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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 3; Issue 2; March 2000

Short Article

Outside the circle dance - towards a more principled humanism

By Simon Marshall
Pilgrims, UK

[ editorial note: HLT would like to thank the editor of the IATEFL Teacher Trainer SIG Newsletter, and the author for permission to re-print this article, that first appeared in Issue 3 2000 December 2000.
Background: Jane Arnold published Affect in Language Learning, with CUP in 1999. Scott Thornbury reviewed the book in the IATEFL TT SIG Newsletter and this was followed by reactions to the review by Jane Arnold and Mario Rinvolucri. ]

Although I question whether Scott Thornbury enters his classroom prepared to teach employing approaches only supported by "documented, authenticated empirical evidence." (The Good, the bad and the loony: A Review p28-31-TTSIG Newsletter, March 2000) I believe his article raises key issues relating to Humanistic Approaches. Here I would like to consider some of Scott's misgivings and offer a different perspective upon Humanistic Language Teaching to that provided by Michael Berman in "The Teacher and the Wounded Healer." (IATEFL Issues 152 p.2-5)

Scott suffers "allergic reaction" and "bridles" when he reads that "guided visualisation can be seen as a way of reconnecting with what we have forgotten and can be traced back to shamanic practices in Pagan times" (Berman p.3) and "whether you believe in the power of intuition, or Helpers in other realities is not really important. What matters is that it works!" He asks whether he is "alone" in finding such language rebarbative. No Scott, you are not alone - I feel the same, although maybe for different reasons.

What I find so troublesome about Michael Berman's choice of topic for visualisations is that he doesn't appear to realise, or at least acknowledge, the cavernous psychological realms he wishes to open up within the language classroom. Conquering fear, redefining reality, the promotion of healing, inducing trances and "helping" (my italics) learners to find "the person (they) were all born to be" in "one minute, equal to all the time (they) need" are all part of his seemingly vast terrain. (I italicise the possessive adjective to emphasise that they are clearly items on Michael's agenda - I'm not at all sure they carry the same weight for the language learners.) Michael has chosen to become a Core Shamanic counsellor, presumably basing his practice on an encounter with "near death experience." (Berman p.2) He sees himself sufficiently developed to work from the standpoint that he "well suited for helping others through difficult times in their lives." (Berman p.2) Heady stuff and best wishes to him if he can. The harm and indeed potential disasters resulting from operating on this raw ontological level may well arise if he can't. Yet the tone of the article encourages me to envisage an author writing with total self certainty. Would he, unless sure, be confident enough to activate a guided visualisation entitled "Slaying the Dragon Called Fear" where he informs the learners "all your life you have been a coward"?
It is this sense of exaggerated personal conviction which can lead to a heedless, cavalier and cruel trespassing into the learners' inner worlds.

As someone who involved himself in an extensive psychotherapeutic process with a professional some years ago, I feel I write about such matters from a perspective of experiential competence. (From the client's side of the relationship.) I know we unpacked and battled with fears: I know we examined tender sores and I know I helped gut myself like a fish. I know my therapist was marvellous in her role and I also know that it took personal courage and more than "one minute" for me even to begin to identify "the person I was always born to be." The latter search is still work in progress as it will, and for me, always should be.

This brings me on to humility and doubt, two essential elements for a humanism of principled integrity. To remember constantly that I am not a perfected, unchanging entity that gives me licence to dispense wide-eyed and cliched remedies in the name of "helping others." I need to be a "good egotist" before I enter the dreamland of being an altruistic saviour - to be able to work on knowing myself more and to examine with sincerity the limits and possibilities of my present state of being. Far from wishing to endorse selfishness I would rather appeal to honesty.

As P.D. Ouspensky writes in "In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching."

"In order to be able to help people one must first learn to help oneself. A great number of people become absorbed in thoughts and feelings about helping others simply out of laziness. They are too lazy to work on themselves; and at the same time it is very pleasant for them to think that they are able to help others."

A similar theme is found in the work of Soren Kierkegaard, founder of Existentialism.

"When it shall really be possible to lead a person to a specific place, (one) first of all has to find where he is and start from there. This is the secret of the art of helping. Anyone who is not able to do so is simply seducing himself into believing that he is able to help others. When I start to impose my superior understanding, then it is because of my vanity and pride, in that I don't really want to help him but wish him to admire me instead."

As Kierkegaard asserts, I need to be sensitive and receptive to other people's "starting points" before I begin to delve into their innermost selves. If all learners self selected into courses named "English for Deep Self Revelation" then the setting would be different - but, as we know, - they don't. This is not to say that profound personal issues should not be part of the classroom world as long as the teacher does not create an atmosphere where individuals feel coerced into disclosure. Moreover, without the freedom to express emotions across the gamut from rage to delight then the language learning process would become stifled, inauthentic and ultimately cuttlebone dry. The classroom atmosphere engendered should be a permissive one where the learners feel powerful enough to say what they wish rather than what they feel they "should" or "have to" say.

Although coursebooks have improved unrecognisably over the years, they still tend to be (inevitably?) over-sanitised and militate towards content where learners are frequently put into the roles of lottery winners, local counselors or members of residents' committees in towns which don't exist. (I recently heard a mixed nationality advanced class during a needs/wants analysis that "we never want to do anything on ecology again.") This anodyne twilight zone needs greater substance and who better to provide it than the teacher and learners together? A simple exercise I have tried is to dictate the following list:-

A lifetime ago.
A couple of cigarettes ago.
A boyfriend/girlfriend ago.
Three haircuts/hairdos ago.
A personality ago.
Two cds ago.
A book ago.
A dream ago.

I then ask individuals to put their "agos" in order - from the most recent at the top to the most distant at the bottom. I also make it clear that if any of the above are irrelevant for them that they should omit them. After they have collated their own lists they form small groups to give reasons for, and ask questions about, their differing chronologies. The exchanges often contain a mixture of humour, seriousness and a spirit of interest. The learners can be as serious or light hearted as they wish. Afterwards, we talk about the rationale for placing "ago" in such a framework - namely, to make the word more personal. Thus far, feedback received has been almost universally positive with learners saying that they felt they could say as much as they wanted to. A simple activity, potentially "in depth" but not face threatening.

Despite all the research, all the learned tomes, and all the methods, techniques, ways and approaches we are still, in "hard science" terms, a long way from "knowing" how language is learnt or which is the most effective way of teaching it. We can study for diplomas, MAs and PhDs. We can read professional journals, attend conferences and share ideas with colleagues yet do any of us "know what to do?" I doubt it. Our practice is founded more upon informed hope than cast iron knowledge. That is the way it is at the moment. Therefore, we must accept that doubt, uncertainty and consequent vulnerability are all predicates which affect us as teachers. Without this recognition we become blinkered, static, arrogant and pedagogically sectarian.

So, how can we move forward a little more wisely? Nail our colours to Scott's "rationalism" (p.22) (whatever that is)? Present yourself as a weak form/strong form CLT teacher"? Declare yourself a "humanistic facilitator"? Sure, you we can join a team and set up in opposition against your chosen infidel..We can don the garments and trinkets of the latest ELT fashion club. ("you don't drill any more do you, darling?") We can, in short, make a binary, exclusive choice or we can use our sense of doubt to seek out the truths which lie within apparently conflicting fields and incorporate them into a principled, varied and integrative teaching matrix.

The evolution of Western reasoning and decision making has long been the result of an "either/or" type dialectic. The Eastern tradition stems from a less linear, less compartmentalised philosophy which emphasises the value of symbiosis and the incorporation of more disparate ideas. In fact Zen has a term which translates into English as "the unity of all opposites". With the ever increasing influence of Complexity and Chaos Theory in cosmology, fuzzy logic and the general waning in the acceptance of Newtonian certainty, it would seem that language teaching professionals could be well advised to dismantle some of our self imposed ideological boundaries and cultivate an attitude where more reciprocal feeding can take place.

If humanism is to consolidate and enhance its rightful position in the crucible of educational theory and practice then it needs to present itself with doubt, humility and determination - not one jot a blind oxymoron. Otherwise it will become largely isolated, involutionary and peripheral. Cynical opponents, of who there are many, will continue to vent their emotionally retarded spleens and attempt to marginalise those of us with a passionate desire to breathe more body, life and soul into the teaching and learning of languages.

Let Rene Daumal express a final call for humility:-

I am nothing because I lack desire,
I lack desire because I think I possess.
I think I possess because I do not try to give.
In trying to give, you see that you have nothing;
Seeing that you have nothing, you try to give of yourself;
Trying to give of yourself, you see that you are nothing;
Seeing that you are nothing, you desire to become;
In desiring to become, you begin to live.

Scott Thornbury "The Good, the bad and the loony: A Review." in IATEFL TTSIG Newsletter March 2000
Michael Berman "The Teacher and the Wounded Healer" IATEFL issues 152.
P.D. Ouspensky "In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching" (Arkana)
Walter Lowrie "A Short Life of Kierkegaard." Princeton

Daumal poem ("Poetry Webring " website.)


Marion Williams and Robert L.Burdon
"Psychology for Language Teachers. A Social Constructivist Approach" CUP
Jane Arnold (ed) "Affect in Language Learning" CUP

Simon Marshall is currently Director of Training at Pilgrims, Canterbury, UK Until recently he was language teaching and teacher training at Solihull College, Birmingham UK. He also worked extensively for Interrnational House, Hastings.UK, now Embassy. He is currently writing a teachers' resource book for the top end of the range: From Advanced to Native.

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