Same Difference

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…


7 thoughts on “Same Difference

  1. Hi James,
    Thanks for the mention 🙂
    The idea of teaching an English class in, for example, a Japanese way would mean that my current job would be incredibly difficult. At present, I am teaching a multilingual class of 9 Intermediate students covering 6 different countries: 2 Turkish, 1 South Korean, 3 Saudi, 2 Thai and 1 Brazilian. They don't even come from the same language family, let alone the same country.
    One of the things I constantly hear from my students include “In [insert name of country here], we always translate things at school.” I then ask other students if the same happens in their country, and point out that that is one of the ways I learnt French/German as well. I think it helps the learners to see that they are all in some way similar, to combat the idea that “People from X can't learn English well”.
    As you say, each of student is an individual, and national stereotypes don't make any difference. If anything, any national stereotypes I may have harboured at the beginning of my time in Newcastle have been completely blown away, as I hope they have been for my students too. I love my job! 🙂

  2. Sandy, thanks for commenting and inspiring the post in the first place…

    As you suggest, in an ESL setting this idea is clearly ridiculous and and unhelpful. And as you state, despite the wide variety of cultures your class contains (and it sounds great!), they share a similar learning background. This is the common bond which enables you to teach them in your way, and without having to alter or change your teaching style based solely on the cultures you encounter.

    And I'm glad to hear that they are changing your perspectives. That's one of the best things about teaching, isn't?

  3. “a colourful coursebook that in no way reflects their own life and invites them to discuss what they had for breakfast”

    Just a thought, but running with a theme of what a multi-cultural/ lingual group of students have for breakfast could be a great lesson. Potentially there would be loads of different habits, viewpoints and contrasts! Of course, you wouldn't really need the course book! 😉

  4. It's funny how people always pick on these cheeky asides and comment, isn't it? 😉 I suppose you could turn a breakfast lesson into something interesting, but as you say, I don't think it's going to come from a book.

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