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The Death of Method

This is the second blog in this little series drawing on Chapter 8 of B. Kumaravadivelu’s book entitled Understanding Language Teaching: From Method to Postmethod (2006).

In the previous post I summarised his view that methods are an inadequate basis on which to build a language teaching methodology, that the search for a best method is futile, and listed a number of myths surrounding methods.

Let’s suppose you sometimes feel annoyed or frustrated when urged to use 90% target language, not do drills, avoid using vocabulary lists, do lots of work on phonics, avoid group work, play lots of games, don’t play games etc. You may find Kumaravadivelu’s discussion of what he calls the post-method condition quite refreshing and even a little reassuring.

So in this post I summarise what else he has to say about what British applied linguist Allwright called in 1991 The Death of the Method.

Kumaravadivelu enumerates Allwright’s six reasons for the Death of the Method. I’ll summarise them as concisely as I can.

1. Method focuses too much on differences. Theoretical differences are far less marked than actual classroom practice. (Many teachers do similar things while professing allegiance to contrasting methods.)

2. Method simplifies highly complex sets of issues, including the fact that learners vary. Second language acquisition is far too complex for one particular method to provide all the answers for the classroom.

3. Worrying about applying a method properly diverts attention from more important activities such as designing effective classroom tasks.

4. Method breeds brand loyalty which is unlikely to be helpful to the profession since it fosters pointless rivalries on essentially irrelevant issues. (In MFL this phenomenon is more rife in North America than the UK.)

5. Method breeds complacency since it gives the impression that all the answers have been found. (Vocal evangelists for the TPRS method fall into this category.)

6. It provides an easy, externally derived sense of coherence which may inhibit more valuable, personally derived methodology (classroom practice).

For Kumaravadivelu that last point is crucial, since in his view teachers need to move beyond methods but without just adopting a random eclectic approach. So his next challenge is to produce some sort of principled eclectic approach in the absence of a method. How can we arrive at some sort of principled eclecticism or language teaching philosophy?

The Post-method Condition

This is the term he uses to describe “a sustainable state of affairs that compels us to fundamentally restructure our view of language teaching and teacher education.” He goes on to describe what he calls Pedagogic Parameters.

Pedagogic Parameters

1. Particularity

Any pedagogy, he says, “must be sensitive to a particular group of learners pursuing a particular set of goals within a particular institutional context embedded in a particular sociocultural milieu.” If you don’t take into account local situations then your pedagogy may fail. (For example you would not implement the same pedagogy in a British secondary school as with a group of evening class adult learners in the same country.) On a more global scale the predominant Anglo-Saxon methodology of Communicative Language Teaching may fail in some countries and cultures.

2. Practicality

This relates to the relationship between theory and practice and to the teacher’s skill in monitoring their own teaching effectiveness. Professional theories produced by researchers and teachers’ personal theories differ. K... argues that teachers need to learn to theorise from their practice. Teachers can only do this if they have the knowledge, skill, attitude and autonomy “to construct their own context-sensitive theory of practice.”

So teachers need to be independent reflective practitioners who can weigh up why some things are working and others not. They develop this though experience, intuition, insights, as well as theoretical knowledge. The parameter of practicality focuses therefore on teachers’ reflection and action.

The awareness teachers develop has been labelled “sense-making” (van Manen) and matures over time as teachers learn to cope with all the competing pressures on them, e.g. institutional constraints, assessment systems and learner expectations.

3. Possibility

This one is a bit harder to define and may seem less relevant to teachers working within quite tightly regulated school systems, such as those experienced in the UK. In part it relates to notions of power and dominance in any system. Teachers should question the status quo which may, in a sense, keep them subjugated. (As an example I might suggest a school ethos which strongly favours either a traditional direct instruction approach or a more progressive ethos where group work and self-enquiry are the norm.)

Secondly, he refers to the “broadening of the nature and scope of classroom aims and activities” to involve not only learners and teachers, but the whole community in developing collaborative projects.

For Kumaravadivelu this is about taking into account not only learners’ linguistic needs, but also their socio-cultural context. He gives examples of projects which have transformed the lives both of children and teachers, including on a personal level.

*******

Now if the above general parameters come across as just a bit airy-fairy to you and if, like most teachers I know, it’s the practical classroom ideas which interest you most, in the next blog I’ll look at another way he describes in trying to make sense of the post-method condition. In that post we shall get a little closer to actual classroom practice.

Don’t expect any prescriptive ideas about how to teach best though! That would go against the very principles Kumaravadivelu is espousing! It’s much more about, as we’ve seen, helping teachers to become well-informed, independent, critical, reflective and adaptable practitioners. The teacher ceases to be a consumer of top-down methods, but a creator of their own principled methodology (classroom practice).



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