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Humanistic Teaching

An approach to learning English

January 24, 2010


Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit.

George Carlin

Last week I mentioned that if I did make resolutions then one I would adopt would be to help children quit English. Since I got a couple of comments questioning this idea, this time around I'd like to expand a little on my reasoning.

Quitting is generally seen as negative, copping out, chucking it in, throwing in the towel. As the famous American football coach, Vincent Lombardi, remarked, "Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit." But I think this assumes your heart was set upon what you are giving up. For children learning English this is often is not the case.

Looking back on my childhood the only thing I ever took lessons in was playing the piano. I must have had lessons for four or five years, though I honestly don't remember. I know I loathed practising and hardly did any. I also remember having to do transposition exercises. I had a grubby little blank score book all smudgy with pencil stains and eraser  marks. Given that my mother hardly ever threw anything away it's probably around, somewhere. Looking back, I realise that I can't remember my piano teacher's face, just her fingers that were stubby, lumpy things deformed by arthritis. Perhaps one reason I didn't practise was because I didn't want my fingers to end up like hers. I guess I was one of those thankless, pitiful and inadequate students whose only purpose could have been to generate income for the teacher.

Do you have any students like that? If you do, isn't the honest thing to do to tell them to shape up or ship off? Possibly, though the language to be used depends upon the student. What I mean to say is, if we can't get the student to make some effort then surely we should tell the student that they are wasting their time, and ours?

It's not that I don't like music. I love making it. But I didn't and don't get much from formal lessons. I think I only took lessons for so so long because my brother and sister were taking them and to please my mother. Bluntly, these are terrible reasons for doing anything.

I think there are times when the honest thing to do is to help a child to realise that quitting is the honest option. Doing something because our parents want us to is almost always a poor reason.  Sure parents have more experience than their children but that doesn't mean they know what is best for a child. Parents can have their own scripts, as Philip Larkin put it in his short poem This Be The Verse :

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

I don't mean to suggest that my parent's pushed me to have piano lessons or that all Japanese children taking English lessons are forced to do so. Far from it. In fact that's the problem, the situation is so seldom clear-cut. I remember long ago a kindergarten child I had whose only interest in English was playing a Freddi Fish computer game we had on the school computer. The only English word she ever said was "fiiishu". We should have told her mother after a month that she was wasting her money. It took us around six. Nowadays, I'm prepared to speak up even after a trial lesson. In one case, I've even had two brothers have trial lessons twice, a year apart. I refused the mother both times. The boys aren't remotely interested in English, and why should they be?

I really question the idea that quitting is a form of weakness. It takes real strength to look into one's heart and know one's own mind and be able to confront to one's parents. When I write about helping children to quit I mean supporting them in understanding their feeling towards English and also towards English lessons. In some cases a change of scene or situation is best. My own experiences playing chess is a case in point. I learnt to play when I was four. My first visit to the school chess club in secondary school I beat the teacher looking after the club (he wasn't that strong). But the school used a ladder system where one could only play people depending upon your ranking and theirs. It made chess boring and pedantic. I dropped out. But everything changed when we got a temporary teacher who by chance had been a county champion. He got three of us so interested that one Summer evening we walked alone over a mile to a pub because we heard there was a chess club there. It was the first time I had ever been in a pub without my dad. We were several years under-age but we were able to join the club. Chess became a big part of my life for many years. It once even got me a job teaching English, but that's another story.

What I hope I'm conveying is that life in finite and too short to spend time doing things that we don't have a passion for. It's also long enough that we can find, loose and find passion for things more than once. But when we do things to please others we seldom learn things very deeply and if we are not careful we can make ourselves miserable. Misery is the enemy of passion. This kind of unhappiness is sapping and soul-destroying. Much better to quit than to continue. In any situation where such feelings are creeping in quitting is essentially a form of medicine. As one old Chinese saying goes, "Of all the stratagems, to know when to quit is the best". Quitting English isn't the same thing a giving up on life. It can be a way of creating space for something new. Fill up our days with what we find mundane and we erode passion. If we can, we should teach children to do better than that.

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"What I mean to say is, if we can't get the student to make some effort then surely we should tell the student that they are wasting their time, and ours?"

I think you've got a basically good idea going, but at this point it crosses into dangerous territory. If we respect our students' abilities to make decisions for themselves, they need to be allowed to quit. We should never invite them to quit, and to tell a student that they are wasting their teacher's time is a guaranteed way to destroy their confidence.

I don't have the impressive repertoir of skills that sometimes I'd like to have. But the skills I do have, I have because as a child I was allowed to be mediocre at them. I was able to develop my moderate abilities because no one ever told me to quit when I didn't put forward the effort I could have. And that kept me practicing over the long term. Most people are not prodigies- the only way we will ever become good at something is if we're allowed to be bad at it for a long time.

Now if a student volunteers that they don't want to study English, then by all means I think they should be allowed to quit. But I can't help but feel that encouraging students to quit is just another form of testing in disguise- instead of testing on a quiz it's testing on a pre-concieved notion of what the student's attitude and participation should be. It makes English Class the goal, rather than the means to a goal.

Hi Jon, I think you make some good points. I didn't mean to imply that we should tell students to quit because they are bad at English. My criteria was effort. It's possible a student can make effort and not improve. I spent most of one whole summer working on an essay for a University course on ancient Chinese philosophy. In part I made the extra effort because I enjoyed the course. I got the worst mark for that essay in my entire undergraduate life.

What I meant that if a child isn't making effort then that is a sign that they may not be interested in the class. I think it is then legitimate to probe how interested the child really is. I don't think waiting for the child to volunteer the information is appropriate. That assumes a level power structure. Adults need to take responsibility to help children understand their feelings. I also think that teachers need to defend children against over zealous parents. I do agree that teachers shouldn't browbeat children into quitting just to make their own lives easier.The decision should rest with the child but the child needs to know thatis a decison they have the right to make.

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