Why search for the truth when you can do so much better?
Experiential learning, inductive reasoning, heuristic problem-solving and affective engagement are central to my approach to education. Instead of answers, I encourage my students to pursue possibilities. It is one thing to strive for everyone to reach their full potential, and another to recognise no one knows their full potential, how far they are from reaching it, and specifically what steps they still need to take to do so. In other words, there is a gap between what people are and what they can be. Moreover, that gap, both quantitatively and qualitatively, is probably unique to each individual.
In their early years, there is probably more value to be had in education equipping people for negotiating the rigours of life than in sensitising them towards knowing and forming themselves. If the purpose of education, as opposed to training, is to tune us into better people, then, by young adulthood, the one-size-fits-all approach may be seen as counter-productive. While the teacher must have a broad idea of the students’ needs, such needs cannot be known in detail. Being able to listen, I mean truly listen, makes me an enabler and a guide. My life comes through in my lessons. My students value that and tell me as much.
Affective engagement doesn’t only mean that student work is fun, important as that may be, it also means that they discover and pursue their natural preferences and do so in ways that they’d be inclined to keep doing it or keep returning to it. The greatest reward for me is to see my students’ excitement as they understand themselves differently and apprehend the world in new and unexpected ways.
I teach English for Academic Purposes (EAP) at NYU Shanghai, through which I equip students to improve their language by themselves (something about getting a fish and how long you're going to eat). By this point in the student's life, their competencies are so individually differentiated that it makes one-lesson-fits-all inevitably less than optimal.
My method allows for each student to run into their limits at different points and are compelled to address their needs in the act of identifying them. The tasks I set are very deliberately not language tasks to ensure they do not think about language when carrying out the tasks. I find a strong correspondence between my work and David A. Kolb's experiential learning, as well as Stephen Krashen's various language acquisition hypotheses.
On my course, language is improved through tasks that demand ever-increasing cooperation, cognitive sophistication and organisational complexity. To successfully complete these tasks, students must attain a certain minimum degree of language sophistication. They figure this out for themselves without knowing that they're doing it. They discover that whereas their English was adequate at the start of the course, it's no longer so by week six (or five or seven). They then start improving their linguistic dexterity in order to complete the tasks.
Their language-learning becomes self-assessed, self-corrected and self-driven. My role as a teacher is to guide them, keep them on track and inspire them.
The live course website is here [NYU log-on required].
The combination of a dynamic city and an institution espousing liberal arts values provide a rare opportunity to test EAP on its own terms, rather than those of its progenitor, linguistics. To gently butcher Tsiolkovsky: linguistics is the cradle of EAP, but one cannot live in a cradle forever. It is the Academic Purposes in EAP that takes it beyond the concerns of linguistics, into, amongst other areas, the development of cognitive dexterity.
“Academic purposes” are acknowledged to varying degrees and with varying interpretations in EAP programmes. My research examines teaching language at the intersection of three determining characteristics of EAP students: they are mostly young adults; they are about to embark on an intense global experience; they are engaged in highly-demanding academic study. Given this intersection, what would the most effective and most enjoyable EAP course look like? The answer, I believe, could more accurately be called English through Academic Purposes, rather than for Academic Purposes.
My teaching philosophy and method applied in this context provide a chance to find the best combination of induction and deduction, solo work and collaboration, didacticism and experience, action and reflection, and localism and globalism. Weekly data on the course’s performance allow for detailed assessments at the semester end. The course is adjust and the cycle repeated.
So far, this research has run over two semesters, based on mainland Chinese EAP students only, with one conference exposure. I expect to reach publishable conclusions after four semesters.