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.
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.