Friday, May 16, 2008

TEFL: Innovative Methods and Approaches

The world of TEFL has been inundated with some inane ideas over the years. Desperate attempts to jump-start new fads in the English teaching profession are a monthly occurrence.

For example, you may not remember the “back-to-nature approach” which advocated teaching students outdoors. Not just taking the occasional class outside to waste a period or two. Every self-respecting teacher does that once in a while. The back-to-nature approach went much further.

Teachers instructed students while they were nestled in beds of straw, perched in tree houses or crouching in fields of tall grass. This was all meant to better facilitate the English instruction that took place. In the most authentic practice of these techniques, animals grazed nearby. Where this wasn’t possible, the teacher mimicked various sounds such as the munching of grass, yapping of dogs and clucking of chickens.

Here is an article regarding the intriguing and innovative style of teaching that appeared in a well-respected TEFL journal back in 1987.

The Back to Nature Approach to Teaching English

Near the village of Mae Sot in north-western Thailand, Somchai Prenpriporn practices the back-to-nature approach to teaching English. Somchai studied at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 1970’s. After he completed his degree in linguistics he spent numerous years living as a recluse in Burma, Cambodia and Mongolia.

During long hours of meditation and reflection he formulated this approach to language instruction. More than simple teaching, the connection with nature is supposed to create a holistic and symbiotic energy flow that allows the new language to be absorbed by students.

“All languages are connected to the natural environment. The earliest people in any society lived close to nature. The particular type of climate and landscape infused their very elemental existence. From this came the earliest grunts, which gradually flowed into language. To immerse students in the environment from which language sprung forth is to subconsciously provide them with a truly…fertile atmosphere in which to learn.”

Somchai provides this explanation in a quiet soothing tone as the musky smell of oxen lingers in the air of his rudimentary office which is located next to what he calls the “learning stables.”

Resembling horse stables, they are where some of the more structured practice takes place. Beyond the stables is a field with clusters of trees and bushes here and there. Amongst the trees are well-worn patches of earth, some straw for bedding and a few troughs. Some of the traditional tools of teaching are also evident. Blackboards on easels, chalk, erasers, a few rubber balls and oddly, a mallet.

The bulk of Somchai’s students are Burmese refugees who stream in from the border a few kilometres from this dusty town. He receives help from Pookie, his Thai assistant, and a steady flow of western backpackers passing through and looking for a unique cultural experience. They are usually not disappointed. It is far removed from the world of standard English teaching that exists hundreds of miles to the south in Bangkok.

“I usually put up the travellers in one of the stalls and offer them what food I can. We’re not doing this for the money and frankly there isn’t much coming our way.”

The occasional donation from local NGO’s and contributions from overseas help Somchai in pursuit of his passion.

On a recent afternoon, we were given the privilege of watching the back-to-nature approach in action.

Students are instructed to get themselves comfortable in the straw bedding in a small grove of trees in the field (Somchai previously told us that the tree house lessons are for advanced students—today’s group are beginners.) Somchai is at intervals animated, soothing and gentle in his repetition of instructions.

What is being said is only in English with no Thai translation. These groups of words are interspersed with barks and growls. There is also a lot of gesturing, pointing, and animal-like movements by Somchai. The students are burrowing into the straw, getting on all fours, now curling into the fetal position.

It all seems a bit surreal. But something is happening. It’s almost like the students are in a hypnotic trance as their eyes glaze over. Some utterances are taking place. Like guttural animal sounds. But wait, there are English words and phrases amongst the sounds. Here is a large beefy young girl mashing her body up against a tree, almost as if she is trying to leave her scent behind for future classes.

Somchai’s methods have created a kind of myth-like aura around the whole spectacle that involves his unique teaching. Like all mavericks who take a different route, the tales about Somchai have developed and spread and taken on lives of their own. There are unconfirmed rumours of incidents involving an electric cattle prod and late-night nude baying at the moon. Is any of it true? If it is, Somchai isn’t saying as he gazes with reverence out across this otherwise nondescript patch of dusty field in north-west Thailand.

Twenty Years Later

There are still a few copies of the issue kicking around but no one at the "respectable" journal has ever commented on the article. That it could even appear in such a publication is evidence of some of the hare-brained ideas that people come up with and the willingness of others to give them an audience. Perhaps it's due to the monotony that can become part of a teacher's life or more likely because of the wackos the industry attracts.


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