What to teach: who knows best?

Blimey – a difficult question when you really think about it – go on, think about it!

Are the publishers in the best position to judge? After all they must do loads of research into what works best – they use the European framework that surely is based on years of study into how people learn languages and what is needed at different levels / stages of learning and they must only hire the most qualified knowledgable people to write materials. And those writers. They must have so much teaching experience and background knowledge to come up with, like A WHOLE BOOK.

So how come, even on entry training courses, teachers are encouraged to adapt material? I don’t know anyone – please give your own examples to fill the gap – who has passed any teaching qualification by teaching a lesson “by the (literal) book.” So does that mean “the teacher” knows best? What are we there for, after all, but to impart our expertise? Aren’t we the ones who select what to teach and how (and how!)? Don’t we do this based on our own experience, mounting qualifications and our knowledge of our particular group of students? Surely we are in the best position to judge.

Ok so we are bound by restrictions imposed on us by time, management, time-management, assessment criteria, paperwork, inspections, evidencing requirements and so on, all of which we tend to see as getting in the way of us being able to do what we do best – which is be the best judge. But hold on. All of that stuff getting in the way is what goes towards our students being able to fulfil criteria which will enable them to get the qualifications they need to, well, live their lives in the “real world.” Remember the “real world?” I know that, outside of teaching, we all live in the “real world,” and we try to make our activities more authentic and thereby motivating, by basing them on “real world” situations but are we not making judgements on what “real world” means to our students? (note to self: topic for another blog entry.)

Oh, yes. The students. Nearly forgot about them in considering all of those really well-learned, well-qualified, well-experienced-in the-art-of-teaching-English folk we’ve been focussing on (and buying books from and adapting materials from and discussing how English is learned according to a framework that is mapped-out…) Ah, the students. You know, the ones who are actually learning the language. Our customers, if you like.

At the end of the day, we all know who knows best. The customer ALWAYS knows best. There are no exceptions. They know what they want to learn and why – sometimes contrary to what we think they should learn and how. Those are the frustrating students because they just can’t see how “right” we are – right? Wrong! If they are not listening to you or following your advice, it’s because what you are telling them does not ring true for them. Yes, it was true for him and her and those guys, but not this person standing before you now. Students might be limited by what is on offer but if they have signed up for a course, they have seen something in that course that they believe will get them where they want to go. Mostly, that will require them fulfilling certain requirements in order to evidence achievement.

Curriculum for excellence seems to be unique in allowing students to do so in a way that is relevant to individual learners. It will be very interesting to see how this works out. As ESOL providers (which I feel is a much better title than ESOL teachers) I feel we should be involving learners / students / customers in lesson planning and syllabus design. What do your students think?

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