Monday, February 10, 2014

Are Teaching Methods Universal or Culture-specific?

Are Teaching Methods Universal or Culture-specific?
Nada Mrabet

This paper discusses the appropriateness of the application of the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach in EFL classrooms, with a focus on Tunisian secondary teachers and students. The paper begins with an introduction of teaching methods, the teacher versus learner centeredness dichotomy, how methods failed to account for cultural diversity, and the birth of the post-method era. I will be focusing on two contexts, China and Singapore. Then, I will apply their findings to the Tunisian context to see whether I will find the same results. Therefore, I prepared two questionnaires, one for 11 secondary teachers, and another for 70 secondary students from different parts of Tunisia. According to the quantitative data I got, Tunisian teachers do not adopt CLT to the fullest. They make adjustments depending on their learners’ needs and expectations.  As for the students, they were divided into two categories: those living in the rural area prefer a teacher-centered approach, and those living in the urban area prefer a learner-centered approach. The universality hypothesis is refuted.
                    Keywords: CLT, teacher-centered, learner-centered, cultural diversity, post-method.

CLT is the most recognizable and adopted humanistic approach in EFL classrooms around the world. At first, despite the fact that, like the rest of the teaching-methods, CLT is the product of the West, some non-West countries, which have different cultural teaching and learning backgrounds than the West, are applying CLT in their English-language classrooms. These cultural differences were later on acknowledged by many countries, e.g. China, Singapore, Egypt, and Japan, the thing that led them to either stop adopting CLT and create their own approach to EFL teaching, or make some adjustments to CLT. In this paper we will discover whether the cultural differences between the West and Tunisia will lead the latter to stop applying CLT to their English-language classrooms and create a specially-made approach for the Tunisian context. 

Theoretical Part
Teaching Methods
Definition of Teaching Methods. In their “Dictionary of Language and Applied Linguistics” (2002), Richards and Schmidt claim that different methods of language teaching are based upon: “(a) the nature of language, (b) the nature of second language learning, (c) goals and objectives in teaching, (d) the type of syllabus to use, (e) the role of teachers, learners, instructional material, and (f) the activities, techniques, and procedures to use” (p. 330)
The characteristic feature of teaching methods is eclecticism. It has been used (a) to overcome the limitations of any teaching method and (b) to promote “the careful, principled combination of sound ideas from sound sources into a harmonious whole that yields the best results.”  That is why the search of methodologists was focused on a single, ideal method, which can be generalized across widely varying audiences, and which would successfully teach students a foreign language in the classroom.

Teaching Methods. Teaching methods can be divided into two types:
(1)   Traditional Approach: The grammar-translation method enables students to read the literature of the target language. The teachers are both decision-makers and translators from the mother-tongue to the target language and vice versa. The learners are passive and not allowed to make mistakes. The textbook codify the grammar of the target language into discrete rules for students to learn and memorize.
The direct method’s main objective is to achieve good pronunciation. The teachers play the role of demonstrators, always leaving the floor for the learners. They use both textbooks and real-life objects and visual materials. The learners are active. They speak to practice their pronunciation skills.
The audio-lingual method intends to build communicative competence. It is a teacher-dominated method where teachers have central and active roles. Thus, the learners have a little control over the content, pace, and learning-style.
(2)   Humanistic Approach: The communicative language teaching approach helps the learners achieve effective communicative skills. The teachers are needs-analysts, counselors, and group process managers. The learner plays the role of a negotiator between the self, the learning process and object of learning. The materials are text-based and task-based with the use of realia.
The total-physical response’s main focus is about teaching oral proficiency at beginning levels. The teachers have a direct and active role. The learners are active as well. They are required to respond in a physical manner, either collectively or individually. For the very first lessons, teaching materials may not be use, only real-life objects and posters.
The main objective of the community language learning is to attain a near-native like mastery of the target language. The teachers are counselors and paraphrasers. The learners are treated as clients and not students. The classroom materials are personalized by the learners.
Each teaching method prescribes for the teachers what to do in the classroom and how to do it, the kind of teachers they are supposed to be, and the type of materials to use. It also specifies the kind of learners all learners must be.
Teacher centeredness Vs. Learner centeredness. The status of teachers in CLT differs from that in traditional methods. In traditional methods, teachers enjoy a high status where they are the source of knowledge, the controllers of their classrooms, and the decision makes. Learners are viewed as the passive recipient of their teachers. They are supposed to listen to their teachers, do whatever they ask them to do, and follow them blindly without challenging or questioning them. However, in CLT, teachers no longer enjoy that high status, and the distance between them and their learners has been narrowed down to a rather equal one. Teachers are no longer the source of knowledge, the controllers of their classrooms, and the decision makers. Learners are the ones who pave the way for knowledge to take place; they are the dominators in the classroom, and the ones who choose which activities to do and which materials to use.
Teaching Methods and Culture
Methods assume too much about a context before the context has even been identified. They are over-generalized in their application to practical situations. Several contexts came to prove later on that the western-methods-makers are ignorant of, and even indifferent to the socio-cultural realities of Afro-Asia. Through these context-differences, practitioners have discovered that even some of the recent humanistic approaches and methods may be unworkable, unproductive or even unwise to be applied in places and under conditions that are quite unlike those that gave birth to them. In Japan, Linju Ogasawara (1983) from the Japanese Ministry of Education warns about the dangers of the over-rated application of “hot from the oven” linguistic theories from the West in the English-language classrooms in Japan. In China, Liu Xian (1988) from Jilin University elucidates how imported humanistic methods are impractical in China and how Chinese teachers of English have turned out better works in the Chinese context, and that they should not rely on foreigners to find the appropriate ways to approach their English-language classrooms. In a paper presented during the 1989 Annual Convention of TESOL, the authors claimed that “methods like the TPR, Suggestopedia and counseling learning presume many facts that are realities in the West but not quite so in many parts of the world. […] In short, the fact remains that except for possible isolated cases, these methods do not have either consistent universality of appeal or feasibility of application.” What Westerners do when developing or giving birth to new methods, is “evaluating other cultures according to preconceptions originally in the standards and customs of [their] own culture.” This leads us to the conclusion that much of the modern knowledge developed in the West will automatically appear ethnocentric to the non-west. Burns (1985) also mentions how countries like Germany, Japan, Egypt, Brazil and India are restructuring English teaching to exclude the contexts (cultural, social, etc), purposes and needs of the West.
Examples of cultural contexts where CLT could not be adapted.
       The Chinese Context. Zhang et al. (2013) examine the appropriateness of CLT from the perspective of the Chinese culture of teaching and learning. Chinese researchers and teachers are required to adopt CLT as the ‘right’ and most appropriate approach for the Chinese English-language classrooms. Chinese researchers argue that since CLT is based on Western settings, it is not culturally appropriate. This is to note that the Chinese culture of teaching and learning which is traditional by definition. Since teachers’ values and teaching behaviors differ from one culture to the other, these values and professed role of Chinese teachers are so rooted that they have kept these Chinese teachers from adopting a new learner-centered methodology. Chinese learners, on the other hand, are finding it hard to adopt CLT because (1) it is difficult for them to change their ways of learning, (2) they depend on their teachers to get knowledge, and (3) they have negative attitudes towards CLT. They regard CLT as games for entertainment and not as a serious approach to efficient learning. To conclude, teachers’ roles and learners’ learning styles and attitudes in China are culturally contradictory to those of CLT. This renders the shortcoming of CLT in neglecting context.
     The Singaporean Context. Tan (2005) examines the appropriateness of CLT from the perspective of the culture of teaching and learning in Singapore. He investigates how the CLT can be culturally inappropriate for primary schoolchildren due to the Asian-Confucian values and practices. The latter is “a system of philosophical and ethical teachings founded by Confucius which do not favor the communicative approach.” Tan (2005) mentions a number of writers like Ellis (1996), Collins (1999), and Critchley (2004) to confirm his argument about the cultural inappropriateness of the communicative approach in the Asian context. To conclude, CLT is only efficient if it is culturally appropriate. Otherwise, it must be wisely adapted to suit the local needs of schoolchildren depending on their cultural backgrounds and contexts. 
Post-method Era
Acknowledging the complexity of the current worldwide foreign English teaching situation and the diversity of the cultural contexts of the foreign English classrooms has led some practitioners to the conclusion that we have moved beyond methods, to the post-method era. In this regard, post-methodologists suggest the abandonment of methods in favor of the recognition of strategies of teaching designed to reflect specific cultural backgrounds, local needs and experiences. Post-methodologists offer an ‘alternative to methods’ which enables practitioners to generate location-specific, classroom-oriented practices. This way, individual teachers may draw on diverse principles at different times applying procedures that best match their own cultural background in teaching. Kumaravadivelu (2006) calls for a “pedagogy of particularity,” by which he means being “sensitive to a particular group of teachers teaching a particular group of learners pursuing a particular set of goals within a particular institutional context embedded in a particular social milieu.”

Practical Part
My study was conducted only on secondary English-language teachers and learners. I can justify my choice by the fact that learners at that level are more aware of their own learning styles and learning processes than basic education learners. They know exactly how they want to learn, how they want their teachers to deliver information, and the type of materials they want to use. This way we will have more concrete results.
CLT is a culturally specific teaching method that cannot be appropriately applied to the Tunisian secondary schools.
Participants. I handed a questionnaire to 11 secondary teachers of English: 5 from Kairouan (urban and rural), 5 from Tunis and 1 from Sousse.
Method. The questionnaire that I prepared contains 5 multiple-choice questions that aimed to (a) know whether Tunisian teachers literally apply CLT in their classrooms, and (b) to see whether they have succeeded or failed to apply it appropriately.


Discussion. First, let me draw your attention to the fact that the Official Language Program implicitly states that Tunisian teachers are required to use the Communicative approach. Some of the fundamental principles of CLT that are mentioned in this book are: (1) ‘the learner is at the core of the learning process’, (2) and ‘language is seen as a means of communication.’ What this chart shows is that the majority of Tunisian teachers: (1) “often” do classroom activities, (2) either use both of the textbook and other materials or do not use the textbook at all, and (3) instruct their learners when solving a problem. This means that their approach to the classroom is CLT-like. CLT advocates the excessive use of activities, reliance on materials other than the textbook, and instruction while solving problems. However, 10 out of 11 teachers said that they change their teaching methods depending on their learners’ needs. And 5 out of 11 teachers think that the teaching method they’re following does not suit all of their learners. This means that they are not completely satisfied with CLT as their sole method to apply in their classrooms.
Conclusion. These findings imply that CLT may be culturally inappropriate to apply to the Tunisian context, perhaps because Tunisian teachers do not feel that CLT is efficient enough to be used with all of their learners or even to be used to the fullest with the learners who are already comfortable with the set of activities and techniques of CLT.
Participants. I handed the questionnaire to 70 secondary students: 40 from Tunis, 29 from Kairouan and 1 from Gafsa.
Data and Method. The questionnaire that I prepared contains 6 multiple-choice questions that aimed to (a) diagnose the type of teaching techniques that learners are being exposed to, (b) observe how learners actually prefer to be taught, and (c) see whether they have the same learning style as the one imposed on them by CLT.


Discussion and Conclusion.
     On the Global level. The majority of learners: (1) said that teachers do most of the talking, (2) want to always do activities and discussions, (3) said that they mostly rely on the textbook to do activities, (4) said that their teachers instruct them while solving problems, and that they prefer doing tasks with their teachers’ instruction, and (5) attested that when they are about to correct a task, they discuss the answers either with their teachers and other learners, or both. Some of these answers contradict with CLT. For example, in CLT teachers must use materials other than the textbook. To conclude, the fact that the teachers are the ones who do most of the talking, and that they mostly rely on the textbook means that the teachers do not apply CLT to the fullest. They still moderate some of its major aspects to make them fit their own cultural background as well as their learners’, which is mostly traditional, i.e. teacher-centered.
     On the Local Level. When I separated the answers of the learners from the rural area of Kairouan from the answers of the learners from the urban area of Tunis, I got totally different results for questions 1, 3 and 6. On the one hand, the majority of learners from Tunis said that : (1) they do most of the talking in the classroom, (2) their teachers use both of the textbook and other teaching materials, and (3) when it is time to correct a task, they discuss the answers with fellow learners. On the other hand, learners from Kairouan said that: (1) their teachers are the ones who do most of the talking, and (2) when it is time to correct a task, they refer to their teachers to discuss the answers. To conclude, learners from the rural area of Kairouan are following a teacher-centered approach. They are still stick to the old-fashioned, traditional approach to learning where the teacher enjoys a high status as the knowledge holder and the learners as the vessel that receives that knowledge. However, learners from the urban area of Tunis are following a learner-centered approach. The teachers share the same status with their learners. They are no longer the source of knowledge. The learners seek for information from each other.

Methodologists develop methods with the ultimate aim of producing one single, ideal method that will fit all English-language classrooms around the world. This quest for universality has led these methodologists to turn a blind eye, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to the possibility that their methods cannot be appropriately applicable to the non-West contexts. Research studies conducted about the appropriateness of CLT in the Chinese and Singaporean contexts led us to the conclusion that the applicability of certain teaching-methods, more precisely CLT, is determined by the cultural teaching and learning background of the context. The same was proved following my study of the appropriateness of CLT in the Tunisian context. CLT is not fully appropriate to be applied to the Tunisian English-language classrooms. Sometimes teachers change some CLT techniques to make them suit their learners’ needs and cultural background. Tunisian learners do not share the same cultural background, neither with the West, nor with the non-West, and not even other Tunisians from different area. Learners in the rural areas prefer the traditional teacher-centered approach, while learners in the urban areas prefer the trendy learner-centered approach.

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Zhang, D., Li, Y., & Wang, Y. (2013). How Culturally Appropriate Is the Communicative Approach with Reference to the Chinese Context? Creative Education. Vol.4, No.10A, 1-5.

Tan, Ch. (2005). How Culturally Appropriate is the Communicative Approach for Primary School Children in Singapore ? The Reading Matrix. Vol. 5, No. 1, 21-35.

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