Monday, 22 June 2015

Learning is not a spectator sport – someone please tell my students

Sometimes one just gets fed up at staring at the uncomprehending faces.  Fed up of waking students up during the class. Fed up of the incomprehensible and mangled attempts at speech. Fed up with the lack of comprehension when I explain to them in words of one syllable that it is unlikely that they will be attending Cambridge or Harvard, well, at least this year anyway.

I work in a top high school, in the foreign language department, in a big city in China.  I have been teaching the senior classes ESL for the past two years. All of these seniors have the expectation that they will be attending a good, if not superior, foreign university next year.  Let me put it a bit more succinctly, these seniors’ parents have the expectation that their child, their only child, will be attending a top ten foreign university next year.  Most of these children of rich parents do not really seem to know or understand why they are sitting in my ESL class. They seem to think that what they really should be doing is cramming for the IELTS or TOEFL exams they probably have in the next few weeks or months. What they shouldn’t be doing is wasting time with me, a native English speaker, who has actually spent 20 years teaching in a top ten university in the UK.

This is highlighted by the fact that after at least a semester of me prepping my class with IELTS and TOEFL related study, although not in my remit.  Plus giving them all the insights from a book I have been writing with a Chinese colleague about the IELTS speaking test, one student, lets call him ‘Land’ because that’s what he calls himself, came to me and asked me for all the questions and answers I had been giving them over the past year. That this was two days before his IELTS test seemed to me a bit short-sighted.

I am an irrelevance to these rich kids.  These rich kids, who, for most of their pampered and spoilt lives, have been given everything they have ever wanted. Who, even at 16 and 17 years of age, are still fawned over by their doting parents – it’s galling that most of them have designer watches and clothes I couldn’t even think of affording. These rich Chinese kids who think daddy will be able to buy them into a university regardless of their ability and their lack of effort in the English classroom.

It really worries me, this lack of engagement with the English language, by these Chinese students.  I actually want these kids to go to university. I want them to succeed. That’s why I’m a teacher.  But in my classes there are students who can barely speak to me, even after two years of English tuition by foreign teachers.  Plus they have had two years of English classes given by the bilingual Chinese teachers and the fact that they are following the CIE iGCSE Science and Math’s subjects - in English.  God knows when they actually started learning English, because I don’t.

The problem, it seems to me, is the focus on the IELTS and TOEFL tests. Chinese students have tried and tested rituals, rotes and tricks for them to achieve the required scores on these tests. This approach really has nothing to do with learning English it’s simply to pass the test with the highest score possible. Indeed I have even colluded myself with Chinese students by publishing a book with a Chinese colleague that provides a method for the student to increase their IELTS score from the ubiquitous five to the much needed six or six point five and higher.

And yet they seem to think if they could just memorize all the words in the vocabulary books then all will be fine. That they attempt to do this during my ESL class whilst I am actually trying to teach them how to use words in the correct order seems cruelly ironic.  Even so, when I close their books for them and ask them to focus on the lessons I am giving them on collocation, or phrasal verbs, or even something simple like listening or writing they can barely finish the tasks that I set them.

In an attempt to shock them out of this torpor I presented them with some research which shows that the IELTS and TOEFL scores do not indicate how successful a student may be in a western university, indeed in many cases the research shows that Chinese students with a ‘respectable’ IELTS score of 6 or higher might still struggle when entering higher education in the West.

Indeed one report out of the US shows that 8000 Chinese students were sent home in 2013/14 from US universities and colleges for cheating and not making the grade. And yet, and yet, when I show my students these statistics there is barely a lifted eyebrow or a murmur of shock. I really think these students do not believe that this would, or could, relate to themselves in any way, shape or form, such is their confidence and their denial that they may not be making the grade.

That my school has a foreign language department where we teach English and yet we do not have any formal English examination on site must bear some of the blame for the situation.  The only English examination these students will take is either the IELTS or the TOEFL tests.  This to me is a ridiculous state of affairs. It means that we have no way of gauging the level of our students English, over and above any tests we the teachers set.  There is no way we can measure our students against any global standard such as the iGCSE.

Consequently the students have no motivation to pay any attention to my ESL classes at all.  They remain focused on the IELTS and TOEFL requirements and what I do in my classroom must seem to them just a minor detail, another forty five minutes where they can zone out and if they think they can get away with it have a snooze – they never get away with it in my class.  If I have to be 6000 miles away from my 16-year-old daughter in the UK then they had better, by golly, pay attention in my classroom.

I really do want my students to get to university. Last weekend in the high school right next to mine the Gau Kao university entrance examinations took place.  I really do think some of my students would have been better off to have sat that exam and to enter a Chinese university. But filial duty being what it is in China these kids will have to suffer their fate to the dying end. I do know some of my students really do not want to go abroad but they just cannot let their parents down.  To be brutally honest they will get their wish because their English is just not up to scratch and they make little or no efforts to change that situation in the classroom. So mummy and daddy will be faced with a fait accompli.

Will poor Cherry or Coby be blamed for their failure?  Personally, I think not, I think the odds are more likely to be stacked in favour of the English teachers at the school being the fall guys here and, as is often the case, contracts will not be renewed.  And yet, and yet, I still love working with these testing, exasperating, annoying, trying, at times demanding, maddening, but very often delightful, funny, charming, sweet, naive, innocent kids.

Cherry and Rita - two good students.

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