November 30, 2006

Difficult questions

JH's comment gives me food for thought. Herndon's books have inspired me to take another look at what I'm aiming for in my autonomy class and why. On the other hand, it's also a can of worms - opening up some issues I'd rather not think about because they complicate the picture.

Herndon did not believe in maintaining order in the classroom for the sake of maintaining order. He apparently wasn't like most people who simply feel more or less uneasy when faced with a number of younger people who either don't follow orders or don't behave as expected. Herndon wrote about his ability to wait, to give young people (and himself) room to grow and develop on their own, not a reaction to what an adult is doing to them, nor something they are coerced into.

However, JH's comment raises more questions: what if imposing order isn't just for its own sake but vital for the safety of the students themselves or the teacher him/herself? What if, by not imposing order and allowing the students to "walk all over you", you thereby demean yourself in your own and in students' estimation? Possibly jeopardizing your job, or at the very least making your own job much more difficult? Why did JH feel forced into a type of teaching he did not believe in? Is this inevitable? Is it OK for a teacher to teach in a way he or she believes is right even though it may not be to the students' advantage? What does JH mean by "best for the circumstances"? Am I prepared to teach in a way I do not believe in if the circumstances demand it (e.g. if the administration or students themselves were to insist on it)? What if a particular way of teaching, say a Socratic approach, irritates the majority of students (at least initially)? If the teacher is aiming at the students' growth in the long term, is he/she justified in pursuing this approach in the face of student resistance? And to present the other side of that coin, is an approach justified if the students are perfectly satisfied with it, even though they may not be learning very much? (I remember a study was done on these lines once, which demonstrated that a language school run on certain principles was very popular amongst students, even though a variety of test scores showed very few students learnt anything meaningful or made any significant linguistic progress there.)


aaron said...

Good questions Marc. I think, as an educator, you have to start where the students are. In order to know where they are, you have to have some experience combined with a certain sensitivity. From there, you start teasing them toward a more autonomous approach. For some groups of students, the starting point is a teacher-centered, highly structured environment. I also wonder whether pulling out all the scaffolding and forcing them to take over is the most responsible approach in the kind of institutional settings in which we work?

JH said...

Hi Marco,
Greetings from California where I am currently playing hooky.
Thanks for raising some interesting issues concerning my comment.
I would like to talk about the "circumstances" I mentioned.
For my students, the best use of their time was for them to either listen to their teacher if the content was helpful for their entrance examinations or do other entrance exam study in class if it was not worth it. When I tried group work with them, it was considered useless. Group work also did not allow them to study individually so they might as well just socialize. When I did my lecture style classes, even the rebels in the class would sit and work quietly on something. So when I did a lecture-styled class the students did SOMETHING. They either listened to me or STUDIED on their own.

Students in the high school were taking about 11 different classes where they simply sat and listened to the teacher. One English class that was meeting twice a week and being taught by a part-time teacher who spent no time at the school aside from the few classes he taugh was not going to change students' beliefs about langage learning.

That was four years ago when I was essentially a rookie teacher. As I now have a little more experience, if I had to do it all over again, I would not do things the exact same. As Aaron mentioned, I have learned that a class should be started using a teaching style that students are comfortable with and that change should be introduced moderately and gradually.