Organic Learning – my elaboration.

I’m going to start from a context that already exists so for those of you who are completely new to this phrase, you won’t be completely lost.

“Birds fly, fish swim, man thinks and learns………… What we need to do, and all we need to do, is bring as much of the world as we can into [their lives]; give children as much help and guidance as they ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest.” – John Holt, How Children Learn.

In applying organic learning in teaching ESL, let’s not focus on every single tiny aspect of John Holt’s unschooling philosophy. Let’s take some parts we can integrate with other parts of what’s going on in ESL and add a dose of what’s our own personal teaching style and philosophy. Here are the parts I’m taking and integrating with other ideas.

Learning in the world instead of in schoolFor an ESL learner, “the world” is a big, scary, intimidating place where rapid speech and figure of speech abound and direct translations misdirects their comprehension while school is a place teaching to exams and teaching nothing about the world these learners are going to step out into. Let’s imagine we could build a bridge from school to the world – in a sort of incubator; a safe environment to learn, make mistakes and gain confidence. So instead of learning in a highly structured exam-oriented environment, whether it is in a public system or a private language center or cram school,they will be in “an incubated world of learning” outside of school. Follow?

Organic Learning is about living joyfully with trust and freedom.

I eventually realized that  young people have so few adults to depend on for some hope, some direction, some insight, some sense of self-worth. How often have we seen students unable to finish what they started due to personal problems or distractions from learning; a loss, a sickness, a financial challenge, an inability to manage stress, inability to co-ordinate themselves, being drowned by a sense of worthlessness and so on.

To learn well, learners need to feel they are in an environment of low stress and high trust and often that feeling of being able to trust the authority, in this case, the language facilitator, spills over to their personal need to ask for help in their lives.  They need to have a sense of freedom to both make mistakes and talk openly with their facilitator and other members of the learning team.

I’m a believer that paid-teaching shouldn’t involve “feel-good teaching and self-esteem nurturing” but if parents and society were doing their job, we could be doing ours a lot more efficiently.  Give me a class of learners who do not suffer varying degrees of PTSD and I will show you accelerated learning of the genuine kind.

Follow their passions, explore their world, live inquisitive lives and think freely.

Question : WHY do you want to learn English?

To have a better life and better prospects in the future.

Question : Why do YOU want to learn English?

So I can talk to anyone and travel around the world, know what other people are talking about, learn their culture, understand how we are the same or different.

Question : Why do you want to LEARN ENGLISH?

I want to think like an educated person. All the information out there is in English and if I can’t understand, I can’t learn. I don’t want to feel like I cannot learn anything or express my ideas freely.

Do any of the above sound like answers a majority of ESL learners would give you? Aren’t they telling you, in simpler terms, that they would like to live to their fullest potential, have opportunities to discover their passion, explore their world, live inquisitive lives and think freely?

The core themes of Organic Learning, are to include CONTENT that would help them achieve all of the above. Like Organic gardening, we start by listening and respecting the way a learner learns, what’s preventing them from learning and how we can provide the soil (environment) rich in resources and nutrients for them to discover learning.  The rest is up to them.

The content evolves from things they need to learn in order to make learning happen in order to acquire the scaffolding to build the sort of knowledge that would enable them to interact, understand and work with others while fulfilling their passions.

You can see the CONTENT involved here as a manifestation of CLIL. An example of content that could arise from interaction : You notice students are not asking questions. You explore the inner world of a learner and what reasons they feel are preventing them from asking questions and how they feel about that. Learners will struggle to first reflect on their own thoughts, then find the words to articulate their feelings. They will turn to a stronger partner and ask for words to be filled, reminding themselves, then trying to put it together, each helping the other. They will use their electronic dictionaries to find that one word, noting it down in their notebook for future use; “This is what I’ve always wanted to say in English and now I know the word… was at the tip of my tongue yet I couldn’t recall. Let me note it here.” Obviously, different groups of learners will come with different sets of knowledge, background and abilities.  And that’s when I integrate Krashens’ input hypothesis and CLIL.

This is not much different from using a textbook based approach because all ESL course books are structured around the 4 worlds of a learner : their inner world (thoughts, feelings, emotions), their immediate world (family, friends, classroom), the world outside (neighborhood, country, current issues, legends, bizarre) and the rest of the world (social issues, ethical issues, marketing, sociology, art, music, …). The only difference between an organic approach and the coursebook approach is that content is developed as the need arises. Even science and history and geography can be taught, if the students are interested in a particular aspect.

I remember a lesson where upper-intermediate students picked a topic to present. Topics ranged from, “Cluetrain Manifesto”, “English or Esperanto”, “Frederick Taylor’s Management System and other HR theories”, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. See how diverse the topics can be as long as it’s something interesting and relevant to the students in the preceding discussions. The students are willing to go home and find a way to get the information and present it with visual aids (Powerpoint, hand-drawn chart, photos, illustrations, show & tell, etc)

For elementary or beginner level students, so much learning has happened just because students saw an Atlas or Google maps for the first time. For quite a few students, they discover that Singapore is so tiny compared to Malaysia and that “fei chou” (Africa) is an entire continent and not a country! They finally realize where zebras and giraffes come from (Oh! I thought it was the zoo!) and that the orangutan is native only to Malaysia and the part of Indonesia bordering Malaysia. These learners are aged 14 -17. And we wonder what our schools teach them?

Of course, to be able to wing-it organically requires a teacher to be knowledgeable, articulate, eloquent, creative and passionate about ensuring learning takes place – but as opposed to what? A teacher who is not knowledgeable, inarticulate, clumsy, dim-witted, apathetic about learning?

I am treating all my writings on my blog as exactly what they are – blogs. Blogs for my own thinking out loud and perhaps touching some points and engaging with others. I am not going to defend anything I write regarding teaching and learning as if it was meant to be a postgrad thesis and I hope that’s OK with you. I welcome questions on the subtleties of what I am saying but I cannot give you documented statistics as my classroom was not controlled for and observed by an accredited, neutral professional.

Here’s what I’m saying : I know I’m in a very privileged position to match methods to my philosophies and my style, to have the freedom to design curriculum and judge outcomes, to control for classroom sizes, time, frequency, material, etc etc etc. Every single factor that can be controlled for (except what sort of parents learners have) to maximize my potential and maximize learning, I will put in place and refine myself as I gain more experience and insights.

I’m sure I could be harder on myself but it’s a marathon, not a sprint and I’m doing it the most transparent way I can. I’d be glad to answer any questions or clear any doubts. I’m not saying I’m doing everything perfect but I’d need to have questions in order to know which areas to look at and reflect upon.

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