Not All Designs Are Defensible

Let us take one example of a language problem that was urgently in need of a solution: students from disadvantaged backgrounds arriving in much greater numbers than before at university at a time of great societal change, as in South Africa recently, from the mid-1990s onwards. The level of academic literacy of these newly arriving students may well be of such a nature that, if urgent steps are not taken to develop their ability to handle academic discourse, they are sure to fail. Who will blame university administrators who see the problem and take the first and most obvious solution? The students seem to need ‘language’, so it should be arranged that they ‘get’ it. For many, the obvious solution if one does not ‘have’ a language, is that one can be ‘given’ it. If only it were so easy! If the instruction, furthermore, is old fashioned and out of date, based on methods of language teaching dating back to the 1930s, it can always be justified (and often is) by saying it is better than nothing. Or, to press home the point of how easily a bad or insufficient design can be adopted as a solution, take another example relating to these same students. They communicate with their lecturers mainly through writing. If they write badly, this is what everyone thinks needs to be remedied - and, if one takes a skills- based view of language, defensibly so. Not for a moment may those who develop the remedy consider that their skills-based view of language problems may yield an inappropriate design to solve it. What has worked in one context (the USA) - the presentation of courses in writing, or ‘composition’, or even the establishment of writing centres - is simply called in to provide a solution in another, where a focus, for example, on reading may have been much more appropriate, and may have been a great deal more effective (cf. Weideman 2007b; Van der Walt 2007). As Lillis (2003: 197) points out, the teaching of ‘composition’ in the US constitutes a very “influential student writing research site”, but is not necessarily the only or even most desirable way of going about developing academic literacy.

Would an intensive reading, rather than a writing course, have been a better solution, then? An intervention that focuses only on reading may similarly expose itself to criticism in the current climate within applied linguistics. Indeed, there is a valid critique of a skills-based approach by a number of leading scholars. Bachman and Palmer (1996: 75f.), for example, conclude their persuasive critique of a skills- based approach as follows:

We would thus not consider language skills to be part of language ability at all, but to be the contextualized realization of the ability to use language in the performance of specific language use tasks. We would ... argue that it is not useful to think in terms of ‘skills’, but to think in terms of specific activities or tasks in which language is used purposefully.

Their plea is for taking a sample from the real-life, highly contextualised language that is the target of the solution. In real life, the distinctions between skills such as ‘listening’, ‘reading’, ‘writing’ and ‘speaking’ tend to be more problematic than one would assume. Can one, in an academic setting, for example, talk about listening without considering the processing of the language being heard, and after processing, the salient parts of it being written down after having been processed, and subsequent to the writing, one’s referring to it again by reading it, before perhaps finally asking for clarification (‘speaking’) about it? Where are the boundaries among all of these - mostly cognitive - processes, that we simply try to conceptualise as a skill such as ‘listening’, ‘writing’, ‘reading’ or ‘speaking’? They are clearly not as easily demarcated. Kumaravadivelu (2003 : 225-231) has, in a similar way, pointed out that the historical roots of a skills-based approach lie in the behaviorism of the 1950s; that all good teachers have always known that one cannot teach skills separately; that these ‘skills’ combine and are combined in all language use; that from a pedagogical point of view one has to be wary of isolating one skill. He remarks: “Skill separation is ... a remnant of a bygone era and has very little empirical or experiential justification” (Kumaravadivelu 2003: 226).

Neither the naive solution of attempting to ‘give’ language to learners, nor the skills development approach, therefore, today seems to have an adequate, defensible theoretical basis that would constitute a rationale for the solutions proposed.

Even if one mounts a defence of an intervention focused on a single skill, like writing, by pointing out that what is actually happening in such classes is not merely the teaching and learning of writing, but of critical thinking, as well as cognitive and self-identity development, the nurturing of learners’ problem-solving capacity in a supportive environment, and the like, one still is left with unanswered design questions. If the ways of conceptualising our designs are important, as Ivanic (2004: 220) correctly declares, then conceiving of what we are supposed to do as ‘writing’, for example, constitutes an uncritical acceptance of a historically institutionalised arrangement, viz. that what we should be teaching is writing. This arrangement, that politically entrenches and privileges writing over a number of alternatives, of course benefits the proponents of writing: it constitutes nothing less than their livelihood as applied linguists, and will probably be vigorously defended by them (cf. Weideman 2007b; Van der Walt 2007). In a truly critical approach, however, we should question the very conception of such a historical arrangement, no matter how influential and powerful it may be at present, as a consequence of being privileged organisationally. So the proliferation of “writing centres” at institutions of higher education in South Africa and elsewhere would qualify, in postmodern, critical terms, as that kind of institutionalisation of writing that is ‘reproductive’, i.e. merely replicating, but now at an organisational and therefore, potentially much more powerful and influential level—since it is institutionally sanctioned—that which is happening in the US and perhaps other parts of the Western world. The irony that many such a writing centre would pride itself on taking a critical, politically aware view of student writing (Ivanic 2004) would of course be lost on those involved. When such interventions are mounted without deliberation, but as the apparently obvious, fashionable or intuitive solution, the political foundations on which the establishment of the centre itself is based are hidden from view, even from the eyes of those involved most closely in its day-to-day operation, and even if their own ideological convictions actually demand a critical consideration of the political bases of their own work and that of others.

The point made in the first section is therefore again relevant: in which direction do applied linguists intend their designs to go? It should be obvious that the first, the obvious or the intuitive solution is not always the best. A student recently came up to me after a master’s class in applied linguistics I was teaching at a university in the Netherlands on the topic of “Tradition and innovation in language teaching”, and asked how he could teach pronunciation. What he meant was to challenge me: he thought it could not possibly be taught communicatively, but only by utilising older techniques, which involved mindless drills and teachers explaining as much of the grammatical structure of the target language to students as they could, in the hope that those explanations would miraculously convert to language learning in the students. When pressed for more information, it turned out that what his students needed was not how to pronounce English like native speakers, but to be able to communicate fluently about the manufacturing process in their Asian factory with Western advisors and counterparts. What this student had was a solution that actually had little reference to the problem. That is where applied linguistic designs that are carried out without deliberation are normally headed, but surely that direction is not one that can be defended with any level of professional integrity.

The various more intuitive or more sophisticated ways of determining learners’ language needs, also for business and professional purposes, have been ably surveyed (e.g. by Flowerdew 2013), but it is clear that no way of conceptualising learners’ needs (or sometimes ‘wants’) is immune to the beliefs of the course designer (Flowerdew 2013: 337), a point I shall be returning to below. As Spolsky (2010: 139f), Hult (2010b) observes, there are numerous examples not only of bad designs in the field of language teaching, but also of inadequate language management. Some of these arrangements (or lack of such) in the field of medical care can in fact be life threatening. In such cases there is an added political edge: “... one is shocked to realize how little effect research evidence has on government and politicians,” Spolsky (2010: 140) notes. So the challenge remains for applied linguists to combat myths and naive assumptions in public, in order to make it possible to arrive at theoretically defensible designs.

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