The Chat Club – An Educational Adventure through the Looking Glass

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by Zee Valey-Omar

The conversation club was created primarily to address the needs of graduates of the English for Professional Development program at the Language Institute for further development and continued exposure to English.  It is unlike the traditional classroom in which the subject matter is aimed at teaching specific rules of grammar, structure or phrases and gently leading students to the mastery of fragments of the language under the watchful eye of a patient teacher. On the contrary, participation in the conversation club requires a high level of proficiency and uses only material to which native speakers are exposed and in which students express an interest.   Students are encouraged to think critically and express their opinions as clearly as they might in their mother tongue. Some of the subjects discussed are current events, philosophy, psychology, behavioral science, medicine, theology etc. This is a hybrid classroom in which problems are solved, ideologies are challenged, trends are analysed, opinions are expressed and experiences are shared. The participants are motivated solely by the desire to learn and develop their abilities proving perhaps the validity of the idea that in adults, the desire to learn is innate. This is learning for the sake of learning, the exquisite but illusive mythical creature that teachers dream about. While the course offers constant feedback and evaluation, students are not graded in the traditional sense. Here, the teacher plays the role of facilitator, giving guidance and advice.

While not purely Metacognative in methodological strategy, this course relies on some of the facets of Metacognative Strategies as expounded by O’Malley et al (1985). Students are encouraged to be active participants in the learning process from the conception stage by recommending material, thinking about the direction of their development by discussing the aims of exercises and being conscious of the skills they will develop in each activity. In keeping with the TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson entitled: “Do schools kill creativity?” we steer away from the stigmatization of mistakes, trying instead to see them as opportunities to learn. The process of evaluation is constant, beginning with self evaluation, evaluation by piers and the facilitator. Creative thinking is encouraged above all.

One might argue that the open group structure of the class has elements of Socioeffective Strategies expounded by Brown (2007) as students constantly clarify and explain their ideas and similarly seek explanation and clarification from their peers.

This process of collaboration and constructive evaluation has had several consequences. Firstly, students have created their own English learning community which, free of the constraints of deadlines and exams allows for organic development. Secondly, conscious of the aims of the exercises, students are highly motivated to prepare and contribute. Thirdly the learning process provides students with an honest view of their abilities to comprehend authentic material, comment on it, problem solve, produce summaries and articulate their opinions. Finally and perhaps most crucially, students are able to set aside the anxiety of stagnating or regressing in their hard earned English proficiency.

In accordance with Malcolm Knowles (1984) the Conversation Club strives to create an atmosphere of cooperation. Some problem solving activities involve the fragmentation of a task into small parts which students later present as a group. In this type of exercise, students might be required to brainstorm ideas and then split of into groups to find solutions before they reunite to select the best solution. This is a skill which students value as is transferable to the workplace, where a high level of proficient participation is viewed favorably. Role play is another activity which fosters a further sense of camaraderie between students. An additional activity that the Conversation club engages in is an exercise entitled: In the news this week. During this segment, students review an important event in world news using a list of questions devised for the exercise. Here, news reports, online news papers, and blog posts are used. This kind of exercise assists in vocabulary development and comprehension. In keeping with the ideas of Malcolm Knowles (1984), there is a constant emphasis on goal driven exercises. Practicing complex sentence structures such as the third conditional for example might be the aim of watching a TED talk or a BBC video. This is simply not a course for a detestable, lazy teacher who arrives in class and vacantly asks learners what they would like to talk about. Students constantly provide the teacher with feedback on the lesson and future activities are adjusted according to what the students’ needs. The Conversation Club student needs to know what she/ he is learning and why. This type of student does independent research and eagerly searches the Edmodo group to see what the following week´s lesson entails or what she/ he missed the previous week.  A weekly poll is taken to determine future subject matter, what is of interest to students and to give the teacher time to gather material and create exercises around the material.

If I were to advise students on how to develop language proficiency outside of the classroom I would say that first of all, that one has to recognize the classroom for what it is. It is a simulated environment of learning in which all factors, the material, the exercises and the teacher conspire to nurture and support you. This, while comforting to a learner, might create a false sense of proficiency. I suggest that learning be seen as all inclusive, classrooms and grammar books are simply not enough. Students need to incorporate music, literature, culture, podcasts, TED talks, and cinema and in fact everything that interests them. I have often seen young students roll their eyes when jaded, uninspired teachers tell them to watch the news to improve their vocabulary. I firmly believe that the best material to use is what interests us.   A learning community is invaluable. No-one learns a language to live alone on an island, language is for communication. Students should find ways to communicate as frequently as possible both inside and outside the classroom without the fear of making mistakes. We need to stop demonizing mistakes and perhaps look at the way we correct students. One simply cannot correct an adult as if she/ he is a child. Students in turn should take cognisance of corrections, pay attention to patterns of mistakes and work independently to improve.  As teachers, we should foster the idea of learning as a process does not end at graduation.

I feel that students should be taught that learning a second language to be proficient is simply not enough. We need to be able to express ourselves as we would in our native tongue, to feel that our personality is revealed by the articulation of our thoughts and opinions. While this may not be possible for everyone due to varying abilities, it should be something we aim at. The half existence of second language speaker is simply not enough. Moreover I believe that a crippling tendency prevails in higher levels of learning where all the students and the teacher speak the same language- the tendency to translate and not explain. I see to some extent that this might be necessary in lower levels but I regard this as crippling because at higher levels because this is simply not transferable to real life situations with native speakers. Students should be aware of the habits they develop in learning English and constantly question whether the skill is transferable to a real life situation. Most crucially, students should know that languages are in constant development and they should maximize their exposure and be active participants in their development as English speakers.

Works Cited
Brown, D. H. (2007). Principles of Language Learning & Teaching. (5th Ed.). Pearson: Longman.

Knowles, M. and Associates (1984). Andragogy in action: Applying modern principles of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

O’Malley, J. M., Chamot, A. U., Stewner-Manzanares, G., Kupper, L.J. & Russo, R.P. (1985). Learning strategies used by beginning and intermediate ESL students. Language Learning, 35(1): 21-46.

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