Friday, 10 February 2017

How practice (mis)informs theory

I feel I have come far enough in my teaching career to be able to raise issues of the interdependence of theory and practice.

When I embarked on teaching, I was fully aware of using a particular methodology and course books based on this same methodology. It gave structure to my teaching and allowed me to feel confident -- safe in the knowledge that the theoretical framework I was using had been tried and tested.

In the course of time I kept up to date with theories of language acquisition and new methodologies. Discoveries in how the mind works perforce involve changes in approach towards language teaching and the development of new methods and materials.

However, what thinking processes come into play while learning defies description, and it is therefore up to the teacher to observe and take note of how the different students respond and which particular strategies they use in order to internalise the rules of the target language.

What I am trying to say is that a teacher may initially come to the classroom armed with method and lesson plans but they will inevitably modify and adjust those to suit their learners’ needs, and in so doing they find themselves  revising or enriching their methods.

I am not sure to what extent teachers can articulate their choices and adaptations so that their contributions can be put to use by researchers and linguists.

My point is that if the person who formulates theories about how people learn is removed from the teaching process and relies on the input of those directly involved in it, there is a deficit in the transfer which cannot be balanced. On the other hand, when a teacher attempts to convey their observations from classroom experience, they are not familiar with the jargon needed to convey them properly though in practice their teaching may have been informed by their experience and adjusted accordingly.

I will cite an example here from my experience. I have been working with several dyslexic students individually or in small groups over long periods of time, which allows me to have a better understanding of some of the difficulties they face and of the multiplicity of factors which interfere with decoding or encoding spoken or written language.

I also have a smattering of various theories about the causes of dyslexia and the ways one can assist dyslexic people. What knowledge I have on this learning difficulty comes from books that I have read and seminars or short courses that I have attended. That doesn’t make me an expert but awareness of the problem goes some way towards helping.

Until recently I had never realised that my “meticulous” way of highlighting information by using italics is totally lost on dyslexic people. I was told so by an adult student to whom I pointed out the highlighted information and I have confirmed it with another two dyslexic students. Perhaps this does not apply to every dyslexic individual but I feel that the information is of relevance when for example creating special fonts designed to help dyslexic people read more easily.

My suggestion – slightly wacky, but not unfounded – is that there should be university “banks” of contributions from teachers if we really want to claim that teaching practice informs theory and new theories are ploughed back into teaching. Brain scans and discoveries about how the brain works by implication (how a damaged area of the brain affects speech or language production, for instance) may simply not be quite enough.

In a nutshell, let’s apply the bottom up approach and see where it takes us. Nothing to lose there.

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