The postmodern language teacher: The future of task-based teaching
Andrew Edward Finch, Ph.D.
Kyungpook National University
Republic of Korea
“We are living in a time of rapid social change. … such change will inevitably affect the nature of those disciplines that both reflect our society and help to shape it. … Modes and categories inherited from the past no longer seem to fit the reality experienced by a new generation” (Hawkes, general editor’s preface, in Hutcheon, 1989, p. vii).
We live in an environment that is continually changing. It seems that rapid change is our only constant. We are faced with an entirely new situation in which the goal of education, if we are to survive, is the facilitation of change and learning. … The only person who is educated is the person who has learned how to learn; the person who has learned how to adapt and change; the person who has realized that no knowledge is secure, that only the process of seeking knowledge gives a basis for security.” (Rogers, 1969, pp. 151-152).
“… education is itself going through profound change in terms of purposes, content and methods … [education] is both a symptom of and a contributor to the socio-cultural condition of postmodernity” (Edwards & Usher, 1994, p. 3).
“Indeed, many would argue that this very lack of agreement is in itself one of the distinguishing features of the ‘postmodern’” (O’Farrell, 1999, p. 11).
“Postmodernism is a phenomenon whose mode is resolutely contradictory as well as unavoidably political” (Hutcheon, 1989, p. 1)
“… sense of fluidity and open-endedness” which “resists being conveniently summarized in easy ‘soundbites’ and refuses to lend itself to any single cut and dried definition” (Ward, 2003, p. 1).
Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to say that the postmodern’s initial concern is to de-naturalize some of the dominant features of our way of life; to point out that those entities that we unthinkingly experience as ‘natural’ (they might even include capitalism, patriarchy, liberal humanism), are in fact ‘cultural’; made by us, not given to us. Even nature, postmodernism might point out, doesn’t grow on trees. (Hutcheon, 1989, pp. 1-2)
Ward (2003) suggests that postmodernism can be seen (among other things) as: i) an actual state of affairs in society; and ii) the set of ideas which tries to define or explain this state of affairs (2003, p. 5). From this point of view, postmodernism is a set of concepts and debates about what it means to live in our present times. These debates have a number of common themes:
- They propose that society, culture and lifestyle are today significantly different from what they were 100, 50 or even 30 years ago.
- They are concerned with concrete subjects like the developments in mass media, the consumer society and information technology.
- They suggest that these kinds of development have an impact on our understanding of more abstract matters, like meaning, identity and even reality.
- They claim that old styles of analysis are no longer useful, and that new approaches and new vocabularies need to be created in order to understand the present. (Ward, 2003, p. 6)
Postmodern categories include:
- Crossing of borders (breaking down of barriers)
- De-colonization (diversification and regionalism)
- Decentralization (lateral, rather than hierarchical decision-making)
- Deconstruction (questioning traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth)
- Eclecticism (the borrowing and mixing of features from different systems and fields)
- Pastiche (imitating the previous works of others, often with satirical intent)
- Relativism (conceptions of time, space, truth and moral values are not absolute but are relative to the persons or groups holding them)
- Self-contradiction (duplicity; the conscious making of self-undermining statements)
- Self-reference and self-reflexiveness (use of meta-language and self-constructing forms)
‘Metanarratives’ of the ‘modern’ Age of Reason included i) progress; ii) optimism; iii) rationality; iv) the search for absolute knowledge in science, technology, society and politics; and v) the idea that gaining knowledge of the true self was the only foundation for all other knowledge (Ward, 2003, p. 9).
Science (which replaced religion in the ‘modern’ era in terms of being the subject of unquestioning faith) was seen from this standpoint as: i) progressive (moving towards a state of ‘complete knowledge’); ii) unified (all sub-disciplines shared the same goal); iii) universal (aiming at total truths which would benefit all of human life); and iv) self-justifying (since it was obviously intent on the betterment of the ‘human race’).
These were theoretical warnings about the demise of the modern project, and the onset of a relativistic postmodernism, but the warnings soon received reinforcement, when the myth of benign, philanthropic scientific enquiry was found to be practically inadequate, or even inaccurate. This collapse of faith can be traced to a number of reasons:
- the contribution of science to ecological disasters (e.g. pollution, greenhouse gases, acid rain) and mass killing (nuclear, chemical and biological weapons);
- the commercialization of science (e.g. the withholding of permission by pharmaceutical corporations in the US to make cheaper, generic versions of their life-saving drugs in underdeveloped countries – an issue recently addressed by the WTO Doha declaration [World Trade Organisation, 2001]);
- the loss of faith in the ability to measure reality (due to findings in the sciences of complexity, ‘chaos theory’, quantum mechanics, etc.); and
- the division of science into a mass of specialisms (a multitude of disciplines and sub-disciplines now follow their own agendas and speak their own languages).
Was a devastated natural environment the only outcome of the scientific search to improve our physical living conditions? Clearly there was something very wrong indeed with the whole idea that unaided Reason and rationality could save us. (O’Farrell, 1999, p. 14)
Socia upheavals as evidenced in:
- an erosion of conventional distinctions between high and low culture;
- fascination with how our lives seem increasingly dominated by visual media;
- a questioning of ideas about meaning and communication, and about how signs refer to the world; and
- a sense that definitions of human identity are changing, or ought to change. (Ward, 2003, p. 11).
Postmodernism (in addition to rejecting the logical/rational foundation stones of the Enlightenment), chips away at the three main cornerstones of modern politics: i) nation; ii) class; and iii) belief in the wholesale transformation of the world (Ward, 2003, p. 173).
A schooling system which promised social equality and enlightenment for all has done little more than reinforce social division and entrench new forms of conformity, ignorance and exclusion. Was this the happiness and social harmony promised by the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and nineteenth century economist Karl Marx? (O’Farrell, 1999, p. 13)
Hutcheon situates the postmodern “squarely within both economic capitalism and cultural humanism – two of the major dominants of much of the western world” (1989, p.13), and education in the postmodern world has accordingly been made accountable to capitalist market forces.
“In short, knowledge is no longer assessed in terms of its truth or falsity or its promotion of justice, but in terms of its efficiency at making money” (Lyotard, 1984, p.51).
In the Korean context, the excessive attention paid to high-stakes testing has produced a particular variant of this phenomenon. Rather than asking the extrinsic “Will this English lesson help me to learn English for use in the global village?”, the reflexive “Will this English lesson help me learn how to learn English?”, or even the intrinsic “Will this English lesson help me to maximize my love of language and show me the beauty inherent in language learning and cultural exchange per se?”, high school students in Korea typically ask (and are supported by their parents in doing so) “Will this information be on the CSAT?” If the answer is not “Yes,” then there is (in their perception) no reason for acquiring the information, and students turn their attention to more obviously instrumental learning texts, such as the Educational Broadcasting Service (EBS) CSAT Preparation books, which form the unofficial syllabus of most 3rd-year high school English classes in Korea (cf. Finch, 2004a).
A further example of the commercialization of education in Korea can be found in the proliferation of private language institutes. These institutes exist to help students pass the CSAT, TOEFL, TOEIC, TEPS and even high-school-entrance tests. In the words of Kim See-bong, the owner of such an institute,
“Children from nursery school to high school go to five or six hakwons [private institutions] a week. Some take in as many as nine. When they come back home, they still have to prepare for the schoolwork” (Kim, 2005).
Seven out of 10 students are receiving tutoring, with private education expenses taking up an average of 12.7 percent of the household expenditure” (Korean Educational Development Institute, Soh, 2004).
It is evident, therefore, that education in the postmodern era can no longer see itself as independent of historical, economic and cultural contexts, and that schools (especially the many private secondary schools in Korea) must instead attract ‘clients’ and money through persuasive images (simulacra) in brochures, prospectuses and websites
- Education should be more diverse in terms of goals and processes and consequently in terms of organisational structures, curricula, methods and participants.
- Education should no longer function as a means of reproducing society or as an instrument in large-scale social engineering. It [should] become limitless both in time and space.
- Any attempt to place education into a straitjacket of uniform provision, standardised [sic]curricula, technicised teaching methods, and bearer of universal ‘messages’ of rationality or morality would be difficult to impose.
- Education in the postmodern, cannot help but construct itself in a form which would better enable greater participation in a diversity of ways by culturally diverse learners.
- Education in the postmodern is likely to be marked both by a general decentring and a general loosening of boundaries. (Adapted from Edwards & Usher, 1994, pp. 211-212)
TABLE 1: Contrasting modern and postmodern educational concepts
|Modern metanarratives||Postmodern metanarratives|
|High-stakes, standardized testing (Absolute measurement; focus on the product of learning)||Classroom-Based Assessment using portfolios, journals, formative self- and peer-assessment (Relativistic focus on process; deconstruction of the standardized testing paradigm)|
|Competition (aggression, competitive individualization, survival of the fittest, first-past-the-post)||Collaboration (Social learning, teamwork) balanced by a new form of individualization – autonomous learning and self-access learning|
|Studying English through its ‘highest achievements’ i.e. elitist English literature (Strict boundaries; restrictions of genre)||Learning English through pop-culture, comics, the internet, etc. (Plurality of genres; crossing boundaries; eclecticism)|
|Linguistic imperialism (Colonialism)The English ‘native-speaker’||Postcolonialism (Use of diverse Englishes as variants of a lingua franca, providing a means of expressing local cultures; death of the ‘native speaker’)|
|Structural syllabi (Totalization)||Process syllabi, task-based and project-based learning (Deconstruction of propositional language learning concepts)|
|Quantitative, experimental, ‘objective’ research (Absolute measurement of rigorously isolated and independently observed ‘truths’)||Qualitative, subjective, action research (Relativistic description of perceptions; systems analysis of group learning environments)|
|Behaviorist view of learning as predictable and independent of emotions||Recognition of affective and social filters (language learning as social, cultural, emotional and unpredictable)|
|Standardized, Western English (Totalization)||Regional Englishes, dialects and pronunciations (Decentralization, Regionalization, Diversification)|
|Linear, sequential learning, language as code (Absolute, grammatical ‘truths’)||Self-reflexive use of meta-language and learning strategies in a non-linear learning format|
|Teacher-centered learning (Centralization)||Student-centered learning (Decentralization)|
|Teacher-controlled learning (Totalization)||Student autonomy, self-directed learning (Decentralization, regionalism)|
|Studying the culture of the target language (Centralization, colonialism)||Studying regional and global cultures through the target language (Regionalism and globalism).|
The learning task provides a framework for meaningful interaction to take place, using “purposeful” (or meaningful) situations which refine cognition, perception and affect (Breen & Candlin, 1980, p. 91)
It is a tribute to the efficacy of task-based instruction (TBI) that this method has become the one of choice in the best government programs. Since the 1980s, nearly all government institutions have used TBI in their foreign language programs. (Leaver & Willis, 2004, p. 47).
Tasks can be seen as tools for constructing collaborative acts. (Ellis, 2003, 178)
These tasks can cater for learning by providing opportunities for learners:
- to use new language structures and items through collaboration with others;
- to subsequently engage in more independent use of the structures they have internalized in relatively undemanding tasks;
- to finally use the structures in cognitively more complex tasks. (Ellis, 2003, p. 178)
Tasks thus combine (or encourage) many of the postmodern features of TEFL theory and practice: collaboration, autonomy, student-centeredness, and negotiation of meaning. Tasks involve the students in their learning, and in so doing, promote active decision-making, problem-solving, critical thinking, and responsibility of learning. Furthermore, they included formative self-assessment in this new approach to learning, by requiring learners to set goals, assess their achievements, and reflect on their needs.
When this approach is extended by letting tasks grow into projects, a form of TEFL emerges which can be said both to be a result of, and to contribute to, effective and meaningful language education in the postmodern era. Rather than expecting everyone to acquire the same language at the same time and at the same rate, and then giving everyone the same test (totalization), a project approach recognizes the diversity of learning needs, learning styles, language proficiencies, beliefs, attitudes and levels that exist in the typical EFL multilevel class, and allows students to study what they want, in the manner that they want. By putting students ‘in the driving seat’ (decentralization), the project syllabus fosters active communication skills (cooperation, discussion, negotiation, etc.) as well as problem-identification, goal setting, self-assessment and reflection (Legutke & Thomas, 1991, p. 160). The role of the teacher in this new situation is to facilitate learning by being a language resource and providing guidance (linguistic, emotional, cognitive and social) where appropriate.
… we can neither claim that learning is caused by environmental stimuli (the behaviorist position) nor that it is genetically determined (the innatist position). Rather, learning is the result of complex (and contingent) interactions between individual and environment. (Van Lier, 1996, p. 170)
The educational context, with the classroom at its center, is viewed as a complex system in which events do not occur in linear causal fashion, but in which a multitude of forces interact in complex, self-organizing ways, and create changes and patterns that are part predictable, part unpredictable. (Van Lier, 1996, p. 148)
In giving equal value to the self-reflexive and the historically grounded, “postmodernism ultimately manages to install and reinforce as much as to undermine and subvert the conventions and presuppositions it appears to challenge” (Hutcheon, 1989, p. 2), so it is interesting to note that the project approach focuses on holistic learning (education of the whole person), and develops autonomous (intrapersonal) and group (interpersonal) responsibility, while promoting critical, informed problem-solving and accountability – goals that the propositional paradigm and the ‘modern’ education movement ostensibly aimed at but subverted through centralization and totalization.
Postmodern TEFL theory presents English as a lingua franca with regional variations – a global language in which there are no native speakers, no standard pronunciations or grammars, and no target culture. Western-oriented practices (and politics) of language teaching are being reinterpreted in the light of indigenous learning needs and sociopolitical factors, and the mutually exclusive goals attainment (MEGA) ethic of classroom competition and high-stakes testing (Kohn, 1992) is being discredited by more effective and socially desirable collaborative studying models. ‘Learning to learn’ is being seen as a lifelong process, in which language is used as a means of learning language, and the mass media has successfully colonized the profession, bringing its global messages of financial accountability, consumerism, and the ‘image’ as reality.
In this situation, TEFL as a profession cannot make any modernist claims to be progressive, unified or universal in its approaches or practices, though it is a postmodern contradiction and ‘doubleness’ that various establishments and schools of thought (e.g. the “peace as a global language” movement) continue in this endeavor, and that postmodern approaches include both neo-liberal and neo-conservative views on education reform. Perching on this metaphoric border between order and chaos, and “to the extent to which any of us is clear about anything” (Postman, 1995, p. 87), the postmodern perspective does, however, hold out hope for the future as well as describing the disillusionment with the past. As O’Farrell concludes:
If education can be a machine for social conformity, it can also be a machine for the investigation of new horizons and new possibilities. The proliferation of ‘difference’ and uncertainty in the postmodern world, far from being a problem, is a constant invitation to imagine the unimaginable. (O’Farrell, 199, p. 17)
The postmodern TEFL situation can be seen as heralding a number of deaths; i) the death of the ‘native speaker’; ii) the death of structuralism; iii) the death of imperialism; and iv) the death of the ‘teacher.’ However, this presentation suggests that by shifting responsibility for learning and assessment to the learner, by focusing on the acquisition of learning skills and social skills in a group context, and by offering the opportunity to learn in self-directed learning projects, TBLT, and project learning in particular, can provide a feasible approach to language learning in the 21st century “through an awareness of how we use language, how language uses us, and what measures are available to clarify our knowledge of the world we make (Postman, p. 87).
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