Valuing Choice in Education

CWF wrote a post for http://www.whydev.org on meeting the challenge of teaching English in a developing country like Cambodia:

What American holidays or festivals do you know?

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Believe it or not, this is taught in Cambodia.

The fascination with the Western world means that teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) in Cambodia is modeled on Western paradigms. This approach tends to take three forms.

First, the content draws heavily on Western lifestyles. Learners talk about their foreign vacations in Mexico, ordering food at drive through and booking train trips. Yet Cambodia has no trains, no drive-throughs and is not anywhere near Mexico.

Second, this approach is premised on the idea that the learners will be receptive to Western methods of teaching. It presupposes background knowledge amongst students which most here do not possess.

Lastly, English tends to be taught as a subject to master rather than as a means to communicate. The combined effect of this approach is to dictate irrelevant content rather than considering the students’ choices whilst at the same time imposing an arbitrary ‘gold standard.’

As with all development work, education can reflect bottom-up or top-down thinking. We believe that development organisations should include, value and act upon the needs and desires of those involved. Development cannot succeed without giving individuals the freedom to make their own choices regarding how they want their lives to change. This freedom is both a means and an end to development.

With this background in mind, we chose to engage students in the process of developing their own curriculum. This way we were able to recognize their choices regarding what they wanted to learn. We found out that they were eager to share their traditions and uphold their cultural identity. So the curriculum we developed drew upon on that by incorporating Khmer food, celebrities, travel destinations and ceremonies. This results in a cross-cultural dialogue between our students and their teachers, who come from across the world. When a curriculum reflects the realities of Cambodian life, students are engaged and are motivated to talk about their culture in English.  This is effective not only in motivating students to speak and practice English, but also to promote a balanced exchange of ideas.

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In addition we use a transversal approach when selecting the topics for the different levels. This means students study the same topics across levels enabling them to share ideas with other students outside of class. This makes English a real-life communication tool. It empowers our students to become independent and confident users of English, which is essential given that the majority of their interactions using English will be with other non-native speakers. (SeeSeidelhoffer 2005.) In the context of regional integration, where English is the sole language of ASEAN and set to become the region’s language of the workplace by 2015, this is vital.

Addressing the challenge of teaching English in the development context is complicated.  We have to balance successful teaching, empowering and responding to learners and also avoid giving undue weight to the Western content. Key is rejecting the unnecessary ‘golden’ standard prevalent in English teaching today. The standard not only values knowledge of the West above host cultures, but also demands learners master a Western ideal of English.

Instead, we’d like to see the field recognize the primary value of English as being a communication tool for everyone. By tailoring our teaching to match student choices, we begin to achieve this. 

By David Picart and Eleanor Paton

 

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