Students Teaching Students — Leading and (Mis)leading

May 20, 2014


Mark Johnstone teaches English as a Foreign Language (EFL) at Alfaisal University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he has lived and worked for 20 years. He holds a M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of London and a M.S. in Education from California State University. His areas of expertise are second language acquisition, online teaching and learning, and technology-enhanced learning. His research interests include online language teaching and instructional design for student-directed learning. At Clemson, Mark serves as a part-time Online Course Development Leader assigned to the Department of Languages.

Whenever I ask my students to work together, especially the beginners, they just mislead one another.

This observation comes in the context of a discussion with Clemson colleagues about the design of a new online course. I found it interesting for what it reveals about teaching and learning — or, rather, what it reveals about how we see teaching and learning. We watch our students at work, and we see them leading one another and misleading one another. We have a natural urge to correct them since, after all, we are teachers and our job is to correct error. Or is it?

I believe that error is a necessary part of learning and that teachers — if we are able to move away from our urge to “correct” — can learn a lot from observing students’ interactions with one another. As a teacher, I am fascinated by what students do. Maybe this is because I see myself as a student of learning rather than a someone who teaches things to people. I study learning so that I am better able to facilitate learning in others and then to learn new things myself.

Many colleagues point out how mistakes often provide “teachable moments.” But teachable moments go both ways. If you are teaching English and working mostly with native English speakers, then you will also observe patterns of error that come from English. Watching and listening closely to student interaction can help you to understand what these patterns are. Once you know this, you will be able to draw students’ attention to these patterns. Learning is about observing patterns, organizing them, thinking about them, theorizing them, and predicting them. Language is patterns.

I am a language teacher, so I think about language a lot. I think about English, my native language, and I think about the foreign languages I’ve studied and learned. I’ve studied more than I’ve learned, but I have managed to learn several. I am a student and a teacher.

Chomsky posits a distinction between competency and performance that may be useful in the context of correction. Competency is what we know about a thing, while performance is what we are able to do with it. There is a tenuous link between these two. Pointing out errors will not result in their disappearance if the deficiency is in performance, not in competency. Errors begin to disappear once we are able to self-correct. We do this by monitoring our own performance against our own competency; we stack up what we know against what we do. Stephen Krashen, another well-known linguist and authority on second language acquisition, formalized this process as the “monitor hypothesis.” This comes from linguistics, but it can be applied to learning design in many domains.

What this theory means is that a lot of teacher correction is unnecessary and probably even counterproductive to the learning process. There is a substantial body of research supporting this hypothesis in the field of grammar teaching specifically. Explicit correction may also be seen as a form of negative reinforcement. Again, we have a substantial body of research — this time in psychology — indicating that negative reinforcement has little or no impact on behavior. If the threat of death — the ultimate negative re-enforcer — has little or no impact on the behavior of smokers, how might correction cause grammatical errors to vanish?

Teaching is a science and an art. Science teaches us to respect data. What research tells us is to listen carefully to students and observe their behavior, to guide them with positive reinforcement, while avoiding explicit error correction.

A common way language teachers do this is to echo, or repeat, what students say. We do not repeat verbatim, but we reformulate what students say and repeat it, as if to confirm. Another common method is to anticipate what people are trying to say and to supply vocabulary and forms we think they need when they need it. Such just-in-time teaching often sticks because we are telling people something that they need to know when they need to know it — and they can’t help but notice. If you have ever spoken with a three-year-old child, you probably already know how to use both of these techniques. Human beings are born to learn, and they are born to teach.

As for students teaching each other, the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model provides a useful framework for understanding how student to student interaction fits into a broader context of human learning. The CoI model pays particular attention to student-student interaction, which it terms “social presence” — observations that students mislead one another immediately bring social presence to mind. The CoI model explains how student-to-student interaction — far from being a potential threat — is as an essential element in the teaching and learning process, something that teachers ought to nurture and support. This model is especially important for teachers who see their courses as a beginning, not as an end. What is important is that students who finish our courses are able to continue to learn and to benefit from our shared experience with them in some way, to pay it forward, and to become independent and lifelong learners.

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