Learner-centered S/FL classrooms
The Bangladesh context
Learner-centred instruction in a second/foreign language fosters learner autonomy, enhances metacognitive skills, and develops learners’ communicative competence, and is in consonance with the communicative language teaching approach to teaching English as a foreign language in Bangladesh. However, the current scenario of English education in the Bangladesh setting shaped by the age-old practice of the grammar-translation method and teacher-domination hardly exhibits learner-centredness. This paper then firstly tries to explicate learner autonomy, metacognition, and learner-centred second/foreign language classrooms, and secondly explores the Bangladesh context.
Key words: Learner-centred instruction, learner autonomy, metacognition, learner-centred S/FL classrooms, Bangladesh context Learner-centered teaching (LCT) concentrates on fostering learner autonomy, promoting metacognitive skills, and developing learners’ communicative competence in the target language. In 1970s and 1980s, the influence of learner-centredness in second/foreign language (SL/FL) instruction was evident with the development of the communicative language teaching approach (CLTA) which shifted the attention of the teaching-learning processes from language form to language function according to learner needs and interests (Savignon, 1997). Afterwards, the emergence of the postmethod pedagogy (Clarke, 1983; Stern, 1985; Nunan, 1989; Richards, 1990; Allwright, 1991; Jarvis, 1991; Brown, 2002 & Kumaravadivelu, 1992, 1994, 2001, 2003, 2006a, 2006b) claimed to be capable of sufficiently compensating for the deficiencies and constraints causing the constant failure of the prevailing methods and approaches to meet the needs and interests of heterogeneous learners in diverse contexts has recently further strengthened the advocacy of the learner-centred instruction in an S/FL. This transformation in the approach to language teaching from the traditional teacher-centred to more learner centred (Tudor, 1996) is “an offspring of communicative language learning” (Nunan, 1988, p. 179), which requires learners to actively participate and negotiate in meaningful interaction so as to autonomously interpret and construct meaning by themselves (Breen & Candlin, 1980), and hence acquire communicative competence essential for exchanges in real-life situations.
Nonetheless, instruction in English as a foreign language through the CLTA in Bangladesh commenced in the late 1990’s has so far had hardly any significant impact on and/or has scarcely brought any visible change in the whole scenario of teacher-dominated English education created by the exploitation of the grammar-translation method that the British rulers introduced in English education in the Indian sub-continent. This paper firstly endeavours to expound on learner autonomy, metacognition, and learner-centred SL/FL classrooms, and then examines the Bangladesh context.
Learner autonomy generally stands for learner reflection and taking responsibility for one’s own learning processes. It rests on the view that if learners participate in decision making processes as to their own communicative competence covering grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence, discourse competence and strategic competence (Canale & Swain, 1980), “they are likely to be more enthusiastic about learning” (Littlejohn, 1985, p. 258), and language learning can be relatively more focused and purposeful for them (Chan, 2003). Moreover, Smith’s (2008, p. 2) claim that “learners have the power and right to learn for themselves” is considered as an indispensible component of learner autonomy. Holec (1981) defines autonomy as the ability to take charge of one’s own learning, that is, determining the objectives, defining the contents and progressions, selecting methods and techniques to be used, monitoring the procedure of acquisition, and evaluating what has been acquired. Thus, learner autonomy involves self-confidence, independence, and use of individual learning strategies, depends on learners’ willingness to take responsibility for their own learning, and is closely related to metacognition encompassing planning, making decisions, monitoring, and evaluation.
In S/FL teaching and learning, the significance of assisting learners to become more autonomous in their learning has become one of its more prominent themes (Benson, 2001). Three prominent reasons support the endeavour to make S/FL learners more autonomous (Finch, 2000). Firstly, if learners are more reflectively involved in their learning process, it is likely to be more efficient and effective. What is learned in the classroom is more likely to serve their wider agendas in the global context. Secondly, if they are proactively committed to their learning, the problem of motivation is by definition solved. Although they may not always feel entirely positive about all aspects of their learning, autonomous learners develop the reflective and attitudinal resources to overcome temporary motivational setbacks. Thirdly, effective communication depends on a complex set of procedural skills being the output of language use. If language learning depends crucially on language use, learners who enjoy a high degree of social autonomy in their learning environment especially the classroom should find it easier than otherwise to master the full range of discourse roles that generate effective and spontaneous communication in real life situations (Little, 2002).
Metacognition refers to a complex of phenomena concerned with knowledge about the domain of cognition constituted of all the mental activities linked to knowing, thinking, believing, perceiving, understanding, and remembering, and its regulation. While cognition covers the skills required to perform certain tasks, metacognition includes the skills that determine how the tasks are executed. As is evident in existing research (e. g. Livingston, 1997), metacognition stands for higher order thinking which involves active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning.
Metacognition embodies both metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive experiences (Flavell, 1979). Metacognitive knowledge incorporates the individual's beliefs about oneself and about others as learners and of the requirements involved in the learning process and is acquired through both conscious and unconscious means in formal and informal settings. Wenden (1998, p. 528) maintains that metacognitive knowledge is "a prerequisite for the self-regulation of language learning: it informs planning decisions taken at the outset of learning and the monitoring processes that regulate the completion of a learning task ...". On the other hand, "metacognitive experiences are any conscious cognitive or affective experiences that accompany and pertain to any intellectual enterprise. An example would be the sudden feeling that you do not understand something another person just said" (Flavell 1979, p. 908). They involve the use of metacognitive strategies and are likely to come up "in situations that stimulate a lot of careful, highly conscious thinking" (Flavell, 1979, p. 908), in novel experiences, or "when learning has not been correct or complete" (Wenden, 1998, p. 520). They may change a person’s cognitive goals and/or add to his/her metacognitive knowledge base, and ensure that a cognitive objective has been achieved. Hacker (1998, p. 11) clarifies the difference between metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive experiences:
A definition of metacognition should include at least these notions: knowledge of one’s knowledge, [thought] processes, cognitive & affective states and the ability to consciously and deliberately monitor and regulate one’s knowledge, [thought] processes and cognitive and affective states.
As such, metacognition consists of two components – knowledge and the ability to consciously access and regulate that knowledge. And, knowledge is of three prominent kinds – knowledge about the world, knowledge of the person including an individual’s cognitive and affective states and processes, and knowledge about strategies. Therefore, S/FL instructors should devote time, energy and endeavour to metacognitive training to lead to self- directed, self-motivated, and autonomous learners.
Learner-centered S/FL classrooms
It is currently evident that interaction between the teacher and students as well as between the students themselves in the classroom is crucial to the success of SL/FL teaching and learning since it is in the heart of communication (Brown, 1994) established and executed through negotiation of meaning in various contexts. However, if we examine a traditional instructivist S/FL classroom, we find that it is entirely teacher-dominated and mechanical as the teacher controls everything, releases skills and knowledge through lectures, and talks all the time while the learners almost mutely listen to what he/she preaches, watch what he/she does, and act as he/she orders. Thus, the environment of such a classroom is in consonance with the theory and practice of the grammar-translation and audio-lingual methods (Richards & Rogers, 2001), and evidently encourages teacher domination, and discourages learner autonomy, involvement and creativity.
In an instructivist classroom, the seating arrangement is usually non-specialized such as the militaristic one (Figure1) which promotes one-way communication from the teacher to the students, and is suitable for listening to the teacher’s lectures, drilling and testing, but excessively rigid and fragmentary especially for the mixed-ability group with its need for flexibility, interaction and variety:
Figure1: The traditional lecture-style classroom arrangement (Atherton, 2005)
illustration not visible in this excerpt
In the teacher-centered class, though the students can get many chances to interpret texts and ask questions, they remain passive, waiting to be called (Hung, 1999). In reality, they hardly get any scope for speaking and/or interacting either with the teacher or their peers because the teacher usually states, discusses, exemplifies and explains diverse linguistic elements through the lecture mode as opposed to the group mode, and asks them to practice varied exercises and memorize vocabulary items and utterances/ sentences whereas they just perform as per the teacher’s instructions without taking part in any active interaction and communication.
To reflect upon our setting, particularly in many rural schools and colleges in Bangladesh, English as a compulsory subject is being taught through the grammar-translation method in the instructivist classroom in which the students passively receive instruction from their teachers just to take preparations for examinations resulting in harmful washback (Coombe et al., 2007); and hence no “genuine interaction” Nunan (1987, p. 137) between the students and teachers occurs. As Long and Sato (1983, p. 283) maintain, the “ESL teachers continue to emphasize form over meaning, accuracy over communication”; and, consequently, teaching and learning English prove to be ineffective and even a failure clearly manifested in the students’ performance after 10 to 12 years of English education in Bangladesh. That is, the traditional instructivist classroom does not ensure useful and adequate communication patterns needed for creating a learner-centred environment inevitable for the success of S/FL teaching and learning. Therefore, we should opt for an S/FL classroom, that is, constructivist one, as opposed to the instructivist one, so as to minimize teacher domination, foster learner autonomy, and facilitate learning by participating, learning by doing, and learning by communicating in a democratic and authentic situation where the learner is the proprietor of his/her own learning .
A constructivist classroom is seen to be a completely learner-centred environment in which the learners are ultimately in charge of their own learning resulting from both a cognitive processing and organizing of information within an individual (Piaget, 1952 as cited in Gruber & Voneche, 1977), and a social aspect (Vygotsky, 1986), where the learners interact and dialogue with the problem, context, and other learners to discover meaning and value. Sara Kol and Abarbanel (2006, p.12) rightly maintain: “…knowledge under constructivism is not seen as a commodity to be transferred from expert to learner, but rather as a construct to be pieced together through an active process of involvement and interaction with the environment”. Both a cognitive and a social constructivist agree that socializing and collaborating within the classroom result in a deeper and more meaningful construction of knowledge for learners (Powell & Kalina, 2009). In such a classroom, the role of the teacher changes from one of transmitting information to that of a facilitator or guide, guiding the students to discover the meaning themselves, and be capable of taking the proprietorship of the information. Hence, it is conspicuous that the constructivist classroom as an interactive center offers much more facilitating communication patterns than the instructivist one for enhancing S/FL teaching and learning.