Deep Learning in ESL

Traditional pedagogical practices are rooted in the era of the Industrial Revolution, when schools for the public became common but the general population, and their children, were still thought to be stupid and vacant, and their teachers the fount of knowledge. Much of the general populace still grew up and was being reared to serve the elite, and therefore, there was no need for teachers and students to strive for anything other than surface learning – a mere memorization of facts, choosing of the correct answers, filling in of blanks.

The twenty-first century however demands students to be able to think critically, creatively, and communicate and collaborate with others to create new knowledge systems. Communicative language teaching (CLT) in ESL fits the bill. If you teach communicatively, you are already preparing your students for 21st century’s unique challenges. But is there anything more? Anything to deepen the learning? Despite our post-CELTA and post-DELTA teaching expertise, too many students slip through the net, into the abyss of language learning despair. Is there a way to take CLT to a new level and make deep learning the norm?

As an aside, watch this fantastic video on the futility of the modern day education system.

One of my most treasured memories of my teaching career is when I bumped into a student I hadn’t seen for 2-3 years. Maha had been a very shy creature, albeit in her mid-twenties, in my first Beginners class in Riyadh. Her fear of language was such that she kept her eyes down and avoided all attempts at opening her mouth in the classroom. When she did speak, usually during drills, her pronunciation was painful. Her first language was Arabic and she found the strangeness of the English language frightening.

I wasn’t sure why Maha had signed up for the class at all – I assumed it was because a sister or friend wanted company – this was a fairly common way for Saudi women to socialize after all. In the two months of teaching her, I tried everyday to infuse some confidence in her – because that was all that was missing. She had such little faith in her ability to learn the language that she shied away from using it at all. At the end of the two months though, I seriously doubted she would continue studying much longer.

My student group changed and so did my class timings and Maha’s struggles with learning faded from my memory. Until I bumped into her one day a couple of years later and she hugged me and told me, in surprisingly good English, about her news. I couldn’t believe it! The girl that never spoke in my Beginner class had gone on to complete the Upper Intermediate course, was applying for Masters in the States and had just scored 6.5 on the IELTS test.

It wasn’t just theoretical though – her language. Maha had a really wholesome vocabulary and was able to skillfully manipulate language to express different meanings. I believe accent is more about the need to assimilate with majoritarian cultures, and so there is no need to comment on it but suffice to say that she had achieved high communicative competence.

Maha surely worked hard to get to master a foreign language but I couldn’t help but wonder whether how her various teachers contributed to her advancement. How did they, and how can I, ensure deeper learning amongst my students? And of course, as a teacher trainer, if there is a secret formula, how can I train other teachers to use it effectively with their students?

One of the beauties of my life is that I grew up in a very traditional educational landscape. But I was able to critique my lived reality, sixteen years of school education, and discard it because surprise, surprise – it was complete waste of my time. My teachers were unable to exploit our full potential and how I wish my childhood spent staring out of the classroom window had been different. So when I walk into my classrooms – whether teaching ESL to kids or adults, or while I’m training teachers, I make sure to connect their learning to reality beyond the classroom walls, to help them develop 21st century skills in a foreign language.

Recently, I came across the University of Queensland’s EdX course on Deep Learning through Transformative Pedagogy last month and signed up for it. As I work my way through the course, I will continue to post my thoughts and comments and how to apply deep learning pedagogical practices in ESL.

So what do you think?

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