How to become a usefully ignorant EAP teacher?Posted: August 2, 2012
Sometimes I think I’ve never been more confused about what I should be saying and doing in my EAP classroom.
I, like many others, was initially trained as an English language teacher in the CELTA/DELTA communicative era where ‘good’ teacher talk meant reducing its quantity. I don’t think I ever really understood why this was necessarily a good thing – just that having more student talking time would apparently give them more opportunities to communicate and that this increased communication would somehow facilitate learning. In the low-stakes ELT contexts I subsequently taught in, this approach seemed to work well enough and I enjoyed the task of creating student-centred activities where I would stand as the ‘guide on the side’ (McWilliam, 2007) facilitating and monitoring whatever my planning led to in the classroom.
My transition to EAP teaching however, led to some rather unexpected consequences for my ingrained adherence to reducing TTT. Feedback from my Insessional students was that I didn’t ‘talk enough’ and other students requesting that instead of making them go through a laborious sequence of Columbo-like clues to discover the answer for themselves, it would be far better if I just told them the answer in the first place and saved everyone’s time and energy. On a Presessional course, where time is so limited, the stakes are so high, and there is so much pressure to get through all the materials, this request did not seem wholly unreasonable. Moreover, having experienced and seen so many other teachers go through so many hoops to elicit an answer that they eventually answered themselves, I started to question what I was doing and why.
I think most researchers and practitioners now agree that the issue is more about quality rather than quantity, and that, in any case, attempts to reduce TTT have largely failed (Walsh, 2002; Wilson, 2007). Other attempts to make classroom interaction more representative of ‘authentic’ communication outside the classroom also seem to have been quashed by claims that the classroom is as valid a context of communication as any other institutional discourse setting, and so has its own norms of communication related to language use and pedagogical goals and purposes.
Part of me thinks ‘great’ and yet another part of me thinks that I no longer know what those norms are. I’ve bought into sociocultural pedagogic theory and concepts of dialogic and collaborative learning, and I like the idea of using the EAP context as a sort of initiation into academic communities of practice and development of relevant competences. I also understand the core principles of social learning are action, communication, reflection and negotiation (Illeris, 2002) and that my classroom needs to foster an atmosphere that allows for these things to happen.
But…going back to Walsh (2002), I have no idea as to what I do and say in my EAP context that would be deemed either ‘constructive’ or ‘obstructive’ to these particular goals. Moreover, as I read about the changing nature of tertiary education and the need for a rethink around effective teaching towards a more experimental culture of learning to better prepare students for a constantly developing, digitally enhanced working context (Bauman, 2004), I have less confidence about what my teaching practice should be. If knowledge is now somehow backgrounded in favour of the development of transferable skills, then what can I usefully do with my students?
McWilliam (2008) talks about a shift from the ‘guide from the side’ to the ‘meddler in the middle’, where we use our increasing relative ignorance to create space for creation, innovation, and pedagogical possibilities. Education thus becomes less about transmission of knowledge from the ‘sage on the stage’ to teachers developing their own disposition to be ‘usefully ignorant’ (McWilliam, 2008) in the classroom and to developing the learning dispositions among students that would be appropriate in those future contexts. This then leads to teaching contexts where knowledge transmission is replaced by a form of value creation shifting students from consumers of education to users and ultimately producers (Hearn, 2005). As McWilliam states (2007:6):
‘If we consider pedagogical exchange as a form of value exchange and value creation, then what Hearn opens up are new possibilities for thinking about a pedagogy that has more promise from creative capacity building…Rather than teachers delivering an information product to be ‘consumed’ and fed back by the student, co-creating value would see the teacher and student mutually involved in assembling and dissembling cultural products…The teacher is in there experimenting and learning from the instructive complications of her errors alongside her students.’
And so back to my confusion. If we understand that pedagogical exchange is achieved through value co-construction and co-creation of meaning, then surely the context in which that occurs is equally co-constructed by the participants. In which case, ultimately the ‘norms’ of behaviour within those contexts can only be decided by those participants and their particular goals, and not by some undefined party external to that interaction. And where is the evidence that knowledge transmission is no longer such a good thing and that the knowledge that we have acquired over the years is now inappropriate and out of date?
Bauman, Z. (2004) Liquid Sociality. In N. Gane (Ed.) The Future of Social Theory. Continuum: London pp17-46.
Hearn, G. (2005) The Shift to Value Ecology Thinking and its Relevance to the Creative Industries. Paper presented at the QUT Brisbane Conference: Open Content Licensing: Cultivating the Creative Commons.
Illeris, K. (2002). The three dimensions of learning. Roskilde, Denmark: Roskilde University Press/Leicester, UK: NIACE.
McWilliam, E. (2008) Unlearning how to teach. Innovations in Education and Teaching. Vol 45 (3) pp263-269..
Walsh, S. (2002) Construction or obstruction: teacher talk and learner involvement in the EFL classroom. Language Teaching Research Vol 6 (1) pp3-23.
Wilson, K. (2007) Facilitating talk in EAP reading classes. ELT Journal Vol 64 (4) pp366-374.