Blaming the Learners/Situation

One of the things that I hear from teachers on training courses is that their students ‘in their real classrooms’ can’t/won’t/don’t want to do X, where X might be critical thinking, or using the language in a ‘real’ context, or answering questions in front of their peers. They are also quite good at saying that they themselves can not do X, where X might be assessing speaking in a large class, or teaching reading without explaining vocabulary first, or answering questions in front of their peers.

For a long time I didn’t understand this phenomenon. It frustrated me. It felt like blaming others, blaming the situation, essentially, an easy out. But then I had a break through—it’s like me saying it’s impossible to tight rope walk across a canyon. When I stand on the edge it is wide and deep and scary and I have never done it before. I think I must step out right now and do it, be good at it, succeed. But really I can’t. I just can’t. For me, it is impossible. It’s too high, too wide, too far down, too scary, too… everything. I replace the ‘problem’ with ‘it’ further distancing the possibility. OK, fair enough. But maybe what I am saying is not that it can’t be done, after all, others do it, but that I don’t know how. I’ve had no instruction, no practice; I don’t know the steps, the process, of learning to tight rope walk, much less actually doing it. I’ve never thought it through. And if I think my first attempt must succeed, I will probably walk away.

Towards the end of a recent TESOL course for teachers of English, one overriding sentiment was that it is impossible to assess speaking in a large class. It was a tough situation and I decided to try out my theory—it’s not ‘it can’t be done’ that is the underlying issue but how to do it is unknown. We started by describing the problem. In the end we found it helpful to start with a specific and measurable objective—who will say what and when, and then moving to the mechanics of assessing that objective. After 30 minutes, the teachers had, with scaffolding and some initial ideas based on actual classroom practices, generated a series of concrete steps and actions they could try, that they thought would work, that they felt good about. The teachers had gone from ‘it can’t be done’ to ‘we can do this’ through the process of making it concrete.

Teaching is the art of breaking things down into easily digestible pieces. —Kulsoom Rizvi

The proof was in the practice teaching (trying on the new idea in a safe environment) on the following days, when they started to see the results for themselves, make modifications, believe in the possibility of the task, and believe in themselves.

Knowing how, changed the impossible to the possible. It addressed the constraints of the ‘ability and/or willingness of ”the other”, be it a person, a group, or situation.

As for tight rope walking, well, I think I’ll get some tips on balancing and start on solid ground.


This post was written by Tana.

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