There are few things more frustrating to students than busy work. Plowing through assignment after assignment, the distinct feeling that all of one’s hard work is pointless gnaws away at the soul, inoculating students to the possibility of actual learning.
As a foreign English teacher in Thailand, I discovered that many Thai people have developed a mental block that prevented them from truly learning English. This block had developed over the course of many years as they were run through an “English as a Foreign Language” curriculum that really amounted to busy work. But they suffered not just a day or two of busy work when the real teacher was out sick. This was years of busy work. And now many were convinced that they simply couldn’t learn a foreign language. “I studied English for ten years, and I still can’t say anything more than ‘Hello’” is a common refrain.
Requiring students to study English in order to better participate in the global economy is a very laudable goal. However, English teaching in Thailand often misses the mark as class after class of students graduate, utterly unable to speak English (aside from the well worn phrases “Hello, how are you?” and “Fine, thank you. And you?”). From ten or twelve years old onward, Thai students drink from a fire hose of English verbal forms (“go, going, went”) and a massive amount of vocabulary, all of which must be spit back on exams. Teachers are required to use poor quality textbooks and workbooks for their students, and to cover all of the material in these books by year’s end.
Greetings. Careers. Sports. Food. Holidays. The topics whiz by like scenery along the highway. With the amount of ground that needs to be covered, teachers do not have the time to really help their students LEARN the material well. And many teachers find it a challenge to teach much more than is in the books to begin with because they themselves graduated from the same broken system. To compound the problem, many Thai teachers of English have never had the opportunity to study abroad in an English speaking country, as would be expected of most foreign language teachers in the U.S. Most of the Thai teachers whom I’ve spoken with are trying to do a good job and would love to improve their English skills but lack opportunity. Those Thai people who do speak English well tend to be either exceptional self-starters who found ways to learn outside the system, or come from families of exceptional means who were able to send them to study abroad.
As a foreigner teaching English conversation, I had the ability to set my own curriculum and go at a more reasonable pace than many of my Thai colleagues. By the end of the semester, it seemed that a few of my students had progressed in their English language ability. However, I suspect that many did not even put in much effort to learn because years of busy work had led them to believe that they will never be able to learn English no matter how hard they try.
A system where teachers have limited control and resources to facilitate real learning is tragic. But when teachers do have control over their classrooms and curriculum, it is of utmost importance to set reasonable learning goals. Achievable and tangible goals that the students can reach. Goals that will help them acquire the knowledge and skills that they will need in the real world. And if real learning happens, even in tiny increments, then over time those mental blocks can be overcome. Discouragement changes to encouragement. And best of all, students start to go places that they never thought possible.