Principle 4: Classroom relations reflect mutual liking and respect, allowing for both teacher personality and student personality in a non-threatening atmosphere of cooperative learning

Teaching and learning languages are distinctly different from other subject disciplines. Speaking and writing what one really thinks and feels means revealing one's inner self: one's feelings, prejudices, values, and aspirations. In a new language, learners can do this only in a roughly approximate, unnuanced way, that is,. in a simplified form of the language, perhaps incorrectly formulated, so that they can easily give a false impression of who they are, or who they would like people to think they are. This experience can be very inhibiting and ego-threatening, if not traumatic. Students frequently seek to avoid it. The speaker of a new language may also approach other people with a lack of subtlety because of ignorance of nuances of the linguistic system, as well as the associated pragmatics and cultural expectations. A teacher who is not a native speaker of the language he or she is teaching (and this comprises the majority of language teachers worldwide) also suffers from a certain insecurity and may take refuge in the native language as a teaching medium.

In a highly structured methodology, like the grammar-translation method or the teacher-directed audiolingual approach, where students perform according to instructions in a well planned, emotionally neutral, and predictable sequence, constructed to eliminate the possibility of student error, students are protected from such wounds to their self-esteem. Once the teacher tries, however, to stimulate interactive activities, where more than the student's intellect and memory are involved, the whole personality of the student comes into play. The language learning becomes, in Curran's terminology, a "unified personality encounter."[12] The student is trying to handle many aspects of the language at once (message intention, vocabulary and syntactic choice, morphology, stress, intonation, and tone of utterance) while noting interlocutor response and preparing to change the direction of the message if necessary. With so many cognitive activities involved at the same time, the student may very well stumble over some of them. It is. this cognitive overload that explains many of the errors students make, even when they know the appropriate forms perfectly well (see also Principle 6). These lapses often make them feel foolish in front of their peers. It is no wonder that many students feel anxious and emotionally stressed in such situations.[13] Students experiencing emotional hurt and embarrassment may even develop feelings of hostility toward the teacher, as the source of their frustration.[14] The teacher must be aware of the many emotional factors in communicative encounters that can either depress or exhilarate the student, depending on how they are handled. For students, the emotional threat comes as much from fear of the reaction of peers as the reaction of the teacher, so time should be allowed for peer with peer bonding and the development of mutual trust and confidence as students share successful, and therefore enjoyable, experiences.

Teachers in a structured methodology, who are expected to remain within the limits of the materials, feel safe and self-assured. In an interactive communicative situation anything may crop up and the natural exchange may take quite unexpected twists and turns that lead the teacher into unknown territory. This can unsettle the teacher, particularly the nonnative speaker, whose anxiety, even if well controlled, may communicate itself subtly to the students and further compound their own.

An interactive language-learning environment requires that students and teachers, and students among themselves, reach a stage of being comfortable with each other, interested in each other, and respectful of each other's personal temperament-imposed limits. In order to achieve this equilibrium, teachers must feel comfortable with what they are doing, just as students must be comfortable with what they are expected to do. Teachers need to develop a realistic understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses as instructors and as individuals, selecting approaches and techniques that play to their strengths. They must also know how far they can go in interpersonal relations and how they best relate to others, allowing themselves time to get to know their students' individual ways of reacting. Both teachers and students have to be willing to take risks and laugh together when things go wrong. Together they must exorcise the fear of failure (which is as real for teachers as for students).

In the past, much language learning was restricted to an elite "academic stream," who had demonstrated their ability to cope with abstract logico-deductive thinking and verbal learning of the type required in school settings, for instance, for the study of grammar, the application of grammar rules in composition exercises, and the translation of literary texts. These students were considered to have "a high IQ" as measured by a distinctly verbal test. Of recent years, Howard Gardner has drawn our attention to the existence of "multiple intelligences" [15]: verbal, mathematical-logical, spatial, kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Now that emphasis is on language learning for all students, we need to consider ways of enabling students who are strong in any of these areas to apply their particular kinds of intelligence in language learning tasks, and to see that our assessment procedures provide them with opportunities to demonstrate their progress in the use of the language through other means than written tests (see also Principle 8).

For the interaction that leads to communication via language (much meaning is, after all, communicated without a common language), both teachers and students need to work toward a non-threatening atmosphere of cooperative learning. In discussions on cooperative learning, the term is often unnecessarily restricted to small-group learning. Many students learn well in small groups, others do not. There is room for all kinds of learning situations: large group, small group, pair work, or individual study. Cooperative learning implies full participation of students in planning and in making effective choices. The essence of cooperative learning is in the attitude: it requires acceptance of each other's differences and a willingness to share and to facilitate each other's learning in whichever ways are most appropriate. Teachers should be aware that students from certain cultures may be accustomed only to a teacher-directed competitive mode of education and that these students will need explanation of this new approach and an initial period of familiarization before they can be fully and willingly assimilated into a cooperative learning situation.

A non-threatening atmosphere does not mean that teachers and students must be effervescently cheerful and amusing at all times. Some teachers, as well as some students, are reserved and take time to unbend with strangers. We like, respect, and trust people of very varied personalities, and each has a contribution to make in a cooperative atmosphere. Not all students nor all teachers wish to interact with each other at a very deep level, and this must be respected. Where this is the case, we involve our students in surface activities _ games, simulations, dramatizations, informative activities through which they communicate. For interaction at a deep personal level, they will find their own partners and arrange their own activities. Respect for the privacy of the individual to interact as he or she feels the need or desire is another aspect of cooperative learning. "In cooperative learning, all can succeed because each has something unique to contribute to the enterprise, and because success is not an external standard constructed to exclude, but the individual perception of the attainment of a self-selected goal."[16]

previous page -- article main menu -- next page

return to Wilga Rivers Home Page