I’m hoping that you’ll all be hearing from Tom the Traveller soon as he writes us a description of his latest audio product. In the meantime, though, I would like to tell you about something very interesting he said the other day (well, interesting if you’re a TEFL nerd like me).
Tom and I have frequent clashes over various pedagogical issues (and many other issues, God bless him). In particular, though, we have vastly different views over the usefullness of our friends incredibly succsesful website – notes from Spain. My argument is that while the transcripts of ‘real’ conversations are all well and good they are a far lower priority than a well designed program of study. Tom,for his part, would like to elevate them above all else and insists that these podcasts and transcripts are what really helped him learn Spanish.
The thing that Tom always mentions though is that he listened to them ‘while travelling around South America’. This for me represents a classic example of ESL student perception about what works and what doesn’t. You see, if we examine this from a scientific perspective we have to understand that for Tom the two events are linked – he was listening to the podcasts… and his Spanish improved.
For me, however, it’s the other event that is linked to the improvement in Spanish; the rather obvious one: travelling around South America. His listening to the podcasts and improving is what we call in the philosophy business – an illusory co-relation.
Now, Tom, will say that this isn’t the case and will tell me that he was at a school in Guatemala and he didn’t improve as much as he did when listening to the podcasts (in other words he’d already been in South America and wasn’t improving.) However, we all know that a badly run school can hinder your progress and I’d like to say to Tom it was when he was out in the field that it all came together.
Like all arguments, this could go on forever, and at the end of the day maybe Tom’s right, maybe I am, or maybe we’re both a bit right. The point is, though, that sweeping statements about what works best for the language student must always be subjected to scrutiny. What you are making is an assertion and like all assertions they must be verified. This is important to me because I’m geting bloody sick of students and teachers who base all their ideas about the best way to learn a language on their own experience. As well as the obvious pitfalls of subjectivity it’s annoying because half the time they’ve never questioned or reflected on their own assertions.
Anyway, this isn’t just a rant. It has serious implications for the ESL environment because we constantly have to deal with student’s perceptions of what really works and how that affects the way they judge your class. It’s a key part of ESL learner psycology and it affects you because so much of their feeling about you and your classes – the student feedback – (which could lead to promotion or a sacking) is based on that.
What’s the soloution? Tell your students about this example and tell them that life – and learning a language – is complicated, and they should not make black and white comments.