KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS IN THE CLASSROOM


KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS IN THE CLASSROOM

 

I was about to leave the classroom when I was stopped in the aisle by one of my new teen students with a puzzled look on her face. “Shengliver, may I ask you a question?” Yujiao asked bashfully.

 

“Go right ahead, please,” I said encouragingly.

 

The girl went ahead and said, “I have been enjoying your lesson a great deal. You are very different from my former teacher. You are humorous and we could not help laughing a lot throughout. But in the back of my mind a question has been nagging: What have I learned in your class? I did not copy many example sentences in my notebook, and you did not teach much grammar. My grammar is lousy, sir. I am worried.”

 

Yujiao’s concern sent me reflecting on note-taking in class and a couple of issues related to my pedagogy.

 

What role does note-taking play in a learner’s classroom experience?

 

A learner takes notes (A) to help himself memorise pieces of information, (B) to review in future what was learned for an exam, and (C) to organise what was learned.

 

Note-taking is helpful especially to those learners who perform best hands-on. By writing the information down, they get a physical experience with the abstract. A Chinese proverb goes, “A broken pen is more reliable than a photographic memory.”

 

What should a learner end up with when an English lesson is over?

 

A teacher has different objectives for his lessons. One lesson aims at grammar; another at vocabulary. And there are lessons focused on a specific skill—listening comprehension, reading, speaking, or writing. Of course a lesson can be targeted at a mixture of knowledge and/or skills by integrating different aspects of the language.

 

Therefore when a lesson is over, a learner ends up with gains that correspond to its objective. He might have copied down some key points and example sentences in his notebook. He might have taken no notes at all because it was a skills lesson, in which he did speaking or/and listening. A good learner does not take notes in all his lessons. Well-written notes do not necessarily mean that the note-taker has grasped what his teacher intended to teach, or has hit the target.

 

Should a teacher be humorous?

 

Yes, he should be. A humorous teacher facilitates the learning process by mixing business with pleasure. It takes a lot for a teacher to be humorous—his mastery of Chinese and English, his familiarity with the pupils, and his optimistic outlook on the world.

 

Of course, a humorous teacher should still maintain classroom order and discipline. There is no doubt about that. Under no circumstances, nonetheless, should a teacher dull his pupil’s mind. A boring teacher numbs his student’s intellect while a teacher with a charming sense of humour fires his student’s imagination. An American educator once commented that he would prefer to keep his students conscious by swearing in the classroom rather than send them to sleep by observing niceties and being orthodox.

 

Should I impart knowledge in my teaching?

 

Yes, I should. Knowledge goes beyond the language itself. A good language instructor teaches more than words and grammar. He informs his students of the world by means of the language, in an encyclopaedic manner.

 

Take teaching the word “continent” for instance. The teacher should do its spelling, pronunciation, and definition. The learner has to repeat it to retain it. Only after he uses the word many times in various contexts will it be at his command.

 

A teacher will expedite his learner’s mastery of the word if he goes encyclopaedic. After the learner familiarises himself with the spelling, pronunciation, and definition, the teacher, with the aid of a world map on the board, puts the following questions to his pupil: How many continents are there on our planet? What is our continent? Which continent is the biggest? What is Eurasia? What are the Americas? Do the continents drift at all?

 

How should I teach skills?

 

Acquiring knowledge is not the end of the teaching and learning endeavour. Knowledge paves the way for reaching the goal—using the language. Both the teacher and students should bear in mind that their ultimate goal is linguistic competence other than linguistic knowledge.

 

We should accumulate and expand our knowledge of the language. Meanwhile, we should put the knowledge to use in an artificial or real situation.

 

The guideline I follow when cultivating the learners’ skills is to expose them to language practice, with knowledge of the language backing it up. To learn reading, we read. To learn composition, we write. To learn how to speak, we speak. And to learn aural comprehension, we listen actively. To put it another way, engagement with the language is the key to developing learner competency.

 

What is the reality of ELT in a high school classroom in China?

 

The reality of ELT in a high school classroom in this country is heavily exam-orientated. Pursuing a high grade in the exam permeates the learning place. With parents and their children coveting a place in the best unis, many teachers betray the principles and ideals that they learned as students, and turn to cramming and endless hours of slavish work on papers and tests. A couple of ‘star’ schools across China, for example Hengshui High School in Hebei, lead (or mislead) the nation in turning campuses into military academy-style cramming centres. At those institutions the cramming and feeding has been systematically organised to ensure their supremacy in every year’s matriculation test. Their stunning exam results shut up the education authorities, and there is a tendency that more high schools will be following suit. However, there is a disturbing question deep in the hearts of people who look at those schools’ practices with a critical eye. Is their way right? What is the purpose of secondary education?

 

Another facet of the reality is that the teacher and his students do not take the classroom as a genuine communicative environment, thus leaving all the interactive learning possibilities untapped. Instead the textbook is worshipped as a Bible and the teacher and his students depend excessively on the printed word. Aural and oral learning is ignored. The origin of all this can be traced to the teacher’s language incompetence. He is not able to employ the English language as a communicative tool. It seems as if the language were the master and the teacher its slave.

 

Should we prepare the students for exams?

 

Yes, we should. In an exam, a candidate has to be correct to score a point. Exams in China in most cases are written, and they expect the candidate to give the ONE correct answer. A formal exam does not cover everything that was taught and learned. Instead it tests just a sample of it. Therefore, a learner has to be organised and focused to excel in an exam. Prepared and organised, he can achieve the target. Otherwise, he will score inadequately although he has learned the subject well on the whole. Besides, practice before an exam does help improve an examinee’s performance markedly. In the Chinese system, a high school teacher’s performance is evaluated heavily or (in some cases) solely on the basis of his students’ exam results. He would be an idiot if he did not work for better results or a bulging wallet. Where would the dough for rice and noodles be from if he didn’t? And the RMB for a car?

 

On the one hand, it is justified to prepare our students for exams. On the other hand, in Chinese high schools, preparation for exams is overstressed and exaggerated to such an extent that all time and energy is mobilised towards a higher score, thus leaving the students’ individual needs ignored and their interest in academic exploration suppressed. One belief that the administrators preach to frontline instructors is that when a teacher teaches a specific point or a skill, he must ensure that the learner grasps it at the first attempt and will make no mistakes about it in the Chinese university entrance exam. A word-for-word translation of their concept is: “One step reaches the goal.”

 

Can one step reach a goal? No, it can’t, especially when the goal is a long-term one and has to be approached step by step. Similar beliefs among the administrators go against the way a learner builds up his knowledge and skills. To reach a goal, a learner has to journey many a step, through barriers and over obstacles. On the journey he may miss his footing, stumble, and fall. He picks himself up where he fell and walks on. To err is human; to reach a goal in one step, automaton.

 

Why should a teacher speak English well?

 

To speak English well is one of the professional qualifications that it takes to be a teacher of English. To be honest, a lot of teachers on the job think that when they finished their studies in uni, they met all the qualifications because they had been certified. The truth is that a teacher still has to grow further in his profession. His communicative skills are yet to be developed and honed by working in the classroom with the teens. It takes loads of practice to speak English comfortably in the Chinese context. What was learned in a uni lecture hall has to be adapted for a high school classroom. Graduation from uni is not a teacher’s destination; it is the commencement of his career.

 

A teacher’s speaking skills in China are greatly valued in the context where the majority of language instructors do not speak decent English. In many cases, you would hear broken, patchy, or incoherent English spoken in a Chinese classroom. A lot of Chinese teachers take pride in the fact that they are grammarians, lexicographers, and writers of practice exam questions. China has too many of them—grammarians, lexicographers, and writers of practice exam questions. China has an acute shortage of language teachers who speak decent English. Ought we to fill a shortage, or ought we to contribute to excess?

 

What changes would be brought about should the teacher speak better? A teacher with better speaking skills would, first of all, command his class and conduct his teaching effectively. Secondly, the English he speaks in the classroom is the most important input that his students are fed. The influence that his spoken English exerts on his pupils cannot be overemphasised. When you hear a learner talking in English, you could hear his teacher in him. Moreover, a lively classroom is the best learning environment. When a teacher speaks natural English in the classroom, a lively classroom under his command will be a reality.

 

Can a teacher improve? A teacher keeps growing professionally on the job. He can improve his speaking skills should he exploit the potential communicative opportunities there are in the classroom, in his work setting, and in his daily existence. The day will come when the teacher speaks fluent natural English in the classroom, when his student’s mind is turned on rather than turned off, and when quality teaching and learning replaces mind-numbing monologues, should he set the goal and pursue it through dogged perseverance.

 

Should a teacher speak Chinese at all in class?

 

Most teachers of English in China whose mother tongue is English wish they knew some Chinese so that they could do their job better. They are often frustrated when they fail to get across their meaning or get their learner’s point. In a situation like that, a bit of Chinese would do them a lot of good.

 

So it is not a matter of whether any Chinese should be spoken at all in class. It is a matter of when and where Chinese is spoken. Speaking good natural English is a top priority. But when the teacher’s English or the learner’s fails to function, Chinese should come in and make the teaching and learning go on.

 

We should not find excuses for speaking excessive Chinese in the classroom, despite what was discussed above. There are a lot of cases where the teacher falters in his speech when good natural English is expected of him. There are a lot of cases where the teacher attempts to go in English yet his attempts land nowhere due to his inadequate competence. As teachers whose native tongue is not English, we should be aware that our English will leave something to be desired if we do not keep improving. The better our English is, the less Chinese we will feel a need for in the classroom.

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