Talking Points March 2015

The classroom as a social learning space

Naomi: In our last column in February, we defined a social learning space to be a place where students or learners can come together to learn with and from each other. If you think about a traditional university classroom in Japan, this might be an unfamiliar concept to students. How would you explain it to them or how would you implement it?

Jim: First, thinking about it, it may seem like the classroom as social learning space is some kind of oxymoron; after all, the definition that you gave us for social learning space includes this “Students can come and go as they please, and do what they want”, which clearly can’t apply to what we usually call a class, as something for which students gain credits. On the other hand, once you accept shifts in some ways on both the teacher’s and student’s sides to how a class is perceived, so that both can say, “This isn’t about obligation or pay or credits – this is where I want to be, where I choose to be”, we can see that we’ve got closer to the definition of a social learning space. As for the part of the definition you’ve picked up, “a place where students or learners can come together to learn with and from each other”, to me this is a central part of what a language class can be – part of what is included in Scott Thornbury’s views of Dogme in IATEFL Issues (2000), in which he says:

Teaching should be done using only the resources that teachers and students bring to the classroom—i.e. themselves—and whatever happens to be in the classroom. If a particular piece of material is necessary for the lesson, a location must be chosen where that material is to be found (e.g., library, resource centre, bar, students’ club…) p. 2

I think, though, that although I wasn’t deliberately playing with the words “social learning space”, maybe I was turning them around and rather than seeing the language classroom as a “social learning space”, I was thinking of it as “a space for social learning”, which itself will need defining.
Naomi: OK, I like that expression. So, how would you define it?
Jim: I think it can be seen as a kind of CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) class: English is the medium and social learning the content. To me, at least in Japan with what a friend calls “semi-adult” university students, a key part of learning to be sociable, to developing good relationships through English, is self-disclosure – learning to share personal information with people who are not family or, not yet, good friends. At the 20th anniversary conference of the LD-SIG a year or so ago, we experienced this, when, in her plenary, Naoko Aoki got us to share mistakes we’d made with the people around us. A bit embarrassing but liberating, and relationship-developing – and a great start to a conference! It can work well in class, too, and not just as a one-off ice breaker, but as something repeated in various forms over a whole semester or year.
Added to this we might add various speech acts. For example, the other evening when I picked up my daughter from juku, she was quite late but just grunted a kind of apology. I, half jokingly, commented, “You’re not very good at apologies, are you?!” Whether it’s in our native tongue or not, we may not be good at apologizing, refusing an invitation, making a suggestion, admitting that we don’t understand or responding to a compliment, for example. The extent to which we can do these things will affect our relationships – both in class and in the big wide world beyond. So, I think we could say that the syllabus is defined in terms of relationships, and the language we use in relationships.
Naomi: I agree that an effective way to learn English is to first learn to be sociable and to develop good relationships with classmates. As you say, students need to learn how to share their own experiences and feelings with each other. It seems like an easy thing to do, but often students will only say one sentence about themselves and then stop. I’m not sure if it’s because of their lack of vocabulary or because of shyness, or because they really don’t have anything else to say. I’m not sure what kind of guidance we can give them so they can learn to share their stories.
Jim: Young students in their first couple of years of university may not give away much at all about their personal life, in or out of class, in English or Japanese. Maybe it’s a cultural thing or maybe to do with insecurity.
Naomi: Yea, I’m wondering if it’s a cultural thing that they’re taught that private things, personal things should not be shared with people they don’t know well. That it should be within the family, kind of thing.
Jim: From what I understand, our main source of learning how to use languages is basically the language use of people around us, rather than actually being taught in school or by parents. Anyway, the language classroom is a chance to say, “Let’s try stepping beyond that”, partly because we’re free to visit a different culture and a different language, and partly because it’s an opportunity to offer a choice to do or not to do. It’s not a question of imposing, of “You have to tell us your deepest, darkest secrets!” Do it first for your students – something embarrassing but not too far off the scale of acceptable behavior, like falling asleep in a meeting. We may feel a bit embarrassed, they might laugh, but they’ll see that they can do it, too.
Naomi: I teach mostly first-year and second-year students, and for first-year students who are just out of high school, they’re used to the teacher-fronted class, where the teacher speaks and the students listen. Then, they come to the English class, especially at our university, and here is this teacher saying, well, you talk amongst yourselves, and we try to, sort of ‘train’ them to become more sociable. To me, their impression is that this is a classroom, the teacher is going to speak, but then here’s this teacher saying, you don’t have to listen to just the teacher, you can listen to each other. I think it takes a little bit of time and training for them to be able to do it.
Jim: You’re right. The classroom may be a very different culture, and one that challenges the students in various ways. And if we’re talking about social learning, I think it’s best to be open about our agenda – “This class is about learning to be friendly in English”.
Naomi: Are many of the classes in the first year taught in English at your university?
Jim: You mean, to what extent are the students exposed to this “different culture”? At present, even students majoring in English don’t have that many. We have a lot more in the second year, and in their third year, they have a lot more electives to choose from, so it’s largely up to them how many English-medium classes they take. So, the second year is a chance, at least for the ones I teach, to have another fresh start. I know it’s been played to oblivion but, to me, the Japanese version of the song ‘Let It Go’ is very much about this fresh start, about being willing to share and self-disclose. A slightly adapted translation of one I’ve found is below.

Let it go (From Frozen: Japanese version translated into English)

The snow has started to fall, and erases all footsteps
I’m all alone in this pure-white world
The wind whispers to my heart,
“It’s no good like this”

Confused, hurt
Unable to open up to anyone,
Troubled and worried…
Let’s put a stop to that

I’ll show how I truly am
I’ll become my true self
I’m not afraid of anything
Let the wind blow
I’m not even a bit cold

I just can’t believe
all those things I worried about
After all, I’m free now,
I can do anything

How far can I go?
I want to put myself to the test
That’s right, I’m going to change

Just as I am, I’ll ride the wind into the sky,
Just as I am, I’ll try taking flight
I won’t shed tears ever again

Cold envelopes the earth
I draw my feelings soaring high up into the sky
Like the crystallization of icy flowers blooming,
I want to shine – I’ve already decided

I’m fine as I am
I’ll come to like myself
I’m fine as I am
I believe in myself
As I bask in the light,
I’ll begin walking
I’m not even a bit cold

Naomi: That would be a good way to start a class, then, with that song, to think about the lyrics and what it means.
Jim: That’s what I did. I made a handout where I had the English version and the Japanese version translated into English and then with students you can study how they’re different.
Naomi: Interesting. So, have you been able to have a successful classroom social learning space?
Jim: Well, to some extent, I think. I started this two years ago, and may seem a bit odd, but one measure of success is that the students want to have parties.
Naomi: Outside of the class?
Jim: Outside of the class, in the evening. Last year, we did that twice, and this year, also twice, at the end of the first semester and then the second semester. And, the second time it was all planned by the students. Most of the students joined this last time, even the shyer ones. So, as I said, class parties may be an unusual measure of how successful a class is, but with one of the objectives of the course being to make friends, to learn to be sociable, then I would say that socializing is an indication of achieving that.
Naomi: Mmm. It does make sense… Now I’ve got a better idea of the content, but am still not clear about what the teacher’s role is with a course like this.
Jim: At least the way teach it, I’d say that it’s largely teacher structured and student filled. Students look to you and say, well, you’re the professional, you should be able to guide us and just for us to say, well no, no, let the students have their voice isn’t enough. I think that very often we have to provide a kind of classroom structure which they can fill with themselves.
Naomi: My question is, how do you promote this type of classroom in a class of students who are taking it as a requirement and some of them don’t want to be there, and you’re trying to guide them into becoming more open, in English, let alone Japanese.
Jim: Well, anyway, it has to be not forced. It’s the same for us. If we are talking with someone, we have a choice in how much personal information we share. We need to allow, and show that we allow, that the students have the same freedom in what they choose to disclose. To give an example, in one class we were sharing embarrassing stories. There was one student in my class, a fairly shy young woman, whose story was something like this, “One day, I went to school and when I got home and I noticed my socks had been inside out all day. I hope no one noticed, but I felt so embarrassed!” And, I thought if that’s self-disclosure for you, that’s OK. Other students may be much more expansive, happy to share bigger mistakes or troubles, but I think it’s important for the students to feel comfortable to disclose to the extent that they’re happy with.
As for helping less confident or less capable language learners get more out of the class, one way is to experience how much can be expressed with little or no English. For example, one activity is just to take one word or phrase, like “Hello” or “How are you doing?” and, with intonation, facial expressions and gestures, express “I’m so happy to see you!”, “You’re late!”, “I’m really sad”, etc.
One thing to be careful of, though, is always reaching for games to inject some fun into the class. There’s a danger, if you use a game or turn something into a game, since games are often a kind of fun drilling, that you might end up drilling things that are better not drilled, like giving quick one-word answers. Like 20 Questions or Find Someone Who. Often these very popular teachers’ games are teaching uncommunicative, or even unsociable, behavior if we’re not careful. And many students, whose only contact with English is in class, may be led into believing that English is very different from Japanese. My feeling is that it’s not so different.
Naomi: Yeah.
Jim: But the English that is often taught in a classroom and shown in the textbook is very different from real life, whether it’s real life Japanese or real life English. And so, if I were teaching less motivated students somehow I would want to get them to think, well, this isn’t really about what I’ve experienced before, studying grammar and failing, it’s about expressing myself. The task should not be too demanding, language-wise, or your students might feel barred from joining the conversation.
Oh and another thing is, say, for example, about classroom management and going beyond the comfort zone. One aspect of a comfort zone is sitting next to your friend in the classroom and so you need to have a lot of changing groups.
Naomi: That’s one thing. I always have a course survey at the end of the semester, and ultimately I get one or two, sometimes more students, saying they don’t like having to talk with someone they don’t know.
Jim: I would say, grow up.
Naomi: I feel I need to explain it more at the beginning of the semester that in real life, you will have to speak to people you don’t know well and this is a really good opportunity for you to get to know people. You’re not going to be able to go through life sitting next to your friend all the time or talking to your friend.
Jim: That’s true. I tell my class about the experience of exchange students who want to join some club or circle, and they go and no one talks to them. No one offers them a place to sit, or a welcome. And I say, in that situation, you can be that person, you can make that difference and so they can see, oh wow, we’re not talking about language practice, we’re talking about real life and real needs and real relationships. For example, I have one student from my speaking class who’s in a dance circle and one of the American exchange students joined that. I have the impression that her response was, “OK, my job, my role here is to help, to be a buffer, a support, a friend.” And that’s what they are – and he loves that part of his life as a student in Japan. Whether it’s in English or in Japanese, I’m sure she is a model person for doing that. It’s a valuable experience for her and for him it’s a really wonderful thing, too. And it’s something that our students can grasp.
Naomi: Yea, to be accepted.
Jim: And so when we’re changing groups in class, I preface it with a story like that, and then I say, so when someone’s coming to your group, welcome them. When you’re going to a group, don’t be too hesitant. Then they can say, “Oh hi, welcome, come and sit here!” Even overdoing it is fun. I think that this group-changing is important, and so is how we do it. This isn’t language practice we’re doing, this is kind of real life we’re learning. It’s starting to sound grandiose, but it’s often small things like that that determine relationships.
In Japan, コミュニケーション能力 (communication nouryoku) is kind of a big thing, isn’t it? A lot of what we’re talking about is not so distant from that. We might call it communication strategies across cultures or pragmatics, but there’s a big overlap, like how do you say no to your boss, or maybe in Japan you just don’t?
I think that for the students, and for me, too, we’re not studying English, it is a kind of social learning. But I think that for the students, whether they are English-loving, relatively successful learners or whether they are ‘I don’t see a need for it, I never liked it, but I have to take this class’.
Naomi: Yea, I need the credit.
Jim: Of course, one is going to be harder than the other, one needs more winning over and more adjustment of what you do, but I think the practicality of social learning and the difference with what they might have experienced before should be attractive to most students. It’s true that some don’t like moving away from their friend or speaking to people they don’t know, but we are trying to help them not with just language but to be more sociable for a purpose beyond the classroom, whether it’s to be more employable, more companionable, more helpful, whatever.
Naomi: More mature.
Jim: That’s right. Even…
Naomi: More adult.
Jim: Yea. And as I was saying, we do relatively few games in the class, but I think that most of what we do is fun in a richer kind of way. At the start, you asked how it can be a social learning space, but for this class, I think that most of the students would be doing it because they want to be there and so, with learner autonomy, one big step is to see the teacher as someone who’s helping me to get where I want to be. They’re not really my teacher anymore, but they’re my support.

Thornbury, S. (2000). A Dogma for EFL. IATEFL Issues. 153, 2.

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