Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Our Ultimate Goal

by AJ

"Many people give up on learning after they leave school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories. Their attention has been manipulated long enough from the outside by textbooks and teachers, and they have counted graduation as the first day of freedom."

--Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

And who can blame them. I felt that same sense of freedom when I graduated High School. "Thank God!!", I yelled, "Im finally free". For me, school was a prison. A regimented horror. And to think, I was a "good student". I can only imagine how the "bad" students felt.

Traditional school traumatizes students. "Trauma", by the way, is the exact word used by a Japanese girl I once knew. She learned English from movies and listening.. and spoke very well. The mention of "class", however, produced a visceral reaction. She became quite emotional and relayed stories of humiliation and boredom. In "class", she was a failure. In "class", she was "terrible at English". Only outside of class was she eventually able to acquire English.. to undo the trauma of traditional education.

Its a common story. I see it ALL the time. Indeed, I sometimes feel Ive returned to my old job as a social worker. My greatest challenges nowadays seem to be emotional-- the trauma, the low confidence, the fear of risk, the paralysis of analysis... these are the primary obstacles my students face. These are the factors which inhibit their progress. They know plenty of grammar and a good deal of vocabulary. But traditional school has ruined them.

My job is to undo 15+ years of regimented education. NOT an easy task. It takes persistence. It takes great energy. This task also requires a light touch and a sense of humor.

Humor and fun and authentic materials are my best weapons. Im a bit of a clown in class... on purpose. I try hard to break the "teacher as authority" mentality. I try hard to relax my students.

And I constantly attack the beliefs instilled in them by their traditional teachers. I constantly criticize grammar-translation, minimize the importance of grammar, and joke about the "boring textbook". Of course I know that grammar is a part of language learning... but it is not the goddam "holy grail" that most of my students think it to be. Grammar has its place, but its certainly not the most important element of language learning.

We do a lot of "process discussion" in my classes... as another way to undermine traditional education. We discuss their learning experiences past and present. We discuss various study and learning methods... their advantages and problems. We discuss whats happening in class, whats working, whats not, why I do certain things, why I dont do certain things.

I tease my more confident students, playfully... and encourage them to do likewise. At our school, we are developing social activities.. everything from ping-pong tournaments to thrift store shopping trips.

And... ever so slowly... its working. The trauma eases. They learn to smile in class... to relax... and possibly, even to have fun. They learn to forget those old failures. They learn to forget the error-corrections, the bad test scores, the regimentation and rules, the ridiculous demands. They learn, bit by bit, to enjoy themselves.

And if I do my job well, they may even learn to enjoy learning again... to see learning as a lifelong journey of discovery... rather than a numeric goal or extrinsic hurdle to jump.

That, at least, is my ultimate goal as a teacher.

San Francisco, CA