Facilitating Student-centered Education

Since I’ve entered the field of English Language Teaching (ELT), I have watched countless presentations on student-centered teaching and read no small number of articles on the matter. My then-classmates/current colleagues have debated it until we’re blue in the face. We’ve questioned is efficacy. We’ve queried its best-practices. We’ve inquired as to the forms it may take in classrooms. I don’t know that we’ve really come to a consensus.

Personally, I’ve always been rather in favor student-centered education. Granted, I’ve worried that we occasionally pay it more lip service in the field than anything else. I’ve always felt that what was missing was a concerted push forward that speaks to best practices and to actual classroom efficacy. Part of that problem has begun to be addressed by the latest chapter I was reading in Renandya and Widodo’s English Language Teaching Today, “Student-centered Learning in ELT.” The one recommendation that they make that I think really unlocks the whole approach is the notion of co-learning with your students. As an aside, I do wish that they had dug much deeper into this concept. Like most chapters in this book, it just barely scratches the surface—usually because the individual chapters try to do too much.

While they link co-learning to Socrates, allow me here to offer a more concrete definition. Co-learning is the act of setting aside pride and creating an atmosphere of life-long learning in the classroom by engaging in the learning process with one’s students. Jacobs and Renandya (2016) correctly point out that this is sometimes difficult for teachers, who may fear that it will corrupt their authority in the classroom. However, I think it’s important to rethink expertise and authority in language teaching as it relates to co-learning. Co-learning, as defined here, doesn’t assume that the teacher is a total novice—they are most certainly an expert in the content area, and they are certainly expert learner themselves. This redefinition allows teachers to use the classroom as a chance to model effective learning strategies and to create an environment conducive to learning, all while expanding their knowledge alongside of their students. I know that when I have actualized co-learning in this way that it has led to some surprising results, including my current collaboration with a group of students from my Language, Identity, and World Englishes course (INSERT LINK).

This approach has a couple of benefits. First, it allows students to see models of how to create environments that are conducive to learning. That is, it allows them to see how to carve out space in an otherwise busy life to make room for learning. It also shows them how to welcome others into that space. This second half isn’t just effective for learning and teaching, it’s also great personal/professional development for the student, as it can equip them with the soft skills that they will need to be effective leaders of social organizations and professional groups in the future.

The second benefit of this view of co-learning is that it highlights the value of joint cognition on a problem. Said in the simplest terms, more brains are always better than one. By working with others to expand our knowledge and abilities, we can cover more ground; we can make further strides forward. Creating value around co-learning allows us to make salient to our students that learning—and language learning most of all—is a social act. They require that we engage with other social actors and in so doing expand our knowledge by engaging with the existing knowledge and experiences of others.

Finally, it highlights for learners that learning doesn’t stop once they leave the classroom and that expertise isn’t a destination. Rather, effective learners are those that engage in lifelong learning, that can maintain their curiosity and seek out answers. And, the expert isn’t someone with all the answers. Rather, it is the individual that knows how little they know and how much is left to learn. Being expert, just like being highly proficient second language user, is a continual process of doing, redoing, uncovering shortcomings, and effectively remediating those shortcomings for continued growth. We don’t just arrive one day.

To me, this is the promise of co-learning. It speaks to an essential soft-skill that individuals need in a modern society and in an exceptionally competitive global labor market. It also is critical to unlocking other aspects of student-centered classrooms, like encouraging student agency, moving towards student-student interactions, engaging with diversity, and fostering critical thinking skills.

Source Materials

Jacobs, G.M., & Renandya, W.A. (2016). Student-centered learning in ELT. In W.A. Renandya and H.P. Widodo (eds). English Language Teaching Today: Linking Theory and Practice (pp. 13-23). New York: Springer

World Englishes in ELT: Mounting Evidence from the Cutting Edge

In previous a previous entry, I outlined why I support linguistic variation in English language teaching (ELT). The case that I made was predicated on embracing linguistic variation and helping students to strengthen their strategic competence to better take advantage of their varied linguistic repertoires. Tomlinson (2016), in his discussion of materials development, uses the English as a lingua franca (ELF) framework (see Jenkins, 2000, 2012; Pennycook, 2014) to argue for new directions in materials development that also embrace local and regional variation in the English language. He focuses this argument on materials for use in classrooms where students will likely engage in international communication.

Now, I’ll readily admit that I disagree with Jenkins—the veritable maven of ELF—on certain ideological and theoretical grounds. But, Tomlinson (2016) uses the ELF framework to great success to advocate for new directions in materials creation that address the fact that many students who are currently engaged in English language learning may never need, nor want to, communicate with so-called native speakers (p. 53-54). From this, he develops nine ways that materials development needs to be revisited to better meet the needs of these students. Four of his areas of concern provide a strong practical argument for the further deployment of the world Englishes paradigm in ELT. They are: (1) the use of authentic texts; (2) the use of spoken interactions between non-native speakers; (3) the use of pragmatic awareness tasks; and (4) the use of texts written by non-native speakers for a global audience.

Authentic Texts

Users of English as a Lingua Franca need to experience language as it is actually used in the real world, not as it is practised in the idealised world of the typical coursebook dialogue (Tomlinson, 2016, p. 56).

Frankly, I couldn’t agree more with Tomlinson (2016). We do our students no favors when we limit them to carefully constructed example texts that have been sterilized of the natural linguistic variation that occurs between speakers of different varieties of English. Mainly, we rob them of a crucial moment to practice and to gain in intercultural and strategic competence. This is one place where the world Englishes paradigm may be helpful. Through the careful collection and cataloging of examples of authentic texts, world Englishes literature provides us with ripe grounds from which to cull examples for students and to better discuss with them—in research grounded ways—how linguistic variation is realized and under what circumstances it might be eschewed by the multilingual communicator. We can then use a version of the analysis carried out by world Englishes scholars to help our students become more consciously aware of their own linguistic practices and how they can fit those practices to the communicative demands of the situation that they are facing. We can also use authentic texts to better discuss the influences of local and foreign rhetorical expectations and how they impact shaping a message.

Spoken Communication between Non-native Speakers

Tomlinson (2016) correctly points out that many students learning English in the outer and expanding circles may never communicate with native speakers. So, having them just parrot back dialogues based solely on native speaker norms is doing them a disservice (p. 59). Setting aside the fact that most idealized dialogues in textbooks ignore actual usage, Tomlinson is again on to something here. There’s no reason, outside of standardized testing and assessment, that only examples of native-to-native speaker interaction should be held up as the model. Not only does this not provide the learners with a variety of input, but it also sends the tacit signal to the student that the only proper English is that of the native speaker. This to me casts the learner as perpetually being in a power-under position. That is, no matter how proficient they become, they’ll never be a native speaker…they can only hope to be native-like. So, close, but so far away.

By modeling non-native-to-non-native interaction we not only provide students with a more realistic representation of their possible communicative spaces, but we also disabuse them of this tacit signal of being “less than.” Additionally, and this is important, we give them exposure to accented English. This is important because it helps them build essential listening skills that will aid them in future interactions. As a learner of Chinese as a second language, I can usually tell which Chinese speakers I interact with are used to hearing accented Chinese—I’m much more successful in communicating with them. Others, just can’t hear past my horrible American accent.

Pragmatic Awareness Tasks

This is an area where I had hope Tomlinson (2016) would have dug deeper, though I understand how much important work he was already doing in a relatively short chapter. I wish he had spent more time thinking about written communication, but that’s because I am primarily teaching writing-intensive courses. It’s also an area where both world Englishes and intercultural rhetoric (see Connor, 2011) could be particularly useful.

For example, carrying out rhetorical analysis of authentic world Englishes texts—specifically those written by the same author for different purposes—can lay bare for students how the rhetorical situation and the highly localized rhetorical expectations of a given nation or region interact to constrain linguistic choice. For example, there is more linguistic freedom in computer-mediate communication (CMC) interactions with peers and colleagues, but far less linguistic freedom when writing a white paper to brief your bosses on a current project. Likewise, there is likely less willingness to tolerate linguistic variation in client-to-business CMC interactions.

Non-native Produces Texts Written for a Global Audience

In this regard, I can think of one immediate way that world Englishes can help fulfill this need. World Englishes can contribute here through the use of contact literatures in the language classroom. Contact literatures are those literatures that have been produced by speakers of outer or expanding circle varieties of English about national contexts and experiences in those circles. Contact literatures represent a unique genre of creative fiction and non-fiction that can serve as models for learners by showing how others have deployed their multilingual, multilectal resources to engage in a creative and communicative act. This can lead to discussions of how other varieties of English may enable a writer to better capture and reflect local experiences in ways that some International, Global, or other native-speaker driven model of English never could.

Tomlinson (2016) was a cutting-edge piece that dug into what needs to be addressed in materials creation in modern ELT. My response to Tomlinson is that the world Englishes paradigm provides us with a real path forward to address some of his concerns. Now, it’s just a matter of developing the materials and testing them in classes. An Internet-based, collaborative repository would be interesting. Maybe there’s a grant out there and a chance for some of us to collaborate…

Source Materials

Connor, U. (2011). Intercultural Rhetoric in the Writing Classroom. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2012). English as a lingua franca from the classroom to the classroom. ELT Journal, 66, 486-494

Pennycook, A. (2014). The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. London: Routledge.

Tomlinson, B. (2016). Current issues in the development of materials for learners of English as an international language (EIL). In W.A. Renandya and H.P. Widodo (eds). English Language Teaching Today: Linking Theory and Practice (pp. 53-67). New York: Springer

Weekend Update

I’ve finished up my supporting scientific writing project here at NYU Shanghai. And, to close it out, I’m making three more draft resources available here on ALx (Re)Coded. These included annotated sample lab and research reports, and a draft of the last vidcast in the series, Scientific Writing Best Practices, these can be found on the project update page, accessible here.

I’ll get back to regular updates on research- and pedagogy-related topics in the near future. First, I just need to get through this mountain of grading and NYU Shanghai’s inaugural commencement!

Scientific Writing Project Update

So, my project on supporting scientific writing at NYU Shanghai is almost complete. I’ve just finished revisions to the student writing guide, draft available here. I’m going to see if I can finish one more vidcast before I hand off this project at the end of next week.

Queer Voices: NYU Shanghai Discussion Follow-up

Last month, I shared a follow-up on a conversation that I was part of for the NYU Shanghai Teaching and Learning Conversation series about equity and diversity. That talk continued with a thrilling conversation with one of my colleagues, which led to me and her being invited to give a moderated discussion on the topic queer issues in higher education in front of the Queer and Ally Society at NYU Shanghai.

In today’s blog post, I’m going to offer a rejoinder to that conversation. Both my former posts and my publication history (Journal of Language and Sexuality and SLW News) point to the fact that I am in favor of queering the classroom. I believe, and have stated elsewhere, that queering the classroom is important because it 1) makes the classroom more accessible to all students; 2) it lays bare the ways that dominant discourses make available different identity options for learners; and, 3) it equips students with a critical framework to apply to inquiry in other domains.

In the moderated discussion, my colleague, Dr. Pandavar, took a stand against queering the classroom for a number of reasons, some of which required digging through a layer of logical fallacies or contradictory thoughts. Here are my responses to the most salient issues that she pointed out.

Teachers need to be 100% present in an unbiased way.

On its surface this seems like an agreeable claim. It comes from a good place. The heart of this idea is that teachers need to be there to teach and to do so in ways that are welcoming to all students. However, if you dig deeper, this isn’t just untenable; it’s a fantasy. It’s unrealistic because teaching is an ideologically fraught act, and we teachers are products of our educational heritage and our lived histories. Like it or not, we bring that to the classroom with us. It informs our pedagogies. It shades our linguistic choices. It guides our classroom management. There’s no way to be 100% present in an unbiased way.

Rather, we can be forthcoming with our students about who we are as teachers, about the ideologies that prop up our pedagogies. Moreover, we can purposefully trouble our own practice by working to include disparate perspectives in our teaching, creating not only a voice for those that may be marginalized by our ideological biases but also showing the value of queer pedagogy as one that actively seeks to trouble all identities and their relationship to various discourses. This move can show students how to actively seek perspective in their own lives in order to avoid living in an echo chamber.

We can just follow-up with students who make marginalizing/othering comments.

This would be great if the follow-up actually happened. Too often it doesn’t. Too often, we segue to a different topic for discussion. Or, even worse, we actively seek to avoid controversy in the classroom—we keep it vanilla. Other times, we condemn the negative behavior and move on. This can also be silencing and othering in its own way.

The follow-up needs to happen and it needs to happen in a way that models respectful disagreement for the students—in ways that show them how to be mindful members of the learning community. Doing this can help students to become comfortable with uncomfortable situations and conversations, equipping them to become more effective advocates for self and for others, and more skillful language users. These two goals—modeling respectful disagreement and getting comfortable with discomfort—can also be facilitated through a purposeful queering of the classroom in such a way that alternative perspectives are given voice and then troubled, as we do with all perspectives and all identities in queer approaches.

Queering the classroom is just about identity politics.

No, no its not. It may have its roots in identity politics. But, to say that queering the classroom is all about sexual identity, is to say that queerness is just about “altnerative” forms of sexual desire and expression. It’s more than that. It’s about equipping students to critically trouble normative discourses, helping them to see the identity options that are created, made available, and policed by these discourses, and how to respectfully standup for self and other.

In closing, the moderated discussion was a delightful experience, even if my eyes shot wide a few times, as it became clear that my colleague was playing to the crowd at certain moments. It certainly led to new ideas on my end about what queering the classroom should actually look like.