Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Playing the "sage on the stage"

[Reposted because  of formatting issues.]

The past 1.5 years here have brought some changes to my teaching style. Indeed, learning to be a better teacher formed part of why I came to Korea in the first place. All this time in the classroom has provided plenty to reflect on about how teaching styles evolved. In teachers college I was warned against playing the sage on the stage,” or lecturing the class from the front of the room for the entire period. Doing so was an outdated method, one that made the teacher the focal point of the class. It did students no favors for fostering collaborative learning or independent thinking by not giving students any time to work amongst themselves. In this instance, the teachers delivering the knowledge to the students directly. He has all the answers and he is running the show. Instead of this philosophy, we concentrated on playing the guide on the side,” wherein the teacher acts more like a coach or a mentor to the students. He still lectures, but he spends more time talking to individuals or small groups than he does the entire class. Such a setup allows for maximum student collaboration and thinking time. It gets the teacher out of the front of the room and thus can cut down on disruptions because he doesn't have to address the whole class.

When I began teaching, I kept lectures to a minimum and focused on getting the students working and moving as quickly as possible. Lecturing tested their patience and it went against my vision of a collaborative classroom. Though I enjoy speaking to groups and preparing speeches, talking for 45 minutes straight doesn’t appeal to me. Moreover, expecting a group of high school students to remain passive for that amount of time is a tall order.

As can probably be ascertained, the USA and Korea follow two different models of classroom instruction. Most of the Korean teachers follow the old style method of playing “sage on the stage,” for middle and high school classes get conducted like college lectures. Older readers of this blog will probably see many similarities to their own school days. Since this method reigns supreme, it is what the students are used to.

It took time to adjust to this reality. I’ve lectured more than I’d ever thought I would here. I’d figured that since EPIK teachers classes were supposed to be different, the students would eagerly latch on to collaborative learning. After all, we EPIK teachers were brought in to enliven their English language classes, and while yes, the students do enjoy working in groups, they didn’t take to them as much as I’d thought at first. Though my classes usually involve a group activity, I’ve found that some of the best classes have been the ones where I lecture for the majority of the period. (I’ll pause from time to time to ask questions and elicit responses before moving ahead on the PowerPoint slides) The “sage” style works to a large extent because the students expect it. At first this idea seemed anathema, for the students surely would rather talk amongst themselves than listen to me, but it’s not so strange when I considered that lectures are what they expect from classes. I came to Korea partly to learn to be a better teacher and to learn from the Korean teachers. Though I never thought I would adopt this style, I’ve found it was warranted. The expression “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” comes to mind here because it does me no good to fight against a culture that isn’t my own. It’s best do as the Koreans do. I’m fine with these changes and look forward to the classes to come. Though I still don’t like playing the sage all the time, it needs to be done here.

Another part of this change comes down to EFL version standard English—In the States, the students already knew how to speak and write in English and the object's to get them to think deeply and critically about x. In Korea, the goal's simply to get the students speaking English. The deep thinking's possible, but the focus goes to conversational skills because it's difficult enough to think in a foreign language. Moreover, in each lesson, there's a good chance I'm introducing brand new words and expressions to them, words and expressions that require explanation. Explaining that stuff takes time and it'd be counterproductive to ask students to struggle with all of it when I or the co-teacher could explain it straightaway. So, even though it's not what I expected, I'll do whatever's necessary to help the kids learn English and speak better. 

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