Yesterday, I was playing a game with my students called “stand in line”. I asked questions, they had to figure out what place in the line was theirs, and then they had to give their answers. Questions such as “How old are you” and “How long does it take you to get to school?” were answered easily enough. They could order themselves from youngest to oldest, from longest to shortest commute without any problem.
Then I asked a harder question: “How confident are you in teaching English to young children?” After spending half a semester helping them learn to teach and play with their young pupils, I was hoping that they would feel at least somewhat confident in this aspect of their work.
And indeed, a few students stood near the front of the line, indicating that they felt pretty confident about teaching English to young people, and a number placed themselves a bit further back along the line. I then asked them the next question: why they had chosen that particular place along the line.
As I expected, the students up front said that they felt good about their own abilities, they’d paid good attention during the lessons and had gotten some good ideas, while others mentioned that they’d had good experiences teaching English to young children and indeed, were looking forward to teaching English again. Further back along the line, students talked about how they felt about their own English, and how they wished they could speak English more fluently and confidently so that they could pass this on to their own class. This touched me, and I asked what more I could do to help them in this area.
One student, however, said something quite different. He hadn’t been coming to the lessons, so I was surprised to see him standing near the front of the line. I asked him why he’d chosen that spot for himself. He told the class that he’d chosen that spot because he figured, that if he just “followed the method”, then he’d do just fine.
I need to explain something here. In the Netherlands, the word for “textbook” is “method”. A complete misnomer, but one I cannot seem to purge from my student’s understanding. There is a tendency for teachers and students alike to put their blind trust in those who wrote the textbooks, and this leads to all sorts of strange situations in the world of Dutch education.
Back to my story. I looked at this student, mouth agape, wondering if I’d really taught them that badly. I soon remembered that it wasn’t my fault – after all, he hadn’t been coming to class – but was too taken aback by this answer to give a proper response. Something clicked. And it wasn’t a happy click. This student was willingly walking into the trap of becoming a “method slave”, as we call it here; a teacher who simply follows the textbook in the misguided trust that it will lead him and his class to wherever they should go.
Why is it, I asked myself, that I have such a complete aversion to this sort of thinking? Why can I not just “trust the ‘method'” like so many others? My answer to that is manifold. But the long and short of it is, the ‘method’ doesn’t always match the child. On the one hand, sometimes the ‘method’ is too hard. On the other hand, many classes have “native speakers” of English, for whom the level of English offered in the ‘method’ is too easy. Other times, the ‘method’ becomes repetitive, with the same activities offered unit after unit. Oftentimes, the ‘method’ is flawed, offering too little opportunity for children to practice speaking English with each other, instead focusing on the skills of listening and reading – also necessary, but only half of any situation in which actual communication is involved.
Worst of all are the situations in which a school head decides to implement a new, school-wide, program of English, all in one go. Materials are bought, in a series of textbooks that assume that the children working out of the highest levels have already tackled the previous levels with some measure of success. Which, of course, they haven’t. The teacher is faced with an immense gap between that which the book intends to cover (and teach), and that which the children can actually grasp. This problem goes far beyond the Zone of Proximity, and children in this situation will be left with feelings of incapability that might even reach into adulthood.
Blindly “following the method” is an unacceptable way of teaching. That is why it is so important for future teachers to learn to see and observe their children. Teachers must make note of their children’s needs and know what the next logical step is, in regards to their further development as learners. They must really take a critical look at what their textbooks and materials have to offer, and decide to what extent these match up with their learners’ needs. They must understand that when these two parties don’t match, it is up to them, the teachers, to make the necessary adaptations and bridge the gap between the two. That is what teacher training is all about.