Good language teachers know how to engage their students
Willy A Renandya, 14 June 2022
The past 75 years or so have witnessed paradigmatic changes in the way we view teaching and learning. These changes have shaped the way we teach our students and support their learning. I outline below some of the most distinct eras that we can glean from the language education literature.
- The era of conditioned learning. One of the key figures during this era was B.F. Skinner who famously said “Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything”. Early methods of language learning such as memorization, extrinsic rewards, repeated drills and practice characterized this era.
- The era of natural learning. Two key figures here were Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen who believed that humans were endowed with an in-born capacity to acquire language. Given a sufficiently rich linguistic environment, language learning will happen smoothly and naturally.
- The era of machine learning. John Anderson was perhaps the most well-known figure associated with a theory of learning based on how computers process information. The three steps of processing, i.e., encoding, storage and retrieval became popular during this time, with researchers investigating how we can help learning by teaching students to encode, store and retrieve information more effectively.
- The era of socio-cultural learning. The key figure here is Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, who claimed that learning is socially and culturally situated and that learning happens when students receive the right kind of support from others . The term ZPD became the buzzword during this time; students were thought to learn best within their ZPD in the presence of their peers and nurturing teachers. Another key construct in this era is constructivism. Students learn best when they can utilize their pre-existing knowledge to make sense of what they are about the learn.
- The era of engaged learning. This is the era that we find ourselves in right now. Engagement, as Mercer (2019) pointed out recently, is the key to optimal and deep learning (or to use her words, “the holy grail of learning”). Learning happens optimally when students are holistically engaged, i.e., when they are kinaesthetically, emotionally, cognitively and socially engaged.
Have we been seeing language classrooms where students are fully engaged? Probably not. Antonetti & Garver (2015) who visited and observed thousands of classrooms in the United States claimed that while most students were on task during learning, only a small number of students were actually engaged.
According to them, one of the key differences between students who are on task and engaged is that unlike the latter, the former complete a classroom task diligently without really understanding the reason why they are doing what they are doing.
Those who are genuinely engaged in the task, on the other hand, have a clear idea of why they are doing the task and understand the success criteria for completing it. Because of this, engaged learners are more fully invested during lessons, making use of their mental resources to get the work done.
Good language teachers, I believe, are more likely to do their utmost to engage in the language lessons. They are more likely to use student centred pedagogy (e.g., choice-based learning pedagogy, differentiated instruction and inquiry or problem-based learning) to fully engage their students.