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Thursday, 25 February 2010


Faced with an essay titled "Observe a Learning Environment and describe how psychological theory interprets the behaviour you observe" I have decided to write about adult learning. I know that most of my university colleagues will observe children, but I have two objections to this. The first is that observing children has been done to death, and any essay I am capable of writing that stemmed from such observations would reflect my complete lack of interest in child development - it would just be a bog standard review of Piaget, Vygotsky etc etc etc. My second objection, related to writing about children is the children themselves - horrible little noisy creatures. I am glad I was never one of them.

My essay will instead be based on observations of my own class of adult learners as a new teaching assistant. This though, presents some serious problems of its own. For example, 99.9% of the research papers on adult learning appear to include, somewhere in the abstract a few sentences that say :

"Adult learning is an under-researched area. This paper will look at why this is so, and includes a meta-analysis of all the other papers that have looked at why adult learning is an under researched are. Included in our conclusions is that more research needs to be done into adult learning, and that it is an under-researched area."

Cited by 4,201,225.

Thus, guidance from proper academics on how and why adults learn is very thin on the ground. And while this may have the effect of making my essay slightly harder to write, for the essay at least, there are always the old standbys of Wikipedia and cut and paste. This however, still leaves the real world problem of how to help my learners speak, write and read English. You would think that for the joint second best academic in England, this would be no problem. "HA!" you might say to yourself "For the chap who cracked the secrets of civilization, evolution and anthropology in the impressive sixty one page Civilization- Why? trilogy, teaching a group of disparate adults to read, speak and write English will present about as much difficulty as would be presented to a reptilian faced Canadian Prime Minister when faced with a thorny issue such as democracy. He will simply pretend the problem does not exist. Our hero will effectively prorogue the inability to speak English, and carry the day by sheer briliance."

Unfortunately, like some Canadians, my learners are a slightly more complicated bunch than that, and any notions that they might be be fluently debating Platonian democracy in English and Greek by the second week of my lessons were slightly optimistic. The classes are held weekly in a "could be anywhere" beige room within a flaking, failing building near the centre of Hull. In one corner of the room is an ugly stainless steel sink, perhaps left over from a previous occupancy, while on an opposite wall a never cleaned window is painted shut, iron bars on its outside helping the impression that we are in some sort of detention centre. A third wall features a greyish rusting radiator, British style, that either emits intense heat from its upper right hand corner or is off. The carpet's original colour could be any colour between light grey and charcoalish brown, and it is the type of industrial nylon weave that would probably withstand the landing of a 747. Without people, the room is dead, characterless, bereft of anything akin to atmosphere. We scrounged a small coffee table from a junk shop down the street and set it up on the last free wall, just next to the door, with tea, coffee and a bunch of red mugs. Without people, the room is dead, characterless, bereft of anything akin to atmosphere. Then the learners walk in.

The group I work with is smallish - between eight and ten people. The aim is to try to help each class improve, or learn English. But "group" is completely the wrong word to use in describing the people I work with, because there is nothing "group" about them. If fun could be described by diversity, and at the moment I tend to think that it can, then this would be the most fun anyone has ever had - as 'my' group usally spans three continents, a mix of English ability that ranges from 'none' to 'accomplished speaking, no writing', male and female, age range from 24 to 65, educational accomplishment from Professorial intellects to illiterate farm labourer, a completely variable set of motivations and intended outcomes and from every educational tradition imaginable. Furthermore, the language roots are interchangeable, from African born French speakers to Cyrillic Russians, Brazilian Portuguese speakers and pictographic Chinese. And then there's the religious and political differences, and ethnic and cultural variation sthat we all bring to the table. One of the first sessions I ever did was called "Getting to know you" - intended as a fifteen minute ice-breaker. We are, after a month and a half and six sessions, still working through the first page.

The final complication is that the classes are informal. This means that learners turn up with very varying degrees of regularity, and sometimes a person attends only once then they never return. We have no attendance requirements and offer no qualification. And the only probable common ground among all the learners also provides an explanation for the structure of the class. Their common ground is income and this dictates that the classes have to be free. But it does not necessarily follow that free classes have to be without curriculum, does it? Well actually, it does, because education in the UK, like practically everywhere is market based. This means that not only do students have to pay educational establishments, but also, via a complicated system of controls that are all financially based, educational establishments themselves pay Government, or its agencies. Educational establishments pay for accreditation, inspection, examinations, materials, resources. Our centre runs accredited language courses but they cost. A lot. The learners I work with cannot afford these classes and our centre has to "make money" on all of its official curriculum. So the free classes are not, and cannot be accredited.

Nationally, this helps contribute to a very strange dynamic. The UK is actively seeking economic migrants, to come and work in the fields, picking fruit, harvesting potatoes - they are one of the foundations of our low cost food and our construction industry, usually working for minimum wage. Having myself left "home" on several occasions I can attest that it is not the lazy, the indolent, the wasters that emigrate on the whole, it is the brave, the seekers and doers, the people who want something "better". These people are motivated and ready to contribute. And even when immigrants are political instead of economic, notions that 'they' have arrived 'here' for an easy life on the dole - notions once exclusively fuelled by the right wing press, but now actively supported by both (left and right) our major political parties - are, if one knows anything about the UK's Welfare system, ridiculous. The learners I have met want to work, want to buy a house, want to become respectable, want to fit in. So how, once 'we' have lured these people here, do 'we' set about harnessing this energy, this ambition, this enthusiasm? Well one way we do it, is to arrange our educational system so that it is as obstructive as possible to any ambitions of furtherance an economically poor immigrant might have. In many ways, we equip immigrants for failure. There is a bizarre logic, as a nation, in actively pursuing policies that practically ensure that at some point the State will have to support people, then moaning about this. If I was trying to explain this to my learners using one of the many techniques we use, I would ask them to unscramble the phrase "foot shooting in yourself the". It does not just apply to the UK, but any degree of joined up thinking in a country seeking immigrants would include free language classes on arrival.

These complications and ruminations are, however, purely my concern. When the learners arrive at class - on time, every time - they bring their energy and enthusiasm with them, they care little for politics, at least on a personal level. The beige classroom comes alive. Ilona, a regular, a matriarch if ever there was one, and one of a group of beautifully manicured and dressed Polish women, makes coffee for all, and hands Assim, a Kurdish refugee, his coffee, asking expansively "How are you, Assim?". A new learner from the Sudan, Yemet, unpacks pen, paper, dictionary, a cuddly toy mascot (Snoopy), a water bottle and an I-phone before declaring in perfect, unaccented English "My language skills are ok, but I can only read and write Arabic". An elderly Chinese lady is introduced by her daughter as only speaking Wu language, but able to write Mandarin (I think). My lesson plan for today, based on the progress made with last weeks group of learners is "Past, Present and Future Tenses". I look at Mohammed, anew learner and, as I understand it, a farm labourer from Syria who has never been to school and arrived in the UK two weeks ago with an English vocabulary that consists of "Manchester United" and a broad smile. I make a paper plane out of my lesson plan and start improvising.................

1 comment:

Bill Hall said...

Can you not introduce your conglomerate class to Multicultural "Silly Walks" You would be a natural with your loose limbs. Get them laffing, if necessary behind their Mandarin fans,a jocular way to introduce simple words such as knee, foot, goose, Hitler.

Individuals could be invited to demonstrate their own national version, the comparisons introducing a whole variety of new words and expressions, both past present and pluperfect