While attending the annual TESOL Conference in New Orleans last week, I took some time out (as is my wont!) to look for books. In this second-hand bookshop in the French quarter (left), I came across a copy of Gertrude Moscowitz’s classic text on humanistic teaching techniques, Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class (1978) – a title that clearly evokes the ethos of the period, but which, in these more hard-bitten times, elicits not a little gentle mockery, or even, dare I say, derision.
This book was a core text in our Diploma (now DELTA) library back in the ’80s, and even then many of its suggested activities were rated as having a high ‘cringe factor’. Here’s one, taken more or less at random:
I LIKE YOU BECAUSE…
The students are told that there are many positive qualities about others that we are aware of but often do not take the time to express. Tell students that today they will have the opportunity to let each other know what some of these positive thoughts and feelings are. Instruct the students to tell the partner they are facing some positive things they like or feel about each other. After about a minute, have the students move to a new partner and continue the process until each student speaks with a number of different students.
While appreciating the good intentions of an activity like this, most experienced teachers will be alert to its potential problems and risks. First of all, will the students have the necessary language to do the task? If not, what kind of preparation will they need? What is the intended outcome of the task – an oral or written report, or just a general sense of well-being? More importantly, perhaps, will they know each other well enough to find things to say? Will they be both cognizant of, and comfortable with, the aims of the activity? What happens if a student is unable – or reluctant – to voice a positive sentiment? What impact will the learner’s cultural background have on the task? And what is the teacher’s role in all this?
Even this one taster is enough, I think, to indicate the assumptions on which the book (and humanistic teaching in general) is based. These are spelled out in the introduction:
- For learning to be significant, feelings must be recognised and put to use.
- Human beings want to actualise their potential.
- Having healthy relationships with other classmates is more conducive to learning.
- Learning more about oneself is a motivating factor in learning.
- Increasing one’s self-esteem enhances learning.
While we might accept that these claims are self-evident, we may be less inclined, nowadays, to construct a pedagogy around them. Nevertheless, as I revisited this book, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fundamental soundness of many of the principles on which it is based – principles that are somewhat obscured by its relentlessly upbeat and touch-feely tone. Take these statements, for example:
Connect the content with the students’ lives
By connecting the content with the students’ lives, you are focusing on what students know rather than what they are ignorant of. From the learner’s standpoint, there is quite a psychological difference in dealing with what is familiar to him rather than what is unknown. …
Use students’ responses in the lesson
As the exercises you develop take form, plan to make use of the responses of students. Have the students note similarities and differences in each other’s reactions or experiences and refer to them in processing the activity. Since the students will be sharing of themselves, utilise what they share by asking the class questions relating to what has been exchanged in the interaction. …
Yours students have ideas, too
Don’t overlook an important resource of ideas for humanistic techniques. Who can tell you what interests them better than your students themselves?… Bringing the students’ lives to the content brings life to the content!
“Bringing the students’ lives to the content brings life to the content” might well be a Dogme slogan. Certainly, the notion of incorporating learners’ contributions into the fabric of the lesson – not merely as personalization, but as the core content - is a mainstay of the Dogme philosophy. This makes me wonder to what extent I was – consciously or unconsciously – influenced by the ‘humanistic turn’, as popularized by Moscowitz and others, in the development of my own philosophy of teaching.
And it also makes me wonder if it’s not time to put aside some of our postmodern cynicism and to re-visit these seminal texts in search of the good sense that they have to offer.
Moskowitz, G. 1978. Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.