December 14, 2004

More problems, or questions about classroom dynamics

Here's another scenario: to change the pace, and help motivate students by providing role models (English-speaking Japanese natives who are not working in education), my colleague and I have invited a small number of speakers from outside the university. None of them (so far) are professional speakers, just interesting people who happen to speak English.

The latest one gave a talk that was more successful than most. She was young (and pretty) and spoke about hardships and her experiences travelling and trying to learn English. She also asked several questions to her audience and instead of accepting the usual silence, she picked people out individually and urged them to respond (nice trick). There were fewer people sleeping in this lecture, fewer people talking amongst themselves and ignoring the speaker than before, which was a good sign. One of the questions she asked was, 'do you have a dream? What is it?' (OK, that's 2 questions, so sue me).

Nevertheless, I was surprised to see a) the inertia she had to fight against, as in when she asked questions and no-one responded; and b)the large number of people who seemed to have no dreams or ambitions of any kind.

OK, perhaps they were just being "shy". But who can tell? Maybe the real reason why so many of them said they had no goal or dream was because.... they don't have a goal or dream!

This event gave me food for thought: a) what if this were true? What if there are, in fact, as we have long suspected in fact, a large number of students who seem to have simply ended up here by accident? Who have no particular desire to be here at university and no particular interest in English, indeed no particular desire of any kind! How depressing! but it certainly would explain their behaviour in class and their sluggish "cold oil on a freezing morning" inertia and apparent apathy.

b) if this is true, and if the psychologists are right that action and thought are based on emotion, then these students are not ready to learn anything: they have other, more pressing, issues that need to be dealt with, like self-confidence, setting goals, a sense of achievement, self-esteem, etc.

c) if b) is true, then gimmicks like making English "fun" may not have any real or long-lasting effect. Perhaps these students need stimulation, something that relates to their lives. And English won't cut it, because it doesn't relate closely enough, and they have neither the imagination nor the experience to see how it might or does relate to them.

Maybe these students need psycho-therapy! Can "English class" provide them with what they need? What DO they need, anyway?

This speaker and our previous one both pointed out how learning to USE English is a different kind of learning from school-learning, from studying (that's my word, not theirs). Both pointed out how you start (or need to start) from curiosity, the desire to know something: 'what does that word mean that I keep hearing in this song? What did that English-speaking foreigner say? I couldn't recognize the word.' It doesn't matter what it is, what matters is that it is something YOU want to find out.

That's all for now: I have to go to my psychiatry class.

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