The power of groups

I recently read an interesting post, entitled The lack of person-centredness in ELT on Jonathan’s English Blog, at ukteachersonline.  It caught my attention because, as an ELT teacher and trainer, I like to think that I work in a person-centred way.

In Freedom to Learn, Rogers lists five hypotheses (paraphrased):

1 No-one can teach anyone anything; they can only facilitate learning. Everyone will process what they learn in their own way and in their own time.

2 A person only learns what is personally meaningful to them.

3 People naturally resist change, but being open to consider new and different concepts is vital to learning.

4 If people feel threatened, they become less receptive and more rigid.

5 The educational situation in which people learn best is where threat is reduced to a minimum and the ability to look at things in different ways is maximised.

It seemed to me that there were two main points in the post I mention. Firstly, that teacher training does not give nearly enough attention to the psychological aspects of learning. Secondly, that ELT teaching fails because it is usually carried out in groups.

In relation to the first point, Jonathan says, that in most teacher training courses, there is nothing whatsoever from educational psychology or adult pedagogy and not a whiff of a mention of inter-personal skills, group dynamics and so on. How can this be? These are human beings in the classroom and yet nobody seems to think it’s worth training teachers to think for a second about how people interact together in classrooms and how this might relate to learning.’

I couldn’t agree more. Jonathan also says that A different pedagogy could be developed in the classroom which recognises the social nature of language and constructivist learning principles but which is also based on a person-centred concept of language teaching.’ Obviously on a four week CELTA, for example, there is a limited amount of time to go into depth on these areas. However, it should be something which runs through every element of the course, like a stick of rock.

However, when it comes to the second point, I can’t agree. Jonathan says, ‘The fact that teachers work with groups is part of the problem. The individual needs of each person simply cannot be met in a classroom environment. So teachers have to pitch things at the lowest common denominator in the classroom who is the student who more or less understands what’s going on. A great deal of what happens in classrooms is an exercise in training yourself to put your own needs last and the needs of the group and its consensus first. You don’t understand something? Tough – the teacher doesn’t have time for that.’

This may be true of some (even many) classrooms, but I don’t think that it is an essential drawback of teaching in a group. In fact, I think that working in groups can be much more powerful a learning process than working 1-2-1.

Whether we want to admit it or not, there are strong parallels between the processes of therapy and classroom or educational processes (which is why, I guess, Carl Rogers was so interested in learning). Both are about growth. Look at this quote I found through a quick google about group therapy:

Group therapy is a powerful venue for growth and change. Not only do students receive tremendous understanding, support, and encouragement from others facing similar issues, but they also gain different perspectives, ideas, and viewpoints on those issues. Most students, though somewhat apprehensive at first, report that the group experience was helpful far beyond their expectations.

I would argue that pretty much the same thing is true of the group experience in teaching and learning English. Rogers talks about minimising threat and maximising opportunities to see different perspectives: what better way to do that than in a supportive group? And,  it is a group experience, not about the teacher on one side and the learners on the other. The teacher doesn’t need to spread themselves thinly between 20 (or more) students, because they are not the only person in that room who can facilitate learning. What about the other students? What about the student him or herself?

2 Comments

Filed under Teaching methodology

2 responses to “The power of groups

  1. Hi Rachael,

    I really enjoyed reading your post – you are so right! I am responding to your comment about the way teacher training courses often neglect to take account of the teachers as adult learners and, more often than not, forget that work needs to be done on the group dynamics and the life of a cohort of trainees as a learning group.

    My own experience tells me that when I have neglected to do that, things have not turned out so well, groups have not gelled, collaboration has not flourished and there has been less learning and development than what I had hoped. So I do try to factor this into my training materials design, using activities not unlike what I would use with adults or even younger students.

    An older blog post describes some of these activities can be seen here: http://marisaconstantinides.edublogs.org/2009/12/16/storming-out-or-norming-in/ and am sharing it as it would be so easy for you to see how to translate all these ideas into training opportunities.

    Marisa

    • Marisa,
      Thank you so much for your kind words and, most of all for the link to your article. It’s a great overview of group dynamics, and I thoroughly recommend to anyone interested in this area.
      It’s one of my areas of interest too, so I will probably follow up this post with something else on group processes.

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