Caring, sharing & despairing: a critical appraisal of humanistic language teaching approaches & techniques

Desmond Thomas, British Council Bulgaria & Svetla Tashevska, NBU

Do you believe that an English language teacher’s job is to teach the subject – nothing more, nothing less? Or do you believe that language classes should focus on the development of the whole individual, or even that teachers are ‘facilitators of freedom’ (to quote Carl Rogers), with a duty to empower their learners and to prepare them psychologically for coping with life?

If you have some sympathy with the idea of the teacher doing more than imparting knowledge in a given subject area, you may well feel attracted to some of the ideas associated with a humanistic approach to language teaching. According to Moskovitz (1978), humanism promotes the following values in education:

  • The importance of providing a supportive environment that encourages learning
  • The idea that personal growth as well as cognitive growth is the school’s responsibility
  • The importance of affective factors such as motivation and self-esteem
  • The idea that the best kind of learning is through self-discovery
  • The idea that human beings really do want to actualize their potential (cf McGregor’s Theory Y)
  • The importance of healthy relationships within the class emphasizing respect and empathy

Within this approach the teacher is expected to play the following kind of role:

  • (S)he is interested in the students as people and not just in the subject
  • (S)he is flexible and tolerant
  • (S)he is positive and encouraging, constantly trying to build students’ self-confidence
  • (S)he is a guide and counsellor, not just for language-learning, but for life
  • (S)he is a partner “caring and sharing” in classwork

Most of these ideas seem attractive in principle but how do they work in practice? For me, this is where the problems start. Here are three activities devised by Moskovitz herself in which there is a clear affective aim as well as (supposedly) a linguistic aim. The first is one which I experienced myself on a teacher training course. The second is recommended by Moskovitz as a good way to raise self-esteem in a recent article (Moskovitz 1999). The third, also highlighted in the same article, aims to promote individuality and a realization of the importance of differences.

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Activity 1: Ex.24 I like you because … p.79

Affective:        To have students give and receive positive feedback
aims                 To look for good in others
Ling. aims:      To practise adjectives describing positive qualities
Levels:             Intermediate to advanced
Procedure:       Make an inner and outer circle (the dyadic belt formation).
Tell the person you are facing what you like about him/her.
Move round one. Repeat.

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Activity 2: Ex.30 How strong I am ….. p.87

Affective:        To have students assess their own strengths and share these
aims                 To have students give one another positive feedback
Linguistic:       To practise adjectives describing positive qualities
aims                 To practise first person/second person singular in the present tense
Levels:             All levels

Procedures:

  1. Divide into groups. 5/6 people is ideal for each group.
  2. “We all have many strengths. Some of them we are aware of. Other people may see strengths in us that we do not realize we have.”
  3. Take a piece of paper and write down the names of everyone in the group. Below the names, write two of the strengths you see in each one in your group. Then write your own name and list as many of your strengths as you can think of. (5 minutes)
  4. Each group should focus on one person at a time. The person will begin by telling all the strengths she has written about herself. Then others in the group will share what strengths they see in the focus person. The student on her right writes them down. When everyone is finished, give the list of strengths to the owner to keep.
  5. Did anyone say something that surprised you? Which strength that others saw meant the most to you? What reactions do you have to this activity? What did you learn from it?
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Activity 3:        Ex. 34 I like you – you’re different

Affective:        To encourage students to feel proud of their differences rather than feeling the aims                      need to be conformists
To encourage an open attitude toward others and their differences
Linguistic:       To practise the present tense
aims                 To practise the present perfect
To practise the past tense(s)
Levels:             All levels

Procedures:

  1. Explain to students that sometimes people want to be like everyone else and are concerned about differences, yet these are the tings that make us unique. For homework they should write on a card three things they feel good about that make them different from everyone else in the class. They should sign their names on the cards, which should look identical. Example: (a) I was on a national quiz show once and won two prizes, (b) I took lessons on three musical instruments, (c) I wrote a poem which was published in a school newspaper.
  2. Read each card aloud, one at a time. Students should guess who the card refers to. After the class votes on the three choices, ask the mystery person to stand to reveal to the class who was being described. The class then asks this student a few questions related to the card.
  3. Repeat the process. Don’t forget to include a card for yourself. There are many possible ways to follow up this activity.

The three activities described above are typical of Moskovitz’s “caring and sharing” activities and have not been chosen because they are extreme examples or more problematic than others. And yet a whole series of problem areas suggest themselves. Here is my list:

  • Regimentation, manipulation, lack of respect for individuals and their wishes. As a participant, I feel that there is an element of coercion in such activities, with everyone being forced to express themselves and behave in the same way – almost as if the class were being conducted in lockstep. As in lockstep, participants can easily switch off in the feedback stage. Interestingly, in instructions for the first activity Moskovitz talks about using a PA system, thus increasing the impersonality of the performance.
  • Cultural sensitivity … is it really OK to announce in public your private feelings about someone in class? Is it acceptable to announce your strengths? In Bulgaria? Elsewhere? Activities considered acceptable in North America or the UK may prove highly problematic where cultural norms are different. It is worrying that in her work Moskovitz does not really mention differences in perception caused by cultural influences, even stating that “(these techniques) transcend cultures and work with all kinds of people”.
  • Respect for the feelings of others. By singling out and exposing in public those who are liked, those who are successful, those who have interesting lives, how do others feel? In the third activity Moskovitz’s examples from her own experience could conceivably intimidate students who haven’t appeared on TV or had their work published. Is there a danger that students will be exposed as failures when compared to their classmates?
  • Artificiality ….. forcing individuals to behave in a false manner (my own case when participating in activity 1 where I was forced to lie when faced with a person I genuinely disliked). Moskovitz’s activities assume a world where everything is positive all the time.
  • Triviality… things such as personal relationships are too important to be treated in such a superficial manner. Activity 3, for example, deals with the issue of tolerance of diversity in a very superficial way.
  • Linguistic aims seem to be added as an afterthought – no real linguistic syllabus. Are the aims of any of the activities really clear? Even Rinvolucri (1999), quoting Dufeu (1994) recognizes that this can be a problem. At best we are distracting students from their main aim in coming to our classes – at worst we are neglecting to do our job.
  • Insensitivity to student expectations. Are these activities really what they want?

What conclusions can be drawn from this list based on a preliminary analysis of a small selection of activities from one author? Firstly that, while the values of HLT may be worth striving for, the means of achieving them can sometimes result in students becoming demotivated and disoriented. Too much emphasis on developing the inner self can lead to a perceived lack of direction and leadership in the classroom. Gadd (1998) quoting Stevick, (who is himself a strong advocate of HLT), has this to say:

Stevick (1980) is careful to show the deficiencies of humanistic approaches taken too far. He points out that students come to language classes rightly expecting well-structured classes and expertise from the teacher ….. Likewise, Stevick is aware that too much focus on the students’ own experiences and inner selves is unhelpful ……. He also comments, in a point one feels could be developed much further, that humanistic approaches can simply become an excuse for the teacher to dazzle students and colleagues with their educational originality and virtuosity: the teacher becomes the star of the classroom, while the students’ needs are secondary to the maintenance of the performer’s ego and his or her need to be loved.

Gadd draws a distinction between pragmatic and romantic humanism, placing Stevick in the pragmatic category. Romantic humanism, on the other hand, believes that the primary task of the English teacher is to develop the students’ inner selves, and that therefore the greater part of the work done in the classroom should be devoted to the students’ feelings, experiences and ideas.

I have chosen two examples of ‘romantic humanist’ activities, which seem to me to illustrate some of the pitfalls already discussed. The first is deliberately highlighted as an example of good practice by Rinvolucri (1999) in an article on HLT. The second is an account of a personal experience as a participant in a conference activity.

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Activity 4: Puchta’s rope-trick (Puchta & Schratz 1993:42-45)

Aim: to introduce a reading passage about fans crushed at a pop concert

“The teacher laid a circle of rope (7 metres long) down on the floor in the centre of the classroom. He asked all 27 students to step inside it. As the teacher pulled the rope in tighter, a couple of students, without being asked, helped the teacher raise the rope so that it encircled the whole group at waist level. These were the instructions he gave: Would you close your eyes now, please? Whatever you feel or notice, don’t open your eyes. Just concentrate on your feelings.

Gradually the teacher drew the rope in so that all were tightly pressed together.

During the next stage of the activity the students filled the board with words that described their feelings. This dialogue then ensued:

Teacher: What about lovely? Who wrote that?

Student 1: I had a lovely feeling when we were all so ….

Teacher: …. together, you mean?

Student 1: Yes

Teacher: Interesting. So you did not mind that. Did you all have positive feelings?

Students (some hesitating) Yes.”

(extract from Rinvolucri 1999)

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Activity 5: Bell-ringing (Della Fish)

An activity organized by Della Fish, author of “Quality Mentoring for Student Teachers” (1995, London: David Fulton) at a recent teacher mentoring conference in Cluj, Romania.

On the first night of the conference, after a welcome buffet reception , at about 9.30 pm (slightly later than originally planned), Dr.Fish stood up and addressed the assembled group of about 150 people. The activity which she described was as follows. Everyone would be assigned a group through colour-coded, different shape stickers. Each group would consist of 4 members whose task it was to organize a kind of “bell-ringing exercise”. Within the groups each individual would choose his/her own sound (eg baa, moo, pip, doh). The sounds had to be uttered in a complex sequence with accompanying movements as the “bell-ringing line” changed in formation. The trick was to work out a strategy within the group so that the correct sequences could be memorized and then performed on request. The aim of the activity was deliberately made unclear, initially. A team of facilitators was on hand to make sure that each group understood the task and did not deviate from it.

In my group of four we had a number of problems to overcome. It was late and we were tired after travelling all day. We didn’t know each other and wanted to begin our relationship in a more conventional way. We didn’t really see the point of what we were doing. We felt compelled to participate in a scheduled conference activity but our hearts (and minds) were not really in it. We found the activity trivial and irritating. It struck us as insensitive that the organizer might not have anticipated some of our problems. We didn’t have much time even to think about what we were supposed to be doing. An argument developed between two group members who thought the activity pointless and two who reluctantly wanted to make an attempt. In the end we just ran out of time.

The large gathering reconvened and after one group had performed, Dr.Fish drew conclusions for teaching and for teacher mentoring. These concerned the importance of team effort and collaboration in learning a new skill. Meanwhile, I was drawing my own conclusions about teaching and facilitating the development of new skills. Not for the first time I wondered what it was really like to be a learner when the teacher adopts the facilitator role.

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References:

Arnold,J.(ed.),1999, Affect in Language Learning, Cambridge: CUP
Dufeu, B., 1994, Teaching Myself, Oxford: OUP
Gadd, N. ,1998, Towards less humanistic language teaching, ELTJ 52/3 pp.223-234
Moskovitz,G., 1978, Caring & sharing in the foreign language classroom, Heinle & Heinle
Moskovitz, G. Enhancing personal development in Arnold,J. (ed.) 1999: 177-193
Puchta,H & Schratz, M., 1993, Teaching Teenagers, Longman
Rinvolucri, M. The humanistic exercise in Arnold,J. (ed.) 1999: 194-210
Rogers,C.& Freiberg, H.,1994, Freedom to Learn, New York:Merrill
Stevick, E., 1980, Teaching Languages: A Way & Ways, Newbury House
Underhill,A. Facilitation in language teaching in Arnold,J. (ed.), 1999: 125-141,

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Humanistic activities for the language classroom ????? DThomas 09/00

[↑]

Activity 1:        Ex.24 I like you because … p.79 (Moskovitz 1978)

Affective:        To have students give and receive positive feedback
aims                 To look for good in others
Linguistic:       To practise adjectives describing positive qualities
Aims
Levels:             Intermediate to advanced
Procedure:       Make an inner and outer circle (the dyadic belt formation).
Tell the person you are facing what you like about him/her.
Move round one. Repeat.

[↑]

Activity 2: Ex.30 How strong I am ….. p.87 (Moskovitz 1978)

Affective:        To have students assess their own strengths and share these
aims                 To have students give one another positive feedback
Linguistic:       To practise adjectives describing positive qualities
aims                 To practise first person/second person singular in the present tense
Levels:             All levels
Procedures:

  1. Divide into groups. 5/6 people is ideal for each group.
  2. “We all have many strengths. Some of them we are aware of. Other people may see strengths in us that we do not realize we have.”
  3. Take a piece of paper and write down the names of everyone in the group. Below the names, write two of the strengths you see in each one in your group. Then write your own name and list as many of your strengths as you can think of. (5 minutes)
  4. Each group should focus on one person at a time. The person will begin by telling all the strengths she has written about herself. Then others in the group will share what strengths they see in the focus person. The student on her right writes them down. When everyone is finished, give the list of strengths to the owner to keep.
  5. Did anyone say something that surprised you? Which strength that others saw meant the most to you? What reactions do you have to this activity? What did you learn from it?
[↑]

Activity 3:        Ex. 34 I like you – you’re different (Moskovitz 1978)

Affective:        To encourage students to feel proud of their differences rather than feeling the aims                      need to be conformists
To encourage an open attitude toward others and their differences
Linguistic:       To practise the present tense
aims                 To practise the present perfect
To practise the past tense(s)
Levels:             All levels
Procedures:

  1. Explain to students that sometimes people want to be like everyone else and are concerned about differences, yet these are the tings that make us unique. For homework they should write on a card three things they feel good about that make them different from everyone else in the class. They should sign their names on the cards, which should look identical. Example: (a) I was on a national quiz show once and won two prizes, (b) I took lessons on three musical instruments, (c) I wrote a poem which was published in a school newspaper.
  2. Read each card aloud, one at a time. Students should guess who the card refers to. After the class votes on the three choices, ask the mystery person to stand to reveal to the class who was being described. The class then asks this student a few questions related to the card.
  3. Repeat the process. Don’t forget to include a card for yourself. There are many possible ways to follow up this activity.
[↑]

Activity 4: Puchta’s rope-trick (Puchta & Schratz 1993:42-45)

Aim: to introduce a reading passage about fans crushed at a pop concert

“The teacher laid a circle of rope (7 metres long) down on the floor in the centre of the classroom. He asked all 27 students to step inside it. As the teacher pulled the rope in tighter, a couple of students, without being asked, helped the teacher raise the rope so that it encircled the whole group at waist level. These were the instructions he gave: Would you close your eyes now, please? Whatever you feel or notice, don’t open your eyes. Just concentrate on your feelings.

Gradually the teacher drew the rope in so that all were tightly pressed together.

During the next stage of the activity the students filled the board with words that described their feelings. This dialogue then ensued:

Teacher: What about lovely? Who wrote that?
Student 1: I had a lovely feeling when we were all so ….
Teacher: …. together, you mean?

FEATURES OF HUMANISTIC EDUCATION

  • supportive environment for learning
  • personal growth as well as cognitive growth
  • affective factors such as motivation and self-esteem
  • learning is through self-discovery
  • realization of human potential
  • healthy relationships within the class
  • respect and empathy

ROLE OF THE TEACHER

  • interested in the students as people
  • flexible and tolerant
  • positive and encouraging
  • guide and counsellor for life
  • a partner “caring and sharing”

PROBLEM AREAS IN HLT

  • Regimentation, manipulation, coercion
  • Lack of cultural sensitivity
  • Lack of respect for feelings/wishes of others
  • Insensitivity to student expectations
  • Artificiality
  • Trivialization
  • Unclear linguistic aims
  • Intolerance of dissent
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Comment sheet on humanistic language teaching techniques & activities

  1. Do you have any comments on the specific activities highlighted in this presentation?
  2. What has been your own experience of HLT, either positive or negative?

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