Wednesday, July 2, 2014

my teaching philosophy

In an application I sent out to one of the universities I'm applying to, I was asked to write a "personal statement" that contains a detailed account of my teaching experience and my teaching philosophy. I thought this was a welcome challenge. I might have overdone it by sending the university a 5-page, single-spaced document, but the directions did say "detailed."

I don't think I said everything I had wanted to say, but what I've written below captures at least 90% of what I think and feel. I've cut and pasted only the last half of my personal statement below—the half dealing with my teaching philosophy. Agree or disagree as you will.


Thanks in part to those linguistics and pedagogy courses I took in college back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and thanks largely to my own experiences in the classroom, I have formed a clear teaching philosophy. I cannot claim to implement this philosophy perfectly, but it represents an ideal toward which I strive. In a nutshell: the ideal EFL classroom is student-centered and task-oriented. The teacher never lectures, and to the greatest degree possible, students are encouraged to take control of their own learning. In Korea, students are generally trained to be passive in the classroom; most of the classes they have with Korean professors will involve lectures. Classes on English grammar or literature will also be teacher-centered lectures, and the lecturers will speak primarily in Korean, which I find ironic. Students do little more than take notes during these sessions; they are not encouraged to question the professor or to “flex their English muscles”; instead, they sit in silence, just writing. How constructive is this? In my view, class is much more exciting and beneficial when the students take control and the professor stands back to let this happen. The professor, in my ideal classroom, is merely a guide or a facilitator; it is the students who are in the driver’s seat, even teaching each other lessons from the curriculum or completing tasks individually or in teams. People learn more when they are given responsibility: to learn to ride a bicycle, one must actually get on a bike, not merely hear a lecture about bike-riding.

In French pedagogical linguistics, a distinction is made between parler de la langue and parler dans la langue: speaking about the language versus speaking in the language. The former is a bad idea, but this is what happens when professors lecture on English grammar in Korean. The latter is a superior approach because it exposes the students to more actual English and forces them to think about what they are hearing. Linguist Stephen Krashen put forward the “I + 1 hypothesis” decades ago; the idea is that, if the students’ ability is at level I, the teacher must speak at level I + 1 to force the students to make an extra effort at comprehending the teacher’s utterances. Lazier students might resent this kind of challenge.

I also disagree with modern “oral proficiency” and “communicative” approaches that sacrifice the teaching of grammar for some vague, airy-fairy notion of “fluency.” These modern approaches do indeed get students producing English faster than the old-school methods ever did, but their major disadvantage is that the students, though speaking with confidence, often cannot speak well. Their speech tends to be garbled and incoherent, shot through with errors, and this is because the students have not learned the necessary grammatical structures on which to hang their ideas. When a Korean student says, “I go school” or “When you homework?”, I hear a grammar issue. Teaching EFL students how to structure “Wh-” and “yes/no” questions, how to reply intelligibly to such questions, and how to frame their thoughts in an organized manner is an essential part of a good language curriculum.

A personal example of the flaws of “oral proficiency”-oriented programs: my brother Sean went through a French curriculum that stressed communicative competence over grammar. Because I am fluent in the language, I would often try talking with my brother in French. I found that his pronunciation was not bad, and he was able to reply to my questions with short bursts of verbiage, but longer utterances were beyond him. When I took a look at Sean’s French writing, I saw it was atrocious: my brother had learned little to nothing about verb conjugation, grammatical gender, tense control, or any of the other myriad details that make one’s language clear and coherent. This was not Sean’s fault: the curriculum had failed to stress the structural, technical aspects of French, favoring instead a fuzzy, holistic approach that produced students who could gabble in French, but who had already begun to form a raft of bad speech habits that would be hard to undo later on in life.

This brings me back to EFL in Korea. Most of my Korean students have formed terrible speech habits because no one has bothered to correct their technical errors. I have taught writing classes in Korea in which my students were horrified to see how much red ink I had scrawled all over their short essays. This horror is the direct result of a lack of mindfulness caused by curricula that emphasize production and fluency, but neglect to consider correct grammar, mechanics, and so on.

There are, unfortunately, Western teachers in Korea who buy into the myth that “Korean students don’t need to learn more English grammar” or “Korean students have had enough grammar.” True: Korean students might be very good at recognizing grammar errors on a quiz, but that says nothing about those students’ ability to produce grammatically correct language. The problem with the “Koreans have had enough grammar” crowd is that these people do not realize that Koreans might have a good storehouse of passive grammar, but they have next to nothing when it comes to active grammar. The same goes for vocabulary: university students will have studied English for years, and will have a large mental lexicon of passive vocabulary (i.e., the vocabulary that is recognized through listening and reading), but they will have precious little active vocabulary (i.e., the vocabulary that one relies on when speaking and writing). Active vocabulary can only be developed through proactive use, which is again why lecture is a terrible way to teach English. Passive students will never develop active vocabulary.

In that sense, I do agree with the oral-proficiency school that the students need to be speaking, speaking, and speaking some more. But unstructured speech, “free talk,” and the avoidance of error correction are all harmful to students’ FL learning. Grammar drills and other focused exercises must be part of a language curriculum, however corny and old-school that might sound.

I have, lately, been encouraging my intermediate students to engage in a round-robin English activity in which the students take over, entirely, the responsibility of teaching, while the teacher stands back and monitors, providing occasional correction and leading the post-activity review segment. In my round-robin classroom, the students are divided into four teams. Each team is assigned a certain amount and type of content to teach. Team 1 will teach its material to Teams 2, 3, and 4; Team 2 will teach its material to Teams 1, 3, and 4, and so on. This is done in three rounds, with the combinations of teams rotating every round. Each team teaches its own material three times (and becomes expert at it by the third round); each team is taught different material by each of the other teams. By the end of three rounds, all four teams will have been exposed to all four teams’ material. The material itself is designed to be internally reinforcing, so there is a good bit of repetition and overlap, among the teams’ lessons, to aid students in remembering what they have learned. My intermediate kids love the round-robin approach; I told them that it provides them a small taste of American-style graduate-school seminars, in which it is incumbent on the students, not the professor, to provide the material for a given day’s lessons. My feeling is that you learn when you teach, and teaching something is an excellent way to take responsibility for it.

There are two other aspects to my pedagogical philosophy: I favor the use of behavioral objectives and the use of humor. Behavioral objectives stand in contrast to cognitive objectives. A cognitive objective might be something like, “By the end of the class, students will have developed an appreciation for Impressionist art.” The words develop and appreciation are frustratingly ill-defined in this context. Meanwhile, a behavioral objective will focus on things that are tangible and, where possible, quantifiable. For example: “By the end of the class, students will write a two-paragraph report summarizing the work of one Impressionist painter and expressing a well-defended opinion about that painter’s work.” As a pragmatist, I have a strong bias toward behavioral objectives because they can be used to measure students’ progress. As for the use of humor in the classroom, this should be so obvious as to go without saying. Humor softens the hard edges of social interaction in a classroom full of unfamiliar people. In Krashen’s terms, humor “reduces the affective filter,” lowering stress levels and allowing for better learning. It is an invaluable tool, not to mention one of the teacherly qualities for which an instructor will be long remembered.

To sum up, then: I am a strong advocate of student-centered, task-oriented FL learning. I am an enemy of lecture as a teaching method because it encourages student passivity and does nothing to improve students’ active vocabulary and active grammar. I believe in the old-school notion that grammar is absolutely crucial for good and proper production of language, but I speak here of grammar as it applies to the productive macroskills—speaking and writing. I also think that the teacher, far from being the center of attention in class, ought to be as far away from the center as possible, to allow the students to take charge of their own learning. While I am not against using Korean on occasion as a time-saving device, I believe that FL students should be exposed as much as possible to the target language, not to lectures in the students’ native tongue. Finally, I am a pragmatist who advocates the use of measurable, tangible behavioral objectives in lesson planning, and I also advocate the use of humor as a way to reduce stress and facilitate better learning.

These are some of the modest insights that I have gained from years of teaching. They have stood me in good stead, but because life is always evolving and people are always learning, I know that this philosophy will, inevitably, evolve as well.