Neither language nor personal interests should be enough an obstacle to divide us therefore.
Instead, today, like yesterday, our students are still studying the microsystems (such as vocabulary, grammar or phonology) as if the macrosystem were the sum-total of these individual microsystems. The difference between yesterday and today is that today we believe that our students may be learning their words and grammar in a more scientifically accurate manner. After all, the vocabulary of L2-teaching research cannot be misleading. Almost every study deals with one microsystem or another, be it vocabulary-, grammar-, or phonology-acquisition. As for culture, it continues to be seen as a microsystem that can be further divided to objects such as literary and art works or specific customs or food. But culture is not just food or the way we bow to say ‘Hello’. Culture is the context of everything and hence the reference source for everything. Culture is history and we all are history whether at the level of awareness or physiology.
But L2-teaching research finds it difficult to deal with such intangibles. If only we could sequence culture and teach its individual segments to our students according to some mathematical equation! Since we lack such an equation, the assumption is that language teachers can feel free from any responsibility regarding what to do in their language classes and why we should be doing it. After all, the claim is that there is no scientific reason for doing things one way or another. Until such time, L2-teaching literature recommends that L2-teachers be guided by their intuition and experience (cf. Allwright and Bailey, 1991; Ellis, 1994; Kumaravadivelu, 1993; Long, 1996; Prahbu, 1987, 1990). While this may not be a bad idea in itself, few L2-teaching theorists embark on the task of unraveling concepts such as intuition or experience. It is not clear why intuition or experience seem to be given an air of innocence and neutrality to the extent that they justify the very attempt of their critical analysis? Should language teachers therefore hide behind excuses such as intuition and experience or should they engage in the task of reflection and act in a manner that justifies their roles as leaders and guides?
Furthermore, while the language of linguistics may give language teachers the appearance that language and culture can be reduced to tangibles such as words, grammar, customs, etc., it also obscures the fact that it is one thing to think of language as a mathematical system of forms and moves, it is another thing to teach language as if it were a mathematical system of forms and moves. The metaphor that Bourdieu gives here is that : “One can say that gymnastics is geometry so long as this is not taken to mean that the gymnast is a geometer.” (Bourdieu, 1995: 93). Without acknowledging the difference between reality and the description of reality, the description is taken for reality. The consequence is that progress and change are prevented since reality is assumed to be the way the description tells us it is.
But today research in L2-teaching continues to follow within a paradigm that refuses to take a distance from its own forms of description. The difficulty in maintaining the distance between reality and a specific constructed theoretical model of reality indicates that second language research appears to have embarked on a path which seeks credibility for its answers in the form of laws which are presented as if they were a more or less like laws of nature. The reasoning behind this way of proceeding has been that if the laws of teaching/learning can be clearly identified in what is considered to be a scientific manner, and they are indeed natural laws, then the approaches necessary for second language teaching would follow in an obvious way. In that context, pedagogic activities would not only be legitimised. They would also be legitimate.
Logic of this kind remains deaf and blind to those scientists who investigate Nature. Einstein has been known to have said words to the effect that ‘Nature never says yes, often says no, only sometimes it can smile at you’. To take this smile for a definite Yes would be to turn a deaf ear to Nature. Max Planck, in turn, said about the ever-changing nature of the laws that we create: “we have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up to now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future” (Planck in Gal-Or, 1981: 432). It seems that scientists themselves have long given up on the idea of telling how Nature is. It is much safer simply to work with Nature.
It is the aim of this short discussion paper to explore the question of technology in L2-teaching against the context of the misguided belief regarding the role that science or scientific description should play in this process. The argument that this paper presents is that the combination of technology and science will have a positive impact on education only when both technology and science are used critically rather than chaotically. A critical and thoughtful use of both would require an understanding that technology and science, like all tools invented by humans, have the potential equally either to free us or enslave us. How history develops is up to us. So what does the future hold for L2-teaching? Will it be a future that gives learners and teachers the power to understand or a future that removes this power and enforces obedience to whatever ideology happens to prevail at a given time?
The discussion which follows appropriates the following structure:
1. First, the article focuses on the problem of Method in L2-teaching. The section revolves around the argument that the search for the right Method resembles the search for the biblical apple of truth. Most L2-reserchers and teachers are involved in the search for the biblical apple. The last concern on their mind is the possibility that the power of the truth that they find is less a truth about reality and more a truth about the methodology that bore these truths. People have always sought the truth. People then no longer have to inquire about the legitimacy of their actions. They act in the name of truth. The minority who have the truth therefore have the right to impose it by whatever means (Saul, 1997: 24). Examples of numerous ideologies come to one’s mind here (Saul, 1997: 24).
2. Second, the discussion makes the point that technology should not be seen as the alternative savior. In the section on technology the argument is that just as the Method cannot provide us with the divine plan for doing things, nor can technology. The secret to a better future is not outside of us but inside us and in the ways in which we are prepared to read our own history. And history shows that a better future does not lie in technological solutions as such but in intellectual advances that help us expand our vision and hence our understandings of ourselves and our own condition.
3. Third, the discussion turns to the concept of inquiry itself and to principles that would make a creative and engaged learning environment a reality. This section makes the point that a creative and engaged learning environment can be a reality only once the search for natural laws is abandoned and each party involved in the educational process embarks on the process of learning from one another through strategies that allow them to confront their expectations and, as a result, consider, consult and connect more rather than less.
4. Fourth, this discussion paper sets out to identify a number of conceptual strategies which would make it possible for educators to turn to technology with an open mind rather than with a mind that defies challenge. In this section, a number of old truths are put to challenge. The objective is to propose a few principles that would make it possible for teachers to create an environment that does not subject learners to teachers’ prejudice. The aim is to enable learners to act on a richly informed basis. The concern therefore is not with the Method but with the specific teaching conditions that help learners work with information in ways which, to them, seem more revealing.
5. The paper concludes with a short summary of the path that it took.
As the structure of this discussion paper indicates, it is the aim
of this short presentation to explore how our own prejudices, rather than
technology itself or our limited technological skills, are an obstacle
along the path toward the development of teaching environments that nurture
critical, creative and exploratory learning.
On the subject of Method
While this never-ending search for the Method may seem more important to some and less important to others, it is crucial that we reflect upon the problem of the Method itself. What is it that we are searching for and why? What is a Method? What makes a Method so seductive that we wish we had one? How much do we have to know in order to design one? On the one hand, we know that we do not know it all. On the other hand, there is no comfort in knowing everything about something which is very small. As the Canadian thinker, John Ralston Saul, reminds us while repeating the words of the president of Petro-Canada, “you can’t shrink to greatness” (Saul, 1997: 107).
But John Ralston Saul has many more concerns. In his critique of the Western world, Saul raises the question of responsibility and obligation. Why is it, he asks that increasingly we seek safety and legitimation in numbers? He repeats after C. Jung: “Where the many are, there is security; what the many believe must of course be true” (Saul, 1997: 95). To Saul, the tendency to seek strength in numbers reflects another phenomenon: that of the individual abdicating his/her sense of responsibility and delegating it to the expert. “Those who have the truth must have the answer” (Flaubert in Saul, 1997: 95). Consequently, we live in a world where to acquire knowledge means to buy it from the experts.
The dependency structure between non-experts and experts is thus set in place. The expert is not only the only one with answers and hence with the monopoly on truth. He or she is also the only one who invents a problem that only s/he can solve. In fact, surrounded by experts, non-experts can slip “back into the kingdom of childhood, into the paradise of parental care” (cf. Saul, 1997: 95) where the responsibility for big things is delegated to big people. Non-experts are powerful through their experts i.e. through those whose feed them and whose language they repeat. The responsibility for the actions of non-experts is on big people. Little people then go about spreading the word of the big people as if knowledge were more like a political tool than a means for challenging the status quo.
In such a context, knowledge is no longer constructed and reconstructed for the purpose of revealing more. Instead, knowledge functions as a form of currency to reinforce egos. It has lost the meaning for which Socrates has given his life. Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher who is considered to have laid the foundations of Western civilisation. We may say that Socrates had wrong knowledge and was sentenced to death because of that. The death of Socrates still weighs on us. To prevent it from recurring, the experts divided knowledge into ever-narrower specialisations. The operating principle is that we can all be right provided everyone stays within the boundaries of their own specialisation. As a result, we no longer grow by learning form one another. Instead, knowledge becomes compartmentalised and our fields of expertise become increasingly smaller. Experts continue to reveal more and more about less and less. They work in the hope that one can shrink to greatness after all.
The problem of “Which Method should we use in L2-teaching?” is a direct outcome of this survival strategy. Whatever Method has been proposed over the years, it always made perfect sense to one camp and no sense to another. We have all tolerated the various differences and discrepancies between the various camps if only because to deny their validity would be to invite trespass and hence the potential destruction of our own fiefdom, status and power. And so the dream of a perfect Method continues to live with us like the promise of a better life or salvation. For as long as the concept of the Method lives, so does the relevance of those who see themselves in a position to solve the problem of the Method one day. Furthermore, the promise that some-day the right Method will emerge from the pen and the sweat of experts also frees everyone else from the responsibility for their own future and the future of their students. This is the kind of model that resembles the view often expressed in Mexico: “Why should we do research when the Americans are doing this already?”
In summary, the following can be said about methods:
(a) They have all been designed within the frame of mind that their inventors are on the path to uncovering the divine plan.
(b) If our students have been failing to learn a foreign language, the responsibility should not be seen to be that of the inventors. After all, the divine plan may take time to uncover! The result is the current situation in our L2-teaching institutions. We are all waiting for the divine plan, while our students are struggling or while teachers struggle with bored students who do not seem to recognise the divinity in the methods that we impose on them.
(c) To the inventors of methods, a learning model where the learning objectives and the learning paths are no longer the object of the divine plan is completely out of question. This would make the role of the expert both redundant and obsolete. Also, in a teaching environment where learners do what reality validates as relevant, rather than the experts, the aim would no longer be to devise a theory. That is, theory will never be a primary concern. Instead, the primary concern would be the students and their ability to interact. As someone once said: “A theory may be beautiful and elegant, but if it does not fit the facts, it’s just plain wrong” (Wolf, 1989: 200). Once freed from the chains of a divine unified theory reflected in a perfect Method, we may actually be able to learn something from our learners while, at the same time, giving things back to them.
This discussion paper argues for a learning environment where the
‘What’ of learning and the ‘How’ of learning are not objects of inventors’
predictions and ideology but the product of learners’ analyses of their
own expectations against those of their interlocutors. It is the aim of
this paper to further explore this concept and to do so in the context
of current concerns with technology.
Technology will not save us
On the other hand, intellectual advances change our perspective on the problems themselves. New perspectives emerge only when old foundational truths are challenged and when new questions are asked. But new perspectives are not solutions to problems. They are far more important. They open up ways for us to ask questions that are not only new and different but which, most of all, are more meaningful to us.
Their meaning does not come to us from old and worn out ideologies such as that of technology being our next savior. Instead, their meaning comes to us from the diversity of the perspectives that they help us consider, consult and connect. Their meaning therefore comes to us from our ability to include more and hence to understand more. Intellectual revolutions are harder to spot since their impact on our lives is less immediate.
Intellectual breakthroughs require on our part intellectual capacity to recognise, appreciate and most of all work with their potential and strengths. Intellectual revolutions therefore do not lend themselves to immediate use as do technological breakthroughs. Intellectual revolutions require an active engagement on our part to reflect upon what we do or what we are. But it is hard to think. It is easier to buy a faster car or a faster computer chip.
A faster car, a faster computer chip or the so-called language-teaching software do not give us only new technology. They also give us the impression that we are participating in progress. They give us the illusion that we are right in the midst of it. But, come to think of it, computer technology is nothing more than a form of the 19th century technology that gave electricity to Europe and then others. Thus if anything, computer technology is riding on an old wave that began with the genius of Michael Faraday and his contemporaries. Computers therefore are not examples of intellectual breakthroughs but more examples of the continuing clever utilization of electricity.
But Michael Faraday did not set out to invent electricity nor did he invent it by riding on the old waves of former technologies such as waterwheels and spinning and weaving machines. Michael Faraday was an apprentice bookbinder and pursued intellectual questions at his own expense and in his own time. His work on electricity derived from a love of the pursuit of knowledge and not from inventing a better waterwheel or other machines for factories to make more profits. Michael Faraday pursued questions relating to how nature works. He did not ask how could a waterwheel or a spinning machine help him on this subject. Instead, he explored many aspects of physics and chemistry etc., totally divorced from commercial or social returns. He represents the archetype of the 19th century scientist: a natural philosopher interested in asking questions across all boundaries.
If we were to learn anything from the computer technology that currently in educational institutions has grown to be an issue that is bigger than the problem of education itself, we can learn from Michael Faraday. Our lesson would be that it is not technology that marks advances in human civilisation but rather our capacity to formulate questions that allow us to consider more rather than less. A scientist, Leon Rosenfeld, has been quoted as saying that "… concepts can be understood only through their limits" (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984: 264). We do this with word meanings. We learn the boundaries of word meanings when we push them and are then told that our estimations are either right or wrong. It is also not infrequent that non-native speakers, because of their limited experience, push the knowledge of the native speakers. Many of us non-English speakers can certainly recall the confused faces of our native Anglo-Saxon interlocutors when they no longer knew what was right and what was wrong. Truth walks a fine line.
Learning is about pushing the boundaries. The implication of this
statement is rather revolutionary to the current Western systems of education
although it seemed like a pretty straightforward conclusion to Faraday
and many before him including Socrates. Socrates was sentenced to death
exactly because the regime of his contemporary Athens did not welcome a
mind that sought to explore and question. Reinforcement is a tool that
closes questions. On the other hand, exploration and challenge are the
tools of learning. Dialogue was the form that Socrates was said to use
to ensure that his ideas were never left without challenge.
We want understandings not ideologies
To language teachers, this implies creating conditions which help learners explore and perceive whatever differences or correlations may be of value to them. In this process though it is important to keep in mind that no one can identify or predict the kinds of relationships that may prove revealing to learners. As a result, a teaching model should not seek to do so. Instead, it is crucial that the learning environment be rich in help structures (i.e. conditions or tools) of a kind that stimulate learners’ exploration of their own systems of perception and production. But the concept of exploration described in this article is very different from that used in L2-teaching literature. Whatever the support structures are, their function is not to work in spite of learners’ current understandings in order to create new understandings.
Instead, their function is to serve as challenging tools for learners to utilise in order to assess the effects of their own actions against those of others. This is a very important function. In such an environment teachers do not teach nor do they tell how it is. They cannot do so because no person and no teaching/learning theory can predict the kinds of problems that students encounter while dealing with their communicative encounters. As a result, no person and no teaching/learning model can solve learners’ problems for them. The ingenuity of the help structures that need to be put in place requires an intelligence that on the one hand, makes learners’ explorations possible and, on the other hand, does not limit learners’ explorations.
The main point is for the teaching environment to ensure that it does not provide learners with solutions to questions that they do not ask and hence do not understand. This is a very important point. The support structures put in place can be thought of as conditions designed to help learners confront their understandings of the L2 by increasing learners’ opportunities to explore their production and comprehension of L2-texts in more than one way. In a teaching environment of this kind, the aim is to give rise to learning opportunities that proceed through a dialogue. The dialogue takes place between the schemes of perception that guide learners’ understandings of the target language and expectations (or schemes) of native speakers.
Examples how to enhance this dialogue are described in greater detail in Lian and Lian, 1997 (Lian and Lian, 1997). The support structures described in this article differ in kind as they help learners extract different kinds of information and, as a result, approach their understandings of the target language differently. They range from resources which give learners access to authentic (i.e. non-pedagogic) interactions through to mechanisms which enable learners to confront, compare and contrast aspects of their productions and understandings against those of native speakers.
The possibilities to confront, compare and contrast their understandings of the target language provide learners with a means for opening a dialogue between their expectations and those of the native speakers. The more such opportunities are made available, the richer the dialogue and, as a result, the greater the possibility for learners to develop a richer basis for functioning in the target language. In the proposed learning environment, the aim is no longer to get learners to respond to specific treatments. Instead, the aim is to identify mechanisms that have the potential to reveal to learners as many differences and similarities as possible in their systems of perception and production in relation to those of native speakers.
In this search, it is important to consider the social and the individual bases of the systems that govern individuals’ schemes of perception and production (cf. Bourdieu, 1995: 52-65; Lian, 1980). With this concern in mind, the aim is for the support structures to seek to explore and exploit the diversity of learners’ systems of perception in order for these to impact on each other. In this attempt, dialogue happens between the diversity of levels or kinds of perceptions that the support structures help learners to mobilise, engage and build upon. The support structures are a window for learners into the kinds of understandings (articulated and not articulated) that they themselves, teachers and native speakers have about the target language.
It is therefore critical that dialogue here be seen as a theoretical concept rather than as an everyday word whose meaning is to “hold a conversation”. In the proposed teaching model, learning is not limited to learners talking to teachers or their peers. A dialogue of this kind would provide a very narrow source of references for learners to explore and to work with. The model that is being suggested here is therefore very different from the scaffolding model proposed by van Lier (1996), the Interaction Hypothesis of Long (1996) or Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis (Krashen, 1994).
Contrary to those models, the dialogue here is multileveled as it engages a diversity of learners’ systems of perception as they reveal themselves in the course of (a) learners’ target language communications and (b) in relation to the challenges that the support structures open up to learners. The aim here therefore is not to teach a language. Rather, the aim is to create conditions that make it possible for learners to construct understandings about the target language which, in turn, make it possible for them to function successfully in that language.
In Lian and Lian, 1997, some examples of the support structures that have the potential to engage learners in a challenging, multileveled and constructive dialogue are technology-based. They include means that give learners the possibility to play back their productions and to compare these against those of native speakers. The play-back opportunity has the potential to reveal to learners some differences between the two. Furthermore, different modulations of pitch and intonation patterns are suggested as helping learners to perceive and, as a result, to adjust, the distance between their productions and those of native speakers.
Other examples include the possibility for learners to unravel the content of spoken texts with the help of various listening comprehension tools. In addition, an audiovisual database is described which, with its diverse points of entry, functions as a kind of sociological treasure box. It gives students the possibility to relate to the target language in action in a diversity of ways. Many more examples are described in the abovementioned article and many more need to be developed. Together, the support structures suggested by Lian and Lian, 1997, do not seek to deliver “comprehensible input”.
Instead, their aim is to provide conditions that help learners approach
critically their own productions and, as a result, develop more effective
strategies for managing their target language interactions. In this perspective,
it is no longer teachers that lead students. Rather, the aim is to give
students access to a rich set of tools that help them manage the kinds
of difficulties that they experience in the course of their target language
interactions. The aim is to equip learners with quality support structures
i.e. support structures that enable learners to organise their processing
load according to the kinds of comprehension difficulties that L2-texts
present to them. This is a rather revolutionary concept in the L2-teaching
Principles and prejudice: toward intelligent teaching practices
Before we embark on the task of exploring the possibilities that truly explorative learning structures may make possible, it is important to summarise the points made in the course of this discussion paper in the form of a few constructive principles. The framework for intelligent teaching practices for which this paper argues can be summarised as follows:
(a) The premise that sets the direction for organising such a learning environment is that teachers’ and learners’ assumptions about reality should be used in a positive rather than a negative way. A negative way would imply an approach where the assumptions regarding the “nature of language” or the “nature of learning” limit the learning possibilities that are made available to learners. On the other hand, a positive way would imply an approach where teachers’ understandings about the target language are not constructed into teaching objectives but, instead, serve as points of reference in relation to which mechanisms are developed which help learners increase opportunities to explore their production and comprehension of L2-texts in more than one way (cf. Lian and Lian, 1997).
(b) The aim behind such a form of learning is to create conditions where learning problems are resolved in ways that are solutions to learners rather than to a linguistic model of language acquisition. To this end, a learning environment is proposed where mechanisms are put in place which help learners confront and challenge the limits of the understandings in terms of which they act in order to make room for new understandings that may prove to be less limiting and hence more enabling. Learning therefore relies on learners negotiating their learning paths against a diversity of possibilities that open up for them as a result of their challenging encounters. This leads to the third principle:
(c) The means by which the proposed teaching environment proceeds
is that of dialogue. Here, the learning process is no longer driven by
the detail of a specific vision in terms of which the categories of “input”
and “output” are organised. Consequently, the goal is no longer to give
to learners what it is assumed they need. Rather, the learning process
is driven by demands that learners’ L2-interactions place on them (cf.
and Mestre, 1985). Learning success will depend on the quality of the
conditions made available for learners to:
- increase their opportunities to explore their production and comprehension of L2-texts in more than one way and, as a result,
- increase their potential to build a richer basis for functioning in an L2.
To summarise, the principles above have been generated within a framework that suggests a break with the common prejudice that privileges the point of view of researchers and teachers over that of the learner. Typically, researchers and teachers are presented in the learning environment as those who know the building blocks of language and the path toward their construction. On the other hand, learners are presented as the acquirers of this knowledge. A new model has been presented that is based on dialogue and challenge rather than on traditional power structures.
Furthermore, the article suggests that the question of what to teach
and how is not so much open for discussion as it appears to be the wrong
question to ask. Therefore it is more likely that the distinction between
learners as acquirers and teachers as experts is sourced more in the tradition
of educational institutions than in teachers’ and researchers’ expertise
as to what to teach and how. It seems therefore that both researchers and
students share the process of inquiry as the only one available to them
to learn. They may pursue different questions but this alone cannot give
the researcher’s point of view a privileged position.
The idea that this discussion paper sought to pursue is that teachers should not be blocked by whatever ideology they happen to have been educated into.
The possibility that students can affect their own learning process
creates an environment where all learners are truly engaged in that learning
process. The quality of the learning process no longer hangs on the thread
of the quality of the truth that the specific Method applied claims to
have monopolised. Instead, the quality of the learning process depends
on the quality of challenges that learners face up to. Furthermore, it
also depends on the quality of the support structures that teachers make
available to learners in order to cope with whatever challenges they meet.
The learning environment of this kind no longer relies on the magic of
Methods but on the attitude with which teachers and learners approach the
task of gathering and working with information. But the line between a
supportive teacher and a disabling teacher is easy to cross. The principle
is as follows: the more the teacher claims to know, the less learners are
able to find out. However, the more the teachers recognise that they do
not know, the more they are able to create supportive learning structures
for constructive and rich learning to occur.
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Copyright © Ania Lian 2002