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Person-centred Teaching In EFL

Person-centred teaching in EFL

Post Series: Teaching practice

What is person-centred teaching? For me, it is fundamentally about an orientation towards  learners that an educator has in which the rich complexity of the individual is fully recognised and respected. This is in opposition to student or learner-centredness in which the rich complexity of the individual is mostly diminished and disregarded. It begins from simple language choices. What words do you use to refer to the people of the classroom that you are working with? Do you refer to them as students or learners or are there other possibilities? This might seem like a semantic argument but I shouldn’t have to convince any language teacher of the importance of words nor the fact that the words we choose to use determine how we think about others. Poor choices of language can lead, in my view, to poor outcomes and poor thinking.

The student and student-centredness

Probably the most common word we use in teaching is student but in my view this word refers to a kind of social role that someone has. It’s not quite the same as a job title because students as we know, never really do any work but nevertheless it’s not a word that really gets to the heart of who any individual actually is. We’ve all heard people who have particular professions complaining about the fact that their job title comes to define who they are and how others see them. The same is true for the word student. A student is what someone becomes when they walk through the door of an academic establishment. It is a reductive word that diminishes someone and places them in a lesser, subordinate role to an educator. I would argue that this word negatively affects the way teachers talk and think about the people they work with and that educators should question their use of this word. Are you perhaps using a form of language that leads ineluctably towards racism and contempt for others for example? If you are, I would question why you would want to work in education.

The learner and learner-centredness

At some unspecified point – let’s call it the 1960s for the sake of argument – there was a move away from a model of education based around authority and a drift towards post-modernist, abstraction in the academic fields. And so it was decided that the word learner would somehow offer a more touchy-feely way to relate to those who were taught. However, the problem remains that no individual human being is ever merely a learner. It’s optimistic on the part of a teacher to expect someone to somehow be permanently ready to learn as if that was all they did. The people who enter an academic institution are not learning as they enter; they may end up in the happy condition of learning at some point but that’s very contingent on what an educator might be doing. Calling people learners rather than students might be a marginal improvement but it still highlights the fact that we diminish and reduce people to less than they really are when we apply these labels.

The person and person-centredness

So what are we left with? I feel that one of the central problems with education lies in its impersonal nature and in the model of authority on which the relationship between educator and learner is based. Teachers are not encouraged to see those they teach as people or even human beings and in some ways that is based on little more than the way people sit in classrooms and the way furniture is arranged. Everything serves to place the teacher on a stage and reduce the rest of the group to mere observers as an audience whose role is to consume educational content.

One of the loneliest aspects of my teaching career has been my personal failure to find other people who can really understand what all this implies. I returned to classroom teaching after fifteen years away from it and must confess that I don’t believe the world of ELT has evolved in the slightest since I left it behind. Moreover, when one works in a profit-driven environment in which learners are regarded as little more than walking sources of cash it’s even harder to find people who are correctly oriented towards education and the people who populate it.

Person-centred teaching is fundamentally about rethinking who you are as a teacher and how you relate to others – not from some position of authority in which you demand arbitrary respect merely because someone has given you a particular job – but to be fully present in each and every interactional moment and to respond to the people you teach with emotional intelligence and a recognition that developing as a language learner must, I repeat must involve personal growth as well as the mere acquisition of knowledge and information. Get that right and you become a better teacher. Get it right institutionally and your business might have a sustainable model to work from.

Who’s with me?

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