Advancing to What Exactly?


I was reading a post by Geoffrey Jordan about whether he should accept an advanced learner for an immersion course, and it got me thinking about the same topic, rather deeply.

I believe in learner-centred teaching, learner autonomy. None of this is astoundingly new, nor is it unorthodox. Some of the hackles raised by the people opposed to it may be that it is tree-hugging hippy crap or they’re tired of people who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in ten years telling them how they should be teaching. Some of it is “common sense” or “just good teaching”. However, I do think that learners could do a lot more on their own: checking vocabulary, listening practice, reading for pleasure, etc.

In the language school I used to work at, there was also a debate about whether learners could ‘graduate’ from the school. The sales staff thought not; the teachers thought so. The sales staff get money for bums on seats whereas the teachers get the feelgood glow from thoughts of helping learners attain intended proficiency levels. It’s not that simple, though. I do know of organisations that have refused advanced-level students to join classes, though this is more to do with very-advanced-level students intimidating the upper-intermediate learners. I do not know of any that have done so for reasons of fostering learner autonomy. A lot of teachers don’t like to have their learners in too low a level. What if no level is high enough? Other teachers don’t want their students to be in over their head. In that case, how come they don’t have the tools to cope with autonomy at advanced level?

Geoff’s conundrum is whether his learner would benefit (or benefit enough) from the course. In an ideal world he might just curl up with a book, a video, put the radio on, talk to somebody online or write to a friend. However, I do mean ‘in an ideal world’; his learner might not actually be motivated to do it without a teacher there to motivate him. I feel that some of my most motivated learners would read and listen widely even if I didn’t moan at motivate them to.

I see my role as having my learners get to the point where they no longer need me. However, this leads to the issue of who decides. Should the teacher or the learner ultimately decided when they are ready for autonomy? (There is an interesting article by Sara Cotterall about readiness for learner autonomy [PDF].) I hate to feel like I’m saying there’s nothing to learn, but then teaching does not necessarily equate to learning.

Of course, it’s in no teacher’s best interests to turn down money from a willing student. I tend to wonder whether it’s the morality at play; that even if we are not wrong, that we feel bad for taking money when the teaching sometimes feels less intensive or there is less visible, near-immediate learning taking place.

4 thoughts on “Advancing to What Exactly?

  1. This situation has cropped up again and again in my context (Business English) over the past year. It looks like English levels might be improving at last in France 🙂
    I’ve seen two possible situations:
    1. The student already uses English on a daily basis in their job, in which case we offer very personalized short ESP workshops based on the student’s real-life needs (an upcoming presentation, contract negotiation, report …). In Business English, the return on investment of every course has to be justified!
    2. The student doesn’t have opportunities to use English at work. They are highly motivated and probably financing the course themselves. Often the student says that he wants to maintain his/her level, but I have a sneaking suspicion that without immediate feedback and validation from the teacher they feel a bit directionless. The face time with the student turns into a mentoring session on whatever autonomous work the student has done, and the teacher suggests other ways that the student can assess their own language to give them the confidence they need (corpus tools, dictionaries, etc …)
    As luck would have it, I came across Carol Waite’s blog today following a presentation she made for ETAS. Her website shows how to make tools available to students to work autonomously. Students can be overwhelmed by the range of materials online – this is where the teacher can play a role.

    I guess the main thing is to be honest with the student when setting the course objectives.
    I often think that some kind of hotline/support service might be more appropriate than traditional classes at very advanced levels, at least until the student feels completely ready to let go. But teachers can find it hard to let go too, especially with these very motivated students!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eily, thanks so much for taking the time to respond with such a thoughtful comment.

      That hotline idea is brilliant. I wonder how popular it would be? It is something that I might try out, so thanks! I am looking forward to checking oyt those Carol Waite links, too.
      I think the mentoring/coaching is definitely a change of role for a lot of teachers. Might it be that there’s a spectrum of need and that beginners need a lot of teaching, advanced learners need hardly any teaching but more coaching and mentoring and intermediate learners need a bit of both?

      I have MA work to be getting on with and you’ve set my brain on another train of thought. Thank you for distracting me in the best possible way! 🙂


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