Donald is an old friend of Brazil's. He has been here a number of times since his first visit the late "eighties", Which included a year living and working in São Paulo (Associação Alumini). This interview was done at TESOL in Seattle last year.
NR: Donald, how much, do you think, teaching a language has to do with communication?
DF: I think on one level, a great deal, because that's the purpose for which people want to learn languages. But, on another level, it's probably over-emphasised, I think in fact, when learners are learning languages, they are learning to express things that they know or that they want to know and the communication that results from that expression to someone else is what Caleb Gattegno called 'a miracle'. We can't teach people to communicate; we can teach them to express themselves, and if they communicate that's due to their own skills in expression.
NR: Do you think it is compulsory for a teacher to be a communicative type?
DF: In some ways, yes. I don't think it's compulsory for a teacher to, obviously use communicative methodologies, but I do think there's an attitudinal and personal aspect to teaching, which is pretty fundamental. Putting it in pedestrian terms, if you don't like people, you probably shouldn't be a teacher.
NR: So, to what extent does a teacher need to have the profile of the students before setting out to teach?
DF: Well, when I teach, I prefer to know something about my students before I meet them. I think that it is clearly very beneficial, but I think the problem is that the way most educational structures are set up to make it possible. If you're teaching in a particular institution that gets the same kind of students, then you can begin to anticipate who you're going to be teaching. But often, in many programs that I'm familiar with, the teachers don't know who they're going to have in their class until they meet them on the first day.
NR: Could we speak of a universal profile of an adolescent learner, an adult learner, a child learner without having the nationality thing, the social factors?
DF: While there are commonalties, there are also cultural differences and issues ranging from social class to access to education and so on that impact on learners tremendously. Literacy is a key example. You can have adults who don't know how to read, you can have adults that do know how to read, and the groups are obviously very different kinds of learners. But I think there are things that are true about kids, about adolescents and about adults that teachers can connect from their experiences over time working with different learners.
NR: Have you ever been in contact with Brazilian students?
DF: Yes, I have. I spent almost a year living in São Paulo and during that time I had the great opportunity to teach high school students and adults and also work with teachers.
NR: What would you say are the differences between Brazilian students' needs and, for example, an immigrant's who's coming in to live in the States?
DF: Well, you can talk about differences in three areas. One difference has to do with the needs for which they're actually learning a language. Immigrant students in an environment where English is being used to function have more immediate needs for their language than students who are studying in an EFL context. The second has to do with resources and what's available for teachers. And the third area we have to look at is also the kind of the pace and impediments to learning. On one hand, I think immigrants can often learn more quickly because they're surrounded by the language all the time. On the other hand, the stakes can be a lot higher, because if as a student you get really good at this new language, you start to change who you are. That can be a very threatening experience for people. I think EFL learners are always learning at a distance and so they're not necessarily confronted by this type of immediate issue of changing identity.
NR: If you would start a class, right here and now, say in Brazil, a beginner's class, what would be the first thing you would do?
DF: I would begin working on something that was very tangible. I would probably use something like the cuisinenaire rods. I would work on having learners express things about what they see in front of them which is what I think the rods allow us to do. So I don't begin with social language with beginners. I begin with the bones of the language.
NR: What would we exactly offer to a student who wants to reach something more than the basic ability of communication?
DF: Once a student has got command of the fundamentals, I think it's important to stop treating the language as a subject matter and start treating it as a vehicle to learn other and new things. So I certainly would argue for getting into content-based work as soon as possible. A simple example: When I was teaching in Brazil, I was teaching adolescents we started reading Agatha Christie's mysteries. These stories are actually pretty dense. There's a lot of cultural information. But the fact that, you want to find out how the mystery comes out made it worth reading.
NR: Can we speak of teaching fads in the ELT world like TPR, communicative approach, etc?
DF: I think fads come from a number of sources. For one thing, the industry of ELT needs to propel new solutions to continuing issues they need to fill the market with 'NEW' new solutions and fads are kind of sometimes implicated in that process. But the other more troubling thing is that, too often teachers look outside themselves for the solutions to what is not working in their classes. They tend to want to find something to 'solve' their perceived problems in the classroom. It is kind of like the contradictions of searching for the ideal diet, 'I don't want to stop eating sweet things, but I want to lose weight, so I'm going to find the ideal diet'. Well, actually, the principles of dieting are pretty straight forwarded, and fads are not going to change that. I think the same is true in teaching. The principles of improving teaching are pretty basic, and the fads don't change them.
NR: What kind of fad are we witnessing nowadays?
DF: I think it's really regional. In the United States, the educational trends right now have a great deal to do with things like co-operative learning, portfolio assessment, continuous assessment; things that basically have learners taking more independent action in learning and assessments that move beyond paper and pencil tests. Internationally, I think fads are very much kind of driven regionally and so it's hard for me to talk about areas that I'm not familiar with.
NR: We all know that homework is a central process of learning and every student has a natural pinch to avoid doing homework. What sort of interpersonal communication skills would a teacher utilise to bring students round to doing homework?
DF: Well, it depends a lot on the age of the students. But if you're talking about adolescents, when I was a high school teacher, one thing that I discovered was that the more you can give choices, the better the results will be in terms of getting homework done. So, if you need people to practice a writing activity for example, rather than assigning everyone the same thing, you might give a choice of three things that accomplish the same end. The other thing is, to have homework not be discreet tasks but to have it add up to, something bigger when it adds up to something that's more substantial, it is more worth doing. The last thing is that the more that the homework can mirror things that are real, the better off you are. So, writing an assignment that's about writing a letter that could be sent is preferable over one that's filling in the blanks.
NR: Our lives as teachers have been really changed by the Internet and its advances. Do you think it's a positive sense, like more access to information, rather than a negative one, like more responsibility for us to learn?
DF: The Internet is changing and has changed things for many of us. I think it's, first of all, critical to realise that the majority of schools and teachers around the world do not have access to the Internet, because the infrastructure and the resources are not there. I know that this is essential in Brazil, in the United States, and in lots of countries in which I worked. So first of all, we have to acknowledge that with the internet we're still talking about a privileged group of people that have access to it. However the good change is the fact that information is much more, available and accessible, and this democratizes knowledge. For example, if you take something like a journal that's now on CD-ROM, you can search the whole darn thing so easily now. What would take hours to do now can be done quickly.
NR: As the turn of the century is nearing, we've seen revolutions on all aspects and sides of our lives, especially into medical and genetics sciences. Can we expect a revolution and a drastic change in language learning still within the 90's or will we have to wait a little more?
DF: No, I think we're going to have to wait. You know, there's a great book written by Kelly called '25 Centuries of Language Teaching'. It was book launched by Newbury House Publishers, as a matter of fact. It's interesting to see how little language teaching has changed. So I don't think we're going to see any kind of major changes in the next few years. I do think the notion of the relationship between geography and language is changing so quickly with the Internet, with travel, with the globalisation in economy, that what it means to be a speaker of a language is changing. My hunch is that language is going to be less geographically based than it is today and it will probably become more linked to things like economy and social class.
NR: A philosophical question: is teaching a profession or predestination? Are teachers born or made?
DF: I'd say most emphatically, that teachers are made. There are certain qualities that people have that can draw them to teaching. But for a long time we have pretended that teaching is a natural inclination that some people have and some don't. And that has allowed us to be not as effective in teacher education as we ought to be. We do know now (and there's quite a lot of research to substantiate the fact) that people can learn to teach if they're taught in the proper way. So I think teachers are made.
NR: A final message to Brazilian teachers...
DF: Just that I've enjoyed my time when I was in Brazil. I have enjoyed coming back often and working with Brazilian teachers. I find them a remarkably committed professional community, one that it's a pleasure to be a part of.
NR: Thank you, Donald.
Donald Freeman is Professor of Second Language Education and Director of the Center for Teacher Education, Training, and Research at the School for International Training. He also directs the Teacher Knowledge Project which designs, delivers, documents, and disseminates work in reflective professional development. He is author of Doing teacher-research: From inquiry to understanding (Heinle and Heinle; 1998) and editor, with Jack C. Richards, of Teacher Learning in Language Teaching (Cambridge University Press; 1996), and New Ways in Teacher Education (TESOL; 1993). His current work deals with the development of practitioner knowledge.