Double aims – double challenge

If I had to compare my traditional views on language teaching and learning with my TA-view then I would say that the first difference I see is in setting aims.

Traditionally I would enter a classroom with only one main aim in my head - which is connected to teaching language only (including teaching intercultural competence, communicative skills, public speaking and everything that nowadays is supposed to be taught during a language lesson). These become the objects of my teaching. Consequently, every activity I do or choose should support this aim and be directed towards achieving it. I put forward a specific language aim and find appropriate material to introduce and practice new items. Books and structured lesson plans are a magic wand that helps me to organise teaching/learning process and conduct interactive lessons. They offer clear evaluation criteria and allow to check the result in a rather short period of time. The result in this case is clear, either ‘learnt and understood’ or not.

On the contrary, TA-ed me has to keep at least two main aims in mind, teaching language and thinking, where thinking means skills and dispositions (I am not sure I clearly understand what disposition stands for though. Attitude?) necessary to deal with non-typical problems. It is difficult for me to formulate what are the relations between thinking and language in a TA classroom. Though I would like to say that teaching thinking is more important and language is just a context for it (that is to say, thinking is just wrapped in a language) I would not do it. It seems these relations are of a different nature which I am not able to formulate now. Anyway, keeping in mind 2 aims the whole teaching learning process opens up in an absolutely different light. The question appears – what exactly am I going to teach? The answer will be – thinking models, or to be more precise, using specific thinking models to discover the language system. One of the central problems in such a lesson should be – unlocking language system (solving problems) by using specific thinking models, which are ENV, contradiction, multi screen model (system operator), …anything else? In this case, no materials can help as no structured lesson plan can exist. You can get a task which has high thinking potential (which actually means - it is challenging) but unless you know what to do with it you will not move far. You should see the whole system in your head – where you are moving – seeing every task as one element of that huge and flexible system (flexible because though you have a general picture its every element is used only when it is needed and its up to you to evaluate the situation and decide which element is to select in a specific point of time). So with 2 aims in your mind you should not only think about what language to teach but also how to do it in a ‘thinking way’. And the main fear at this stage is – do I really know this ‘how to’ part?


Switching to ‘thinking’ style – going for a free flight

Why is it so difficult to switch to a TA-lesson-style? First of all, because I am not sure I see language as a system. To be more precise, I doubt I know how that system functions and can describe its elements through ENV or use ENV to solve a language task. Secondly, we are not only speaking about teaching language (its grammar system, syntax, etc.) but we are also speaking about various aspects connected to language (as mentioned above these might be making presentations, reading texts, etc.). This part might seem even more complex as it suggests that the teacher knows how to work with problems through the models and teaches his/her students to do so. In this case, the teacher has to master thinking models (s)he is teaching (should be able to solve problems thought these models). If (s)he does not then teaching of these models is complicated – how to teach to solve problems through models if you yourself do not solve them through these models. If ENV looks like (I highlight, looks like) the simplest model to teach and the simplest for integrating language context into then all other models are much more difficult to master and to see potential integration of language.

To be a TA-ed teacher one has to keep in mind the system – moving towards helping students to master thinking models – and be able to use the language context for teaching to use separate models for specific language-problem solving situations (where language stands not only for language system as such but also for everything that is done through and is about the language, e.g.making a speech). Moreover, one has to evaluate when the context is favourable for teaching which model.

Unless the teacher clearly sees a bigger picture of the system the lessons will turn into chaos. In fact, it is said that a TA-lesson looks like chaos for someone who is not acquainted with the system and just intrudes in the middle. It’s like coming to a theatre performance set by post-modernists in the middle of the act and trying to evaluate that performance using criteria for evaluating classical plays. So unless the teacher himself/herself sees the system a TA-lesson seriously risks turning into a real chaos.


Dealing with problems here and now

Even if it seems to you that you see the general picture, how can you know that you use the right time for teaching the right language and thinking element? One of the principles of the TA is to deal with those problems that students bring themselves. Nothing is forced or artificially brought into, learning potential comes from students’ problems. The only thing you can do is to show students that they have problems.

Moreover, when students start dealing with the task you yourself do NOT give students the correct answer once they produce some nonsense. What you should do instead – is to direct their replies in the right direction. It means that you have to be ready to deal with questions/comments/answers that appear here and now and quickly find the way to ‘repel’ them and turn them on the right path.

At the same time, we should not forget that any problem can be subdivided into its levels (e.g.working with grammar, one has the distinguish between different grammar forms, another one – to use them in a context) and students can be and normally are on different levels. So the teacher has to deal with this mess as well.


There is no end to perfection

Nothing is finished within the TA and that adds to the perception of it as being something messy. TA is organised in different technologies (grammar, text, research, self-study) and you can select within which technology you work (for instance, you can do all apart from research or you can do only grammar). However, if you choose to work with several technologies at a time you should remember that NONE of them will have anything finished. They need to have some more or less closing elements (for example, if one works with grammar and makes students develop and test their models then it is expected that the draft model will be developed and tested and improved, but nobody says that all or any student will develop the final model which will function eternally. Every model can be challenged and apart from that, students work at their own pace so they just can’t all at once approach their model closer to perfection. And a TA-teacher has to be ready to live with it. That’s why the feeling of something unfinished will be haunting every TA-newbie. If you as a teacher can live with it then be ready that at least in the very beginning some of your students will complain about ‘your not teaching them anything’.


Additional aspect for an absolute newbie

In addition, nobody has excluded other elements of the teaching-learning process such as classroom and time management, ways of working on the task, monitoring and evaluating the process (where evaluation is one more pain in the brain). Maybe these aspects are less important for an experienced teacher but for a teacher-newbie these surely add to ‘pain’.


So these look like the main fears when you start working with the TA and when you start getting your first true teaching experience.

No wonder that many teachers withdraw. It’s much easier to see learning process as a line which can be stopped and evaluated at any point.

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