asked for opinions on Mallek’s assertion, “But if we want their full attention it is best to compete for it rather than demand it.” That claim greatly oversimplifies and turns the problem into an either-or situation. Naturally, classes should engage the students; however, many students prefer candy to solid food, not to mention that “seductive” measures for obtaining student interest can sidetrack learning.
Maria Spelleri <email@example.com>
Manatee Community College, Florida USA
I don’t feel comfortable with the notion that the teacher must compete for attention within the confines of the classroom. With students of college age and above, the idea is that the student has made the choice to be in that classroom, as part of a larger decision to attend school as an adult. It is a question of adult- to- adult respect. One gives attention, or the semblance of attention, to the adult who has the floor. It doesn’t mean the student has to be interested in, or even mentally following what is going on. Society is looking for appearance rather than reality. Teachers, of course, are hoping for a bit more. In my culture, it would be the height of disrespect, person-to-person, not just student-to-teacher, to fiddle with personal technology to alleviate boredom. This is true in the workplace meeting, the academic or business conference, the religious service, in short, anywhere where one “must” be, and where one may be feeling less than enthralled. Yes, teachers do have to try to engage students, keep them interested, keep them on their toes, but let’s start by giving the teachers the benefit of a “beepless” classroom, and a group of people who have learned or are learning a few basic manners.
Don Carroll <dcarroll@SG-U.AC.JP>
Shikoku Gakuin University
In my classes here in Japan virtually 100% of the students have mobile phones (“keitai’s”) and many are accustomed to fiddling away the time in their lecture courses exchanging extremely banal two or three word emails. For the girls it seems to be a kind of fashion accessory semi-permanently affixed to their ear. The more “ear-time” one has, the more popular one is perceived to be. And I find it just as annoying as seeing a girl doing her makeup in class. However, sometimes — just sometimes — I have been able to make this technology work for me (and for them). For example, after a lesson on telephone openings and closings (and making a simple prefaced request in between) I had my students all write down their name and mobile numbers on a scrap of paper and then randomly distributed them. The students then had to call each other up to carry out some task or another. And of course this meant that each student ended up making one call and receiving one call. They loved it. Even if only a few students have mobile phones I’m sure a creative teacher could think of ways to organize an activity. It’s almost like having a portable language lab in every classroom. Just before Xmas I had the students looking at a wonderful children’s website where one option was to write an email to Santa. Of course, even my male college students had a fun time composing letters to Santa — and it was even more fun when moments later they received back Santa’s (automated) English reply on their mobile phones!
So far wireless laptop technology has not yet made it into my students hands — though I’m fully wired and usually have an internet-capable laptop up and running most of the time in class. When this technology does however arrive, I imagine I’ll be able to find a way to use it for my own purposes — and to the benefit of my students.
Karen Stanley <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Central Piedmont Community College
Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
I sometimes think that we habituate ourselves to certain types of behavior. That is, people who play a lot of video games, channel surf, etc., foster their own need for constant change. I suspect that at least some people actually develop through “practice” their sense of entitlement to high-level attention-getting information presentation, or at least through lack of practice lose their ability to focus for extended periods.
Although I have found myself occasionally spacing out during a class (as a student), in general I keep myself fairly well tuned-in to what the instructor is saying. However, I made an interesting discovery several years ago. I was taking an advanced course in generative syntax which was NOT easy to absorb even for someone with a bent in that direction. So, not only did I take notes in class, but I recorded lectures, took them home, and typed up a *transcript* of the lesson.
I was ASTOUNDED by the degree to which the note-taking process, which included copying long blackboard diagrams along with other information, caused me to miss *important* aspects of the lecture. These were things I was UNAWARE of having missed. This makes me wonder how much students who think they are getting everything important are simply distracting themselves in the attention pattern that commercial television (at least in the U.S.) has accustomed them to.
I also had a boss, a good guy, who constantly fiddled with his computer or other things while you were talking to him. It drove many people he worked with *nuts*. Not me, because I knew and appreciated him – but even I would periodically check to see that he had absorbed certain important information. Sometimes he had, but other times he hadn’t, although he didn’t always realize he hadn’t. The fact that he left many people feeling he wasn’t paying attention is one of the reasons I think he was unable to advance beyond a certain level of management although he was one of the best administrators I have ever worked with.
In other words: our students need to learn to *focus* both inside and outside of the classroom in order to succeed. Of course, we should try to provide stimulating lessons, but they must also learn to accomodate the fact that, in life, in order to achieve their goals, they need to learn to tolerate situations which are not always ideally structured to entertain and involve them.
Ron Fujihara <rfujihara@LBUSD.K12.CA.US>
Long Beach School for Adults
Long Beach, California, USA
Maybe we should be looking at HOW we teach rather than what we teach. As young kids get more savvy with technology, they are engrossed in a moving world of communications and visual sights. Why not use what is available to the teacher? Don Carroll used the telephone to help learners learn, which I thought was an excellent idea. I don’t feel we (teachers) are being flexible enough and would like the world to continue on one plane. Change is inevitable and like the tree that survives a hurricane, we must do some bending. our audience is not the same audience we had before.
Karen Stanley wrote:
“Our students need to learn to *focus* both inside and outside of the classroom in order to succeed. Of course, we should try to provide stimulating lessons, but they must also learn to accomodate the fact that, in life, in order to achieve their goals, they need to learn to tolerate situations which are not always ideally structured to entertain and involve them.”
I agree, and I think that it’s important to bear it in mind when considering the elements of “good teaching” and the profile of the “good teacher”. I have long realised that a large proportion of colleagues consider a “charismatic” personality to be by far the most important quality for an EFL/ESL teacher (a substantial number even going as far as claiming that it’s perhaps the only quality needed). Could it be that the view of the language teacher as (primarily) an entertainer, coupled with the marketing of technology as a fun learning shortcut, contributes to both students’ and teachers’ expectations, and creates a vicious circle?
Shirley E. Ostler <email@example.com>
Bowling Green University, Bowling Green, Ohio, USA
…[T]his issue is really an important one. Recently we bought the new video on language which has Chomsky, Tannen and others, looking for language universals. It is very good in content, but the BIT structure is very disconcerting. I asked my undergraduate students about the bit here, bit there, bit another place and then back to bit one structure. They really liked it and found it easier to process than the longer texts that are typical of say The Story of English structure. I think modern media is restructuring the way people process information and that the older form of longer and carefully structured discussions no longer reach our younger generation’s minds. They are too accustomed to the little frames.
Charles W. Chen <cwchen78@YAHOO.COM.HK>
As Don Carroll and others have indicated, society and our students are changing and teachers need to keep up. But through the centuries there have always been those who have resisted change.
Our attention spans have grown shorter not because we cannot process the information but because we are able to process more and do it more quickly. Also, today students are more critical consumers of education and they insist on knowing that everything the teacher gives them is directly relevant to their needs.
The classic example we can all relate to is how much did we learn in school that we really use in our adult life. I don’t know what you figure but for me it’s about 50%. The cold hard truth is that means I wasted 50% of that time attending classes on, studying, getting tested on, worrying about tests on things that had no impact on my real life. Although it’s difficult to predict what people will need to learn we should be at least sensitive to this problem.
Students are more intolerant of the ‘front loading’ process where teachers try to cram into them everything the teacher thinks the student ‘might’ need. They are more prone towards ‘just-in-time’ learning.
Today’s students may be studying medicine and become novelists, studying engineering and becoming businessmen, studying law and becoming billionaire software tycoons.
Some ESL teachers talk of the ‘student centered classroom’ but are clueless of the character, personality and proclivities of their students. Teachers who know how to tap into the personna of their students, as Don Carrol does, are speaking the language the students know. Other teachers who insist on formating students to their own concept and resist adapting to the changes of the day are going the way of Latin teachers, ancient Greek professors and blacksmiths. These are important jobs and desperately required but only by a minority.
Emil Ysona <emil@EMIL.NET>
State University of New York
In the classroom, I am the model of helpfulness, friendliness, cordiality and respect for my students. I respect them and (hopefully) they me. BUT, I am not afraid to point out, in a non-threatening way, that in matters of classroom management they must respect their fellow students and their teachers.
If cell phones are absolutely indispensable, then the student puts his phone on vibrate and sits near the door ready to leave.
To maintain classroom order, it must be clear that the teacher is firmly in charge.
Dick Tibbetts <tibbetts@MACAU.CTM.NET>
University of Macau, China
[A poster] asks if teachers in Asia have the authority to ask students to put away their mobile phones. Yes, of course we do, but what [one poster] tells us is socially unacceptable in Finland is commonly accepted in some parts of Asia, though [another contributor’s] post indicates that Korea, with [a] ban on phones in restaurants, is rather different from Hong Kong and Macau, where I work.
In my environment it is quite common for local tertiary teachers to tolerate students using mobile phones to text messages in class and to tolerate students walking out of class to use their phones. I’ve observed similar behaviour in secondary and tertiary staff meetings, where phones rang and staff held conversations between themselves while the principal was talking. This is perhaps a matter of culture. Students often feel that classes, especially lectures where the lecturer reads from a book, are not important and that the real study is done in late night sessions memorising the textbook. Staff feel that staff meetings are mainly for show and that most of the work is done beforehand in private meetings where the principal works to get a concensus.
When expats insist that mobiles are turned off in class and that even vibrate mode and texting are not allowed they are going against common local practice. We can do it, and I do do it but it takes more effort and more convincing because we are swimming against the tide. I know of one candidate for a teaching position who answered two calls on her mobile while being interviewed. In this part of the world it’s not uncommon for aircraft take off to be delayed because a passenger cannot be persuaded to turn off their mobile. Our ‘western’ insistance on a beepless classroom is seen as odd.
Maria Spelleri <mariasp@PEOPLEPC.COM>
Manatee Community College Florida USA
Costas Gabrielatos wrote: Could it be that the view of the language teacher as (primarily) an entertainer, coupled with the marketing of technology as a fun learning shortcut, contributes to both students and teachers expectations, and creates a vicious circle?
I most certainly agree with this statement. This is the age, in many cultures, of the “quick fix”. We have been seduced into believing that ALL advances and innovations, technological and otherwise, are beneficial to us. Adult students, as well as many teachers, want the solution, the methodology-in-a-box, that will enable them to put out the least effort for the maximum gain. This is the definition of efficiency and I don’t fault anyone for wanting to spend their time wisely; however, the solution isn’t always something new and shiny, something which is attractive because of its novelty, rather than its long-term proven effectiveness. Publishers and inventors are racing to keep up their side of the curve in this circle. (First there was kindergarten software, then toddler and now baby! What’s next- fetus?) This is also the age of gratification and the “inalienable right to be entertained”. By pandering to this demand we can cheapen the content and morph ourselves into The Entertainer. (Have you ever been to a workshop where the presenter throws hard candies at the participants for answering correctly? I felt like a trained seal.)
But do we in this generation truly believe we have invented “fun” learning? Are we the fathers (and mothers) of student-centered teaching? While we have come a long way from the two hours of choral drills, two hours of lecture and an occasional rap on the knuckles, there have always been memorable, effective and “fun” teachers. It’s in the personality and the presentation, and it’s always been about taking an interest in our students and taking the time to listen.
Maria Spelleri <mariasp@PEOPLEPC.COM>
Manatee Community College Florida USA
Don Carroll mentioned that sometimes he is able to tap into the students’ interest in technology by incorporating it the classroom. He notes a telephone messaging activity and writing emails to Santa, both of which engaged his students. He is incorporating personal technology into a lesson. But Don is still guiding, and to some extent controlling the use of the technology, which is very different than asking teachers to put up with random chatting and surfing which are just distractions and have no relation to the matter at hand. Technology, whether personal or school-sponsored, is still just a means to an end. To keep our students engaged, entertained, stimulated or whatever you want to call it, we need to bring to class a variety of those means.
The ironic thing is that classrooms should be fostering community, and the more [technologically] connected students become, the less a part of that specific classroom community they are, because their focus leaves the immediate environment. I can’t imagine a subject that needs community and collaboration more than language learning. (How incredibly annoying, while in the midst of a discussion, to direct -or when another student directs- a question or comment to a student, only to hear “Huh?” as a reply because the student was “somewhere else.” ) Technology has enabled distance education, which has opened many doors for learners, but even good distance education programs struggle to develop a sense of community for their students because they realize its importance. I believe private technology-based communication in the classroom breaks down community, and serves to isolate students from each other. Therefore, its free, unguided use should not be allowed.
Pete Marchetto <p_ottehcram@HOTMAIL.COM>
I think the worst of PC variations in the classroom is often political correctness. I pride myself on being an entertaining teacher – indeed, fear I may stray too far in that direction sacrificing content at times – so don’t have too much of a problem with peripherals even in China where inattention in lessons is the cultural norm. When it does arise, however, I get the students’ focus with a polite request that they give it to me. This has always worked. Were it not to then I’d not hesitate to follow it up with a sharp reprimand.
While falling short of advocating a return to the bad old days of beating students with baseball bats for blinking, I do feel at times we’ve strayed a little too far in the direction of treating all human response – or lack of it – as a complex socio-ethical question in need of considerable debate and theoretical analysis. If students are distracted by peripherals I suggest teachers politely request they put them away and, if that doesn’t do it, reprimand. There might not be a book latent in the theoretics of this approach, but it works.
Gene van Troyer <gevantry@NIRAI.NE.JP>
In Japan, most universities I hear about have instituted regulations about cell phone use during classes: it is expressly forbidden unless specifically allowed by the teacher; and an infraction is grounds for immediate expulsion from the class with a failing mark, and no reimbursement of the course fee. The teacher may confiscate a cell phone and turn it in to the academic office where the student can reclaim it, but the teacher may not keep the phone or otherwise cause any damage to it. That is against the law.
This regulatory approach, written in to school student policies and stressed at student orientations, seems to work very well. In 10 years (since the widespread adoption of cell phones, in other words) I have not had one problem with their use during class. In fact, students who forget to switch their phones to silent mode get utterly stricken looks on their faces if their phone (or pager) sounds off in class, because that constitutes an infraction.
If the school you teach at has no policy regarding this, you should encourage it to put one into place, and to stress it as part of the educational contract with students. It puts into place a uniform code of student conduct, and removes the burden of the teacher having to create and enforce classroom rules that may be inconsistent from class to class.
Charles W. Chen <cwchen78@YAHOO.COM.HK>
Costas Gabrielatos and Maria Spelleri compare some aspects of engaging English teaching to that of an entertainer perhaps over-dependent on technology. This is a good point that they made. Certainly showmanship and bells and whistles are not going to successfully meet the real learning challenges of students.
But before we terminate the discussion in this direction, lets look at the ‘entertainment model’ of education. The fact is, television is an incredible highly effective medium of education. (The problem is that it often teaches people useless things like how to steal a million dollars, how to get a girl, how to deal with a cheating boyfriend, etc.)
My dictionary defines “teach” as “Impart skills or knowledge to”. Television, entertainment, technology are highly efficient teachers. How many people talk about their favorite television program to their friends the next day? How many people speculate what will happen next week?
Now how many people discuss the new vocabulary they learned in class? How many people discuss the English passage they read with their friends?
The discussion does not have to be all one way or nothing at all. The point is that there are things that teachers can learn from new media and also that methodologies need to adapt to the sociological dynamics that are occurring in these days.
Charles Chen makes a valid and helpful point: ‘The discussion does not have to be all one way or nothing at all. The point is that there are things that teachers can learn from new media and also that methodologies need to adapt to the sociological dynamics that are occurring in these days.’
I didn’t argue that teachers shouldn’t be able to engage learners’ interest, I argued against isolating the ‘entertaining’ element as the only/main one needed for successful teaching. Perhaps language teachers should exchange experience with music teachers or sports trainers before venerating ‘entertainment’. What I mean is that second/foreign language learning can’t only/always be easy as pie unless we are of the ‘learn English quickly and easily’ school of advertisement.
As for technology, I do agree that methodology can benefit from technology, and that we would be foolish to dismiss new tecnology out of hand. What I argued against was technology-worship (the misguided belief that technology alone will do the trick). The issue is not to put the cart before the horse. Technology is a tool. We can only use it successfully if we are clear about what we want to do with it, and if we know the tool’s potential and limitations. As for digital technology, let’s not focus on the finger (jazzy interface) and disregard the moon (content and methodology). Educational software is only as good as the educational consultants, just as coursebooks are as good as their writers (and editors). For example, gap-fills are gap-fills, whether on paper or on screen – also, do you remember the ‘video revolution’? And let’s not forget that the humble book was once a miracle of technology.
Chris Browder <c_browder@YAHOO.COM>
Dave Kees wrote:
“In [the] New York Times … article “Professors Vie With Web for Class’s attention” … we learn how some professors find themselves competing for the attention of their students with the many offerings of the Internet that students access from their notebook computers.”
The situation described in the NY Times is common in content classes where teachers lecture. Think about it – if the purpose of attending a class is to hear someone lecture, couldn’t you get the same thing at home out of a book or a tape, or distance learning? For science class, wouldn’t you rather watch a taped lecture from Carl Sagan than sit through some lecture from some unentertaining local professor with slight interest in his own subject and marginal knowledge?
Content area classes need to catch up with ESOL classes. They usually don’t do what we do – but they should. Non-interactive lecturing with student note-taking goes back to a time before VCRs and copy machines. Like monks or scribes they have to receive information by reading and listening and then copy it by hand. It is strange that this hasn’t changed yet. In this mode, a teacher can easily be replaced by a computer.
Maria Spelleri <mariasp@PEOPLEPC.COM>
Manatee Community College Florida USA
Charles Chen brought up the idea of television as entertainment that also teaches. I don’t completely agree with his statement: “The fact is, television is an incredible highly effective medium of education.” It may be an effective means of communication, but just because people discuss last night’s program doesn’t mean they have been educated on a point or topic. I think TV is the perfect analogy of the dangers of overdependence or unguided use of edutainment. First of all, it is the classic garbage in/garbage out. Inane programming results in, if anything, inane viewers. (“This is your brain on TV”.) Are there ESL/EFL programs that snap up every new video product on the market? Sure there are, often without applying the same stringent criteria that they would before adopting a textbook series. Secondly, unguided viewing means that the viewer may not be getting the best results from even the better programming. That’s why Public TV (the commercial-free arts, documentary, discussion channel in the US) puts out teaching guides for so many of its programs. A teacher helps the viewer ask the right questions, make connections and attach new information to the existing platform of knowledge.
I also can’t agree “Television, entertainment, technology are highly efficient teachers.” I hope I will never be replaced by a TV. I hope that these things are merely the medium of the message. The writers behind them and the teachers who help students interpret them and find uses for their information are the true teachers. Relying on TV, entertainment and technology to be the teacher results in teachers in the classroom putting on a video or a tape of a sit-com, without having a clear teaching objecting and plan to reach their objectives. The class is viewing because they like to- it’s a break from the book. It’s also a lot less work for the teacher to just stop the tape every 10 minutes to discuss and call it a listening/speaking class. Teachers can not rely on the technology or the television to do their job for them. It is the same as the teacher who opens the book at page one and proceeds to read every word and do every exercise- letting the text be the master and the teacher the slave to the text.
Dave Kees <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I think the point Charles Chen was making, and which I agree with, is that television is an effective teacher in that it is very good at ‘imparting knowledge and skills’. He didn’t suggest teachers use television but just held it up as one technology tool that is effective in getting information across. Certainly Maria Spelleri is correct in describing much of the knowledge and skills displayed on television as simply garbage.
Of course, educators and parents have been pressuring television networks to improve that situation and some programs are excellent. They can teach subjects and topics in 30 minutes which would be much more difficult in any other way. How does a cheetah run so fast? How do robots assemble cars?
My children (and I) love programs like “Beakman’s World”, “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and “Popular Mechanics for Kids” which make what could be a very boring subject, science, into lots of fascinating fun. If my science teachers were like that when I was a kid all of us probably would have become scientists.
Certainly Costas Gabrielatos is correct in his viewpoint, and I suppose this is also Maria’s attitude: “What I argued against was technology-worship (the misguided belief that technology alone will do the trick).” This has certainly been a error of our times.
Costas tossed out a delicious idea for those inclined towards experimentation: “Perhaps language teachers should exchange experience with music teachers or sports trainers before venerating ‘entertainment’.”
I think the whole matter boils down to “six of one and half a dozen of the other”. It’s sort of do you like classic Coke or Lemon Coke? Some teachers and students just might prefer a twist of lemon in their lessons.
Steve Taylore-Knowles <email@example.com>
ELT Author, Athens, Greece
Further to the discussion regarding the (over)use of entertainment and technology as means of engaging students in the classroom, I tend to agree with the views put forward by Costas Gabrielatos and Maria Spelleri, but I’d like to add something regarding the teacher as entertainer or as charismatic figure.
Costas mentioned something about what we might learn from music teachers or fitness trainers. Amongst others, one key quality I would look for in these people would be an ability to play a musical instrument well and a high level of physical fitness, respectively. Similarly, I think that a key quality I would look for in somebody professing to teach a system of communication is proficiency as a communicator.
I think there is a tendency to emphasise what a teacher must know in terms of English grammar, the meanings of English words and phrases, differences in register, etc, plus the practical apparatus of teaching: methods, activities, techniques, and so on. Of course, all that knowledge must be there, just as a music teacher must be able to teach you the names of the notes and the technical vocabulary of music. But what about asking ourselves what an English teacher must be able to do? I would begin to answer that question by arguing that in order to teach someone to communicate, you should yourself be adept at communicating. Proficiency as a communicator, of course, is a wide concept; it includes entertaining, informing and delighting, but it also encompasses listening and empathising. Arguments about how a teacher should be charismatic or should be good at establishing ‘rapport’ seem to me to boil down to this, that we should be good at the skill we’re attempting to encourage others to develop – the ability to communicate meaningfully and creatively in English.
A colleague of mine when I started teaching once came out of a classroom complaining about something, saying that she refused ‘to be a clown’. It stuck in my mind because I thought she was fundamentally wrong then and I still think she was wrong now. ‘Entertainer’ is one of the key roles we should be prepared to take on as teachers – yes, because it helps to motivate students, but also because it’s important that our students see us as someone who is worth communicating with, someone who is good at the skill we want them to aspire to, because we’re funny, we’re creative, we’re caring, we listen.
Steve Taylor-Knowles’ interpretation of ‘entertainment’ as an element of effective communication is a valuable contribution to the discussion. I also agree with his comment that “‘entertainer’ is one of the key roles we should be prepared to take on as teachers”, but with the addition of extra emphasis on the word *one*. I don’t think this is a mere technicality – let’s take two extreme (but not unrealistic) cases. An individual with good language awareness and methodological skills, but completely lacking in the ‘entertainment’ department, and a charismatic entertainer completely lacking in the ‘language-and-methodology’ department. I wouldn’t expect the first to be a memorable/popular teacher, but I’d expect that some learning will take place in his/her class (in terms of both language and learning skills). As for the second, I’d expect him/her, at best, to waste students’ time, and, at worst, to communicate inaccuracies.
Dave Kees <davkees@PUBLIC.GUANGZHOU.GD.CN>
Costas Gabrielatos took one but not both comparisons to the full extreme.
If we say the ‘entertainer’ is thoroughly deficient in English teaching skills we must also say the other teacher is thoroughly boring.
I suspect neither one will be successful in educating their students.
A teacher is one who is able to impart information or is a guide to the information. The teacher must know where the student is at in his understanding and abilities. The teacher must understand the gap between the student and the information. A good teacher will know how to help the student to bridge that gap in the most effective way by blending appropriate methodologies and tools.
If the teacher does not take into account the particular characteristics of his students, he may wind up going through the empty motions of “teaching” but not effecting a learning gain by the students.
So how do we know if we are connecting with students? if we are ‘in the groove’ – if we are ‘in the zone’ – if our blend is effecting learning in the best way.
Bill Snyder <firstname.lastname@example.org>
MA TEFL Program, Bilkent University
Steve Taylore-Knowles and Costas Gabrielatos’ exchange on the teacher as entertainer brought to mind a favorite article of mine which addresses just this issue, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Intrinsic Motivation and Effective Teaching: A Flow Analysis (In J. L. Bess (Ed.) Teaching Well and Liking It. 1996. Johns Hopkins University Press).
In this article, Csikszentmihalyi argues that the primary purpose of teaching is not the transfer of information, but rather the creation of intrinsically motivated learners. He then further suggests that one important way for teachers to achieve this goal is to be intrinsically motivated themselves. And there are two main sources of intrinsic motivation in teaching – the process of changing student performance and goals and the subject matter itself.
However, many aspects of classroom reality may make attention to the former of these sources difficult. Under these conditions, teachers may turn to being entertainers, as this frees them from the need to attend in detail to the change process and allows them to gain their feedback from external signs of attention, rather than internal signs of growth. Csikszentmihaly suggests that these kinds of teachers will send conflicting messages to learners – that knowledge is enjoyable, but also that the teacher’s reward derives from being entertaining, not from their students learning.
I have done scant justice here to a very rich article. But what I take from it is that there is a difference between being entertained (note the passive) and learning to enjoy learning (note the active). Entertainment can be part of that latter process, but it shouldn’t replace it and it shouldn’t be mistaken for it.
Costas Gabrielatos wrote:
a charismatic entertainer completely lacking in the ‘language-and-methodology’ department. … I’d expect him/her, at best, to waste students’ time, and, at worst, to communicate inaccuracies.
But wait. If the entertainer is providing ‘comprehensible input’, it doesn’t matter if they are completely lacking in language and methodology, does it?
That is, the entertainer can be a teacher without any intention of being a teacher.
Adam J. Kightley <adam.kightley@IH.COM.PL>
Costas Gabrielatos wrote of a pseudo-hypothetical individual with good language awareness and methodological skills, but completely lacking in the ‘entertainment’ department
I can also summon up visions of a similar teacher without strain and I feel the above description has, for me at least, some internal contradictions. A teacher with good subject knowledge and methodology must, if not be entertaining themselves, at least give entertaining lessons – to those who enjoy learning.
And this perhaps is the source of our different perceptions in this matter. Where students are intrinsically motivated by a love of learning or language, they need no more entertainment than to be taught. Those whose motivation is more extrinsic may appreciate the ‘duty’ of attending lessons being lightened by some fun. Finally, those who are forced to learn by employer, parents or educational system are those who respond the best to a more vaudeville approach to teaching.
Bernard Hobby <hobfinot@ARAB.NET.SA>
Prince Sultan University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Should teachers be entertainers — yes, if that is what it takes to meet the needs of a particular moment in the class. Of course, they should also be analyzers, planners, instructors, communicators and facilitators, which I believe most of us are. On top of that, we should spend an inordinate amount of time reflecting on what we do and hope to do. This list proves the last statement.
What I felt was missed in this discussion on entertainment is this:
Real learning IS entertaining. Learning is fun. Permit me to repeat, being involved in the process of learning can be exciting, stimulating and MOTIVATING. To learn is a pleasure, pure and simple.
Unfortunately, as a manager of a classroom, and despite my best efforts, I find it is a pleasure which arrives rather intermittently.
Ron Martin <k6onrte66@MWE.BIGLOBE.NE.JP>
Dokkyo Saitama Junior/Senior High School
Doctoral Student Temple University Japan
We should all not forget, which some of our colleagues at our institutions do, all teachers need a bit of “entertainment” inside….not just language teachers. We often get signaled out as “the” entertainment teacher, which counts for most of the backlash of the “entertainment” sentiment in our field.
Adam Kightley wrote (re.my ‘hypothetical’ teachers): “I can also summon up visions of a similar teacher without strain and I feel the above description has, for me at least, some internal contradictions. A teacher with good subject knowledge and methodology must, if not be entertaining themselves, at least give entertaining lessons – to those who enjoy learning.”
I don’t think we disagree, nor that there’s any contradiction in my ‘hypothetical’ profile. The knowledgeable and skilled teacher lacking in the ‘entertainment’ department can, of course, provide ‘entertainment’, but only when learners enjoy learning, and, as a I see it, because he/she also *enjoys* learning and helping others to learn. But one of the fundamental differences with the ‘entertainer’ is that he/she doesn’t *aim* at entertainment, but at learning. My ‘entertainer’ aims at just entertainment, presumably because that is the only thing he/she can do *consciously* in class.
Another fundamental difference is that the ‘entertainer’ is not expected to have the ability to engage the learners who are not intrinsically motivated (the majority, in my experience), nor expected to be able to foster a love for learning – presumably again, because my ‘entertainer’ couldn’t be bothered to go through learning-how-to-teach him/herself. In that case, I don’t see how this person can create any extrinsic motivation either – apart from a motivation to have a good time while playing at learning language. Also, keep in mind that a central skill of the professional teacher is time-effectiveness – the ability to help learners achieve results within a limited amount of time. Finally, we need to consider the quality of entertainment provided by such a person (see Maria Spelleri’s [4th post in this discussion, above]).
I think my ‘musician’ analogy can help clarify things re. ‘entertainment’ and ‘motivation’. If you love music, and want to become a proper musician (rather than someone who can fumble through a few tunes without creating noise pollution), then you will brave practising the scales and doing other tedious exercises, not for the sheer enjoyment, but because you understand their necessity and you look forward to, and derive enjoyment from, the short- and long-term results. As I said before, learning that is fast, easy and fun only exists in the advertising world (but I’m sure we all know that).
I would like to add my two cents to this question about teachers as entertainers. It reminds me of my CELTA instructors arguing whether it was appropriate to liken teaching (especially according to the CELTA method) to acting. The standard behaviors that are taught in teacher training such as elicititation, explaining and building a rapport could be viewed as rather forced and fake behaviors to some, so it would seem like acting. However, if one has a dramatic personality (sometimes disorders) such as borderline or narcissism then dramatic behaviour and learning to act is only natural and does not seem forced.
So, when the topic of teaching and entertaining comes up, I always think of what an excellent field ESL/EFL it is for teachers with dramatic personalities disorders such as those described in DSM IV (e.g., a need for rules, black and white thinking, etc…) since students often greatly enjoy teachers who are dramatic. And there are other aspects of the job which would naturally attract borderline pesonality disorder sufferers (e.g., a need to follow rules such as verbal behavior rules) and provide and ideal environment for them to successfully function in.
Finally, I must say that I have always found the Gardner articles on motivation (i.e., identifying intrinsic and extrinsic) to explain Canadian learners’ desire to learn French and English rather politically motivated since the research was conducted in the hat of the debate of whether Canada ought to be officially bilingual, and so the discourse and terminology of motivation research would be better served by neuroscientific research where Schumann eventually lead his motivation research into. And so, explaining motivation in these terms, which really get at the basic cognitive and neurobiologial functions of a person, better serves the issue.
Dave Kees <davkees@PUBLIC.GUANGZHOU.GD.CN>
Bill Snyder wrote:
Steve Taylore-Knolwes and Costas Gabrielatos’ exchange on the teacher as entertainer brought to mind a favorite article of mine which addresses just this issue, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Intrinsic Motivation and Effective Teaching: A Flow Analysis (In J. L. Bess (Ed.) Teaching Well and Liking It. 1996.
Why don’t you tell us more about Csikszentmihalyi and the impact his teachings would have on us and our professional development as ESL teachers? Tossing Csikszentmihalyi into the discussion is like lobbing a handgrenade into a china shop. We have to do the full monty. I suspect if students followed his advice he may actually lend himself more to the edutainment side of the issue.
It was Csikszentmihalyi who advocated: “Find out what you love and what you hate about life. Start doing more of what you love, less of what you hate. Find a way to express what moves you. Follow divergent thinking. Try to produce unlikely ideas. A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom. Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background. We are still a multimedia organism. If we want to push the envelope of complexity further, we have to use all of our devices for accessing information – not all of which are rational.”
Bill Snyder <email@example.com>
MA TEFL Program, Bilkent University
Dave Kees asks for some more information about the ideas of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and their relation to teaching. I’m glad to oblige as this is a major research interest of mine at the moment.
The key concept in Csikszentmihalyi’s work is “flow.” This is an optimal mental state arising when one is engaged in activities with clear goals that are challenging but manageable and provide immediate feedback on goal accomplishment. It is associated with a loss of self-consciousness and sense of time, because attention is completely on the task. Csikszentmihalyi suggests that this state is attainable in many activities of daily life, including teaching. Other studies (e.g., one by Abbott in a recent issue of Written Communication) have associated it with students learning and the growth of expertise (Bereiter & Scardamalia’s Surpassing Ourselves; Open Court, 1993).
Dave suggested that his views might bring Csikszentmihalyi down in favor of “edutainment,” but I don’t think so. First, in his article specifically on teaching, cited in my earlier post, he warns about the danger of the teacher as entertainer not necessarily promoting interest in learning. In addition, achieving flow involves the hard work of meeting a challenge and succeeding. If the challenge is too low, the result is boredom or apathy, too high, anxiety. Because of the complete focus on the task in flow, recognition of the state is only retrospective, associated with the satisfaction of meeting a challenge and pushing oneself to a new limit.
There cannot be a specific recipe for achieving flow because everyone’s ability levels and, thus, challenges will be different. But an obvious place to start is having clear goals. For teaching, the variety of challenges posed by any classroom makes finding flow there difficult. Given the argument that language learning anxiety is qualitatively different from other kinds of learning anxiety, we might expect it to be particularly difficult in our classrooms.
However, research by Christine Tardy and I, which should be in print soon, shows the teachers we studied claiming to have achieved flow in various aspects of their work, including in the classroom when interaction with their students provided them with a sense that learning was taking place. We connected this to Prabhu’s “sense of plausibility” in teaching and suggest that flow can be used as a tool for exploring this and bringing it to consciousness in teacher education.
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