Teaching is a timeless profession; the Greeks were doing it, Jesus was apt, and even Einstein wanted a piece of the action, and it’s difficult to see at first what has fundamentally changed in the way we teach since Plato was expounding his theory of Forms.
But Plato didn’t have an iPad. Or Twitter. And he didn’t have access to an online language corpora with millions examples of language to compare. So what advantage do we really have now compared to our sandaled friends?
There are four aspects to this: the school, the methods, the teacher, and the student.
The trend with English-language schools is towards the personalised and the informal. In general, they are moving towards creating more of an environment which replicates the environment in which language is used outside. In other words: out with the rows of plastic and metal chairs in lines and in with bright comfy armchairs arranged in casual circles. Not only does this make the language school a more appealing place to go to learn and provide an a more realistic setting, but the informal decor helps lower students affective filter, putting the students at ease and therefore facilitating language use.
Although an ancient Greek philosopher might be at home with a communicative approach to learning he or she might not be quite as at home with task-based and project-based learning. Although these methodologies are yet to be brought wholesale into our schools and classrooms they are undoubtedly making waves in various areas of education and there is a lot to be said for them. Essentially, these approaches advocate for a personalised and participatory approach to learning, which fits well with a communicative approach.
Task-based and project-based teaching and learning rely on the teacher carefully planning tasks and projects for students which will bring the learner into contact with language. One example might be to set a project for a group of students to work together designing a new city. It will require the students to negotiate (in English), become emotionally involved and invested in the outcome, and allow them choice over the final results. It gives power to the learners and increases engagement.
Today’s English-language teacher has a lot of resources to hand to help him or her in being the best teacher he or she can be. There are plenty of online resources especially created for the busy teacher, as well as online courses and platforms for English teachers to chat and share ideas about teaching. One significant resource that some English teachers are starting to use is an English language corpus. The power of the internet has enabled us to collect and make millions of examples of authentic English-language usage searchable. This sounds like a small thing but it is not just a collection of words and sentences.
By using a concordancer in concert with language corpura we can see which words commonly collocate or how often a word or phrased it used. This is bringing science to English-language teaching in the best possible way. It means we can actually check how often people say ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ before teaching it as required English, or which qualifier usually precedes exodus. We can show students examples from real texts from written or spoken sources. Using these tools is not easy, and just how to make the best of them so they don’t slow us down completely is still to be seen, but their potential for aiding the teaching of English is great.
Arguably though, the technological advancements we have made in the last few decades favour the language learner even more than the language teacher. First of all there are all the (free!) resources available to students as increasingly companies find themselves giving away content that they used to charge for, for instance English File and Headway. As for teachers, there are plenty of chat rooms, Facebook groups, and Youtube videos for learners. Additionally there are also ways to connect directly with learners through sites like italki and Verbling and apps such as Hellotalk. These offer cheap or free interaction with English teachers, directly from the learner’s phone or computer.
All this technology means nothing if it is not being put to good effect but this is not just technology for technology’s sake; it actually provides something much more valuable than grammar exercises or access to an English teacher. It provides the freedom for the learner to learn when and how she or he wants. It empowers learners to reflect on their learning and ultimately it promotes independent and lifelong learning. This technology provides the degree of personalisation that has often been missing for anyone involved in education. If Plato could see us now, I think he’d be pretty chuffed.