Myths, Beliefs, and Truth in ELT
“I speak as a person, from a context of personal experiences and personal learnings.” – Carl Rogers (From On Becoming A Person )
I’ve seen it happen. A student gets it and her eyes light up. Someone who’s convinced himself he can’t learn does. The one who was going to drop out of school doesn’t. The class troublemaker becomes the class star. The stuck teacher gets unstuck. The village teacher who thinks he’s got nothing to offer becomes an internationally sought-after mentor. The writer who believes she has nothing new to say turns out a beautiful piece of work. The teacher-trainer who’d given up after losing faith in just about everything recovers his faith and gets back to work.
How do those things happen? I have no idea, and I’m not going to pretend that I do.
Even though I’ve played some kind of role in helping to nurture along the learning that’s led to those changes in behavior and belief, I cannot tell you exactly what that role was or exactly what I did to help it along. Therefore, I cannot tell you exactly how you could work those same changes in behavior and belief in the people around you. What I can tell you is that – based on my personal experience and learnings as a teacher – I know without doubt that such things do happen and that there are ways to increase the likelihood that they will happen. I also know you can do that, too.
I can also tell you that given the dramatic effect I’ve seen such changes have on a person’s life, I know without doubt that it’s worth tinkering with whatever combination of method, material, and approach might be available in order to help spark its happening. I also know that if a teacher is willing to adopt an I believe learning is possible so I’m not going to reject anything that might work to reach this person mindset, then the sort of real learning that leads to changes in self-beliefs and behaviors within people becomes even more possible. The lives of the people I’ve seen this happen to, while working with a teacher who has adopted such a mindset is my living evidence of this. I am evidence of this myself.
I am that teacher-trainer who’d given up after losing faith in just about everything. Although I cannot explain exactly how I recovered it, I can tell you that it is possible. I’ve done it , so I know you could do it, too. Maybe seeing how I’ve not only recovered my faith in the transformational power of learning and teaching but even deepened it could spark something in you. Maybe seeing that I’m not only back to work, but am now working in ways I would not have even considered a year ago, could help you begin to imagine what’s possible for you. I’m willing to be that conduit of possibility for you, but I don’t want you to ever think that my way is the right way. My way is just a way, and I want you to find your own way. Still, I’ll tell you about my tinkering.
This past year I’ve tinkered with just about every kind of learning I could find until I settled into an evolving set of practices which I built into a revised framework for myself. I kept combining this with that until something clicked. Then each day without fail I did those things I’d found to be helpful and I didn’t give up. Some months later, I woke up to discover that whatever had gotten blocked in me had become unblocked.
If you ask me what it was that worked, I might tell you more about the things I’ve done, the people I’ve talked with, the books I’ve read, and the courses I’ve taken. After hearing all that, you might end up thinking, “woo that guy is out there,” and that’s fine. The point of me telling you about what I’ve done would not be to convince you that you should do what I did. The point would be to help you see that change is possible – in our learners and in ourselves- if we are willing to first believe that is is possible, willing to use whatever tools are necessary to make it possible, and willing to keep trying until something works. I cannot and won’t claim any more than that. I speak only as a person, from a context of my personal experiences and personal learnings.
Meanwhile, while I love evidence and abhor false claims, I have come to believe that so much of what is involved in learning and teaching takes place somewhere so deeply within us and is so complex that it’s even difficult to talk about – let alone measure, quantify and package. I have also come to believe that a successful learning experience within one person cannot ever be fully replicated within another.
Therefore, I’ve come to doubt any claim that any method, any approach or any set of materials works beyond the context and within the people in which it seemed to work — for whatever complex combination of reasons it might have. Yet, I am not about to reject the idea that a method, an approach, or a set of materials I don’t happen to personally embrace or understand does work. If someone tells me they’ve found an approach that will change my life and help students learn faster or better, I will doubt it but I won’t doubt that they’ve found something that works for who they are and the people they work with. I might even go on to learn more about it. I might even try it. Rejecting the possible and dismissing what’s beyond my understanding is not my job.
I cannot tell anyone how to teach any more than I can tell someone how to live. When someone tells me they’ve been learning or teaching in a way I don’t embrace or understand and asks how to get better at what they’re trying to do, they’re not asking me to say, “What you’ve been doing is wrong. There’s no evidence to support those practices. Stop doing that and start doing this.” They are asking for help and that’s not helpful. My job is not to invalidate their experiences and discredit their practices.
My job is to listen carefully. Then, based on what I hear, I might be able to connect the person asking with people doing work that could resonate. I might be able to suggest a course, a book, or a tool that could be useful. I might go off and learn more about the way they’re learning or teaching before asking, “Have you tried ____”? Then, later I could follow up with further resources and encouragement and questions and ask to be kept updated on progress. That’s my job. That’s your job. That’s our job as teachers.
Our job is to offer our students and each other ourselves, our presence, and our attention. Our job is to be conduits of possibility – people who open up ways that can lead to learning that can lead to change. Our job is not about convincing others of our own rightness and their wrongness. We’re not here to fix each other. We’re here to help each other and there is no correct answer or any right way.
There’s only possibility and when we open up possibility for someone her eyes light up, the one who’s convinced himself he can’t learn does, the one who was going to drop out of school doesn’t, the class troublemaker becomes the class star, the stuck teacher gets unstuck, the village teacher who thinks he’s got nothing to offer becomes an internationally sought-after mentor, the writer who believes she has nothing new to say turns out a beautiful piece of work and the teacher-trainer who’d given up after losing faith in just about everything recovers his faith and gets back to work.