Every teacher understands that the way that students interact, relate, and shape each other’s experience is an important factor of learning, and yet the research on this social arena is surprisingly limited. We have assembled experts to explain four related theories for us. We hope this will give us a clearer perspective.
Learner-Centered Teaching: Sharing Control
D. S. Bowyer
Over the last 50 years there have been some big changes to the ways that we think about education and teaching. For us language teachers, the single biggest one has probably been Savignon’s (1983) idea of communicative competence and the resultant switch to a more learner-centered approach. Now, you might be thinking that communicative competence is old hat and you know a better approach. I’m an interactional repertoires guy myself (van Compernolle & Soria, 2020). But let’s give Savignon her due and admit that communicative competence was the fuse in the learner-centered theoretical dynamite that we’re holding in our hands now like a crazed Looney Tunes character.
What is that you say? Learner-centered teaching is just a bunch of leftist propaganda designed to remove power from teachers and stop them from doing their jobs? Well, yeah, but in a good way! The real question is this: what’s the most efficient way to become functionally competent in a language? You’re probably thinking we need some grammar work, some vocabulary memorization, some speaking practice, and so on and so forth. You’re right, that’s exactly what we need. The problem lies in who, how, and when. In a teacher-centered approach, the teacher decides everything and leads all the activities on the assumption that everyone progresses at the same pace and in the same way. However, as we know from personal experience, and decades of research (Dubinsky et al., 2019; Kaufeldt, 2009; McCombs, 2001; Watson & Reigeluth, 2008), this just isn’t true. Learning is not filling cups. For deep learning to occur, students need to engage in activities involving modeling, experimentation, discussion, analysis, and synthesis. On top of that, they need some control over what they are learning.
It’s easy enough to say we need all of the things I just mentioned, but what does this actually look like in practice? Well, first let’s have the students decide on today’s topic(s) of conversation (control). Next, we’ll give them a new L2 phrase and ask them to work in pairs to create dialogues using the phrase (modeling/experimentation). After sharing their ideas with other teams (experimentation/discussion), they engage in L2 conversations using today’s topic and phrase (experimentation, synthesis). After the conversations, they do some self-assessment using a rubric or a learning journal (analysis). Each of these changes moves us from teacher-to-student towards student-to-student. Ta-dah! We just started learner-centering! For an even better explanation that is delivered in an ironically teacher-centered way, watch this great TED Talk by Ayla Postelnek.
Dubinsky, J. M., Guzey, S. S., Schwartz, M. S., Roehrig, G., MacNabb, C., Schmied, A., Hinesley, V., Hoelscher, M., Michlin, M., Schmitt, L., Ellingson, C., Chang, Z., & Cooper, J. L. (2019). Contributions of neuroscience knowledge to teachers and their practice. The Neuroscientist, 25(5), 394–407.
Kaufeldt, M. (2009). Begin with the brain: Orchestrating the learner-centered classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
McCombs, B. L. (2001). What do we know about learners and learning? The learner-centered framework: Bringing the educational system into balance. Educational Horizons, 79(4), 182–193.
Savignon, S. J. (1983). Communicative competence: Theory and classroom practice. Texts and Contexts in Second Language Learning. The Addison-Wesley Second Language Professional Library Series. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.
van Compernolle, R. A., & Soria, N. B. (2020). Developing interactional repertoires in the classroom through dynamic strategic interaction scenarios. Vigo International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 17, 141-169.
Watson, S. L., & Reigeluth, C. M. (2008). The learner-centered paradigm of education. Educational Technology, 48(5), 42–48.
Social Contagion: Manage the Spread
My students describe varied emotional responses to online classes imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some feel heightened affective stress; others, reduced anxiety. Some feel deprived of an “authentic” student life; others explain that seeing classmates on-screen reinforces a pleasant sense of community. Over time, I notice enthusiastic classes engage more and more, while dissatisfied groups dig their heels in. Whether online, face-to-face, positive or negative, affect spreads from student to student.
This “involuntary catching” of habits, expressions, and attitudes, occurring within networks of individuals is called social contagion. Parents routinely advise children to “make good friends” in hopes of a positive influence, and the existence of implicit peer pressure comes as no surprise to anyone who has experienced adolescence. Even as adults, our behaviors, body language, tastes, and moods take on the characteristics of those around us, and neuroscience is beginning to explore the mechanisms by which this occurs. It appears that mirror neurons, located throughout the brain but most active in the premotor cortex and parietal area, may play a significant role, firing not only when we act but also when we observe actions performed by others. Through repetition, this gradually strengthens associated neural pathways; this is thought to result in enduring changes in behavior and attitudes and has been hypothesized as the biological basis for empathy, imitation, and learning by observation.
Understanding that our learners are likely to take on behavioral characteristics of highly influential peers allows teachers, to some extent, to direct this phenomenon in constructive ways. Research into social contagion has begun shifting from an emphasis on deviant behaviors, such as self-harm, and has begun to explore its influence on motivation, stress, positive emotion, and self-efficacy—all primary issues for language teachers. Particularly relevant to our current situation are recent studies indicating that social contagion also emerges in online and virtual communities. Though every context is unique and requires a tailored approach, relevant strategies are intuitive and remain largely the same whether in the classroom or on the web.
- Visibility: circular seating arrangements or the use of cameras in online classes facilitates the imitation of smiles and laughter, encouraging the spread of positive affect and reducing anxiety.
- Groups/pairs: for cooperative tasks, teachers most commonly allow learners to select their own partners or rely on systems such as name cards to randomize groups. However, learners’ engagement can be positively reinforced by the strategic placement of social influencers—take an extra minute to maximize this potential!
- And don’t forget… that in the classroom, all eyes are on you. This means that you may be the greatest social influencer of all! Smile, project sincerity, stay mindful of the emotions you project, and avoid tension by managing time well.
What else comes to mind? It turns out our socially-distanced students aren’t immune from contagion after all—knowing this, how can we manage the spread?
Translanguaging: Unlocking the Benefits of L1
A type of student-to-student interaction in an English language classroom that many teachers find hard to accept is communication in students’ mother tongue (L1). Our ideal learner is someone who dives into a world of English, yet the majority cling to L1 like a lifeline, missing out on valuable English language practice. And so, we stand at the pool-edge, urging them to swim, and do it in English only!
This monolingual approach to language teaching stems from a long-standing assumption that languages can be separated in the mind of the speaker. However, recent theories of language learning and use contest this: speakers of more than one language experience the world through a unitary language repertoire. They are linguistically multicompetent, and they make sense of the world through translanguaging. From this perspective, English language students are emerging bi- or multilinguals, and it makes sense, instead of imposing an English-only rule, to draw on their existing language knowledge. This can be done through pedagogical translanguaging, or “intentional instructional strategies that integrate two or more languages and aim at the development of the multilingual repertoire” (Cenoz & Gorter, 2020, p. 300).
What does “integrating the students’ languages” look like in practice, and why should L1 be allowed in student-to-student interaction? Chances are, students in your English language classroom are already using L1 to build rapport, clarify task instructions in group work, or help each other with new vocabulary. The challenge for many teachers is not to suppress L1, but to accept it and design classroom activities that make intentional connections between English and L1 (or even more languages!). They don’t have to take the form of the often-criticised grammar-translation method. Deller and Rinvolucri’s classic yet comprehensive collection, for example, lists pedagogically justified ways to use L1. What is more, student-to-student translanguaging activities can work well in classrooms where students don’t have a shared first language.
The translanguaging perspective on L1 in peer interaction brings benefits to both teachers and students. Knowing that L1 is allowed helps alleviate sink-or-swim L2 anxiety in students and releases the teachers from the role of policing the English-only rule. By letting students use all their language resources in the classroom, we are not only making the target language more accessible, but also helping them bond and have meaningful social interaction. This approach aligns with a new model of English language proficiency, in which students are not seen as deficient speakers striving for the unattainable native-speaker standard, but as multilingual individuals with unique linguistic skills.
Cenoz, J., & Gorter, D. (2020). Teaching English through pedagogical translanguaging. World Englishes, 39(2), 300–311. https://doi.org/10.1111/weng.12462
Teacher-to-Student Connections: The Social Rewards
Let’s not overlook the importance of teacher-to-student relationships. Teacher-to-student relationships set the stage for student-to-student relationships. How a teacher connects with students can influence their behavior, academic achievement, self-esteem and how they relate to each other in the classroom. While online interactions became the mainstay of classroom practice for teachers around the world during 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps you, as I did, felt the loss of in-person interactions with your students. In Australia, as students moved to home-based learning during the pandemic, some teachers did their best to reassure them that they would soon be reunited in person by making humorous videos like this one. However, as the year progressed, it became harder to keep up the jokes. When would we be with our students in person again? And why did we miss them so much?
Classroom relationships are important for students, but, as we can see, for teachers as well. Psychologist Louis Cozolino reminds us that “as human beings, we need to connect with our students as much as they need to connect with us” (2013, p. 265). There is research suggesting that our brains receive “social rewards” from giving love and positive affirmation to others, and that these are more valuable than physical or monetary rewards (Lieberman, 2013). Areas of the brain associated with reward are activated when we give to others (Bhanji & Delgado, 2013), and so it feels good to contribute positively to the social and emotional needs of our students.
Attachment theory shows us that this two-way bond between teacher and learner has advantages. The theory emphasizes the built-in tendency for young learners to attach to their caregivers, whether they are parents or teachers. It suggests that students learn best when teachers prioritize relationships, emotions, and social needs in the classroom. This type of teaching develops executive functions in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain which plays a role in developing students’ social skills and their ability to regulate emotions. Those promoting an attachment-based teaching approach believe that teachers who focus on nurturing positive relationships with their students will see improved results in students’ learning and behavior (Cozolino, 2013).
Unfortunately, the loss of our “normal” classroom environment in 2020 has reduced our ability to nurture relationships in person. Now that we have mastered the basics of online teaching, let us go to the next step and find new ways to bond with our learners. That will not be easy, but I find it helpful to realize that there are brain-based reasons for doing so, reasons that explain why I missed the face-to-face classroom and how the relationships with my students had been a huge part of my teaching life prior to 2020. So now, the next adventure awaits: to explore what the “new normal” of attachment-based, socially-rewarding teaching might look like in future online environments. After all, in a classroom that embraces student-to-student interactions, online or not, the relationships we, as teachers, build with our learners have a direct impact on the ones they build with each other.
References and Further Reading
- Bethune, A. (2019). Want happier pupils? Make your classroom “tribal.”
Bhanji, J. P., & Delgado, M. R. (2013). The social brain and reward: Social information processing in the human striatum. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews Cognitive Science, 5(1), 61-73.
Cozolino, L. (2013). The social neuroscience of education: Optimizing attachment and learning in the classroom. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Damon, N. (2020). Reach. Teach. Talk. with Nat Damon. https://reachacademics.com/podcast
Howes, R. (2014). Point of view: Applying attachment theory in schools. https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/magazine/article/86/point-of-view
Lieberman, M. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
NSW Government. (2020). Teachers to students: Missing you already. https://education.nsw.gov.au/news/latest-news/teachers-to-students-missing-you-already
Rose, N. (2019). Attachment theory: What do teachers need to know? https://researched.org.uk/2019/02/28/attachment-theory-what-do-teachers-need-to-know/
D. S. Bowyer is a lecturer in English at Nagoya Gakuin University. He is also currently pursuing a PhD in applied linguistics at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. His father once called him a brain on a stick. Ouch. Contact: [email protected]
Jason R. Walters is Assistant Director of the Core English program at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. His primary research interests include self-access learning, native speaker-ism in Asian EFL education, and practical applications of positive psychology in the classroom. <[email protected]>
Yulia Kharchenko is an English language teacher and a Ph.D. researcher in Sydney, Australia. She also teaches on the postgraduate TESOL program at Macquarie University. Her interests include multilingualism, language identity and language policies in education.
Skye Playsted is a wife, mother, teacher, and PhD candidate in Brisbane, Australia. She teaches students of all ages in schools, universities, and English language programs. Skye is particularly interested in working with preliterate adults who are learning English for the first time. She has been awarded an Australian government scholarship to research teachers’ professional learning in English pronunciation teaching. http://englishlanguageresources.com.au/