Student-Centered Approaches in My Teaching

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In the field of second-language teaching, teaching approaches have come and gone; the approach that has held sway during my teaching career has been the communicative approach, which emphasizes interaction. This approach could be very different from what you experienced if you ever studied a second language in university, where there was a lot of book-learning, but very little real communication. 

The communicative approach to second-language teaching seems conducive to a learner-centered approach to teaching in general: because the emphasis is on learners communicating with each other, it is natural to employ activities such as role-plays, incorporate group work and follow the principles of cooperative learning, all of which facilitate communication. Unfortunately, even today, not all language teachers embrace this approach as fully as they could, leading to teaching that is still teacher-centered, with the sage on the stage.

Having taught literature at university when I was much younger, I have experienced teaching from the other perspective, where the focus is on covering the material that is on the course outline, so I empathize with my colleagues who are not language teachers and for whom communication of a language in its grammatical, textual, and functional aspects is not the primary learning outcome, but rather the communication of a field of knowledge is, be it welding, drafting, carpentry, nursing, laboratory technology, aerospace, etc.

Flipped Classroom

Nevertheless, I have gained a lot of insight by considering how learner-centered approaches can enhance my language teaching and the learning of my students. Flipping the classroom, which affords the learner the opportunity to redistribute her time to best take advantage of the merits of studying as an individual and as a group member, is a genuine advancement and has a real benefit for language learners, who can now maximize the opportunity for communication in the group-learning environment (the classroom) while completing accuracy-based tasks independently (at home). Much of this would not be possible without the Internet.

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The Internet makes possible other student-centered approaches that are genuine advancements in teaching and learning and can enhance language teaching as well. For example, think of the potential that blogging creates for developing writing skills in second-language learners: the interactive nature of the platform means that the learner communicates not simply with the teacher, but with all the learners who have access to the blog, by virtue of which communication proliferates as posts receive comments and comments on comments ad infinitum.

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Inquiry-based learning is another student-centered approach that will significantly enhance language learning in my classroom. At the Language Training Centre, we are uniquely situated insofar as we are affiliated with a college, and so language teaching occurs in the context of getting students ready for academic study. At high levels of proficiency, language learners are expected to demonstrate skills, such as analysisinterpretation and evaluation, that blur the boundaries between communication skills and thinking skills. Posing a problem to learners and asking them to come up with a solution gives learners an opportunity to develop these thinking skills. Inquiry-based learning facilitates the development of these higher-order thinking skills as learners are asked to consider not only what-they-know but how-they-know. 

Among student-centered approaches, the flipped classroom, the blog and the inquiry-based project can enhance language learning enormously.

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Flipping the Classroom

Link to the reading:

http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/flipped-courses-concerns-rush-flip/

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As second-language teachers, we do not teach content. Instead, we teach language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. As our language learners may also be seeking entry into the labour market or are college-bound, they also need to learn how to problem-solve, analyze, discuss and ask questions. These outcomes, however, are not universal among cultures.

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Flipping the classroom provides us with a valuable opportunity by allowing us more time to inculcate higher-order thinking skills in the classroom through learner-centered tasks because the teacher-centered presentation phase of the lesson, in which a new language structure is introduced, and the receptive practice phase of the lesson, in which the learner is not asked to produce any language, can occur outside of the classroom.

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For example, if the target language is a set of seven vocabulary items, such as action verbs typically used in resumes to highlight workplace achievements, the presentation of these words (word family; definition; pronunciation, frequency, synonyms, connotation, collocation etc.), as well as the receptive practice of these words (hearing them; seeing them, matching words and definitions etc.) could be done outside the classroom, while the use of these words productively and their application in a real-world task could be done in the classroom. Essentially, this doubles the amount of time for the application of the learning.

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As Maryellen Weimer notes in her blog post, the flipped approach requires independent, self-directed learning on the part of the student, with supports that have been carefully designed by the instructor. The emphasis on self-directed learning is appropriate for all our learners as the ability to work without continuous guidance is desirable in both the post-secondary as well as workplace contexts. Our learners do not come with a blank slate, and many of them have post-secondary education backgrounds. In other words, they likely have developed good study skills and can take advantage of opportunities for self-directed learning. The real challenge for many is adapting to a learner-centered environment, whose focus is on inquiry and creating knowledge rather than rote learning and receiving instruction. For this reason, the more opportunities to experience this environment, the better. I would caution, as Weimer does, that beginner students may have unique needs that are less well-suited to the flipped-classroom approach.