Is Learner-Centred Teaching the Best for ESL Adults?

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Of recent, it is becoming increasingly clear that more and more ESL students entering our classrooms are expecting a rapid transmission of information, structured presentations, concrete outcomes, a course syllabus, and direction from teachers. Such expectations are not new; they come with most formal classes.  Such expectations, common in traditional classroom settings, coming from Adult ESL learners, necessitate a rethinking of our present learner-centered or constructivist approach. It raises a question: Is there a place for direct instruction in today’s adult classes? Or, is there not a place for the traditional approach? By that, I don’t mean the uncreative and non-liberating approach to education so well described by Paulo Freire. I mean a structured, systematic, easy-to-learn, subject and content strong approach that is punctuated with a variety of learner-centred practices.

While teaching ESL to both younger and older adults, mostly from Asia and the Middle East, it has become apparent that these adults are not really interested in learner-centered practices (e.g., experiential, self-directed, discussions, etc.). They expect the teacher to give them information that they can immediately apply in their quest for work, in their preparation for higher education, and in their day-to-day life activities. The process-based learner-centered approach, the hallmark of our democratic educational culture, that maintains confidence and fosters community building, appears too time-consuming; it does not facilitate a rapid transmission of skills in our ever rapidly changing technological society. This is not an indictment of the learner-centered approach.  It is simply an argument that our current process-based educational method may not deliver the subject and content that adults immediately need.

I am in broad sympathy with the learners who want content delivered very quickly. All of them, as far as I can see, are mostly unfamiliar with notions such as participatory learning, student knowledge creation, and the democratic classroom. They’ve all come from authoritarian societies, or have been schooled in highly rigid classrooms, where discussions do not exist. Further, it appears that they have deeply ingrained metacognitive skills. It is, therefore, challenging (and many colleagues would probably agree) to change their existing ingrained learning strategies. The constructivist learner-centered approach appears to have tremendous value in the education of children. Adults, however, seem to need content fast. In these competitive and trying times, they appear to be looking to acquire knowledge, not to create it. They expect the teacher to give them the necessary information and direction that they can use in whatever endeavour they choose.  My learners’ perspective can be summed up as: I just wanted to know what I need to know, I didn’t want to have to think about it. Such an attitude may be a necessary condition for their survival.

My case for more direct instruction in adult ESL classrooms goes against the dominant learner-centered perspective. This is of great concern to me. How do I balance my commitment to a learner-centered approach to the immediate needs of my students?  What do I do when students are not keen to know how to learn, but only want to pass citizenship or some school examinations? How do I perform a balancing act? I struggle and juggle between learner-centered theory and teacher-centered practices. Effective teaching, I think, means selecting the most appropriate approach. The maximization of student achievement is, after all, at the core of all meaningful educational endeavours. Am I on the right track? I don’t really know.

At the moment, it seems that both the Provincial and Federal governments have, for financial reasons, an agenda to “hasten” language acquisition among language learners. Content is designed by them, and guidelines such as The National Language Placement and Progression Guidelines, together with strict attendance policies, seem to be pushing me to transmit information faster to my students.  My concern is that adult education, as I used to know it, is losing its lustre. I ask where is self-direction among the students and student ownership of their learning, when there are strict attendance policies and defined benchmarks? Or, increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student?

I write with the hope that others would share their ideas on the few concerns that I have tried to raise.

Post written by Sridatt Lakhan.  After completing his TESL Instructors’ Course from the Ministry of Citizenship in 1991, Sridatt started as an ESL instructor with the Toronto District School Board.  He has a BA from the University of Guyana, an MA from the University of Windsor, and a BEd (Adult Education) from Brock University.  He has written extensively for a number of publications including peer-reviewed journals.


11 thoughts on “Is Learner-Centred Teaching the Best for ESL Adults?”

  1. Sridatt, I just wanted to comment on your blog post here. Your experience with adult learners and ” self directed learning” mirrors that of many of your colleagues. I was educated in the West, and I get self directed learning. Been there, done that. Our learners, however, have not been there, done that and don’t have that foundation.

    When I first started with PBLA, I wanted to test the waters of self directed learning with my CLB 6-8s. An engineer from Syria gave it some thought, and then said directly “it’s not my job to write your curriculum.” The other learners were in agreement that they expected the instructor to teach, not just to facilitate.

    Now I’m in a Literacy level class. Even the prospect of articulating goals was a difficult concept to grasp.

    The one thing that I might disagree with you on is your point about the government attempting to speed up the process. They’re not. When PBLA is going full steam the way it is presently designed, it will do the opposite; learners will not progress through their benchmarks with the speed that they had been pre- PBLA. And that’s not a bad thing.

    The impetus behind self directed learning is to create buy in. But I think the buy in from the learners is already there.

    Just my two cents worth. Which I guess is a nickel now…

  2. I would say that when we give students what they want, this is learner-centred, even if what we then give them is more teacher-centred. We have checked in with them via a needs assessment and we then design our class to fit the group.

    I will give my group whatever they ask for with some exceptions. If I feel my group is asking for something that is counter-productive, I won’t just deliver without discussion and consensus. For example, when my Chinese seniors want to cling to their electronic dictionaries all day, all the while begging me to help them develop their listening skills, we have to talk. But I will not proceed until we come to an understanding of why I recommend 30 minute blocks of time during which the dictionaries are put away in their satchels. I need to get them on side so that they know why they are hiding away those toys and agree that it’s a good idea.

  3. I tried to get at this in my Master’s thesis. Unfortunately, academia doesn’t want to go there. My premise got derailed, re-directed, changed into something else. I lost interest and had a hard time finishing the thing.
    I totally agree. The students want structure. This came through loudly in the interviews I did with learners. They hate continuous intake. They want a term with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with objective, quantitative testing for assessment. They want a syllabus. They ask for this.
    The so-called new, ‘competencies’ approach is a half-way attempt to meet this need. At least we can show them the ‘competencies’ they will be expected to achieve. However, it’s really what we’ve been doing all along, with different jargon.

    1. Nancy,
      Ah, yes. It’s hard to go against what is trendy or most popular at the time. In my class, we often use pattern drills like the ones on the old Berlitz records I would borrow from the library to practice whatever language I was studying that month. (It was back in the days of vinyl)! I won’t apologize for that. My Chinese seniors are very comfortable with pattern practice. But when I report on what we’re doing in class, I had better call it “using lexical chunks,” or otherwise put a contemporary spin on it. 😉

  4. I think that direct instruction is necessary in the classroom. Perhaps just not all the time. Some types of information lend themselves better to direct instruction. However, the constructivist approach is also very useful. Learning how to learn is a very important skill that can help to overcome many challenges. In many occupations you need to figure out how to get information and apply it without asking anyone. Experience figuring things out in the classroom without having the teacher tell you can definitely be an asset when students enter the work force. Direct instruction and student centred learning both need to be used to make a student’s experience efficient and useful.

  5. You all make valid points and I agree that it is a difficult balancing act. But let’s get one thing straight. The peanut gallery does not get to decide.

    By this, I mean that constructivism, PBL, learner-centered teaching and learning strategies are very well researched, highly effective and “organic”. Should we listen to those who know nothing of these concepts when “designing” learning experiences. As Jen mentioned above, “it’s not their job to write the curriculum”. Thus, apply best practices, regardless of whether they are comfortable or not.

    The simple fact of the matter is, that constructivism, when done well, encompasses all levels of cognitive complexity as outline by Bloom’s Taxonomy. In essence, this activates the entire brain when learning. Direct instruction or “teacher-centered transmission” only activates the base level of “remember” and perhaps “understand”. Even though they have been trained to “take notes” and regurgitate this information on standardized tests, we should not alter our effective democratic learning practices. After all, they are based on solid science. Transmission type teaching is not.

  6. Greg, you put the nail on the head when you said: ‘the peanut galley doesn’t get to decide’. (I’ll be quoting you with that one for years to come, thanks).

    I take issue with teachers and departments looking for the ‘right balance’ between constructivist (student centered) and behaviorist (transmission) teaching and curriculum design. Constructivism is a learning philosophy that is in stark contrast with the widely discredited behavioursim, hinging on the notion that knowledge is constructed rather than transmitted. There is no continuum or sliding scale from learner centered to transmission teaching. You as a teacher/institute are of one belief or the other (or some other altogether) or you’re confused.

    We, as teachers, still have to deal with students and the expectations they bring with them to the classroom. Just as departments have to market their courses to incognizant clientele. The kicker is that we must have student engagement in order for the constructivist class to be effective, and that, I believe, is the real challenge the ESL industry faces today.

    1. Your comment: The kicker is that we must have student engagement in order for the constructivist class to be effective, and that, I believe, is the real challenge the ESL industry faces today.
      I totally agree with you on that. The Fed Gov’t is now spending millions $$$ on PBLA – training, binders, paperwork, etc. etc. etc. We still have students who don’t really understand how to study, have no real goals to pursue, attend irregularly, and often can’t find yesterday sheet to review the content, and continuous intake that contributes to the difficulty of teachers to meet all the needs of her students because the student base is forever in flux. It’s a very frustrating situation all round. And now with more paperwork …

    2. Hi Steve,
      I think you are absolutely right about having student engagement in order for the constructivist class to be effective. It can be extremely difficult for students to feel engaged. I teach in an EAP program at a university and this has been a huge issue. I’m currently enrolled in a professional master’s program and the course I’m taking right now has touched on different educational philosophies and approaches. We’ve discussed the learner-centred approach and one of the instructional practices I’ve adapted into my advanced level writing classes is the authentic, student-centred instruction (presented by Hayes, 2003). Hayes (2003) discusses how by placing students at the heart of our educational system, we design instruction and learning around their needs and interests, ensuring that they are engaged and willing participants in their own education, which is something we all try to do of course. In my writing classes, I try to let my students choose their own topics for their essays and major research projects. I have found that when I do, my students become more engaged and excited about their writing as they are writing about something that they are interested in. I have seen some very interesting topics (such as medical topics, social issues, topics relating to economics). I found that that the quality of writing has increased from when I gave a list of topics.

      Hayes, D. (2003) Making learning an effect of schooling: aligning curriculum, assessment and pedagogy, Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education, 24(2), 225-245

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