I’ve been thinking about the changes that have taken place in community ESL programs. I’m trying to work out in my own mind what we’ve gained over the years — and what we’ve lost. This is the second piece in a series. You can read the first here.
One thing that really set Overland apart from other schools was the fact that we had very low turnover — I was the newbie there for my first ten years. Teachers tended to stay because they liked the centre and because they liked teaching.
One of the main attractions was the fact that we were given virtual free rein to design our courses (and I’m sure that there was a bit of a virtuous cycle going on here as well). This might sound like utter negligence on the part of the supervisor, but in fact it worked out really well. There were teachers who used a lot of theatre in their classes, teachers who structured lessons around cooking and shopping for food, and teachers who favoured straight up old school grammar classes. It was a case of something for everyone rather than interchangeable 150 minute slots.
To be honest, I’m not quite sure why it was so successful. Perhaps it was the fact that the program had evolved organically, based on the needs and interests of the parties involved. It was partly that the assessors (remember them?) had a good sense of which students would fit well with which program. Also, well, I could say that JT and KP had a knack for choosing the right teachers for the job, but that wouldn’t be very humble of me.
But then…. funding patterns changed; things got leaner and meaner. One upshot of this was the push for teachers to provide quantifiable and comparable results. That sounds like a really good idea. What if students are just marking time? What if instructors are building curricula solely based on comparative study of their cat photos? Isn’t it a positive development if everyone is learning from the same set of lessons? Surely students need to have a sense of an end goal in their learning.
Well, yes, but also no. First off, let’s examine the assumptions implicit in the phrase “measurable results.” It seems a little simplistic to draw an equals sign between curriculum and outcome. Teaching and learning and results are not always symmetrical. Teachers come to class with a set of prepared material, but what students receive from them is a completely different story.
So , it’s all very well to have a good hard look at what teachers teach, but how does that relate to what students learn, and to what they do with that learning?
Well in my case, in both academic writing and toefl prep, I taught skills — fairly pragmatic lessons on discrete elements of the test or the essay. This specific material gave students a sense of security: they knew where they were, and they knew that I had the chops to deliver the content. However, what did they actually learn from my class? Bear in mind that they were generally the products of academic meritocracies, often at the top of their professions. (I’ve written before about being the dumbest person in the room.) They were usually multilingual and well versed in academic protocol. If they had wished to learn how to use a mixed conditional or form a topic sentence, they were perfectly capable of sitting down and mastering that themselves. Yet, they came back to class and I do believe they found it useful. What did they actually receive from the lessons?
The comment most often volunteered by students is that I taught them patience and open mindedness. I am touched by this, although perhaps they would not have rated my patience as highly had they been better at reading British body language. Apart from that, what they learned was a lot more about adapting to their new situation than about acquiring language.
I think from TOEFL class they learned to understand their frustration and anger at the test, and to deal with that before they reached the testing centre; they learned that the perfectionist is not always the winner in a time sensitive activity, and that sometimes one has to walk away from a problem.
In writing class they learned that acquiring a new technique does not repudiate one’s previous knowledge, and that sometimes in writing one has to sacrifice beauty for function.
At a most basic level, what I gave the students was recognition. If I were to articulate it directly, it would go something like this, “I see you; I see your intelligence and your accomplishments. They are no less now than they were in your home country. I will do my absolute best to meet you at that level. And I promise never to lecture you, chief of staff in your country’s largest hospital, (or deputy minister for finance, or CEO of the first company to develop a cell phone for the blind), on Canada’s Food Guide.”
Then there’s the matter of results. How did this learning translate into results? That’s a bit of a tricky one. Some passed their language exams and went on to continue their careers in Canada. True, they might have passed them anyway, but I believe with my help their passes were cleaner, based more on a strong sense of the fundamentals, less on tricks and work-arounds. Some of them realized that their goals were not realistic, and looked for workplace opportunities instead. All the same, I believe they left the class with their heads held a little higher.
So what does this amount to? A restoration of cultural maturity? A new comfort in an unfamiliar emotional landscape? Very hard things to measure on a numerical scale.