We live in an era in which, more than ever, ‘slogans’ dominate our lives. In the old days ‘Sloganism’ was mainly the language of adverts and politicians. Nowadays, courtesy of myriads of social networks and chatrooms, they are everywhere and are seriously affecting the very fabric of our thinking. ‘Sloganism’ – it is true – suits us in many ways, living as we do, in a very busy society with a short concentration span. However, on the other hand, they tend to ‘shrink’ and ‘trivialize’ thinking by aiming at quick, strong emotional responses rather than encouraging deeper thinking and analysis of an issue.
I don’t have a problem when slogans stay embedded in Tweets or Facebook posts or pinned to a virtual board. I have a problem, however, when people, especially those with some degree of decisional power, start adopting these slogans because they sound intuitively correct or arouse strong positive emotions or seem to have some sort of demagogic impact on the masses.
One such slogan which is very recurrent is ‘you must be open to change’. No-one could agree more than me on the value of openness to change. But, and this is what I mean by the thought-shrinking power of sloganism, one must be open to change occurring at the right time, in the right context and, most importantly, for a very good reason.
The old saying ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ is very topical, here. In foreign language learning we have seen many educational fads come and go and; let us be honest, how many of them have actually improved teaching and learning?
Any transformational change of a thinking, organizational, technological and educational system or approach must be supported by a valid rationale which demonstrates its potential benefits to the stakeholders (in education: the course administrators, teachers, students, their parents, etc.).
In education, the issue is complicated by ethical concerns that any proponents of significant changes must have in mind: the potential negative consequences of changing what is currently working well with something which may work less well. Hence, the ethical imperative is to ensure that any initiative one wants to implement has a rationale solidly rooted in credible research and has been extensively piloted in similar educational settings operating in comparable socio-cultural contexts. If an approach has worked well in a run-down comprehensive in the London, Paris or New York suburbs it doesn’t follow that it will work everywhere else in the world.
Please ‘note’ that by ‘credible research’ I mean research carried out by independent academics not affiliated to any government or corporation with a political/economic agenda; research that is based on valid and generalizable data.
A typical example of non-credible research which has affected many teachers around the world and has no significantly enhanced learning is the research on learning styles and multiple intelligences, carried out by Professor Gardener and his followers. No reputable academic apart from Gardener and his students has ever endorsed his theories and findings. However, every school in Britain and many others around the world adopted and still adopt his framework, and I still hear colleagues swear by the importance of taking into consideration our students’ learning styles in planning a lesson…
The advent of technology has further complicated the picture because of the revenue that technological devices can generate and the power that the corporations that manufacture computers, tablets and mobile phones hold. Nowadays, educational fads are determined by bigger players than politicians: multibillionaire businesses of the likes of Google, Apple and Samsung.
In order to thrive, such businesses MUST advocate significant changes in the way children learn EVERY subject, including foreign languages, which involve as much as possible the use of technology and as little as possible the input of the teacher. Does this mean that teachers will end up becoming redundant? In my opinion that will never be the case, as no computer or app will ever be able to provide a substitute for the affective input that a teacher brings to bear on learning and which is so crucial to it – especially in foreign language instruction.
As teachers, we have to learn to adapt and integrate what we know works best in foreign language learning and find ways to ensure that any new approach that governments or course administrators impose on us incorporate that. In the case of new technologies, we must learn to ‘know’ them as well as we can so that we can master them effectively and use them to serve us, rather than be dominated by them.
As one of my Twitter slogans go: “Technology can be very effective in the hands of effective teachers who can inspire and motivate and understand the true nature of learning.” Sadly, a lot of Modern Foreign Language teacher training courses do not lay much emphasis on making their trainees understand the true nature of learning. They usually provide them with teaching templates and then ‘throw them’ into schools where busy teachers need to show them the ropes and often help them to cope with rather than master the demands of teaching. In the absence of any solid knowledge of how languages are really learnt, it is difficult to dispute any imposed theory or technology in terms of its pedagogic value.
What can teachers, small cogs in a gigantic machine ruled by huge economic and political interests do? Not much, I am afraid. We could at least, though, instead of blindly embracing intuitively appealing educational fads and exciting technological advances, take a step back and being more discerning of what is really conducive to learning and what is not; to what is dictated by passion for learning and what is triggered by economic interest.
What makes our job great is its end goal: to be able to make the children in our care better individuals. We owe to this noble objective to try and be extremely reflective on and inquisitive about the promises made by any initiative or technology we embrace.
In conclusion, we must always keep our hearts and minds open to change. But change must have a very solid rationale behind it which demonstrates that its implementation has substantial benefits for all the parties most affected by it – especilly the students. Educators must be as conversant as possible with the way humans learn and consider that what can impact favorably students in a particular set of schools in one part of the world might not work in another. Finally, Twittering educators should keep using their catchy and impactful slogans (I certain will) as they are fun to read, – especially when they are at odds with the professional history and behavior of their authors.