A is for Authenticity

21 02 2010

The internet never forgets! Curious how something that you wrote years ago can come back to haunt you.  In the latest issue of Applied Linguistics (December 2009) Alan Waters, of Lancaster University, takes me to task over something I wrote on a discussion list in 2004 (!).  Talking about ways of checking learners’ comprehension, this is what I said:

“Do you understand?”  is the most direct and honest way we check understanding in real life, so — if the same conditions of authenticity and sincerity are operating in the classroom (which I argue they should be) — then it may make a lot of sense if, when in doubt, teachers simply stop and ask, hand on heart, “Do you understand?”.  The reasons such direct questions were proscribed in the past is that the classroom was never considered to be a place where communication could be authentic, hence students were not trusted to give honest answers, especially when questions were motivated by fear rather than a sincere desire to register the current state of your interlocutor’s understanding.

Waters goes on to comment: “Unfortunately, such reasoning fails to take into account the typical psychology of classroom relations.  It assumes that simply because the teacher asks a group of students to do so, they will automatically begin to operate on the basis of trust and openness.  But as Prabhu (1992), Allwright (1996), and Allwright (1998) show, lessons are made up of complex patterns of interpersonal dynamics, causing learners to frequently behave in ‘dishonest’ and distrustful ways….  From the pedagogical point of view, therefore, it will usually make greater sense to check understanding via questions which ask students to display their knowledge directly, however ‘inauthentic’ in terms of everyday language use. ”

Do I recant?  Not really.  Of course, I am well aware that there are many different ways of checking understanding and that a competent teacher should be able to deploy these as required.  At the same time, I believe that, as teachers, we should always be aiming to create a classroom dynamic where to ask the question “Do you understand?” need not — indeed, should not — elicit a dishonest and distrustful response. In short, I believe authenticity — that is to say classroom language that reflects “real-life” language use — is achievable in the language classroom, and, that, as teachers of language use, and as educators, such authenticity should be our goal.

Am I mistaken?