Efficiency in the Language Classroom

I recently came across Ben Sichel’s excellent response to recent public commentary over K-12 educational reform here in Nova Scotia. (I’m pretty sure similar debates over “back-to-basic” old-school methods vs. discovery methods and other newer methods used to teach L1 literacy in English as well as math are happening in many jurisdictions all over the world.)

K-12 education is not my realm, but I couldn’t help but connect some of the ideas brought up in the article to current themes in ELT; notably, the idea of ridding the educational system, and by an extension the classroom, of “inefficiencies”. This echoed Kathleen Grave’s excellent plenary talk at this year’s IATEFL conference: The efficiency of inefficiency: an ecological perspective on curriculum. (The talk isn’t available online, but here is an interview with the speaker, and here’s an excellent summary of her session.) As in the case of Nova Scotia, this push toward efficiency by many ministries of education around the world is frequently driven by politics, according to Graves.

Inefficiencies are key to real, long-term learning in many cases, as is exemplified in the cases Graves presents in her talk, and as I’m sure many of us have seen in the classroom. We need the time and to build a community of language learners, for unforeseen learning moments to arise, to give learners the opportunity to really absorb the language and notice its nuts and bolts, and for realizations to percolate through learners budding interlanguages, and for everything to start to filter through and make an appearance in learners’ speaking and writing. We can’t command lightbulbs to suddenly appear over the heads of our students one day; thse “Eureka!” moments are the culmination of hours of language input and output and scaffolded instruction.

Ministries of Education aside, some of the most difficult people to convince of the value of inefficiency in the language learning process are the students themselves. In the world of EAP, our adult students have their eyes firmly on the ball–imminent entry into their degree program–and want to get their as quickly as possible. Convincing them that sometimes things just take time can be difficult, especially in light of funder-imposed timelines on pre-program language training, some more realistic than others. (I  guess there we are, back to Ministries of Education again…)

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