Why students take centre-stage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 November, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 November, 1997, 12:00am

I read with interest an article in a local Chinese newspaper about a parent's disappointment at discovering his son's English homework did not have a teacher's markings.

This parent also was incredulous on learning that students exchanged their homework and commented on friends' work.

His disbelief sounds justifiable.

But, with years of teaching experience, I would like to explain what some of my colleagues are endeavouring to implement and achieve in their language classes.

Some language teachers, anticipating the danger in encouraging students to focus only on the teacher, are fast giving up centre-stage and employing a student-centred approach.

Teachers still correct every error in a student's class-work with painstaking care, still serve as human word-processors writing responses to ideas. But now some teachers are initiating students into a new realm of learning - peer learning.

They ask students to exchange comments on their newspaper cuttings and to write responses to their peers' ideas. These pupils swap and compare notes on news and hold oral discussions on their own. These activities are aimed at motivating students to use their initiative.

Students do not have to be motivated to form football teams and play on their own without the coach. It's the same with learning a second language - motivation is vital.

There has been much research in the West inspired by theories surrounding the social origin of speech. And feedback from peers has a prominent role in English writing classes.

Collaborative learning, peer learning and self-access learning are concepts enthusiastically endorsed in teaching medicine and mathematics.

To students chastised for not learning from the 'ultimate authority', peer learning sounds alien and perilous.

It seems inconceivable that one can learn at all from one's peers. Is it not a case of the blind leading the blind? Perhaps it is just as arrogant to assume one student to be 'as blind as one another' linguistically, intellectually or socially.

Should a parent blindfold their children so they walk around the campus with only the teacher to lead their way? If students are encouraged to think learning can only take place in the presence of a teacher, they are unwittingly and pitifully gagging their own development. How can these students adjust from this kind of teaching-centred learning to the real world, to their working world later in life.

Before the day dawns when Hong Kong teenagers start English clubs instead of philately clubs, teachers must design activities in the hope students will one day agree how profitable peer learning can be.

The teacher should be the conductor behind the scene, orchestrating different activities inside and outside class. He or she must provide detailed guidance to show students how to benefit most from these activities, offer timely and relevant feedback in class to sustain interest, and restructure levels of difficulty when necessary.

The teacher's presence is felt - not seen. His or her control is covert not overt.

With the 21st century looming, students must be motivated to learn by themselves and from themselves - in a 'society of peers'.

Technological advances such as the Internet are helping teachers transport students away from the confines of the classroom and into an ever-expanding society. This is a world where teachers are not given labels and where learning is totally self-motivated and initiated.

This article was submitted by an English teacher from a Sha Tin secondary school