Misconceptions about Learning & Teaching

I just read Ljiljana Havran’s great blog post on student misconceptions about learning and teaching over on her excellent blog and I thought I would share my own struggles in this area.  If you haven’t read Ljiljana’s post, please do so first. Go ahead – I’ll wait here.

Finished?  Okay, here are the similar and divergent points of comparison about misconceptions I face as a language instructor at a small Japanese university.

  1. The pace of language learning –

Ljiljana points out that her students often believe that learning a second language is a much faster process than it really is.  Partly this is because they’ve picked up bits of English through exposure to it through film and friends.  Many of them might be unaware of their limitations and find it hard to move past the intermediate stage.

In Japan, I would say the opposite is probably true for my students.  The first-year university students I teach are painfully aware of their limited English ability.  Although most of them have studied English for about 6 years in junior and senior high school, they have mostly been taught using the yakudoku method (similar to grammar-translation in many ways) in order to prepare for the grammar-based English component of the university entrance examinations.

The result of this process seems to be a mixture of self-blame, embarrassment, and confusion on the part of the students for having studied a language for so long but not being able to speak or communicate with it.  Add to this the cultural belief that mistakes are bad and that one should not attempt to do something unless it is perfect, then you’ve got a real problem on your hands from both sides of the classroom.

Many of the students I teach hold a belief that English fluency will just never happen for them and they’ve given up on it.  Another issue is the idea of teaching through modeling – which means that the native speaker is held up as the model to which students must strive for in order to be a good English speaker.  For obvious reasons, this is just another blow to their confidence level and many of them just stop trying – unable to achieve the English fluency of the model set before them.

This feeling of having studied a language forever but not making any progress results in a vicious circle of foreign language anxiety that further impedes progress, especially in terms of oral competence.  Getting past these complex feelings of inadequacy requires nurturing students’ efforts – a slow task of steadily reinforcing communicative competence over grammatical mastery.  Sadly, many of my students just never get there in the end despite an earnest wish to speak English.

  1.  Teachers are responsible for students’ motivation and learning

I feel that in Japan, this is true of English communication classes exclusively.  Many of my students have written reviews of my class with suggestions for doing more games or fun activities.  This is surprising, considering that the vast majority of their other non-communication classes consist of 90-minute lectures with a Japanese teacher talking about his field of expertise with no interaction among the students whatsoever.

The students I speak with about these classes often mention that the classes are boring but, at the same time, this is perfectly normal and expected.  The comments in my reviews show that students do feel that the teacher’s job in an oral communication class is partly to provide an enjoyable experience for the students.  I should say that I don’t mind this attitude but I don’t particularly agree with it.  If a teacher is working hard to provide opportunities for communication in such a class, then he or she has basically done their job.  The motivation to speak and communicate in a second language must come primarily from the learner.  I feel that a teacher who fills their class time with too many “games for games’ sake” can end up cheapening a class if things are not handled carefully.

On the other hand,  Since teaching at university level, I have stopped entirely with games in my classroom and although some students probably believe that this is less fun, I have had very few problems with students in my class.  None of them have shown any displeasure or voiced any strong complaint (although I occasionally get one or two comments in my semester-end reviews, which I mentioned above).  The students seem to recognize that they must make the effort to satisfy course requirements and study outside of class independent of what I am doing in the classroom.

  1. Coursebooks are useful for students because they provide them with controlled practice and give them a sense of improvement.

I would say that this particular misconception rings true here for my own experiences in Japan.  Many of my students will complain about having to buy an assigned textbook for class but they will indeed make the purchase.  I don’t think that’s solely because they believe they are risking my anger for not purchasing it.  In Japan, coursebooks are a way of life throughout high school and there are strict guidelines on approval by the Ministry of Education.  The amount of attention and focus on coursebooks in the country seems almost obsessive at times.

I perceive a great societal value placed on coursebooks because they add another layer of legitimacy to a class. The publication of the book on its own is enough to sanction it as somehow valuable.  What’s funny is that I actually started teaching my Oral Communication classes this semester without any textbook for the first time. I have overheard my students lightly complaining to each other about the activities I ask them to do in class based on my own handmade materials – even though these activities are pretty much the same kind as you would find in any standard English oral communication textbook over here.  Back when I used a textbook, I never noticed these complaints at all.

  1. It is very important to write a detailed and formal lesson plan.

I have never had students complain about my “going off the rails” of what I have planned if it is executed well enough and with enough panache.  There are times when I’ve thrown out the plan and I have seen students get a little uneasy about what’s happening in these cases.  I really notice this with lower-level learners in my classes because the uncertainty they already feel about just being in an English class gets magnified and some of them just shut down completely until they feel “safe” enough to participate in what’s suddenly erupted.

With intermediate to higher-level learners, I can sense the tension and enjoyment they get out of exploring something off the beaten path.  In my Academic Discussion class, for example, I never know where things will end up and the students seem to feel pretty okay with this as long as everyone else seems okay with it too.  Mostly, the attitude is, “If I can learn something out of this, then let’s go with it, I guess.”   These “off the rail” classes are usually among the best ones I have ever had the privilege to participate in.

If I had to add to this list for my students, I would say that one misconception I often find is that everything that happens in class is in preparation for a test somewhere down the line.  It is very hard to get my students to relax in class and enjoy themselves, even when it comes to something as simple as a song “gap fill”, which is just a fun warm-up activity.  I can often see my students (especially first year students) getting a bit stressed over getting the correct answers.  I think this is because so many of my learners have been preparing so long for the university entrance examination throughout their academic lives, they have trouble distinguishing between “fun” activities that are not meant to be too serious and class activities that I explicitly outline as being part of a future test or quiz component.  I am not sure how to solve this problem but I would love to hear your ideas and feedback in the comments.

I would like to thank Ljiljana Havran for her great blog post on this.  It gave me lots to think about and I felt her points were really interesting.