Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Post Method Era

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From the survey of approaches and methods presented in this book we have seen that the history of language teaching in the last one hundred years has been characterized by a search for more effective ways of teaching second or foreign languages. The commonest solution to the “language teaching problem” was seen to lie in the adoption of a new teaching approach or method. One result of this trend was the era of so-called designer or brand-name methods, that is, packaged solutions that can be described and marketed for use anywhere in the world. Thus, the Direct Method was enthusiastically embraced in the early part of the twentieth century as an improvement over Grammar Translation.
In the 1950s the Audiolingual Method was thought to provide a way forward, incorporating the latest insights from the sciences of linguistics and psychology. As the Audiolingual Method began to fade in the 1970s, particularly in the United States, a variety of guru-led methods emerged to fill the vacuum created by the discrediting of Audiolingualism, such as the Silent Way, Total Physical Response, and Suggestopedia. While these had declined substantially by the 1990s, new “breakthroughs” continue to be announced from time to time, such as Task-Based Instruction, Neurolinguistic Programming, and Multiple Intelligences, and these attract varying levels of support. We have described an approach as a set of beliefs and principles that can be used as the basis for teaching a language.
The following are examples of approaches:
  1. Communicative Language Teaching
  2. Competency-Based Language Teaching
  3. Content-Based Instruction
  4. Cooperative Learning
  5. Lexical Approaches
  6. Multiple Intelligences
  7. The Natural Approach
  8. Neurolinguistic Programming
  9. Task-Based Language Teaching
  10. Whole Language
Each of these approaches has in common a core set of theories and beliefs about the nature of language, of language learning, and a derived set of principles for teaching a language. None of them, however, leads to a specific set of prescriptions and techniques to be used in teaching a language. They are characterized by a variety of interpretations as to how the principles can be applied. Because of this level of flexibility and the possibility of varying interpretations and application, approaches tend to have along shelf life. They allow for individual interpretation and application. They can be revised and updated over time as new practices emerge.
A method, on the other hand, refers to a specific instructional design or system based on a particular theory of language and of language learning. It contains detailed specifications of content, roles of teachers and learners, and teaching procedures and techniques. It is relatively fixed in time and there is generally little scope for individual interpretation. Methods are learned through training. The teacher's role is to follow the method and apply it precisely according to the rules. The following are examples of methods in this sense:
  1. Audiolingualism
  2. Counseling-Learning
  3. Situational Language Teaching
  4. The Silent Way
  5. Suggestopedia
  6. Total Physical Response
Compared to approaches, methods tend to have a relatively short shelf life. Because they are often linked to very specific claims and to prescribed practices, they tend to fall out of favor as these practices become unfashionable or discredited. The heyday of methods can be considered to have lasted up till the late 1980s.
However, methods offer some advantages over approaches, and this doubtless explains their appeal. Because of the general nature of approaches, there is often no clear application of their assumptions and principles in the classroom. Much is left to the individual teacher's interpretation, skill, and expertise. Consequently, there is often no clear right or wrong way of teaching according to an approach and no prescribed body of practice waiting to be implemented. This lack of detail can be a source of frustration and irritation for teachers, particularly those with little training or experience. Methods, on the other hand, solve many of the problems beginning teachers have to struggle with because many of the basic decisions about what to teach and how to teach it have already been made for them. Moreover, method enthusiasts create together a professional community with a common purpose, ideology, and vernacular. This provides adherents with a cohort group of like-minded teachers with whom they can share ideas and experiences.  Methods can also be seen as a rich resource of activities, some of which can be adapted or adopted regardless of one's own ideology. Like the “P-P-P” prescription of Present, Practice, and Produce, a method offers to the novice teacher the reassurance of a detailed set of sequential steps to follow in the classroom.
The extent to which new approaches and methods become widely accepted and have a lasting impact on teachers' practices also depends on the relative ease or difficulty of introducing the changes the approach or method requires. Curriculum changes are of many different kinds. They may affect teachers' pedagogical values and beliefs, their understanding of the nature of language or second language learning, or their classroom practices and uses of teaching materials. Some changes may be readily accepted, others resisted. The following questions will therefore affect the extent to which a new approach or method is adopted:
Ø  What advantages does the new approach or method offerIs it perceived to be more effective than current practices?
Ø  How compatible is it with teachers' existing beliefs and attitudes and with the organization and practices within classrooms and schools?
Ø  Is the new approach or method very complicated and difficult to understand and use?
Ø  Has it been tested out in some schools and classrooms before teachers are expected to use it?
Ø  Have the benefits of the new approach or method beenclearly communicated to teachers and institutions?
Ø  How clear and practical is the new approach or method? Are its expectations stated in ways that clearly show how it can be used in the classroom?
Practicality is a key issue. A methodology that can readily be turned into teaching materials and textbooks and whose use requires no special training will generally be more readily adopted than one lacking these features. The support networks available in promoting or explaining a new teaching approach or method are also crucial. Here a ministry or department of education, key educational administrators, leading academics and professional bodies and organizations can play an important role in promoting a new approach or method.
It is clear that some approaches and methods are unlikely to be widely adopted because they are difficult to understand and use, lack clear practical application, require special training, and necessitate major changes in teachers' practices and beliefs.
Yet the notion of methods came under criticism in the 1990s for other reasons, and a number of limitations implicit in the notion of all-purpose methods were raised. By the end of the twentieth century, mainstream language teaching no longer regarded methods as the key factor in accounting for success or failure in language teaching. Some spoke of the death of methods and approaches and the term “post-methods era” was sometimes used. What were the major criticisms made of approaches and methods?
The “top-down” criticism
While approaches tend to allow for varying interpretations in practice, methods typically prescribe for teachers what and how to teach. Teachers have to accept on faith the claims or theory underlying the method and apply them to their own practice. Good teaching is regarded as correct use of the method and its prescribed principles and techniques. Roles of teachers and learners, as well as the type of activities and teaching techniques to be used in the classroom, are generally prescribed. The role of the teacher is marginalized; his or her role is to understand the method and apply its principles correctly. Likewise, learners are sometimes viewed as the passive recipients of the method and must submit themselves to its regime of exercises and activities. Absent from the traditional view of methods is a concept of learner-centeredness and teacher creativity: an acknowledgment that learners bring different learning styles and preferences to the learning process, that they should be consulted in the process of developing a teaching program, and that teaching methods must be flexible and adaptive to learners' needs and interests. At the same time, there is often little room for the teacher's own personal initiative and teaching style. The teacher must submit herself or himself to the method.
Role of contextual factors
Both approaches and methods are often promoted as all-purpose solutions to teaching problems that can be applied in any part of the world and under any circumstance. In trying to apply approaches or methods, teachers sometimes ignore what is the starting point in language program design, namely, a careful consideration of the context in which teaching and learning occurs, including the cultural context, the political context, the local institutional context, and the context constituted by the teachers and learners in their classrooms.
For example, attempts to introduce Communicative Language Teaching in countries with very different educational traditions from those in which CLT was developed (Britain and the United States and other English-speaking countries) have sometimes been described as “cultural imperialism” because the assumptions and practices implicit in CLT are viewed as “correct” whereas those of the target culture are seen in need of replacement. Similarly, Counseling-Learning and Cooperative Learning both make assumptions about the roles of teachers and learners that are not necessarily culturally universal.
The need for curriculum development processes
Curriculum planners view debates over teaching method as part of a broader set of educational planning decisions. These traditionally involve:
  1. The careful examination, drawing on all available sources of knowledge and informed judgment, of the teaching objectives, whether in particular subject courses or over the curriculum as a whole.
  2. The development and trial use in schools of those methods and materials which are judged most likely to achieve the objectives which teachers agreed upon.
  3. The assessment of the extent to which the development work has in fact achieved its objectives. This part of the process may be expected to provoke new thought about the objectives themselves.
  4. The final element is therefore the feedback of all the experience gained, to provide a starting point for further study.
These elements are viewed as forming a network of interacting systems. Choice of teaching method cannot, there-fore, be determined in isolation from other planning and implementation practices.
Lack of research basis
Approaches and methods are often based on the assumption that the processes of second language learning are fully understood. Many of the books written by method gurus are full of claims and assertions about how people learn languages, few of which are based on second language acquisition research or have been empirically tested. With some exceptions, such as Krashen, researchers who study language learning are themselves usually reluctant to dispense prescriptions for teaching based on the results of their research, because they know that current knowledge is tentative, partial, and changing. Much of such research does not support the often simplistic theories and prescriptions found in some approaches and methods. Skehan, for example, commenting on the standard lesson sequence in Situational Language Teaching as well as other methods consisting of a Presentation phase, a Practice phase, and a Production phase (the P-P-P lesson model), points out that such a sequence does not reflect principles of second language acquisition:
The underlying theory for a P-P-P approach has now been discredited. The belief that a precise focus on a particular form leads to learning and automatization no longer carries much credibility in linguistics or psychology.

Similarity of classroom practices
Another criticism is that it is very difficult for teachers to use approaches and methods in ways that precisely reflect the underlying principles of the method. Swaffar, Arens, and Morgan commented:
One consistent problem is whether or not teachers involved in presenting materials created for a particular method are actually reflecting the underlying philosophies of these methods in their classroom practices.
Swaffar and her colleagues studied how teachers using different methods implemented them in the classroom and found that many of the distinctions used to contrast methods, particularly those based on classroom activities, did not exist in actual practice:
Methodological labels assigned to teaching activities are, in themselves, not informative, because they refer to a pool of classroom practices which are used uniformly. The differences among major methodologies are to be found in the ordered hierarchy, the priorities assigned to tasks.
Brown makes a similar point:
Generally, methods are quite distinctive at the early, beginning stages of a language course, and rather indistinguishable from each other at a later stage. In the first few days of a Community Language Learning class, for example, the students witness a unique set of experiences in their small circles of translated language whispered in their ears. But within a matter of weeks, such classrooms can look like any other learner-centered curriculum.
It is perhaps for this reason that video samples of different approaches and methods typically demonstrate the first lesson (or an early lesson) of a foreign language class. There are no convincing video “demonstrations” with intermediate or advanced learners, perhaps because, as Brown points out, at that level there is nothing distinctive to demonstrate.
Beyond approaches and methods
What alternative approaches to the study of teaching are available outside of the framework of brand-name approaches and methods? We believe that because approaches and methods have played a central role in the development of our profession, it will continue to be useful for teachers and student teachers to become familiar with the major teaching approaches and methods proposed for second and foreign language teaching. Mainstream approaches and methods draw on a large amount of collective experience and practice from which much can be learned. Approaches and methods can therefore be usefully studied and selectively mastered in order:
  1. to learn how to use different approaches and methods and understand when they might be useful.
  2. to understand some of the issues and controversies that characterize the history of language teaching.
  3. to participate in language learning experiences based on different approaches and methods as a basis for reflection and comparison.
  4. to be aware of the rich set of activity resources available to the imaginative teacher.
  5. to appreciate how theory and practice can be linked from a variety of different perspectives.
However, teachers and teachers in training need to be able to use approaches and methods flexibly and creatively based on their own judgment and experience. In the process, they should be encouraged to transform and adapt the methods they use to make them their own. Training in the techniques and procedures of a specific method is probably essential for novice teachers entering teaching, because it provides them with the confidence they will need to face learners and it provides techniques and strategies for presenting lessons. In the early stages, teaching is largely a matter of applying procedures and techniques developed by others. An approach or a predetermined method, with its associated activities, principles, and techniques, may be an essential starting point for an inexperienced teacher, but it should be seen only as that. As the teacher gains experience and knowledge, he or she will begin to develop an individual approach or personal method of teaching, one that draws on an established approach or method but that also uniquely reflects the teacher's individual beliefs, values, principles, and experiences. This may not lead to abandonment of the approach or method the teacher started out using but will lead to a modification of it as the teacher adds, modifies, and adjusts the approach or method to the realities of the classroom.

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