Moving towards moreequality and symmetry inforeign language teaching in New Zealand schools
How has the power balance between foreign language teachers andlearners changed in the New Zealand high school context?
How things used to beIn the past, most foreign language teachers employed traditionalmethods of teaching, that is to say that they adopted an authoritarianteaching style. This involved teaching from the front and givinginstructions, which the students followed.“In autocratic or authoritarian teaching, power was centred in theteacher, who deposited knowledge into the heads of students”(Oxford et al. 2005, p.250)In traditional teaching, the teacher controls the learning environment.Power and responsibility are held by the teacher. The teacher instructsthe students and makes all decisions. The students are regarded asempty vessels to be filled with knowledge by the teacher asdisseminator of information. The traditional teacher believes incausing learning to occur (Novak, 1998)
Traditional language teachingSo… in traditional language classrooms (when I was a language student) the teacher was the “authority”, the holder of knowledge and therefore in a position of power over the students. Some teachers were condescending and even resorted to mockery and humiliation of students. The result was asymmetrical discourse; the power balance between teacher and learner was unequal or asymmetrical.
Access to informationIn addition, language learning resources were limited andteachers usually relied on a text book.The teacher as the “powerful center” usually enforced “asingle ‘correct’ version of the L2” and insisted onaccuracy, which was considered more important thanfluency. (Oxford et al, 2005, p. 250)Creativity, teacher-student dialogue, student-voice and self-expression were discouragedBecause of a lack of alternative resources, students lookedto and relied on the teacher (or text book) for information.
What has changed? Communicative language teaching methodologies became popular as the preferred way of teaching a language. Language teachers were forced to “relinquish their traditional roles of ‘initiator’ ‘director’ or ‘fount of wisdom’”(Arndt et al, 2000, p. 205) “Roles have been re-defined, responsibilities re-distributed” (Arndt et al, 2000, p. 205) Most teachers have adopted a more democratic- participatory style of teaching which has resulted in a shift of power balance. The power in the language classroom is naturally more equally shared in this teaching methodology, where students are encouraged to express themselves and actively participate in their learning. Group work, pair-work, co-learning and peer-assessment are now an integral part of teaching and learning in NZ language classrooms.
Sharing powerChanging teaching methodologies have encouraged a shift in the powerbalance, so that the high school language teacher is now often referred to asa “facilitator” of the learning process.This approach is also reflected in the New Zealand Curriculum. The Principlesof the curriculum “put students at the centre of teaching andlearning, asserting that they should experience a curriculum that engagesand challenges them” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p.11).The curriculum also states that in order to become successfullearners, “students need to be challenged and supported to develop” the 5Key Competencies which are “the key to learning in every learning area”(Ministry of Education, 2007, p.14)The New Zealand Curriculum requires that students are involved in theirlearning, no longer merely passive and powerless empty vessels waiting tobe filled with knowledge.
Resources shift the power balance The wealth of resources now available as a result of advances in technology, such as the internet, easier access to computers and digital material, improved communication and more frequent travel opportunities, has resulted in students becoming more empowered. Teachers were initially the “power-holders – as possessors of all knowledge” (Arndt et al, 2005, p. 218) Students can now more easily find information for themselves (on the internet for example) and no longer need to rely on the teacher as the sole provider of knowledge. Students can interact with native speakers via email, Facebook, Skype and so on, and thus acquire vocabulary or cultural knowledge which may not be known to a non-native language teacher or even a native speaker, where there have been changes to language (for example young people’s language or slang). The teacher becomes a “power-sharer” as “knowledge becomes owned and utilised by learners”. (Arndt et al, 2005, p.218)
Changes in process and power balance• Students now take a more active role in NCEA assessment. Some standards require students to collate their work into a portfolio and choose what they consider to be their best work to submit for the assessment.• Students are consulted in language course design at senior levels. For example, students may help to decide which film or book they wish to study and may be consulted about which topic areas they are interested in.• Teaching and learning is a more collaborative process. Students are invited to parent-teacher conferences to talk about managing their learning.• Students are encouraged to become more independent as learners and to be responsible for their learning.
However.. An imbalance of power still exists in the language classroom context since teachers “possess a socially- conferred superior status in any discourse” (Arndt et al, 2000, p. 205)• Students are still the novices and overall, teachers have greater knowledge of the language they are teaching.• Communicative language teaching methodology empowers some students more than others, for example those who are by nature more extrovert and willing to take risks with language.• Mixed gender and multi-cultural classroom environments have their own power imbalances.
Conclusion of power in language Over a period of time, there has been a welcome shift classrooms in favour of the students. Students are now more involved in their learning and the language teacher is required to help the student discover language, encouraging self-reflection, self-expression and critical thinking, rather than simply dictating what they must learn or memorise, thereby discouraging individual thought and voice. The teacher-student power discourse is less inequal than previously, but is still not entirely symmetrical. A power imbalance is imposed by the teacher’s social status and his/her position as the adult responsible for school-age children. It would be undesirable and impractical for the teacher to share all power with the students. Whatever collaborative learning processes are evident in the classroom, one would expect a certain level of respect for the teacher by the students. It is important for the teacher to take charge of the behaviour in the classroom, organise and give structure to the learning processes and make final decisions, even though students may have been involved in a consultation process. This imbalance of power is evident in any social or business setting where a person is an elected or designated leader.
ReferencesArndt, V.,Harvey, P. & Nuttall, J. (2000). Alive to language: perspectives on language awareness for English Language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media Ltd.Novak, J. (1998) Learning, Creating and Using Knowledge: Concept Maps as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc; New Jersey, pp 24-25Oxford, R., Massey, R. & Anand, S. (2005). Transforming teacher- student relationships; Toward a more welcoming and diverse classroom discourse. In J. Frodensen & C Holten (Eds), The power of context in language teaching and learning. Heinle: Boston.
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