Advancing to What Exactly?

monkey_tricks

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.