As a young man, I was part of a legion of English teachers working in Japan. A large number of us “teachers” working day in and day out at language schools and colleges were actually travelers trying to save money for their next trek through Nepal or to live on a beach on Boracay or Koh Samui (very different in 1986) for as many months as possible before they had to work again. At least some of these people, in order to be able to stay in Japan and teach/work, pretended to be in the country for the purpose of studying something–flower arrangement, karate, or Japanese language, for example. One guy, ostensibly studying Japanese, dutifully went to the immigration office each year to renew his visa. And each time, he struggled greatly with the rudimentary questions the officer asked him in Japanese. At the end of the conversation, the immigration officer would kindly offer him encouragement because “Japanese was a hard language” to learn.
That same sentiment–that you are just studying the language and can’t really use it yet–is still surprisingly common in many institutional programs for learners of many languages. I have often heard college students say that they want to go to the US “after my English is good enough.” The opposite of this “not yet” concept is prolepsis, “the representation or assumption of a future act as if presently existing or accomplished” (from Merriam-Webster). It is a lovely little term I came across in Walqui and van Lier (2010). They recommend treating students proleptically, “as if they already possess the abilities you are seeking to develop” (pg 84). In other words, throw them in at the deep end, and both support and expect their success. High school and college in Japan are perfect places for putting this approach into practice. Why? Because learners have already had somewhere between 4 and 10 previous years of of English exposure and learning. It’s time to stop pretending that they can’t use it. Right Benny?
People like Benny Lewis are not usually taken seriously in the TESOL world, but they should be. Watch the video and see how many things he gets right. Polyglots learn languages successfully, he says at one point, because they are motivated to “use it with people” and they go about doing so. That is some good sociocultural theory there. He also dismisses five of the barriers that people so often accept to explain their own lack of success with language learning, and addresses the growth mindset and time and resource management that he and his friends have found a way to make work for themselves. But what I find most amazing about Mr Lewis and others like him is that they are living examples of acting proleptically with language learning. They learn it, use it, love it, and repeat. They don’t stop to worry about whether they are “ready.” They don’t let things like having few resources around, or no interlocutors nearby, to interfere. They challenge themselves to learn what they can and then actively seek out opportunities to use that, monitoring their progress by continually testing it out. I admire their passion. I borrow strategies and techniques from them to pass on to my students. If we are not helping our students make use of Skype or Memrise or Quizlet or any of the many other tools available, we are doing a great disservice to our young charges.
But not only should we be introducing websites, we should be expecting our learners to use them and to push their learning. You can do it. No excuses. Of course you can handle basic conversations in the language. I expect nothing less than that. And let’s see what you can really do when you push yourself. I expect success. I assume it and design my activities around it. Prolepsis. We sometimes hear the word rigor used to describe education. We can also talk about holding higher expectations for our learners. Without a curriculum designed with the idea of prolepsis, however, it is likely empty talk. It sounds good, but is not actionable. Van Lier and Walqui list these three directives if we are serious about really making our curriculum, well, serious:
- Engage learners in tasks that provide high challenge and high support;
- engage students (and teacher) in the development of their own expertise;
- make criteria for quality work clear for all
We can see immediately that some of the things Mr. Lewis is suggesting get learners to do these things. I’ve talked before about rubrics and portfolios and making the criteria for success clear in other blog posts, but today I’d like to finish up this post by talking about an activity that does all these things, and it gets students to perform proleptically: debate. Now debate has a bad reputation in Japan. Many teachers think it is too difficult for students. Some teachers think it focuses too much on competition. These points may have some validity, but they should not prevent you from doing debate. We do debate, like JFK said we should go to the moon, because it is difficult. And if we have students debate both sides of issues, what begins to emerge is a keen sense of examining any issue–for looking at what is important and how important, and questioning and explaining that. Debaters behave proleptically, because they have to. Debating adds critical thinking structure to discussions about plans. Debaters learn to consider the status quo. They learn to evaluate plans in terms of their effect and importance. They learn to write speeches describing these things, and they learn to listen for them and consider them critically. Because there is a set structure, we can support and scaffold our learners. But we cannot hold their hands all the way. Debate forces them to go off scripts at times, while never going off topic. There is also time pressure, and the debate takes place with other people, an on-stage performance that is intimidating for everyone, and thus spurs learners to try harder. Yet, like scrimmaging with feedback, there are multiple opportunities to fine tune performance (and get repeated input). Every time I read about techniques to promote high standards, rigor, etc. , I always think to myself: That sounds an awful lot like debate, or Yup, debate can do that. To me, it seems that debate is one technique that should not be left out, especially policy debate where learners research topics to come up with arguments for both sides in advance. Not only do we get four-skills language development, but we also get research skills, organization skills, and critical thinking skills development.
Show me another activity that does that.
This post is part of a series considering ways to add more focus and learning to EFL classrooms by drawing on ideas and best practices from L1 classrooms.