I have noticed that a lot of teachers have a strong belief in constructivism which I do not share. Please, let me explain.
As I understand it, constructivism holds that it is proven there are hard limits to human understanding and learning, limits within which we have to work. These limits are, it seems, determined by congenital and cultural factors, including individuals’ initial languages.
In addition, it holds that all our basic ideas are schemata, which may only possibly be of objective origin and are usually utterly specific to particular cultures and language communities, and that it is probably impossible to eradicate or replace them in an adult mind; consequently, it seems impossible radically to change any such a mind.
This suggests that we cannot really go very far in understanding people from other cultures, or in learning or translating additional languages.
Personally, I am struck by the views of Jose Ignacio Latorre (professor of physics at the University of Barcelona): science since 1922 has been effectively dismantling the myth that there are pre-existing local realities which are both determined and determining.
I am relatively optimistic about human autonomy, the human ability to learn and adapt, and the human capacity for empathy. Instead of constructivism, I prefer “the growth mind-set”.
Learning is not being taught; it is not the simple transfer of knowledge from a teacher to a pupil. It is certainly not doing hard and boring homework set by the teacher.
Learning begins when your brain does what it does best for a living: noticing, observing and remembering what interests you. It goes on when you spot a desirable goal and start to move towards it: quite independently, you set yourself intermediate aims; directing yourself, you select the means of acquisition and choose your study habits; you autonomously devote of your time, and engage with the resources to hand.
However, it works better if you are not alone, if you have a companion, a mind-coach, by your side; someone to help you fulfil the task in hand by reminding you to recall all the useful appropriate stuff that you already know, and encouraging, daring you to put it into practice.
If you want to make something, spread some news, sell something or buy something, get a machine to do it for you. If you want to develop yourself, get another human being to encourage you. A human language-coach can do far more for you than any robot can.
Well, if we teach any language, what we teach had better be comprehensible but authentic, meaningful, purposeful, and appropriate. That means it should be natural, personal, interactive, and up-to-date.
(It is true, though, that English for Academic Purposes is always going to be quite artificial, impersonal, grammatical, conservative, and often written rather than spoken!)
What is a 21st. Century language teacher then?
A story-teller, an elder, a scribe, a librarian, a consultant, or a master to an apprentice? Not any more! The best metaphor for today’s teacher is “a coach”. So, let’s try to stop correcting each other every 10 seconds; it usually does no good at all in the long run. Let’s try to avoid using old-style textbooks; they’re often out-of-date within a week of being published. Let’s try to make our assessments valid, reliable and objective, rather than using once-only, overly difficult, negative tests which ultimately demotivate.