By Mohamed Chakir
By Mohamed Chakir
Morocco World News
Edwardsville, Illinois, January 17, 2013
A historical overview of teaching methods reveals that there have always been changes in perspectives regarding which methods or/and approaches work better in learning languages. A perusal in H.D Brown’s book “Teaching by Principles,” and Richards and Rogers’ book “Approaches and Methods in Language Learning” gives an idea about the historical sequence of methods and approaches which are delineated succinctly in both books. We can say, then, that the emergence of a certain method is basically built on the rubble of a previous method which proves to be futile and useless at a certain time in the long run of the history of teaching; though Prabhu (1990) claims that “there is no best method.”
“Necessity is the mother of invention” is a statement that echoes in my mind whenever I deal with this subject matter. It is the need for a change or a better way to do something which has led scholars, throughout the years, to conduct research in the field of teaching in an endeavor to come up with new “prescription” (David Bell) to be applied in ESL/EFL classrooms. However, the contemporary perspectives vis-à-vis teaching practices and which theory works for which context seem to disregard the concept of “method” as it was viewed and appreciated before the beginning of the “postmethod” era (e.g. Richards and Rogers). This transformation into a new trend, which views methods as a cage which entangles language teachers in their rigid and ineffective, prescriptions leads to inquiry and investigation.
Why is the concept of ‘method’ in the traditional sense no longer preferred? What has taken its place? What should guide a teacher’s methodological decisions and actions? In this article, I am going to strive to answer those questions which I intend to tackle sequentially in three sections. Thus, I will devote the first section to talking about the concept of method as it has been defined throughout history and its limitations as they are seen by contemporary scholars. In the second section, I will try to shed some light on the ‘successors’ of the concept of method as they are viewed from the ‘postmethod’ era perspectives. At the end, I will try to provide a personal point of view in what concerns the teacher’s methodological decisions and actions.
Understanding phenomena and ways of thinking can be better assimilated if put in their historical contexts and if terms are defined. Thus, I deem it necessary to start from where things start. The beginning would be with the meaning of method. In his book “Teaching by Principles”, Brown (2007) refers to Edwards Anthony (1963) who viewed the concept of method as a part of three essential components which were said to form a given framework to teaching languages namely approach, method and techniques. In this tripartite division, the method was viewed as “an overall plan for systematic presentation of language based upon a selected approach.” (Brown, 2007, p. 14) According to this view, a method was ranked second because it was considered as the practical realization of an approach. Approach, on the other hand, was viewed as the “a set of assumptions dealing with the nature of language, learning and teaching.” (Brown, 2007, p.14)
Techniques were considered consistent with a method since they referred to the specific activities done by teachers at the level of the classroom in a sequential order. However, this order did not appeal to scholars later on. For instance, Richards and Rogers claim that Anthony’s model lacks many details such as the role of teachers, learners and instructional materials. They see that to better understand and account for the relationship between approach and method and how the latter is consistent with technique a modification in the order of Anthony’s proposal should be made. Thus, they have suggested a new extended reformulated model. The new order gives priority to method because it encompasses approach, design and procedure. According to Richards and Rogers, a method refers to “a specific instructional design or system based on a particular theory of language and of language learning…the teacher is to follow the method and apply it precisely according to the rules.” (Richards and Rogers, 2001, p.245)
From what has been mentioned before, it can be deciphered that the emergence of a method used to theorize about how a language should be taught at a specific place and time. That’s why as we look into the history of teaching principles and theories we find a lot of methods and approaches which appeared and disappeared completely or partially at a certain point of time. Methods such as The Grammar Translation Method, The Audiolingual Method, The Direct method, Suggestopedia, The silent Way and The Total Physical Response are examples of methods which worked well at a certain point in time in the history of teaching. However, we notice that there was a kind of dissatisfaction with those methods as they served only as prescriptions telling teachers what to do rather than giving them autonomy. Teachers were supposed to work within the prescribed framework where students were dependent on what teachers taught them.
Dissatisfaction with methods was later shown through the appearance of approaches which sought more feasibility in classroom practices. Richards and Rogers have listed a number of approaches which aimed at making teaching and learning flexible and pleasurable. According to Richards and Rogers, none of these approaches “leads to a specific set of prescriptions and techniques to be used in teaching a language.” (2001, p.245) This view, which considered methods as being rigid and out of date in their nature, gave a rise to such approaches as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), Competency-Based Language Teaching (CBLT), Content-Based Instruction (CBI), Cooperative learning, and The Natural Approach to mention a few. These methods came to cater for both teachers’ and learners’ needs in an autonomous and dynamic way. They are liable to change, interpretations and adaptability. Therefore, approaches are “dynamic and subject to alterations and modification as a result of one’s observation and experience.” (Brown, 2007, p. 44)
As we have seen earlier, a lot of views provide definitions for methods in a pejorative sense. The message conveyed here is that methods no longer fit with teaching and learning practices and consequently do not help in attaining desired teaching/ learning objectives. Therefore, there is a tendency towards replacing methods with more effective teaching theories which meet the 21st century’s needs in the field of ESL/EFL. Some researchers have already hinted at the end/demise of methods since the declaration of the “postmethod’’ era. Looking for alternatives to methods is a new trend which has resulted in many discussions. Some researchers still argue that methods “are not dead, nor will they ever be.” (Bell, 2003, p.334) The term of postmethod does not necessarily mean “the end of methods but rather an understanding of the limitations of the notion of method and a desire to transcend those limitations.”(Bell)
Prabhu (1990) has also taken a stand in the discussion and argued that methods can neither be compared with each other nor can they be altered or abandoned. According to him a methods that work for a certain context may not be valid for another. The variety of methods can be effective for the variety of contexts, teachers and students. However, the focal point is not which method works better and can be adopted but “how to develop procedures and instructional activities that will enable program objectives to be attained.” (Prabhu, 165)
The success or the failure of a method is due to the mechanical implementation of that method by the teacher. According to this view, the teacher’s responsibility lies in his/her ability to adapt a certain method to his/her context. Prabhu, then, paves the way to what he calls “teachers’ sense of plausibility’’. He states that good teaching is intertwined with the teacher’s sense of involvement. Consequently, without the teacher’s involvement we cannot talk about productivity in teaching activities. “The question to ask about a teacher’s sense of plausibility is not whether it implies a good or bad method, but whether it is active, alive, or operational enough to create a sense of involvement for both the teacher and the student.” (Prabhu, p. 173) Therefore, teachers should be active by updating and adapting their resources to their teaching contexts. “The enemy of good teaching”, concludes Prabhu, “is not a bad method, but overroutinization.”
If Prabhu sees that there is not a bad method and concentrate more on the teachers’ sense of plausibility, Kumaravadivelu (1994) goes further than that and sees that attention has shifted from method to postmethod era where alternatives to methods should be provided. According to him, the conventional concept of method restricts the freedom of teachers by stipulating what and how learning should take place in the classroom. He sees the postmethod is the era of emancipating teachers from the set of doctrines embodied in methods telling them exactly what to do rather than allowing enough space for innovation. He categorizes methods as being “language-centered methods,” “leaner-centered methods” and “learning-centered methods.” (Kumar, p.29) The rationale behind this categorization is to show that methods are only transplanted to the classroom and are not based on experimentation.
To empower teachers and help them develop a reflective approach in ESL/EFL, Kumar claims that it is high time we opted for an alternative to methods. The postmethod, then, makes teachers autonomous because “promoting teacher autonomy means enabling and empowering teachers to theorize from their practice and practice what they have theorized.” (Kumar, p. 30) Effective teaching requires innovation and eclecticism which match with Prabhu’s idea of teachers’ sense of plausibility. For this reason, Kumar suggests a strategic framework to help teachers in their indefatigable endeavor to make teaching more effective, purposeful and enjoyable. The framework which Kumar suggests consists basically of ten macrostategies that are “general plans derived from theoretical, empirical and pedagogical knowledge…and which are made operational through microstategies.” (Kumar, 32) These macrostrategies can be listed as follows:
- Maximize Learning Opportunities
- Facilitate Negotiated Interaction
- Maximize Perceptual Mismatches
- Activate Intuitive Heuristics
- Foster Language Awareness
- Contextualize Linguistic Input
- Integrate Language Skills
- Promote Learner Autonomy
- Raise Cultural Awareness
- Ensure Social Awareness
This framework satisfies the needs of teachers in what concerns the road map they need to attain both their short-term and long-term objectives in teaching ESL/EFL. In addition, teachers, according to this suggested framework, are independent and consequently more motivated. They are more considered as strategic teachers than practitioners. Though Kumar has precisely delineated what the macrostrategies are and how they operate, he has been criticized for providing such a framework.
Dilin Liu, a linguist and a professor at the University of Alabama, wrote an article where he commented on Kumar’s framework. In his comments, Liu states that methods should not and cannot be altered and that research on methods should continue. Thus, he criticizes Kumar for replacing methods with strategies saying that methods encompass strategies and that macrostrategies are only principles that guide teacher’s procedural steps. (Liu, 1994) However, Kumar has clarified once again his proposal and stressed the importance that teachers should go beyond the boundaries of the conventional method as conceptualized by theorizers. That can only be done if teachers granted enough autonomy to conduct research using the suggested guideline as a tool. Kumar’s framework is only a suggested model in the field of teaching to effective and purposeful classroom practices.
The idea of principled eclecticism and the search for an effective alternative to methods have continued to echo in the field of teaching. In his attempt to propose an alternative model, H. Douglas Brown introduces twelve flexible principles which are liable to change and development with time. His model provides “foundational principles that can form the building blocks for teachers’ theoretical rationale” through which they can attain fruitful results. (Brown, 2007, p. 620) With the help of these guidelines, teachers can cater for classrooms’ and learners’ needs. Brown has tried to cater for teachers’ needs from different perspectives, that’s why he has divided the twelve principles into three categories; cognitive, socioaffective and linguistic principles. The following scheme clarifies the categorization of the Brown’s principles:
- Meaningful Learning
- The Anticipation of Reward
- Intrinsic Motivation
- Strategic Investment
- Language Ego
- Willingness to Communicate
- The Language-Culture Connection
- The Native Language Effect
- Communicative Competence
As we have seen, throughout the history of teaching there seems to be an everlasting debate and research for what leads to a more effective and fruitful teaching and learning. With earlier research, we have seen through the historical background of methods and approaches how each method emerged and later was replaced by another. We can notice that though methods and approaches differ in names but they share the same incentives and objectives. Incentives stem from the ineffectiveness of a certain method and the need for an alternative.
As for objectives, it is apparent that theorizers aimed at achieving good results in ESL/EFL classrooms. It seems to me that regardless of this smorgasbord of methods and ideas, any attempt to find a more effective plan for a successful teaching and learning remain valid at least for its context where it first emerged. As for the debate, it is important to look at teaching suggested models from different perspectives. Constructive debate leads to more fruitful ideas and solutions that complete and develop a potential teaching framework. The postmethod era can be seen as a(n) (r)evolutionary phenomenon which seeks to meet the expectations and needs of 21st century ESL/EFL classrooms. Therefore, this debate can be healthier and more productive if it yields more teaching model proposals.
To promote both teaching and learning, teachers should be given the autonomy they deserve to decide for their classes. Teachers should assume their responsibilities in their classrooms by continuous reflections on when and how to use what and why to achieve the intended results, part of which are effectiveness and excellence.
Teachers are practitioners who master their tools and make the best use of them. They should be given the chance to make their own decisions and choices. It should be borne in mind that a teacher may teach the same lesson differently with the same students let alone if it is a different class and/or context. Teachers should not be obliged to apply teaching models imposed by the government or a school. They should be considered as important and inevitable partners in decision making. In addition, one way of achieving success is trial and error experimentation. The more we vary and try our tools and techniques the better we become. Action research is also part of tools’ and skills’ development. Teachers should observe each other’s classes in different settings. They should allow themselves enough time to comment and reflect on their findings.
Last but not least, teachers and learners are important elements in the educational system. Successful teaching and learning cannot be attained if there is not enough communication between teachers and students. Students should be given importance as they are also concerned with the success and failure of any teaching model(s). Students inspire teachers as do teachers inspire students. Listening to students and taking into consideration their needs and way of thinking will help teachers make reasonable decisions about what makes learning more meaningful and more effective for targeted learners. It seems to me that teachers should be flexible, eclectic and critical about whatever teaching model they adopt. This will surely lead to productivity, success and development. The world is in continuous change, be it positive or negative, and so should teaching be, positively I mean.
Brown, D.H (2007), Ch. 4 ‘Teaching by principles’ An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy
Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rogers, 2001, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching
Kumaravadivelu, B. (1994). The postmethod condition: (E)merging strategies for second/foreign language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 28 (1), 27-48.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (1995) The author responds (to Dilin Liu), TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 177-180.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (2001). Toward a postmethod pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly, 35, 537-560.
Liu, D. (1994) Comments on B. Kumaravadivelu’s “The Postmethod condition. “Alternative to” or “Addition to” method? TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 174-177.
Prabhu, N. S. (1990). There is no best method—Why? TESOL Quarterly, 24(2), 161-176.