ELT, Globalization, and Local Epistemologies

Introduction: NeltaChoutari March 2009

Add 17 and 6, multiply the sum by 2, then subtract 6 from the result, and finally divide that by 2. Now, if you ask me why I asked you to do that calculation, and if I say that I have no reason except to ask you to do some math, would you like that? For many years, I have thought of education in Nepal as a formalized exercise where teachers don’t feel the need to let students know why they are doing what they are doing. This disease of institutionalized education is not just a Nepalese phenomenon (”teaching in a vacuum” was an important subject of discussion, research, and educational policy-making in the US in the 1980s and the concern is still there when it comes to grade school education), but it seems to me that we are doing this so well that we are probably very high on the list of societies doing meaningless math and purposeless language teaching. As teachers of English in Nepal, let us think more critically than usual for one moment about the PURPOSE of teaching our students a language for one and a half decades. If we think in habitual ways, we will come up with very simple answers, including these: English is a language of international communication, it is an access to global resources of knowledge…. If we think less superficially, we will come across some other not so simple issues, including these: English is a language whose imposition as the language of instruction in societies like ours makes content learning ineffective, it is a tool of social power that can further disempower learners from marginalized communities…. And finally, if we think more critically, we will stumble upon some significant confusions, such as these: Do we really know how learning something IN English makes learning more effective, compared to learning the same thing by using our own languages? If the purpose of education is knowledge, are we not putting the cart of English in front of the horse of content? Are we not confusing the purpose of teaching language as means by putting it before the larger intellectual purpose of teaching as helping students to be(come) producers of knowledge? We have seen tourists learn Nepalese in a few months, and we have seen the world’s best philosophers, scientists, and businessmen from non-English backgrounds function as well as the products of our “boarding” schools–well, actually better, you might want to add. There is no doubt that there are simple answers about what we spend our lives doing–teaching a language. But, wait, should we just be teaching language as if it were for its own sake, or should we be teaching language as a means and part of a larger process called educating people? Let us not jump to thoughtless answers like, “I teach English and the science teacher teaches science.” No theory of language learning supports the idea of teaching it for 15 years, for Pete’s sake! So, there is no doubt that there are simple answers; but it is our responsibility to help our educational leaders, national policy-makers, parents, and teachers think more critically about the over-emphasis the “society” has given to English in Nepal, over-emphasis at the cost of rendering learning ideas and producing knowledge-makers less important than producing graduates who can speak English fluently, kararara! What the heck are people supposed to do with fluency of language if that language diminishes the effectiveness of learning itself? Should we blame the society for not doing anything about it? There is no visible agent called the society: logically, this invisible target of our blame for such a serious thing like a nation’s wrong-headed educational priority is height of our professional irresponsibility. Let’s own that first. During a discussion about education in Nepal the other day, a Nepalese-American fellow said that it is crazy to talk about education and stuff while the politicians are wrecking the society indefinitely. We have just enough stupid people who don’t believe in the value of professional dialog. Let’s not just join them. Let’s talk and understand problems even when they seem to be far beyond our control. I don’t think Newton wanted to control gravity in any way when he had the urge to understand it. Let’s communicate our ideas, dissatisfaction, or solutions to problems that we perceive and influence one person. Those of us who make or influence policy, government, or at least institutions, let’s do what we can. Thinking can and must happen even when the country is in a wreck. Talking can happen too. In fact, we should not take for granted that we can talk across the globe and share our thoughts publicly and permanently through the many fast and powerful media. Solutions don’t happen before we identify and discuss problems. It might sound somewhat logical when someone says, as many people do when you start talking about making learning practical, that students need to learn the “skills” of math itself first and they will figure out themselves how to solve problems by applying their knowledge in the future (a math teacher must teach math), that they first need to be proficient in the English language so they can communicate and study further in the future (we’re there to teach language, not to solve problems of the system), that we DO NOT have the “resources” to make teaching practical, and so on. Those arguments sound reasonable in themselves but when we consider them more critically they are the result of irresponsible and lazy thinking. It is possible to start making learning more meaningful by communicating the purpose and creating situations or problems in the class for students to solve (give 50 points for class activities and the other 50 for exams that test students under terrible anxiety and artificial context). It’s not impossible to understand ourselves and also share with our students the limitations of our learning environment. It is possible to motivate students by informing them how what they learn will benefit and empower them (let students write about their lives and ideas and let grammar take care of itself for a while). It is possible for us to UNDERSTAND, discuss, and rethink our teaching. Understanding is the best resource, best capital, best investment and we don’t have to be nationally poor in that regard. It is time that we question, discuss, rethink, and honestly assess our profession. No, we cannot change the entire educational or political structure, but our questioning, discussing, rethinking, and assessing of our work and priorities can lead us into having better ideas and then making our work more meaningful and satisfying. Professional discussion can help us use English language teaching to achieve the larger purpose of educating our students: social and intellectual empowerment. Professional dialog can help us avoid teaching a mere language but teach language as a means of finding, processing, and presenting new knowledge, a means for becoming knowledge-makers. The Principal, the education board, the “society” may set very restrictive limits on what book we teach, but we don’t need to let them do the thinking about the perspective and attitude about learning we want to instill in our students. We can at least do that. No one can stop us from helping our students understand the purpose behind and beyond just learning a language.

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