Earlier today Mike Harrison tweeted the following question
Sandy Millin replied, as retweeted by me below, and the conversation continued…
And this made me think of a blog post I read a few months ago. I think it was a rather silly anti-dogme post, full of poorly made arguments and incorrect assumptions, and was clearly spoiling for a fight. Somewhere in the article there was a swipe at those of us who see don’t see students as being particularly different, wherever in the world you teach. The article was already irksome because of its anti-dogme stance, and this just added salt to the wound.
I’m one of those people. I’ve taught in Brazil, South Korea and now Belgium, three utterly different cultures and in very different teaching environments. And yet I have never found my students to be that radically different from each other in any of those countries. When you think it about it, it does seem unlikely that they could be so similar, but that’s what my experience bears out.
The conversation we had today gave me an idea of how this is possible. So here it is, just a thought, an idea of mine, based on my experience, the things I’ve read and the people I’ve spoken too. Not very academic and possibly wrong, but it feels right to me…
All over the world, English language learners are on the receiving of very similar teaching methodologies. At worst, they might sit in lecture rooms and have grammar classes in their own native language, followed by some translation. If they are a little bit luckier, they might have a colourful coursebook that in no way reflects their own life and invites them to discuss what they had for breakfast (a reductive stereotype I know, but you get the point).
The vast majority of students may well come through this mill before they end up in our classroom, and that’s why they are so similar, because most of them may have always had the same relationship with English language learning i.e. a boring one.
That doesn’t even take into account the fairly limited range of goals we normally encounter, which are usually related to work, travel or “because English is so useful nowadays” (and who’s going to argue with that?).
Our students are in our classrooms, having had similar prior experiences with the language and with similar objectives, no matter where in the world they live. And sure, there are some very general national characteristics that are true, but when you get down to the nitty gritty and really get to know your students, those traits really aren’t that important. On the surface my Korean students were reserved and quiet, but after a while, you discovered that for every quiet learner there was a class clown or show off.
So while it might sound reductive to claim that everyone is the same, it’s quite the opposite and claiming that a Japanese class needs to be taught in a Japanese way is more reductive and patronising to me. And that’s why, I reckon, with the right level of local cultural sensitivity, we can find that we don’t need to radically alter our teaching style or our expectations of students needs. The thing is, I don’t approach my class as being a Brazilian one or a Korean one. Basically, I don’t teach Brazilians, Koreans or Belgians, I teach Paulo, Min Jee and Vincent.
Sorry, that was corny, but it’s true…