Friday, August 20, 2010

Teacher Empowerment in English – New Challenges

Dr. K.N. Anandan

Consultant, SSA, Kerala

In our own times the term “paradigm shift” has gained much currency. What exactly we mean by this?

The word “paradigm” is another word for pattern. The human brain is specially designed to generate, discern and recognize patterns in the world around us. We live in the midst of several kinds of phenomena such as biological, physical, political, social, economic, and linguistic and so on. At various points of time man has tried to account for these phenomena in different ways. For example, for several thousands of years people believed that the earth was flat, a belief that was created and sustained by Ptolemy and his followers. Later, Copernican astronomy shattered this belief. In the same way, Einstein’s quantum physics replaced Newtonian physics. These are classic examples of paradigm shift in physical sciences. Each paradigm generates a set of patterns or, a set of beliefs. That is how patterns keep changing. When changes take place there will be resistance to changes. Nevertheless, in the long run the new pattern survives. When a paradigm shift takes place, we see things from a different perspective.

The Change in the Perspective on Language

When language as a phenomenon becomes the object of inquiry we have to choose between one of the two belief systems:

i. Human mind is like an empty slate and everything related to language comes from outside.

ii. Man has innate language system which gets unfolded in a natural linguistic environment.

The first belief system was created by Behavioural Psychology and Structural Linguistics. Cognitive theories are the proponents of the second belief system. By now it is clear that we cannot go forward with the first belief system. Thus in English language teaching the principal paradigm shift involves a move away from the postulates of behaviourist psychology and structural linguistics toward cognitive and later socio-cognitive psychology. Today insights from theoretical linguistics, cognitive psychology, neurobiology and experiential pedagogy force us to pursue more contextualized and meaning-based views of language.

The Socio-Political Perspective on Teaching English

The Kerala Curriculum Framework has been erected on the pillars of social constructivism, critical pedagogy and issue-based approach. The new textbooks and handbooks have reached the hands of our learners and teachers. Gone are the days when the teaching of English began with A-B-C-D and ended with reading books written in a formal literary style. Today, almost a sea-change has swept over our English classrooms. The changes that have taken place call for taking up new pedagogic challenges. Our students and teachers, by and large, seem prepared to meet this challenge; this is a welcome sign. However, in the fast shrinking world of today where English language reigns supreme, we have go to revise our attitudes to be able to keep pace with the rest of the world. In this context let me present a few cases:

Case 1:

Ms. Asha is a primary teacher who teaches English in a Government school in Kerala. She has her own daughter studying in an English medium school.

‘Why don’t you get your child enrolled in your own school?’ One of her friends asked her.

‘She’s a bright child. I must give her quality education.’

‘Can’t it be done at your own school?’

‘I doubt. After all it’s an ordinary school. For choosing a good career children need English education.’

‘But you’re teaching English.’

‘That’s different.’

Case 2:

One of the international publishers recently released a set of course books in English. These are meant for the learners ranging from LKG to Class VIII. There are two primers for English. One of them begins with lessons in writing. The tiny tots have to strain themselves by drawing strokes of different kinds and then slowly switching over to writing the letters, words and sentences in conformity with certain standard norms.

The other primer begins with units that introduce quite a large number of isolated words naming familiar objects. These include the names of body parts such as an eye, a head, a nose... (of course with thumbnail pictures of these parts).

Let’s address ourselves to a few questions:

1. Why is there a mushrooming of English medium schools in our country?

2. Why do most parents believe that by changing the medium of instruction from the mother tongue to English is a pre-requisite for ensuring quality education?

3. Why do people believe that without English there cannot be prosperity in life?

4. Why do the international publishers follow a linear, highly de-contextualized and fragmentary approach to introducing language elements?

5. Everyone in our own times know that a child does not pick up language by writing the letters of the alphabet? More over, a 3-year old child is yet to accomplish neuro-muscular coordination. Then why do the textbook writers make her practice strokes and other primary lessons of copy-writing?

6. The 3-year old child’ perception is holistic. She cannot perceive a cut-out human head, the hand, or the other parts of the body alone. Asking her to do this is in fact the negation of the fundamental principles of child psychology. Don’t the makers of the course book know it?

We refrain ourselves from asking further questions on a similar line. The point we want to make is very clear. Cases 1 and 2 reflect certain belief claims related to teaching and learning English in our own context.

There may be certain claims that appear as true. It is also possible that these claims can be substantiated given certain specific contexts. We must not miss the point that these are mere belief claims and not propositions with truth content. Nevertheless they get propagated in the society. How does this happen needs to be explained. Viewed through the lens of critical pedagogy these claims are discernible as parts of belief systems and actions defined by the power structures operating in the society. A major challenge that we have to face today while planning teacher empowerment programmes is how to break these belief systems.

Critical pedagogy addresses itself to a few questions:

• Who is benefited by these systems of beliefs and actions?

• Who is making these assertions?

• Why are they being made at this point in time?

• Are these assertions supported by research? If so, who funds such research?

• Who propagates these “findings”?

These questions and several more will emerge when we problematize the whole context of knowledge making. Each of these questions will have to be addressed against the background of the evidences available in support of the claims that have been put forward. Critical pedagogy is a tool for constructing knowledge which helps students question and challenge domination, and the beliefs and practices that dominate.

We can enumerate a few principles that can lead to critical understanding. These are:

• The potential of education as a tool to transform learners into political subjects

• Knowledge as a cognitive process undertaken by teachers and learners

• The possible emergence of new forms of culture and knowledge

Triangulating on these key principles critical pedagogy thrives to create a better world, a world where the learners seek and realize their identity and voice. Teachers in their turn are ‘transformative intellectuals who strive for realizing social transformation. Schools are transformed into sites for struggle whether for power, knowledge or identity.

ELT in the context of Critical Pedagogy:

What we have discussed so far calls for putting current practices in ELT under the critical lens. In a country like ours where there is so much of colonial pull is in force, teaching of English has been a major topic of concern for a wide spectrum of people ranging from educational planners, policy makers, curriculum designers, textbook writers, parents, teachers and of course students. The National Curriculum Framework (2005) as well as KCF (2007) have given a lot of importance to language learning as it is crucial to not only meaningful learning in all the subject areas but also to the learner’s emotional, cognitive and social development. Educationists have noticed that new entrants with poor language background remain poorer performers in all areas unless specially helped in language skills. Language education has been acknowledged to have the greater potential as a means to develop, progressively through various stages, attitudes and values related to all the core components by incorporating appropriate themes and adopting suitable teaching strategies.

Critiquing Linguistic imperialism

The majority of critical writers argue that the global expansion of ELT is nothing other than linguistic imperialism. This argument is based on three major themes. These are:

1. There have always been efforts to equate English language and ELT with prosperity. Quite often English is brought under the limelight as a solution for economic and social problems by Nation-States and individuals. Thus learners at the receiving end are persuaded to look at the benefits of English with false expectations. Consequently, ELT professionals gain control over educational practices. To cite an example from our own times, there any who would mind spending money for taking a course of ‘spoken English” or “communicative English?” so that he or she can meet the pressures created by the commercialised job market?

2. The historical perspective on ELT reveals that it evolved putting local autonomy at stake. Being driven by developments in Britain and the USA, ELT has always been centralised at all levels. Global solutions are put forward which fail to solve local problems. For example, the much acclaimed communicative approach is virtually global. However, it may be inappropriate for various non-western localities and cultures. Language teaching difficulties may thus be multiplied by the flaws of a centrally-driven, global approach.

3. Critical pedagogues are sceptical about the genuineness of global demands for ELT; they believe that the demand has been purposefully generated. On the other hand most ELT proponents believe that the demand is genuine. Thus as Bowers (1991) has stated, there exists a tension between the satisfaction of, and simulation of, demand for English.

Critiquing ELT perspective on Knowledge

How we conceive education clearly depends upon what our perception of knowledge is. If knowledge is perceived as a set of facts, then the whole educational system will be focusing on transmitting these facts. Obviously, this will end up in the transfer of information from the teacher to the learners. Information camouflaged as knowledge can be taught and learnt un-problematically. On the other hand, if knowledge is perceived as something more than information mere transmission of facts will not suffice. Other considerations will have to be called for such as a thorough understanding about what the nature of the learner is, what learning is, how learning takes place what will constitute the most conducive environment for learning and the like. There is scope for inductive learning in current ELT practices. Nevertheless, has pointed out, what is learnt and taught is a set of facts and rules as is evident from the comprehension questions and the exercises included in the course books.

Critiquing ELT conceptualisation of Language

ELT conceptualisation of language also is problematic. The practitioners of ELT have a great fascination for loading the course material with lots and lots of exercises meant for practising Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing (LSRW). One should not miss the point that the LSRW approach is insensitive to language as a political and historical phenomenon. Notions such as ‘accuracy’ and ‘fluency’ have gained much currency in our own times. These are notions that reflect the evolution of communicative language teaching from the fabrics of earlier approaches and methods pertaining to language teaching. Similarly, there are notions like ‘pattern’ and ‘accuracy’ which have emerged from the conceptualisation of language by structural and functional approaches respectively. All these approaches and methods have conceptualised language solely in terms of LSRW, as a-political and a-historical phenomenon. This trend has been continued by the communicative approaches which literally reduces discussion of language itself to a minimum. This, in turn, prevents the development of ‘critical language awareness’.

It is easy to discern the tension that builds up between two classes of ELT namely, the non-critical ELT and the critical ELT. The former is what is widely in practice across the world whereas the latter is the one that has started emerging, probably with a change in nomenclature. Most non-critical ELT practices conceptualise knowledge, education and language solely as a body of information that the teacher can transfer to the learners; this can be taught and learnt within the classroom or outside the classroom. There are mechanisms for transmitting a certain chunk of information that has been pre-decided for a certain level of learners. There are national as well as international agencies to propagate these mechanisms. This does not fulfil a critical and transformative agenda as there is no conception that ideology is transmitted through language.

Critiquing Classroom Practices

The conceptual imbalances within ELT are too conspicuous for any critical pedagogue to miss them. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether these have received due attention in deliberations on improving the quality of English learning of our children. Of course there has been much discussion on the deplorable state of ELT prevailing in our country. A variety of learning materials and teaching techniques have been suggested and tried out in order to resolve the problems faced in this domain of the curriculum. A number of researches programme and teacher-training programmes have been going on in our state level, regional level and national level institutions with a view to improving the ELT situation. A large number of institutions have come out preparing short term as well as long-term English courses. Book publishers have been vying with one another in the production of English guides for all levels of learners. Moreover, a number of English tuition centres have mushroomed across the country. Above all, commercial ELT packages such as “Communicative English, Functional English” are developed and promoted by the State as well as private agencies. These labels are accepted unquestioningly and nobody asks the question: “Is there any English that does not communicate?” Similarly, nobody worries whether there are two varieties of mother tongue namely, the “functional” and the “non-functional”!

What is more, a special variety of English (say, the Received Pronunciation) has gained prominence on grounds of standardization. Whether non-native users of English can really master the standardized sound system of the language even after learning phonetics and practicing minimal pairs is never put to acid tests. Nevertheless experts advocate the teaching of phonetics as if it is the panacea for all problems related to ELT knowing pretty well that they themselves find it difficult to consistently maintain all the nuance of articulation. Nobody bothers whether teachers are really benefited from practising English sounds in isolation. This process of self-deception seems to have gained much commercial significance in the context of neo-colonialism that has successfully spread its roots everywhere. In a way insisting on Standard English amounts to imposing linguistic hegemony which often is camouflaged as “international intelligibility”.

We have any number of cases to show the conceptual imbalances within ELT. All of them have classroom implications.

To summarize, there is a dichotomy of practices of ELT on the one hand and the parameters of critical pedagogy on the other. ELT conceptualisation of language does not seem to equip the learners with the language apparatus they necessarily should have; it does not seem to help them think critically either. It is high time we examined what exactly is at stake and chose the right kind of pedagogy that would put things in order. With the absence of concepts such as empowerment, emancipation, and transformation, there seems to be hardly any consideration of why we are teaching, and what society we are teaching for. ‘ELT practitioners stand accused of complicity in the maintenance of an unequal society, teaching for themselves and hidden power interests within society, rather than for the learners’ real needs,’ observes G. Hall, and we fully endorse his views.

The challenges

The discussion in the preceding s sections will certainly persuade us opt for critical pedagogy as a tool for constructing knowledge of English. Nevertheless, this tool has to face a few challenges. We will examine what the challenges are how they can be met.

One of the arguments raised against critical pedagogy is that critical pedagogy is too ready to criticize, but is unable to offer any solutions. Though critical approaches can offer solutions they are not willing to do it. Why this is so is to be clearly understood. Critical pedagogy cannot prescribe any solutions; it can only put forward certain theoretical positions which individuals can make use of fruitfully in their pursuit for knowledge.

This point is to be well-appreciated. If the critical pedagogue imposes his ideas and perceptions on the learners it can be done only by putting learner autonomy at stake which will be counterproductive.

How to release the tension between the teacher’s authority on the one hand and the learner’s autonomy on the other is a major problem that arises while making classroom transaction critically oriented. Ellsworth doubts whether teachers can really refrain themselves from being authoritative. The hegemony that prevails in a teacher-centred classroom is not entirely the teacher’s creation. There are a number of factors – the curriculum, the syllabus, the textbook, the very design of classrooms, and the seating arrangement – that conspire for making the classroom environment detrimental to learner autonomy.

We have to empathise with the teachers who take pains to teach the content of an English textbook loaded with lots and lots of information. They are pressurised from all corners, the educational system, the authorities, the society, and of course her own belief systems. The teacher is ‘autocratic’ because the system wants her to be one. She is authoritative because hegemony percolates down to her from the authorities higher above in the hierarchic design of the system. How can she facilitate learner autonomy when she cannot claim it for herself?

This does not mean that there is no scope for breaking the vicious circle in which learners, teachers, the authorities, why the system itself is caught up. The only way out is to help our policy makers, educational planners, curriculum designers, textbook writers and teachers develop a thorough understanding about the rights and responsibilities of the learners. Above all, if at all we believe in the dictum, education is for liberation, then we must chose the right kind of pedagogy that is built upon a thorough understanding about what language is and how it is acquired. Such pedagogy would be in operation in an environment where there is genuine partnership between teachers and learners. It would necessarily recognize the learner’s voice and identity and the participants would be able to operate within a ‘safe space’.