Teaching in times of crisis

Teaching in times of crisis
The impact on teaching, the role of technology and more thoughts…

Time to adopt a different approach to Teaching of English as a Foreign Language? What is the role technology can play in education in the current socioeconomic context?

If you thought that the most controversial issue currently is to what extent technology can help learning, you must feel happy in your ivory teaching tower. The harsh socioeconomic reality of the past 5 years in many parts of the world is leading to a shift in education with many repercussions in the field of EFL that are expected to be felt in the years to come.

Having taught for more than 20 years, I have seen quite a few approaches and theories aiming at optimizing teaching and helping learners to achieve the best possible results. Yet, the lingering economic crisis in conjunction with the developments in learning technology seem to be making the reviewing of an approach to TEFL more appealing

I live in Greece, which in the past five years has seen a dramatic change in terms of priorities, opportunities and resources available. What used to be a heavily exam oriented area with students in need of certification –for example, employment even as an assistant at a super market required a B2 C.E.FR. level certificate- has also shifted into learning English aiming to serve the prospect of migrating abroad or being employed by a multinational company which takes mobility for granted.

The drop of income by as much as 40 percent, soaring

unemployment (roughly 25%) and heavy taxation, has made family budgets reallocate amounts of money which was traditionally invested in education to very basic survival needs such as food and electricity bills. This means less opportunities for education, shorter courses and more pressure on students and teachers to achieve goals.

Finally, schools and in particular schools of foreign languages, saw their budget plunging with the number of registrations decreasing dramatically and fee payments standing in arrears as the average working class family struggles to make the ends meet.

This trend has often been reflected on mottos such as “Achieve more with less” indicating higher productivity and more effectiveness with lower budget and less resources.

What’s ahead?
The following are a few thoughts on the changes that are imminent:

The teacher
The teacher resumes the role of educator. Thanks to technology, he/she relinquishes the role of authority – the main source of knowledge - and becomes a guide, a facilitator, a mentor and a supporter. He/she often absorbs all the aftershocks of acute family problems stemming from poverty, unemployment and unstable financial and social conditions. (For more about the teacher’s role see post on Wiziq blog  
If technology is here to stay, then what?)

Syllabus design
Given that learners will have to develop a wide range of competences in order to be competitive on the market, 21st century skills/competences should  be developed in the EFL classroom. Firstly, because EFL has always been more flexible and open to innovation and secondly, because learning technologies seem to have been adopted to a greater extent by EFL teachers compared to teachers of other subjects.
Functions, fluency, register and other long forgotten parts of the syllabus could be reinstated to help learners achieve better communication. More real life tasks such as teleconferencing and writing texts for leaflets or the social media could be introduced.
The tsunami of mechanistic drills – used extensively by many teachers for exam preparations- will gradually recede. Focus on grammar will give way to activities that cater for learners’ more meaningful use of the language and more opportunities to produce language.

Learning technology
An indispensable part of everyday life for large parts of the global population especially the younger generations, makes technology an ideal gateway to learning since it offers easy access and abundant exposure to L2. Educators though, will have to fight hard to get rid of the concept that tablets and laptops are there for playing games. Instilling the notion that technology is a tool for learning may take time and effort but it is worth it. Given the dwindling prices of electronics and that most teens own a gadget – sometimes far more sophisticated than the teachers have-, technology can give them access to knowledge in ways (video, audio, animation, text) they are familiar with.

Autonomous and life-long learning
Maybe this is the key to combat student dropouts or long pauses of absence due to economic hardship. Technology offers opportunities and abundant educational material (see Resouces below) to help learners maintain a good level of their English while they are away from classrooms. In addition, it facilitates exposure to L2 anywhere, anytime (as long as there is internet access). Developing learners’ analysis and synthesis skills (critical thinking skills) instead of tolerating plagiarism (copy-paste) is one of the first steps to learner autonomy.

A dowry bequeathed from prosperity years, equipment ( IWBs, projectors) and books should be exploited in the best possible way. A rediscovery of the existing libraries supported with free access to online materials and online libraries can help learners to overcome the problem of limited exposure or reliance exclusively on a book – since they cannot afford to buy others.
Free or affordable EFL/ESL material is abundant on the Internet and could help learners to work on certain areas. However, a careful selection should be made by the teachers who can guide learners with focused activities to serve specific learning goals. A prerequisite for this is to develop “digital citizenship”  skills in order to protect learners from “deadly” hazards and wasting their time on the www.

Fighting stereotypes
A generation of young people in Europe has been receiving contradictory messages. In Southern Europe, they have been branded as PIGS (an acronym used to describe the countries in deep financial crisis but clearly indicating a racist mood) and lazy while their families struggle to make a living, often working long hours to make a few Euros. Their Northern European counterparts are often given the impression that the “Southerners” are wasting valuable resources at the expense of the other economies.
The best way to bridge the rift before it becomes too deep is to encourage and further support the existing projects with schools from different countries. Communication, collaboration and cultural exchange can dispel myths created by the gutter press and shortsighted politicians.

A few closing thoughts
Teachers are often ignored, underpaid or treated as second class citizens who do tedious tasks. Yet this crisis has shown that politicians, bankers and businessmen have failed miserably to find a way out of the current situation mainly thanks to dogmas and rigid responses to complex issues.  It is our duty as educators to help our students – especially the underprivileged ones- to keep their minds open to learning and new notions that will help them build a better future for the generations to come.

A second part with more thoughts will be posted soon. In the meantime, you are welcome to share on this blog your experiece from teaching under similar conditions. 

Dimitris Primalis

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