Is YOUR Class Student-centered? by Carol Gaab
If you have ever uttered or heard the following questions/comments, then you should definitely read on: “My administrators gave me a bad evaluation, because s/he said my class Is not student-centered.” “My supervisor said that I am talking too much, that my class is too teacher-centered.” “Are there any student-centered activities that you can suggest?”
These statements generally come from individuals (typically administrators), who have little to no understanding of how students actually develop communicative competence and/or how language acquisition is achieved. They do not understand the critical need for comprehensible input and the role it plays in acquisition, nor do they have the knowledge to discern whether input is conducive to facilitating SLA.
There is a mountain of information available to help people learn about SLA (i.e.: hundreds of books and papers by Stephen Krashen, of which many found here: SDKrashen.com; “While we’re on the Topic” and other books by Bill VanPatten; hundreds of websites dedicated to SLA studies and research, etc.) Nevertheless, the odds that administrators are going to spend hours educating themselves about CI/SLA are not high. So rather than set yourself up for disappointment/frustration by your supervisor’s lack of interest/effort, I am going to suggest trying another strategy: Common sense and logic!
When your acquisition-driven / CI-based strategies are met with resistance and/or skepticism, try changing the context of the (administrator) comments by asking the following questions. I’ve asked these very questions more times than I can count, so I’ll include typical answers that I have gotten from skeptics who have difficulty grasping the SLA process and the need for CI.
When a baby/toddler is first beginning to learn language, who has the most impact on his/her language development?
Oh yes, I agree with your answer. Mom or the primary caregiver generally has the most significant impact. WHY?
Because they spend the most time with them?
Right, I would agree with you on that too. Since caregivers spend the most time with the child, logically they would then have a very significant impact on the child’s learning / language development. Would you agree that THAT is because caregivers spend a great deal of time interacting with the child?
How do caregivers interact with their babies/toddlers?
They talk to them, sing to them and play with them.
Yes, they sure do! They talk to their babies a great deal. Is it logical to infer that the primary caregiver has the most success communicating* with a baby/toddler?
*Communication: The expression, interpretation and/or sometimes negotiation of meaning in a given social context.
Right. Moms (or caregivers) definitely seem to have an uncanny ability to communicate with their baby and vice versa. Why are they able to communicate better than others?
Because they know their child better than anyone else.
Yes, of course! They know their child. Would you agree that moms and dads (caregivers) have a very good handle on what a child knows about the world, what the child likes, and what the child needs / needs to learn?
What does a ‘caregiver-baby’ communicative exchange look like? What kinds of things does a caregiver talk about?
They talk about mommy, daddy, brother, sister, body parts, colors, shapes, food and love; they count; they read books they sing; they repeat poems; they play peek-a-boo, etc.
Why do caregivers talk about mommy, daddy, colors, sizes (big/small), foods, love, body parts, peek-a-boo and itsy bitsy spiders, etc.?
Because that’s what is interesting and/or relevant to babies/toddlers.
Yes, exactly! Those are the topics that interest the baby, but… who is doing most, if not all of the talking?
The caregiver. Mom. Dad.
Yes, the adult is, because the baby/toddler is not capable of speaking just yet. Would you classify the topics of mommy, daddy, colors, sizes (big/small), foods, love, body parts, peek-a-boo and itsy bitsy spiders, as CAREGIVER-centered or CHILD-centered?
Of course it is! Would you agree that the following elements are what makes the exchange child-centered in spite of the fact that the child is not leading the activity or doing the speaking?
- It’s about topics that interest the child.
- It’s at an appropriate cognitive level.
- It’s at an appropriate linguistic level.
- It’s provided in a safe, loving, compassionate environment.
- The whole purpose of the exchange is to help the child learn / develop communicative competence.
Yes, of course it is! Parents don’t talk about their jobs, the leaky radiator or the police blotter, because at this point in time, those topics are not relevant, appropriate or comprehensible to a baby. What do you think would happen if we refused to guide verbal exchanges with an infant, leaving him/her to lead every communicative endeavor by babbling or crying?
I dunno. They would never learn to speak.
Right, they would never receive the input they need to learn to communicate using words/real language. The way language learners develop communicative competence is much like how a baby/toddler does. Students may acquire faster than a baby, and they may have literacy skills to enhance the SLA process, but those additional skills do no exempt them from having to go through the SLA process. There are no short-cuts or grammar lessons that will circumvent the process.
Just like a baby, school-aged language learners need level- and age-appropriate CI that is interesting and relevant. At novice levels, there is no one who is better able to provide that input than the TEACHER. WHY?
Because… UM… I dunno…
Like caregivers, teachers know learners the best! It is the teacher who has the best awareness of what language students do and do not know/understand; the teacher is best able to determine what topics would be appropriate and interesting and how to provide input that is optimum for SLA.
Just like babies, novice-level language learners do not yet understand messages in L2 (whether auditory or written), and therefore, they cannot speak or write the language (yet). Since one cannot communicate what one has not yet learned, then it stands to reason that if one does not have language (L2) in one’s head, then s/he cannot lead a communicative exchange, correct?
Right! It is simply common sense that at novice levels, the teacher is the best source of input, just as caregivers are the best source of input for a toddler. The communicative exchange may be led by the teacher or caregiver, but the intent is always for the benefit of the learner. Teachers who facilitate communicative exchanges based on student interest, cognition, language level and age, are providing communicative experiences (aka: instruction) that are undeniably LEARNER-centered.
The next time you come under fire about whether or not your classroom is STUDENT-centered, try using logic vs. SLA knowledge. Your administrator may not know about SLA, but s/he certainly knows how to think logically. I hope the next time you come under fire, these questions lead you and your administrator to a new level of understanding. Good or bad, I’d love to hear about the outcome of your discussion.