Aphorisms – general truths conveyed by short statements – can help us remember principles of best practice. Here are a few aphorisms especially relevant to English language educators.
Don’t explain; demonstrate.
In English language teaching, where the language of instruction is often also the language of study, long and complicated explanations of classroom activities usually fall flat. The answer is simple: avoid explanations and embrace demonstrations. Students are much more likely to understand activities if they can see (and hear) what they are expected to do before doing it.
Don’t entertain; engage.
When teaching larger classes of students, it’s easy to feel as if you are on a “stage” and the class is your “audience”. There is often a perceived obligation to “entertain” one’s “audience” with jokes and physical comedy. This is particularly the case when one is teaching a group of students with very low motivation. At times like this it can be useful to remember the aphorism “don’t entertain; engage”. What is the difference? A teacher attempting to engage students will utilize activities that have relevance to the students’ interests (perhaps derived from some form of negotiated learning). Engaged students will be focused on the task as opposed to the teacher (especially in non-teacher centered classes). Most importantly, engaged students will be involved in pedagogically useful activities, while entertained students may not (showing the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie may well entertain your students, but you would be hard pressed to find any educational value in the endeavor).
A good teacher is a lazy teacher.
Let’s be clear: this does not mean teachers should turn up to class late, put their feet on the desk, and read a book! This aphorism is trying to highlight the problem of teachers doing too much for their students. It’s better for students to look up unknown words in their own dictionaries than ask the teacher for a translation. It’s better for students to consult their peers on language points before consulting the teacher. It’s better for students to proof-read their own work before passing it over to the teacher. These practices are all better because they encourage proactive and autonomous learning. The teacher has a role as a facilitator, but is not the font of all knowledge. Students who realize they have the power to research and find the answers to language questions themselves will become much more competent second language speakers than their teacher-dependent peers.
Praise in public; punish in private.
Whilst educators should try to focus on positive reinforcement of good behavior as opposed to negative reinforcement of bad behavior (the latter has been shown to have the opposite to intended effect), there are occasionally times when “punishment” is deemed necessary or appropriate. On such occasions, however, it is often best to “dress down” the offender in private (i.e. away from the eyes of his or her peers). This reduces the risk of the telling off actually reinforcing the problem behavior by removing the audience. A serious one-to-one discussion which highlights the problem and requires the individual concerned to suggest remedies and make assurances for their future behavior will always be more effective than shouting at the individual in front of friends he or she may well be trying to impress. Good behavior, on the other hand, can be more liberally praised in public (although cultural factors may dictate that such praise could cause embarrassment, and we should be careful to avoid this).
You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
Language learning requires both dedicated teachers and dedicated students. An effective method of passively learning a language has yet to be discovered (despite what those learn-while-you-sleep CDs may claim). Teachers, as facilitators, can guide their students down the most efficient route to language acquisition, but they can’t (yet) unilaterally implant language knowledge into a learner’s brain. As mentioned above, proactive, autonomous learners have a much better chance of becoming competent second language speakers. As teachers, we should try to convey the importance of this point to students as strongly as possible.
Do you know any other aphorisms relevant to English language teaching? Please write your suggestions in the comments section below!