Student-centeredness and fake news

“Student-centeredness” is a word whose weight is much greater than its clarity.  It carries very high value for signalling one’s dedication to teaching without saying almost anything about how one teaches.  It is a high-value token in the currency of a country no one can name.

As such, it invites co-opting.  Any teacher can describe his or her style as “student-centered” and reap the benefits using that word by appearing serious and dedicated, while simply describing the way he or she has always taught and would teach even if they had never heard that word.  This seemingly selfish guiding of the definition of the word doesn’t have to be conscious; the term is defined flexibly enough that any teacher could hear it and think, “That’s what I do! I had no idea I was so forward-thinking”.  As long as there is at least one student in the room (or the CMS), almost any teaching style could feasibly be called “student-centered”.

It shares that imbalance between rhetorical power and precise definition with “fake news”.  Some people define “fake news” as news that reports objective lies, others as news that frames stories in ways that guide the audience toward an ideological objective, others as news that works against what they see as American interests.  Depending on one’s definitions of the words “fake” and “news” (also “American interests”), any of these are plausible interpretations of the two of them put together.

Putting aside the flagrant attempt to tie this idea to today’s news, I have attempted to categorize four interpretations of “student-centeredness” that I’ve seen in my first month as an adjunct ESL instructor at a community college as well as in my career in Japan.

(Incidentally, ESL teachers are especially equipped to see through the top-shelf word choice of “adjunct” as opposed to “part-time” when referring to inessential staff: “adjunct” in grammar refers to a word or phrase after a verb that is not part of its argument structure, like “on the table” in “put the bowl down on the table”.  I.e., it is a part that is usually expendable.)

Ideologies-of-education student-centeredness

Some instructors are very dedicated to giving the students what they want.  In my classes, my students want me to pick the chapters from our reading textbook (the book itself being a concession in my mind) and read through them line by line, explaining the content in detail.  I tell them every new unit that I’m not going to do that, but many instructors are happy to, and if asked would probably justify it with reference to “student-centeredness” in that they are giving the students what they very clearly ask for.

If you read this blog on and off, or just if you got your MA within the last 20 years, you’ll know that I don’t think that this serves the students’ real interests.  It does, however, give the students the dignity of choosing their own way of studying and treats them as rational actors whose wishes and educational cultural norms need to be respected.  That sounds student-centered to me.

Outsourced student-centeredness

On the other hand, some teachers show their respect for students by assuming that they have the resourcefulness and dedication to work through difficulties on their own.  This often takes the form of the teacher enjoining the students to work hard and never give up, often in the place of offering the kind of explanation or class work that would obviate the need to work quite so much.  Like the above definition of “student-centeredness”, it strives to treat the students as independent rational actors.  Unlike the above, it places the burden of improvement much more on the student’s rather than the teacher’s contributions than in “traditional” education in most countries, and is likely to result in wildly different contributions from each student than passive reception of information.  In that sense respects their independence as well.

I call this “outsourced student-centeredness” simply because it makes learning the student’s responsibility rather than the teacher’s.  If that implies that the teacher is shirking his/her duties, I believe teachers who teach this way would say that giving students a sense of responsibility is their biggest duty of all.

Anecdotally, there is a strain of teaching traditional arts in Japan that places all of the onus for improvement on the student, while the teacher is mostly there to provide proof that success is possible, as well as discipline and structure.  This fine article by Neil Cowie explains how this affects some language teachers’ class styles as well.  It is conspicuously absent for the most part from the language classroom, for better or worse.

System-dependent student-centeredness

I once put the topic of student-centered teaching forward to a JHS English teacher who was coming to me for conversation classes.  She described her classes as student-centered in that she always did her best to help her students succeed and stuck around to answer questions or just be there for them after class.  From what I understand, this view of student-centeredness as doing everything to help students to succeed in a system with preset rules and goals, as well as helping them with life in general, is widely held in Japan.  The view that language education should be highly personalized at the level of content was not.

This is a feasible motivating strategy as well; students (and their parents) greatly appreciate a teacher whose goals are aligned with their own and who they feel will help them contribute to an ongoing life project.  In Japan, the goals (university) and means (attentive and diligent study) implied by this project are shared by almost all of the stateholders and gatekeepers in mainstream education, and teachers are expected to be selfless in their dedication to helping students succeed.  Students see teachers’ dedication and reciprocate.  At least, that is the ideal.

For many teachers this dedication extends to helping them cope with the strenuous demands that the testing regime places on them by being a confidant or playing counselor.  These are still, after all, mostly scared teenagers.  The teacher that I talked to saw friendly rapport before and after lessons as part and parcel of a humane, student-centered education in the context of a high-pressure academic environment.

Content student-centeredness

If you pay attention to trends in education, this one will be familiar to you.  The theory goes: attention is the currency of the classroom, and nothing elicits attention like talking about yourself.  Talking about your peers is a close second, and talking about the teacher a distant third.  Nobody cares about the made-up characters in a textbook.  Student-centeredness to teachers under 35 or so (or who got their certificates/degrees later in life, like me) re-orders content so that abstract principles and mass-produced materials go from near synonymity with course goals to hindrances or signs that your course outline isn’t sufficiently modern.

I assume most of you already agree with changing content and class style to give students more chances to co-construct knowledge (I normally balk at using words like that, but here they honestly seem like the best description of what I want to say).  I will just say though that none of that is obvious to teachers who only encounter these terms in passing and tries to find a home for them in the ELT world as he/she understands it.  As with fake news and its ability to describe almost any news the speaker wishes to paint as bad, the phrase “student-centered” can be applied to things already within any teacher’s repertoire.

Teacher Identity, pt. 3 – fellow travelers and possible selves

This post will draw somewhat heavily on Markus and Nurius’ (American Psychologist 41, 1986) possible selves, which I mostly learned about via Dörnyei.  Briefly, the ideal self is the best possible future version of yourself according to your own goals, the ought self is judged well by one’s peers and works to avoid shame and other negative outcomes, and the feared self is a failed, to-be-avoided future self, the opposite of the ideal self.

What coworkers from your career do you see as role models?

A lot of the teachers I worked with seemed to have something like professional Shark Syndrome (which may or may not have a real name in psychology), in which a need to always be in forward motion propels them to devote every weekend to professional development, and every Facebook post is from a train or plane en route to some international TESOL convention or another.  I actually don’t see this as realistic for people who (hope to) have families, or even friends, but their level of commitment to PD and to each other is inspiring.  Unlike me with my occasional metal posts, every thought that occupies their minds seems to be a reflection on practice or a new lesson idea.

The presence of coworkers and fellow ELT writers around me tends to cattle-prod me into following a similar path at least some of the time, leading me to do things like publish, make presentations, familiarize myself with common jargon, change the toner in the copy machine, etc. more than I normally would.  This effect seems to me much bigger than providing a role model in the same way as my high school teachers, possibly because my relationship to them was quite different and I’m seeing high school through 20 years of rose-colored fog (per recent EPA research findings, this is not a mixed metaphor).

As such, my coworkers usually inform my ought self rather than my ideal self, in that I associate my interactions with them more with the minor feeling of panic that comes from not keeping up than with feelings of wanting to be just like them when I grow up. The fear of not understanding some term (often an acronym, MBOH) that my coworkers are apparently all familiar with, or not having read some book or attended some conference strikes me as more characteristic of my interactions with other teachers.

This is in addition to the actual job requirements of knowing how to use that district’s chosen LMS, how they fill out time cards, what medical checks are necessary to begin working, how assessment is required to be conducted, and what acronyms the district mandates we use for things like “wrong preposition before indirect object” (WPBIO).  These threaten not just my ought self but my employed self.

Of course, doing all the PD and training that my ought self tells me to do is responsible for most or all of the career growth I’ve experienced, so I do owe my coworkers a lot for letting my ought self facilitate my ideal self.  It’s hard to be an inspirational and universally lauded senior tenured faculty member if you don’t know the procedure for adding and dropping students.

As for a feared self, the prospect of resigning myself to a lifetime of teaching uninterested students while my superiors only grudgingly tolerate my presence because they need Native Speakers, while making payments on a 30-year mortgage on a house that is never comfortable to be in except when I’m in front of my computer complaining about my life functions for me as a skeleton in a cage hanging at a crossroads.  Yes, I’ve seen shades of this in coworkers before and I shall be sure never to set foot on that path (again).  That is the feared self I hope I left behind when I quit my Japanese university gig.

For Californian ESL, my feared self is only just now starting to take shape, but he looks to be a functionary of the credit system, a servant of the district-wide synthetic syllabus funneling reams of immigrants through an established program readying them for transfer, relegating high-minded notions of interlanguage development to the trash heap of the un-rigorous and un-academic.  Check in periodically to see if I’ve managed to stave this boogeyman off.

If you see the greatest swordsman who ever lived in a cage on the path you’re meant to take, don’t take that path (even if it leads to tenure).

What about students?

Well, students don’t usually represent any of my possible selves as a teacher of course, but certain types of students are associated with the types of people I imagine interacting with as my possible selves.

(Actually, a few students of mine have been teachers themselves, and they were admirable in their willingness to continue learning their subject matter.  What stops me from considering them inspirations for me are the motivations they had for coming to me.  In one student’s case, she saw her classes with me as hobby-like, completely irrelevant to the mandatory English classes she taught at a local (Japanese) JHS.  The fact that she made this distinction speaks to the problem-to-rule-all-problems in Japanese ELT, the dichotomy of “communication/eikaiwa vs. grammar/eigo“, which rules that education from NESTs is a priori inapplicable to the serious business of public schooling.  In her mind, I taught the former to hobbyists and she taught the latter to real students.  Actually, this describes my problems with the second JHS teacher I taught as well, although in her case “communication English” wasn’t even a hobby, just a cosmetic concern for her application essays for the EAP programs that she needed to graduate college with a teacher’s license.)

Anyway, some other students have greatly informed the choices I make in teaching milieux these days, as I imagine what types of students I may interact with in those schools and how closely they will conform to my “greatest student hits” of the past.

I’ve had students who from day one embraced communicative methods and were able to draw discrete points from indiscrete (hmmm…) presentation, building a rich statistical and formal interlanguage system.  Until 2012, I didn’t know what “focus on form” was anyway, and my students who succeeded with me up till then mostly had to make do with either grammar classes or communication.  Demographically, these were generally socially deviant but intelligent people who were actively trying to succeed at a common goal through alternative methods, i.e. eigo innovators (see the strain theory post above).  Nowadays, I would incorporate more formal grammar into classes like those that we had, but these early encounters showed me what my MA would later feature as a major theme, that language learning must be a process of building implicit knowledge through some means, and purely implicit methods can be one of them.

On the other hand, I’ve had students who really needed the trappings of teacher-centeredness in order to feel comfortable in the classroom, and were quite eager to absorb formal grammar, practice it, and try to incorporate it into a living interlanguage system.  That sounds like I’m describing “all Japanese students”, but in actuality most students in Japan skip the 2nd and 3rd steps.  Sometimes, this yielded fruit in the form of insights that were worth having and probably couldn’t have come about but through metalinguistic means.  The most memorable example of this for me is when a hobbyist English learner in her 60s articulated the difference between 「ほとんど」hotondo and “almost” in terms I hadn’t heard before, that hotondo was fundamentally a positive word while “almost” was a fundamentally negative one.  I think this kind of summary can only come from a lot of conscious reflection on language, not merely acquisition.

Addendum: Since I started writing this post I’ve realized that a lot of my ESL students are completely starting their two-decade educations over.  That is, they sometimes have advanced degrees from countries that US universities don’t recognize, and are essentially doing university and graduate school all over again in a new language.  Until now I’ve been almost entirely teaching people who had less education than I do.  Teaching this new (to me) demographic of student is inspiring and humbling.  It still doesn’t inform my ideal self but certainly tells my ought self to do a good job.

What other people have directly influenced your classroom style?

I’ve been very influenced by the evolutionary arguments against “traditional” classroom styles, the type that point out that it’s totally unintuitive for us to sit quietly with non-kin, face the same direction, and listen to someone 5-20 meters away impart information verbally for hours at a time.  Some people have the knack for doing this, but most of us don’t, and it’s absurd for us to make it a prerequisite for all academic success from age 7 onward.  Like the printed word, it seems justifiable mostly for the neat bell curve it produces in achievement, which makes sorting students into careers relatively simple, not for being the most effective means to put ideas into the heads of millions of people at the same time.  So being a good critical thinker, I have to consider other contexts in which people put themselves in these unintuitive circumstances, and wonder why they would seem to do so happily, even paying for the privilege, in certain cases.

One of these is stand-up comedy.  Almost every argument one could make about “traditional” education could also be made about comedy, and sort of has been made by Louis CK.  People sit for hours with strangers listening to another stranger.  Yet they not only pay attention but pay money in order for the privilege to pay attention.

Not the quote I was thinking of, but a good one.

The point is, transmission-style education isn’t a sin if you really can hold people’s attention and bring them on a journey with you.  Even if it’s not immediately relevant to their lives, there is power in rhetoric and public speech that can negate all the artifice of the “traditional” classroom.

That said, if you adopt that teaching style and DON’T keep the students’ attention, you’ve failed just as much as a comedian who can’t get a laugh.

Average vs. cumulative outrage

There’s a ceiling on how much outrage I can feel at any given moment, much like there’s a limit on how much I will consider paying for a set of dishes, even if that set contains 10,000 bone china plates.

Over the past week I’ve seen, as you have, a string of successive and increasingly shocking affronts to human decency from the President and his advisors, which should have added up to at least a few instances of my head literally hitting the ceiling.

The thing is, outrage doesn’t seem to add up in this way, and rather than each new bit of news causing me to hit the ceiling, it has simply been added to the lively simmering crock pot of intense disappointment I’ve had in my head for the last few weeks.  I get the feeling most of my liberal friends feel somewhat like this, and are just motivated enough to tweet, complain on facebook or maybe send the ACLU some money via Paypal.  I’m not criticizing this, just remarking that the emotional state of many liberals is less:


and more:


This isn’t a political post at all, actually.  It’s just something that I noticed about the way I feel about Trump and the news that might point to something interesting about how people think in general.

People, it shouldn’t need to be pointed out, are poor intuitive statisticians.  This much is obvious, and provable by trying to explain any statistic to anyone, ever.  As a species we seem to have a counting module that can think about quantifiable things only as “one” “some” or “a lot”.  What is interesting is that this tendency applies to things that don’t even seem quantifiable, like feelings of outrage or indignation.  I can be outraged at one thing, outraged at some things, or outraged in general, but my subjective experience during the last of these isn’t all that much more intense than the first.  I have an upper boundary on how much of any particular emotion I can feel, and more input that would push me in that direction simply escapes and is lost as outrage radiation.

On the other hand, any countervailing information that I get cancels out far more outrage than it should.  If I hear that Trump’s son might have a disability, or I see people making fun of Melania for speaking learner’s English, I can pretty quickly forget about the last 5 terrible things that Trump himself did.  The bad things he does and the good (or at least not bad) things about him are both quantified in my brain as “some stuff” and weighted surprisingly equally.  Whenever I am made to recall at least one redeeming thing about him, my outrage drops down from its ceiling to “some outrage”, until some fresh news item (or just remembering the last one) pushes it back up.

It’s as if my outrage is averaged out rather than summed.  Rather than adding up travesty after travesty to get to 10,000 travesty points before subtracting 100 because he seems to love his children, all the travesties are normalized to within a narrow range and then have positive things I know about him subtracted.

The principle in action here seems to be a variation on the principle outlined (as many great principles are) in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, that the value of any given set is usually thought of as the average of its components rather than their sum.  That is, a set of 10 like-new dishes is priced higher than a set of 12 like-new dishes and 3 broken ones.  The broken ones seem to taint the set as a whole, bringing down the value of the entire package, although the package still contains at least as many like-new dishes as the alternative.  Ergo, as long as any number of things are conceived as a set rather than taken individually, their value is likely to be considered as a mean rather than a sum.  I’m surprised and a bit disappointed (in addition to fearful of what this could mean for how we think of Trump during his administration) in light of the fact that this principle seems to apply just as well to our feelings about a person’s set of actions as to our valuation of sets of dishes.

(I had a class in which I demoed this principle improvisationally on pieces of paper, handing each student a different description of a set of dishes and asking them to price it.  The principle was proven in real time, to the surprise of several managerial types in attendance.)