On July 18, a large audience gathered in the Tishman Auditorium to hear Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman’s thoughts on “Mutual Empowerment in Challenging Times.” Dr. Larsen-Freeman is a prolific author who simultaneously holds positions at University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, and the SIT Graduate Institute. In introducing her, Professor Leo Schmitt highlighted Dr. Larsen-Freeman’s unique status as a scholar who both researches the intellectual processes of second language acquisition and thoughtfully connects them with the real-world challenges that teachers and students face.
After thanking The New School for having her, the presenter began by saying that there has been much discussion of “agency” over the past several years, both in professional and social contexts. Many people from around the world, across the political spectrum, feel disempowered. As Henry Giroux phrased it last April, “These days are dark.” Dr. Larsen-Freeman asked the audience, “Don’t you feel it?” and was rewarded with a chorus of murmured agreement.
Our response to these dark days, as TESOL practitioners and researchers, can take many forms. If we want to disrupt racism and promote justice in our classrooms, however, we need to increase our awareness of learners’ agency – that is, their capacity to act in the world.
Dr. Larsen-Freeman went on to outline some of the many ways in which TESOL research has tended to treat learners as non-agentive. For instance, a great deal of research categorizes learners by group characteristics: age, gender, reasons for wanting to learn English, and so forth. While that’s useful for the purpose of studying trends, it tends to erase the individual. Researchers might recommend strategies based on aggregate data from a data set in which no one individual student’s results align with the aggregate results. The statistical approach can therefore strip agency away from the individuals being studied.
Pedagogical theories can slip into the same type of trap. Dr. Larsen-Freeman mentioned the concept of comprehensible input as a possible example. If teachers are told that they must feed students input that’s 100% tailored to what the student can understand, what role does the student play in their own learning?
The presenter freely admitted that her own work may have contributed to several of these factors–but of course, only hindsight is 20/20!
How, then, can TESOL researchers and practitioners push back and recognize their learners’ capacity to act in the world? Dr. Larsen-Freeman made several suggestions, connecting most of them to an analogy from nature. Language, she said, is a complex system along the lines of a flock of birds or a school of fish. Individual language users together form a language community that produces patterns, innovations, and new rules.
If we treat the classroom as an environment, then teachers can choose to think less about input and more about affordances: opportunities that exist within the environment, which learners can seize when they’re ready. Teachers can remember that teaching does not cause learning, though it is one ingredient in creating affordances in the environment. Teachers can confront their own choices by asking different questions: instead of “Why doesn’t so-and-so ever talk?” ask “How are my students using silence, and what should my response be to that?”
Dr. Larsen-Freeman recommends that teachers accept responsibility for recognizing and nurturing agency in each learner. Teachers should open themselves up to being transformed by the classroom environment, for example by participating in end-of-class “What have we learned?” sessions. Learners can also share in environment-building decisions: by choosing their preferred feedback methods, by teaching each other, or by investigating language choices with their groups (instead of asking the teacher “Was that right?”). Technology can also be an ally in this. Learners are now able to record and listen to themselves, or can even create specialized corpora based on their own fields. In every classroom context, opportunities exist to encourage greater agency.
Finally, the presenter closed her talk by advising teachers to “play hooky” once in a while and take care of themselves.
The talk was followed by refreshments and a textbook fair, which featured publications by National Geographic, Pearson, and Oxford Education. A video of the full presentation is available at this link.
Claire Marinello is pursuing a master’s degree in TESOL at The New School. She also serves as the Senior Manager for Adult Education Programs with New York Cares, in which role she coordinates both general-English and citizenship-preparation classes for the New York City community.