Preparation for what?

I work in an intensive English program, whose purpose is to prepare international students for undergraduate and graduate degrees in the US. (So this would be a good time to note that all opinions on this blog are mine alone!)

I’m increasingly bothered by the idea of education as preparation. To some extent, it’s true: we need our schools to prepare young (and not so young) people to contribute usefully to society and fulfill their own potential. Such has always been one of the functions of schooling: education is a public as well as a private good. It’s also true that we in ESL have a duty to help our students develop the language proficiency that will help them accomplish their future academic, professional, and personal goals. To that extent, my teaching is very much concerned with preparation.

But I have a problem when the goal of preparation so dominates our mindset as teachers, curriculum designers, materials writers, and administrators that the lesson, course, or program ceases to have any meaning as an educational experience in itself.

A visible symptom of this attitude is the five-paragraph essay. I won’t rehearse the arguments against this pernicious form of writing misintruction. Instead, I want to focus on one of the reasons — we call them myths — that underlie the perpetuation of the five-paragraph essay: that it’s preparation for … something else: high school, college classes, first-year writing, standardized tests, university admission, or just the next level of the program (“how can they possibly take Level 3/4/5/6 if they can’t write a five-paragraph essay?!”). The result is writing assignments that are meaningless in themselves, nothing but pretexts to reproduce an “arhetorical” form (Ortmeier-Hooper, 2013). I do believe that teachers who inflict these essays on their students do so out of the very best of intentions: we all want our students to succeed at the next stage of their education. But it doesn’t work that way.

I see the same trend in decontextualized activities. Learn relative clauses: you’ll need them later! Practice writing topic sentences for “essays” you’ll never write: it’ll be useful on the test! Memorize the Academic Word List: you’ll need these words when you matriculate! Take a study skills class to prepare you for courses you’re not yet taking: you’ll thank us next semester!

And we wonder why students roll their eyes at us and treat our programs as hoops to jump through, boxes to tick/check.

The idea that our classes are a warm-up for the main act does us no favors. Assigning writing tasks just for the sake of producing writing in a certain rhetorical mode gives students the misleading impression that writing is nothing more than painting-by-numbers rather an act of meaning-making and problem-solving. Denying the disciplinary expertise we bring relegates EAP teachers to a “support service” rather than a “research-informed academic field of study” (Ding & Bruce, 2017). Drilling grammar kills the understanding of language as a meaning-making resource. Using content as merely a pretext to meet some mandated learning outcome misses opportunities for engaged learning. I heard a professor in a literacy class say that he didn’t care whether high-school students enjoyed a novel or poem as long as they could demonstrate grade-level comprehension. What a dreary, Gradgrindian view of education.

The best teaching I’ve ever done has been for its own sake as well as preparation for something else. That’s why I’ve gravitated towards genre-based writing pedagogy and sustained-content based courses. It’s why I insisted on teaching The Outsiders to pre-matriculation undergraduates (rather than the suggested texts): never mind the so-called “reading level” (a quantitative fiction): it’s engaging, it’s relevant, it’s meaningful, and it sparks discussion and writing that reach the learning outcomes through actual learning.

The next step for me is to apply this approach to professional development. I love giving workshops and conference presentations, and I’ve had the good fortune to talk to colleagues at schools and universities around the US, in Europe and even Japan. But as teachers, we’re not that different from our students: we learn best in our own context. So beyond these single-shot workshops, I want to think about embedding professional development in teachers’ contexts so they can implement, reflect on, and adapt the ideas I share. That’s what we’re doing in our in-service ESL certification program for Delaware K-12 teachers: whenever possible, our assignments draw on materials, lessons, and assessments that teachers are already using or about to use.

As educators, we must indeed think about what comes next for our students so they are prepared for success. But let’s not forsake the present. Teaching isn’t a dress rehearsal, and (ESL) teachers aren’t the supporting act.

(Cover photo: rehearsal — earlier than a dress rehearsal! — for Me and My Girl, May 2000, St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge — I’m on the left, directing!)

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

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