“You should try to look older by dressing more formally — the students will be afraid of you. And make your voice deeper — it’ll give you more authority,” advised my colleagues at university. They were giving me pointers on how to improve myself in order to help my students obtain better results.
I responded with a big laugh.
I didn’t believe in forcing students to study as a means to achieve results, I didn’t believe that it had to be that way. But, after teaching English there for two semesters, events occurred that made me contemplate whether or not there is, in fact, some reason and value behind that advice after all.
I came back to Vietnam after seven years of overseas study, and I — like any youngster full of energy and dreams — was very excited to give something back to society. I wanted to apply to my work in Vietnam the things I had learned abroad, so I decided to teach English at the Foreign Trade University, one of the best universities in Vietnam.
An Altered Perspective
While studying abroad I learnt to value the independence and autonomy you are afforded with your study. In another words, ‘the ability to take charge of one’s learning’. It was different to the Vietnamese methods I had been accustomed to, where the teachers were the omnipotent manager and controller of the classroom. So back in Vietnam I decided to use a different approach with my students. I wanted to take on the role of ‘facilitator’ and allow the students to be more creative and responsible for their own decisions — particularly in relation to their study.
The class in question was a pre-intermediate English writing class, and the first step was for me to not take a register at the beginning of the class. Student attendance accounts for 10 percent of the students’ grades, and it’s standard practise for it to be taken by the teacher in every class. I wanted to allow my students to choose whether or not they were motivated enough to study, regardless of whether there was a register or not, but at the same time, I ensured that my classes were interesting and interactive. While studying, students were encouraged to raise questions and to interrupt me whenever they wanted to. To encourage their creativity and autonomy, I gave them multiple topics to choose from, and I avoided fixed outlines for essay content. To overcome the problems associated with limited vocabulary, I allowed the use of dictionaries during writing tests, but warned students not to copy directly from the Internet.
The plan felt perfect, the students were excited and I was feeling confident. But soon enough, I started to see some problems.
After the first few classes, some students stopped attending, or if they did come, they were not involved in the activities with their classmates. Despite my encouragement, the students were not comfortable in expressing their own opinions in class or in their writing.
I gave my students a written assignment, which asked them to consider whether or not it’s ok for college students to have a girlfriend or a boyfriend while they are at school, and if they support parents who are opposed to that idea. To my surprise, not a single one of the 35 essays supported the idea of a student having a boyfriend or a girlfriend whilst being at school. I was particularly surprised because I knew that a number of the students were in fact in relationships.
During the final exam I discovered that one third of the class had cheated, even though they had been allowed to use dictionaries during the test. Many pretended to use the dictionaries in their mobile devices but instead pulled the entire essays from the Internet.
“No matter how interesting your lesson is, students still don’t show up to class if you’re not strict and don’t take a register,” said another colleague who had experienced a similar scenario after four years of teaching.
So did I choose the wrong approach? Is it really true that these active and motivated students only learn well if I push them hard? Do they actually prefer to be told what to do, rather than make their own decisions?
David Little, one of the pioneer researchers on language learners’ autonomy, defined autonomy as a combination of one’s “capacity for detachment, critical reflection, decision-making, and independent action”. Another researcher, Philip Candy, also said “it takes a long time to develop, […] simply removing the barriers to a person’s ability to think and behave in certain ways may not allow him or her to break away from old habits or old ways of thinking.”
In my post-semester survey of the students of that class, 25 out of 30 responses said that they think the teacher’s role should be that of a facilitator/advisor, rather than an omnipotent controller/manager. But half of them said they don’t like it when teachers drop only a hint, rather than a complete answer, and almost everybody disagreed with the statement saying that they are aware of what should be learned or omitted, or that they should prepare questions to ask in class.
Under the shades that are dotted around the sunny little campus of the Foreign Trade University, groups of students are practising their latest hip-hop moves to music. Things change fast and so do students’ perceptions or habits. For now though, I’m not going to give up trying or even believing that in terms of learning, there is another way.