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Freedom and Education

Toward the concept of authentic negotiation
My ultimate goal in any form of teaching in which I engage is to enable students to experience freedom.  I have no idea how to do it, this is why often the road to this goal is an uphill battle. It is not as much a battle with students, as many seem to suggest. More to the point it is a battle with preconceptions, be it those that I have, those that my students have, or those that the conditions around us create. 

Since we can never be free from our preconceptions or biases, the question is not how to combat these preconceptions. More to the point, the question is how to explore our preconceptions or prejudices in order for them to work for us rather than against us. This question does not relate to teachers alone. Since everyone approaches reality with some forms of preconceptions, the issue of exploring our preconceptions for them to work for us is just as relevant for students as it is for teachers. In this sense, it would follow, as teachers we are not in the business of imposing our bias on students or vice versa. Instead, we are in the business of creating conditions where respective biases can be confronted and negotiated by individuals against whatever information that they receive from sources other than their own point of view. 

Thus negotiation of points of view, or prejudices in the most and least abstract sense of this word, becomes the strategy by which our understandings are evaluated and modified, if necessary. But negotiation here is not reduced to “two people talking” or students talking to one another or students talking to teachers. Negotiation here means looking for diverse sets of resources and means that would help students test the limits of their understandings and hence would help them understand better. The aim is therefore to build meaningful relationships rather than memorise meaningless sets of structures. 

Since structures of whatever origin (linguistic or intuitive explanations or clues) are always a reflection of someone’s bias, it is a false path to assume that language teachers should be teaching structures. The negotiation process as it is explained in here derives its authenticity from the fact that in its process students do not negotiate in order to take out of this negotiation what the teacher wants them to take. Rather, its authenticity is derived from students searching for links that are meaningful to them. Since no one can deliver such sets of meaningful relationships to anyone, this is why students must be given access to multiple sets of resources and means to establish such links.

But this is not to say that teachers should not facilitate a learning that leads to structured (communicative) behaviour. People’s actions are structured. This is however not the same to assume that we, as teachers or theorists, actually know the principles in terms of which the communicative behaviour is structured. Now, it would follow that as teachers we cannot determine what is it that we should teach per se. But we can determine what is it that we should not teach and the kind of behaviour that does not reflect communicative proficiency. We can hence say that:

(a) We are not in the business of taking students down a path that our educated guesses tell us as reflecting the reality of language. Language, like any other concept that we define and hence remove from the totality of its practical history, is both a theoretical concept and an everyday concept. This does not yet legitimise a teaching methodology that takes it as its objective to teach students language. It is therefore important to maintain a distance between what we call language as a practical shortcut in our discourse and the reality of the conditions in which language lives and without which it stops being a language as we know it through our everyday experience. To maintain the distance between a model of reality (as it is with language) and reality (which knows no language just the practices of communication) is crucial in practicing critical pedagogy. The word critical here means an attempt of maintaining distance between our concepts and the reality of these concepts.  

(b) We may not know what to teach but we can work with our students by making to them available sets of means and resources to prevent learners from learning communicative behaviours that to native speakers appear illstructured. This is to say, we do not what makes up communicative behaviours but we certainly can tell when a behaviour of our students is disabling rather than enabling communication. The concept of working, metaphorically speaking, with a list of DONTS rather than DOES seems to be re-emerging again. 

Question is: How can we create conditions in which we do not dictate to learners what to learn and yet we do restrict the learning outcomes i.e. we do restrict learners’ selections regarding what is right and what is wrong. 

The unpredictability element
We can hence summarise that the objective of enabling students to experience freedom would imply on the part of teachers to seek ways that have a potential for students to experience that they can make their history (i.e. what they are and know) work for them rather than against them. Freedom here is the sense of control that students experience when they realise that they can chose their communicative behaviour in L2. In other words, students are no longer overwhelmed and constrained by their past which is mainly that of their L1. Instead, they have accumulated enough history in L2 (or enough links in L2) that they can now choose the way they act in L2. We can say that at such a stage they can shape their own future rather than be restricted by their lack of experience. The ability to shape one’s future is undeniably a means for many to experience freedom. 

But if students are to be given the possibility to shape their future how can we make this goal into our teaching objective? How can we enable students to shape their immediate future right now and hence make their sense of freedom direct their learning? The solution may lie in introducing into our teaching environment an element that defies pre-determination and makes the learning process depend on students’ actual interactions with the target language.

The concept of a macro-task comes in here handy. The advantage of a macro-task is that they are simply a means for giving students a possibility to shape the context of their actions within a macro-task as both (a) individuals and (b) as members of the specific L2-social strata in terms of which their actions are structured and toward which their actions are directed.

Macro-task therefore does not impose on students any specific demands. Students do not have to explain a text, listen to a text, act out a text, or perform any specific actions. Instead, they have to explore and, as a result, act within the sociohistorical context of the person that they appropriate in the task. The actions that they generate will result from their explorations. Their actions will be shaped by (a) their understandings of the sociohistorical context of the person that they appropriate in the task and (b) the kinds of interactions that this person will undertake in the course of the macro-task.

Macro-tasks therefore are dynamic inasmuch as there is not predetermined in terms of the form or content. As a result the learning objectives are not pre-determined but are generated as a result of the difficulties that students experience in the course of the macro-task. Macro-tasks bring with them therefore an element of unpredictability which in turn gives students the possibility to engage creatively and critically in the task rather than simply following some pedagogic agenda.

This is the case even in macro-tasks that at first level may seem very deterministic. For example, in a macro-task that requires from students to create a TV advertisement, the form of the advertisement and its content are not imposed by the task. Rather, they are subject to, and therefore will evolve therefore from, students’ exploration of possible forms and content that a TV advertisement may appropriate. A TV advertisement may be simply a short message, may be a joke or humorous, may be a story line, may be a song etc. The content also will vary and will depend on students’ explorations and understandings of the target culture strata at which they aim their advertisement. 

Now, one can involve learners in a diversity of macro-tasks (for examples, see other texts on WebCT produced this semester by A. Lian). In such tasks, students can learn by exploring, linking and testing their understandings against the demands of the sociocultural context within which they act. A TV ad has to look like a TV ad. A Day on Australian TV must look like a day on Australian TV. A soap opera must look like one. New forms of interaction that students may create also cannot escape specific sociocultural constraints if they are meant to be understood. 

Thus while the actual shape of the structures of students’ macro-tasks is up to the students, students also explore the function of an ad, or the function of a soap opera by exploring the boundaries when a soap opera or a TV ad are still or no longer what they are meant to be. The constraints though are not removing freedom from students. Rather, they are opportunities for learners to explore the distinguishing features of the contexts within which they decide to act. As a result, they learn about these contexts and also they learn to appropriate them in the direction that seems to them to be constructive. 

The learning process therefore is liberating inasmuch as students’ steps are directed toward a process of understanding in order to create. This is a very different model from most L2-teaching models. In more traditional models, students’ steps are directed toward a process of understanding in order to re-create. Thus in traditional teaching models, including the current models of task-based teaching, students are put in the context of tasks whose objectives are pedagogic (e.g. learning vocabulary, grammar, sound-system etc.). In such teaching models the aim is for students to recreate the texts or structures which teachers see as demonstrating the knowledge of language. Thus, the aim is not to enable students to establish what is relevant to them for the purpose of creating new texts and in this sense new structures. As a result, the goal of enabling students to choose their communicative behaviour is lost

The main objective that technology can serve in here is to function as support structures. With the use of technology students can engage in the process of exploration of language resources in a more focused way. Such resources can be more or less dynamic. More dynamic resources are largely communication opportunities that Internet makes possible. They are dynamic because they give students the possibility to act here and now. Less dynamic resources include means of communication that students can explore at their time without being constrained by time. Examples of such less dynamic resources are:

- print texts available through websites or paper-based print
- audio texts including real-audio opportunities that are available on the www (e.g. radio, tapes)
- video-texts produced with the use of camera, television, or video-streaming
Examples of how to help students interrogate these forms of materials you can find under 'Selected readings' below. The most important point is that your students must know what to find where when they need help. A smart way of organising (cataloguing) access to your teaching resources is prerequisite. 

Selected Readings

· Ania Lian, ‘Living in language: reflections on language learning environments in present-day Australia’

· Ania Lian and Andrew Lian ‘Uses of Technology in Language Teaching and Learning: an exploratory approach’

· Ania Lian, ‘Classroom interaction studies and second language pedagogy’

· Andrew Lian and Ania Lian, ‘The Secret of the Shao-Lin Monk: Contribution to an intellectual framework for language-learning’

· Andrew Lian And Mestre, M-C.) 'Goal-Directed Communicative Interaction and Macrosimulation'

· Andrew Lian, ‘Imagination in Language Teaching and Learning’

· Andrew Lian, ‘From First Principles: Constructing Language-Learning and Teaching Environments’

Ania Lian, 2002

Copyright © Ania Lian 2002