Pragmatism in British schools

A. Chaedar Alwasilah, Canterbury, England | Opinion | Sat, December 22 2012, 2:31 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

The fact that English has become the world’s most important foreign language to learn in schools is indicative of its outstanding contribution to the world’s civilization. Such a contribution must have very solid educational grounds.

Those wishing the Indonesian language to be a lingua franca in the region, say, within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) community, should emulate how English has been taught as the first language in its native land.

In England, English is a core school curriculum, which is always subject to controversial discussion and has been “something of a battleground for years” (Fleming and Stevens: 2010). As everybody speaks the language naturally, they may feel they have expertise to talk about it. Such an attitude is less evident toward subjects such as mathematics and science.

I was fortunate to take a sabbatical leave in Canterbury, England, during which I managed to observe primary and secondary English lessons, interview pupils, teachers, head teachers, prospective teachers and lecturers in initial English teacher training programs. While it is impossible to generalize teaching approaches, methods and techniques across the whole country, nonetheless I would like to share the most remarkable characteristics to ponder.

First, while the curriculum is standardized, teaching methods are impossible to standardize. Teachers are trained to play it safe in interpreting the national curriculum on one hand and accommodating pupils’ needs on the other hand.

As Simon (1994) puts it, there is no pedagogy in England. In England, education has not been considered a prestigious field of study — different from, say, economics, science, etc.

When it comes to education, British teachers seem to believe in pragmatism, where there is no single approach, method, or technique more dominant than the others. Pragmatism allows teachers to use any approach, method, or technique that fits pupils well. However, being pragmatic should not be perceived as a weakness. Instead, it is one of the strengths that has made British education stand out.

Second, English teachers are generally literature-minded people. “When I was child, I loved reading almost anything,” said a primary education major who wants to teach very young children. Teaching English in British schools is tantamount to teaching pupils to gush with a love for literature.

In English classes, it is typical to see a primary teacher — surrounded by pupils — telling a story, which they will read by themselves later in higher grades. The rule is to listen and enjoy the story. Absolutely, story-telling is a requisite part of expertise all language teachers must have.

Third, literature is the stepping stone for learning other aspects of language. While enjoying a storybook or novel, pupils unconsciously decode symbols such as punctuation marks and grammar. Almost all teachers are practitioners of the “literature for teaching grammar” philosophy. Obviously, literature takes precedence over grammar.

By contrast, the majority of language teachers in Indonesia are linguistics or grammar-oriented. You will find more language teachers who prefer teaching grammar to literature. A similar trend is common at colleges. Across the faculties of language and humanities (education), you will find more lecturers who prefer teaching linguistics
to literature.

Fourth, English classes are highly directed toward writing proficiency. A typical English assignment is to ask pupils to read literary pieces and to report to the teacher and the class. In other words, pupils are trained to do literary criticism orally first and in writing second. This mainstream practice of teaching has led to a sound level of literacy, namely a balanced ability to read and write.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia the predominant form of language testing is objective tests. Pupils are trained to choose the correct option and avoid the distracters. It is true that this kind of test challenges pupils’ intellectual ability, but it categorically lacks the rigor to promote creativity. Simply, it does not promote writing ability.

Fifth, considering the wide range of content in literature — from classic to modern or contemporary literature — and its exceptional place in the school curriculum, it seems that English, more than perhaps any other subject can have an extremely humanizing effect (Davies 1996).

From Davies’ survey, English teachers believe it is their duty to do the following: To enrich the child’s experience and to broaden his horizon through literature, to stimulate his imagination, to awaken his sensitivity to human emotions, to help him think for himself and to be able to confront the pressure of the mass media, to develop in the child a sense of tolerance and understanding, to develop a sense of social awareness and to realize their full potential in the broad field entitled “English”.

These teaching commitments show their belief as “the badges of the faithful” to British culture and the humanities in general. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to describe English teachers as the guardians of British culture.

From the discussion above there are some lessons for language teachers and educators in general in Indonesia. Government officials from the Education and Culture Ministry have reiterated the intention to revitalize Indonesian as part of the core primary school curriculum.

By emulating the British system of teaching English, we expect that Indonesian language teachers would become guardians of Indonesian literature in particular and culture in general.

The writer, a professor at UPI, Bandung , was a visiting researcher at Christ Church University, Canterbury, England.

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