8 July 2009

The death of method in language education

By Dr Wang Su Chen

(Published in’Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

This is the week that pop icon Michael Jackson died. This is also the week that English language is a hot topic again. Is there a connection between the two? Some might ask “Michael Jackson who?” But most would not, especially English language teachers. Teachers know that pop stars appeal to the young in a way that they do not. They are also aware that the passing, despite the sadness of the occasion, would present a natural opportunity for them to have a meaningful conversation with their pupils about an extraordinary performer who has touched their lives through song and dance.

Resourceful teachers of English would also most certainly have sung along with their pupils Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s “We are the world” as a means to teaching the English present tense, present continuous and future tenses, the singular and plural pronouns and structure of the English sentence. They would have held discussions on issues such as how we could make “a brighter day” or “a better day” in the catchy chorus of 42 English words.

In the sense described above, teachers of English are creative and exploitative, always seeking materials and means to connect with their charges.

At a time when the teaching of English is again a controversial topic in Malaysian news, it might be useful to ask what the most recent thinking on language education is, if only to glean ideas about possible directions that it could take. This article will discuss a new phase of language teaching, which its prime proponent, B. Kumaravadivelu of San Jose State University introduces in his book,Understanding Language Teaching, from Method to Postmethod.

Drawing upon the works of well-known scholars, H.H. Stern, Richard Allwright and David Nunan, Kumaravadivelu radically says that all method teaching is dead. By method, he means methods such as the Audiolingual Method, Communicative Language Teaching, Direct Method, Grammar-Translation Method, Natural Approach, Situational Teaching, Silent Way, Suggestopedia, Task-Based Language Teaching, etc. His position is that no single method is better than others, a view that most practising language teachers will agree with, since teachers know that no single method fits all learners and that good teaching is about making a connection with them.

The way forward, according to Kumaravadivelu, is through postmethod, a theory propounding three parameters: particularity, practicality and possibility (We have now come to the heart of his thinking). By particularity, he means situational understanding, that is, teaching and learning that is “sensitive to a particular group of teachers teaching a particular group of learners pursuing a particular set of goals within a particular institutional context embedded in a particular sociocultural milieu”. No teacher would argue against that.

By practicality, Kumaravadivelu means teachers reflecting on their practice from which they can create their own pedagogic theory. Kumaravadivelu believes that practical knowledge should inform theory and not the other way round; but does that mean that there will be as many theories as there are teachers? Furthermore, where would novice teachers get their store of knowledge? Would every novice have to re-invent the wheel?

His third parameter, possibility, refers to social, cultural, political, economic, ideological and other factors that influence teaching and learning. These factors shape the learner and teacher’s perception of their identities and their sense of social transformation, determining what is possible or not possible.

Sitting within these parameters are what he terms Macrostrategies, of which he lists 10. The teacher needs to

  1. Maximise learning opportunities
  2. facilitate negotiated interaction
  3. minimise perceptual mismatches
  4. activate intuitive heuristics
  5. foster language awareness
  6. contextualise linguistic input
  7. integrate language skills
  8. promote learner autonomy
  9. ensure social relevance
  10. raise cultural consciousness.

Each macrostrategy can have any number of microstrategies, the latter being procedures for actualising a macrostrategy.

Most teachers would see Kumaravadivelu’s 10 macrostrategies as commonsensical maxims that they already use. Some teachers may even re-arrange his dual classification into three kinds of strategies: classroom, immediate-environment and social milieu; and they could still factor in all his main concerns.

My question is this: Are his three over-arching parameters invoked simply as a theory guise – as an attempt at framing – for his macrostrategies? Would his macrostrategies be poorer without the framing? If his three P’s are simply a shortened way of saying that teaching and learning take place within real-life situations of fosterings and constraints, tangibles and intangibles, local and global, no one would disagree with him. However, if they purport to be a new theoretical framework on which to build the next phase of language education, they may not be robust enough. For instance, it is unclear which of his macrostrategies sit under which parameter or whether they need to do so at all.

Essentially, what Kumaravadivelu has done is to dispense with methods and to focus on strategies instead. The question is whether an entire theory of language education can be explained and developed on the basis of strategies alone.

In many ways, Kumaravadivelu’s book has done an admirable job of debunking the notion that West is best in language teaching; that native speakers make the best teachers (for instance, the Polish speaker makes the best Polish teacher); that native speaker speech is the golden yardstick to go by; that language education is ideologically neutral, etc. He and others have rightly noted that most methods have promised much but yielded patchily, coming and going like fashion fads.

His thesis of the three P’s and 10 Macrostrategies has given us a new landscape of language education, a somewhat bleak landscape. The question is: If method is dead, where does language education go from here?

My response to the death of methods and the rise of strategies is this: While Kumaravadivelu’s thesis has enriched language education by his drawing on cultural studies, there are, however, many other disciplines that add understanding – disciplines such as neuroscience, cognition, sociology, animal learning, etc. whose links are yet to be thoroughly researched.

To come back to the question of whether Malaysia should place importance on a second language, none will dispute that knowing two languages instead of just one is better for the individual and the country. Today’s naysayers of English are probably not saying no to English, but only to how it is being implemented. Our country’s planners will know that the language landscape cannot be changed overnight, that both teachers and pupils need time to adapt. Hence, haste in implementation, whether it be method or strategy or both, is not the answer, but transitioned implementation is the way to go.

Kumaravadivelu’s Postmethod is invaluable in that it sensitises us to the need to divest ourselves of foreign straitjackets and self-marginalising, and to develop our own language educational destiny. This is the challenge that Malaysian educators must rise to. Echoing the sentiment of Michael Jackson’s song, we are the people that must make it happen for ourselves.

Dr Wang Su Chen is Associate Professor and Head of the School of Language and Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be contacted atswang@swinburne.edu.my.