Humanising Language Teaching
Are we ready for Holism?
Grethe Hooper Hansen, former President of SEAL
Page 1 of 2
Paradox is the spice of paradigm change. Quantum mechanics revealed that time can travel in both directions, things can be both A and not-A, barriers of time and space can dissolve. So many rules of world behaviour that we have for years just taken for granted, reverse themselves when viewed at a microscopic level.
This article is about a paradox that has only just revealed itself to me, and I am bursting to share the idea. Thank you, Mario, for the opportunity. As a Lozanov teacher, I had often wondered why it was that Dr Lozanov, in my view the most humanist of humanists and the most holistic of holists, was so reluctant to be identified as part of that movement (I put H and H together because I think of them as part of the same paradigm, just placing emphasis on different aspects. Humanism emphasizes the human aspect, the importance of acknowledging the learner's personhood, whereas holism focuses on involving all areas of the brain on both the horizontal, or hemispheric, and vertical plane - limbic and motor sensory as well as cognitive).
Holism and Humanism bring to mind the image of carers and sharers playing happy games (which provide experiential learning), enjoying music and relaxation, letting down their hair (emotional defences) and having fun - a space in which I have very happily spent much of my life.
The paradox is that, although the image is playful, holism has to be the strictest of disciplines. Its results depend entirely on the rigour of its application. Classrooms which focus mainly on the intellectual level of interaction ('traditional' classrooms) are far less demanding than holistic ones because the teacher's behaviour and occasional lapses into sloppiness/tiredness and lack of preparation do not matter to the same extent. By contrast, Humanism allows very little margin for human error.
The reason for this is that when we engage many levels of mind, bringing emotion, intuition, gross and subtle senses to bear on the same goal as intellect, we activate more sensitivities. Teacher didacticisms that are only mildly irritating in intellectually-focused classrooms can become hurtful and destructive in holistic ones.
To give an example, one of the things that all EFL teachers are made aware of in their training is the impact of their questions on the learner. If a question is not 'genuine', which is to say that the teacher knows the answer and if, worst of all, there is only one answer (and the teacher prompts the learner to give it!), then it is not 'honest behaviour' to ask the question. The student is simply being grilled in a concealed didactic way, and the teacher's interaction is neither honest nor equal. The impact of such questioning is to reinforce teacher-over-learner hierarchy, raise the fear thermostat, invite collusion in do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do behaviours, and generally lower self esteem.
In the 'traditional' classroom, most students will accept such pedagogical tactics as classroom convention and will not infer any ill intent on the part of the teacher, although at a subtle level there will be negative influence if self esteem is low (The Humanist movement arose in protest against conventional behaviours that are subtly disempowering). In the holistic classroom, because the students' emotions are engaged, making them more sensitive and vulnerable, the full implications of the message have much greater impact.
In the Humanist classroom we talk about feelings. When you begin to talk about feelings and not just facts and opinions, it becomes more important to follow the rules of facilitation. The teacher/facilitator must be sure to use carer language : "I" talk instead of "you", and so on. Also, if the teacher invites pair sharing about feelings and then cuts learner talk short to indulge in teacher lecture, there is a real sense of outrage - which would be less likely in a conventional discussion of, say, linguistics.
I find that the first few minutes of the session determine my own gut responses. If the first activity is of the caring-and-sharing variety, then my right brain becomes highly aroused (Dr Lozanov demonstrates fluctuation of states by having seminar participants fill in the same questionnaire at different stages of the proceedings and note their different responses) and I remain super-sensitive to facilitator clumsiness. If, on the other hand, we start with verbal explanation and OHP slides, I respond intellectually and can be in transports of delight when I have not moved a muscle or said a word for ninety minutes (provided, of course, the content is of a sufficiently high order).
For me, rigour is the most fundamental communication of the facilitator's respect. When the learners' time is wasted, their intelligence underestimated and their cooperativeness abused by activities which turn out to be meaningless or inappropriate, or when there are serious lapses of communication on the emotional front, learners may feel either wretched about themselves (erosion of self esteem) or angry, hurt and frustrated. Preparation of the session and of oneself as facilitator is an indication of respect for participants. I notice my own body reaction when presenters say that for one reason or another, they have not been able to prepare; it literally tries to leave the room (and often succeeds) rather than suffer the slings and arrows. In other people I see such responses as sinking into a kind of passive slump or adopting a polite smile and trying to look on the bright side. (I also notice the extent to which learners love to please, and pretend not to notice presenter transgressions. The result is collusion, which really helps no-one; I am persistently guilty of this, not wishing to hurt people who mean no harm.)
Dr Lozanov is famous for his rigour : "The bulk of the teacher's activities are subjected to the most strict programming : any looseness, guesswork, self-asserting inventiveness, jumping from one subject to another, incoherence etc., corrupts the suggestopedic work and the results do not meet expectations." His reasons, I assume, are more or less what I have said above. In addition, "Any game that does not use to the best advantage a considerable amount of information is a game for entertainment, and this type of game results in further reinforcing the agony of studying"
This may appear a little hard on mere mortals. We all get tired and overworked from time to time; none of us is perfect. Predictably, he has thought of that too. There is a basic precept of Suggestopedia (or ReCaCo, Reserve Capacity Communication, as it is now known in USA) that learners have infinite potential, and failure is usually due to inadequate teacher communication. So when someone fails to learn, the teacher must look into this situation as into a mirror and try to see what it is in his/her own facilitation that has prevented the learning. Years of mirror gazing make teachers more rigorous, more responsible (autonomous) and more respecting of learners. Three of the Rs of holism.
The biggest pitfall in the HH classroom (and perhaps in any classroom) is controlism, and I know this one well because of the time I have myself spent in the pit. Controlling has less to do with method than with personality and the history of the person who is using the method. The need to control others is a projection of our own need to control what is inside us. Virginia Satir likened repressed emotion to hungry dogs locked in the basement; the hungrier they get, the more effort and energy it takes to control them.
'Civilised' western societies tend to curb the expression of emotion, especially painful emotion, and this emotion does not evaporate. It is held out of awareness by our perceptual defence mechanisms, which protect the mind from the contemplation of material that might distract us from the necessary business of survival. As a result, it is not unusual for people to be carrying a load of unexpressed anger and grief, even if this is entirely unrecognised. Of course, not all inwardly controlling people control others outwardly (They might instead become passive, physically ill, depressed, all kinds of things), but when people do feel a strong need to control others, this is probably the dynamic behind it.
Some educational cultures allow more controlling than others. Adults tend to gravitate towards organisational cultures that reflect the way they are, or satisfy their deeper needs, but children are placed by their parents, and they will inevitably be shaped by their school. I was lucky enough to attend a Quaker school; Quakers do not believe in preaching and sermons, preferring to let people follow their own inner voice. Although I broke rules incessantly and spent most of my Wednesday and Saturday afternoons writing in the punishment room, I received no sermons or lectures and was left free to draw my own conclusions from my exploration of boundaries. In this environment I learned, experientially, to be very sensitive to issues of integrity - which is probably what drew me to Lozanov.